Category Archives: Church Reform

“Thy Church Unsleeping” (Rethinking Church #30)

Did I achieve my goal in writing this series? Did I clarify my relationship to the church and find a way forward? Perhaps I had already come to my conclusions and simply had to articulate in detail my reasons. Nevertheless, I have learned from this process. As readers of this series know, I was a leader—an elder—at the heart of a parachurch church for nearly twenty-three years. In this role, I gave lots of time and lots of money to its maintenance. I experienced lots of frustration and anxiety. And there were also moments of joy and success. I loved and still love the people. But my overall conclusion is that the system of organization and traditional social expectations limit how well such an institution can actually manifest the church in the world. Hence I came to the conclusion that I could no longer serve as a leader of an institutional church. Nor can I be an enthusiastic participant in the parachurch church project. I don’t want it to disappear, and I don’t want to discourage those who benefit from it from participation. I too can participate in it and support it in its role as a second circle bridging simple churches to the universal church. But I can no longer direct huge amounts of time and energy and money to its success as an institution. I need to use that time, energy, and money for something I really believe in.

As I said in previous essays, I am a professor, a theologian, a Christian, and a lover of the church. I have had the opportunity to receive an amazing education, and as a professor of theology, I have been given time to teach, read, learn, think, and write. I have had experience in the fulltime paid ministry and as a leader in a church. Hence I feel a call teach what I have learned to as many people as possible in whatever medium I can. As far as my relationship to the church, I participate in a simple church that meets in our house—or online during the pandemic. This has been one of the most profound and encouraging experiences of my life. But as a teacher of the faith I feel a call to serve all believers everywhere, the universal church. I don’t believe I—or any other theologian—should identify myself as a teacher of the specific doctrines characteristic of my tradition. I speak to everyone “as one without authority,” a phrase Kierkegaard used to describe his writing as someone lacking ordination. I view my ministry as trans-congregational and trans-denominational. Like a traveling evangelist—who travels mostly via the internet and books—I will preach the good news to anyone anywhere.

I end now with a prayer and one of my favorite hymns.

Prayer

Father in Heaven! Bless Thy church everywhere: the persecuted with courage and relief; the weary with rest and renewal; and the lukewarm with revival.

Come Holy Spirit! Quicken the dead; strengthen the weak, embolden the fainthearted.

Come Lord Jesus! Accompany those who must walk lonely paths, give your gentle presence to the dying, and gather your people into their eternal home.

Amen.

The day Thou Gavest

The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended. The darkness falls at Thy behest;

To Thee our morning hymns ascended: Thy praise shall hollow now our rest.

We thank Thee that Thy Church, unsleeping, While earth rolls onward into light,

Thro’ all the world her watch is keeping, And rests not now by day or night.

The sun that bids us rest is waking Our brethren ‘neath the western sky;

And hour by hour fresh lips are making Thy wondrous doings heard on high.

So be it, Lord: Thy throne shall never, Like earth’s proud empires, pass away;

But stand and rule and grow for ever, Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.

Keep it Simple (Rethinking Church #29)

The essays today and tomorrow will bring this series on rethinking church to an end. As I stated in the first essay, my primary purpose has been to clarify my own relationship to the church and get a feel for a way forward. I hope that others may benefit from thinking along with me. I continue to believe that I can best help others by telling them what I see, understanding that each of us is placed differently.

A Simple Church

I wish that every Christian was part of a simple, small church. I hesitate to call it “a church” because the image of the parachurch with all its extra features inevitably comes into our minds. I prefer to think of it as the simplest manifestation of the church. Simple churches must guard their simplicity by limiting themselves as much as possible to the essential features, activities, and mission of the church, which I described in the first few essays in this series. The simple church owns no property, has no employees, and takes no collections. As far as the government is concerned, it does not exist. Its worship is not stage centered but community centered; and the community centers itself by focusing on Christ. It will—indeed, it must—have leaders and teachers, but everyone gets to participate. It is a family where even the little ones are honored. Everyone knows everyone. It is not a little church with ambitions of becoming a big church. It has no agenda and no ambitions but to love one another and help each other better to serve the Lord. It manifests the fullness of the church because Christ and the Spirit are there directing our attention to the Father.

The simple church can take many forms according to circumstances. If necessary it can be just your family, and in extreme circumstances even you alone. You may be part of many simple churches, for example, in online fellowship with far-flung friends. Your simple church gathering may welcome guests or it may be reserved for intimate friends. Worship can take many forms as long as it does not become stage centered. Keep it simple, and don’t forget why the church gathers.

