How Far Fallen?

Any “regular readers” here will know that I’m a graduate of Patrick Henry College, a small, Christian liberal-arts college here in Northern Virginia. Since my time at the school, they’ve established the Faith & Reason Lecture Series, described on the school’s website as a semiannual, “day-long shared experience that involves a presentation by a faculty member or guest, lunch with the speaker, small-group discussions, and an afternoon question-and-answer session with a faculty panel.”

The most recent such lecture occurred on Friday, September 13, 2013. It was given by faculty member Dr. Stephen Baskerville, and was entitled Politicizing Potiphar’s Wife: Today’s New Ideology. I was not present at the initial lecture (though I plan to attend a follow-up session for alumni later this week). However, after reading the content of the lecture, I am left with grave concerns about the state of education at my alma mater.

It’s long, but if this is a topic that interests you and if you have not already done so, please read the above link before you proceed. I fear what follows will make little sense otherwise, and I dislike presenting only my perspective on an issue without the reader having an opportunity to become familiar with the other side. If a discussion of academic rigor, logical argumentation, and what it means to have a “Christian education” does not interest you, you probably won’t care to read further, though you’re certainly welcome to do so.

Continue reading How Far Fallen?

Who is John Galt?

The mysterious question that opens Ayn Rand’s epic novel Atlas Shrugged has now haunted the readers, seekers and thinkers who comprise her audience for fifty years, as of today. Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism finds its voice – and a great deal of its thought – in this book. I am not an objectivist. I consider myself more of an existentialist – a term Rand herself preferred to “objectivism,” but which, she said, had already been taken by its adherents in a slightly different direction. Nevertheless, I do find much to appreciate about Rand’s worldview.

In defining Objectivism, she wrote, “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.

While Rand and I might disagree on a few definitions here and there, I find her basic framework quite appealing.

Rand, it must be noted, was an avowed athiest. This, she explained, was because, “I had decided that the concept of God is degrading to men. Since they say that God is perfect, man can never be that perfect, then man is low and imperfect and there is something above him – which is wrong.”

Anybody familiar with conservative theistic philosophies – be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish or some other religious tradition – can see where she is coming from. In my own religious heritage, Evangelical Christianity, it is called “worm theology,” the belief, drawn from an old Isaac Watts hymn, “that a feeling and expression of low self worth means God is more likely to show mercy and compassion.” This belief has its parallels in virtually all theistic religions. Even in more gracious religious systems, such as some more modern streams of evangelical Christianity, the prevailing belief is that man is always on the verge of failure, that God is constantly at watch in case of such failures, and that religious structures are necessary to prevent them.

Small wonder, then, that according to Neil Parille writing at Rebirth of Reason, “Ayn Rand is noteworthy for her atheism and uncompromising opposition to religion. Unlike many non-believers who see utilitarian value to religion, Rand is somewhat unique in seeing (with minor exceptions) virtually no value to religion.”

This seems, to me, to stem from a deep misunderstanding of the Christian religion – not merely on Rand’s part, but on the part of those who claim to adhere to it.

After all, when one reads the Bible – the epic story central to Christianity – one sees in man the same things Rand saw in her characters. Genesis 1 describes mankind as the pinnacle of creation, a being formed in the image of God, blessed, and given primacy over every other living thing. It is true that the heroic being at the center of God’s creative work is ultimately capable of failure, but so were Rand’s characters. Even the messianic John Galt himself ends up in need of rescuing before the final pages of her novel.

So rather than the concept of God being “degrading to man,” it seems to me that the concept of God is the very thing that gives humanity its worth – for are we not far more valuable as beings created in God’s image than we are as the momentary occupants of the top spot in a food chain subject to the accident of natural selection?

I think Rand had it right, when she described man (and woman – the most compelling character in Atlas Shrugged is its female protagonist, Dagny Taggart) as a heroic being.

What, then of her belief in “his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life”?

I am not breaking any new ground when I say that this notion is perfectly compatible with a Christian worldview. John Piper, an evangelical Christian theologian, has already spent a great deal of time reconciling this perspective with a religious outlook. He calls his synthesis “Christian Hedonism,” which he summarizes in the phrase, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” He seems to differ from Rand in that he says “By Christian Hedonism, we do not mean that our happiness is the highest good . . .” but ultimately he reconciles the two divergent worldviews with, “. . . The desire to be happy is a proper motive for every good deed, and if you abandon the pursuit of your own joy you cannot love man or please God.

