A friend I love and respect recommended Jake Colson's So You Don't Want to Go to Church Anymore? I personally found the read both encouraging and irritating. In fact, I was so encouraged and irritated that I wrote a review.
There is so much in this book that I find compelling. In particular, I resonate with many of (the apostle?) John’s insights regarding our relationship with the Father through Jesus. What we tend to complicate, to overlook, and to even run away from is in reality so simple, so basic, and so good.
For instance, John asks Jake:
“So you think God owes you better?”
“Doesn’t he? Why should I try so hard to follow him if he won’t watch out for me?”
“So that’s it,” John replied, leaning back on his chair. “You grew up with the idea that your goodness would actually control the way God treats you. If you do your part, he has to do his.”
“That’s not true?”
“Jake, God’s doing his part all the time."
"If we could control God, he’d turn out like us. Wouldn’t it be better to let him have his way with us so we become like him?”
Amen! And similarly, I think he nails it when discussing how “doing church” can actually become a functional replacement of our relationship with God – an idol:
“Nothing we as believers can ever do together will make up for the lack of our own relationship with God. When we put the church in that place we make it an idol and others will always end up disappointing us.”
"The location isn’t the issue, but whether you are caught up in religious games or helping each other discover the incredible relationship God wants with us.”
In fact, I find much of what John mentions by way of criticism of our “organized religion” on point. “I am beginning to think ministry is where I hide from him.” That’s golden! And this comment in particular, summarizing his overall project, expresses to my mind a noble endeavor:
“I want to expose the system of religious obligation in whatever ways it holds people captive, but that’s not the same as being against the institution."
Having said that, three questions occur (and keep reoccurring) to me as I read all of John’s comments regarding the church. First, are all obligations (“shoulds”) that emerge from our corporate life bad? Secondly, is the “institutional” form of church life bad? And thirdly, is life in Christ apart from an “institution” even possible?
Regarding the first matter, John says:
“If there is anything I’d say we should do, it would be to stop ‘should’-ing on ourselves, and others.” Laughter flickered around the room and more than one person looked to their spouse asking what he had just said. “Certainly there are things that are right and things that are wrong. But we’ll only truly know that in Jesus. Remember, he is the truth itself! You will never be able to follow his principles if you’re not following him first.”
John’s words hung in the air through an awkward silence. I could see the gears churning in minds all around the table. I knew what they were feeling.
Marsha finally spoke choking a bit through tears, “I think you’re right John. The reason I follow rules is because I don’t know how to follow Jesus like you’re talking about. I just try to do what’s right and I’m tired of being attacked by people who say we’re in rebellion if we’re not in one of those blasted buildings on Sunday morning.”
John leaned toward Marsha. “I know this isn’t easy. But just because people say something doesn’t make it so. Jesus is teaching you how to live free. Others will find that threatening, as you will yourself at times. The system must devour what it cannot control.”
Maybe he means here pressuring one another in wholly artificial and manipulative ways; but isn’t the New Testament replete with “shoulding” one another? We’re repeatedly told to “encourage one another,” “exhort one another,” “teach one another,” etc.:
23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
These are all imperatives – to believe, to trust, to obey, and even to love. We should “should” each other. Not, of course, manipulatively, through guilt or personal threat. After all, we live by the gospel – and it isn’t a contractual arrangement. We “should” each other as the gospel “shoulds” us: from the realities that are already ours in Christ (e.g., as dearly beloved children, love each other…as saints, holy in Christ, be holy…as justified men and women, offer your members to righteousness, etc.).
Regarding “the institution,” John seems quite pessimistic:
"The institution provides something more important than simply loving each other in the same way we’ve been loved. Once you build an institution together you have to protect it and its assets to be good stewards. Even love gets redefined as that which protects the institution and unloving as that which does not. It will turn some of the nicest people in the world into raging maniacs and they never stop to think that all the name-calling and accusations are the opposite of love.”
“It’s love with a hook. If you do what we want, we reward you. If not we punish you. It doesn’t turn out to be about love at all. We give our affection only to those who serve our interests and withhold it from those who do not.”
“That’s why institutions can only reflect God’s love as long as those in it agree on what they’re doing. Every difference of opinion becomes a contest for power."
"Do you see how our definitions of love get twisted when institutional priorities take over?"
I wonder however if John has misdiagnosed it here. It seems, even in the context of the story, that the problem isn't the institution per se, but the people. The institution functions in this case as the displaced object - the rationalization of our various sin. In the quote above, for instance, it isn't the "institutional priorities" that's the problem. That's the excuse, of course, but not the real issue.
John actually acknowledges this when he says,
“The problem with church as you know it, Jake, is that it has become nothing more than mutual accommodation of self-need. Everybody needs something out of it. Some need to lead. Some need to be led. Some want to teach, others are happy to be the audience. Rather than become an authentic demonstration of God’s life and love in the world, it ends up being a group of people who have to protect their turf. What you’re seeing is less of God’s life than people’s insecurities that cling to those things they think will best serve their needs.”
Later, he grants this distinction with Jake: "Always separate the failure of the system from the hearts of the people in it."
