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 . . . )

Back to Part 2

Go to Part 4

My Journey out of Church and into the Body of Christ (2)

I decided that I wanted to attend a conservative Christian college that was just starting up on the other side of the country. It was billed as a place where, unlike some other, more infamous Christian schools, the students would be taught to think for themselves, and to defend their beliefs against those who would attack them. It was advertised as a place thinking Christians could go to hone their skills, cement their worldviews and then take them out into the world to influence it for God.

Naturally, being who I was at the time, this appealed to me, and for about the first year of its existence, the school made some attempts to live up to its billing. I had a couple of wonderful professors there who introduced me even more to the concept of thinking �outside the box,� and the notion of questioning what one believes in order to either strengthen it, or realize that it isn�t worth believing.

Since that time, I�ve been sad to see the college slip into the typical mode of teaching students what to think, rather than how to think. I treasure my time there because it feels like I and those who attended with me the first year got something that no other student of that school will ever get.

There was, however, a darker side to my college experience . . .

When my family got its first Internet connection, my father, knowing about my struggles with pornography, sat down with me, looked me in the eye, and said, �If you go anywhere you shouldn�t, I�ll know.� This fear-based approach worked on the surface – I never viewed a single pornographic picture on my parents� computer.

However, the problem with fear as an influence on others is that it is a very powerful behavior-modification tool . . . and very little else. During the remainder of my time at home, I merely got my titillation from some other source than the computer. Later I would realize that this fear had become a theme in my life . . . and the next place it cropped up was once I left home for college. Now that I didn�t have my dad�s watchful eye on me, I felt (naively) free to do whatever I wanted with my computer. I was careful at first, afraid that those watching the network would catch me looking at websites I shouldn�t be looking at.

As time went on, I got less and less careful. Not that it would have mattered. About halfway through my second year, the college found out, somewhat by accident, that a number of the guys on campus had been viewing pornographic websites on their college laptops over the school network. Each of us was called in to speak to the Dean of Students.

My meeting with him began when he said, �You do realize that this is an expellable offense?� There was the fear again.

None of us, however, were expelled. At the time, my mom was suffering through her first bout with cancer, so the decision was made that unlike the rest of the students, I wouldn�t have to call my parents and inform them. That was reserved for a later date. I would, however, have to meet with the Dean regularly and be accountable to him.

The first time we scheduled a meeting, he didn�t show.

The second time, I waited outside his office for an hour past our scheduled time, while he sat in a closed-door meeting with a member of the faculty.

I didn�t bother trying to schedule a third meeting . . . I figured I�d probably get called in and dressed down for it, but that I�d explain and then everything would progress as it was �supposed� to.

What happened was worse.

What happened was nothing.

Suddenly, I came face to face with something I hadn�t experienced before – at least not consciously – a full-bore, undeniable example of someone who claimed to care about me, and who very demonstrably didn�t.

As the year wore on, gradually the fear wore off. I finished my academics and returned to the pornography, knowing that I was untouchable, not because they didn�t have the power to do anything to me, but because they simply didn�t care enough to bother.

After I graduated and began graduate school, I finally started to realize just how miserable my life truly was. I hated myself, and I thought of myself in most of the lowliest terms possible. During my time at college, I�d investigated several churches. Some had proven too shallow, others too weird. Some had just simply not appealed to me.

I had finally settled into a home church that seemed like what I was looking for, only to discover that I had no idea what I was looking for.

When I came back for graduate school, much the same thing happened. I discovered that the home church wasn�t what I thought it was, and tried out a couple others.

Finally, I found one that looked like exactly what I needed. They had a deep respect for Scripture, a robust outreach program for college students and youths just starting their careers, a good small-group program, and most importantly of all (to me), you could request to be placed in an accountability relationship with an older, more mature Christian, and the church would set it all up for you.

This was, I thought, precisely what I needed.

Once again, however, the fear-driven accountability relationship only treated the symptoms. I wasn�t seeking out pornography anymore . . . but neither was I particularly growing or getting to know Christ better. I just didn�t want to have to explain to my accountability partner, an elder in the church, each time we met that I�d been looking at dirty pictures again.

