My Two Big Questions
Now that I lived on the outside of church, two questions mocked me.
The first was how to explain all the good things and good people in church. This was a problem for me because leaving was the kind of extreme step that would be in order if I had been protesting something awful, like Hitler’s Germany or something.
But church is not Hitler’s Germany. In fact, it has many admirable features. Why not focus on the good? Do I expect church to be a utopia? Thousands of people see the problems I have pointed out and stick with church because there is so much good. Why can’t I?
My second question was equally difficult. What kind of egomaniac am I to question twenty centuries of tradition?
Let’s start with the first question: Why did I go to such lengths to withdraw from an institution filled with so much good?
Church Is a Mixed Bag—But That’s Not the Point
We can all name good-hearted, churchgoing people who are standup citizens. We all know of churches that do great things in this world. Of course there are hypocrites and bad churches too. Welcome to humanity. Why get so exercised over the fact that church isn’t perfect? Who said it would be? Why not grow up, enter the real world, and accept the good with the bad? Here’s why.
Because the issue is not whether church is good or bad.
The issue is whether the church is what Jesus intended.
Did Jesus Intend to Replace One Religion with Another?
Jesus was deeply spiritual but he had constant friction with religion. He broke the rules, often in calculated, public ways. He disregarded the sabbath. He refused to ritually wash his hands. He was friends with people his religion said to avoid: outcasts, immoral, unclean. He ate with them and touched them. He told stories in which Samaritans and tax gatherers were heroes and the religious leaders were the villains.
This didn’t win him any friends in the religious community. In fact, as you read the gospels you’ll see that nearly 100% of Jesus’ conflict was with religion.
The so-called cleansing of the temple is the most pointed example. The event is misnamed. It was not a cleansing. Jesus wasn’t tidying up his religion to put it back in order. The cleansing of the temple was a prophecy of its destruction. In 70 C.E., Rome made the prophecy a reality.
Think about it: Does it make sense that Jesus came to reject one religious institution and set up another? Did he think that by replacing Jewish elders with Christian elders all would be well? Did he assume that if he swapped a Jewish temple for a Christian cathedral, the problem would be solved?
The Kingdom of God Is Not a Religion
The Kingdom of God was not an attempt to reform Judaism. Neither was the goal to establish a new religion. The Kingdom of God was, and is, a way of life. It is how people behave when God is King. It is love, not hate. Forgiveness, not retribution. Truth, not lies. Generosity, not greed. Hope, not despair. Joy, not sorrow. Health, not sickness. Life, not death.
The Kingdom of God is the way of the Garden, in which each woman and each man walks with God in the cool of the day, the law written on his or her heart. It is a world in which “behold, the Kingdom of God is in our midst.”
Every human organization is a mix of good and bad. This is true of every church, hospital, bank, government and girl scout troop. They are good to the extent that God’s Kingdom has come.
Swapping the Substance for the Form
The Kingdom of God is not the dough. It is the yeast within the dough. It is the invisible force that changes everything. It works its way into our world and transforms it. It changes everything we do, everything we say, everything we are. It makes us breathe easier and sleep better at night.
The kingdom of God transforms things. But it must never be confused with the things. When a thing—any thing—is held up as the Kingdom it becomes an idol and sets itself up as the enemy of God’s Kingdom.
Examples of this abound. Allow me to offer one from my identity as a citizen of the United States.
Julie and I toured the East Coast last year. We found much to celebrate in the founding documents of our nation. Here are two of my favorite quotes from Thomas Jefferson.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (from the Declaration of Independence)
I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. (Inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial)
America began with a vision of being the land of the free. A place where we put love above religion. A place where people could be themselves. We have failed to live up to that ideal in many ways, but it is a magnificent ideal of which we are rightly proud.
As America has risen to prominence, we have stopped thinking of ourselves as a bearer of an ideal and begun to proclaim ourselves as the ideal itself. Instead of crying “Liberty and justice for all!” we cry, “USA! USA! USA!” We think that the world will be saved if we can just duplicate ourselves in enough places.
But the moment a form is held up as the substance it becomes an idol, swapping God’s eternal Kingdom with the work of human hands.
Why Religions Are Especially Dangerous Human Organizations
As I have sad, churches are simply human organizations, just like governments. But churches are especially susceptible to the danger of idolatry because they see themselves as the one-and-only God-ordained human institution.