The rest is mere semantics. Rand exalted “productive achievement as [man’s] noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” I agree with both sentiments – though Rand and I would probably be quite at variance over what constitutes “productive achievement” or “reason.”

Nevertheless, my regular readers will be quite familiar with my essays on choice – and on the importance of actively choosing. To me, this constitutes the highest level of productive achievement, and I am not sure that Rand would disagree all that much. Her characters, after all, are at their best when they are making choices for themselves, rather than being forced into certain actions – even actions she considers heroic.

As for “reason,” what is reason, anyway? Apologetics.org defines reason as “the use of logical faculties to arrive at truth.” It has already been demonstrated, though, that Rand’s view of mankind, while exultant, left room for human failings. Thus, there is room for a perfect embodiment of reason, which is capable of bestowing that reason upon the products of its own labor – in short, there is room for God.

The success of this book (According to the Christian Science Monitor, a 1991 poll ranked it the second most influential book in America, after the Bible) is to me a testament to the very ideal it espouses – the glory of the human spirit. It is a testament to the fact that, despite the messages with which we are daily confronted about the depravity, degradation and disgustingness of what mankind is and has become, we refuse to believe that these outward actions are the sum total of who, or what, we are. Why else would a book like this be so influential, if it were not a release of that burden – an assurance that I am not the sum total of what others say about me, or even of the things I do.And yet, Rand would harshly disapprove of the “cult of self-esteem” that has been born in Western Civilization over the last century or so. She would note that there are those who have done little or nothing to earn the lofty opinions they have of themselves.

She would urge them to do something about it – and so do I. Don’t for one minute rest on the laurels of the so-called “experts” – politicians, teachers, doctors, pastors – anyone who tries to tell you that you don’t have to think . . . that they’ll do your thinking for you. On this point Ayn Rand and I agree perfectly – a life of discovering, becoming, and deliberately shaping your psyche and your world through the choices you make is a life truly lived!

This is mankind’s burden, and our gift. Some see choice as a prison, a labyrinth from which there is no escape, and in which one wrong choice could spell death.

I see death in the lack of choice – for it is our ability to choose that makes us human. If we lose that, what are we?

Live free and unencumbered in a life of your own choosing. That is what you were created to do.

And if somebody tries to place the weight of the world on your shoulders . . . shrug.

Living with Desire

As you may or may not have noticed, I’m taking a page from my wife’s blog with the title of this post. I was prompted to write about it by a running email conversation with my dad over something in another recent post of mine. I recalled a conversation with my best friend Nate from many years ago, in which he said, “I have such a hard time wanting anything . . . mostly because we were always taught that the wanting itself was a problem . . . if we truly want anything, it must be bad for us to have.”

Understandably, my father wondered who, in this particular instance, had done the teaching. It was understandable because this was certainly something I never heard from him.

I’ve talked a lot on these pages about choices . . . and about the importance of taking responsibility for our choices, and indeed, responsibility for making them in the first place.

The problem with the choices that led me to this particular place – the place of truly believing that desires were evil things – was that I made those choices when I was very young, and did not truly understand the ramifications of those choices.

I never consciously said to myself, “I think that from now on I’m going to decide to believe that desires are bad.”

I did, however, sit through years of teaching in churches and para-church organizations that imparted to me gems of wisdom like�. . .

  • being a Christian means being hated by the world
  • being a Christian means sacrificing
  • being a Christian entails suffering
  • being a Christian means forgoing our own desires in favor of God’s

Pretty standard fare for the sort of fundamentalist Christianity I grew up under, right?

Think about it though . . . what happens if you couple being hated by “the world” with an unhealthy dependence on the approval of your fellow churchgoers who are supposed to help “keep you accountable”?

You end up psychologically predisposed to crave the approval of those around you, and unless you end up spending your life in a monastery, those around you are predominantly the same ones your church calls “the world.”

So much for a desire to be liked by . . . just about anyone at all, really.

How about the sacrificing and suffering? If you’re told your whole life that being godly means hardship, and that if things aren’t difficult for you then God must be “putting you on a shelf” because of some sin in your life that is preventing Him from using you effectively . . . what’s going to happen to any desire for success or fulfillment in life? Either you’re going to kill it because it’s “sinful,” or you’re going to live with guilt your whole life.

And how about subordinating our desires to God’s? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it taught that when scripture promises that God will “give you the desires of your heart” it means that he will literally reach into your heart and tell you what to desire. Instead of being a wonderful promise of His easy yoke and light burden, it becomes another form of manipulation and control, and kills any reason to desire . . . well . . . anything. After all, if you’re following God, then He’ll tell you what to desire, and if you’re not, well, you shouldn’t be wanting that anyway . . . and after all, since you’re not living in constant suffering and misery, you must not be following Him anyway.

