Going solo

  • Two freelance theology correspondents have written in asking questions related to church attendance.
    Firstly, new questioner JF, United Kingdom, asked:

    I’ve often heard Christians saying things like ‘if I ever found a perfect church I couldn’t join because then it wouldn’t be perfect anymore’, or ‘I’m remaining at my current church as a witness of what I really believe’ etc. While this is a sentiment I’ll go along with to a point in regard to the out-workings and practices of a church, I believe it can be unwise in terms of beliefs and doctrines. So, how much (if at all) do you think you should go along with what a church believes/does/says if it goes against what you believe the true message of Christ is? How much should you ‘play church’? Are these people just making excuses, and at what point do you think you should stand up for what you believe to be right and leave? Is staying just making a mockery of what doing church is meant to be all about? (The example that comes to the forefront of my mind is that of the role of women, but it also applies to worship, outreach, regard for the poor, dress, gifts of the spirit, to name a few.)

    And then regular question-poser CM, United Kingdom, asked:

    I have a couple of Christian friends that seem to be drawn into this new Christian trend of individualism and the rejection of regular church fellowship as beneficial. They say they don’t need to go to church and think their spiritual life is fine. Their lifestyle is totally contrary to what they say they believe, not just in a typically human way but in a “If it feels good how can it be wrong” way. How would you define this? Is it a form of Christian relativism or is it liberalism? They don’t think anything of sleeping around and as long as it’s only with one person at a time they think it’s alright, but at least they’re not hurting anyone. I seem to meet others who are like this too, usually either in university or not long out of it. Have they succumbed to the overpowering influence of submitting to an institution that doesn’t reflect their beliefs? I can think of a dozen or more reasons to excuse their behaviour but ultimately surely if they really understood their salvation and what it truly means to be ‘born again’ they would not act like this?

    While freelance theology does not advocate any particular type of church over and above another, both these questions reflect key issues facing many churches, which boil down ultimately to one issue – the growth of the consumer, materialistic, individual worldview that still characterises the ‘Modern’ mindset of Western Christianity. This consumerism has infiltrated Christianity to the point where Christians often mistakenly believe that there are many churches within a given location. In fact, there is only one church. There may be many expressions of it (and some of those expressions may disagree with each other to the point of exclusion), but it is worth pointing out that no one denomination, or particular gathering of Christians, has the right to label themselves ‘the’ Church, only ‘a’ church.

    Belonging (or not) to any Christian community of faith is always an act of conscience and an act of will. A believer commits to a particular brand of church, or decides not to belong anywhere. Difficulties often arise over three points. The first is theological – does what this particular local church say is true resonate with me and my reading of Scripture or understanding of the world. The second is practical – do I enjoy or appreciate this particular way of ‘doing church’. The third difficulty ties in with the first two and asks whether being part of this community is relevant – or in other words, does it help me?

    It could be argued that all three difficulties are, as stated above, down to the consumer mindset inculcated by society. But there are genuine criticisms of ‘church’ made by many believers who struggle to see the ideal of what church should be in the day-to-day reality of how churches actually are. This dichotomy between the ideal and the real, not just in the area of church life, is one of the main reasons those outside the faith brand Christians hypocrites. To put it another way, if Christians claim that the God they worship is powerfully involved with the world, why are their meetings so dull? It’s a legitimate point that is usually ignored by those who seek to defend Christianity from its detractors.

    Leaving a church due to theological differences is a thorny issue. On one level, again, you have to be pretty sure that you are wholly correct (and the rest of the church wholly in error) before you ‘take a stand’ and even then is the issue important enough to ‘break fellowship’ with other Christians? The history of protestant Christianity is littered with breakaway churches, where people have taken issue over minor theological points – the way to baptise people is a classic one, while in recent years the legitimacy of the ‘gifts of the Spirit’ have become a frequent reason for church splits. It has been noted that there is always a tension between the establishment and the radical tendency – a conflict that is sometimes labelled ‘prophecy’ versus ‘order’. Christianity has a tendency to stabilise and normalise into a rigid orthodoxy with a legalistic, conforming bent. In reaction to this, there has always been a reforming strand, both before the Reformation proper, and certainly in Protestantism since the break with Rome. The old joke goes: “We don’t mean to cause a split, but we are known as the dissenting church…

    However, it is unlikely that, with a few exceptions, most people leave a church due to theological objections. The evidence seems to be that most people switch churches because they prefer the meeting format elsewhere or they fall out with people. The same is true for people who stop attending church altogether. It just does not seem relevant to real life. Again the ideal of church – that it is a place where the believing community meets to corporately express their worshipful gratitude to God and grow as disciples of Christ through teaching and proclamation of God’s truth – does not match the real experience of church.

    Protestantism’s over-emphasis on individual salvation (which, incidentally, was a prime formational component of Modernist individualism) has naturally led to a point where many believers look to their own interpretations of Scripture, plan their own discipleship strategies, and generally live their own Christian lives independent of a believing community. Critics of such an individualistic outlook often cite Hebrews chapter 10, verse 25 (“let us not forsake meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing”), to castigate those who have voluntarily chosen not to participate in church life. Although, in fairness the eschatology within the same verse – that sees Judgment Day as immanent – is hard to appreciate two thousand years later. The internal logic of this verse would imply that Christians should be meeting together al the time now, as we are presumably so much nearer to Judgment Day!

    The importance of the Church universal, as opposed to the local expressions of it, is of course a prominent part of New Testament theology. The Church is the “Body of Christ” (1 Corinthians chapter 12, Ephesians chapter 4, verse 25, Colossians chapter 1, verse 24) and a ‘living Temple’ that replaces the Jewish Temple as the place where God meets his people (1 Peter chapter 2, verse 5), among other allegorical statements. It is quite clear that exiting the believing community was considered a sign of disbelief among the New Testament writers, as too was disharmony, quarrelling and one-upmanship. Most of the advice to specific people given by Paul and the other letter-writers ends up with the writer urging people to get along. So, difficulties in church life are nothing particularly new.

    The tension, then between asserting a personally-grasped faith and individual commitment and the belief that a believer should stay in community, does lead to a tricky dilemma, at least within protestant churches. On the one hand, there is no desire to locate salvation within the institutional set-up (unlike in the Roman church for example, where you have be part of the Church, however loosely that is applied, to be saved), but at the same time a check needs to be placed on taking personal salvation too far and away from accountable relationships. ‘Discipleship’ shares the same root word as ‘discipline’ and, as is frequently seen by many people besides CM, it is hard to maintain self-discipline in isolation from the normative influences of the community.

    Churches have often been quick to condemn those who have left as ‘backsliders’ or for ‘falling away’, but it can be convincingly argued that many churches have themselves fallen away from the ideal of what the Church should be about. Christian faith has often been weakened to a vague set of rules and ‘happy thoughts about heaven’, while churches have sought to increase their influence in society, seeking respectability rather than scandalous radicalism that affronts the world and wins over the hearts and minds of people.

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