Saturday, February 5, 2011

Escaping Ecclesial No-Man's-Land

You're an evangelical Christian. You've been attending a Southern Baptist church. You move to a new town. Do you:
(a) automatically find a local Southern Baptist church and join it, or
(b) try out a few different churches regardless of their denomination - or lack thereof - and find one that you think fits you?

In my experience, almost all evangelicals today choose option 'b'. Why? Because few evangelicals actually identify as Southern Baptist, or Methodist, or Presbyterian, etc. Most will only go as far as to say that they happen to be attending a Southern Baptist church (if they are aware of their church's denomination, and many are not, and don't care either). If they're more advanced theologically, they might say, for example, that they are 'Reformed' in their theology, which might somewhat limit their choice of denominations, but they are still usually uncommitted to any one denomination or organization.

Such people, I say, are in an ecclesial no-man's-land.

They ultimately exist no where. They are unconnected in a real, tangible sense. They are Christian islands which, granted, may choose to freely associate with other believers, but only as long as they find that it "works for them". At best, some evangelicals might be willing to stick it out with a congregation through a hard time. But at the end of the day, it's only because they choose to do so (or because they think God is calling them to for the time being), but not because they think that that particular congregation is where they must be in any absolute sense.

This is because, for most evangelicals, Christianity consists almost exclusively of one's own personal relationship with God. And the reason an evangelical goes to church is to be helped with his personal relationship with God. If an evangelical feels like a church is doing that (e.g. has music he "connects with" and  regularly delivers inspiring, relevant sermons), he'll attend and perhaps get involved. If he tries out a church, and he doesn't like the music, doesn't feel inspired by the preaching, doesn't like the community, or thinks it's too big or too small, etc., he'll move on to somewhere else.

There are several problems with this. Here are two:

First, for such evangelicals, there is ultimately no real, tangible accountability. Any given church/denomination can only keep a person accountable, whether it be morally or theologically, as long as the person lets the church/denomination do so. If the person reaches a point where they can no longer swallow a particular church's teaching, they can simply leave and continue their personal relationship with God - which is all that they think really matters anyway - somewhere else. Thus, at the the end of the day, Christianity can be whatever one wants it to be (or however one happens to think God wants it to be for him). (But you object: "The Bible is my accountability!" My short response: Your interpretation of it might be, setting aside the question of which Bible.)

Second, and probably most important, God is saving a people. There is only one Bride of Christ (Eph 5). There is only one Body of Christ (1 Cor 12). There is only "one flock and one shepherd" (John 10.16). Scripture calls us to be "perfectly united in mind and thought" (1 Cor 1.10). And Jesus prayed that all of his followers would be one as He and the Father are one, so that "the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." (John 17.23) God is looking to unify all people in Christ, not to have a bunch of otherwise unconnected followers.

Many evangelicals, I believe, would honestly respond: But what other option is there? No church is Christ's Church. This is the best anyone can do.

But what example do we find of the Church in the Acts of the Apostles? Do we find it legitimate for individual Christians to believe whatever they want to believe and associate and dissociate with the greater group as they please, an ecclesial free-for-all? No! We see an organization with authority from Jesus himself, led by the apostles and those to whom they have also passed on authority, tangibly in charge of all those who would claim faith in Jesus (see Acts 15; also, all of the NT letters). That authority has been passed on, in apostolic succession, to our present day, and has been preserved in the bishops, priests, and deacons of the Catholic Church.

Jesus founded a Church, and the gates of Hades have not overcome it (Matthew 16.17-20); it is still here for us today. Christ has kept his promise and has not abandoned us (Matthew 28.20).

You can escape ecclesial no-man's-land.

In the Catholic Church, there is a sure place to belong, a true home for us in the faith that does not stand or fall based on our preferences or whether we think it is giving us the church experience we are looking for, but rests firmly on the fact that it was founded, and is today shepherded, by Jesus Himself. And knowing that it is the true Church of God, with Christ as its head, we can submit ourselves and be truly molded, morally and theologically, into faithful members of the people of God.

Ephesians 2.19-22
19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

10 comments:

  1. Well said. I can very much relate, since I was raised Baptist, then went to a few Methodist congregations (one of which very much downplayed their Methodist affiliations), and then came home, into the Church. It's perhaps ironic that I find more security in the Church than I ever did in the OSAS Baptist faith.

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  2. I really enjoy your perspective. I am a cradle CAtholic...more of a "revert" to the Catholic church (I fell away for a while in college and young adulthood...but never went anywhere else). I really believe a lot of us who were born then baptized Catholic and raised somewhat in the church (my mom was in and out of it after my parents' divorce) have a real opportunity to take for granted what we have...not truly understand it. I love reading converts perspectives on the Church probably more than people who have always been Catholic. Thanks for this post.

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  3. I teach straight from Acts to show my Sundayschoolers how the Church was set up, and how it retains that setup even today.

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  4. Well, it seems like they are not tied to any particular denomination, but will avoid the Catholic Church at all costs. At most, few of them look into Orthodoxy. I guess they stay loyal to Protestantism. Or the more theologically-minded might be more adventurous, but most go where the emotions are appealed to, usually in a superficial and sensational fashion. I think being a Catholic, for lack of a better way to put it, requires great intellectual depth and a catholic (in the sense of knowledge of all areas, not just interpreting the Bible in any fashion, but a thorough grasp of history, historiography, ecclesiology, and on and on) perspective on matters of religion. There is lack of clear thinking of what religion
    is, but here's a quick summary: Of ultimate importance is is it true?. If not, nothing else matters. Catholicism definitely appeals to the senses and emotions in great profundity but might require greater perspicacity to show its majesty.


