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Common Objections . . . Part 2

In my last post, I spoke of several “common objections” a number of people have had to the path I am walking with God outside of the institutional church. In this post, I will address what I see as the two most significant of such objections.

I call them “significant” not because I think they are more difficult to argue against. Arguing is not the point here. The point is to know Christ.

I list these two separately because they often seem to be the most deeply held, and are certainly the most detailed in nature. Therefore, the amount of time (and space) it will take to discuss them will naturally be longer than the ones I mentioned in my last post. Again, please keep in mind that I am not criticizing anybody who engages in their personal relationship with God inside the framework of an organized church. To any of you who have chosen that path, that is between you and God, and I rejoice that you are walking with Him. My only point is to demonstrate, from the pages of Scripture, that the institutions we think of as “the church” are just that – human institutions which many people have for centuries used to aid in worship and relationship with Christ.

What about spiritual authorities?

I am always curious about this one, and always have to respond to the people who confront me on this issue with the question, “What does that phrase even mean . . . ?”

The thing that makes these last two such involved topics is the extent to which they depend on definitions. I wrote, in my opening post on this blog, that I believe definitions matter a great deal. In this particular case, we have to define both words in the term “spiritual authority.”

What do we mean by authority? Do we mean somebody who, by virtue of his or her position, has the right to direct our actions? Do we mean someone who is older and wiser and whose instructions we have a responsibitily to obey?

What, then, do we mean by a “spiritual” authority? Do we mean someone accountable to God for our spiritual state? Do we mean someone who is the final word on all spiritual matters?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then I take great exception to the entire concept of the existence of earthly “spiritual authority.” I Timothy 2:5 says, “There is one God, and one Mediator between God and Man, the Man Christ Jesus.” I am answerable to God for the state of my soul – because He created me, gave me my earthly life, and sent His Son to die so that my relationship with Him could continue into eternity. Nobody else has done that for me, and therefore, nobody else is responsible before God for my spiritual state.

Of course, that is not to say that there are not many wise and good people who speak truth into my life. A life lived in isolation from any outside influences is a very narrow life indeed. But as far as institutionalized governing positions, I don’t believe God has mandated any such thing.

Of course, the follow on to this question is, “What about elders and deacons?”

The latter is easy. The position of Deacon was never intended to be a position of authority, but rather an administrative position ensuring that all members of the Body were adequately cared for. Furthermore, the position was not established by an edict of God, but was the bright idea of the original twelve apostles (Acts 6).

Additionally, lest you think that the creation of deacons necessitates a “local body” that must be served, and of which we must be members, please recall that when the original six deacons were chosen, they were approved by, and oversaw, “the whole congregation” . . . meaning the entire body of Christ, at the time centered around the city of Jerusalem.

Elders, on the other hand, were in a position of authority . . . not religiously, but culturally. The first time Scripture uses the word to refer to a position, rather than merely to a person, is in Genesis (50:7) before the nation of Israel even existed. The first time it was recorded that the Hebrews had elders was in Exodus 3:16. The existence of elders was a fixture in Jewish culture, and they played a key role in the deaths of both Jesus (Matthew 16:21) and Stephen (Acts 6).

The Jews at the heart of the original Body of Christ would have been quite familiar with this practice of recognizing those with the most wisdom and life experience, so Acts 14:23 says they simply followed that ancient practice. The passage says they “appointed elders for them in every church,” but it might also be translated “throughout the church.” Certainly it seems an efficient practice in that time and culture, but Acts hardly records it as being mandated by God as the sole authority structure for His Body on earth for all time. In fact, in the very first mention of elders in the context of the Body, Acts 11:30 simply mentions that they existed . . . not how or why or by whose instruction . . . they were simply “there.”

Just as they had been for millenia.

As far as the way they were selected in the New Testament, it seems our preferred process of democratic election of elders is also on shaky ground. In all instances but one, when scripture records elders being “appointed,” the appointing was done by the apostles themselves, rather than the congregation. The single exception is the church at Crete, where Paul designated Titus to do the appointing in his stead. There is no support for anybody other than the original founders of the Christian church to “appoint” elders, and in any case, we have no record of the process being formalized at all.

