What Most Christians Don’t Know About “Church” and How It’s Hurting Us Right Now – Part III – The Leadership of the Church

“It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.” (Ephesians 4:11)

God created the “office” of pastor and teacher, right?  Well, yes and no.  If you mean leadership functions and positions within the body of Christ, then yes.  If you mean the contemporary 2011 positions that we see, then you might want to pause for a second before you answer.

Oftentimes we’re inclined to read back into Scripture whatever it is that we see today and assume things must have been the same way in biblical times.  This leads to misunderstanding.  Take for instance the position of “pastor” just mentioned in the above passage.  Did you know that it’s really the only verse in the New Testament in which we find the word “pastor” referring to a position?  (Typically it is an activity described for church leaders in general, “shepherding,” as in John 21:16, Acts 20:17, and 1 Peter 5:1-2).  It is the Greek word poimenas and it literally means “shepherds” (“pastor” is merely the Latin word).  Clearly it is a metaphor to describe a role within a church, but not necessarily a specific office or title to be held.  Despite the concept of pastor as a specific role being mentioned only once in the New Testament, it remains the focal point or mainstay in churches that came out of the Reformation.  (And since I often get questions about Catholic terminology, just so you know, “priest” is only used several times for Christians in the NT, as opposed to the Jews where high/chief priests are mentioned frequently, and in each case it refers to all Christians universally, not church leaders.)

The early Christian church unquestionably had leadership.  But they didn’t necessarily have certain offices that required filling as we see in churches today.  In first century Christianity, you saw a faith group without priests, temples, or sacrifices, who were led under the headship of Christ.  Sure, there were appointed post-apostolic elders and leaders (e.g. Timothy, Titus, etc.), but there didn’t appear to be much hierarchical structure.  This would start to change at the time of Ignatius of Antioch towards the end of the 1st century AD.  Ignatius was an influential early church leader who began to elevate one elder in each church above the others.  This elder was called the “bishop.”  Ignatius would go on to write much about how the bishop, in essence, stood in the place of God on earth while the elders (or presbyters) functioned in place of the twelve apostles.  And over time it began to fall solely on the bishop to be the one dispensing the Lord’s Supper, conducting baptisms, counseling, leading church discipline, approving marriages, and preaching & teaching & leading prayer.  In the second century this model was adopted by many churches and by the end of the third century, it was the norm most everywhere.  The bishop was now “the professional” of Christian worship.

Subsequent early Christian leaders and writers would further the cause of a separate “ministerial” class of Christians.  Clement of Rome argued that the Old Testament order of priests should find fulfillment in the Christian church.  Clement and Tertullian both used the word “clergy” to refer to a special class of ministers and Clement referred to the common members as “laity.”  Cyprian of Carthage was a pagan orator and teacher of rhetoric who converted to Christianity and became an influential leader, but didn’t appear to give up many of his pagan notions about worship when it came to priests, temples, altars, sacrifices, and dramatic influential speeches.

By the fourth century AD, there was a clear caste of clergy.  There was one bishop to each church, under whom functioned presbyters (a position that eventually became the local “priest”), under whom functioned deacons, under whom was the laity.  At this time, there also came about more organization and hierarchy as some churches (and bishops) began exercising authority over others.  Furthering the authority of the bishops was Cyprian (208-258 AD, mentioned earlier), who sought to strengthen the office of bishop by arguing for the succession of bishops tracing back to Peter, an idea known as apostolic succession (which is also mentioned in the writings of Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus, but Cyprian was the first to turn this into doctrine).  This all led to a non-New Testament concept called sacerdotalism – the belief that there is a divinely appointed person to mediate between God and people.  (By the way, if you are wondering, Catholicism accepts this.  Lutheranism rejects this.  See an explanation here if you’re interested in more details.)  By the fifth century, the universal priesthood of all believers that the Apostle Paul speaks about in 1 Peter 2:9 was all but lost.

From the time of Constantine, clergy had been singled out as “different” from the rest of Christians.  Constantine mandated that the clergy receive fixed annual salaries, tax exemption, freedom from trial in secular courts, special clothes (that of Roman officials), special hair-cuts (called tonsures – trust me, not flattering) and other points of separation from “the average Christian.”

Years later, the Reformers would do a great deal to recover the priesthood of all believers.  But was it enough?  While men like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli rightly taught that every Christian has direct access to God without need of a human mediator (as had formerly been prescribed for years in the church), they still held a fairly narrow view of the ministry they had come into – namely, that the work of the church was still to be done by the trained few, typically those who had been “ordained” for such work, rather than the work being done by the gifted assembly of believers.

All  of this affects what we see as the normal role of “pastor” in the Christian church today.  And while we have freedom with positions in the church in the same way that we have freedom in worship, I’m not convinced that the contemporary view is always the healthiest for churches or pastors.  The following I believe is evidence of that….

There are currently about 1/2 million Christian pastors in the U.S.  Things like high stress, burnout, emotional breakdown, and depression occur at abnormally high rates among them.  Take a look at the following statistics about pastors (mostly gathered from research by The Barna Group):

  • 94 % feel pressured to have an ideal family
  • 80 % work on average more than 50 hours a week (often 6 or 7 days a week)
  • 81 % say they have insufficient time with their spouses
  • 80 % believe that pastoral ministry affects their family negatively
  • 70 % do not have someone they consider a close friend
  • 70 % have lower self-esteem than when they entered ministry
  • 80 % currently describe themselves as feeling discouraged or having dealt with depression
  • about 1/2 say they are suffering from burnout, frantic schedules, and unrealistic expectations
  • 1/3 have seriously considered leaving ministry in the past year

These statistics are significantly higher than corresponding questions to other professions.  And there are other interesting findings.  Most pastors are asked, on average, to juggle 16 major tasks (of which they feel they inadequately do most).  And over the past 25 years the length of the average pastorate in the US has been almost cut in half, from 7 years to 4 years, the most common reason for resignation being pastoral burnout.  Think about that…4 years!  I challenge someone to find me a career that has a faster average burnout rate.