Reform Parachurch Churches

In the previous essay, I proposed a concentric circle model of how individual Christians and simple churches can maintain communion with the whole church. As I argued, simple churches that close themselves to the universal church will become insular and one-sided. They will miss out on the gifts and insights God gives other believers. The parachurch church—the traditional church congregation—is first circle beyond the simple church.

I wish, therefore, that traditional churches would recognize their parachurch status and reform themselves to play that role more effectively. Parachurches cannot replace simple churches but can facilitate communication and fellowship among them and between them and the universal church. Parachurches churches can become places where the best teachers among the small groups and guests from elsewhere can share insights with the larger gathering. And they can facilitate cooperation among believers in projects that cannot be accomplished and should not be attempted by simple churches. Also, traditional churches, given their social visibility, can become a person’s first introduction to Christianity. They can provide some spiritual support for people that are not yet involved in simple churches.  However, parachurches should recognize that they cannot provide intimate the fellowship and the mutual encouragement possible in simple churches. Accordingly, I hope these churches will encourage all of their attendees to participate in something like what I call a “simple church.”

Next Time: My conclusions and my prayer.

What’s the Solution? Any Practical Advice? (Rethinking Church #28)

I am a professor. As I look back on my life it seems that this is what I was destined to become. I love to learn and teach. Thinking is a passion and understanding a necessity. I want to know the truth of things, the cause of things, and the order of things. Everything is my subject. I don’t mean every subject—chemistry, physics, biology, and sociology—although I am interested in all things. I mean everything all together, the whole universe. What does it all mean? Why does it (and we!) exist, and where is it all going? I want to know its deepest secret, to see it, touch it, smell it, and taste it! I want to enter into it, be immersed in it and raptured by it. That is why I am a theologian. That is why I am a Christian. For me, the question is not “Why seek God?” The question is “Why seek anything else?” Why should I devote my energies to anything else but the best, greatest, and most beautiful of things?

I am in no position to judge my own abilities as a thinker and teacher, in absolute terms or in comparison to others. However I am pretty sure that I am better at thinking and communicating than at church planting and administration. So, when I am asked about the practical implications of what I’ve been saying in this series, I hesitate to give advice. Each of us has different experiences and finds ourselves in different situations. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Perhaps I can best help others by reflecting on what the series means for me.

I am a Christian, and I feel a special bond with other Christians. I want to enjoy their company—conversation, prayer, and worship. I want to give and receive, love and be loved, teach and be taught, strengthen and be strengthened. In other words, I need the church and I love it. There is only one church, because there is only one God, one Lord, one Spirit, one hope, one baptism, and one faith (Eph 4:4-6). But that church is scattered in time and space. We cannot know each and every member by physical proximity. Yet, I believe I have an obligation to establish a relationship to the whole church in every place and every time.

I think of that relationship as a huge set of concentric circles. We need an inner circle of friends with whom we can spend time in intimate fellowship. Without intimate fellowship of this kind we cannot experience true community, which is a taste of the kingdom of God. It’s not an adjunct, a recruiting tool for the big church. It’s the real thing. It is where we meet the living and breathing, feeling and thinking, flesh and blood church. It’s not the anonymous crowd or an impersonal institution or distant clergy. This inner circle can take many forms. However it must be open to the next circle and the next and the next, and so on until we’re in touch with the whole church. Why must we do this, and how can we accomplish it?

We need communion with the whole church because it is one and God gives gifts, insights, and experiences to every part, everywhere, and in every age. And every part needs what God has given to every other part. Cutting our little group off from the whole is like limping along with one leg, fighting with one arm, and flying with one wing. We get so focused on our little insights and limited experiences that we mistake the part for the whole. Each little church can be a manifestation of the whole church only as long as its circle is open to all the other circles.

How can our inner circle commune with the entire set of concentric circles? Perhaps here is a legitimate role for the parachurch church. Such churches provide places for many little inner circles to gather to hear from each other and from a wider circle of a tradition—Baptist, Church of Christ, Pentecostal, Wesleyan, Lutheran, and Anglican. As I have emphasized in this series, it’s important not to allow the parachurch church and the tradition it embodies to replace the inner circle of fellowship. But even they are too narrow to encompass the whole church. There are other traditions, wider circles to encounter. To receive God’s gifts and insights they preserve we will need to speak with or read the works of representatives of these traditions.

Different Protestant traditions need to maintain communication with believers from other Protestant traditions—Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist. Protestants must listen to Roman Catholic and Orthodox voices and vice versa. Each little circle needs to be informed in some way by the thought and experience of all the others. And all of the living need to listen to the voices from the past. The most important voice from the past is the Bible. But in every age certain Christian truths were perceived with great clarity and others were overlooked. Ours is no different. The church needs scholars who keep the past alive. It needs theologians who read the Bible and theological works from every era and every tradition to keep each little group, every parachurch church, and every tradition aware of the whole church.

