Think about the emails that you may have received from Nigerian princesses needing help getting a few million dollars of their money out of a corrupt African economy, and they needs your help and are willing to share their wealth. I hate to be the one to break the news to you, but there is no wealthy Nigerian princess in such dire straits. That’s a hoax.
Or what about Santa Claus? Millions of American kids write self-centered letters to Santa and leave cookies and milk by the Christmas tree every year. But regardless of how “real” he seems to them – or to the toy advertisers who sponsor his TV shows every winter – there is no jolly, overgrown, philanthropic elf with flying reindeer living at the north pole. It just isn’t real.
There is another imaginary entity with whom most of us relate. These groups can be found on a map, and you really can visit their offices or call them on the telephone and they will explain in patient detail how real and how important they are in your life. And unlike Santa Claus or Nigerian princesses, these groups do have legal status under our government (which in my case is American), but they seem to have no legal status under their home government (which is not American). But despite their protestations to the contrary, these, too, are not real.
I’m talking about your church. But then, I’m talking about my church too.
For clarification, I am not talking about the Body of Christ on this planet, or in this community, which
Jesus referred to as His Church: His Church has a legal foundation in Heaven, which is its home government. The Church (capital C) was established by Jesus who called it “My church”. He seems pretty proud of it.
The Bible acknowledges (and therefore authorizes) the Church in many places, fifteen in the NKJV. Maybe half of the time, the Book acknowledges “the Church of God” but the rest of the time, it’s talking about the part of the Church in a city. I live in a city called Olympia, so from Heaven’s perspective, there is a “Church of the Olympians” or “the Church of God in Olympia.”
But here comes the challenging part: I’m not convinced there is any heavenly authority behind the autonomous congregation or the Christian denomination. There is no heavenly acknowledgement of “First Baptist” or “the Second Church of the Sunday Brunch” or any other local congregation. From Heaven’s perspective, there are no congregations, no denominations: just His Church. (By way of acknowledgement, there is likewise no heavenly foundation for other “Christian organizations”: missions agencies, or Christian radio stations, or “Evangelistic Associations”.)
I am absolutely not saying that any of these groups are ungodly or unbiblical. Most are not. I am also not saying that such organizations are evil; in fact I am very happily a member of a couple of these imaginary organizations. I am just saying that I’m becoming increasingly convinced that these organizations are not established by God, or by Heavenly authority. (Yes, I’ve heard the stories about God helping someone establish this group or that work; that’s not what I’m talking about here; there are exceptions to every generalization, and I am aware that I’m making generalizations; please read them as such.)
In point of fact, I believe that many churches (and many other Christian groups) are very much good things: they are tools to facilitate the work of Heaven. Human beings have from time to time, over the last couple millennia, looked at the very daunting task laid upon them by Divine mandate. And then they’ve panicked and they have cried out to God and come up with tools to accomplish those goals, and it’s wonderful how God helps us with those tools. People gathered can always accomplish more than individuals scattered.
(Have you ever wondered why there are so many “First Assembly” and “First Methodist” churches, and so few “Second Presbyterian” or more honestly, “Ninth Baptist” churches?)
But when we make the transition from “This congregation is a tool to help us as leaders to shepherd the people of God” to the perspective of “If you’re not part of a local Sunday morning congregation, then you are outside of God’s will,” or worse, “If you’re not part of this congregation….” then we move at least into error and perhaps into heresy. When we declare, either verbally or by our attitude, that “Members of this group are better [or “more spiritual” or “more biblical” or whatever] than Christians who are not members of this group,” then we are in danger of judgment. I’ve even met congregations and denominations that say, “If you’re not part of our group, you’re not even saved.” I’m sorry, but no.
Is there a benefit from being part of a gathering of believers? Absolutely! Heck yes! But that doesn’t necessarily mean I must be part of a “Sunday morning church” gathering. Whether I’m part of a church congregation, a home church, a “parachurch” group, or whatever, there is much benefit for me to gain from associating with the gathered Church. Christians gathered are God’s plan; Christians isolated are part of the enemy’s plan, like a wolf isolating a particular sheep. My goodness, Christians gathering together is even commanded. Heaven acknowledges no such thing as The Lone Christian (“Hiyo Silver Away!”).
Think of it this way: in the OT, the entire nation of Israel was blessed. Every tribe carried the blessing of the nation. It didn’t matter if you were in a big tribe like
Judah, a little tribe like Benjamin, or a special tribe like Levi: if you were a part of a tribe, any tribe, you were part of the blessing. We need to be in a tribe to get all of the blessing God is giving out. Christians must gather together in order to function properly. Don’t let this article be an excuse for you to cut and run!
But that doesn’t mean that the gathering that we call “my church” is any more valid than any other gathering of believers in our city. That’s true whether “my church” is a country church with 50 people, a mega-church with 10,000 people, a denomination with several million adherents, or a Thursday afternoon gathering of four like-minded saints praying together at the coffee shop. We are the church, and wherever we gather with other believers is church, and mine isn’t any more holy, or any more recognized in Heaven, than yours. (I’m not talking about places where the people who you’re hanging out with happen to be believers; I’m talking about us gathering – as believers – for the purpose of being the Church gathered.)
The Book is clear that those who have been redeemed, those who know God through the work of
Jesus, are first “the Church” and second are “saints.” (Have you noticed that “saints” is pretty much always plural? Ever wondered why?) We’re still “the Church of Olympia,” not “First Glory Pentecostal Methodist Church.” If I don’t consider the First Glory Methodists as much my brothers and sisters as my own home group leader, then I’m believing in things that Jesus doesn’t believe in, and I’m excluding people that my Father welcomes and loves as much as He loves me. Big mistake!
I probably should point out that I don't aspire to tell the whole story here; sure there are other perspectives on the subject. But over the last several centuries, we've told only one side of the story. My goal is not to find the ideal balance between multiple perspectives and declare it; I don't want these articles to be that long or complicated, and frankly, I don't think I'm qualified to say, “Thus and such is the right balance.” My goal is just to push the pendulum the other way a little bit. “Balanced” is not my goal; maybe “counterbalance” is.
My point is this: a local congregation – as separate from other believers in my area – is not a concept that Heaven has particularly authorized, not a concept that Heaven has mandated or supports. It was at best a tool for Christian leaders to shepherd a flock that’s too big (or too unruly), and at worst, it’s an abuse of
Jesus’ beloved fiancé.
This is a big paradigm shift for us, and the implications are significant, but they’re beyond the scope of this conversation. Right now, I just want to wrap my mind around the concept that I am part of this thing called The Kingdom of God. I am part of the Church in Olympia, and we represent Heaven here! My membership in a particular congregation or a home group or any kind of gathering of believers is strictly a convenience to help us – the Church – carry out our responsibilities for expanding the Kingdom.
I’m part of His Church. I like that.