I asked the Lord to help me work out the problem I have had about not attending church. I haven’t attended for years and unresolved issues have left me without the motivation to look for a church. Foremost in my thinking has been the realization that I am very uncomfortable in group settings. For about 25 years I worked hard at overcoming that uncomfortable feeling, developing skills and being involved in a variety of ministries. But after all that time, there was no basic change in my uneasy feeling around groups of people. What I had learned to do was to use that nervous energy to say and do the right things, in spite of how I felt. I can say that because of my willingness to be used by God, I actually saw Him work through me several times.
That assures me that those years weren’t wasted. However, at this stage of my life my “comfort” is very important to me. For years I heard how we must get out of our “comfort zones”, so I did my share of “stepping out in faith”. Looking back, I realize I never had a comfort zone. I never felt at ease in relation to my role in the body of Christ. I worked at trying to discover my gifts, my calling, my identity as a Christian. After years of exploring, exercising, applying and trying, I wasn’t any more sure about myself than when I began.
While it’s normal that most individuals are gifted or competent in multiple areas of ministry, I never felt that the sum total of things I did defined my role in the body. I always felt as if the main part of my identity was missing. I have slowly begun to understand that what I do is to think. I contemplate. I work at understanding things. Not in an applied sense to design or make anything, but in grasping concepts and principles such as are found in Scripture and expressing my conclusions in a clear way. I’m not saying I am smarter than anyone else, just as I wouldn’t be claiming to be world champion if I said I were an athlete. I just like to think. It’s what I do. How that fits into the Body, I still don’t know.
My personal experiences of disappointment and error in “The Church” (a Wesleyan church and an American Baptist church) have left me with feelings which need to be resolved before I seek for another church to attend: Pastors and leaders who first came up with plans, then asked God to bless them (as opposed to waiting for God’s direction first); pastors and leaders who claimed they were in charge; supposedly “mature” believers who left the church without explanation; self-serving members who never really got involved; those who come and go with no regard to “belonging”; and distressingly large numbers of “pew warmers” or “sheep” who were there, but not really.
Boiled down, my unresolved feelings relate to body life (interaction with believers in a church setting vis-a-vis my being uncomfortable), and interaction with church leadership. Both of these areas of concern are potentially exacerbated by a third problem : doctrinal disagreements. I’ll begin with that issue.
Divisions in the Church
Within the Church (the whole body of Christ) there are many divisions. Most of them are minor (the “disputable matters” of Romans 14:1). This passage tells us how to deal with these types of disagreements. The weak in faith are not to pass judgement on those who break their rules of behavior (which they set up to compensate for their weak faith). And those who are stronger in faith are not to look down on weaker believers (for relying on rules, rather than growing in faith). On the face of it, this seems reasonable and easy, but theory is one thing and reality another.
When disagreements arise, our usual choice is to separate and go our own way (“All we like sheep …”). In fact, that’s how so many Christian denominations have come about. For, those weak in faith are likely to insist fervently on some particular methodology, while those strong in faith are likely to fall prey to spiritual pride, assuming a superior position in any disagreement. These tendencies are typical and often cause believers to separate on the basis of very minor disagreements. Such differences of opinion are either based on conflicting interpretation of Scripture (usually a result of citing different “authorities” or some disputed tradition (again with views stemming from different authorities).
Authority is the root question of these disputes. It is the responsibility of the “Church”, meaning all churches, to teach clearly that all authority belongs to Christ, our Head (Matthew 28:18). That authority is spelled out in Scripture, and is not subject to our opinions of interpretation (2 Peter 1:20) but the Holy Spirit reveals His truth to us. 1 Corinthians 1:10-25 speaks to the folly of following a particular leader to the exclusion of accountability to the rest of the body. Since the Spirit of God indwells all believers, there is no justification for divisions based on doctrinal disagreements (1 Corinthians 2:12), particularly because we have the mind of Christ (verse 16). It serves no good purpose to give lip service to that principle, only to rationalize the conferring of doctrinal authority to clergy, denomination or any other human instrumentality.