And that is why I am a professor. It’s why I teach. And it’s why I write.

The Point of it All (Rethinking Church #27)

We are nearing the end of our project of rethinking church. In the concluding essays I want to draw the series together in a few summary points, make some observations, give some advice, and make a proposal.

The Point of it All

  • The essence of church is simple and versatile. Where there is genuine faith in Christ, baptism, and the meeting to fellowship with the Lord and each other, there the church becomes visible.
  • The mission of the church is simple and clear. Its task is to witness by word, life, and deed to the reality of Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead.
  • Most churches, past and present, augment their essential nature and mission with optional features that they view as legitimate means, appropriate in their situation, to manage their affairs and carry out their mission.
  • It is vital to distinguish between the simple essence and mission that must be present in every genuine manifestation of the church and the additional features that may be helpful in specific times and places.
  • To emphasize the distinction between the simple church and traditional churches that have taken shape over the centuries, I called the latter parachurch churches.
  • Churches need to examine themselves continually to make sure that the once-helpful additional features do not replace or neutralize the essential features. Church reform always begins by comparing the existing condition of the church to its God-given essence. Whatever feature or activity that renders the church incapable of manifesting its essence or accomplishing its mission must be recalibrated to harmonize with the original norm.

My Hope for the Series

I don’t think I have unrealistic expectations about the prospects for human perfectibility. I am not offering a secret formula for creating the perfect church. I do believe, however, that it is possible to do better. I have not argued, and I do not believe, that parachurch churches are illegitimate and should be abolished. Many people find them life giving, and I would not take that away from them. I hope, however, that the leaders of these churches—if they happen on these essays—will take to heart the distinction between the essential features of the church and the nonessential ones and engage in self-examination and reform. Experience in church leadership has taught me that reform of existing parachurch churches will not be easy. You may need to start from scratch, and like Paul avoid “building on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20).

I embarked on this series in hope of clarifying my own understanding of the church and my relationship to it. I also hoped that others might benefit from thinking along with me. I had in mind especially those believers who find themselves troubled or alienated from traditional churches but have not lost faith in Jesus. They love being with other Christians but are disillusioned with traditional churches. Some of these believers are older and have given much of their lives to church work, as volunteers or as paid clergy. They are tired and a bit cynical. I want them to know that they do not have to choose between unhappily continuing in the traditional church until they die or melting into secular culture. There are many options for being the church in this world between those two extremes.

I also had in mind young people (20s to 40s) many of whom are not be able to hear the gospel message because it gets mixed with “churchy” language and programs. Having spent a lifetime in the church, I understand “Christianese” and even speak it. I can pick up on the slightest biblical allusion. I get the symbolic rituals and holy tones of “preacher speak.” But most young people don’t get it, and acquiring a taste for these things is not prerequisite to becoming a disciple of Jesus. It all sounds strange, weird and cultish.

If there is any value this generation seeks it’s “authenticity,” and if there is anything it hates it’s “inauthenticity.” And if there is any institution that reeks of inauthenticity it’s the traditional church. For sure, there is more to the Christian way of life than authenticity, but Jesus was hard on hypocrites and praised the pure in heart. Authenticity is not trendiness but honesty. It’s having no gimmicks and planning no tricks. No plastic smiles, fake happiness, or implausible certainty! Jesus said to his disciples as they left to tell the good news to the Judean towns and villages, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give” (Matt 10:8). Freely! Not a word that comes to mind when I think of most churches.

I want my young friends to experience a community of other believers where they can learn and teach, know love and fellowship, encourage and be encouraged by others, and give and receive strength. I want them to experience the simple, essential church wherein they can be formed into the image of Christ and become authentic witnesses to the kindness of God embodied in Jesus. They may at some point learn to speak “Christianese,” come to appreciate the arcane traditions of the church, and may even wish to join a parachurch church. That may be a good thing. But let’s not force them to begin there.

To be continued…

Why Church Reform is (Almost) Impossible (Rethinking Church # 25)

Models of the Church

In every age the church takes form in the world as an association of people, and it borrows a model of organization from the surrounding society, modifying it according to needs. In the early days, the church adopted the Jewish model with the central authority vested in the apostles and elders at Jerusalem and locally in household patrons and elders that presided over the church in a particular city. Sometime during the second century, elders became priests and a single bishop asserted rule over each city.  After the church became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it began to model itself after the imperial administration. In the East, powerful bishops or patriarchs ruled over the main cities—Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Constantinople—and the surrounding districts. In the West, the bishop of Rome began to model himself after the Emperor to become the single head of the whole church and all the bishops. The church developed a huge and complicated bureaucracy to administer the imperial church.

