A Pepper Grinder Post

Pillars of Churchianity: Go to Church – Part 2

we started looking at what I call the first pillar of ‘churchianity’—that a good Christian should, once a week or more, attend some type of institutional church service.  We looked at Hebrews and discovered that the danger being addressed by the book was that Christians from a Jewish background would turn their backs on their fellow Christians.  We also saw, through a fascinating dive into the grammar of the passage (well, I thought it was fascinating), that the phrase “not giving up on gathering together” was not a command, or even the main thrust of the sentence of which it was a part.  Rather, the main point was thinking of how to encourage each other.  Gathering together is simply a means to that end.  This week I want to zero in on the part of the passage which has often been interpreted to mean that we must regularly go to church.

goose walking awayLet’s start by looking at two crucial words in the phrase, “not giving up on gathering together.”  The first is the word I have translated “giving up on,” which is a single word in the Greek (egkataleipo).  I have sometimes heard this passage used as though it proves you must go to church every Sunday, or at least three out of four.  But does this word give the connotation of failing to do something with great regularity?  No.  It clearly has the meaning of abandoning or turning your back on someone or something.  This is the word Jesus uses on the cross when he says, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Paul uses it to talk about companions deserting him.  It wasn’t that these people weren’t spending as much time with Paul as he wanted—they had left him, and he had no expectation that they were coming back.  This same word is also used two chapters later in Hebrews when we read, Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.  So the author of Hebrews is not telling the early Christians not to skip any Sundays, but instead not to turn their backs on or forsake the fellowship of other Christians. 

This makes a lot of sense in the cultural context.  These early Jewish Christians would not have felt tempted to skip church on nice Sunday mornings and play golf—the temptation would have been to stop hanging around with these Christian wackos.  Just skipping church now and again would not make people in the society at large think well of them.  To regain their credibility, especially among the Jews, they would have to stop hanging around with Christians altogether, and keep very quiet about any ideas they had about Jesus being the Messiah.

What about gathering together (episunagogan)?  There is a strong temptation to translate this into our modern context and say in our minds, “He means go to church.”  Is this right?  At first glance, it might seem like it.  Part of the Greek word used here is where the word synagogue comes from.  It is true that this word (which is only used one other place in the New Testament) and a closely related other word generally refer to a group of people being gathered.  The other instance of this exact word refers to Jesus gathering the believers together at the Second Coming.  The closely related word is used this way, and also to talk about a hen gathering her chicks, vultures gathering around a dead body, and a town gathering to hear Jesus.  It isn’t a word you would use if you were meeting with only one person.  On the other hand, it isn’t a word that denotes an institutional setting.  There is nothing in this word that implies that we need to get in the car and drive to a building that has a sign out front with “church” on it, at the same time every Sunday morning.  It is also clear that in all the uses of this word, the gathering is something that is either done by the people who are gathering of their own accord or is very much desired by them.  The chicks want to be close to the hen.  The vultures want to eat the dead body.  The people wanted to be where Jesus was, and when he returns, so will we!  There is something very strange about using this passage to coerce people to go to an institutional meeting they are less than eager to attend.

Goose and goslingsThis brings up another important point—how much were the gatherings of early Christians like our modern churches?  Not very much.  While it is true that there generally were elders in authority (though NOT a full-time pastor who was either over all the elders or at least the first among equals), few, if any, first century congregations had buildings or budgets.  They would not have met Sunday morning.  Sunday was the start of the work week, so they would have had to meet in the evening.  My impression from the New Testament letters is that these evening meetings in people’s homes were a lot less formal than most modern church services, and that there would have been a lot more contributions from everyone, rather than something like a typical American church service, which often feels like a performance.  I am NOT saying that we have to try to mimic the form of their meetings.  I believe the Holy Spirit didn’t dictate what the form of Christian gatherings should be precisely because there is no correct form.  God always seems to care more about the heart than the external form.

To me, a crucial point is that the people following Jesus WANTED to gather together.  Right from the very start of the church in Acts, the believers hung around together a lot.  I don’t have the impression that this was because the Apostles jumped in and got Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night services set up, along with a slew of age-segregated Sunday school classes.  No, the people just hung around and listened to the Apostles teach, socialized, ate meals together, and prayed. goose get-together It sounds like things were kind of short on organization—the food wasn’t even getting distributed well, which is why the first deacons were appointed.  The early believers did not have to be bludgeoned into meeting regularly—they wanted to be with other Christians and hear sound teaching.  It might appear at first glance that by the time Hebrews was written, things had changed and believers did need to be chided to gather together, but we have seen that what this passage is really warning against is turning your back on Jesus altogether.  Not meeting together with other Christians is merely a tangible sign of this.