Jesus never put his hope in a human institution. If you were a soldier, Jesus told you to be a good soldier. If you were a tax collector, Jesus told you to be an honest tax collector. He spoke with equal respect to a Roman centurion and a Samaritan woman. He deflected political and religious debate and refused to take sides. He knew that neither government nor religion was what the world needed. A change of government or religion does not change the world any more than a change of clothes changes the human heart.
Ecclesia, Not Church
Church is a very good word not found in the Bible to describe an institution not found in the Bible. I prefer to let the Greek word ecclesia stand. In the New Testament, ecclesia is a dynamic movement, not a static form. The word ecclesia is used very much like the word Kingdom.
When I love God and love my neighbor, I am part of God’s ecclesia. It doesn’t matter whether I am at church or the pancake breakfast or the football game or the craft show. Ecclesia is the the love of God flowing through all things in all places. It changes things but could never be one of the things.
By substituting this dynamic movement of God in the world with a human institution, church becomes an idol, held up as the salvation of the world, in competition with every other human agenda proclaiming itself as the savior of the world.
Ecclesia is the blood flowing through our veins. It is the wind, the sunlight. It is part of all things, bringing them to life. When the Kingdom of God is embraced, all things come to life. When any human form is held up as the savior of the world, all hell breaks loose.
So there you have the answer to my first question. Yes, there are many good things about churches, just as there are many good things about many human institutions. The point is that Jesus did not come to replace one religious institution with another. He came to reveal a way of life that would transform every institution—indeed, the whole world.
How Did This Happen?
But things have been this way a long time. How did the church take the place of the Kingdom?
That brings me to my second question: Could something with such a long tradition be wrong? Is it really possible that we have missed Jesus’ message for 20 centuries? How could this have happened?
Old Doesn’t Always Mean Right
To begin with, let’s get rid of the idea that a long tradition makes something right. Church has a long tradition but so does male chauvinism. So does violence. At the time of Jesus, temple worship had been practiced for about as long as we have been practicing church. This did not stop Jesus from abandoning it.
A long tradition doesn’t make something right or wrong. It simply proves that it is hard to change. Rather than asking how old something is, it is better to ask how good it is. You know the tree by its fruit, not its pedigree.
The church has had nearly two millennia now to usher in the Kingdom. Are we any closer? Why are Sunday mornings the most segregated time of the week? Has the church torn down walls between people and brought the world together or has it created new division among us? Is it the end of drawing battle lines between people or is it just another one?
As I’ve said, church is a mixed bag, like every human institution. It has both lied and told the truth. It has both sanctioned and stopped violence; It has been generous and greedy. It has started wars and stopped them.
What is beyond dispute is that the church is a human institution. It is also a religious institution. That supercharges it with a claim to be divinely sanctioned. This doesn’t automatically make it bad. It does makes it volatile. You can disagree with your bank and not accuse them of blasphemy. But in the church, every disagreement is a potential for holy war.
But back to the question. If it is not what Jesus intended, how did it become entrenched for so long?
I Had Headaches Before I Had Heartaches
I have described my personal frustrations in church. I won’t drag you through that again. But before church gave me heartaches it gave me headaches. Before it began to create stress in my life, I saw the logical inconsistencies.
My life has been devoted to two things: the study of the New Testament and pastoring a church. The tension first emerged when I held what I was reading in the New Testament up to what I was doing in church. I couldn’t make it all add up.
But the tension wasn’t just between the New Testament and the church. It was in the New Testament itself. Jesus said one thing and Paul said another. I found justification for church in Paul’s letters. But I found very little overlap between Paul’s letters and Jesus’ teachings. We were following Paul, not Jesus.
How did we explain this? By saying that Jesus’ primary purpose was not to teach the Kingdom of God but to found the church through his disciples.
How We Explained the Difference Between Jesus’ Teachings and the Church
Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God. This was nice and all, but his primary purpose was to found the church. He entrusted this task to his disciples. Their work is the continuation of his work. In my circles we sometimes even called the book of Acts “What Jesus Continued to Do and Teach.”
In other words, Jesus came to lay a foundation so his followers could build a church. The book of Acts and Paul’s letters describe how this happened and are the template for what it means to follow Jesus. That is why you cannot say that you follow Jesus but reject the church. That would be like saying you believe in Santa Claus but not Christmas.
