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.

Conversations with myself . . .

Our dear friend Kelly wrote a two part post on her blog “Restless Heart” yesterday, entitled “Who I Want to Be.”

It’s a great post, and her opening words struck me deepest. She says, “I tire of the constant mental/emotional energy wasted on seemingly consequential issues. I am sick of fighting, sick of division. I am weary of encountering misdirected passions for everything but what really matters.”

I know exactly what she means . . . I grew up in a religious culture that directed its passions toward a large number of issues that were divisive at worst, irrelevant at best and exhausting in all cases. I work in a job that requires me at times to manufacture passion for things I don’t really care about . . . and I’ve worked in such jobs for a long time.

There are moments when it feels as though my only outlets for passion about things I really care about are my relationships – particularly that with my wife – and this blog.

But Kelly’s post got me thinking . . . and eventually, engaging in a sort of running dialogue with myself.

“what is it that really matters?”

“God.”

“Ok . . . fair enough . . . why?”

“Um . . . because He created you, you ungrateful twit.”

“So?”

“So that means He matters to you just a tad.”

“Why? . . . how do I know He cares?”

“Because He said so.”

“How do I know some ancient prankster didn’t just make that up?”

“How do you have the mental capacity to ask that question?”

“. . . hmmmm . . . so you’re saying that because I can ask that question, He must care enough to have given me the mental faculties to do so?”

“not exactly, no.”

“What then?”

“He gave you a choice.”

“. . . huh?”

“He gave you the choice whether to believe what He says, or not. If He truly didn’t care, there are a few things He could have done differently:

A. He could have set the world on its course and abandoned it to the laws of physics.

B. He could have just created a pretty blue-green ball to play with, with lots of little robotic, funny-looking ape-like creatures for His amusement.

C. He could have decided that the whole idea was a waste of His time and energy and done nothing at all.”

” . . . ok . . . and . . . ?”

“And He gave you the choice to believe either that he took one of the above courses of action, or a different one, or whether or not He even exists.”

“ok . . . ?”

“So he cares about you so very much that He wasn’t willing to just create a little action figure for Him to move and twist in whatever form He saw fit. He cares enough to give you a part to play in the process of the story He’s writing for you. He gave you a choice! So what really matters, matters at an even more basic, more visceral level than what you choose is the simple act of choosing.”

. . . I had now given myself some serious food for thought – enough so that the conversation in my head terminated itself abruptly. I think it was confused . . .
But does this not make perfect sense, given what we know about who God is? It’s precisely because of this notion that I think the whole debate over predestination versus free will is so . . . pointless. Certainly, scripture teaches that God is sovereign. But just as often it implores us to “believe,” or “follow,” or “repent,” or “come,” or myriad other such things.

God wants desperately for us to make a decision! Naturally, He wants us to choose to follow Him. This, Christ made pretty clear throughout His ministry. However, It is also clear that there are many different ways of doing so.

I was thinking through all of this, and reading through some random scripture passages, when I happened on Romans 14, and on an interesting passage I hadn’t considered in this light before. The beginning of the chapter reads:

“Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another ? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”

It really doesn’t sound much like Paul thinks God puts a whole lot of stock in dietary laws, does it? It seems that what Paul wants the Roman believers to do is quite simple – respect one another’s choices.

All well and good, right? After all, I’ve sat through many a long, boring sermon about how eating meat offered to idols is my choice (though usually the point of the sermon is that I shouldn’t do it – or any other, such “iffy” behavior – because it might offend somebody).

But the passage goes on:

“One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.”

hmmm . . . so you mean that God doesn’t really care whether we consider Sunday, or Saturday, or any other day particularly “holy”? You mean that it’s Ok for some to honor Sunday as “The Lord’s Day,” and for others to . . . well . . . not?

That, it appears, is what the passage says. The Fourth Commandment . . . and Paul says it doesn’t matter a whit.

Why? Because that’s not the point! The passage continues:

He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.

The point is not the behavior, it is the choice . . . not the choice to eat meat or veggies, or to go to church on Sunday . . . the choice to follow Christ.