That seemed to suit both of us fine, until my distaste for the superficiality of it all led me to gradually attend church services less and less.

If you want to come to the attention of your church, the quickest way to do so is not to commit some heinous act or get in a fight with a church leader. The quickest way is to simply stop showing up.

It was my first experience with how threatened church leaders feel when you discover you don�t need them to stand between you and God anymore. I stopped going regularly because I was being handed a slate of obligations (show up on Sunday morning and evening, meet with your accountability partner once a week, and stay active where you can) that didn�t accomplish anything with regard to my relationship with God. Where I really got my spiritual nourishment during this time was from the small, weekly bible study I shared with between four and seven other guys, each Wednesday night.

It was about this time that my life began to fall apart . . .

(to be continued . . . )

Back to Part 1

Go to Part 3

My Journey out of Church and into the Body of Christ (1)

It was a Saturday night, and the young man was deep in discussion with the woman he was dating. Their discussion centered around the church he was preparing to attend the next morning, of which he had been a member for several months. “I don’t mind if you go,” the young woman said, “I’ve just been hurt so much, and so often that I don’t think I can go with you. It’s not good for my heart or my soul. I think that’s why I haven’t really gone for the last couple years now.”

“That’s fine,” he said, “What will you do with your morning?” She replied, “I think I’ll go down to the pond, talk to God, maybe journal a little . . . ”

He thought wistfully that this sounded like a much more edifying morning than singing the same hymns, sitting in the same pews, and getting frustrated with the same things that had been bothering him about his church for some time now . . . . . . I know that’s what he thought, because he was me, in the spring of 2005.

I can’t tell you when I became a Christian, because looking back now, most of the “conversion experiences” I had seem so hollow. I think I’m coming to believe that coming to know Christ is a process, not an event. This is the story of my experience with that process. I hope that by reading it you can come to know me, and my Savior, a bit better . . .

I grew up in church. I asked Jesus Christ to be my savior (the first time) when I was three and a half years old . . . and I meant it with all my heart. Little did I know the incredible ride He had in store for me.

I was a very thoughtful little kid. I decided at four and a half that I wanted to be baptized. I told this to my parents, who told the pastor of our conservative, Baptist Church. He counseled waiting for six months, due to my youth. Six months later, I again said I wanted to be baptized. This time, I was.

When I was nine, we began attending the church I would stay active in until I left home for college. It was a very conservative, fundamental, nondenominational church. I busied myself serving where I could – cleaning up after services, playing the violin for the offering and special music, and singing in the children’s choir among other things. Then my family joined an organization called the Advanced Training Institute (ATI). ATI was a homeschooling organization, but it was more than that. One friend of mine recently called it “Pharisee school,” and by and large, the name fits.

Through ATI, I learned what a messed-up person I was. I learned that I was constantly teetering on the very edge of God’s displeasure . . . or at the very least missing out on his ultimate blessing, because I wasn’t saying, doing or being exactly the right things. I learned that all of my problems could be drawn back to pride or bitterness. I discovered that God’s grace was dependent on how closely I followed his rules. I found out that music with a backbeat was sinful, and that dating led to sexual immorality. I was taught how to read Scripture with the specific intent of making it say what I wanted it to hear . . . and then calling it a “rhema” . . . defined by ATI founder and leader Bill Gothard as a “special word from God.” . . . in short, I learned a lot of really screwed up stuff.

Somewhere around the time when I was 11 years old, I began noticing the sorts of things that boys around that age start to notice. I didn’t know what to do with it all, so what I did was began to watch television shows that featured scantily clad women, and read romance novels in the library . . . all of this when my parents weren’t looking, of course. Before too long, I had essentially taught myself the rudiments of the “facts of life.” I went to my first ATI Regional Training Conference (a big bash in Knoxville, TN each year where thousands of people get together to sing hymns, heap guilt on each other and wear blue and white for a week) when I was 13. By the end of the week I felt so guilty about what had become a mild addiction to softcore pornography that I confessed it to my parents.

This was the first of many such confessions. It was an issue that would haunt me for more than ten years.

