Tuesday, November 19, 2013

In Defense of Church (a Matrix of Hard Things)

And it ain't just my opinion.
"If you keep My command- ments, you shall abide in my love, even as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in His love. [...] You are My friends if you do whatever I command you...." John 15:10-14

Q: What is the duty which God requires of man?
A: The duty which God requires of man is obedience to His revealed will.

Q: What does the preface to the ten commandments teach?
A: That because God is the Lord, and our God and redeemer, therefore we are bound to keep all His commandments.
(Questions 39 & 44, Westminster Shorter Catechism)

There has been an issue come up every now and then about people wanting to "follow Jesus" but not go to church (i.e., for example). This is a strange dilemma, since Jesus expressly came to found a church (Matt. 16:18), and the apostles whom He ordained to carry on His work (John 15:16) understood this "church" to mean specific churches and not just a general "Church," which is why they spent most of the New Testament writing letters to churches (or pastors of a church) on how to conduct themselves as Christians and as a church. It has always been a part of Christian history, orthodoxy, and orthopraxy for believers to gather together in communal congregations, under the rule and leadership of pastors and elders, where they can edify each other, worship God, and feed on His word. It's been a clear and mostly consistent pattern for almost 2,000 years, so our current dilemma is strange indeed.

But maybe it's not so strange. Everyone (it seems) who wants to "follow Jesus" but not under the care, fellowship, and authority of a local church do so for two connected reasons: churches are so "mean," but Jesus is so "nice" (again, for example).

"Quit being MEAAAAN!"
Now, when people complain about churches being so "mean," they are referring to legalism and hypocrisy (as well as "hating" homosexuals or other currently fashionable groups). When they get starry-eyed about how "nice" Jesus is, they are referring to how He always dissed legalists and hypocrites and would have hugged homosexuals, if He ever met one (which we have no way of knowing if He did). These assumptions are understandable and not all-together untrue. Jesus did heavily rebuke those who stacked burdens on others while failing to keep those burdens themselves (Matt. 23:1-36), and He taught us to love our neighbors (Matt. 22:36-40), which includes anybody (Luke 10:25-37). But I can't help but sense a more anterior motive to all this, one informing all our talk of "meanness" and "niceness," one that has ruined the whole discussion.

That motive is this: we don't like rules. We don't like people telling us what to do. We like to follow our own inclinations and shape everything based on those inclinations. That is the real problem with anyone who wants to "follow Jesus" but not join a church. Outside a church, Jesus is in the void, becoming a mere word empty of meaning until we fill it as we please with a patchwork of biblical proof-texts, progressivist slogans, and humanist ideals. He becomes our own private "jesus," a ventriloquist dummy we hewed ourselves, and we can make it talk while we drink hipster beer.

I know, bunky.
Inside a church, however, Jesus is not in a void. He is set in a context, a context that we did not create, a context set down and enforced by authorities who are not us (i.e., pastors and elders), who in turn are meant to be under authorities that are also not us (God and His word and Spirit). There Jesus is not whatever we want Him to be. He becomes a solid, separate object, one that you have to deal with on its own terms, a stone that you break against and are crushed (Luke 20:18). He is codified and outlined by a myriad of creeds and confessions and doctrines, by orthodoxy and orthopraxy, by the witness and testimony of those who have gone before, and outside of those lines He is ultimately unknowable. Thus, you must submit yourself to those lines, to that context and its authorities. For my generation, such a submission is anathema.

Behold the straw-man.
Of course, things don't always work out that way. The pastors and elders can all be legalists and hypocrites, poisoning the well with their arrogance and corruptions, and there have been some really nasty people named and things done in the "name of Christ." Those are undeniable facts, but there are two other facts that are also undeniable. First, the majority of Christian churches are not like that. (You don't hear about them because they don't make the news.) And second, abusus non tollit usum: abuse does not negate use. Nasty people and things do not suddenly negate the function of a church as a light of the world, and it is a light in a very specific way: by being a pillar and buttress of the truth (I Tim. 3:14-15), by holding fast and forth the mystery of godliness (I Tim. 3:16), by preserving and proclaiming the gospel handed down once-for-all from Jesus to his disciples and throughout all the churches (John 15:16; Galatians 1:1; Jude 3). If you join yourself to a local church, you are binding yourself to that same task, viz., to preserve, proclaim, and practice a truth from outside you, a gospel you did not make, a Jesus you cannot control.

"There is no life in the void...."
I think that last one is the real issue: we want to control Jesus. We want Him on-board our bandwagon, and we want His gospel to be whatever the party line is. We can do that by just "following Jesus," a jesus-in-the-void, a jesus unbound and unbeholden to any congregation or creed or council stemming from Him and instead bound and beholden to our own preferences and whims as we skip along from church to church (both high and low, conservative and liberal, Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox), enjoying our "freedom in Christ," a christ made after our own image. You can do that if you "follow Jesus" on your own, but you cannot do that inside a church. Not really. Not if you're doing it right. Not if the church is doing it right. There you are placed in a matrix of hard things, and it is hard to kick against them.

It is easy to follow the "jesus" of your own making. It is easy to follow your own preferences, your own wants and opinions. It is easy to follow your heart as it tosses you and your "jesus" about with every wind and wave of doctrine and fashion. It is easy to be homeless. It is easy to be a vagrant. It is hard to come home and stay home. It is hard to belong to things that you did not shape and have no say over. It is hard to love and then obey someone and thing over you that you had no say in. It is hard to be humble, to be a servant of the living Truth. It is easy to be king of your own "truth" in your own universe where your own "jesus" spews your own gospel that shores up your own self, and it is our self that is the problem. To follow Jesus is glorious; to "follow" him outside a church is narcissistic. A church is about others---other people and authorities---and there is no greater hatred of others than love of the self.

The "christ-follower" sings the song of his people.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013


  1. Great post. I think that is the same excuse some people use for not believing in God, they don’t want to be accountable for their life. I’m glad you’re writing again.