One of the questions that has troubled me much in recent years is whether or not the church, as we know it, is, to coin a phrase, “Fit for purpose”. By that I mean – does it genuinely reflect the vision of the One it claims is its founder?
I recently heard a challenge, put to a group of students, that went something like this. Choose a century, any century between, say, AD200 and AD1800. Then study the history of the church during your chosen time frame. After that read again the gospels and, after having done so, ask the question – “Did the church in your chosen period of time reflect the basic tenets of Jesus teaching?” Interesting exercise!
Some will argue that there have always been groups and individuals within any generation that have attempted to follow and imitate the life and teaching of Jesus – and I would agree. Sadly many, if not most, of these also suffered persecution at the hand of larger religious groups. But we are thinking more along the lines of what has been generally accepted as “church” – the groups and denominations we are all familiar with, even down to our own day and generation.
Again some will argue that within these denominations and groupings there are movements and individuals today who seek to follow the teachings of Jesus – and once again, as I said in my last post, I agree.
The difficulty then has, I suspect, got to do with our definition and what we mean by “church”.
The dictionary definition is – “a building used for public Christian worship”. And that is what most people, I suspect, think. From a biblical point of view however we know that definition is incorrect. The “church” is not in fact a building – but rather, the term used in the Bible for a group or groups of individuals who meet together in the name of Jesus. The very word “church” is a translation of the Greek word ekklesia – defined as “an assembly” or “called-out ones.” The true church then is people – which is why, even in a building we call “church” there may be people who are and people who are not part of the true church! All very confusing I know – but it gets worse!
Let us surmise that a person, we will call him John, with no knowledge of all this has, what we might call, a “conversion experience”. John decides he wants to meet with others who share his new found faith. But where to go – what to do? Church A tells him that to be part of their group (a member) he will have to subscribe to this creed and that statement of faith. John goes away not a little confused – all this is new to him. Church B tells him he must be baptised – and that unless he does he is not a real christian. Church C introduces him to speaking in tongues, telling him that unless he can do the same then he can’t really be a “full gospel” follower of Jesus. John is even more confused. Church D seems to be a place where anything goes – even things John knew were wrong before he came to a measure of faith. But, wanting to fit in, John reluctantly plumps for church A. He learns the creed – and the statement of faith, attends confirmation classes and is, eventually, accepted as a full, paid up, member. In the process he is also introduced to a new language, not speaking in tongues – but the language some call Christianese.
A few months later John meets an old friend and decides to tell him about his new faith and his new church. He starts off by asking his friend if he’s been “Born again” and “Washed in the blood”? His friend looks blankly at him – not quite catching he drift of the conversation. So John then decides to tell him about his new church, a place he describes as “having fellowship with the body” and offering him a” hedge of protection”. He then speaks about how important his “quiet time” is and of the “new anointing” he feels as a result. John then says that he feels he has been “led” to “fellowship” with a “missions group” and will soon go on a “missions trip”. He is praying for “travelling mercies”. His friend still looks blank – so John tells him that he feels “led” to have a “word of prayer”. The last John saw of his friend was him running in to a nearby pub.
Is the above what Jesus really had in mind when he envisaged his church and the lives of his followers?
Someone will say – “Ah yes but God is the God of order and not confusion – so we need organisation, rules, regulations and formula”. I’m not so sure about that one – at least in the way we interpret and practice it. Some time ago I read someone addressing this very point. His conclusion may seem extreme – but it gave me pause for thought – so I leave it with you for the same purpose –
“No doubt some will reply that God is not a God of disorder,incoherence, or arbitrariness, but a God of order. Of course he is. Unfortunately the whole of the Old Testament shows us that God’s orders is not that which we conceive or desire. God’s order is not organisation and institution (cf. the difference between judges and kings). It is not the same in every time and place. It is not a matter of repetition and habit. On the contrary, it resides in the fact that constantly posits something new, a new beginning. Our God is a God of beginnings. There is in him no redundancy or circularity. Thus, if his church wants to be faithful to his revelation, it will be completely mobile, fluid, renascent, bubbling, creative, inventive, adventurous and imaginative. It will never be perennial and can never be organised or institutionalised”.