Many pastors feel a tremendous stress (to be fair, often self-induced) that they are getting paid to make people feel good, entertain people, be friendly, have a popular wife and well-behaved children, behave flawlessly, and always be cheerful, highly spiritual, and available to everyone at a moment’s notice.  Who wouldn’t crack under those conditions?

Statistics seem to show that there is a non-New Testament pressure on many contemporary pastors to be perfect, talk perfectly, and work perfectly, often involving work that has little if anything to do with God’s Word.  (I once heard a pastor say that he needed to be at the church building at a certain time to open the door for a plumber because “that’s my job” and “my responsibility.”  I’m certainly not suggesting that a pastor considers himself above others or above certain work.  But, if that’s this man’s “job,” then the congregation really isn’t looking for a spiritual leader that will help them grow spiritually and serve one another.  They’re looking for a property manager who will also throw together a weekly sermon.)

The health of the pastor is one concern.  The larger concern in my estimation is the health of the congregation.  If a congregation predominantly believes that their “duty” as Christians is to show up, passively be there, and let the pastor (or worship leaders in general) do ministry, the entire congregation suffers mightily.  Then we’ve missed the concept that the Jewish priesthood has ended (a main message of the book of Hebrews), the notion of every Christian being uniquely gifted (the message of 1 Corinthians 12-14), and the idea behind the universal Christian priesthood (the message of 1 Peter 2).

My personal understanding is that every single person in a congregation should have a role/job/duty.  If you were all of a sudden removed from your local body of believers, they should hurt in the same way a physical body would have to compensate if a leg, hand, or other appendage were amputated from the body.  Your congregation (the body of Christ) should have to find a way to replace the work that you are currently doing with your talents.  We’re promised that every single Christian has gifts.  If those gifts are not being managed in such a way that there is service to others in the body of Christ, they’re being used (or unused) selfishly.  And the truth is that the person who isn’t using their gift(s) regularly to serve others is undoubtedly hurting themselves primarily.  God designed Christians to serve one another.  If you’re not serving others with your talents, you WILL feel incomplete and dissatisfied in your faith.  If you don’t currently have an outlet for your talents, talk to your pastor.  Part of his job is to train you to develop your talents and it’s important for him to be humble enough to understand that the ministry is not going to fall apart if he’s not micromanaging every detail, but flourishes according to New Testament design when he hands it over to gifted members who are often MORE qualified for certain acts of service.  This is good for the church.

So, am I trying to write myself out of a job :)?  No.  Am I trying to complain about the roles of pastors?  No.  Am I saying that the role of pastor in 2011 may need some reconsideration?  Probably.  Mostly, I’m trying to continuously push towards a healthier church – members growing healthier and into their potential through Christian development, pastors that are spending time in the right areas so that they grow themselves (since it’s rare for a congregation’s health to improve if a pastor’s spiritual health plateaus), and that we continue to grow up as a church, founded on the writings of the Apostles & Prophets, with Christ Jesus as our cornerstone.

For further reading and research: Early Christians Speak (Everett Ferguson), Paul’s Idea of Community (Robert Banks), Christian Priesthood Examined (R.C.P. Hanson), History of the Christian Church (Philip Schaff), The Ministry in Historical Perspectives (H. Richard Niebuhr).

What Most Christians Don’t Know About “Church” and How It’s Hurting Us Right Now – Part II – “The Worship of the Church”

I don’t know how many hours I’ve sat in class listening to debates regarding Christian worship style.  Some people in the Christian world contend that worship needs to look like what consumer America is purchasing today if we are to truly reach the lost in a consumer-driven society.  Sometimes, however, it’s just personal preference under the guise of “cultural sensitivity.”  This was the minority where I studied.  More commonly, many argued that we need to follow a more historical, traditional form of worship, but many on this side of the debate only really wanted to go back “historically” to their favorite time and template of worship (which typically meant whatever Luther was doing).  Sometimes it was just personal preference under the guise of (truncated) “Christian history.” 

My personal concern is that neither opinion really reflects what is seen in apostolic era, early New Testament worship.  Are we free to worship in a variety of different ways?  Absolutely.  Don’t let anyone ever tell you that worship of God “must” be done in a certain way, other than that it be “orderly” (1 Corinthians 14:40).   As the body of Christ, we have the freedom to worship God in a variety of ways.

Today, many Christian churches (particularly Catholics, Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, and Lutherans) opt for the liturgical route.  The wisdom behind the Christian liturgy is that it provides consistency, organization, and ensures that every worship service is focused where it needs to be – on Christ.  To do so, it almost invariably includes several acknowledgements that this service is conducted in worship of the Triune God, worshippers confess sins and are absolved by God through the minister, worshippers praise God using specific songs from Scripture, worshippers listen to readings and explanations of God’s Word, worshippers confess their Christian faith together, worshippers celebrate Communion together, worshippers present offerings to God to support his work on earth, worshippers offer prayers to God with and on behalf of one another, and worshippers receive a blessing from God through words of the minister.  Sound familiar?  If so, then you worship in a liturgical church. 

Many Christian churches today (particularly Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Charismatics, and numerous Reformed churches) opt for a less formulaic route.  Typically they begin worship with a combination of songs and prayers.  They’ll then proceed to a series of announcements and communication.  At this time, younger members of the congregation are guided towards a more Sunday School type of environment.  Adult worshippers then listen to a 40 minute (or so) sermon (typically more casually presented than in a liturgical worship service).  The wisdom behind this style of worship is that it typically provides less temptation to “go through the motions” and assume we’re right with God.  It also is tailored to meet people where they are at.  For instance, it’s assumed that a sermon for adults might not resonate as well with children, so a separate biblical message is customized to meet the needs of and communicate with children.