But connecting the dots between Jesus and Paul is not easy. For the most part we threw up our hands about Jesus’ teachings and went with Paul. The parables of the Kingdom were perplexing. Paul made sense. In any case, Jesus’ end goal was not the Kingdom of God but the church. So we got on with church.
Holes in My Bible?
I struggled with this. Did it really makes sense that the most important things Jesus said and did were not said and done by Jesus? Did his followers really deserve our primary attention with Jesus taking a back seat?
It would have been easier if it had all fit together more easily. But it is very difficult to argue that the church is the logical extension of Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom. In many ways it is a direct contradiction.
Jesus said we should call no one on earth “teacher” or “leader” (Matthew 23:8-10) but the letters tell us to “obey our leaders and submit to their authority” (Hebrews 13:17).
Jesus had nothing but conflict with the religious elders but Paul appointed elders to supervise his churches (Acts 14:23)
Jesus never emphasized creeds and certainly never used one to reject someone. But Paul wrote,
“If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame.” (2 Thessalonians 3:14).
It is impossible to imagine such a statement on the lips of Jesus.
The central scandal of Jesus’ life was his radical inclusion of all people without regard to race, gender, religion, social status, or anything else. He ate with tax collectors and sinners. He touched lepers. He let a prostitute wash his feet with her hair—at a meal with Pharisees. He sat at a well with a Samaritan woman and discussed the Kingdom of God.
But soon the church was drawing lines between people and forbidding table fellowship. Here is an example from Paul.
I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one (1 Corinthians 5:11).
Telling people to be selective about who they ate with sounds like Paul the Pharisee, not Jesus the Messiah.
For Paul,“Brother” and “Sister” no longer meant “fellow human being.” It was a term to describe those who shared his religious views. Everyone else was an outsider, which is a very short step from being an outcast.
Jesus assumed love would change people. Increasingly, as we read about the development of the church we have a sense that only changed people should be loved.
How did this happen?
How We Got Off Track
I went back and looked at the first centuries of the church. The progression was surprisingly easy to see. It took place in four chapters.
Chapter 1: c. 27-30 AD Jesus Preached the Kingdom of God.
Jesus preached and revealed the Kingdom of God. This was a mysterious, transcendent realm in which the ways of God were done.
In God’s Kingdom, sinners were forgiven, sick people were healed, poor people were made rich, outcasts found family, prodigals were welcomed home, and the world was made new.
Jesus never directly described the Kingdom. When he spoke about it, he normally began with the words, “The Kingdom of God is like…” and proceeds to tell a story. The point of these stories was not to establish a list of beliefs but to teach a way of behaving. What emerges is not a religious system but a way life defined most of all by radical love.
The peace prayer of St. Francis captures this magnificently.
Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it's in dying that we are born to eternal life
It takes trust to live in God’s kingdom. Hate can seem stronger than love. Fear threatens to swallow hope. Death seems bigger than life.
Jesus’ death and resurrection are the ultimate expression of the Kingdom of God. He chose love over violence. Forgiveness over retaliation. Even as his enemies nailed him to a cross he begged God to forgive them.
So which was stronger? The Kingdom of God or the kingdom of man? The verdict came in on the third day and marches on in the lives of all who embrace the Kingdom of God.
I also noticed that in the gospels, the Kingdom of God is mysterious. Jesus let the mystery stand. He was willing to let questions hang in the air, to walk away with people scratching their heads. Mark is generally regarded as the earliest gospel. It ends like this:
They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:8)
For those familiar with Jesus’ ways, such an ending comes as no surprise. The young man (angel?) doesn’t greet the women at the tomb with the Nicene creed and a church organizational chart. He greets them the announcement that Jesus is alive and leaves them a lot to wonder about.
That’s how the Kingdom is. It’s not a neat system to explain life and God. It is a never-ending journey with an infinite God. It is diving into this mystery and learning to embrace God’s Kingdom at every moment. It is living as Jesus taught.
Chapter 2: c. 30-100 C.E. Jesus’ First Followers Write Things Down, Fill in Gaps, and Set up Structures
To the best of our knowledge, Jesus never wrote anything down. Many historians believe this is because as a member of the peasant class, Jesus was illiterate. In any case, we do not have anything written by him. The collection of writings we call the New Testament was composed between 40-100 C.E.
The message of Jesus comes through these writings loud and clear. We also see human fingerprints. For example, very soon after Mark’s gospel was completed, various endings were added to resolve the tension. You can find these in most modern Bibles with an explanatory note, telling you they are not original.