The Protestant churches of the Reformation era in breaking with Rome became national or city-state churches. As I pointed out in the previous post, Protestant churches in the United States still preserve the basic form acquired in the Nineteenth Century. Some denominations adopted a centralized and bureaucratic administrative structure. Others remained a loosely associated family of local congregations. Still others choose some level of centralization between the previous two.

However they organize themselves formally, at an informal level certain styles characterize most contemporary churches. (1) The church as a business. Church leaders, whatever their official titles, administer the affairs of the church in the way chief executive officers and boards of directors administer businesses. Churches have products, marketing strategies, strategic plans, shareholders, customers, and hold market shares—all by other names of course. (2) The church as a school. Schools have administrators, teachers, classrooms, lectures, and curricula. (3) The church as a charitable organization. This type too must be organized to receive and distribute goods and services to its target recipients. (4) The church as a theater. Theaters need administrators, theater halls, actors, musicians, and directors. (5) The church as community center. Community centers offer gathering places for socializing, meetings of various interest groups, recreation, and organizing for political activism for one cause or another.

Two Big Problems

Reform is Impossible. Though these non-theological models and styles dominate the actual running of churches, churches still use the religious rhetoric of the kingdom of God, family of God, or body of Christ. Apparently, they don’t see the irony in this. For they don’t resemble a family at all. Nor do they hold everyone accountable to the ethics of the kingdom or work like the body of Christ. And when an individual actually urges the business, school, charitable organization, theater, or community center type church to return to the family or kingdom or the body model, the deep logic of these models absorbs, overwhelms, and neutralizes every effort at reform. I do not doubt that churches adopt these models in good faith and for practical reasons. But hidden within each of these models is an irresistible logic fundamentally at odds with the essential nature and mission of the church. All species of star fish can regrow a lost limb as long as the central disk remains, and a few species can regrow the central disk and all other limbs from just one limb. I learned from experience that you cannot reform a church by tweaking this or that program or renaming an office or an activity to sound more biblical. It changes nothing to start calling a church secretary an “office minister.”  True reform begins with abandoning the foundational logic of alien models and all their outward manifestations. The problem is in the DNA not in the name.

Assimilation is Inevitable. The irresistible logic, the DNA, of such models as businesses, schools, charitable organization, theaters, and community centers—even if they are adopted by churches—demands assimilation to the archetypical, secular form of the model. When churches look and operate like other institutions in society, the logic of the model demands that they place themselves under or be forced to assimilate to the ethics, laws, and social expectations applicable to analogous institutions. By law and social expectation our society expects all employers and public accommodations—theaters, schools, hotels, restaurants, etc.—to treat every individual equally regardless of ethnic origin, religion, physical ability, gender, and sexual orientation. This logic seems as compelling to insiders as it does to outsiders.

Until recently, most churches ordained and employed men only as clergy, and even roles open to laypeople were reserved for men. However with recent changes in public expectations, many people are asking such questions as “If women can be senators, professors, heads of fortune five hundred companies, actors, singers, world-renowned athletes, and police officers, why can’t they become preachers, bishops, and elders…since the church in all other ways looks and acts like businesses, schools, and theaters?” This irresistible logic is powerfully working its way through all churches in the western world. And, just as it will inevitably drive most churches to assimilate to feminism, it will surely drive many churches to assimilate to the gender revolution.

The pressure to assimilate to a culture hostile to authentic Christianity cannot be successfully resisted merely by stubbornly refusing to change. It can be dealt with only by uncovering and repudiating the subversive logic at play when we adopt the model of the church as public accommodation or business. It is not the church’s essential mission to provide the public with employment or places of honor or social services or social acceptability or recreation or social networking—or any other worldly good or service. I don’t think we yet realize how much freedom to pursue our essential mission we give up when in good faith and for good reasons we adopt models designed to pursue other ends. Nor have we yet realized how costly our liberation from the relentless logic of assimilation will be—nothing short of death and resurrection.