There is conventional wisdom in both approaches.  Neither is mandated by God in Scripture.  If you feel so strongly about one or the other that you suggest (or imply) that others are sinning by not doing it a certain way (i.e. your way), it’s probably time to re-read Revelation 20:18, where John writes this about those who are putting their words/preferences/laws on par with God’s Word, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll.”  To take the worship of God and turn it into mandated laws is Old Testament, old covenant Judaism, or………unchristian. 

So how did we get where we are today?  Are there any potential flaws or blind spots that we may have?  These are important questions.

To understand what we see in worship today, we really need to go back to the formation of the Roman Catholic Mass in the 600s AD.  Gregory the Great, the first monk to be made pope, although recognized as a generous, talented man and wise administrator, is also considered by historians to be a superstitious man who was greatly influenced, like Emperor Constantine, by mystical, magical, and pagan concepts.  The medieval Mass, in some respects, represented some blended components of paganism and Judaism, mixed with Catholic theology and Christian vocabulary.  Special vestments for priests, incense and holy water for purification rites, the architecture of the worship building and the concept of a worship building itself (see last week’s post), and even the title Pontifex Maximus, a title given in the Roman Empire for the chief of pagans, were incorporated into Christian worship (for the pope).  The Catholic Mass remained for nearly 1000 years, until Martin Luther.

Luther criticized the medieval mass as being too much of a human work that came from a misunderstanding of Christ’s one-time, complete sacrifice for sins.  So, in 1523, he went about revising it to create the German Mass.    The chief change Luther made was removing all references to “re-sacrificing” Christ in the Lord’s Supper.  While he believed that a specific order for worship should not be mandated, he felt that this order was wise and proper.  Through all of this, you really have to admire Luther’s understanding of harmonizing Christian freedom with conventional wisdom.  He continuously seemed to teach and practice the “not add to or subtract from” God’s Word life that has escaped many churches in history. 

While the German Mass wasn’t by any means a complete change from the Catholic Mass, some of the changes that Luther did make to the Catholic Mass are still felt today in most mainline Protestant churches: worship in the actual language of the people (it’s almost inconceivable that this was not the case prior to Luther), the elevation of the sermon as a more central part of the worship service, collective congregational singing, removing the concept of Communion being a “re-sacrificing” of Jesus, and allowing members to partake of both the wine and the bread in the Lord’s Supper (whereas Catholicism had only allowed the priests to drink the cup at this time).  All of these were beneficial changes. 

But, there were still some elements of early Christianity that Luther ignored, perhaps merely because he was a product of a certain age (we’re all, to some degree, products of our environment).  For instance, although Luther encouraged the singing of hymns by the congregation, most of the service remained presided over by ordained clergy.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with having a worship leader.  It makes good sense in a variety of ways.  The problem could come in, however, if it lends itself towards non-participating, passive, (God-given) talent-squelching worship that becomes merely a show.  In both liturgical and non-liturgical worship circles, this can be a real problem, particularly in a society that is accustomed to passively sitting in front of a screen for entertainment.  It could become “we’ll watch you worship God.”  The congregation could become an audience, not a body active in worship. 

In addition to Luther, there were other Protestant Reformers and subsequent church leaders who also contributed a great deal to the molding of worship as well.  Swiss Reformer, John Calvin, is credited with encouraging Christians to enter worship with a somber attitude, in reverence to God.  In fact, in Puritan New England, children were sometimes actually fined for smiling in church.  Conversely, eighteenth-century Methodists are credited with encouraging worshippers to sing loudly and vigorously, seeking to generate emotion and creating the sense that emotional zeal equates directly to strength of faith. 

Frontier-Revivalist George Whitefield is credited as the one who primarily shifted the emphasis in preaching from God’s plans for the church to God’s plans for the individual.  The current popular prosperity-theology message in American Christianity that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” (while true with the right understanding, but could be terribly abused) has its roots in Whitefield’s preaching.  Nineteenth-century Methodist Charles Finney contributed the theory of pragmatism to Christian churches.  Winning converts by any means necessary became the basic philosophy.  And, while outreach and evangelism are obviously great, if it relies primarily on technique rather than the Holy Spirit working through God’s Word to change hearts, then it’s not real evangelism.  Today, many churches struggle with compromising the ethics and integrity of God’s Word for the sake of bringing in members and staying “culturally relevant.”  As a result of Finney’s work and revivalist D.L. Moody, Christian worship, in many cases, became spiritual seeker-sensitive, politically correct so as to avoid offense, entertainment-driven, and emotionally charged. 

Going back to our opening points, we remember that we are free to worship in a variety of ways.  So the question isn’t so much “What is scriptural?”, because the Bible doesn’t prescribe a specific form of worship for the New Testament Church.  The question for Christians and Christian churches then becomes, “Is there anything that we’re currently doing that could lend itself towards being ‘unscriptural’?” (i.e. either ignore or directly violate New Testament truth).    Again, this is my personal assessment of what might be hurting us today:

1)   Lacking participation – Every Christian is blessed with spiritual gifts, gifts that God gives with the specific intention of serving the church.  The Apostle Paul makes this abundantly clear in 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, when he says, 4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.  7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” 

Although they debate what these gifts may be, most Christian churches won’t deny the existence of spiritual gifts in believers.  However, the typical template used in worship for our national church body is 1 pastor standing in the front leading and 1 organist sitting at the organ bench playing music and a couple of ushers directing traffic (before, after, and during the offering).  While we acknowledge other gifts, we restrict them to outside the confines of the worship service.  Again, I guess there doesn’t necessarily have to be anything wrong with that.  But it’s worth noting that it’s not really what we see going on in the early church, not until Constantine’s Christianization of Rome.  It would be a great deal of organization (perhaps even a full-time job), but I believe our churches would benefit tremendously by having many people involved in worship beyond just singing hymns or responding in dialogue with the presiding minister.  Readings, prayers, multiple musicians, organization, greetings, encouragement, support, could all, in theory, be portions of worship that are handled by those in the congregation that have particular God-given gifts in such areas.  Our current structure and paradigm is perhaps restricting the use of such gifts. 

