In a world where we see different wings of the Christian church lining up against each other on almost every issue you can name, it is an obvious question.
That question though, leads to another… what is “the church”?
I think what most people mean by “the church” is the organizational structures that are represented by personalities we see on the television or at events in out local communities. When we get most frustrated with the church, my guess is, it is that structure we are getting frustrated with… and often with good reason because the people we see representing that structure often seem to be out of touch with the reality that most of us experience on a day to day basis.
Would you trust someone who doesn’t seem to understand the reality of your life to be a moral compass?
This weekend I am preaching from the last couple of chapters of a pretty confronting book of the bible called Galatians. The author, Paul, was writing out of deep frustration because the little bunch of Jesus followers had started to focus on rules and regulations, and on systems and structures, rather than on the heart what he tried to teach them which was to live their life only in and through faith in Jesus. In fact he says “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love.” (Galatians 4:6)
My guess is that part of the reason people have pushed back against the organized expression of the church is that they have hit the kind of things Paul was hitting with that little church. Rather than experiencing a radical kind of faith expressed in real love, they experience systems and structures, rules and regulations.
One of the regulations that the religious people were trying to put in place was that followers of Jesus should have a painful operation where they cut off the foreskin of the penis off (called circumcision). Out of complete exasperation he finishes his tirade by saying “I wish they would go the whole way and cut the whole lot off….” (Galatians 5:12) Who says there isn’t humour in the bible?
For the Apostle Paul, faith is all about freedom. In fact most of us who have grown up in the Western World take our freedom so much for granted that we have very little idea that the very idea of personal autonomy and the dignity of the individual, trace back to Paul. One of the Scholars I trust, Scot McKnight says:
The modern concepts of “freedom,” “civil rights,” and “liberty” are deeply indebted to the Pauline notion of freedom and are, in one way or another, an extension of that concept.
From my perspective the part of Galatians most needed by most of us today though is not so much what Paul writes against religion. Our understanding of freedom has become self focussed and actually harmful. Sociologist Robert Bellah researched what North Americans meant by “freedom.” He wrote:
Modern individualism seems to be producing a way of life that is neither individually nor socially viable. . . . Freedom is perhaps the most resonant, deeply held American value. … Yet freedom turns out to mean being left alone by others, not having other people’s values, ideas, or styles of life forced upon one, being free of arbitrary authority in work, family, and political life. What it is that one might do with that freedom is much more difficult for Americans to define… In some sense . . . freedom to be left alone is a freedom that implies being alone.”
After spending the first five and a half chapters of his letter railing against putting too much store in structures, systems, rules and regulations, It is exactly the kind of freedom that Bellah believes we now mean by the word “freedom” that Paul warns the Galatians about:
It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. (Galatians 5:13 MSG)
Paul was clear that one of the dangers of dispensing with an external moral compass is moving to a place where there is no moral compass, and that place while it might initially feel like freedom, is actually a trap that takes us away from being whole human beings. Paul gets specific about what this “freedom” looks like, and it turns out that it looks a lot like the kind of “life without a compass” most of us see every day on television or in our local high school or workplace:
It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on. (Galatians 5:19-21)
So if I am not to trust the external systems, structure, rules and regulations, and yet I still need a compass, where do I look? Paul’s answer is fairly simple. Jesus:
Christ’s life showed me how, and enabled me to do it. I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not “mine,” but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 MSG)
So how is that possible? How can I live like that? Paul honestly believes that a life that is open to the voice of God through his Holy Spirit will be completely different to a life led by our egos. He says
What happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. (Galatians 5:22-23 MSG)
Paul then goes on to say that there are three responsibilities we have that will help keep us in this kind of life.
He had already alluded to the first one when he said “use your freedom to serve one another in love.” He unpacks that idea in Galatians 6:1-2 when he assumes that all of us are going to have moments where we lose the plot or just can’t manage life. Paul says the first responsibility of a Jesus follower is to “Carry each other’s burdens.”
We are meant to be in the kind of community that knows us well enough to step into the pain and complexity of the darkest moments of our lives, and share that burden. This is the kind of church Paul was trying to encourage.
The second responsibility, is to have the integrity to honestly face our own strengths and weaknesses and carry our own load. (Galatians 6:3-5) Paul would have said that trusting an external authority to be our moral compass is a cop-out. His assumption was that each of us would be on the journey of life with Jesus through the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and not avoiding the adventure which is uniquely ours to take.
Paul’s third responsibility will be hard for people who are frustrated with the church to hear.
Paul assumes that there are people who are called to serve the church he is trying to establish, and that those who are served by them, have a responsibility for them. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul indicates the primary role of these people is to help people grow up “into Christ”, which is to say the church leaders themselves are not the moral compasses, they are to help people engage with the only true compass: Jesus. (Galatians 6:6)
Paul actually finishes is challenge by encouraging his readers to make sure they spend their time doing good to all people, especially to the family of believers (Galatians 6:10). For Paul, the church isn’t a compass, it is a family.
I meet lots of people who care so deeply about the gap they see between what the church actually is and what they believe it should be that they no longer engage with the family of God, choosing instead to try to blaze their own spiritual trail.
I know that many people have been hurt, frustrated and even bewildered by representatives of “the church.” I know that I personally have hurt, frustrated and bewildered people, and if you have been part of the church, you probably have too. The church is messy and in some places, simply wrong.
It was the same in Paul’s day. He spends half of the second chapter of his letter to the Galatians talking about how he fought with Peter over “his hypocrisy.”
If “the church” was going to be the moral compass for the world, the world would be in serious trouble. The messiness and brokenness of the church though, is not a good enough reason to give up on it.
The one reliable moral compass, loved that messed up bunch of people so much that he calls it his bride (Ephesians 5:25-30). Jesus doesn’t let us get away with calling ourselves his followers and yet rejecting the church that he says he is building (Matthew 16:18).
I do think that Jesus is up to something in the church at the moment, seeking to build a church that encourages the kind of people who live faith expressed in love in every area of their lives, in every corner of the world.
Change is happening. From my vantage point, I think part of the way that change will happen, is when those who have been standing on the outside of the church, out of pain and frustration, move to the inside and help re-form the body of Christ.