Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Perfect Church?

(I warn you in advance, this one is long. There's a reason I didn't finish it last night like I planned or earlier this morning as I hoped...)


I've been on board with Michael Spencer through eight chapters of Mere Churchianity and I've enjoyed every part of the ride. But I had to get off the train at chapter 9 (though I'm going to jump right back on at 10). In chapter 8, Accepting the Real Jesus, Michael drew a line in the sand delineating the Church consisting of disciples of Jesus and the institutional, religious church filled with Christians. But it seems as though in this chapter he forgot the line was there.

I agree with Michael that you cannot keep "church shopping" hoping to find the perfect church because you never will. I also agree that many people's spiritual journey to be Jesus Shaped will lead them "out of the church as they have known and experienced it." (pp 109) I can personally testify that this can be the case. In fact, I do believe there is a perfect church worth going after. But I do not believe everyone Michael describes in this chapter has found it.

Let's begin with the perfect church. What does it look like? Michael listed several flavors of church he experienced trying to find it. Someone commented yesterday that it would be great if we could combine each of these into one. I've always felt that the perfect church would have the reverence of the Catholic/Orthodox church, the worship of an AME church, the emphasis on Biblical survey of the Calvary Chapel, the outreach of a foreign mission, and the doctrine (personal bias) of the Restoration Movement. But I haven't found that yet, and I don't think I ever will. But that does not mean I cannot create it.

You can browse the titles of Christian books, search the themes of Christian bloggers, and find the most followed Christian tweeters and it won't take long to notice that many are on the same quest to find the elusive perfect church. There was a push not long ago to "restore the First Century Church" even though that is not described in the Bible. The best we have to go on are the sparse writings of the Early Church Fathers and the Didache. Right now we see the "Acts 29 Church", or as I like to say "the next chapter". Catchy name. I pray they are successful in creating authentic community and a Jesus Shaped church. I've also seen "the Acts 2:42 Church", but there is very little written in the New Testament, and even less in the book of Acts, for "what" this perfect church should look like outside of a few anecdotal examples.

But there is plenty written on "how" this perfect church should function. For the sake of our discussion, I'm going to stick with Ephesians 4. Here Paul gives an outline of how Christ's church should grow up in unity. (And remember that Jesus prayed for unity amongst His believers the night before he was betrayed.) First, the perfect church is up to us. "[L]ive a life worthy... be completely humble and gentle...bearing with one another... make every effort to keep the unity..." (v 1-3) And later, "to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it... It was he who gave some to be... to prepare God's people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ." (v 7, 11-13) In other words, the perfect church is up to us, doing our part, "From [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work." (v 16, emphasis added)

Of course, we are all human. Our pride and selfish ambitions will get in the way of what Paul describes above. Over time religiosity, legalism, and false-doctrine will set in. And the church we thought we were a part of will become unrecognizable. But, "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever." (1 Peter 1:24-25) We can always turn back to the Word and return to what is right. I do believe that in this sense, the Church is undergoing constant revival as each generation comes to it seeking to be Jesus Shaped.

But the description above isn't the approach Michael Spencer takes. Instead he takes an ecumenical broad-brush and (practically) declares that everyone who is doing good work in Jesus' name is part of this true church. Yet Jesus himself said, "not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven." And it continues, "only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 7:21) This is consistent with what Michael wrote in chapter 8, but appears to abandon here. It is also interesting that when Michael declares "There are thousands of Christians where I live. They express their faith through how they serve…" (pp 111), he then lists off several brand-names of churches as if they are all equal. But he does not mention the Mormon Church. I would expect that many Christians, and most Evangelicals, would not consider the Mormon Church to be Christians, yet I challenge you to find any group as focused on their communities and on their families as this church. According to Michael's description of the "true church" in this chapter, they have to be included in the discussion. Unless he applies an unwritten doctrinal line.

There is a written line in Ephesians 4. "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." (v 4-6) Which brings us to the "One Church".

This is a dangerous doctrine. Not because it is unbiblical, but because of our human nature to corrupt everything we are a part of. The Restoration Movement began when a Reformed Baptist and a Presbyterian got together, examined their doctrines in light of Scripture, and chose to go another way. They strived for One Church, unifying the divisive denominationalism that still exists today. Because of the emphasis on One True Church being defined solely on Scripture, the church they founded, the Churches of Christ, have been turbulent with division ever since. I think the Scripture says this, you think that, therefore we cannot agree and you are no longer part of "my" One True Church. Yet Paul said he doesn't care  so long as the Gospel is being preached and Jesus said no one can do a miracle in his name one minute and curse his name the next. You see the slippery slope?

So what does that mean for you and me and our quest for a Jesus Shaped church? First, we have to look to the Word of God to measure the state of our church, not our feelings, not the latest bestseller on church growth, and absolutely not traditions. Next, we have to examine ourselves by the same standard. Are we "doing are part" as Ephesians 4 instructs? Finally, and this goes back to the thrust of Mere Churchianity, we need to keep Jesus as our focus.

Is there a perfect church out there? With our sinful nature, sadly not until Jesus returns to claim His Kingdom. Is there a Jesus Shaped church out there? There are likely many and as Michael describes, there is no shortage of people striving towards it. Is there One True Church? Yes there is, and it is defined by God's own Word, not by the walls we construct. I pray one day we can worship there together.

Be sure to also check out Nancy Rosback's thoughts on Chapter 9 over at her blog, Bend the Page.


Anonymous said...

thanks so much for your thoughts on chapter nine. i like the way that you have taken the time to go into a bit of detail to make it more clear for the reader.

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Fatha Frank said...

@Nancy, it's funny to look at from a writer's perspective. I doubt he wrote 8 and 9 in the same sitting. I wonder ifnhe had, if it would've read like I described. I don't fault him, but I was surprised in the change in tone from 8.

@anon, thanks for stopping by! I don't always have new content every day, but the links on the side do! I hope I continue to challenge and inspire. God bless.

Anonymous said...

kind of like a roller coaster ride...no, make that a tennis match.

Jerry said...

In a Walgreens world, I would love to paste all the denominations together. Pick out the best spices from each and partake of a delicious spiritual course. Ain't gonna happen...except in the end I hear a One World Church will come on the scene. I guess I better pick up this book and see what he is talking about. It is a complicated issue.

Michael Gormley said...

For centuries in the Christian world, all were united in one faith, the Catholic Church.

Then came along the "reformation" and splits in the Body of Christ. With it came many changes in teaching by the various Christian sects. Some of these teachings, especially in the 20th century, seem to be poll driven, just like our very own civil government.

Their "teachings" are based on public opinion, not on truth. The "teaching" of the day among some of these non-Catholic sects seems to be based on the policy. I must remind you that private opinions do not change the truth one iota.

However, the "Pillar and Foundation of Truth", the Catholic Church (1Timothy 3:15), is unmoving in this respect. She and she alone stands up against the world in teaching the truth, as commanded by Jesus Christ Himself.

In so doing, she comes under great criticism by many who have found worldly things to be their real god. How then, can the "Pillar of Truth" teach nothing but the truth?

"Have I then become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?" (Galatians 4:16)