ome time ago a black family was traveling over a weekend. On Sunday morning they stopped at a church to meet with fellow believers and join with them in service to God. The members of that church were white, and their leaders courteously recommended another church that would welcome them and they would feel more comfortable. As the black family returned to their car, they met our Lord. He asked them why they were so unhappy. After they explained their frustration our Lord replied, "Never mind those folks. I've been trying to get inside that church for more than a hundred years and they won't let me in either."
We have all heard about Paul's interviews with the "board of elders", or was it Baptist deacons? or Methodist bishops?, for a local "pulpit minister" position. Paul never seems to measure up to the "current needs" of the congregation.
We use these devices to illustrate just how far we modern Christians have removed ourselves from the faith and practice of first-century Christians. A little over a hundred years ago the Russian writer, Dostoevski, used this device in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov. I am including a part of what he wrote for the same purpose.
The setting is in Seville, Spain in the sixteenth century during the most terrible time of the Inquisition, when the fires were lighted every day to the glory of God and those wicked heretics were burnt at the stake. A funeral for a young girl is in progress. A large crowd of peasants is gathered outside the church building as the casket is brought out. A young man walked softly into the crowd. No one could say how, or why, they recognized Him, but they did. The people were drawn to him; they surrounded him; they followed him. The sun of love burned in his heart. Light, enlightenment, and power shined in his eyes and his radiance stirred their hearts with responsive love. He held out his hands to them, blessed them, and a healing virtue settled over them.
A short distance away the cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor, stood watching the scene. The cardinal was old and frail, but the power of his office was evident in everything about him. In the past five days the cardinal had sentenced and watched 105 "heretics" die in agony in the flames. A few minutes was enough for the Grand Inquisitor to recognize the young man. A glance and a nod was enough to order his guards to arrest the young man.
That evening the cardinal went alone to the cell where the young man was held. He stood gazing at the young man.
"Is it thou?" he asked, then quickly added, "Don't answer. I know enough about you already. I know what you would say, but you cannot come among us today and take from us, or change, or destroy what we have accomplished in the 1500 years since you left. And that is what you would do, but I will condemn you as the worst of heretics and burn you at the stake. And the very people who today kissed your feet, tomorrow, at the faintest sign from me, will rush to heap up the embers of fire around you. Do you know that? Yes, you know that. You know people better than I. But you were never willing to use what you know about people to get what you wanted from them. Let me tell you something that we have known for these hundreds of years.
You rejected the only way that men, almost all men, could have been drawn to you and be made happy. When that 'great spirit' talked with you in the wilderness, you rejected his offer. But, when you departed, you gave to us the power to bind and to loose, and we have corrected your mistake. You often said to men, 'Come unto me and I will make you free'. Today you saw men who believe that they have that perfect freedom you promised, but in truth, they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet. You know that men cannot live free; you know that men cannot manage their own spiritual or carnal lives. They must have someone they can see and hear tell them what to do and what not to do. But you insisted that they be spiritually free, that they be like you. Fortunately a few of us who know these things have been willing to accept the responsibility of dealing with men as they truly are, not as you hoped they could be.
"That great 'tempter', as you called him, offered you the three most powerful weapons known for attracting and controlling men. You were offered the use of bread, miracles, and unlimited political power. Bread, not just the kind to eat, but the ability to satisfy physical desires. Miracles, that mysterious power to suspend natural law. Men bow in fear and wonder before miracles. And political power, the power to discipline, punish, to inflict suffering and death; the power to enforce conformity. You rejected these three weapons for use in building, securing, and expanding your kingdom on earth. But we have corrected your mistake. We use all three of them, in your name. We allow men to enjoy physical pleasures that are called 'sin' and not feel guilty because we forgive them, in your name. We allow 'miracles' to occur to assure the people that you are with us. And civil powers, not just government, but all kinds of institutions and organizations contrived by men all over the world help us endlessly in our work. We have come too far, we have accomplished too much; we have too much invested to allow even you to disturb our works. You can see that, can't you?"
The Grand Inquisitor turned and left. Of course, Dostoevski wrote about the Roman Catholic Church as he saw it operate. I believe that much the same thing can be said of the operation of the corporate institutional religious world of our day.
