Appendix 3: Separating Church From God
True Christianity is not a purely intellectual, internal faith. It can only be lived in a community. Out of church Christians need to remember this. The lives that we live must be governed by our deep belief, not merely our knowledge, of the first principles of our faith. Those 'first principles' were taught to many of us by members of a church. And yet it can be that our disappointment with the church can lead some to reject the Gospel which the church teaches. I do not believe there is any believer of any experience who has not struggled with this at some time. This arises from a failure to separate the Gospel from the preacher of it; to see that God and the church are not identical, even though the ecclesias ideally ought to be manifesting God.
The qualities that can so upset us in our community- self-righteousness, hypocrisy, provincialism, parochial attitudes…were the very things which the Gospel records are at such pains to show us the Lord Jesus struggled against in the ecclesia of His day. So we are not alone in our desire to be out of church Christians. In one sense it is possible to say that His struggle with those issues was what led to His death. If we are pained by our struggle- it is in fact a sharing in the sufferings of the Lord. So long as we struggle with them as He struggled, loving the community but hating the human features which are inevitably still in it. And He bore with the ecclesia of His day to the end- right to the cross. And even there, He loved them to the end.
We need to realize that God deals with us as individuals. No matter how functional and holy, or dysfunctional and evil, is our church, we are still treated by the Father as His individual children. So many have struggled with this, tending to see themselves rather as inevitably part of a community, faceless cogs in a machine. And this is actually quite attractive to humanity- hence the popularity of Roman Catholicism. Reflect a while on how God told Gideon: “I will be with thee” [you singular], and yet Gideon responds: “Oh my Lord, if the Lord be with us…” (Jud. 6:12,13). Gideon had to be taught that God saw him as a separate, unique individual, and didn’t deal with him automatically merely as part of a community as a whole. But it was a slow process. When Gideon saw in a dream a man saying that God had delivered Midian into his [singular] hand, Gideon then tells Israel that God had delivered Midian into their hands (Jud. 7:14,15). He still found it so hard to believe that God treated him as so important to Him.
There is a tremendous tension in our deeply private lives between our Christian ideals and the reality of our daily failures. We'd all surely have to admit this. And yet that tension is inevitably reflected in how our community is. To be shocked or surprised at that lack of congruity within our community merely reflects a lack of penetrating introspection into our own inconsistent, contradictory lives. We shouldn't be surprised at 'hypocrisy'. It's in each of us. It shouldn't be, in the light of the fullness of victory which is promised in Christ, that being " more than conquerors" through Him that loved us in the death of the cross. Men like Gandhi refused to accept Christianity because they could not reconcile the disparity they saw between Christ and Christians. Yet my answer to that would be that there is a disparity within each human being between theory and practice; and no religion or group could ever realistically claim to have no such disparity. Western politicians say that the most vicious and vitriolic letters they receive are from Christians. And I can believe it. And of the 40 or so letters and e-mails I receive daily, the most bitter and vitriolic are not from Catholics, Moslems or atheists- but from my own brethren.
The Lord Jesus didn't set up an institutionalized religion. But He also didn't preach a nebulous network of out of church Christianity. He refused to define a set of external rules. He Himself was in His life the moral law which is binding on His followers. " What would Jesus do?" is the simple and golden law. Religious systems inevitably tend to promote formality and external rules, and this has to some degree happened with our beloved community. Yet the fact this has happened should not obscure for us the wondrous vision of the real, personal Lord Jesus who bids us follow Him, and Him alone.
A personal focus upon the man Christ Jesus ought to lessen the degree to which our faith is focused upon the church, without making us out of church Christians. We need to toughen up, to realize more keenly the self-discipline and self-sacrifice which following the man Jesus requires of us. Paul " exercised" himself in his spiritual life (Acts 24:16), the Greek word asko being the source of the English word ascetic. It should not be that our Christianity gives us merelya headful of vital truths but a life unable to fend off sin. We must translate our doctrines into the practice of a transformed life. On-our-knees prayer, fasting, real sacrifice of time, money and human possibilities…this is what the life of Christ is about. This, too, is what forges real personality. Peter speaks of a " hidden man" which is developed within us in Christ. We live in a world and perhaps in a brotherhood where there seems little of this hidden life. Conversation degenerates into mere gossip; those we meet can only talk of what they heard from someone else. The only difference between people seems to be that one has heard some news and the other has not. The inward emptiness of lives is surely reflected in the need to always turn on the radio or TV or CD-player in order to make sure something is happening around us. If we allow ourselves to be sucked into this way of being, then we will so easily focus upon what is negative in others, and our Christian lives become caught up in the community rather than in the Man for whom and in whom the community should have its being.
The Problem Of Truth
The pursuit of 'truth' has led us into many problems, and is partly responsible for the development of the phenomena of out of church Christians. Yes, correct understanding of God's word and will is essential insofar as it affects our practical lives. Yet we seem to have so often forgotten that this is why truth is important- because it issues in the living of a true life before God. We have come to argue over the interpretation of almost every other verse in Scripture, as if eternal life depends upon getting the right interpretation written down in our Bible margins. Dostoevsky wrote a novel, The Possessed, in which he describes how a group of committed revolutionaries set out on their search for truth. They believed unity of understanding was essential for success, but they could never draw the limits on what matters they all had to believe uniformly about. The one thing they were all agreed on was that they must all agree. The problem got to such a point that all agreed that so important and high were their aims, that they simply had to kill the one member who would not agree with their view of a certain matter. And so it can be with us. Those who have differing views on non-essentials have been too easily ejected in practice from our community, perhaps in sincerity, but the end result has been the spiritual murder of some of our most vital members.
We have confused unity and uniformity. The wonderful diversity of human persons and thought which there is in God's creation of humankind has so often not been accepted by us. It's like trying to describe a sunset or rainbow through using the technically correct word for every colour we see. We have to instead see the whole to perceive the beauty God intends. Yes, we can define and analyze too much. And yet none of this takes away from the most simple reality of the Gospel: that there is a God, there is Jesus, and they have given their all that we might come to an eternity of love and grace. And we are to begin living the essence of that eternal existence right now, in reflecting the patient, endless love of God to the unlovely. And in doing this, church and God in that sense come back together again in our own minds, whatever the disappointments.
If we can perceive and correctly explain the separation between church and God, we have something very real and relevant to offer the world around us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke often of his desire for what he called a religionless Christianity. And this is what we too should be realizing and preaching- Christ without the creeds, without the trappings of mere religion… leading out of church Christians into fellowship with the body of Christ through fully empathizing with where they are coming from.