One of the great tragedies of the teachings of churchianity is that they take something that started out as a delight and an encouragement, and makes it into a duty.  If someone doesn’t like church, the churchianity response is to tell that person that he would be bad not to go to church, and to suggest that he would like it more if he attended more services and got involved in more church programs.  This seems very much like the response of the public school establishment to findings that although our state-of-the-art schools are consuming more tax revenues in real dollars than ever before in the history of the United States, we are churning out very poorly educated kids.  The response is, “We need more money!  We need a longer school year!  We need longer school days!”  It isn’t working, and the solution is to do more of the same. 

I think the core problem is that, like the public schools, modern churches are institutions.  The top priority of an institution is to preserve itself.  To do that, churches need money and people.  They usually try to get these things with the carrot approach (making their services more contemporary and their programs more enjoyable), but when that fails, there is always the guilt stick.  If people don’t want to go to church, churches should ask what the church is doing wrong.  How have they failed to encourage the people who came to them?  How did they fail to make a real connection with the people and encourage real fellowship?  Don’t get me wrong—there are a lot of good, sincere people involved in local churches, just as there are a lot of good, committed teachers in the public school system.  I think the problem comes from the many assumptions that are never questioned.

schoolTake Sunday school, for example.  It started out as a way to reach poor kids from non-Christian families.  It has now become a mandatory component to every local church.  If people don’t want to go to Sunday school or send their kids to it, there is a subtle implication that they are less serious about God and about fellowship than the people who do.  I have encountered a few churches without Sunday schools, but not very many.

Sunday school or not, however, is just something on the surface.  Here is how I see the real problem.  It is as if the institutional church is a drawing on a piece of paper.  Sometimes we might draw a square or a triangle.  Some radical person might come along and round the corners of the square.  Some real wacko might even turn the square into a circle.  But, the real, living church is not 2-dimensional at all.  It is a ball that bounces all over the place—pulsing with life and energy.  The problem is that an institution WANTS to have something 2-dimensional and static because that can be controlled.  If the church was something that could roll and bounce all over the room, that could wreck everything.

I think the crux of the difference between the way churchianity sees the church and the way the Bible talks about the Church is that churchianity sees churches as a collection of institutions, while the Bible presents the Church as a living organism made up of people and Jesus.  You could come in and destroy every church building in the country and send every pastor to prison, and the Church would still be alive and well, because the Church is not a thing, it is people and relationships.

SolzhenitsynI can picture someone saying, “Okay, you want to get rid of the modern church model.  What better idea do you have, Mr. Rocket Scientist?”  I don’t know.  The trouble is that if I were to do my best to draw a diagram, it would just become another 2-dimensional approximation of the 3-dimensional reality.  Once you took my ideas and converted them into a new denomination (Pepper Churches of America?), they would become just as dead and institutional as any others.  In my opinion, the problem with denominations is not that they weren’t started by godly people with excellent Biblical ideas—the problem is that they became institutions.

Imagine that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn came into a typical, evangelical church, but that this was before he had published any of his books.  What would he be encouraged to do?  Start attending services for starters.  Then add in Sunday school and maybe a mid-week Bible study.  Then he would start going to membership classes and would be encouraged to find a place to minister in the church.  If he mentioned that he felt called to write, he might be given the chance to write an article for the church bulletin once a month!  The institution doesn’t care primarily about Aleksandr or his calling—it cares about preserving itself.  It needs someone to write the bulletin, and Aleksandr can write.

On the other hand, if the church is the people, their relationships, and Jesus, then when Aleksandr or anyone else comes to faith in Christ, the church has just changed.  Rather than having someone to plug into the bulletin-writing slot, the body of Christ now has the ability to write Nobel prize-winning novels that can affect the course of history.

You may be saying, “Get real!  How many Aleksandr Solzhenitsyns are there?”  A grand total of one, but I firmly believe that every Christian has at least one calling from God, and it is something which that person is uniquely fitted to do.  How many times does the institutional church make people feel that their unique calling is less important than the local church’s programs?  flowersHow many times does the institutional church pat people on the back and say, “That’s great.  You’re teaching in our Sunday school program!  You are doing God’s work.”  No need to worry about that niggling feeling that you should adopt a baby with Down syndrome, have more than 3 kids, follow that idea you have for a website, or (fill in the blank).  We have turned the adventure and struggle of following the living God into an attempt to fit ourselves into slots in an institution.

Are we encouraging people to find their calling and do it whole-heartedly, or are we asking them to fit into slots?  Are we focused most of all on relationships (both with each other and with Jesus), or do we give the message that the relationships will happen when people fit themselves into the institution?  Are we encouraging people, or laying a guilt trip on them?

What would happen if, instead of trying to build up good institutions, we focused on our connections to Jesus and to each other?  What if our goal was to come to Jesus with honest and open hearts, to hold fast to our faith in spite of a hostile world, and to encourage each other to stay close to Jesus and to be true to our callings?  I think Jesus would like that.


*PhotoCredits: school by , Solzhenitsyn from staffordsgreenhouse.blogspot.com