Welcome to the teachings I absorbed throughout my childhood and teenage years.

And I made a choice . . . a choice to buy into them wholeheartedly.

It didn’t seem like much of a choice at the time, really. After all, my Pastor and other seemingly unassailable “spiritual authorities” were speaking as the mouthpieces of God, right? How could a young teenage boy look up at them and say “that doesn’t make sense!”

Wouldn’t that have been an act of most grievous pride . . . tantamount to spitting in God’s face? They sure seemed to think so . . . and oddly enough, some of them still do.

It just so happens that I’m an adult now, and can understand much more how . . . human . . . we humans really are, even the ones who wear special clothes or stand behind pulpits.

Nevertheless, I am still responsible for those choices. But how do we deal with the choices we made years and years ago, when we were too immature to recognize them as choices at all?

I think the first step is to do just that. Identify your choices . . . own them . . . acknowledge that “I made a decision, be it recently or many years past,�to agree with this.”

Then make another decision . . . to continue believing what you believe . . . or not.

For me . . . when it comes to living from a place of desire, or killing off my desires and hoping against hope that God comes and whispers His�desires�into my ear someday, so I know what I’m “supposed” to want (which, oddly enough, has yet to ever happen) . . . I’ll take a life of desire.

Ocean’s 37

It seems like every time I post in the last couple months, I’m apologizing for not posting very much. Even now, it’s been a few weeks since I last wrote anything here.

This time, I’m not apologizing, though I do think a bit of an explanation is in order.

Writing, for me, is a way of processing things . . . a way of thinking, pondering . . . becoming.

That’s not to say I haven’t been thinking, or pondering, or particularly becoming anything of late. To the contrary, I have a million or so different “potential posts” clamoring around inside my head.

I think, though, that I haven’t been quite as intentional about it as I am when I’m writing more. That is, I’ve just sort of “let myself” become . . . whatever it is that I’m in the process of becoming.

I don’t know if I like that, but the simple fact is that the process of being fully conscious and present in one’s decisions, choices and life is a wearing one . . . and lately, I’ve been feeling kind of worn out.

I was in Borders, the other day, paging through a Soren Kierkegaard book. I’ve always found his writing to be very, very profound (often too profound for me to grasp without a great deal of thought and processing . . . but the central premise of this book was very profoundly simple, and is summed up in its title, Purity of Heart is to will one thing.

Kierkegaard’s basic premise is that when we will only one thing, it must necessarily be good – because only the Good is truly “one.” Indeed, scripture has much to say about a “double-minded” man.

While double-mindedness is, at some level, the basic human struggle, I think there is another, more insidious battle going on in my mind – and not just mine.

If Purity of Heart is to will one thing . . . what is it to will nothing at all?

This, I think, is my battle. We Christians spend a lot of time on the seeming dichotomy between single- and double-mindedness, but what about those of us who struggle with desiring anything at all?

I think we Christians are all to eager, at times, to kill off our desires all together. I remember vividly a conversation with my best friend Nate on this topic, many years ago when I was much less conscious of the issue of deliberate choices that I have spent so much time writing and thinking about here. In this conversation we were both lamenting where our respective lives had taken us at the time, and despairing of their ever getting better. Something he said in that conversation struck me to the core, “Mike, I have such a hard time wanting anything . . . mostly because we were always taught that the wanting itself was a problem . . . if we truly want anything, it must be bad for us to have.”

There was a time when I truly believed that. Now I believe the opposite. I want to “will one thing” . . . no more, no less.

But I’m tired, and it’s no easy task I have set for myself. I am trying to process these and other thoughts, and when I do, you will hear about them.

Another part of it, for me, is what exactly I desire to write about. This conversation taking place online, in homes, and in some church buildings is an important one . . . it is important for us to investigate what and who we are as followers of Christ.

But I don’t want to merely repeat what I hear other people writing and talking about. I crave originality in my thoughts and writing. I find it maddening that when I go to a movie theater half of the fare available is comprised of sequels (even good ones like the one off of which this post’s title plays), and I find it maddening when the only thing I can think to actually post is “I saw a great post at so-and-so’s blog today . . . ”

So sometimes I just . . . don’t.

I’m working on some bits of actual originality that I want to share, but it’s slow going. I’ll keep you posted. Hopefully some stuff will be up in the next few days . . .