Defenders of the “office” of elders and deacons as necessary for the church will probably point to I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 as lists of “qualifications” for elders, and will infer a formal process. However, it seems to me as though these are simply lists of the way an elder must live as an example for others . . . not necessarily what one must do in order to take a particular “office.”

Where does that leave us? We know that the original apostles appointed elders (or designated others to do so for them), after the fashion of the Hebrew culture. We know that they did so both universally and locally – the same way Hebrew towns had elders, along with the elders that governed in Jerusalem. We know that the decisions of the elders in the church at Jerusalem were authoritative in other churches as well (Acts 16:4). We know what Paul, in particular, looked for in an elder.

That, however, is all we know. Again, like deacons, this seems to be a position created for convenience’s sake, to ensure that believers in localities all around the Greco-Roman world had a way to network with one another, and had mature examples to look up to. In today’s panoply of denominations, with multiple believers attending multiple services at multiple buildings in even small towns throughout much of the world, following the Pauline example with regard to the process of elders is impossible. Following the lifestyle of Paul’s ideal elders, however, is something to which all mature Christians should aspire.

If, however, we try to turn this description of the administrative structure of the First Century church into a timeless prescription, we run into trouble. How many towns today have a single church, to which all professing believers belong? How many local churches answer to a head church . . . and how many of these “head churches” are in Jerusalem?? Furthermore, how many of the elders in any church today, local or otherwise, were appointed by apostles?

The simple fact is that the first century church set up an administrative structure using political and social conventions with which they were comfortable – namely, churches reflecting the localities in which they lived, and authority structures reflecting the councils of elders with which they had dealt their whole lives.

. . . and every culture since has followed suit. The Catholic church, once sanctioned by the Roman Empire, immediately set out to emulate it in form. The breakaway of the Church of England established the King of England as the supreme ecclesiastical authority. The Reformation established local church authorities, subject to their local princes.

Even today, we continue this practice. In Western Christianity, our churches are incorporated, and governed by a CEO known as the pastor, sometimes with a democratically-elected board of directors known as “the elders.”

What we have now is not what the first century church had . . . why do we try to pretend that it is?

Finally and most importantly, in walking this path with God, I am doing nothing different. I have structured my spiritual environment in the same way I would structure my sociopolitical environment if I had that choice – a small band of people dedicated to one another, loyal to the extreme, and travelling in roughly the same direction, without the burden of a single dictator (or group of dictators) directing us what to do.

As someone whose political beliefs trend libertarian, I believe that the ideal polity is one that exists because each of its members has chosen to exist that way.

I believe no differently when it comes to those with whom I fellowship and share daily life in Christ’s Body.

Didn’t God institute the church?

Again, this all depends on definitions. If by “church” one means, “the body of believers, of which He is the head,” then the answer is absolutely yes! If, on the other hand, one means the institutional church, organized as it found itself in the first century AD, or as it finds itself today, the answer is absolutely not! Christ instructed his followers to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” His instruction was not “go into all the world and plant churches.”

He instructed Peter, in particular, to “feed his sheep.” Contrary to Catholic doctrine, this was not an instruction to “set up an administrative structure based in Rome (or anywhere else for that matter) that rules and governs all believers everywhere for all time.”

Furthermore, it depends on our definition of the word “institute.” If, by using that word, we indicate simply that Christ established His Body on earth, and believers as the parts of that body, that’s one thing. If, however, we mean that He set up an elaborate structure of governance, that’s another thing entirely. It was not Christ who did that, but men.

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with structures of governance in theory. Sometimes they can aid in efficiency and coherence. However, they can also become tyrannical.

Where I think I have come down on this issue is that each believer should choose for himself or herself that place in which he or she can best experience “body life” . . . learning and growing with fellow believers, serving as a light to those who do not know God, and walking in fellowship with Him . . . wherever that may be.

At the same time, I believe that each of us is responsible to God for the state of his or her soul. Let us not be lazy, demanding that someone else tell us what to do. Let us turn wholeheartedly toward our mediator, our Father, our friend, rather than relying on a manmade spiritual mediator to guide our paths. It is well and good to seek counsel of other believers, but if we do so at the expense of our own search for Him, we do ourselves – and God – an injustice.