I’ve seen so many people get passionate about behaviors . . . do this, don’t do this, go here, don’t go there, spend time with this person . . . but not with that one . . .

Kelly’s right. There’s no point to it.

What, though, about the choice to wake up each day and engage in an eternal relationship with the one who gave me life . . . twice!! . . .

. . . now there’s something I can be passionate about.

The Illusion of Control

There was a time when powerful leaders in particular cultures could control large swaths of their respective societies with utter impunity, and when the people being controlled had no choice in the matter. That time has passed.

Wikileaks.org is a site recently begun with the intent to be “an uncensorable version of Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis.” According to its authors, “It combines the protection and anonymity of cutting-edge cryptographic technologies with the transparency and simplicity of a wiki interface.”

The God Journey, as many of our readers know, is self-described as “an ever expanding conversation of those living outside the box of organized religion.”

The American Broadcasting Company is one of the “big three” U.S. television networks.

Myspace is a worldwide, incredibly popular social networking website.

Amazon is a global, online bookstore.

And yet, each of these organizations, with each of their very different missions, and very different (though sometimes overlapping) audiences, shares a very important position in modern western culture.

Together, and with millions of other individuals and organizations, they are demonstrating to the world, one example at a time, that modern western culture’s time has passed.

Humanity has seen many eras and cultures rise and fall, but a trend-line is visible when they are set against one another. The earliest civilizations had rulers with the absolute and completely arbitrary power of life and death over their people, and the people had no alternatives. Then, ancient civilizations like Babylon began to craft law codes to make the controls exercised by the rulers, and the actions taken by the people, less arbitrary and subjective.

Then Greco-Roman culture added the concept of a popular voice in the decision-making process. Though imperfect, and at times merely notional, this was a sea change in terms of control.

With the birth and ministry of Christ came the idea that one’s soul was his or her own to control – and to dedicate in service to God or to reject Him, rather than to be tossed around by the whims of the mad and capricious deities followed by the cultures in which Christianity was born.

The Reformation furthered that belief by positing that the Roman Catholic Church did not have the sole right to mediate the relationship between God and His creation.

The birth of the United States came with the notion of government by the consent of those governed.

The women’s suffrage and antislavery movements expanded that notion to previously subjugated segments of society.

The civil rights movement asserted that mere freedom from enslavement was not enough – that all should be equal in the eyes of the law.

So it is that we find ourselves today on the cusp on another movement. Like those before it, this movement is about control.

Wikileaks – the website I mentioned earlier, was originated to ensure the ability of individuals worldwide to pass information back and forth free of censorship from their respective governments.

The God Journey is an adventure in relationship with Christ free of those who wish to control that relationship from within the walls of some traditional churches.

ABC News last week posted yet another “classified” program discovered through a leak from anonymous sources within the U.S. intelligence community – this time about a “finding” by President Bush authorizing covert action against Iran.

Myspace is one of thirteen sites recently blocked from being accessed on .mil domains – those owned and operated by the U.S. military. While the reason given for the ban was a potential for future bandwidth concerns, there is widespread suspicion that it is also connected to operational security – the ability of the military to control information from its members who used the thirteen websites.

Amazon began as an online bookseller, but has become much more. First the company began to allow users to sell their own used books through its website. Then it began to sell other products in addition to books, and to allow others to do likewise. Now, among other ventures, the site offers on-demand publishing, characterized as “inventory free fulfillment” which allows users to self-publish, and immediately begin marketing and selling their own work. Our friend Kate Bowen did so, and her book In Bonn is now available on Amazon.

These are just a few examples, but it is definitely a growing trend. Modernity was the day of the middleman; of the specialization of labor. It was the time of the “expert.”

That time is passing.

What do we call this new period into which we are entering? Some call it “postmodernism,” but that seems, to me, to be merely another way of saying “we don’t know what to call all this.”

I think it needs a new name, separate from the baggage that the word “postmodern” has accrued. Time alone will tell what that name might be.

