Columbia, SC 29205
One Service @ 10:30 AM
If anyone who lives in the city does not attend church services for three Sundays, let that person be expelled for a brief time in order to make the reproach public.
– Synod of Elvira, 306 A.D.
So, do I attend church? Not often, to be honest. Like I said, it’s not how I learn.
-Donald Miller, 2014 A.D.
It’s no secret that the church in America has its share of critics, especially among Christians. As Protestants, of course, criticism of the church is part and parcel of our proud heritage. However, there is an important difference between critically receiving the church in its institutions and traditions and despising it. We evangelicals have often confused the two.
By “despising it” I do not necessarily mean hatred for or active opposition to the church. Rather, I mean that we “look down” at it as something negligible, as something small or inconsequential – something that may safely be ignored or put on the shelf. Evangelicals have a reputation of despising the church (both the Church and the local church), and our contempt is generally expressed in one of two ways.
The first, and subtler form, is what Michael Braun has termed “the fine art of damning through faint praise.” I’ll give you an example: “He’s a very well-spoken black man.” This is framed as praise, but (hardly) conceals an entire agenda of prejudice and contempt. What’s really meant, of course, is: “He’s well-spoken…for a black man.” We do this all the time with the church:
It is a good little church … As far as churches go.
The Church is a high calling … And we’re glad for someone else to answer it.
Church attendance is important … But if you really want to meet God or grow spiritually, you ought to attend this conference or observe this spiritual practice (usually accompanied by a book pitch).”
The most abused victim of faint praise among the saints militant is the local church. Certainly no one dare speak against the concept of the church openly – after all, it is biblical.
Or do they? The second form of despising the Church is less restrained, frankly asking whether there is any biblical necessity for the local church. Recently Christian author, Donald Miller, made waves with his confession that he – along with numerous other Christian “household names” – has quietly left the church (and now others are following him out of the door). Miller asserts that no local church today is strictly “biblical,” with the implication that all expressions – organic and organized – are more or less equal. So he unabashedly explains his decision to opt out of Sunday worship with the gathered saints as a matter of simple personal preference.
Others have left the church for more substantial reasons: they’ve been wounded. A member of our church family drew my attention to an article that discusses this new and growing category of self-identifying Christians in America: “the Dones.”
The Dones are done – walking away from Church, never to come back … [Their] experience with the Church killed their desire to ever go to that place of spiritual relationship in community again.
In God’s design, the local church is structured as a family (1Timothy 3:15). Sadly, like any family, it can become very dysfunctional. The fallout is tragic – cultivating bitterness and cynicism in the hearts of God’s people.
Some go even further, however, arguing not only does the “institutional church” have a problem; it is the problem. The author of So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore? declares,
The more organization you bring to church life, the less life it will contain…Structures are about gaining power and getting your own way. Those who are growing to know [God] don’t need them.
So the “organization” and “structure” inherent to any local church is actually a hindrance to knowing God. (See here for my review of the book.)
How foreign to our modern ears then is the ancient dictum: “outside of the Church there is no salvation”!
This statement is either (1) rank heresy (an institutionalization and domestication of the divine sovereignty in salvation), (2) an empty truism (everyone who is saved is in the Church by definition), or (3) it is a biblical conviction with significant implications. As evangelicals, we have typically opted for either (1) or (2).
But what if the church is an institution established by Christ Himself (Matthew 16:18), heavenly in origin and earthly in expression (1Timothy 3:15-16) – an invisible community made visible in local assemblies (e.g., 1Corinthians 1:2)? What if this community was bounded by a membership of faith – dividing those “inside” from those “outside” (e.g., 1Corinthians 5:9-13)? What if Jesus entrusted divine authority to his church to exercise discernment and judgment (Matthew 16:19; 18:18-20; 1Corinthians 5-6)? What if Jesus gifted his church with called and confirmed leaders (Ephesians 4:11-12; 1Timothy 3:1-13), who oversaw that the “household of God” was ordered according to the apostolic pattern of life and sound doctrine (1Timothy 1-2; 2Timothy 1-2; Titus 1-2)? What if Jesus expects each congregation to gather regularly for worship and fellowship (e.g., 1Corinthians 11-14)? What if singing together, and listening to the public reading and preaching of Scripture is for all learning styles and personality types (Colossians 3:16-17; 1Timothy 4:6-16)? And what if Jesus expects this congregation to be on mission together for the gospel (Philippians 1:27-2:18), being equipped by their appointed leaders and empowered by one another (Ephesians 4:11-16)?
We are the family of God. And like any family, we need intentionality, boundaries, authority, rhythms, traditions and “household rules”… even a budget! Life together will of course always be plagued with tensions, offenses, and constant ruptures. But love consistently covers a multitude of sins; and in Christ, where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. As we submit to the head of our household, Christ himself, a paradoxical peace, joy and love emerge from within the confusion, frustration, and heartache.
Why Church? In a word, it’s where grace abounds to us, and, through us, to the world.