It was in high school that my small, unquestioning worldview began to crack. I committed the cardinal sin of the ATI lifestyle . . . I began thinking for myself. I began to notice the double lifestyles lived by many ATI families – they lived one way at home, and another when they were around each other trying to impress all their friends with how godly they were. I should know – I played the game too. I began to notice how they really didn’t have anything to offer someone like me . . . very earnest and well-meaning, but dealing with a very serious, habitual sin that had become an addiction.

Why it took so long for me to begin to see this, I’m not entirely sure. I was raised by my parents to be able to think, learn and discover things for myself. Somehow, though, I became convinced by everything I heard . . . and which was repeated each Sunday at church – a church that lined up very closely doctrinally with ATI.

Then I went to college . . . specifically, my local community college, and the fissures started widening. I joined the debate team, and my debate partner introduced me to country music, which I decided I liked (despite its backbeat). My debate experience was a mixed bag. I discovered that I was a strong person who could indeed stand up for what I believed. I was offered drugs and refused, I determined for myself that I didn’t want to drink alcohol, because of my (previously demonstrated) addictive personality, and the fact that alcohol abuse runs in my family . . . and I stuck to that belief. I defended my faith in the face of being known to the rest of the team, somewhat affectionately, as “Christian Coalition Boy.”

But I also discovered something. I learned that when one is forced to debate both sides of an issue, one is forced to truly examine what one believes. I had to question things I’d never questioned before. I had to learn both the strengths and weaknesses of my beliefs . . .

(to be continued . . .)

Go to Part 2

I Don’t Believe in Pastors

Much has been said and written, in the time since Christ’s ministry on earth, of the supposed office of “pastor.” Unfortunately, a great deal of this writing has been crafted from pure and simple speculation. More of it is grounded in isogesis: the time-honored art of reading into scripture whatever you want it to say. The simple fact is that the word is mentioned once in the English New Testament, and that one mention does not even attempt to define what constitutes a “pastor.” Any definition given to this English word is purely a man-made invention. I hope, in writing this post to draw the reader into what has been, for me, a fascinating examination of the term, its history and the way it has been misused and abused throughout time, and even to this day.

The Greek word “poimen” is used in scripture 17 times. Of these, the King James version translates 16 as “shepherd” and one time as “pastor.”

Notably, all 16 instances where the word is translated “shepherd” refer either to literal shepherds (such as those who came to worship Christ at his birth) or to Christ himself.

The sole exception is Ephesians 4:11 – “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of description around that word, does there? No definition of a “pastoral office”?
Let us see if we can parse the word a bit, and determine whether there is any support at all for the modern day pastor that rules the pulpits of our churches.

The verb “poimaino,” derived from the noun “poimen,” is used eleven times in scripture. In seven of these instances, it is translated as “feed” (a duty with which any shepherd would be quite familiar, having to ensure that his flock was always well fed.)

Those who wish to support the position of an authoritarian pastor will be quick, I am sure, to realize that the other four are translated, “rule.” But two things ensure that this does not give pastors the authority to rule over churches.

The first is that each of the four times the word is translated “rule” is again referring to Christ. It is true that the duties of a shepherd can be said to be “ruling” over his flock, but the context of these passages in scripture seem to indicate that this is a duty Christ jealously guards for himself.

How, though, do we know it is not a mere mistranslation of the word, and that God in fact does intent pastors to be “rulers”? We know this conclusively from one of the last conversations recorded between Jesus and Peter.

In John 21, Christ three times asks Peter to take special care for his people. But what, precisely, does he ask of Peter? In English, it simply reads like three separate requests to “feed my sheep.”

The Greek, however, tells a different story. First, Christ uses the word “bosko,” which is translated “feed” and is specifically derived from a root that means “to nourish.” He then switches to “poimaino,” and finally back to “bosko.” Nowhere is it indicated that the “ruling” or “governing” functions of the word are in any way meant to apply to this situation. It is clear that he is asking Peter to shepherd his flock, not to rule it.

So we have one instance of one person being given special “shepherding” duty. We have another instance where the English translators chose to translate the word “shepherd” as “pastor” instead. It seems pretty clear that among the gifts Christ gave to his church are those specifically gifted with the ability of “shepherding,” but does that really mean that there is a special office created for that purpose? Future posts here will examine the same question with regard to other so-called “offices” in the church, but particularly in terms of “pastors,” does such an office even exist in scripture?