Terminology aside, however, the simple fact is that you and I are getting harder and harder to control – that in fact, such control is merely an illusion, right up to the point at which we assent to it.

. . . which is the problem, isn’t it? All too often we don’t even realize we have assented. How many times in your life have you uttered the words “I don’t have a choice”? I know I have, far more than I now care to think about.

But the truth is, in nearly all cases, we do. I might think I don’t have a choice but to go to work in the morning . . . but I do. Each day I choose to go to work and earn a living that helps to support myself and my wife. I could just as easily choose to find a different job, or choose to find some way of employing myself, or choose to make less and live in a smaller house . . . or choose to walk away from it all, for that matter.

It’s an empowering realization, because once I begin examining my life through the lense of my own choices, I realize that this is, indeed, the life that I have chosen . . . and that I rather like it. Even in the worst of times, it is better than many alternatives. It has made me realize that I do not have to allow so-called “experts” to tell me, among other things, what to think about world events, how best to care for my body, or how to connect to God.

The simple fact is that experts might (arguably) be right a majority of the time, but they will be wrong sometimes. When they are, there is undoubtedly somebody out there with the right answer, and all I usually have to do to find it is run a reasonably thorough search through Google and compare all the different viewpoints I get.

I am done looking at the world through other people’s filters. My own are hazy enough without introducing the additional, inevitable subjectivity that comes whenever somebody else attempts to force us to see something “their way.”

All of this brings us back to the websites mentioned at the start of this post. Each, in its own way, is working to increase the number of viewpoints available to us. Each is part of the reason we live in an era of choices like none that has ever existed before. Some, like ABC News, have tried to play the role of middleman, working with other news organizations to tell us what to think . . . but their day is coming to an end as well – just look at the explosion of news-related blogs, some of them even producing their own original reporting from places like Iraq. There is even a news service that exists to provide content for bloggers, just like the Associated Press and other wire services do for “mainstream media.”

In other cases, there are outside forces who attempt to wrest control from some of us. I cannot access MySpace (or YouTube, etc.) from my office because I work on a military installation. The military has also attempted, recently, to clamp down on soldiers blogging on day to day life during deployment.

Such efforts will probably be successful, for a time – but the ABC story is proof that even the force of federal law against release of classified information is not enough to protect a story from getting out. If that’s the case, how can the military expect to control bloggers in its ranks?

This whole situation presents a host of opportunities, but it also comes with its own set of challenges. The simple fact is that when it comes to the information era, it is easier to operate as a small, agile entity than a large, clumsy one. For this reason, the U.S. government is losing the War on Terror (if I may use a term that has fallen out of favor), and it is losing that war on the Internet.

It is a new, multidimensional threat. How does a government as ungainly as the U.S. address such a threat? I don’t know, but it is certainly not by attacking any country in which terrorists are plotting against U.S. assets, or by attempting to root out and arrest terrorists wherever they might be hiding. Those methods might (arguably) have worked once. They do not work any longer.

Perhaps there is no response. Perhaps this is another chink in the armor of a nation-state system that seems to be failing. perhaps the answer is to plod along as best we can as nations until something better, more agile comes along.

That, it seems, is our choice. The future is up to us.

The Trap of the Certain

Well, I’m back – back from a week in California with my family and several close friends, and back from two weeks in Indiana on a work-related trip.

It’s been a very insightful three weeks. I feel as though I’m bursting at the seams with topics to write about, but I seem to be having trouble getting them all out at the moment.

There is one story I want to share, though, about a topic near and dear to . . . well . . . everyone. I want to talk today about sacred cows.

There I was, sitting at a table full of my colleagues. There were perhaps a dozen of us, of different backgrounds, genders, ages, races and worldviews.

Eventually, the conversation turned to politics. I happen to have very strong political views on certain subjects, and I jumped into the conversation with gusto. The conversation included a couple of liberals, a couple of conservatives, a moderate or two, and at least one libertarian. The topics included foreign and domestic, intricately detailed and utterly simplistic.

What seemed to me to be uniform, though, among all of us there, was the complete and total certainty of our positions, and the way we defended them without thought for whether those with different views had a point.