In the case above, the fault lies in the hearts of people; the heart of the problem is not "the institution." For the lead "pastor," it's selfishness and sin - he's protecting himself, and not the mission (e.g., reaching out to troubled kids) or the flock (e.g., discipling them through their self-absorption). Rather, honesty and a frank re-articulation of the purpose and character of God's people from God's Word is what would best serve the "institution" here. (And, in the case of this pastor, a resignation, as he has disqualified himself).
Again the author seems to acknowledge this very point:
“It’s just a weak moment, I’m sure. He’s in trouble with some important people and is only trying to do what’s in the best interest of the church.”
“Is that what he told you, or did you come up with that whopper on your own?”
But if that is so – the notion that the best interest of the church, as an institution, is served by selfish ambition and self-protection is a "whopper" - then calling for the de-institutionalization of the church misses the point, doesn't it? Regarding church polity and organizational concerns, it’s been said that even if the worst structures are in place, a church that loves one another will still thrive; but a church with the best and wisest polity yet without love will always be a disaster.
Along these lines, I think the real apostle John – the so-called “apostle of love” – incisively addressed the critical issue when he encouraged (should’ed) the churches: “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”
On the one hand, John seems to grant that an “organized” fellowship – whatever form it takes, big or small - does no necessarily promote these “religious games”:
“That’s why I’m excited about our new house church. We can deal with real issues like this.”
I expected him to encourage me to go for it. Instead he just looked at me as if I hadn’t heard a word he’d said. It took me a moment to sort out why and then it dawned on me. “Is this that game, too?” “It doesn’t have to be,” John answered, “but it could be, the way you’re going about it.”
But on the other hand, it would appear John thinks that “organization” always poses a threat:
“Just keep in mind the simplest lesson that has been repeated countless times since Jesus was here: the more organization you bring to church life, the less life it will contain.”
Apparently, once a “church” becomes organized to the point of becoming an “institution” (wherever exactly that threshold is, I’m not clear), then problems multiply:
“Institutionalism breeds task-based friendships. As long as you’re on the same task together, you can be friends. When you’re not, people tend to treat you like damaged goods. Now you know what that’s like from the other side and one of the big things Jesus is doing in you now is to free you from the game, so that you can live deeply in him rather than worrying about what everyone else thinks about you.”
I do not doubt that whenever people “come together,” whatever the form and level of their organization, problems will arise. The problem is us. Hence, semper reformanda! But I wonder whether it’s true that increased organization necessarily produces “task-based friendships,” anxiety “about what everyone else thinks,” where “every opinion is a contest of power,” where “love gets redefined” as protection of the institution’s assets, and where you “find yourself manipulating people to serve you rather than Father’s love moving you to serve them.”
“Structures are about gaining power and getting your own way. Those who are growing to know him don’t need them.”
Really? Is it really the case that organized church - structure - corrupts an otherwise simple faith? I wonder. But perhaps the more basic question is this: Is “church-as-institution” even optional?
Perhaps it’s true that:
“Any human system will eventually dehumanize the very people it seeks to serve and those it dehumanizes the most are those who think they lead it. But not everyone in a system is given over to the priorities of that system.”
But is the church-as-organization a purely human system?
“Jesus didn’t leave us with a system; he left us with his Spirit— a guide instead of a map. Principles alone will not satisfy your hunger. That’s why systems always promise a future revival that never comes. They cannot produce community because they are designed to keep people apart.”
Depending on what he means by “system,” I might agree. However, Jesus did leave us with leaders and instructions on “life-together,” if not a system, as well as His Spirit. He gave us a guide, with many other guides beneath Him, and a map – or at least a blueprint. He gave us instructions on how we live together, love each other, teach each other, and even discipline one another. He gave us His Spirit to “remind [us] of these things,” and “guide [us] into all truth.” And He gave us leaders. In particular, He gave us apostles. John of course was one of them.
Jesus not only poured out the Spirit of God, He’s building Him a Temple (1Cor.3:16-17). And through the ministry of the apostles, Jesus, like any good builder, began by laying a firm foundation (1Cor.3:9-11). Upon this rock He’s building the temple of God (Eph.2:19-22; 1Pe.2:4-5; 2Cor.6:16) – a divine institution (1Tim.3:15), you might say. And in continuing to build-up this household, Jesus gives, in addition to the apostles, other leaders to equip God’s people to serve (Ephesians 4:11). In fact, it is only as the members of this body serve together that overall growth takes place (Eph.4:12-16).
From these basic truths, we see two realities. First, there is clearly organization in the community of God’s people. Secondly, spiritual growth does come through the body, as well as to the body of Christ.
Regarding the first, it is clear that Jesus established His “church” or “synagogue” (note their basic synonymy in Aramaic) with an authority structure. This authority was first delegated to the apostles, Peter being foremost among them (Matthew 16:16-19). And this authority extended among all the apostles (Matthew 18:15-20, note the plural “you” in vv.18-20) and into the organized fellowships they established (e.g., 1Cor.5:1-13; 2Cor.2:5-6). This authority, though diffused throughout whole body, was delegated to ‘representatives’ the Holy Spirit raised up within the congregations (Acts 20:28-31; 1Pet.5:1-4). These “overseers” or “elders” were initially raised up and appointed by the apostles and their assistants (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5).