The “authority” of Church leadership should relate primarily to organizational needs. But Church unity, including doctrinal orthodoxy should be a natural (supernatural) offshoot of Christ-centeredness, not from adherence to doctrine or submission to leaders. Minor differences in doctrine should not threaten unity because all of Christianity should be united under Christ. This is not an abstraction or a vague idea. It does not require human organization or planning. What it requires is every believer making a conscious effort to know the Lord. Thinking of ourselves as “sheep” should not stop us from getting as close as possible to the Shepherd. We aren’t dumb animals. The Church is God’s family. We are to work together to produce good works.
Learning the Bible
All who receive the Lord are given the right to become children of God (John 1:12). The details of theology have been largely agreed upon historically. Only “disputable matters”, mentioned above, separate us. Of course, I am not talking about cultic perversion of the Scriptures or heretical sects. The Church’s job is not just to “teach the Bible”, but to inspire and motivate all believers to want to “learn the Bible”. Dependence on Pastors, teachers or so-called experts for “answers” can stunt spiritual growth. It’s not that everyone has to be a theologian, anymore than everyone has to be an evangelist. But everyone needs to know Jesus personally, deeply. Everyone needs to have their own intimate relationship with the Lord. Part of that relationship is finding God in the Scriptures. Intimacy with the Word of God enables each believer to “give the reason for the hope that you have … with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
We all have our own relationships and unique ways of sharing our thoughts and feelings. Our associates accept us and understand us at that real level. If we only spout off what we’ve memorized or heard our pastor say, it’s probably going to sound like we’re trying to sell something. But if we tell others what God has directly said to us, then we will be real and sound real. Others will listen. In spite of that mindless admonition to never discuss religion, God’s truth is something people really need to talk about. All believers need to want to learn the Scriptures for themselves. It’s one of the major ways we can dig deep and get to know the Lord better (and ourselves, too). Other ways of digging deep are prayer and ministering to one another, which brings me to the next issue: Fellowship.
Fellowship and The Body of Christ
The Church is supposed to function as a body does, each part connected and working in concert. The body of Christ is under the coordination of Christ, our Head. Each local church is a microcosm of that whole (as opposed to being a specific part of the body, such as an “eye” or “foot”). But often, it can be difficult for an individual to know exactly where he or she fits in. Typically, a new person walking into a church may feel foreign, like an organ ready for transplant. Most of the time, the church was already functioning before the new person came, so they may anticipate getting “plugged into” an already existing “slot”. Hopefully, since a body is made up of living, connected tissue, the new person will bring something uniquely new to that body and become connected by developing meaningful relationships. But that doesn’t always happen.
I see individuals within the Church more like subatomic particles, bouncing around on their own individual courses, while at the same time held generally together in a group with other individuals. “Bumping” into one another, each individual course is altered by, and in turn, alters the courses of the other individuals. But the entire mass of bouncing particles is directed by God, not by the individual particles themselves. This is called Fellowship.
Leadership in the Body of Christ, though it includes a variety of gifts and ministries, is primarily the setting of a Christlike example. A “follower” then, should be a believer who freely chooses to imitate the example, which results in their own spiritual growth. But when an individual assumes the role of “director”, lining up the other particles in the way they should go, then the “local” body ceases to be a microcosm of the Body of Christ and assumes its own autonomous identity. It no longer looks like Christ because Christ is not being allowed to be the Head. Not only does the Lord do that best, but only he has the right and authority to be the Head of the Church. No man has the right to say, “I am in charge.” in the Church. Church leaders are supposed to lead by example, not by lording their authority over their “flock” (1 Peter 5:3).
The proper attitude of interaction between believers is characterized by the statement, “I trust you, in the Lord.”. We often are told we are to love one another and minister to one another, but I have seen these two ideas abused to justify manipulating others. More specifically, we are to bear with one another (Ephesians 4:2) which means putting up with whatever really annoys us; and we are to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21) which requires openness and humility. Both of these behavioral traits reflect mutual accountability.