While I try, in every conversation, to attempt to see what I can learn from and about the other person or people involved, I found myself falling into this trap as well. My views came to the surface, and I defended them with an instinct honed by four years of college debate.

Why is it that I am so quick to defend beliefs that might well be indefensible? Why is it that I find myself listening only with the design of formulating a coherent rebuttal to what is being said?

Then again, isn’t this what we are taught to do as Christians? Aren’t we taught by each pastor under whose tutelage we sit, that what we are hearing is literally, “the gospel truth,” and that part of our Christian duty is to be able to readily defend our theological positions?

We have, it seems, turned Christ’s inclusive invitation into an exclusive club – we have turned relationship with Him, into a debate against those who are without Him.

What, exactly, do we hope to gain in this?

I remember, a few years back, being over at a freind’s house playing a strategy game, when a knock came at the door. When we opened it, there stood two Jehovah’s Witnesses earnestly desiring to tell us about their faith.

My two friends immediately began hurling challenges at them, “don’t you know that . . . ,” “but the Bible says that . . . ,” “How would you respond to . . . ,”

I stood back in discomfort. All I wanted to do was hear what they as individuals, rather than their religion as a whole, believed . . . but I was not to get the opportunity. Eventually, they uncomfortably excused themselves and fled, realizing that they were playing to a hostile crowd.

Why is it that when we – not just Christians, or those of any particular culture, religion or politics, but we as people – suddenly become a hostile crowd when confronted by anybody who does not think exactly as we do? My wife and I have experienced this even among dear friends who, not hearing what we have to say, hear only the buzzwords that raise red flags with them, and immediately turn hostile.

Why is it that words like “postmodern” or “agnostic” or “liberal” do that to so many of my dearest friends? Why is it that they feel an immediate need to condemn me for asking the type of questions I ask in this blog?

If Christ is indeed “the truth” as He claims to be in John 14, will not that truth stand up to questions and doubts?

If all the elements of what we believe are indeed the truth and will stand as such on their own merit, why do we feel such a need to attack the doubters and questioners?

And if some elements of what we believe are not truth, why do we believe them?

This is not the way of Christ, who Himself demonstrated love to doubters like Thomas, and spent hours in deep and heartfelt conversation with questioners like Nicodemus.

Why then do we feel like we must berate and belittle them, where He did not?

The Market-Driven Church

I just got through reading a very moving story posted at “We are in Jesus.” It’s a post on how we believers tend to market our churches, rather than sharing our God with those who do not know Him. It’s a story of believers who had an opportunity to offer new life to someone hurting, and who could only offer a new “program.” This story brought tears to my eyes, because I’ve been there. I’ve been the one who participated in the church Bible Clubs and Vacation Bible Schools, and who, at the end of the program, could not say to those wonderful, hurting children in the worst parts of our town, “I’ll see you soon . . .” because our program had no follow-through . . . no way to go back and continue being a part of those young lives who so desperately needed someone to reach out to them.

Instead, all I had to offer was, “come to our church on Sunday.”

I remember one young boy in particular, Jose. He was a regular attender at the Vacation Bible Schools we held each summer several blocks from our church in the very worst neighborhood in our Sacramento suburb. His older brother was a local gang member, and they often used Jose as a courier for drug deals and other gang matters. He was, if I recall correctly, about nine years old.

I remember the look on his face the day his older brother tried to come and talk him out of hanging out with us in the park. I remember how he stood up for himself, and told his brother that he was going to stay.

I remember talking with Jose, after one of the messages. I remember the tears in his eyes as he talked about wanting something more. He didn’t know how to express it, but the conflict was plain in his eyes between the part of him that wanted to gain status in his older brother’s eyes, and the part that wanted to continue in relationship with us and the God we tried to introduce him to.

I remember asking the leaders of the event what we could offer him in the future.

I remember being told to let him know that we’d love to see him in church on Sunday.