An Army of Davids in the Church

As an avid follower of U.S. and world politics, I read a lot of politically-oriented blogs. One of my favorite is Instapundit. It is written by Glenn Reynolds, a Tennessee Law Professor. The content is right-of-center on the political spectrum, and is usually comprised of short, concise blurbs that are always informative, usually amusing, and sometimes quite bitingly sarcastic. He doesn’t restrict himself to politics, also delving into law, technology, philosophy, science and other hobbies of his.

He also wrote a book not too long ago, one of the most powerful books I’ve read recently. It’s called An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government and other Goliaths.

Its point is simple, and if you’ve read any of my recent posts, you’ll understand instantly why I like it. The teaser on the back of the book closes with the sentence, “The balance of power between the individual and the organization is finally evening out. And it’s high time the Goliaths of the world pay attention, because an Army of Davids is on the move.”

Since coming out with his book, he has recognized on his blog many examples of this phenomenon taking place in our world today. He holds up Amazon, as I have, as an example of an “Army of Davids” approach to business.

He talks of an “Army of Davids” approach to reporting, an “Army of Davids” approach to intelligence analysis, and an “Army of Davids” approach to marketing. He even mentions the “Army of Davids” approach to terrorism being taken by Hezbollah and other organizations of their ilk.

There are a host of other examples, some on his blog and some in his book. One that he seems to be missing, however, is the burgeoning “Army of Davids” approach to a relationship with God.

He’s probably not focused on this particular area as much as we are, along with others like Wayne Jacobsen or Bill Kinnon, and therefore doesn’t have the window into this phenomenon that those of us who are living it are experiencing. But the Army of Davids is definitely on the move in Western churches . . . on the move in that they are headed for the nearest exit.

In the same way that file-swapping software has broken the power of the record labels over music distribution, the podcast and the blog have broken the hold of the clergy over “theology distribution.” Think of the various reasons one attends a local assembly on Sunday mornings: preaching, worship, fellowship, study of scripture, service of others, spiritual refreshment . . .

We simply don’t need a church or a pastor anymore to engage in these activities. A simple podcast like this one from our friend Wayne is just as instructive (and usually a lot more interesting) than your average three-point sermon. Heck, even many local churches make their sermons available via podcast, so if you do have a hankering for a three-point outline, take your pick from the comfort of your own home!

Similarly, worship and fellowship can take place anywhere – and in fact, I find them much more authentic and enjoyable in the comfort of my living room, or in the home of a good friend.

Scripture? Well, with the Internet we have a host of study tools at our fingertips – many even gathered on a single website to save the trouble of switching back and forth between tabs on your browser.

Service to others? There are a host of organizations to which you can donate without ever leaving your desk. Want to take a more active role? Install a link on your site and encourage others to give as well. My wife recently organized a food-drive for a sick, pregnant friend using nothing more than her email account and her car. We hardly need a church to tell us who is in need – all we have to do is look around.

As far as spiritual refreshment, don’t you find it interesting how many churches organize special “get aways” to allow men, women, children, families, singles, parents or some other specific group to get out and get spiritually refreshed through special camping trips, retreats, outings, field trips and other events? Isn’t it painfully obvious that traditional church settings aren’t fulfilling this need, and haven’t for a long time?

And isn’t that the point? Isn’t the crux of the issue that the setting doesn’t matter?? To me the whole point is that God wants a relationship with us. If that relationship takes place inside a church, well and good!

But in the age of the Army of Davids, it doesn’t have to. Maybe it never did.

Regrets

My dear wife wrote a post this evening on the importance of regret. While this sounds counterintuitive at first, it’s quite a fascinating concept to explore. She and I worked very hard during the course of our dating relationship, and particularly when beginning to plan our wedding, to capture as best we could each of the many dreams we had for this relationship (and this wedding), in order to be able to enter our married life together with no regrets.

It is perhaps needless to say that life intervened. We do have some things we regret . . . little things, it might seem, but regrets none the less. And as her post points out, that’s ok . . . even necessary . . . in order to live a truly authentic life. As she says:

“Only when you can admit that your life isn’t perfect, that it’s full of “what-ifs” and “if-onlys”, and you name your regrets and live with them honestly, can you fully inhabit the life you have instead of trying to pretend that you’re living in the life you wished for.”

She says it much better than I could. Go read her post.

Common Objections . . . Part 2

In my last post, I spoke of several “common objections” a number of people have had to the path I am walking with God outside of the institutional church. In this post, I will address what I see as the two most significant of such objections.