I believe that the corporate, institutional churches of the world are among the most powerful institutions of the world. I believe that they are worldly institutions created by men to serve the purposes of men. They are legitimate players in politics, economics, and social order of this world.
Does it mean anything to us that God said;
"I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shah be my people. Wherefore, come ye out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord. Touch no unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be to you a Father, and ye shall be to me sons and daughters."
What do we think Jesus meant when he said:
"If you were of the world, the world would love you; but because you are not of the world, because I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you."
It does not seem to me that we have rejected the world and its ways. It seems to me that we have embraced the ways of the world in our efforts to promote a corporate religious institution totally unknown in the holy scriptures. This is why I believe that.
The only way we have to evaluate success or progress, failure or decline, in any or our works in this world is to measure the results of our efforts. How much, how many, how big, how small, how long, how tall. These are measures of quantity and comparison. We measure ourselves by ourselves. Our fundamental standard of success in our works of faith is the same standard used to measure success in this world. Knowing that Paul said, "We are not bold to number or compare ourselves with certain of them that commend themselves; but they themselves, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves with themselves, are without understanding", we use these measures to evaluate ourselves anyway. It seems to me that we obviously believe that increases in the visible results of our religious efforts is direct evidence of our Lord's pleasure or displeasure with our works. The bigger the numbers, the greater His pleasure. The smaller the numbers, the greater His displeasure.
Jesus rejected the use of the powers and measures of this world in His Kingdom, but the evidence seems to me to indicate that we believe that He was wrong. What evidence? The evidence that we have adopted the same rules that govern all "the powers that be" in this world. What do we mean when we use the term "church government"? We mean the organizational structure developed by men to govern church members and to systematize the functions of the organization. That sounds like bureaucratic organizational theory'. Yes, that's what it is. All bureaucratic organizations have similar characteristics. Bureaucratic organizations have:
1. A. hierarchy of authority. Power flows from the top down.
2. Well defined task, or work assignments. Everyone has his job.
3. Rigid time ordered job performance. Do your job on time.
4. A tendency to resist change.
We know that the Roman Catholic Church developed perhaps the most effective bureaucratic organization ever, modeled after the Roman Empire. We know that Churches of Christ, independent Christian Churches, and Christian Church (Disciples), all came out of the "Restoration Movement''. I do not believe that James O'Kelly, Rice Haggard, Abner Jones, Barton Stone, John Smith, the Campbells, Walter Scott, and many others who were influential in this movement consciously intended to start another corporate institutional church. They were determined to come out of denominationalism and be Christians, nothing more. But they did see a need to identify individual Christians whom they converted as a separate group from all other church organizations. Their converts came to practice, and teach. "local autonomy". That came to mean that the local congregation is the largest and the smallest organization permitted.
Whatever the Restoration leaders intended, their converts came to identify themselves as a unique religious group having a unique religious identity among religious people. Their organizational development stopped at the "local congregation". But that "local congregation" developed all the characteristics of bureaucratic organizations. The "local congregations" believe that they are the "blood bought
Body of Christ" on earth, to the exclusion of all others. There is the core of the problem, as I see it. We have repudiated the Roman Catholic Church. We have repudiated Denominationalism. But we have accepted the "local congregation" as our corporate institutional church. And members of the church are required, as a condition of good-standing, to deposit a membership in a local church somewhere. Did you read about the faculty member of the Christian College at Searcy, Arkansas who was required to place his membership in a local congregation rather than meet in his home?
This is the problem that we are trying to unravel: Investing local corporate institutional churches with the identity of the Body of Christ on earth. This belief necessarily requires members of the Churches of Christ also to believe that any faithful child of God anywhere must be a member in good-standing of some local Church of Christ somewhere. If you believe that, then you must also believe that members of the Church of Christ are the only people going to heaven, just what we are accused of believing.