It was, after all, right up the road. But how could any of us, who took Saturday off from our nice, middle-class life to come and spend time with the kids who had nothing, ever comprehend the pressures that held him there, that kept him from walking those ten blocks the next day. He was nine years old, for crying out loud! We didn’t even offer to come pick him up (I say “we,” even though I was only 14 or 15 at the time and didn’t have a car or a license to use one.) We just expected him to “show up,” simply because we said it was the right thing to do.

I and my church failed Jose. We failed him not because we didn’t tell him of Christ, but because we didn’t care enough to show him what a Christ-filled life should be like. We cared more about getting him to church . . . the “right place” to teach him such things.

As I have reiterated many, many times, I have a number of dear friends who have found wonderful church families inside a “normal,” organized, institutional church. That is the path they have chosen, and it is their choice to make. I rejoice with them in what they have found on that journey.

However, it seems like we often miss the point of that path. We forget that, while churches can be valuable tools for aiding in one’s search for Christ, it is He who is the point . . . any time we fail to demonstrate that, we fail Him.

I failed Him, with Jose, and each time I think about that day in the park, I wish I could find Jose today, a decade or so later, and beg his forgiveness for not offering more.

Let us always remember that the trappings of religion we adopt, be they churches, or traditions, or practices, or habits, or behaviors, are only a means to Christ.

He is the point.

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 . . .

My Journey out of Church and into the Body of Christ (5)

So where do I find myself at present . . . ?

Recently, my wife and I have both been challenged by dear friends who are concerned about our decision not to remain within the framework of an institutional, organized church. Given how much these friends mean to us, these conversations have touched off a great deal of study, prayer, discovery and contemplation . . . as well as prompting the creation of this blog.

We have become involved with a network of wonderful people in this area, who are facing a similar journey to ours. These people were introduced to us through the writings and podcasts of Wayne Jacobsen, and we had the opportunity to meet with Mr. Jacobsen and several new friends in March of this year at the home of some local friends of his who have now become good friends of ours as well. What impressed both of us was how little Wayne seemed interested in leading and controlling the conversation we were having. Each person in the room had a story to tell, and all of us learned and grew from the experience . . . but nobody was responsible for leading or directing the discussion. It was completely organic, completely real . . . and completely independent of any “local church.” Jacobsen lives in California, far away from us here in Virginia, but the other people in that room have, in the last two months, become a very large and important part of our lives.

My wife and I came away more refreshed than either of us have been by an ordinary church service for a long, long time. We felt like we had seen God working in the minds and hearts of the people in that room, and that He had worked in our minds and hearts as well . . . showing us more of Himself. We have gotten together with some of the people in that room, as well as some of their friends who are in similar situations, a total of four times. We hope for many more such gatherings, as each one brings a renewed sense of joy, fellowship, and gratitude for our Father’s working in our lives.

I have had well-meaning friends tell me that this experience runs completely contrary to Scripture. I disagree. While I am certainly glad that many people are able to find spiritual nourishment and fellowship inside conventional churches, I find nothing in scripture that indicates that this is the only way God will ever use to build up the people He has redeemed.

I will address some of the most common objections I have received in regards to this statement in future posts. I considered putting them here, but I don’t think this series is the place for them. This is a story, not an apologetic. All I will say about them for now is that, after a lot of soul-searching, prayer, study and agonizing, I have come to a place where I don’t think I can, in good conscience, attend a conventional church at this point in my life. If I did so, it would be because I was once again bowing to external pressure from others, conforming to the person they want me to be. It would not be because I believe that’s where I need to be to engage in a meaningful relationship with God, or with other members of His Body.

Where, then, do I go from here?

I don’t know . . . and oddly enough for someone with as many “control-freak” characteristics as I have, I like it that way. God has made life an adventure – a mystery with new surprises and unforseen twists. One exciting thing I have been discovering even in the past few weeks is that, when one is living outside the boundaries of a conventional church, the opportunities to speak truth into the lives of others, and have them speak truth into my life, are vastly increased.