I call them “significant” not because I think they are more difficult to argue against. Arguing is not the point here. The point is to know Christ.

I list these two separately because they often seem to be the most deeply held, and are certainly the most detailed in nature. Therefore, the amount of time (and space) it will take to discuss them will naturally be longer than the ones I mentioned in my last post. Again, please keep in mind that I am not criticizing anybody who engages in their personal relationship with God inside the framework of an organized church. To any of you who have chosen that path, that is between you and God, and I rejoice that you are walking with Him. My only point is to demonstrate, from the pages of Scripture, that the institutions we think of as “the church” are just that – human institutions which many people have for centuries used to aid in worship and relationship with Christ.

What about spiritual authorities?

I am always curious about this one, and always have to respond to the people who confront me on this issue with the question, “What does that phrase even mean . . . ?”

The thing that makes these last two such involved topics is the extent to which they depend on definitions. I wrote, in my opening post on this blog, that I believe definitions matter a great deal. In this particular case, we have to define both words in the term “spiritual authority.”

What do we mean by authority? Do we mean somebody who, by virtue of his or her position, has the right to direct our actions? Do we mean someone who is older and wiser and whose instructions we have a responsibitily to obey?

What, then, do we mean by a “spiritual” authority? Do we mean someone accountable to God for our spiritual state? Do we mean someone who is the final word on all spiritual matters?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then I take great exception to the entire concept of the existence of earthly “spiritual authority.” I Timothy 2:5 says, “There is one God, and one Mediator between God and Man, the Man Christ Jesus.” I am answerable to God for the state of my soul – because He created me, gave me my earthly life, and sent His Son to die so that my relationship with Him could continue into eternity. Nobody else has done that for me, and therefore, nobody else is responsible before God for my spiritual state.

Of course, that is not to say that there are not many wise and good people who speak truth into my life. A life lived in isolation from any outside influences is a very narrow life indeed. But as far as institutionalized governing positions, I don’t believe God has mandated any such thing.

Of course, the follow on to this question is, “What about elders and deacons?”

The latter is easy. The position of Deacon was never intended to be a position of authority, but rather an administrative position ensuring that all members of the Body were adequately cared for. Furthermore, the position was not established by an edict of God, but was the bright idea of the original twelve apostles (Acts 6).

Additionally, lest you think that the creation of deacons necessitates a “local body” that must be served, and of which we must be members, please recall that when the original six deacons were chosen, they were approved by, and oversaw, “the whole congregation” . . . meaning the entire body of Christ, at the time centered around the city of Jerusalem.

Elders, on the other hand, were in a position of authority . . . not religiously, but culturally. The first time Scripture uses the word to refer to a position, rather than merely to a person, is in Genesis (50:7) before the nation of Israel even existed. The first time it was recorded that the Hebrews had elders was in Exodus 3:16. The existence of elders was a fixture in Jewish culture, and they played a key role in the deaths of both Jesus (Matthew 16:21) and Stephen (Acts 6).

The Jews at the heart of the original Body of Christ would have been quite familiar with this practice of recognizing those with the most wisdom and life experience, so Acts 14:23 says they simply followed that ancient practice. The passage says they “appointed elders for them in every church,” but it might also be translated “throughout the church.” Certainly it seems an efficient practice in that time and culture, but Acts hardly records it as being mandated by God as the sole authority structure for His Body on earth for all time. In fact, in the very first mention of elders in the context of the Body, Acts 11:30 simply mentions that they existed . . . not how or why or by whose instruction . . . they were simply “there.”

Just as they had been for millenia.

As far as the way they were selected in the New Testament, it seems our preferred process of democratic election of elders is also on shaky ground. In all instances but one, when scripture records elders being “appointed,” the appointing was done by the apostles themselves, rather than the congregation. The single exception is the church at Crete, where Paul designated Titus to do the appointing in his stead. There is no support for anybody other than the original founders of the Christian church to “appoint” elders, and in any case, we have no record of the process being formalized at all.

Defenders of the “office” of elders and deacons as necessary for the church will probably point to I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 as lists of “qualifications” for elders, and will infer a formal process. However, it seems to me as though these are simply lists of the way an elder must live as an example for others . . . not necessarily what one must do in order to take a particular “office.”

Where does that leave us? We know that the original apostles appointed elders (or designated others to do so for them), after the fashion of the Hebrew culture. We know that they did so both universally and locally – the same way Hebrew towns had elders, along with the elders that governed in Jerusalem. We know that the decisions of the elders in the church at Jerusalem were authoritative in other churches as well (Acts 16:4). We know what Paul, in particular, looked for in an elder.