2)   Attitude in Worship – I have no problems with someone who desires to express “reverence” to God.  I have the same desire.  However, I would have a problem with quiet solemnity (or even apathy) under the guise of “reverence” that leads someone to be inhospitable, unfriendly, or downright rude toward fellow worshippers (existing members or visitors).  If you think you are revering God while at the same time you’re failing to care for your fellow worshipper, you’re being a Pharisee, plain and simple.  Matthew 25:45 “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”  Remember, God doesn’t exist in the “Most Holy Place” anymore.  The body of Christ himself is the believers themselves.  Therefore, if we want to love and respect God, we need to be loving and respecting his people.

3)   Not Using the “Common Language” – I once read a story about Bill Hybels, a nationally-recognized, very influential pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, which has approximately 20,000 weekly worshippers.  He was preaching at a pastors conference fairly early in his ministry and, during the sermon, one of the attending pastors leaned over to a colleague next to him and said, “I don’t see what all the fuss is about this guy.  He doesn’t even talk like a pastor.” 

The gist of the article was that this was precisely the point – that part of Hybels’ success was due to the fact that he communicated “like a human,” not like a pastor.  For a long time, worship in mainline churches has incorporated such inflated rhetoric that it almost comes across as (and at times has actually been , cf. Catholic Church pre Vatican II) a foreign language. 

So, for instance, while the texts of many several hundred year-old hymns remain beautiful, the message, unfortunately, may come across as clouded in verbiage, the presentation may come off as wooden through expression, and the melody may be perceived as disconnected from “what music is” in the 21st century.  I do think it’s wise for us to look long and hard at the words of our orders of service and the songs we use in worship and the music of worship itself that we use and ask if they’re clearly communicating what we want them to communicate.  Everyone has different preferences when it comes to styles of music.  The goal is to target clear communication. 

I think a similar example of this is seen in the King James Version translation of the Bible.  Not too many scholars will argue for any other English translation of the Bible as the best English translation ever.  When it comes to a combination of accuracy and faithfulness to the original languages as well as eloquence, probably nothing tops the KJV.  That said, today, the message gets lost (or at least blurred) in that type of language.  Consuming it becomes unnecessarily burdensome.  So, as Luther did with translating Scripture into the common man’s tongue, modern scholars have done likewise.  I believe it’s important for us to apply that same mentality towards all of our language and communication in worship. 

There are other ways to appreciate a sense of history than reciting the exact words used by saints who have come before us.  Clear communication is too important when it comes to gospel proclamation for it to be clouded in antiquated language.  If I’m living in 2011 and praying for hearts to be won for Christ in 2011, it probably makes sense to communicate to the people in 2011 the way that people in 2011 communicate.  Otherwise, it’s like I’m handing a KJV Bible to a 5-year-old and telling him it’s good for him.  Does it contain the gospel?  Of course.  Is it the best way to communicate the gospel to him?  Probably not.  Why?  Because he doesn’t communicate that way, and failure to clearly communicate clouds the message.

4)   Regularly Rotating from Church to Church for Worship – I’ve heard it said before “how wonderful it is that you can go from church to church in our church body and be confident that you’ll hear the same Christocentric message.”  While I’d certainly agree that doctrinal unity within a church body is obviously important and increasingly rare, my first question to someone who is making a statement like that would be, “Why are you bouncing around churches so much?”  Just because I can worship with another church that practices the same doctrine doesn’t mean I should be, particularly if it means that I’m neglecting my home church.  If we are really each given unique gifts by God to serve the body, that means that my gifts are missed whenever I’m not there.  The Christian church of the mobile 21st century struggles mightily with getting to know one another.  Split attendance between local churches, something that’s become fairly popular, doesn’t help this at all.  I’d strongly encourage worshippers to find a place to call home and truly make it “home” – invest time, energy, resources, and self into it so that you’re as comfortable as possible with that local church and so that you can actually help make others more comfortable too.

Some may argue that the Apostle Paul bounced around from church to church, so it must be okay.  For starters, the Apostle Paul was a rare bird – a missionary sent by God to do the work he was doing.  He probably shouldn’t be our blueprint for the average worshipper.  Second, prior to his calling to mission work, Paul spent 6 years at the congregation in Syrian Antioch.  As much as anyone, he probably understood the benefit of worshippers spending quality time with one another.  The average worshipper in the early church, by both necessity and choice, stayed predominantly with one church for long stretches of time, and the churches benefitted from that. 

Again, I’d like to make it abundantly clear that I don’t pretend to know all the answers.  The more I’ve grown and matured as a Christian, the more I’ve realized how many answers I didn’t have that I thought I had, and how much farther I have to go.  By the grace of God we’re saved in the blood of Christ, not by our perfect understanding of the “way things should be.”  I take all comfort in that.  But, between now and singing with the saints in paradise, I don’t ever want to give up on the pursuit of the healthiest church we can have. 