    STAT CRUX DUM VOLVITUR ORBIS

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  5. I enjoyed your post this morning dealing with the phenomenon of "Church Shopping" as we call it. The scary thing is I currently AM a Baptist youth minister, who for various and sundry reasons has become very enticed by the Catholic faith... long story. One part deeply resonated with m:

    "Any given church/denomination can only keep a person accountable...as long as the person lets the church/denomination do so."

    That is very true and it bothers me to be in the position I am in. When I read Scripture I don't get the impression that the Church is politely asking for people to "let" her be an authority... she is simply stating that she "does" have authority. Well put sir.

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  6. Michelle, I, too, am a revert, so I know where you're coming from. A revert knows what it's like to grow up in the Church, and also consciously know what it's like to convert.

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  7. I am a Evangelical Christian and I wouldn't pick either of the options you posted. My criteria for a church is where the Pastors are passionate about preaching the Scriptures, mission oriented, Bible studies, small groups, Adult Bible classes. In the last 10 years I've been a attending this church I've meet others [surprisingly many former Catholics, as myself] have a deep thirst for Scriptures and this is why they join this Bible church I belong to.
    We recently installed a new sr. pastor [the last one felt called to minister to another church out of state]. It took our elders a good year and a half to find his replacement. I was concerned that we wouldn't find another good pastor as the one who left [btw, he was raised Catholic and was saved while at college. He was an excellent teacher of church and Biblical studies] Anyway, the new sr. pastor is just as wonderful and very passionate about God and Scriptures. We were definately blessed with wonderful pastors who seek to serve the Lord.

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  8. "Any given church/denomination can only keep a person accountable...as long as the person lets the church/denomination do so."

    That may very well be true in a lot of churches in this day and age. This is why my church insists on members or those who make it their church home to participate in small groups, and adult sunday classes to foster transparancy. But to point your fingers at all Evangelical Christian churches is unfair. When I was Catholic I was in a Catholic singles group. I knew who slept with who and know they took communion anyway at Mass. I hardly think the RC has an accountability down pat. Heck who keeps the perverted priests accountable and away from unsupecting innocents? So give me a break and don't be pointing fingers at your former church.

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  9. Second, and probably most important, God is saving a people. There is only one Bride of Christ (Eph 5). There is only one Body of Christ (1 Cor 12). There is only "one flock and one shepherd" (John 10.16). Scripture calls us to be "perfectly united in mind and thought" (1 Cor 1.10). And Jesus prayed that all of his followers would be one as He and the Father are one, so that "the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." (John 17.23) God is looking to unify all people in Christ, not to have a bunch of otherwise unconnected followers.

    Roman Catholicism is unified in ERROR. By your logic here it seems you're saying being unified is all that matters as long as it has a visible head, the Pope. Scripture says that there is one Head and that is Jesus Christ and yet the RC teaches that the Pope is the Head of the church on earth! Nowhere will you find this in Scripture because Christ is Head of the WHOLE BODY. Christ Church is not a two headed freak. Christ is the Rock the church is built on but the RC says Peter [all the popes]is. The RC is built on sinful men. Why would you want to place your faith in that and not in the solidness of the Rock, Jesus Christ?

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  10. Hey Anon,

    Thanks for your post!

    "I am a Evangelical Christian and I wouldn't pick either of the options you posted. My criteria for a church is..."
    You're doing option B. Besides, where did you get such criteria?

    "This is why my church insists on members or those who make it their church home to participate in small groups, and adult sunday classes to foster transparancy."
    This is no way gets around my critique that a church can only hold an evangelical accountable as long as he allows the church to. You freely choose to be a member of your church. According to your own theology, you could leave and still fully be a Christian.
    True Catholics, on the other hand, don't just believe that the RCC is a "good church" but THE church. There are no other options. They must remain, submit, and be truly molded.
    And I didn't claim that the RCC has great accountability groups in that sense. I meant that true Catholics believe that the Church hierarchy actually has real authority that can't be dismissed.

    "Roman Catholicism is unified in ERROR. By your logic here it seems you're saying being unified is all that matters as long as it has a visible head, the Pope."
    I didn't say that unity is the only thing that matters, but that Scripture assumes and requires unity among Christians (as Scripture also requires truth to worship God, see Jn 4.24). Evangelicals, intrinsic to their theology, can have no better unity than free associations that can be (and frequently are) broken at any time without consequence.

    "Scripture says that there is one Head and that is Jesus Christ and yet the RC teaches that the Pope is the Head of the church on earth! Nowhere will you find this in Scripture because Christ is Head of the WHOLE BODY. Christ Church is not a two headed freak."
    You are in error of what Catholics believe. The RCC does indeed teach that Jesus is the one head of his whole body the Church. The Pope is his Vicar, or his divinely appointed representative here on earth, and is only in that sense the visible head of the church. Jesus himself gave this position to Peter. Jn 10, Jesus says that he the Good Shepherd. In Jn 21, Jesus tells Peter to "feed my sheep".

    "Christ is the Rock the church is built on but the RC says Peter [all the popes]is."
    Read Matthew 16:18-20.

    "The RC is built on sinful men. Why would you want to place your faith in that and not in the solidness of the Rock, Jesus Christ?"
    Yes, the Church is made up of sinful people. But I believe that, just as the Holy Spirit used sinful people to produce the infallible Scriptures, the Holy Spirit today continues to use sinful people to guide the Church. By following the Church, Christ's body, I am following Christ.

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