After all, He Himself . . . not the manner in which we seek Him . . . is the point.

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Common Objections . . . Part 1

I promised in a previous post to address many of the objections I have seen (and felt) levelled against those of us who have chosen a life outside of the institution that calls itself “church.” There are enough of them that I cannot do so in one post, but I will cover a bunch of them here, and then address the largest ones in a second post. Please keep in mind that I am not condemning those who choose to attend a local assembly. This post is addressed towards those who believe that only by attending such a local assembly can I engage in relationship with God.

Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together

This command is not found in scripture. That might shock some, but it the simple truth. The words are a misquoting of Hebrews 10:25. In the context of the two previous verses, this passage reads, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”

In that context, it is clear that this has nothing at all to do with the formalized, organized operation of an institutionalized gathering. It has to do with fellow-believers encouraging one another in our faith, our hope, and our love. It is a warning not to try to isolate oneself from all other human inputs to one’s spiritual state.

It is not a command to go to church on Sundays.

Honoring the Sabbath Day

If we are going to take this (strictly Old Testament) commandment literally in the 21st century, we are already in trouble, because the Sabbath was the seventh day of the week, and there is no New Testament support for special services on any other day. It is recorded a few times in the book of Acts that Paul and others went and spoke to groups of people on the Sabbath day (i.e., Saturday) simply because that was naturally when the Jews in each town they visited attended synagogue.

As far as support for doing anything at all on the first day of the week, the phrase itself is mentioned twice.

In Acts 20:7, it is mentioned that Paul and others were gathered on the first day of the week to “break bread.” While this may provide a scriptural basis for Sunday afternoon potlucks, it provides none for a scriptural mandate to sit through a church sermon on a Sunday morning.

In I Corinthians 16:2, Paul commands the church at Corinth, “On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come.”

In other words, it looks like Paul doesn’t want to burden people by asking them for money to their faces, so he can continue his ministry . . . so he provides a way that they can save up in advance. We can’t derive anything in support of a regular weekly gathering from this, and if we use it as a mandate to take offerings on Sundays, then we’re also in trouble, because the biweekly and monthly pay cycles common in this country mean that most of us don’t really write our checks to the missions fund “on the first day of every week,” do we?

What about baptism?

I find it hard to support a scriptural mandate for churches based on the need to baptize people, given that Philip (Acts 8:38), Peter (Acts 10:48), Paul (Acts 16:15, 33) and others are all recorded as having done so outside of the context of any gathering at all, much less an organized, institutional church.

What about communion?

The only account of a ritualized communion in Scripture is found in I Corinthians 11. This verse says a great deal about the state of one’s heart as he or she takes the Lord’s Supper . . . but not so much about the venue or company in which he or she does so. The passage implies only that it is done, in this context, “when you meet together.” There are no commands issued, no particular instructions given over how the ritual is to be conducted. Paul only speaks to two issues in this passage. First, he decries the gluttony of some during the ritual, and second, he encourages those who partake to do so only after a deep and heartfelt self-examination.

Incidentally, if one is to take this account of the ritual as normative across all churches in all places for all time, then in order to be logically consistent, one must also insist that women wear headcoverings. It is mentioned, after all, in the same chapter as the Lord’s Supper, is referenced more often in the passage, is treated with much stronger language, and is characterized by a specific and overt command (I Cor 11:6), making it, according to some popular methods of hermaneutics, a more urgent matter.

On the other hand, if one doesn’t take to heart the specific command, “For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved , let her cover her head,” how can one logically assert that this passage commands anything binding at all vis a vis communion, much less a command to partake of it in an organized, weekly meeting that seems to have been nonexistent at the time?

What about your kids? Shouldn’t they be raised in church?

I have addressed this question in a comment.

In addition, my lovely wife has further addressed the issue in another comment, as well as in a post on her blog. She says it better than I can here. Finally, our dear friend Lynette, who actually has experience raising children outside of the institutional church, gives her input in this comment.