“Custom without truth is error grown old.” – Tertullian, third-century theologian and church leader

What Most Christians Don’t Know About “Church” and How It’s Hurting Us Right Now – Part I – “What the ‘Church’ Is”

Throughout my education to become a pastor, I got to listen to quite a few different people share their opinions on what Christianity is supposed to be, what the Christian Church is supposed to be, what Christian worship is supposed to be, and so on.  The problem with these opinions is that they all have bias attached to them.  It’s as though with every experience that we go through in life – success or failure, happy or sad – there are a pair of prescription glasses we’re wearing that are being continuously altered to change the way we look at things.  We all have bias.  I certainly do too.  However, when we let these biases become Christian doctrine, we set ourselves up to look as foolish as Pharisees standing before Christ. 

Over the course of the next month or so, I want to take some time to clear up some confusion (i.e. the predisposed bias) about what the “Church” really is and what it is not and explain the damaging effects that misunderstandings are having on Christianity at large, the health of Christian churches, and the satisfaction of individual Christians today. 

This week, we’ll begin by taking a look at “What the Church Really Is.”   Now let me also say here that the “Holy Christian Church” and the “Communion of Saints”  that we confess in the Apostles’ Creed are ways of saying “all believers past and present who are recognized children of God through faith in their Savior Jesus.”  That’s not exactly what we’re going to be talking about here.  We’ll be discussing the Christian Church on earth, what the New Testament said it is, what it was designed to be, and how getting off track has led to a lot of problems for the Christian Church.  I promise that you’ll probably think about “church” a little differently when all is said and done in the next several weeks.

Let’s start here: The word “church” today is so intricately connected with the idea of a building that you can hear in the way people talk that they have no idea what the New Testament is referring to in the concept of “church.”  “Our church looks really nice all decorated for Christmas.”  “Our church is freezing today.  Someone needs to adjust the thermostat.”  “We go to church weekly.”  Even we pastors like to get in on the “I don’ t know what ‘church’ really is game” too.  Ever heard a pastor say something to the effect of “It’s great to be in the House of God today!” ?  Or, have you heard parents reasoning with their kids, “We need to behave because we’re in God’s House now.”?  Honestly, none of this really has anything to do with New Testament Christianity or the New Testament Church.  And it’s not just benign talk either.  The reality is that it reflects more the mentality of Judaism and paganism, which ultimately has some damaging consequences. 

Old Testament Judaism revolved around 3 basic elements – the Temple (where God’s local presence dwelled), the system of priests as mediators between God and man, and the system of sacrifices to atone for sin and make believers right with God.  In short, when Jesus came, he brought an end to each by fulfilling the purpose of each. 

In the Roman Empire, paganism had similar elements – temples (specific buildings for worshipping gods), priests (specific individuals you had to go through to worship gods), and sacrifices (specific things you had to do to please the gods).  New Testament Christianity didn’t know these things. 

In not one place in the New Testament do we find the term church (ekklesia), temple, or house of God used to refer to a building.  In fact, the first recorded use of the word “church” to refer to a specific meeting place comes from the church father Clement of Alexandria in 190 AD.  He was also the first person credited with using the phrase “go to church.” 

Okay, so if church is not a building, what exactly is it you ask?  Of the 114 times the Greek word ekklesia appears in the New Testament, it always refers to an assembly of people.  In fact, until Emperor Constantine, Christian history and archaeology knows of no Christian buildings except the homes in which the early Christians met for worship. 

Jesus is obviously responsible for what Christianity is today.  Perhaps more than any other human, however, Constantine is responsible for the way Christianity looks today.  What’s so scary about that is that even today scholars debate whether or not Constantine was actually a genuine Christian. 

If you’re not familiar with who Emperor Constantine was, here’s the abbreviated version: In 312 AD, Constantine defeated Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge to become caesar of the Western Empire.  On the eve of that battle, Constantine claimed he saw a cross in the heavens and became a Christian (if that sounds a little fishy, yeah, that’s not typically how Christians are formed).  He promised God at that moment that if he won the battle, he’d Christianize the empire.  He did…and he did.  Christianity went from becoming first officially recognized as a religion in Rome in 311AD under Galerius to becoming the official religion of the state only a few short years later.  In 324 AD, Constantine became caesar of the entire Roman Empire.  And then the building began. 

Truth be told, Christianity had gained enormous momentum over the prior several hundred years.  It had grown from thousands in the early church to an approximated 7 million or so by 300 AD (over 10% of the population at the time).  So, when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome, it wasn’t exactly a “no one to everyone” kind of affair, but it did create massive problems for Christianity, because 1) receiving that many former pagans into the church so rapidly ended up watering down the catechumenate process (i.e. the time of Christian instruction for new members) considerably, and 2) Constantine, the man at the forefront of all this spiritual turnover had an unquestionably pagan approach to worship himself. 

Constantine (and his mother Helena, who was a strong influence in his worship life) felt that if Christians had their own sacred buildings for worship – as did the pagans (temples) and the Jews (synagogues) – that would help legitimize the Christian faith in the minds of the citizens of the Empire.  So, Constantine proceeded to erect “holy” buildings (which he named after saints, following the pattern of pagans naming their temples after certain gods – so if you’re wondering why you grew up at “St. Paul’s” or “St. John’s” or “St. Matthew’s”, there you go).  He built these “holy” buildings on “holy” spaces – St. Peter’s on the Vatican Hill, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, for example, were all considered holy locations by means of who died there or was born there.  And he filled these “holy” buildings with “holy” relics, such as bits of wood supposedly from Christ’s cross, which Constantine believed possessed magical powers – clearly the product of a superstitious pagan mind.  This man was the first real church builder. 