To be continued…

The Importance of Fellowship (Rethinking Church #23)

Today we consider the third component of the church gathering, fellowship. I don’t know what comes into your mind when you hear the word fellowship. Perhaps you think of a time for coffee, donuts, conversation before or after the formal worship service. Or perhaps a monthly or quarterly potluck meal after the worship hour. Or even more informally, hallway conversations before worship services begin or after they conclude. These occasions can produce fellowship, but I have something else in mind. The English word fellowship translates the New Testament Greek word koinonia, which can also be translated sharing or participation or communion. The Christian idea of koinonia is that of many people sharing in the experience of Jesus Christ and being united with each other by their mutual participation in him. John speaks of personally seeing, hearing, and touching “the word of life.” But he wants others also to experience this life and have the joy of sharing this life with them:

“We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship [koinonian] with us. And our fellowship [koinonia] is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete” (1 John 1:3-4).

Paul speaks of the Lord’s Supper as a participation or sharing in the body and blood of Christ and then connects this experience to the unity of the participants:

“Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation [koinonia] in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation [koinonia] in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:16-17).

The church as it is described in the New Testament is a fellowship, a shared life in Christ. Christians met often in small gatherings to eat, pray, study, and worship together. As we can see from Paul’s discussions in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11, they shared in the bread and wine in honor of Christ. They knew each other intimately and were supposed love each other as brothers and sisters. Their meetings were designed to encourage and strengthen each other to live a life worthy of the name Christian. Their unity, love, and holiness served as a witness to Christ. When one of their number began living immorally, they knew about it, took it seriously, and attempted to intervene. If all else failed, they would refuse to allow this immoral person meet with them (See 1 Cor 5:1-13). And that refusal was made simpler because they met in private homes, not public buildings. The individual’s spiritual welfare and the integrity of the community’s witness were at stake.

In my life as an individual believer and as a church leader I have rarely found true fellowship in the gathering of a traditional church or parachurch. You can meet with a hundred or several hundred people once or twice a week in a big stage-focused assembly for years without getting to know anyone intimately. Few people know your struggles, needs, or interests. You may never hear others’ individual expressions of faith. Fellowship, sharing, and community take time, and we don’t have time to experience real fellowship with hundreds of people. At minimum, then, a traditional church, if it recognizes the need for fellowship, must put a high priority on getting everyone in a small group designed to promote fellowship. However, some people may need to make the small group their primary church gathering and the big church a secondary one.

I mentioned above the need to intervene in the lives of Christians who are trapped in immorality or other sins. This becomes almost impossible in a big church as I discovered as a church leader. Often my fellow leaders and I discovered problems only after it was too late to help. Also, it’s difficult to confront people with their sins if you don’t know them, they don’t know that you love them, and you have not invested time in their lives previously. And in our litigious age church leaders are concerned about getting sued for invasion of privacy. All this adds up to the secular ethic of “mind your own business.” This is not fellowship!

What would the church gathering look like if we designed it for maximum benefit in worship, instruction, and fellowship?

Next Time: Do traditional parachurch churches have a future in a post-Christian culture increasingly hostile to the Christian gospel and ethics?

Megachurches Need Megabucks (Rethinking Church #18)

Today I want to talk about money as a corrupting force in the life of the church. Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt 6:24). And 1 Timothy states in clear terms “The love of money [avarice or greed] is the root of all evil” (6:10). Of course, money does not force you to love it. But it’s an effective persuader! You can make money serve you, but it often turns out the other way around. Money is a means of exchange that enables the acquisition of real goods—food you can eat, clothing, shelter, beautiful things, services, etc. These things can serve human needs and produce joy, but they can also be abused and create misery. By pooling the resources of its members a church can acquire more of these things and use them for greater good. That’s the ideal anyway. But ideals are rarely realized completely.

Parachurches Need Lots of Money

Consider the churches I designated “parachurches” in the previous essay. They organize and conduct their work in ways that require a constant stream of revenue. They purchase and maintain building complexes, making it necessary to hire janitors, make periodic repairs, and pay huge utility bills. To coordinate the activities of hundreds or thousands of people and provide programs for every age and interest group, they must hire five, ten, or even twenty-five ministers. And of course the senior minister, the CEO, oversees the other ministers and the whole operation. The Sunday worship alone requires the services of a worship minister, sound and lighting techs, some singers, and several band or orchestra members. Such an operation requires support from a large secretarial and bookkeeping staff. Even a medium sized church needs an annual budget of $500,000 to $1,000,000. Megachurches need $10,000,000 to $50,000,000 annually.

And from where does this money come? It comes from donations from members. And why do they give? I speak only from my own experience. I am sure most of them give because they believe that their churches do good things with the money. They feel proud of participating in these large-scale good works, which they could not accomplish by themselves. However I think additional factors are at work.