One believer may not tell another what he should do, but rather each one of us is to remind one another in love to be sensitive to God’s leading, then trust that each believer will. While church leaders should be respected and compensated for what they do, they do not “out rank” others in the church, as they would in any worldly organization. In The Church, the “flock” is “under” the care of the shepherd. But that position is one of being loved, not ordered around. When a church body has problems with its members requiring discipline, they should address them directly and openly, as directed by Scripture. Yet, often I have seen these instructions ignored by leadership, who chose instead to cover up the problem.
Matthew 18:15-17 tells us exactly what to do when brother sins against brother. In extreme cases, individuals who threaten the spiritual stability of a body of believers are to be kicked out (1 Corinthians 5:5) but then welcomed back if they truly change their ways (2 Corinthians 2:6-7). All agreements between believers are to be made in faith, trusting the faith of each other that says, “I want to do as the Lord directs and I expect you to want the same.” Trusting the Holy Spirit means trusting that He is working in all believers.
Human Wisdom and Achievement vs. Our Response to God
Too often — because it is in “human” nature — decisions, directives and agreements are the product of the natural “wisdom” or leadership skills of a small cadre, which the church body goes along with. When this is the case, whatever the church accomplishes is mainly the result of their own efforts. But when a church makes response to God their number one priority, then whatever they accomplish will be the product of God’s will and God’s plan.
Churches are easily lured into the trap of practical, human wisdom because they see it as a means of accomplishing many things well, such as church growth, ministry development, etc. However, the question should be asked, “Do we want to be a dynamic organization (proven by numbers of people served or dollars raised) or do we want to be an obedient part of the Body of Christ, living, breathing and acting out the direct will of God, regardless of how that is measured?”
Can Man’s wisdom help The Church to obey God? At issue is this: Left to the hands of men, a church becomes focused on achievement, rather than direct obedience to God. A great example of this is the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). But in the hands of God, the Church is all about our response to God. Being “In Christ” means our response is one of faith. We obey the Lord and trust our brothers to do the same. We mutually, reciprocally, lovingly help each other. But, if instead we rely on human organization and the authority of human wisdom, we are no longer exercising our faith in Christ. We are no longer being obedient to Him.
Some will say there is nothing wrong with achievement. Out of context, that is true. However, any achievement that does not begin with the Lord’s direction and end with His being glorified is meaningless and will be destroyed by fire. (1 Corinthians 3:9-13; Romans 14:23). Achievement, per se, is not the issue. The question is, what will the Church set out to do? If you answer “achievement” you are placing the cart before the horse. Rather, the Church should be about response to God’s direction, wherever that takes us. If that leads to achievement, then fine. If not, that’s still fine, because God’s will counts more than human wisdom.
Church unity and Biblical orthodoxy are not reached by using just the right words to say what we believe. Nor are they reached by assuming the correct posture in order to give the best appearance. Any charlatan may claim to have a vision from God, dupe others into supporting some project by use of a glitzy campaign, and produce results he can boast about. Any well-conceived, well-executed, well-funded project can succeed. That doesn’t mean it is of God.
The Body of Christ needs to stay focused on the Head and respond to Him. We need to keep trusting God. Our fellowship should be a reflection of that. We need to keep trusting one another. When we “bump” into each other, we should be bumping into the Lord. We need to keep responding to the Lord in faith, and not let our old human nature take us on a “joy ride”, regardless of how wonderful that seems. That joy ride is humanness replacing godliness. It happens when we too highly esteem our own strategic plans, organizations, skills and qualifications of our leaders and the “success” of our ministries more than we do close, personal relationships with the Lord for everyone in the body. But when The Church begins by seeking the Lord, everything else good will follow (Luke 12:31).
What I am saying is that I don’t want to be involved with a church that only gives lip service to the principles I have described, while in fact relying upon human wisdom and principles of the world. If I go to church in spite of the difficulties I have in groups of people, I need to be sure that the Spirit of Christ is running things, not humans standing in his place. I am not ready to accept a low representation of the Lord’s high calling.
Michael D. Day
March 21, 2010
[UPDATE: In July of 2013 I began regularly attending a nearby church and have since become an active member.]