Only really knowing paganism to this point in life, Constantine built churches that looked like pagan temples, including even pagan artwork.  As to the structure of the buildings, Constantine had them patterned after basilicas (Roman government buildings) that were designed to seat large, passive crowds who were there to watch a show or hear a presentation (more on the effects of this later when we discuss worship).  When those who were giving the show came in, Constantine felt it necessary to present a grand spectacle so that everyone would know something special was happening.  Taking his lead from politics, where Roman emperors were always preceded by lights, Constantine deemed that when clergy enter into the worship area, they be preceded by lit candles and incense, in a fantastic procession.  And when it came time for deciding what the clergy would wear, he naturally leaned toward the imperial garments of the Roman officials, and thus, the ornate robes that you see for clergy today.  In the first 300 years of Christianity, no one in house churches put on special clothes for worship.  They couldn’t afford special “Sunday best” worship clothes.  And since the temple curtain was torn at Jesus’ crucifixion, and God was now accessible for every believer through Christ, highlighting a specific church leader with ostentatious clothing would have been considered counterproductive to the Christian message.  Worship at this time in Christianity, in general, had shifted to becoming much more professional, ceremonial, and dramatic. 

Before I paint Constantine with a red cape, pitchfork, and two horns, it’s only fair to mention some good for Christianity that occurred in his rise to power.  Christians had faced merciless persecution in the first several hundred years of Christianity.  What you’ve heard about the crucifixions and being tossed to the lions in the Colosseum is true.  That ended at the time of Constantine.  Having just gone through the “Great Persecution” (the last and most severe of Christian persecutions in the Roman Empire) which started in 303AD, this was obviously a huge relief and blessing to Christianity.  That said, Christian worship before Constantine was decidedly private and yet social for those there, intimate and participatory.  By the fourth century, Christianity was profoundly shaped by Greek paganism and Roman imperialism. 

Over the next several hundred years, church architecture took several interesting turns from the basilica phase to the Byzantine phase to the Romanesque phase to the Gothic phase.  However, the design, almost unwaveringly, seemed to continuously point more and more to the transcendence and awe-inspiring nature of God, rather than to God found in the gathering together of his body, the real “church.”  And thus God also seemed to go from accessible to inaccessible.

In the relative recent history of church buildings in America,  there are two basic architectural styles: 1) the divided chancel form, seen in liturgical churches, and 2) the concert stage form, used in evangelical churches.  By this point, maybe you’re already starting to piece together some potential problems here. (again, more on that later)  The basic point however, is to keep in mind how far removed today the church building is from what the early Christians knew.  Now, that doesn’t HAVE to be wrong.  But, it’s worth it for us today to ask this question – If the God who brought about that New Testament church at that time in history, and brought it about in the way that he did, was there maybe something inherently within that model that was conducive to a healthy congregation? 

I’m not fully promoting a return to “house churches” today, a concept that has gained tremendous popularity in the past 30 years in our country.  What house church leaders don’t seem to fully grasp is that if early New Testament church leaders had the legal freedom to worship as we do, the early church might very well have done things differently.  But the point, nonetheless, remains that perhaps God (even by means of working through the oppression of the Roman Empire) was establishing the type of environment that best leads to the healthy assembly of Christians.  And that’s worth paying attention to. 

So hopefully you’ve learned something so far.  The next part is more my personal assessment – how I believe many Christians’ current misunderstandings of “What Church Is” are hurting us today:

1) “Going to Church” is Optional – I grew up in a family where Sunday worship was set in stone.  I’m thankful for that.  I can count on one hand the number of times we “missed” worship in my youth.  The rare occasion when we did miss worship, for me, was spent feeling dirty and dodging the lightning bolt from heaven that was presumably going to hit any minute.  And regardless of my immature understanding of “how God operated in the 1980s,” it was good for me to develop the pattern of “this is normal” for weekly worship.

I realize that not everyone was blessed with the same environment growing up.  But in all of my studying to be a pastor, I never thought one of the most discouraging things in ministry I’d do would be trying to convince Christians of the importance of regular worship.  I falsely assumed it was a given.  The modern false concept of “church” hasn’t helped with this at all. 

If worship merely constitutes “going to a church building”, well then that seems pretty hollow and unedifying (although I hate puns, it’s intended here).  I’m smart enough, and you are too, to realize nothing magical is going to happen when I walk through the doors of a church building.  I haven’t passed through some Narnia-bound wardrobe to be greeted by a delightful goat-boy.  If I merely passively sit through a worship service in a church building, chances are, nothing much is happening for me spiritually.  So, “if nothing magical happens when I go to church, why not just stay home?  I have a Bible there too.”  This is simply a misunderstanding of what “church” is. 

Church is an experience where my faith is strengthened by connection with God’s inspired Word.  Other believers (typically pastors & Bible teachers) explain God’s Word to me.  I’m inspired with that Word (often through musical means).  Other believers support me in my struggles (typically through social fellowship – which I think is perhaps the biggest failure of the modern church vs. early church).  And finally, church gives me an opportunity, not to watch, but to serve my fellow believers, who also serve me, as we have all been served by Christ.  And we raise a common voice to tell of what our Savior Jesus has done for us, which we call “praising Him.”  Plain and simple, I can’t get all that by myself at home.  The early Christian church understood that.  Ephesians 2:19-22 says, “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

2) Loss of Intimacy Amongst Christian Worshippers – part of the appeal to small churches is that “everybody knows everybody.”  Novel concept – actually having some idea of who the people who you’re standing next to and confessing to be brothers and sisters in Christ are.  When small churches reach the 50-75 worshipper mark, this intimacy evaporates.  You simply can’t know everybody that well.  It’s impossible.  Well, there’s nothing in the New Testament that says you’d necessarily have to know everybody whom you worship with.  However, that truth has transitioned for many into not knowing hardly anyone that they worship with.  That’s a problem.  Statistics show quite clearly that if new worshippers in a church don’t develop meaningful relationships with anyone in the church (i.e. get “assimilated”) within 3-4 months, they’re gone.  Doctrinally they fully were on board.  However, they did not know the love of Christ in that church as expressed through a fellow Christian, so they wanted out.  That shouldn’t surprise us, unless we believe that church is exclusively a way to help someone foster a relationship with God through correct doctrine.  Many people are under that assumption.  But that’s not what the New Testament “assembly of believers” really is. 

