Friday, September 16, 2011

Flashback Friday: When is it OK to Walk Away?

***Originally posted a year ago while doing a group book discussion on Michael Spencer's Mere Churchianity. It is my most spammed post (still today) so I figured I'd clean it up, update it some and repost. Plus it's a good lead-in to some posts I'm hoping to get up next week.***

[A year ago] Pope Benedict XVI visited Great Britain for the first Papal visit in centuries and in the face of the ongoing child abuse scandal. Some demonstrators were so bold as to say that the Catholic Church "murdered" their souls. Despite this, they still identified themselves as Catholic: "I am a Catholic, but my faith is in God, not in those church officials who have covered this up," one of the demonstrators said. Valid point, but why stay committed to that church?

At the same time, we have the audience Michael Spencer is writing to in Mere Churchianity; those who have left their churches and in some cases Christianity altogether because of abuse, hypocrisy, luke-warmness, and countless other reasons. Last week, I listed some specific examples. Each of these had valid reasons to leave, but I think just as importantly, each have a valid reason to return: the church is not Christ and Michael continues to hammer this point as we continue through his book. [Important distinction here. The big-c church is the Body of Christ. When we try and make it anything else- biggest, showiest, best-selling, most entertaining, most seeker-friendly, most missional, most... it is no longer Christ, but a group of like-minded people. It might as well be a fraternity.]

Let us consider these "sins" of the church: abuse, hypocrisy, luke-warmness. You could add neglecting its mission, being polluted by the world's values or even other religions. If this sounds familiar and you find yourself shouting, "preach it brother!" recognize that this isn't anything new. In fact, these are the same claims Jesus himself brought against the church in Revelation. In other words, the Church has been screwing up since it was founded. Not that that makes it ok. In fact, Jesus had some very harsh words to those churches. So today we continue to re-vector our programs, our polity, our preaching to make sure our eyes are "fix[ed] on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith." (Hebrews 12:2)

[At the same time, we cannot practice Christianity by ourselves. We can focus on Jesus all we want, but if we don't include others in our lives, we're not really modeling Jesus' life or instructions. The arguments that "my faith is personal, between me an God" or "I believe in Jesus, I don't need a church for that" are bad theology.]
Keep in mind, there are 51 "one another" instructions (some are more strongly worded as commands) to the Church found in the New Testament. Many of these cannot be followed outside of an authentic church community. One specifically, "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching." (Hebrews 10:25) Yes, you could argue that you can still have an authentic Christian community and not call it "church". But then I'd just turn around and call you a "house church". I guess whatever form it takes, we need each other for encouragement, for sharpening, for instruction, and for worship.

And this still doesn't address the countless numbers who have walked away from the Church for any and every reason.

Keeping in mind Jesus' own words to forgive not seven times, but "seven times seventy" times (Matthew 18:22) and to leave any offering to the Lord and first "be reconciled to your brother" (Matthew 5:23-24) yet "It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin." (Luke 17:2) Add to that Paul's instructions to "submit to every authority" (Romans 13:1 and also Hebrews 13:17) and to "not put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way" (Romans 14:13, but really the whole chapter applies). And finally going back to Hebrews 10:25 above and the example of abused Catholics at the beginning of this post, [we see that the state of the Church is each of our own responsibility.

The onus is on us to live peacefully, to forgive, and to serve. Then, "as each part does its work" the Body of Christ is "built up in love" (Eph 4:16). This cannot happen if people walk away just because they don't like the children's Sunday School program, don't like the style of preaching or worship music, or don't get along with someone in particular.(To list extreme examples. To be fair, serious abuses of authority, tolerance of sin, and departures from the Word of God as the standard of belief are all valid reasons to walk away. The line isn't the same for everyone, but if everyone put into practice the above scriptures- including those in leadership- then we shouldn't have those problems.)]

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