That, however, is all we know. Again, like deacons, this seems to be a position created for convenience’s sake, to ensure that believers in localities all around the Greco-Roman world had a way to network with one another, and had mature examples to look up to. In today’s panoply of denominations, with multiple believers attending multiple services at multiple buildings in even small towns throughout much of the world, following the Pauline example with regard to the process of elders is impossible. Following the lifestyle of Paul’s ideal elders, however, is something to which all mature Christians should aspire.

If, however, we try to turn this description of the administrative structure of the First Century church into a timeless prescription, we run into trouble. How many towns today have a single church, to which all professing believers belong? How many local churches answer to a head church . . . and how many of these “head churches” are in Jerusalem?? Furthermore, how many of the elders in any church today, local or otherwise, were appointed by apostles?

The simple fact is that the first century church set up an administrative structure using political and social conventions with which they were comfortable – namely, churches reflecting the localities in which they lived, and authority structures reflecting the councils of elders with which they had dealt their whole lives.

. . . and every culture since has followed suit. The Catholic church, once sanctioned by the Roman Empire, immediately set out to emulate it in form. The breakaway of the Church of England established the King of England as the supreme ecclesiastical authority. The Reformation established local church authorities, subject to their local princes.

Even today, we continue this practice. In Western Christianity, our churches are incorporated, and governed by a CEO known as the pastor, sometimes with a democratically-elected board of directors known as “the elders.”

What we have now is not what the first century church had . . . why do we try to pretend that it is?

Finally and most importantly, in walking this path with God, I am doing nothing different. I have structured my spiritual environment in the same way I would structure my sociopolitical environment if I had that choice – a small band of people dedicated to one another, loyal to the extreme, and travelling in roughly the same direction, without the burden of a single dictator (or group of dictators) directing us what to do.

As someone whose political beliefs trend libertarian, I believe that the ideal polity is one that exists because each of its members has chosen to exist that way.

I believe no differently when it comes to those with whom I fellowship and share daily life in Christ’s Body.

Didn’t God institute the church?

Again, this all depends on definitions. If by “church” one means, “the body of believers, of which He is the head,” then the answer is absolutely yes! If, on the other hand, one means the institutional church, organized as it found itself in the first century AD, or as it finds itself today, the answer is absolutely not! Christ instructed his followers to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” His instruction was not “go into all the world and plant churches.”

He instructed Peter, in particular, to “feed his sheep.” Contrary to Catholic doctrine, this was not an instruction to “set up an administrative structure based in Rome (or anywhere else for that matter) that rules and governs all believers everywhere for all time.”

Furthermore, it depends on our definition of the word “institute.” If, by using that word, we indicate simply that Christ established His Body on earth, and believers as the parts of that body, that’s one thing. If, however, we mean that He set up an elaborate structure of governance, that’s another thing entirely. It was not Christ who did that, but men.

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with structures of governance in theory. Sometimes they can aid in efficiency and coherence. However, they can also become tyrannical.

Where I think I have come down on this issue is that each believer should choose for himself or herself that place in which he or she can best experience “body life” . . . learning and growing with fellow believers, serving as a light to those who do not know God, and walking in fellowship with Him . . . wherever that may be.

At the same time, I believe that each of us is responsible to God for the state of his or her soul. Let us not be lazy, demanding that someone else tell us what to do. Let us turn wholeheartedly toward our mediator, our Father, our friend, rather than relying on a manmade spiritual mediator to guide our paths. It is well and good to seek counsel of other believers, but if we do so at the expense of our own search for Him, we do ourselves – and God – an injustice.

After all, He Himself . . . not the manner in which we seek Him . . . is the point.

Common Objections . . . Part 1

I promised in a previous post to address many of the objections I have seen (and felt) levelled against those of us who have chosen a life outside of the institution that calls itself “church.” There are enough of them that I cannot do so in one post, but I will cover a bunch of them here, and then address the largest ones in a second post. Please keep in mind that I am not condemning those who choose to attend a local assembly. This post is addressed towards those who believe that only by attending such a local assembly can I engage in relationship with God.

Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together

This command is not found in scripture. That might shock some, but it the simple truth. The words are a misquoting of Hebrews 10:25. In the context of the two previous verses, this passage reads, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”

In that context, it is clear that this has nothing at all to do with the formalized, organized operation of an institutionalized gathering. It has to do with fellow-believers encouraging one another in our faith, our hope, and our love. It is a warning not to try to isolate oneself from all other human inputs to one’s spiritual state.