Many larger churches, correctly sensing a perceived lack of “connectedness” among members, have instituted “small groups” to function as churches within a church.  This has been a key element in how some large churches have survived and grown – the Christians get connected with 12-15 other people, typically in a study of God’s Word.  There’s an intimacy that can be achieved there that cannot be done in an 80 person Sunday Bible Study or certainly in a worship service of hundreds.  My guess is that many churches will either fully embrace this concept or die slow deaths. 

3) Church is Primarily Designed to be an Awe-Inspiring Experience – If being overwhelmed by seeing something impressive, hearing something impressive, or being in an impressive setting is what “church” is, then I can generate just as good of “church” by looking through a microscope or a telescope, or standing at the foot of the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls.  Yes, God’s creation is impressive.  But fundamentally, it’s not the same as church.   And if church really is about an awe-inspiring experience, and I’m not feeling overwhelmed with wonderment, the natural thought would be, “maybe church isn’t working for me.”  Again, not what the church is designed to be. 

Today, institutional churches in the United States own over $230 billion worth of land.  Almost 20% of the $50-60 billion dollars given in yearly Christian offerings in the U.S. go towards church building mortgages and maintenance.  It’s not wrong for Christians to have big (or nice) buildings.  In fact, what’s occasionally more disconcerting is when Christians have buildings that they let go into disrepair in such a way that they’d never let their own personal homes go.  But the point is, God’s creation does a wonderful job of impressing the world.  We probably don’t need to spend billions to try to impress the world (or ourselves) on God’s behalf through our buildings.  Dollars spent towards communicating the gospel of Christ to the world and dollars spent serving those in need seem to line up much more clearly with New Testament Christianity. 

Alright, so if you think I’m suggesting everybody else has got it wrong and I’ve got it right, guess again.  Pastors are not immune to any of this.  Weekly, I catch myself greeting the congregation at the opening of worship by saying “Welcome to worship at Resurrection!”  Clearly, these are the words of a man who has a history of possessing a flawed concept of church – that it’s a building.  From now on, you’ll be hearing, “Good morning, Resurrection!” – because the gathered people are the church.

I hope you’ll continue to learn and grow with me in our understanding of “Church” over the next several weeks.  Should be fun.

SIDE NOTE: Here’s one of those “proud to be a Lutheran” moments – Martin Luther, perhaps more than any famous name in Christian church history, recognized the difference between “church” as the ekklesia and the misconception of “church” as a building.  He fought adamantly against the mistake.  He called “church” a very ambiguous term and in his German translation of the Bible, he translated ekklesia consistently as “congregation” (i.e. believers gathering together).

Since this is not a formal paper, journal, or book, but a blog post, I spared myself the formality of footnotes.  If you’d like to check my sources though or are just interested in more information on the early Christian church, I’d encourage you to check out one or more of the following…….Ante Pacem (Graydon Snyder), The Rise of Christianity (Rodney Stark), Story of Christianity (Justo Gonzalez), The Age of Faith (Will Durant), Caesar and Christ (Will Durant), History of Christianity (Paul Johnson), Early Liturgy (Josef Jungmann),  Christian Liturgy (Frank Senn).

Ash Wednesday Worship

Hello all!  Due to the additional service prep this week and other ministry obligations, I don’t have the necessary time for a new article.  But I do want to wish you God’s blessings on your Lenten journey. 

If you’re looking for a little history on “What Is Ash Wednesday?”, “Who Celebrates It?”, etc., feel free to check out http://bit.ly/hWD8Fz or http://bit.ly/bafCdI or any other of a number of sources that will give you the in-depth lowdown on its significance. 

In short, what I’d like to remind you of, however, is that the Lenten season is not about you “giving something up”, but about what Jesus gave up for you – his life – all to make you part of God’s family.  So….. you’re free to celebrate any tradition that you deem appropriate to assist in your appreciation of Christ’s sacrifice, but just remember, Lent is about God’s grace revealed most clearly in the person of Jesus, doing what he came here to do…..rescue us. 

The Lord be with you!

Is Hell Disappearing?

Is this all just a myth? Prominent Christian church leader Rob Bell seems to be suggesting exactly that in his controversial new book.

A controversial new book is coming out soon by the man whom Time magazine once labeled “a singular rock star in the church world.  The man is Rob Bell, pastor at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan and creator of the popular NOOMA Bible video series, which were so widely applauded that they’ve been used in virtually every Christian denomination in America.  The book is called Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  The reason this book is receiving so much national notoriety, weeks before it is even released, is because it promotes the concept of one very dirty word in orthodox Christianity – Universalism.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, Universalism, in short, is the belief that there is no hell, God is too loving for that, and everyone, regardless of belief system, must go to heaven.  Sounds nice, right?  Everybody wins.  The problem is not with its sentimentality, the problem is with its biblical inaccuracy.  Universalism can be easily dismissed in two passages or less (although there are multitudes in Scripture that mount heaping evidence against it).

1) As Jesus spoke to his disciples about his departure from this world and plans to go and be with his Father in heaven once again, his disciple Thomas asked Jesus how the disciples could go too.  To this, Jesus replied, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:6-7)  In other words, Jesus is saying that if you don’t know him (as God’s Son, your Savior, and the path to heaven), you won’t be in the Father’s home with him.  It appears that you do not benefit from Jesus’ redemptive work without “knowing” him.