The “Mike-shaped hole”

One interesting take I have heard is the belief that, by failing to find a local church, I am leaving some church somewhere with a “Mike-shaped hole” in it, thereby depriving that local assembly of God’s blessings imparted through my service to the church.

To this, I would simply say that if God wants to bless a church, He hardly needs me to do it. Even if I mistake God’s desire for my life, when and if He chooses to bless a given assembly of believers, He will do so regardless of whether I attend or not. I cannot thwart God’s plan, even if I were to try . . . and I certainly cannot do so by seeking Him to the best of my ability.

Giving and ministering to others

I have also been told that by failing to attend church I am depriving anybody of my ability to minister and give to fellow believers. I am always astonished to hear this, given that my wife and I often give of our time, energy and financial resources to those in need – both those attending institutional churches, and those who don’t. In today’s extremely “connected” world, the church no longer has a monopoly on ministry opportunities . . . and hasn’t for a very long time.

What about good preaching?

In the age of the Internet, one hardly need sit in a Sunday morning service to hear preaching. When I have the urge to quit studying and writing on my own, and let someone else do the pontificating, I go here, but even more conventional churches are posting their materials online for anybody to access. Both of the conventional churches linked here are local assemblies in my area, which are adamantly in favor of active church membership to the point where one is considered spiritually deficient and where one’s salvation is questioned if one is not a member of a doctrinally solid local church . . . yet I can still access their sermons any time I choose. In the 21st Century, access to preaching – good, bad or indifferent – is no longer a logical argument for church attendance.

In my next post, I will examine the two biggest issues I have run into with regard to the institutionalization of church. They are:

What about spiritual authorities? and

Didn’t God institute the church?

stay tuned . . .

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Greetings.

Whereas my dear wife began this blog with a biography, I will begin with a challenge. Many of the salient points of my story that do not appear in my biography (found on this blog’s “About” page) will come out in future posts.

The challenge I issue to those of you who read this blog – be it one time, or regularly – is this:

Before you begin, ask yourself this question, “What assumptions am I bringing to the reading of this post (or page, or comment, or forum entry)?”

The beauty of this particular medium of communication is that I do not have to pretend to be impartial or unbiased. Those in the journalistic realm often claim objectivity. Those in spiritual pursuits often claim to be reading unvarnished truth into their preferred sacred text.

The truth, however, is that not one of us is truly impartial. We approach every interaction – be it with another person, a piece of literature, a point of view, or even a blog like this one – with our own presuppositions.

To make it easier for you to read and understand what I write, I will lay mine out on the table. If you like, I would be more than happy to converse with you on any or all of these subjects in the comments section or the forum:

  • I believe in the existence of absolute truth – and in my inability to grasp it completely.
  • I believe that matter, time, and logic are all creations of an eternal being who is all-knowing and all-powerful.
  • I believe that the writers of the Bible were inspired by that eternal being to craft the writings they did.
  • I believe that humans were made to be free.
  • I believe that definitions are important.

The last of these presuppositions is the key to all of them. One must define one’s terms if one is to engage in anything remotely resembling reasonable conversation. There is a reason I chose the word “absolute truth,” rather than “right and wrong.” There is a reason I chose the word “logic” rather than “knowledge,” or “wisdom.” There is a reason I chose “inspired” rather than “infallible,” and there is a reason I did not elaborate on what I mean by “free.”

I hope each of these reasons will become clear to you in future posts, but please understand that when you (or I) use a word, it is in the context of our presuppositions. For example, in the previous paragraph, it might be your presupposition that the words “inspired” and “infallible” are synonymous when referring to Scripture. It is my presupposition that they are not. In order to have a meaningful discussion on this topic, you need to know that about me, and I need to know the same about you. I’m certain that when I said, “I believe humans were made to be free,” it brought a thousand connotations to your head – probably both positive and negative. I would love to discuss further with you what I mean by that, and how I think many people misunderstand it. I will certainly address it at length in future posts.

For now, though, just ask yourself, “what are my filters? What am I assuming to be true as I read this post?”

Do that, and it will make this conversation that is Unedited Life much, much easier and more enjoyable for all of us.

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