In addition to learning about Jesus, we meet some of his followers. These are a mixed bag. Sometimes they live by Jesus’ Kingdom ideals and make us cheer. Other times, cowardice and prejudice win the day. Many are admirable. But they certainly aren’t Jesus.
By far, the most influential member of Jesus’ Kingdom movement was the Apostle Paul. He wrote about 30% of the New Testament. His friend and disciple, Luke, wrote another 30%. Between the two, their writing accounts for over half of the New Testament.
Following in Jesus’ Steps
In many circles today, Paul is disliked. He comes across as bigoted and dogmatic. In some cases, this may be true. But let’s give credit where credit is due. Paul understood the Kingdom of God and was willing to put his life on the line for it.
Like Jesus, Paul nearly got himself killed for being too open-minded. He said in no uncertain terms that Jewish ritual was not necessary to be a follower of Jesus. In fact, it was not necessary to be a Jew at all.
Paul looked back at his scrupulous adherence to Jewish religious custom and called it all bullshit. (Sorry, but the Greek word σκύβαλον has this offensive tone.) He understood that Jesus had made religious ritual obsolete. He said that Jesus had torn down every wall between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. These walls were not just social and ethnic. They were also religious.
For his open-mindedness Paul was whipped, beaten, and stoned. Almost everywhere he went he was run out of town by zealous traditionalists. Eventually he landed in a Roman prison, put there by the same religious establishment that crucified Jesus.
From Kingdom to Ecclesia
Sometimes, Paul’s missionary activity is described as preaching the Kingdom of God.
And he entered the synagogue and continued speaking out boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. (Acts 19:8)
But Paul and his coworker Luke also began to use a new word to describe Jesus’ Kingdom movement, the word ecclesia (ἐκκλησία).
I suspect when the word was first used, it was roughly synonymous with “Kingdom.” For example, when Jesus promised to build his ecclesia, it is another way to say he would establish his Kingdom.
When Paul refers to the ecclesia as “the body of Christ” it is another way to describe the coming of God’s Kingdom. Ecclesia was a term for the people who embraced Kingdom living. By doing so, they became a tangible manifestation of God’s Kingdom in this world, just as Jesus had been. They functioned as Christ’s living presence in the world.
Only One Ecclesia
There is only one ecclesia in the New Testament. Gatherings of Jesus-followers are always called the ecclesia in a certain city, or the ecclesia that in someone’s house. Just as there was only one Kingdom of God, there was only one ecclesia of God.
The modern practice of naming churches is a symptom of how far we have strayed from Jesus’ teaching. It is impossible to imagine a church in Corinth called “Ignite,” a second called “First Baptist” and a third called “St. Paul’s.” It is even more unimaginable to envision them competing for members. How can the Kingdom of God be in competition with itself? To quote Jesus, “A house divide against itself cannot stand.” (Matthew 12:25).
Paul (along with some of Jesus’ other disciples) began to place a religious structure on Jesus’ Kingdom movement. They naturally looked to the form they knew: diaspora Judaism and its synagogue meetings.
Christians began to hold weekly religious meetings and go through religious activities that closely resembled synagogue worship. It was not long before people began to think of following Jesus as participation in these meetings. Church was no longer God drawing all people into one human family. It was a religious get-together.
These local groups were soon organized along the pattern of the synagogue. Primary leadership fell to a group of male elders. Never mind that Jesus was in constant conflict with the elders. These guys would be different. Jesus told his disciples not to call anyone “teacher” (“Rabbi”) or to regard any person more highly than another (Matthew 23:8-10). He saw all people on a level playing field with God as their Father. We were all equals in the same family. The proper designation toward one another was simply “brother” or “sister.” Not “elder” or “pastor.”
It is hard to imagine Jesus getting excited about any human organization. His ministry was stubbornly free-form. The moment he attracted a following, he moved to the next town. He had no regular way of doing anything. He might talk with people from a boat, on a hill, or most commonly, on the way to somewhere else. He followed the way of the Torah, living and teaching the Kingdom when he sat in his house, when he walked by the way, when he lay down and when he rose up (Deuteronomy 6:7). His message was intertwined with his life, not an evangelistic crusade or a religious meeting.