I do not believe that local corporate religious institutions, local corporate
Churches of Christ, are the Body of Christ on earth. The Christians who meet
together are members of the Body of Christ, but the corporate identity of the
group is separate from the individual Christians who meet together. It is
the corporate identity of the church that is of human origin. It is the corporate church that takes on the nature and characteristics of bureaucratic organizations. Do you doubt that Church of Christ Churches are just like all the rest of the corporate religious institutions of this world? Look at the organizational structure of Churches of Christ compared with all the others in Ross Scherer's "American Denominational Organization". We have and use the organizational structure and power of this world's style of operation.
Listen to Barbara Tuckman in her "A Distant Mirror"·
"After his conversion to Christianity by St. Remi, King Clovis gave the territory of Coucy to the bishopric of Reims, grounding the Church in the things of Caesar, as the Emperor Constantine had traditionally grounded the Church of Rome. By Constantine's gift, Christianity was both officially established and fatally compromised. As William Langland wrote,
When the kindness of Constantine gave Holy Church endowments
In lands and leases, lordships and servants,
The Romans heard an angel cry on high above them,
"This day dos ecclesiae has drunk venom
And all who have Peter's power are poisoned forever.
That conflict between the reach for the divine and the lure of earthly things was to be the central problem of the Middle Ages. The claim of the Church to spiritual leadership could never be made wholly credible to all its communicants when it was founded in material wealth. The more riches the Church amassed, the more visible and disturbing became the flaw; nor could it ever be resolved, but continued to renew doubt and dissent in every century."
We are saying the same things. When we Christians adopt the ways of this world in our spiritual lives, we are rejecting the wisdom of God and embracing the wisdom of this world. What did Paul mean when he said:
"My speech and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. We speak wisdom, however, among them that are fullgrown: yet a wisdom not of this world, or of the rulers of this world, who are coming to naught."
"Behold your calling, brethren, that not many wise after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble are called: but God chose the foolish things of the world, that He might put to shame the things that are strong; and the base things of the world, and the things that are despised, did God choose, yea and the things that are not, that He might bring to naught the things that are: that no flesh should glory before God."
Our deep need, our compulsion, to see, to count, to demonstrate to ourselves and to the world the results of our faith has led us to adopt the measuring devices of the world as proof of our faith. We count dollars, members, growth rates, property investments. We construct expensive, beautiful, comfortable buildings, every bit as opulent as our religious neighbors. How are these grossly expensive "meeting places" financed? By using the financial instruments devised by the financial world: cash gifts, mortgages, willed assets, bond sales, credit cards. Have you ever heard of a local congregation going bankrupt? I know of one that was on the verge of bankruptcy. The Body of Christ on earth bankrupt? That ought to tell us something. And all the while we know that "God dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is he served by men's hands, as though he needed anything".
We Christians are in the world but we are not of the world. What does all of this come down to? For me, it comes down to this:
2 Cor. 11:3: "But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve in his craftiness, your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity and the purity that is toward Christ."
For me, it is just this simple. Anything one Christian does as an exercise of his or her faith, two Christians may do together, or three, or ten, or a hundred, or a thousand. When Christians meet together, nothing is created or formed that was not there before. They do not constitute themselves to be something they were not before or after they meet together. The New Testament knows nothing about formalizing, or incorporating assembled or unassembled Christians. That is the way of the world, and we Christians are not to conform to, or fashion ourselves according to, this world. Suppose one of the members should provide a building as a convenient place for the group to meet? Suppose all the members went together and provided a building for group use? Would that change the nature or character of the group? No, it would not. Then what changes the group from a voluntary' assembly of Christians meeting and serving our Lord into a Corporate Institutional Church? The change begins when the members of the group recognize themselves, or constitute themselves, to be a religious organization. The change creates a legal corporate identity which was not there before. That is the legal identity of the Body of Christ, the Church of Christ that we human beings assign, not God. That is where we Christians take the first step back into the world, back to the "weak and beggarly elements" of the world.
We have searched for the Ancient Order for so long. We say that we want to go back to the Bible for all our faith and practice. Do we have the faith and courage to take the step back to our first love, that steadfast foundation of God that standeth sure. Or have we come too far, have we accomplished too much, have we too much invested in our Corporate Religious Institutions to allow even our Lord to disturb our works? Will we too, like that Grand Inquisitor, turn from Him? Protrepo