It is not a command to go to church on Sundays.

Honoring the Sabbath Day

If we are going to take this (strictly Old Testament) commandment literally in the 21st century, we are already in trouble, because the Sabbath was the seventh day of the week, and there is no New Testament support for special services on any other day. It is recorded a few times in the book of Acts that Paul and others went and spoke to groups of people on the Sabbath day (i.e., Saturday) simply because that was naturally when the Jews in each town they visited attended synagogue.

As far as support for doing anything at all on the first day of the week, the phrase itself is mentioned twice.

In Acts 20:7, it is mentioned that Paul and others were gathered on the first day of the week to “break bread.” While this may provide a scriptural basis for Sunday afternoon potlucks, it provides none for a scriptural mandate to sit through a church sermon on a Sunday morning.

In I Corinthians 16:2, Paul commands the church at Corinth, “On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come.”

In other words, it looks like Paul doesn’t want to burden people by asking them for money to their faces, so he can continue his ministry . . . so he provides a way that they can save up in advance. We can’t derive anything in support of a regular weekly gathering from this, and if we use it as a mandate to take offerings on Sundays, then we’re also in trouble, because the biweekly and monthly pay cycles common in this country mean that most of us don’t really write our checks to the missions fund “on the first day of every week,” do we?

What about baptism?

I find it hard to support a scriptural mandate for churches based on the need to baptize people, given that Philip (Acts 8:38), Peter (Acts 10:48), Paul (Acts 16:15, 33) and others are all recorded as having done so outside of the context of any gathering at all, much less an organized, institutional church.

What about communion?

The only account of a ritualized communion in Scripture is found in I Corinthians 11. This verse says a great deal about the state of one’s heart as he or she takes the Lord’s Supper . . . but not so much about the venue or company in which he or she does so. The passage implies only that it is done, in this context, “when you meet together.” There are no commands issued, no particular instructions given over how the ritual is to be conducted. Paul only speaks to two issues in this passage. First, he decries the gluttony of some during the ritual, and second, he encourages those who partake to do so only after a deep and heartfelt self-examination.

Incidentally, if one is to take this account of the ritual as normative across all churches in all places for all time, then in order to be logically consistent, one must also insist that women wear headcoverings. It is mentioned, after all, in the same chapter as the Lord’s Supper, is referenced more often in the passage, is treated with much stronger language, and is characterized by a specific and overt command (I Cor 11:6), making it, according to some popular methods of hermaneutics, a more urgent matter.

On the other hand, if one doesn’t take to heart the specific command, “For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved , let her cover her head,” how can one logically assert that this passage commands anything binding at all vis a vis communion, much less a command to partake of it in an organized, weekly meeting that seems to have been nonexistent at the time?

What about your kids? Shouldn’t they be raised in church?

I have addressed this question in a comment.

In addition, my lovely wife has further addressed the issue in another comment, as well as in a post on her blog. She says it better than I can here. Finally, our dear friend Lynette, who actually has experience raising children outside of the institutional church, gives her input in this comment.

The “Mike-shaped hole”

One interesting take I have heard is the belief that, by failing to find a local church, I am leaving some church somewhere with a “Mike-shaped hole” in it, thereby depriving that local assembly of God’s blessings imparted through my service to the church.

To this, I would simply say that if God wants to bless a church, He hardly needs me to do it. Even if I mistake God’s desire for my life, when and if He chooses to bless a given assembly of believers, He will do so regardless of whether I attend or not. I cannot thwart God’s plan, even if I were to try . . . and I certainly cannot do so by seeking Him to the best of my ability.

Giving and ministering to others

I have also been told that by failing to attend church I am depriving anybody of my ability to minister and give to fellow believers. I am always astonished to hear this, given that my wife and I often give of our time, energy and financial resources to those in need – both those attending institutional churches, and those who don’t. In today’s extremely “connected” world, the church no longer has a monopoly on ministry opportunities . . . and hasn’t for a very long time.

What about good preaching?

In the age of the Internet, one hardly need sit in a Sunday morning service to hear preaching. When I have the urge to quit studying and writing on my own, and let someone else do the pontificating, I go here, but even more conventional churches are posting their materials online for anybody to access. Both of the conventional churches linked here are local assemblies in my area, which are adamantly in favor of active church membership to the point where one is considered spiritually deficient and where one’s salvation is questioned if one is not a member of a doctrinally solid local church . . . yet I can still access their sermons any time I choose. In the 21st Century, access to preaching – good, bad or indifferent – is no longer a logical argument for church attendance.