2) In chapters 24-25 of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus addressed the questions of his disciples regarding the end of the world.  At the end of chapter 25 he described the miserable fate of all who would reject him.  He says that when he returns he will say to them: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…..Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41, 45).  Hell is real.  Jesus does warn of it in the Bible.  A loving God not only can (but must) allow someone to go there if they have rejected his forgiveness, if he is to be a just God.  And if that seems incompatible to you, look at it like this: If I write you a check for a million dollars, but you, for your own reasons, refuse to cash it, does that make me ungenerous?  Obviously not.  You won’t have that wealth, but there is no legitimate reason to call my generosity into question.  This is the case with God’s grace.

The impact of modern universalist thought is certainly scary.  If we take “universal salvation for all” to mean, as some do, that God is simply too loving to condemn anyone to hell regardless of belief, morality, or anything else, we’re denying the point of what Jesus came to do (i.e. pay for our sins on the cross) and turning God’s grace into permissiveness, indifference, and tolerance – or what the world today might call “loving and accepting your neighbor”.  If we take “universal salvation for all” to mean, as some do, that everyone is saved through Jesus’ payment on the cross, regardless of what they believe, then we’re denying what the Bible teaches about the genuine faith.

That God’s Son died to universally take away the sins of the entire world is undeniable (2 Corinthians 5:14).  But semantically, that’s not the “universalist” thought that’s being brought forth in the world today.  The message is much different.  The message is that NO ONE will go to hell, because there is no hell.  And, for obvious reasons, that message is very dangerous.

The press video for Bell’s new book features him questioning whether Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu, is actually in hell, and not in the kind of sermon introduction way that is merely challenging you to think it through but invariably comes back to a biblical, orthodox Christian stance.  Bell, with his 21st century hipster look and thorough Bible college credentials, comes across as very sincere and convincing when he actually suggests that neither Gandhi, nor anyone for that matter, will be sent to hell by a loving God.  You can check out the intense promotional video yourself here if you’d like.

Now, you might say, “What’s the big deal?  That’s not my church.  And every true Christian will recognize the errors.”  Unfortunately, that’s not the way that “wolf in sheep’s clothing” (Matt. 7:15) and “what itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3) false doctrine works.  Rather, it subtly deceives people.  Universalism has become an ever-increasing destructive force in American Christianity in recent years because it’s like the religious partner-in-crime to the philosophical spirit of “tolerance” so prevalent in our world today.

Other prominent names in American Christianity like Brian McLaren and Bishop Carlton Pearson have been dismissed from their churches recently due to teaching universalism.  The  ELCA, which, by sheer numbers alone, is what many Americans recognize Lutheranism today to mean, had promoted universalism right on their national website (I had a link posted in a previous article, but the content seems to have been removed from their site.  The point is, universalist concepts are everywhere, and are rapidly invading Christianity.  And many long-time Christians are seeing the obvious departure from biblical truth, but what about children currently being born and raised in this climate?

No one is immune to the universalist spirituality of today.  I can’t tell you how many Christian young people I’ve heard make comments about so-and-so being very “spiritual” or “religious”, not understanding that this means nothing.  In the era in which we now live, “I’m spiritual” is quickly replacing “I’m a good person” as the most common unChristian reason for which people think they’re right with God.  And even amongst lifelong Christians, perhaps sometimes from fear and denial, statements of hope are more regularly being made for those who have rejected the gospel, as though these souls don’t still need fighting for since God perhaps won’t send them to hell anyways.

Maybe one of the reasons why people are refusing to believe in the notion of hell is that they misunderstand what it most fundamentally is – the absence of God.  Have you ever wondered how it is that God banished Satan (and the other fallen angels) to hell and yet Satan is apparently still prowling around “like a lion” (1 Peter 5:8) in the world today seeking to harm us?  It’s because the Bible describes hell as both a local place and a state of existence.  This is why, when Jesus was on the cross paying for the sins of the world and he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34) he was literally experiencing hell despite being on earth at the time.  He was experiencing separation from God’s presence and its accompanying blessing.

Whether hell is filled with fire and tattered clothes and gnashing teeth isn’t the point, just as it’s not the point whether heaven is filled with streets of gold and diamonds and emeralds, etc.  God is describing these existences in ways that human brains can process – really awful or really extraordinary.  That’s because hell, in its most basic definition, is eternal separation from God and his blessing.  Heaven, in its most basic definition, is the eternal blessing of being in God’s presence.

So, when someone throughout their lives, for their own reasons and in their own ways, has repeatedly said to God, “I don’t need the forgiveness of your Son.  I don’t have time for your message of faith and reconciliation in Jesus.  I don’t care about your will for my life.  I don’t want you!”, God finally says to them, “Fine, you can have what you’ve wanted……you won’t have me.”  And God eternally separates himself and his blessing from that individual.  And this is hell.  It’s not God arbitrarily throwing people he doesn’t like into a torture chamber.  It’s God giving unbelievers what they have pursued their entire lives – freedom from him.  And it’s the saddest, most horrific existence there could be.

Universalism questions the logic behind “a loving God sending someone to hell.”  It also ignores the logic that a just and unchanging God will keep his Word and the logic that a loving God’s generosity can indeed be ignored. 

I don’t like the thought of hell any more than the next person.  But pretending like it doesn’t exist isn’t going to help a single one of the people in my life right now who don’t know Jesus.  Much of the world today (increasingly) doesn’t agree. 

Additional Notes:  I preached on the this topic of “Would a Loving God Send Anyone to Hell?” back in November.  Here’s a link to the sermon if you’re interested.