In addition to elders, it would appear that “deacons” were also typical among the apostolic churches (Phil.1:1; 1Timothy 3). Whether or not Acts 6 narrates the emergence of this “office,” it is a clear example where more organization brought more life, not less (see 6:1-7). Or consider the organization required to care for the widows in 1Timothy 5:3-16. Apparently even among the apostles there was paperwork! At any rate, the two-fold “office” we see on the pages of the New Testament demonstrates that the apostolic pattern of authority was established among the churches in a consistent, organizational structure.
Order was not only found among those with leadership gifts. Every member served the entire congregation with the “various forms of God’s grace,” as wisely distributed by Jesus for the church’s edification (1Cor.12:4-31). These were to be thoughtfully administered by all (1Pe.4:10-11) in an orderly and constructive fashion (1Cor.14:26-33).
The organization of Jesus’ church is not an enemy to its organic character, but critical to it. Few things are more organized than a living organism.
If the churches enjoyed a basic, internal order, they were also marked by boundaries. Not only were the members of the community answerable to those leaders entrusted with their care (1Thess.5:12-13; Hebrews 13:17), such that they identified with a particular community led by particular individuals they both knew and submitted to, but the leaders themselves had a sense of “who’s in” and “who’s out” – of who was within their charge. Moreover, the very act of “ex-communication,” in which the church removes an individual from fellowship, presupposes a boundary - a line demarcating who was part of the community and who wasn’t (Matt.18:17), who was inside and who was outside (1Cor.5:12).
All of this to say, the church Jesus builds through the apostles, far from being a loose network of ever-fluid, ill-defined relationships, is expressed in local congregations organized around Jesus, ordered with a qualified and commissioned body of leaders, and some semblance, at least, of a recognized membership.
Secondly, life comes to us not only through the word of the apostles by the Spirit (John 15:26-16:22; 1John 1:3), and not only through our prayer and intimacy with the Father directly with the Son (John 15:1-8), but also through our fellowship with one another. I make this basic point because the apparent apostle John in the book appears to flatly contradict it:
"I’ve found that when people are discovering what it means to live in Father, they won’t need commitment to keep them linked. He will be enough to do that. “But don’t we learn how to trust him through the body?”
“Actually, it works the other way around. Trust doesn’t flow out of body life, it flows into it!”
But surely it flows both ways! After all, the whole body grows “as each one does its work,” and so “builds itself up in love” (Eph.4:16; e.g., 1Pe.4:10; Eph.4:29)
“Scripture doesn’t use the language of need when talking about the vital connection God establishes between believers. Our dependency is in Jesus alone! He’s the one we need. He’s the one we follow. He’s the one God wants us to trust and rely on for everything. When we put the body of Christ in that place, we make an idol of it, and you end up wrapped up in knots over the situation you’re in.
It is true that we need Christ alone. But as such, Christ supplies us with all other things we need, including the fellowship of the saints - in service to which we serve the Lord Himself (e.g., Matt 25:31-46), and through which the Lord serves us (e.g., 2Cor.9:12-15). If I can make the mistake of putting the body of Christ in the place of Christ (as we’re often guilty of doing in the West, as displayed in Catholic sacerdotalism and Protestant pulpiteerism), I can make the opposite mistake of dismissing the means of grace by which God blesses the world. After all, the fullness of Christ in all the world is found, remarkably, in the church, the body of Christ (Eph.1:23).
John says again:
“We share body life together, not because we have to, but because we get to. Anyone who belongs to God will embrace the life he wants his children to share together. And that life isn’t fighting over control of the institution, but simply helping each other learn to live deeply in him. Whenever we let other factors get in the way of that we only use love to get our hooks into people.”
True, but sometimes “body life” causes us to grumble and grieve (1Pe.4:9; Eph.4:26-32). We need encouragement and exhortation. John also assumes that the organizational factors of the church “get in the way” of our living “deeply in him.” Or, at best, they are useless to produce deep growth (see p.158). In fact, our lives organized together in various ways (e.g., 1Cor.14:23-33; 1Tim.4:11-16; Acts 2:42) are all part and parcel of our living more “deeply in him,” (e.g., 1Jn.1:7; Col.3:15-4:1; Eph.5:17-6:9; Phil.1:27; 2:1-13).
It is true that John told the churches, “the anointing you received remains in you and you do not need anyone to teach you,” (1John 2:27) – if we have the Spirit of Jesus, what else could we need? And yet John teaches them anyway (2:20-21). Why? Because the Spirit continues to sustain and remain in them through the word of the apostles, and by extension, through the ministry of the church as she faithfully administers the gospel of grace.
Lastly, every gathering of believers has some organization, some structure, whether it is acknowledged or not. Life together demands deliberateness, intentionality and planning. Like any family, we need structure - leadership, boundaries, rhythms, and even a budget! Life together will be fraught with tension, offense, and ruptures, but love covers a multitude of sins, and where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more!