There are, it seems, a lot of us asking these questions. When I first began examining my beliefs about church, I thought I was alone – or at the very least, that Heidi had been through these questions before. At the time, though, I wasn’t sure I wanted to end up in the same place she had. She had seen and been through a lot more than I had, at the time, and I thought perhaps it was because of this that she had ended up where she had. Time and experience, though, led me on a very different path, to the same place she had reached – a place outside the walls of any church building.

What I discovered, though, is that far from finding ourselves defenseless outside these walls, and open to spiritual attack in ways that “normal Christians” aren’t (something each of us heard from our skeptical pastors, church leaders and friends) we are finding other people with similar questions and similar experiences, who have arrived at similar answers.
We are also finding that we can experience all of the same benefits that a conventional church offers – the study of scripture, the fellowship, the opportunities to serve and bless each other, the joy of participating in “Body Life” – without the shame, fear, and debasement that is popular in many local assemblies.

For some of us, this is our first experience with the easy yoke, the light burden, and the rest for our souls that Christ offers in Matthew 11.

Where do I go from here? I don’t know . . . but for the first time, I do not fear to find out what comes next.

. . . I am excited by it.

Back to Part 4

My Journey out of Church and into the Body of Christ (4)

The threat of church discipline brought back the fear, in spades. I had watched the church of my childhood go through a heartrending split over church discipline issues, and the last thing I wanted to do was cause anything of the sort among another local assembly, particularly one where many of the close friends I had made during my college years attended.

I have lived so much of my life afraid – afraid of my father, of my friends, of my pastor, of my peers, of my God, of myself.

I was not going to take it anymore. I was told that if I resigned my membership without expressly giving them the name of another “local body” to which I would go, the church leadership might refuse it (depending on how I did so), keep my name on the rolls, and place me under church discipline nonetheless. I spent hours in conversation with my Bible study leader, some of the church elders, and the assistant pastor agonizing over what course I should take.

I faced the fear. I resigned. I wrote a 24-page letter to the church leadership detailing my doctrinal and theological differences with their statement of faith not as written, but as practiced. I had footnotes and an executive summary. I told them that I could very easily give them the name of some church that cared much less about membership, go there for a short time, and then leave all together – but I was tired of the hypocrisy. I was tired of hiding. I was tired of nearly everybody in my life thinking I was something and someone I’m not.

So I told them the truth. I told them I didn’t know where I would go.

They let me go, “with concern.” I think they didn’t know what to do with me. I had become a strong person. I’d started to stand up to people who thought that if I didn’t agree with them, I must not be listening. I started being OK with not feeling the same about every issue as those whose opinions I valued.

I had started to become a real person, in place of the shadow person I had once been.

That was a year and a half ago. I still don’t know where I’m headed, but at this point the likelihood that it is back into organized, institutional church seems dim. If that’s where God takes me, so be it – but the ensuing events after that point seem to make that unlikely.

I began to realize that I had been voluntarily subjecting myself to a longstanding pattern of what David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen call “Spiritual Abuse.” I’d been allowing others to determine the course of my life for me by telling me what to think, without conducting my own due diligence and searching out for myself whether or not I actually did think such things. Instead of being who God made me to be – instead of letting Him define me as his treasured child and heir, I had been letting other people define me: My father, my friends, my school administrators, my pastors, my former love interests . . . each had a role in telling me who I was – some because I allowed it out of fear, and others because they believed their position and authority gave them that right.

Nobody has that right. Nobody has the right to strip away another person’s identity and replace it with another. Only God has the right to do that – and He finally began to do it for me. I may have asked Christ to be my personal Lord and Savior twenty-three years ago . . . but the simple fact is that most of the time I didn’t rely on Him or actively engage in relationship with Him. There were times that I sought Him . . . times that I caught glimpses of who He is, and what He had for me, but it was always from that place of fear . . . I was afraid of life without the security of knowing I was eternally saved. I was afraid of what He would do to me if I didn’t conform to His whims. I was afraid of what would happen if I allowed myself to question the teachings of my youth . . .

If I had to date the time when I first began the tentative steps toward a true, personal relationship with Christ, it would be in the summer of 2004. It was then, as I was clawing my way back from the brink of despair and questioning everything I ever thought I knew, that I shouted at God that if He was truly there, and truly cared about me, he’d have to prove it.

