March 7, 2008

The Church Formerly Known As Yugoslavia

Posted in Christian culture, The Basics, Theology at 9:25 pm by Matt Porter

Yugoslavia(Yesterday, I promised to take a long, winding route to get to my ideas on presenting the gospel. This is our first stop in that journey.)

Remember the country of Yugoslavia? Located north of the Adriatic Sea, this Communist state contained a surprising variety of cultures for its size. After the implosion of the Soviet Union and the weakening of its own totalitarian system, Yugoslavia became engulfed in civil war. Old cultural hatreds which had been suppressed by the sheer weight of the dictatorship exploded into violence, and they repeatedly split and rejoined into anywhere from five to a dozen separate areas. Despite the interference intervention of the United Nations, the underlying conflicts were not resolved, and each micro-nation retains its inherited dislike of the others. Despite their commonalities from fifty years of Communist oppression and thirty years of the preceding monarchy, each culture apparently wanted nothing to do with the others (unless it was to kill them). The region has even been verbed: “balkanize” means to micro-divide into hostile groups.

The Body of Christ is like Yugoslavia. Christ took people from every tribe and nation and brought them into the church. He gave us much more in common than the Croats, Serbs, or Macedonians ever had. He prayed that we might be one, just as he and his Father are one. He gave us the Holy Spirit to direct and teach us.

And as soon as he left, we began to split along old lines:

And in those days, when the number of the disciples were multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. (Acts 6:1)

It really doesn’t matter whether any widows were being neglected or not; the inequality was perceived along ethnic lines, and it caused strife.

This is the first problem with the modern incarnation of the local church. We’ve managed to take the Body of Christ and balkanize it beyond anything that happened with Yugoslavia. There is the obvious denominational strife. But beyond the denominational differences, there’s the division caused by the organization of the local church.

Here’s a question to illustrate what I mean: When did the Second Church of Ephesus form? Not in the Bible? Well, what about the Third Jerusalem Church? United Church at Colossae (nice ironic name for a splinter church)? We don’t have that in the Bible? So what gives us the idea that we’re supposed to have multiple local churches in a given area? Let me take it even farther: When did the “local church” come to be a self-sufficient organization, instead of a manifestation of the Body of Christ in a particular geographic area?

Let me ask another question: Did Jesus come to start a hundred different organizations in a hundred different cities, or did he come to start a single Body that would work together, where those parts of the Body who happened to live in the same area would work together most often? I can’t accept choice #1, and I can’t come up with a choice #3 that isn’t basically a more palatable wording of choice #1.

So why, when I search for churches in the Orlando area, do I get one thousand, three hundred eighty-six results? How is that what Christ intended? What gives us the right or the need to fragment into ineffective splinter groups which, at best, tolerate each other’s existence and actively attempt to rustle sheep recruit members from them?

“But, Matt,” you say, “those churches are all across the board denominationally! Denominational differences are the reason we can’t have a single local church in Orlando.” Um, no. There are over one hundred different Baptist churches in the Orlando area, not just a single one. “But those aren’t churches of like faith and practice!” Not like faith? All Baptist churches, and there are significant doctrinal differences? The label “Baptist” must not mean anything any more. That, or we’re splitting over whether Job’s children were resurrected or just replaced.

That leaves the “and practice” part. They don’t use the same music. They preach more/less than we do. They sing more/fewer songs than we do. They dress differently. They drive differently. They live differently. They don’t do things the way we do. They have the Lord’s Little Nibble (definitely can’t call it a Supper at most churches) three times a year instead of two or four. They baptize three times forward instead of one time backwards. They wear pants and play cards and go to the beach (or don’t wear pants and don’t play cards and don’t go to the beach). They don’t do things like us. And that’s the problem:

We can’t get along with people who are different.

We can’t handle having people think different things about clothes or recreation or music or whatever than we do. We can’t handle being around people who think differently, or act differently, or sing differently, or pray differently, or live differently, or (especially) are racially or economically different. That’s why we go to First Bland Conformity Middle Class White Baptist Church of Suburban Orlando and let those other people go to Divine Grace Bland Conformity Lower Class Black Baptist Church of Downtown Orlando. Unless we make enough to go to Faith Bland Conformity Upper Class Baptist Church of Windermere/Dr. Phillips. Yeah, yeah, Christ’s gospel totally bypasses cultural barriers, apparently except among his own Body.

So why do we really have so many different churches in any given area? Feel free to add your own reasons to the list:

  • Denominational differences in doctrine (i.e., sacramental effectiveness)
  • Denominational differences in practice (i.e., high church liturgy vs. low church tradition)
  • Minor differences in doctrine in the same denomination
  • Differences in practice in the same denomination
  • Differences in denomination, even without differences in doctrine or practice (i.e., Baptist vs. Bible church)
  • Differences in church polity or organization (i.e. independent Baptist v. SBC v. IFB v. GARBC v. etc.)
  • Differences in culture
  • Differences in economic bracket
  • Difference in language
  • Convenience/location
  • Unresolved interpersonal strife (stubbornness)
  • Hierarchal organization (RCC parishes, dioceses, etc., which don’t necessarily correspond to a political or geographic area)

I’m not seeing a lot of good reasons there. (In fact, I’m beginning to think there might be no good reasons.) So just why do we need to split up the Body of Christ?

Another problem with the local-church-as-organization is that we rarely practice the distinction between the local church and the universal church. The Body of Christ is composed of individual Christians, not organizations (local churches). The local church (the organization) as we have it today comprises any number of members who may or may not be Christians. (Jesus foretold this with the parable about the wheat and the tares; he said to “let them grow up together” and let God sort things out in the end.) The Church (the collection of all individual believers) and the local church (everyone who belongs to a particular organization) cannot be treated as synonymous.

This means passages about the “church” cannot be carelessly read as meaning the local church (organization) without doing disservice to the text. This would be like taking a statement about American wage-earners and applying it to an entire household. First, the statement was made about a collection of individual people, not an organization (the family). Second, there is a high likelihood that not all the individuals in the organization (the family) fit into the category (American wage-earners). The analogy isn’t perfect, but it helps demonstrate the difference between Christ’s Body and the local church as it exists today.

In my experience, we do frequently say, “The church is not this building; the church is people.” What we usually mean, however, is “This local church is not this building; this local church is you people.” We’re still stuck in the organizational frame of mind and are unable or unwilling to connect ourselves to the wider stream of Christianity before and around us. It’s like a pool of water trapped on the shore denying that the rest of the river exists. It’s like Republicans denying that Democrats are true Americans because they hold different views. (Wait a minute…that might be more than hypothetical.) This attitude keeps us from realizing the unity Christ prayed for and intended us to have.

So how should the local church function today, if I could have my ideal? I would like to see the church (not the organization, but the people group) be a community drawn together by what we have in common in Christ, rather than separated by which building houses our worship service. I would like to constantly be reminded of our connection with each other and especially with our brothers and sisters in other areas. I would like to see Christians caring about and for each others’ needs (and I don’t mean visiting them in the hospital; I mean financially and emotionally giving to each other), regardless of our personal differences. I would like to live out “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” instead of “if ye enforce doctrinal purity among one another.” I would like to see willing acceptance of doctrinal and practical differences among Christians, instead of the idea that my group has everything right and those who disagree with us are wrong. In short, I would like to see a group of people who put people above programs and practices, and Christ above systems and theologies. Christ did not die to bring us a perfect theology; Christ died to redeem sinners into his own likeness, and the Body of Christ should reflect that.

There we have it! A post which is completely unrelated to spreading the gospel, but which influences my views on it. Tune in next time for, well, something different.

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