It seems clear that the only basis for this office is a misreading (or at the very least a very selective isogetical reading) of Ephesians 4:11. What does the term “pastor” (or “shepherd,” if you prefer) mean in this situation? It seems to have garnered to it authority to rule and govern and subjugate others to one’s teaching, but such authority is not evident in the passage, or indeed in Scripture. Why does it not simply mean “one who nourishes”? Why does it not simply mean “One who points on the right path”?

“But Mike,” you might say, “do not modern day pastors do these things?”

I would answer that certainly some do . . . but I would also respond with a question of my own.

Why do we need a special office to do these things? Do not we do them for each other, all the time?

But no, instead we have created a special office that conflates the functions of “evangelist” “shepherd” and “teacher” – sometimes with the apostle and the prophet thrown in.

Such a position, certainly, is not found in scripture.

There is one more thing to note. It is apparent from these verses that Christ intends to have believers fulfill some functions for each other analogous to the roles a shepherd fulfills for his flock. But lest there be any doubt remaining over whether those roles are encompassed in a special office, let me leave you with a final verse.

Christ speaks, in Chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, about the construction and composition of his kingdom. In this passage, he uses the sheep-based analogy extensively. He speaks of sheep that know their shepherd’s voice. He speaks of robbers and strangers and thieves. He refers to himself as the “good shepherd,” and to the fact that He would give his life for his sheep.

He also introduces a concept that would have been foreign to his Jewish audience, but would have been comforting to John’s universal one: The concept of other sheep “not of this fold” (i.e., Gentiles) that must be brought into it. Finally, at the end of verse 16, he says “and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”

One shepherd.

Not multiple pastors in cities all around the world

One shepherd.

Christ.

Now there is an exciting concept – an almighty God who personally cares about my spiritual nourishment, rather than a Pastor who chides me for not showing up every Sunday.

UPDATE:

I want to be perfectly clear here, that I am in no way impuning any specific person who happens to be employed as a pastor by writing this post.

I have been profoundly influenced by pastors in my life – most especially by the pastor who performed my wedding ceremony. Two of the best friends I ever had are currently studying and hoping to serve in a pastoral capacity. There is no doubt in my mind that God works through pastors, in some instances . . .

. . . my only point is this: God works through pastors, and through those who have voluntarily placed themselves under the authority of the pastoral office. But that does not mean that the office itself was created by God. The purpose of this post is to demonstrate that it was not. God has used Pastors mightily . . . just as he has used Presidents, professors, and other teaching and governing positions created by men.

God works in the lives of those under pastoral authority. I can say this conclusively because he worked in my life while I was still voluntarily under the authority of pastors.

I can also conclusively state that God can work just as well . . . in my case, better . . . without a pastor interceding between us.

That is all. Thank you for reading.

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.

Why I am an Agnostic Christian

I have been asked, of late, by a number of people whose opinions I value, why I refer to myself at times as an “agnostic Christian.” Some have expressed concern with my answer, and I therefore feel a need to clarify. This post will be the first of several relating to my thoughts and studies of late on a number of spiritual issues that have been troubling me for some time now.

To begin with, I have been told that the term is an oxymoron – that it contains two terms that cannot be reconciled. I disagree. I find it more of a paradox – two terms that seem to be irreconcilable, but which, under closer examination, make perfect sense.

Why then do I call myself an “agnostic Christian”? To answer that, I need to break the term down. The latter part is the easy one. I call myself a “Christian” because I believe Jesus Christ – the same Jesus whose name appears in early first-century Roman records from the province of Judea – was more than the great teacher many thought him to be at the time. I believe, as did his closest friends, that he was God incarnate, who was born as a gift for his creation, mankind, died to absolve us of the guilt brought onto us by our sin and that of our progenitor, Adam, and rose from the dead in victory over the physical death that is Adam’s curse. I rely on this same Jesus . . . on his life, his death, and his resurrection . . . for absolution of my own sin, and for the promise of eternal relationship with him.

The question of why I call myself an “agnostic” is a bit more difficult to explain. At its root, the word agnostic is derived from the Greek word gnosis – or knowledge – and the prefix a – indicating a lack thereof. Thus, an agnostic is quite literally one who does not know.