Some churches teach explicitly and others imply that giving to a church is a Christian duty or even a quasi-sacrament. That is to say, giving is considered a meritorious work or a kind of bloodless sacrifice, a required act of worship distinct from the practical purpose for which the gift is to be used. Or, we think of our gifts as membership dues. We attend church services and enjoy the pageantry, the inspiring music, and the uplifting message as we sit comfortably in a state of the art facility. We benefit from the work of scores of staff and volunteers. And we feel guilty if we enjoy all these things without helping to pay for the them.

Pass the Collection Plate

But money exerts a corrupting force. Churches have earned a reputation for constantly soliciting donations, a reputation nearly universal among outsiders but also common among loyal members. Churches need to meet their annual budgets. The staff’s livelihood and the viability of many programs depend on it. Many churches “pass the collection plate” every Sunday. Passing the plate to the person sitting beside you without making a donation can be a bit embarrassing. You imagine that everyone notices your stingyness, especially the “deacons” who are standing at the ends of the rows to receive the plates.

The church seems to be of two minds on money versus people. The church sign says, “Everyone is welcome. Come as you are.” But do they really mean it, or will it be a “bait and switch” operation? Do churches want to grow because they want everyone to know Jesus? Or, do they wish to keep the income stream flowing? Because churches have organized themselves in ways that require lots of money, the good news of the love of Jesus and God’s forgiveness gets mixed with a less noble message.

People Got to Get Paid

I want to speak next from personal experience. I served as a paid minister for eight years as a young man. I entered the ministry because of what I believed, and still believe, was a divine call to which I could not say no. I responded in obedience to God. But when I became an employee of a church my duty to God got confused with the expectations of the church. The two are not always the same! I could no longer be sure of my motives. I learned a bitter lesson: if your service to God becomes also a means of livelihood on which your family depends—mortgage, childcare, health insurance, car payments, school loan payments, and retirement savings—the joy of ministry often departs. You begin to think about salary, benefits, and working conditions! You begin to think about who has power over you and who does not.

On the other side of the equation, later in life I served as an elder [a volunteer lay leader] in a church where a part of my duty was supervising the ministry staff. In that role my partnership with the ministers in the work of the Lord was made joyless by having to deal with their requests concerning salary, benefits, and working conditions. Money is indeed the root of all evil!

If you have been following this series you know that I favor small group churches over parachurch churches. We could go a long way toward removing the corrosive effect of money if churches met in homes, took no collections, made no budgets, owned no common property, and had no employees. I don’t think I am naïve about this. There would still be occasion for greed and envy, shame and pride, because of economic differences among individual believers. But at least the church would not be always seeking donations to run its operations.

Next Time: What about the clergy?

The Price of Privilege (Rethinking Church #15)

In the previous essay I listed four types of relationship between the church and the state—persecuted, free and tolerated, free and privileged, and established. In 1833, Massachusetts became the last of the original American Colonies to end its system of state support for churches. Since that time, churches in the United States have been officially “free and privileged” but not established. In the previous essay, “The “Friendly” Elephant in the Room,” I focused on religious freedom and its dangers. In this essay, I want to examine the idea of privilege and its temptations.

What is Privilege?

The word privilege has a long history and many meanings. According to the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, it derives ultimately from Latin in the days of Cicero (106 – 43 BC). Privilegium combines two other Latin words, one meaning “private” and the other “law.” The word was at first used in a negative sense, as a law disadvantaging an individual or group. Later it acquired the positive sense in which we use the English word today. In this core sense, a privilege is an legal exception given to some people or groups but not others or a positive benefit bestowed by law on some but not everyone. Even though today we use it of special advantages some people have over others no matter how they were acquired—by birth or good fortune or successful labor or in execution of an official duty—it still possesses an aura of unfairness that provokes resentment and envy from those not so privileged.

The Church and Privilege

Many privileges enjoyed by the church today are also enjoyed by other nonprofit corporations, specifically those under the IRS classification “Charitable and Religious Organizations” [(IRS code 501(c) (3)]. Under these regulations, churches are exempt from paying certain taxes, and a portion of contributions by individuals to those organizations also receive favorable tax status. But in the United States, Christian churches and charitable organizations—along with other religious groups—are given special exceptions in deference to the First Amendment to the Constitution. For example, churches and some religious nonprofits claim exemptions from certain parts of anti-discrimination laws applicable to other groups. Below is a typical statement of anti-discrimination written for nonprofit organizations:

“[My Organization] does not and shall not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion (creed), gender, gender expression, age, national origin (ancestry), disability, marital status, sexual orientation, or military status, in any of its activities or operations. These activities include, but are not limited to, hiring and firing of staff, selection of volunteers and vendors, and provision of services. We are committed to providing an inclusive and welcoming environment for all members of our staff, clients, volunteers, subcontractors, vendors, and clients.”