He did, and continues to do so to this day.

In drawing me through the dark times of my life, God brought people to me who helped me see past the fear. He proved to me that I don’t have to dread Him and His place in my life . . . that the whole point of Christ’s life and death was to take away the need for the rightful dread that His chosen felt for Him – the all-seeing, all-knowing God of the Old Testament who demanded obedience at any price – and prove to them . . . to us . . . that He was a loving, generous father who wants nothing more than to give the whole world, and more, to His beloved.

I had been relating to God much of my life as the Old Testament Hebrews did – worshipping him genuinely, but out of terror, ever fearful that each misstep I took was bringing me closer and closer to a lighting-bolt from the sky. I was never taught that one could lose his or her salvation. What I was taught was more insidious . . . that after a point when one has sinned badly enough or strayed far enough, God simply can’t use them anymore. For someone with my self-esteem issues, damnation was not my worst fear . . . my worst fear was worthlessness.

It is no coincidence that my journey out of the institutional church paralleled my journey from that place of believing myself worthless, to a place of understanding just how valued I am of God.

It seems as though we, the jumbled mass of humanity, is running aimlessly around this globe we call home, living day to day in utter terror. We fear many things . . . some rational, and some irrational.

But what we fear most is ourselves.

I grew up hearing how lowly and wretched I was. I was told time and time again that any hint of self-worth smacked of pride – that I was nothing . . . and that God condescended to love me anyway.

No wonder I hated myself.

Have you ever sat through sermons solely designed to impress upon you how vile and miserable you are? How we humans are pigs rooting around in the mud, and for some strange reason God chose to offer us a way out of that miserable place.

A pig, once pulled out of the mud and washed off, is nothing but a very clean pig.

God tells us, however, that we are so very much more. In Genesis 1, He tells us that we are created in His image. We are created as a very reflection of our creator.

God does not look on us as scum, and condescend to love us anyway . . . Hosea 2 tells us that God looks on us with the eyes of a lover, and attempts to woo us to Himself. Any picture of God that leaves this out is a picture of a false god.

This was why I had to get out of the institutional church. I could not find God there. All I could find were other people’s expectations, and my own fears.

Where, then, do I find myself today . . . ?

(to be continued . . .)

Back to Part 3

Go to Part 5

My Journey out of Church and into the Body of Christ (3)

I’d been depressed before. My mom had died the previous year and I remember sitting in my room while she lay down the hall suffering from the second bout of cancer, which would eventually kill her, thinking to myself, “I’m glad I know there’s a God, and that he actually cares about me, because if I didn’t, I might as well shoot myself in the head right here and now.”

This time, I didn’t have that luxury. From April to July of 2004 were the darkest days of my life. I no longer knew who I was, or who I wanted to be. I no longer knew what I believed, or why I had ever believed any of it. I hated myself, and realized that I had hated myself for a long time. I dove back into the pornography as a coping mechanism, and I engaged in long-running and heated debates and arguments with God.

My accountability partner thought I needed to spend more time in church. My Bible study mates seemed mystified by all of it, and promised each week to pray for me.

I, on the other hand, remember very vividly one of the few church services I attended during that time. Through most of the sermon, I sat in the third row contemplating different ways of killing myself. Eventually, I talked myself out of it because I figured it would hurt those I cared about too much if I died.

That was one of the last times I went to that church. As I began talking through all of this with the few people from that church who had demonstrated any real care for me – particularly my Bible study leader and a couple of the church elders – I realized that they didn’t have any answers. The answers they gave me seemed rehearsed, superficial, and singularly unhelpful.

Through the long, dark process, I began to come to the heart of the problem, and it was this: The self-doubt, and fear of being rejected by anyone and everyone had overwhelmed me completely. I had given away the ability to define myself. I had been freely allowing anybody and everybody around me to tell me who I was, and I had, to the best of my ability, become exactly the person they wanted to see: Pastors, parents, teachers, friends, each and every girl I’d ever attempted to have a relationship with . . . all had a hand in who I was at that point . . . everybody but me. To be sure, it wasn’t always malignant. In most cases, they simply defined me because I refused to define myself.

