We get letters. I got a version of this one today, which I’d like to share with y’all because I think there’s some profit in it (there may also be some prophet in it, but I’ll leave that to the reader and the Holy Spirit to decide):
I'm a reader of your work over at TeamPyro (awesome stuff) and I'd like to ask for your help on an issue I'm currently facing.Well, as “kindly” as possible, here’s what I have to say about that:
It's about the book "Pagan Christianity" by Frank Viola and George Barna. It was recommended to me by a friend for discussion. We're specifically talking about the gospel (what it really means) but the conversation is spilling over to the church, about which he has some very passionate, but not altogether great opinions on.
Anyway, while looking for reviews of Mr. Viola's book, I stumbled across a comment you made in a Pyromaniacs comment feed saying that basically Frank Viola is a "kook" and has got his church history all wrong. I'm wondering if you could kindly:
1. elaborate a little more on why that is so and
2. lend me your take on this whole "I'm too cool for church/church should be like it was in the NT/we should abandon institutionalized and flawed churches" attitude that is sweeping many young people, especially those infatuated with emergent thinking.
your encouragement and solid thinking on this issue would be very much appreciated.
This (meaning #2, above) is not a particularly “emergent” stream of thinking
Truth be told, this goes back even to Anabaptist conceptions of what it means to be a “church”, and maybe back even to monastic views of piety – so this is not hardly a new way to see things. The problem is that it is a view of what God has done without a lot of reference to what God says about what God has done.
I’ll cover that more in #3, below.
This is not a particularly mature stream of thinking
I can be honest: while people have to take responsibility for this kind of thinking in themselves, they didn’t invent it: they were taught it, either by example or explicitly. But if they were mature in their approach to this topic, and were taught by others who were mature, they’d not atomize the faith the way this approach atomizes faith to a primarily-personal experience.
This is not a particularly biblical stream of thinking
The way this approach to “church” works is to see what God has done for “me” as the starting point of Christian life and then maybe one tries to extend what God has done for “me” to include what God has done for “you” on a provisional basis. When I think God hasn’t done it for you anymore, I can therefore not care about you anymore – at least in the church sense.
The Bible, for those of you who have read it (and specifically for those who have not), goes about the matter in a completely different way. For certain, the place where the rubber hits the road is where “I” do something. But the way we are taught to reason by the Bible about our faith is that Christ has died for us, and that Christ sees his bride as an assembly, and that God has a whole people who are purchased as his own possession.
Does Christ save each one? Sure: certainly. But the formula that you might hear popularly that Christ would have died if the only one he was going to save was me is absolutely not found in the Bible.
The Biblical approach to what it means to have church starts with the fact that Christ died for the elect, which is not a statement of individualistic grace but a statement of a singular act of grace for the sake of all who would be saved.
When Paul riffs on this in Eph 5, he makes it clear that Christ died for the church and gave himself up for her. This has to make us consider that Christ’s work somehow is for all of us on purpose.
Candles on a birthday cake vs. a city on a hill
When Christ talks about who we are in him, he doesn’t say, “you are the light of the world, like little birthday cake candles which people will encounter here and there and I hope that’s enough to get the message across.”
Christ says instead this: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” You know: You-Plural. Y’all. The city on the hill and the light on the lamp stand is the church and not the individual believer. So our light shines before men when we are together being the people Jesus died to make us.
Institutionalism vs. community
So how do we carry that over into the real world 2000 years later? Should we then embrace whatever institution has risen up – should we not have had a reformation? Should we never-ever leave the local church?
The truth is that the Bible gives us a lot of liberty for the local church – with some guidelines. We should have elders who teach us the faith, reprove us when we are wrong, guard the word of God, love people, and train up new elders; we should follow them. We should bear one another’s burdens. We should stand against error but seek to reconcile brothers who are turning away from the faith. We should love one another. We should worship in spirit and in truth (and in good order).
After that, it’s sort of open as to how we administrate that.
But factually the church has to be a local body – full of real people. It has to be visible and distinct from Kiwanis, the Lion’s Club, and the temple of Athena. It should be calling people into Christ and therefore into itself.
What it forms is a community which is (without going all eschatological on you) an expression of the coming kingdom under Jesus Christ, the King of kings. If we keep our eye on that objective, we avoid it becoming the kingdom which the brilliance of our pastor’s preaching, our elder’s leadership, and our own wonderful community outreach (which will create an institution) has formed. God forbid that our churches are “the church which we made for Jesus” rather than “the church which Jesus made us for”.
Anyone who would tell you otherwise is selling a book or a research project – and there’s no one saved by that.
Hope that helps.