In my next post, I will examine the two biggest issues I have run into with regard to the institutionalization of church. They are:

What about spiritual authorities? and

Didn’t God institute the church?

stay tuned . . .

A Former Footsoldier of the “Christian Right”

My wife has posted quite capably on the “Formerly Known” series of essays sweeping across the websites and blogs of we the disenchanted with the institutions and traditions that have appropriated the name Christ gave to those dedicated to a life following Him: “The Church.” Her contributions have been posted both here and at her own blog. One thing however, I believe to be missing. Please find that missing element – my meager contribution to this discussion – below.

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A Former Footsoldier of the “Christian Right”

I am the one who, at age 13, began writing letters to the editor of his local paper, reminding readers of the need to remember the true meaning of Christmas, the original intent of the Constitution, and the importance of prayer in schools.

I am the one who made repeated calls to Capitol Hill when Congress tried to take away my right to an education as I and my parents saw fit.

I am the one who interned in my Congressman’s district office as a freshman in high school.

I am the one who, too young to vote myself, convinced my parents not to vote for Bob Dole in the Republican Primary of 1996 because he was not conservative enough.

I am the one who, in high school and college, engaged in public debate for pro-life and pro-marriage issues.

I am the one who participated in both the Young Republicans and the Campus Crusade on the grounds of my overwhelmingly liberal California community college.

I am a three-time attendee of the Conservative Political Action Conference

I missed the 2000 inauguration of President Bush only because I was away from my college campus near D.C., participating in a mock court debate over whether or not religious expression should be allowed on public property.

I am a former footsoldier of the Christian Right.

I watched as my parents and the rest of the voting-age population handed Congress to the Republicans in 1994, and I rejoiced. I watched as the Clinton administration was succeeded by President Bush, and I cheered. I believed both of these events to be signs of God working in the government of my country.

Along with my fellow students, fellow church members, and friends, I spoke out against government intervention in personal matters, and in favor of a constitutional ban on homosexual marriage.

Along with these same fellows, I argued against the war in Bosnia because it was a “foreign entanglement,” and in favor of invading Iraq because it was a “national security threat.”

I claimed that it was a crime for President Clinton to lie about sexual relations with an intern, but that President Bush needed the ability to authorize torturing captured prisoners.

I derided the government’s desire to track those who buy guns, while supporting the PATRIOT Act that allows them to track those who borrow books.

I am a recovering hypocrite.

By all appearances, it seems that those who desire to live from a logically consistent worldview tread a lonely path. Everywhere one turns, another church, politician or interest group is touting the right to free speech – while attempting to stifle an opposing point of view. Once upon a time I believed this activity to be strictly on the part of “the liberal left.” Those who saw the same tendency from the other side decried a “vast right wing conspiracy.”

We were both wrong.

Power corrupts, whether one is republican, democrat, conservative, liberal, Christian or athiest. Double-standards do not respect religious or partisan boundaries.

Politicians, pastors, and pundits, Christian school presidents and para-church organization leaders beware. The time in which you can isolate us, manipulate our thought processes and bend us to your will is coming to an end. We are learning that we are not alone.

We are learning, as well, that where once you may have hoped to further the cause of Christ, now you work to further the cause of your own ability to control us.

We are tired of hearing that abortion and homosexuality are “God’s topics,” while poverty and racism are not. We believe that God cares just as much about a family struggling to find its next meal as he does about an unborn baby.

We walk through the woods and see the same pile of strewn trash and abandoned beer cans that you see – but where you lament that people are partaking of alcohol, we grieve that they are despoiling God’s creation and denying us the ability to enjoy the same pristine environment that hosted their celebrations.

We are tired of hearing that it is our God-given duty to open our checkbooks to your building funds or election campaigns. Some of us call ourselves “emergent,” or “missional,” or “outchurched.” I call us “Christian Libertarians.”

We are discovering that we do not need you anymore.

We are learning that God does not tell us which party to vote for. We are learning that Scripture contains no “pastoral role.” We are discovering that you are not necessary to organize, motivate, preside over, or govern us.

We are remembering that Christ urged us to “give to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and to God the things which are God’s” – and we are realizing that in this equation, you are nowhere to be found.

We are discovering that you are only relevant as long as we allow you to be, and we are beginning to revoke that permission.

We are the former footsoldiers of the so-called “Christian Right”

. . . And we are defecting.