Chapter 3: c. 100-300 C.E. The Church Fathers Dissected Jesus and Began to Build a Religion
In the second and third centuries the church Fathers dissected and explained the life of Jesus.
Ignatius described the nature of the church, the proper administration of the sacraments, the role of bishops, and the makeup of the earthly Jesus. Justin Martyr wrote about the divine Logos. Irenaeus argued the importance of episcopal councils. Clement of Alexandria added a Platonic touch. Origin imagined the reconciliation of all things in an age to come.
I could go on, but you get the point. There was a lot to talk and a lot of different ideas floating around. In many cases, theological battle lines had not yet hardened. Diversity was the norm and was accepted. In other cases, followers of Jesus began to turn on each other, holding up their understanding as the one true way. Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God was on the way to becoming a religion.
Chapter 4: c. 300-400 C.E. Rome Marries the Church and Standardizes It
In 312, the Roman emperor Constantine painted a Chi-Rho, (the first two letters of Jesus’ name in Greek) on Roman shields and went to battle in Jesus’ name. A more complete irony is difficult to imagine.
Jesus, whose Kingdom was not of this world, who chose love rather than violence, who believed in this so strongly that he was willing to die on a Roman cross, was now used as a symbol of the very thing he hated most.
Constantine’s success in the battle of the Milvian Bridge put the Roman empire on a path to embracing Christianity as the emperial religion. As the fourth century progressed, the marriage was made final.
You can’t run an empire with an incoherent state religion. Largely at the emperor’s decree, councils were called and Christianity was standardized. At this time, the New Testament canon was closed. Religious ideas that differed from the standard were no longer matters of discussion. They were matters of sedition.
In this way, Jesus’ Kingdom movement became just another state religion. Following Jesus no longer meant living as a child of God’s Kingdom. It meant loyalty to Rome.
The Long Road to Today
The marriage of the church and Rome ushered in the dark ages. For centuries, church leaders and Roman emperors decreed to the peasants how to follow Jesus. There wasn’t much danger of revolt since the peasants had no access to Christian literature and couldn’t read it anyway.
Roman Christianity was the exact opposite of Jesus’ Kingdom movement. Jesus confronted oppression. Rome oppressed. Jesus described God as a loving Father with a place at his table for all who would come. Rome painted God as a fearsome tyrant who punished non-compliance with eternal damnation. Jesus had no stomach for religious ritual. Roman Christianity was almost entirely ritual. Jesus said everyone had equal access to God. Rome said God could be accessed only through the proper channels.
The Reformation challenged these assumptions and broke their stranglehold. But rather than returning to Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom, the reformers sought to establish a new and improved church.
Rome fought this tooth and nail. But it wasn’t just Rome. Soon there were hundreds of groups holding up their version of church as the salvation of the world. Debates over doctrine multiplied as did creeds. These were hammered into sharper and sharper points and used to skewer each other.
This isn’t a metaphor. Over the centuries, millions of Jesus’ followers have been killed. Not by outsiders of Christianity. By each other. Religion is always a bloody mess and it is at its worst when the struggle is internal.
Where We Stand
So where does this leave us? Staring at the fact that the church is simply is not what Jesus taught or intended. No reformation of the church will ever makes a difference because we are repeating an error.
Jesus never told his followers to hold meetings. He never established a creed. He required no rituals. He preached the Kingdom of God as a way of life.
The Kingdom of God is about loving people not like you (Samaritans, for example). It is not about hanging out with people who believe what you believe and worship as you worship. It has nothing to do with participating in religious rituals sanctioned by the religious authorities.
To use Paul’s language, “the Kingdom of God is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:7). This is not a religion. It is a way of life that changes everything it touches. Even the tiniest worm, crawling in the soil will rejoice when God’s Kingdom comes. Why? Because in the Kingdom human beings will love and cherish the physical world and care for its soil. Let the worms rejoice!
When we exchanged Jesus’ message of the Kingdom for church we traded the free pursuit of God for catechism class. We traded the living Word, written on our hearts and in the skies, for the frozen words of a creed . Direct audience with God became supervised visitation on Sundays.
One Final Reason Why No One Is Saying This, Even Though It’s Obvious
There is one last reason why no one is saying this: Because to do so is suicide.
Those who have have in-depth experience with the church, who have studied the Bible and church history also rely on the church for their living. Like me, their life depends on it. You have to be pretty stupid to saw off the branch you’re sitting on.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.