Often, churches and other religious nonprofit organizations place exception clauses within in these declarations claiming exemptions based on freedom of religion. Some simply say “[Organization X] does not unlawfully discriminate….” Others add explanations such as the following, “[Organization Y] is exempt from certain state and federal anti-discrimination laws based on its status as a religious non-profit corporation and its religious beliefs.”

The Cost of Privilege

The advantages of privilege are obvious and difficult to turn down when offered. As you can see from the discussion above, privileges granted to churches fall into two categories, financial exclusions and exemption from anti-discrimination laws. These privileges greatly advance the work of churches in so far as they are organized as legal, corporate entities that engage in commercial activity. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that revoking these privileges would destroy most churches as they are currently organized. For churches could not continue to do business as usual if they were subjected to taxation on income and property and individual contributions to churches were to cease being tax deductible. And were churches to become subject to the full range of anti-discrimination laws, they would be forced to hire atheists, heretics, and immoral people as ministers.

In recent years, churches and other Christian nonprofit organizations in the United States—and other Western countries—have come under growing pressure to conform to the dominant culture of anti-discrimination. Calls to revoke the church’s privileges and exemptions have grown louder and louder. And voices defending the church’s freedom and privileges are equally loud. As tempting as it is to enter this culture war as a combatant, I want to look at this issue from another angle. My concern in this series is preserving the church’s essential nature as the body of Christ and its essential mission of witness to Jesus.

The privileges granted by the state apply only to that dimension of the church that is visible to the state as a corporate entity engage in commerce. Clearly, only churches that exist as legal entities could be “destroyed” by losing their privileges. Only they can be blackmailed by threats of such revocation. Churches that refrain from organizing in this way do not receive privileges from the state. But they also do not need them or fear losing them. Nor are they in danger of mistaking them for the essence of the church.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I do not believe that churches that organize themselves so as to take advantage of state granted privileges are necessarily doing wrong. Having served in church leadership in such churches for most of my adult life my concerns do not arise from secular resentment and envy. I am not hoping that the state will take away the church’s privileges. Nor do I long for persecution. I am simply urging the church to count the cost of accepting state granted privileges and to cease thinking of them as an unalloyed blessings. For if we believe that losing our privileges would destroy the church, we will be greatly tempted to do whatever it takes to preserve them. I want the church to be free of this fear. The existence of the church and the vitality of its mission do not depend on favors from the state. Even if the church gave up all its current privileges and ceased to exist as a legal entity, it would not thereby ceased to exist in its fullness as the body of Christ. Nor would its witness to Jesus be rendered ineffective. Even if we do not choose this path—and most churches will not and, perhaps, should not do so—it is liberating to know that it is available.

Rethinking Church #10: Can a Sinful, Fallible Church Reform Itself?

Now we begin a new phase of our project “Rethinking Church.” We have laid out the essential features of the church in three areas: its constitution, its work, and its practices. Reading church history and observing the church of today make clear that the church never appears in the world as its essential self only. It always and inevitably embodies itself in forms and uses means derived from human culture. These forms and means are not essential but accidental features. [See essay #2 for discussion of this distinction.] Ideally the church would in every situation choose accidental forms and means that embody its essence and advance its mission effectively, never obscuring, hindering, or replacing its essence.

But in this world conditions are never ideal. Christ and the Spirit are infallible, but we are not. God is holy and sinless, but we still need grace and forgiveness. The church looks forward to its future redemption, perfection, and glorification. But we are not there yet. The people of God are sinners, each and all. Its leaders are sinful and fallible. This has been so from the very beginning. Peter and Paul argued vigorously about the nature of the gospel (Gal 2). The Corinthian church suffered divisions (1 Cor. 1–3). A perfect church has never existed. Jesus promised that the “gates of Hades will not overcome” the church (Matt 16:18). He did not promise to protect it from all mistakes, sin, and foolishness. Believers are “led by the Spirit” (Rom 8:14), but we must still “live by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7).

In his providence, God directs the church to its appointed end despite its sins and errors. He uses fallible leaders and sinful people to work his will. Consequently, from a human point of view the history of the church moves in a zigzag pattern with a lurch to the right followed by a lurch to the left. It takes one step forward and two steps backward. Its path is littered with heresies and schisms, spectacular successes and abysmal failures. It has produced martyrs and persecutors, ascetic monks and indulgent bishops, peacemakers and warriors. But it still exists! Christ is still preached, and sometimes the light pierces the darkness and for a moment we see clearly what is, what could be, and what will be.