I had become a nobody, in the most literal sense . . . a shadow person. I had allowed everybody to define me as they wished, to the point where I had no idea who or what I was even supposed to be, much less who or what I had become.

There were a handful of people who tried to be there for me during this time, but two people in particular were able to see through all the facades and walls to speak to who I really was . . . two close friends of mine who knew about my struggles with pornography and self-esteem issues, and who had each been through the wringer themselves.

I shared everything with them – something which I’m sure the people at my church would have discouraged had they known. You see, both of these friends were girls, and this church, like ATI and the church in which I grew up, were of the belief that deep heart-to-heart conversations with members of the opposite gender lead to “unhealthy emotional bonds.”

In my case, the bonds started slipping away. I started seeing that there were people who actually cared about me, liked me for who I was, and enjoyed spending time in conversation with me. I realized that the pornography was rooted in a complete lack of self-respect and self-definition, and I started discovering the person I truly had been all along . . . the person God created me to be, but who had become so obscured by my desire to be all things to all people, that he got completely lost in it all.

I’d had confidants before . . . people I trusted with my story, but during this period, for the first time, I was able to share with someone who neither judged me and rejected me, nor tried to turn me into a project and fix me. This person, a longtime friend who was (though I had no inkling, as yet) to become my girlfriend, and later my wife, trusted God with me, and God came through. She had been through this whole mess of depression and rediscovery herself, and she kept telling me, “I know you hate hearing it, but I’m actually glad you’re going through all of this. I’ve been there, and I know what’s waiting on the other side.”

What was waiting on the other side was reality – a deeper reality than anything I have ever known. I had let other people define me for so long that I had stopped listening to God telling me who I was meant to be.

When I started listening again, I didn’t find anything remotely resembling what I expected.

Soon, the people from my church began getting concerned because I wasn’t showing up regularly at all. I didn’t want to leave, because I still loved the Bible study and getting together to talk over life’s issues with the other guys. Eventually, I started dating the girl who had been there for me through my depression . . . the one who had herself been through it all before. She was the one person who truly understood me, knew what I had been through, and knew me for who I truly was, and was meant to be, rather than the person I tried and pretended to be for so long.

The church, of course, did not approve. This girl, after all, was not going to church. She’d been hurt more than once, and had seen close friends torn to shreds by the church, in the name of “pastoral counseling.” And she wanted none of it.

Still, as I said before, she was fine with my journey being where it was . . . even if neither of us quite knew what that location might be.

I toyed with the idea of leaving the church, but wasn’t at all sure that’s what I wanted . . . or what God wanted for me. I didn’t know where else to go.

Soon, it all became much clearer. My Bible study leader informed me that the church leadership was concerned about my irregular attendance, and was considering placing me under church discipline if I did not show up more regularly. They didn’t inquire as to why I wasn’t more active or offer to help. They condemned me for failing to conform to their set of desired behaviors. When I tried to explain, they couldn’t see past my actions to engage with the deep internal struggle I was going through.

So I struggled alone. I studied and read a great deal about the church, its beliefs, and the scriptural justification for those beliefs. My study led me to an inexhorable conclusion – one I’d been fighting for a while by that point, despite my girlfriend (now my wife) having already reached that conclusion some time before.

I do not believe that Scripture mandates church attendance as a part of life in Christ’s body. I do not see any differentiation in scripture between what has become known as “the local church” and “the universal church.” I believe that distinction to be an entirely man-made construct.

To me, it seemed in my studies, and still seems now, as though scripture lays out a picture of the whole body of Christ as a single organism with Him as its head. While gathering in local synagogues and homes and hearing scripture read and taught may have been the most efficient and effective mechanism to engage in body life during the first century after Christ, it certainly isn’t anymore. I will write much more about this later. For now, let us continue on our journey . . .

(to be continued . . . )

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Go to Part 4