This, I find, describes me more by the day. I was enamored, recently, of a bumper sticker I saw, that said, “don’t believe everything you think.” This saying fits me to a tee. I find with each passing day that more and more of what I think is wrong. Therefore, while I hold my beliefs (any beliefs) firmly until they have been disproven, I am always open to that happening. Given how much of what I once thought has been shown to be wrong, I live assuming that much of what I still believe is probably wrong as well.

So by that most basic of definitions, I am, quite literally, an agnostic Christian. I believe in the existence of absolute truth, but not necessarily in the assertion that I have grasped it completely – or that I ever will, though I will never stop searching.

The problem then becomes the fact that this word “agnostic” has been used for centuries to describe one who does not believe the existence of God can be proven.

It might shock some who know me well to hear that I agree.

You see, Paul’s letter to the Romans says that, at present, we “see through a glass darkly” and that the time when we shall see “face to face” is still in the future. To my mind, the instant I assert that I “know�”. . . or even that I can “know” . . . that God exists, there is no place for faith in my relationship with God – and faith is an essential . . . the essential . . . ingredient in a true relationship with him.

If I assert that I “know God exists,” this assumes that I know exactly who I am talking about when I speak of Him – that is, that I know his attributes, his character, his form and behavior.

Needless to say, I don’t. If I did, the request he makes of me to trust him, to commune with him, and to love him would be a simple task. If I made that claim of God, it would mean that I know him better than I know my wife, my family, my dearest friends. While I hold God as my most important relationship, I wouldn’t dare to presume that much.

So the simple truth is that I don’t know if God exists. It is enough for me to believe that He does. That, to me, is the faith He asks of me.

Filters

Greetings.

Whereas my dear wife began this blog with a biography, I will begin with a challenge. Many of the salient points of my story that do not appear in my biography (found on this blog’s “About” page) will come out in future posts.

The challenge I issue to those of you who read this blog – be it one time, or regularly – is this:

Before you begin, ask yourself this question, “What assumptions am I bringing to the reading of this post (or page, or comment, or forum entry)?”

The beauty of this particular medium of communication is that I do not have to pretend to be impartial or unbiased. Those in the journalistic realm often claim objectivity. Those in spiritual pursuits often claim to be reading unvarnished truth into their preferred sacred text.

The truth, however, is that not one of us is truly impartial. We approach every interaction – be it with another person, a piece of literature, a point of view, or even a blog like this one – with our own presuppositions.

To make it easier for you to read and understand what I write, I will lay mine out on the table. If you like, I would be more than happy to converse with you on any or all of these subjects in the comments section or the forum:

  • I believe in the existence of absolute truth – and in my inability to grasp it completely.
  • I believe that matter, time, and logic are all creations of an eternal being who is all-knowing and all-powerful.
  • I believe that the writers of the Bible were inspired by that eternal being to craft the writings they did.
  • I believe that humans were made to be free.
  • I believe that definitions are important.

The last of these presuppositions is the key to all of them. One must define one’s terms if one is to engage in anything remotely resembling reasonable conversation. There is a reason I chose the word “absolute truth,” rather than “right and wrong.” There is a reason I chose the word “logic” rather than “knowledge,” or “wisdom.” There is a reason I chose “inspired” rather than “infallible,” and there is a reason I did not elaborate on what I mean by “free.”

I hope each of these reasons will become clear to you in future posts, but please understand that when you (or I) use a word, it is in the context of our presuppositions. For example, in the previous paragraph, it might be your presupposition that the words “inspired” and “infallible” are synonymous when referring to Scripture. It is my presupposition that they are not. In order to have a meaningful discussion on this topic, you need to know that about me, and I need to know the same about you. I’m certain that when I said, “I believe humans were made to be free,” it brought a thousand connotations to your head – probably both positive and negative. I would love to discuss further with you what I mean by that, and how I think many people misunderstand it. I will certainly address it at length in future posts.

For now, though, just ask yourself, “what are my filters? What am I assuming to be true as I read this post?”

Do that, and it will make this conversation that is Unedited Life much, much easier and more enjoyable for all of us.