What, then, can fallible and sinful people do to “rethink church” for today? Is it possible to do a better job today of embodying the essential features of the church in the world than we have in the past? We should not be too quick to say “yes.” Of course, with God all things are possible. But we must not mistake God’s possibilities for our abilities. Despite the dangers, however, we must try. Only with “fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), humility, grace, self-criticism, diligence, patience, thoughtfulness, penitence, and prayer do we have hope of actually doing more good than harm for the church in our age.

Next Time: Should the church seek (or even accept) approval, legitimacy, or privileges from the world?

Simple Church, Simply Christian…Simply Impossible?

Many contemporary Christians have finally “had it” with institutional churches. They’ve not rejected Jesus or Christianity, but they no longer think attending a traditionally organized church is the best way to live as a Christian. In the previous two essays in this series (“Are you “Done” With Church,” May 14 and May 19, 2018) I expressed a great deal of sympathy for the critics of the institutional church. I hope you will read those essays along with this one. I argued that the essential nature, purpose, and activities of the church are very simple and can be accomplished by a small group meeting in a home. None of the trappings of traditional churches are necessary. We don’t need property, budgets, employees, professional clergy, or tax exempt status. Indeed, the activities that occupy, the motives that drive, and the resources that are consumed by institutional churches quite often crowd out the essential elements of the church as they are described in the New Testament. What are we to conclude: are all Christian institutions beyond house churches illegitimate? Or do ecclesiastical or para-church institutions have a place?

Are there things about the essence of Christianity and the church that drive us out and beyond our small-group churches? I believe there are, and I can think of three. First, Christianity exists throughout the world, and the church is one body even though scattered the world over. In the words of Paul, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). Hence every Christian and every local church ought as far as possible seek communion with every other Christian and every other local body. We ought to encourage and be encouraged by the faith, hope, and love of other believers. Just as in a local church, so in the universal church each can learn from the knowledge, experience, and wisdom given to all. Christians from different places can challenge each other to remain faithful and correct each other when they stray.

How can (or may) small-group churches do this? In many ways! Modern forms of communication have made our task so much easier than in the past: books, articles, essays, blogs, electronic discussion groups, and recorded sermons and lectures are ours in abundance. And word of mouth is still a very effective way to communicate with those in our networks. But what about creating institutions to facilitate communication? Conferences, city-wide and regional meetings, and workshops? Or, what about creating networks of small-group churches, forming fellowships, and working within denominations? Do seminaries and other educational institutions have a place? As you can see, there is no end to the ways individual believers and simple churches can seek to establish communion with Christians world-wide. And I believe creating such institutions is permitted—as long as we do not allow these specialized institutions to replace the simple church or exercise dictatorial authority over the faith of individual believers and local churches. But these abuses are almost inevitable, and the history of the church can be written as the story of abuse and reform.

The second and third reasons believers may create institutions beyond simple churches are: for co-operative action and to pool scarce resources. Preaching the gospel and ministering to sick, abused, and destitute human beings are essential parts of the Christian mission. In most cases, an individual or a small-group church does not have the financial or human resources to accomplish the task. Hence Christians have from the beginning cooperated to establish hospitals, homes for the elderly, orphan homes, foundations, missionary societies, and other institutions devoted to these tasks.

Study, learning, and teaching are also essential functions of the church. If a small-group church has access to a Bible and someone that can read, it can get along for a while. But it would be much better off if it had access to deeper knowledge of the Bible, church history and doctrine, and much else. The small group I meet with contains five PhDs with one of them in New Testament and another in theology. But not every group of 20 people is blessed with such highly educated teachers. Hence from the early days believers sought educated teachers. Sometimes teachers stayed only a little while and then move on to other churches. At other times they were appointed to an enduring office. Some were supported and some volunteered their services free of charge. As with the first reason for institutionalization, so with the second and third, abuses are common and reform is necessary. Volunteer teachers become resident clergy and resident clergy become a ruling class.

Conclusion

It has not been my aim in this series to argue that it is always wrong or misguided for Christians to establish institutions to facilitate the work Jesus gave us to do. I have argued, rather, that we ought to get clear on the difference between the simple church and para-church organizations. Most institutional churches are a mixture of the two. They demand the kind of loyalty due to the body of Christ, but most of their aims, activities, and structures are, though good and desirable, non-essential and perhaps extraneous to the meaning of church. Christianity is by definition life together in service to God with other believers. But Christianity is not defined by membership in a para-church institution or a mixed institution like so many “churches.” It’s not always wrong, and it can be a good thing, to participate in an institutional church. But how much better to be also a simple church and simply a Christian! It is possible.