Imperfect Churches and Clean Shoes
When those of us who no longer attend The Institution try to explain our convictions to those who still do, we often hear the catchphrase, “Well, if you ever find the perfect church, don’t join it or it won’t be perfect anymore.” This implies that the out-of-church are only out because they’re looking for perfection, or they’ve been hurt, or some other cause. After all, there just can’t be any valid theological or spiritual reason to leave a “church”. They quote Heb. 10:25, consider the case closed, and walk away muttering about backsliders.
Yet while these things may be true of some who have left church, they are not true of all. Instead, the reasons I and many others I know have stopped “going to church” have nothing to do with seeking perfection or being intolerant, but with the principle established by Jesus when He sent out the Twelve concerning shaking the dust from their feet as a testimony against those who reject true teachings (Mark 6:11), which includes the very structure of the institutional church itself.
There is an appalling lack of discernment in church leadership today. They tolerate almost any sin and sometimes even encourage them. But the subtle and deadly teachings of demons involve more than embracing unholiness, more than accepting everything that sounds spiritual; they also include “the teachings of the Nicolaitans” (see the Books of a Fether link in the sidebar), which is that there must be a chain of command in the Christian community, a divide between “clergy” and “laity”, an elevating of one spiritual gift over others.
What I’m saying is that even if a traditional church has all of their doctrinal ducks in a row, there is still a major problem of hierarchy and the wrong model of the Christian community. Jesus’ statements about “where two or three are gathered” (Mt. 18:20) and “neither here nor on this mountain” (John 4:21–24) demolish what Frank Viola* has termed “the edifice complex”, and Jesus’ and the apostles’ statements against “lording over” (Mt. 20:24–27, 1 Peter 5:3) put an end to class distinction among the parts of this one Body (Mt. 23:8, 1 Cor. 12).
But most cannot hear this message because they see it as an attack upon them and their character. To criticize the traditional model is to shake the very foundations of their religious practice, and they are indignant at being told that this system, this model, bears no resemblance to that which Jesus and the apostles began, and in fact works against it. They simply cannot question, much less abandon, The Way It Has Always Been.
Back in 1964 Leonard Verduin wrote a book called The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, in which he supplied important details about church history that have been all but forgotten, and I suspect deliberately so. As the saying goes, “history is written by the victors”, and this is no less true in religion than in politics. If one accepts his well-documented record, The Way It Has Always Been is a sham. What we presume to be the true and faithful model of the Christian community is an impostor, and one that inhibits real spiritual life.
Yes, God can and has worked around human frailty, including this institutional tradition. But if we strive to be closer to Jesus and all that He came to establish, we must study the scriptures. And when we do, we see nothing of sacred buildings or privileged classes, nothing of lords and rulers, nothing of the old ways, as Jesus pointed out in His parable of the wineskins (Mt. 9:17). Our very bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16, 6:19); we are all priests (1 Peter 2:4–5, 9). And I challenge anyone to show me in the New Testament any directives on what Christian worship services are supposed to be. All I see is Christians living (Rom. 12:1), building each other up (Heb. 10:24), everyone contributing to the other (1 Cor. 14:26). I see no liturgy, no establishment of one person to direct the group, no officials or sacraments (see Verduin’s book, ch. 4; if you think for example that “the Lord’s Supper” is a required rite, then show me the detailed instructions and requirements on how, when, and where it is to be observed. What kind of requirement has no instructions?). There is no “the Pastor”, no “go to church”, anywhere in the New Testament.
For myself and many others, staying out of traditional churches is a testimony and a personal conviction every bit as strong as those held by churchgoers— which all of us once were. I attended faithfully and participated actively for the first 47 years of my life, and in several different denominations; no one can tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about. I believe that if my faith cannot stand alone, it isn’t my faith at all. I also believe that if the average Christian cannot be trusted to stay faithful without the mystical, unbiblical “covering” of clergy, the fault lies with said clergy, who know they haven’t adequately instructed their followers.
Now don’t jump to conclusions; I ache for real Christian fellowship. But not even the deepest and most painful solitude can compromise my convictions on this matter. I will stay true to it no matter what it costs me, and will continue to encourage others to breathe the air of freedom from man-made micromanagement. Christianity is not something to practice or visit but something to be; please see my booklet Reconciled for more.
* Author of Pagan Christianity; the phrase is the title of a chapter in that book. But please note that while I agree with him on this topic, I strongly disagree with him on the matter of Contemplative Prayer. We must be diligent to separate wheat from weeds (Mt. 13:24–30).