Church: A messy, risky but still powerful ideal (Part 2 of So what is church?)

Posted by on Jan 22, 2016 in Blog | 3 comments

Part 1 of this post set about answering the question, ‘So what is church?’ suggesting that church is a simple, but powerful idea. It did so in response to the earlier post on churchless faith – a growing phenomena that often sees people, in spite of their faith commitment, simply shrug and say, ‘Church – too difficult, too painful, too boring, too political, too time consuming, too compromised, too controlling, too irrelevant’ – or something comparable. They then quietly (or not so quietly) withdraw from active involvement from any local church. As such, their faith becomes churchless. Often it is because we have allowed church to become too complicated. The basic idea behind it is simple… two or three (or more) people gathered in Jesus’ name to encounter Jesus and to find direction and support for their journey as Christ followers, is an adequate summary. And when that mandate has been followed, church has been a powerful force for good in the world, as well as a genuine sustainer and nurturer of faith. Well that’s basically the territory we covered in the first part of this post – though obviously read the original to get a fuller rationale and more substance.

In this post I explore church as a messy, risky but still powerful idea. Let’s get going…

Church:  A messy history

You can’t get  away from it. The church has had a messy history. And that is probably not too surprising for a 2000 year old institution able to claim that approximately one third of the world’s population has at least a lose affiliation to it. It is an awfully long history involving an awful lot of people. Of course some moments have been better than others – and yes – some have been devastating and totally unacceptable. We should never try to defend the indefensible. We can only repent for any part we played in it. There is a challenging Greek word for repentance – metanoia – challenging not because it is difficult to understand but because it is difficult to do. Genuine metanoia involves a change in mind and disposition, but there is a little more to it than that. It is a change in mind that leads to a change in behaviour. Or, as it is sometimes put, metanoia is about doing a U turn. It means that whereas we were once going in one direction, we now go in a different one – one which is usually the opposite of our previous journey.

When we review the low moments of church history it helps to ask – ‘so what are the metanoia moments? What do we take away from them? What will we commit to doing differently in the future?’ When we do this, we open the door for our failures to become redemptive. What started as an evil has now served some good in that it has helped us plot a new and better course. Let’s identify some metanoia moments in church history and ask what we can take away from them.

  • The church has sometimes used force to get its own way. It has always been a mistake. Initially the church used force not as a missionary tactic for conversion, but to ensure compliance. The first example of this dates to Augustine’s actions against the dissident Donatist sect in the late fourth and early fifth century to get them to return to the fold. Augustine’s rationale was Luke 14:16-24, where in response to a feast which few attend, a rich man orders his servants to go out ‘and compel them to come it.’ Augustine agonised long and hard over this, but in the end, ‘compel them to come in’ he did. It was a terrible mistake – and a reminder that poor biblical exegesis can have serious consequences. In principle it was only a short step from this to forced conversions, though it was only in the eighth century under Charlemagne that this really became a factor. It was largely the result of an expanding Christendom model, where the idea of a Christian king was linked to the Old Testament model of kingship (again, note the impact of the poor use of scripture). It seems that Charlemagne agreed to use force to convert the Saxons as a result of the advice of Archbishop Lull of Mainz, who after a lifetime of unsuccessfully trying to convert the Saxons informed Charlemagne that they were a stubborn people who would never convert on their own, and who would therefore need to be forced to do so. It opened the door to this atrocity, but it was really between the 11th and 14th century that European Christian society became very intolerant and an era of persecution of Jews, heretics and crusades against Muslims dawned. It was a dark period indeed. If you want to read a little more on this topic, Christianity Today has a helpful article (Conversion of the Vikings… Converting by the Sword) at its Christian History website. Here is a link. ‘So what do we take away from this?’ you ask. ‘It is not as though we try to forcibly convert people today – at least, not in the so called Western world.’ True, but we can still subtly exclude, ignore, marginalise and devalue those who do not conform to our version of the faith. We might make it clear who is welcome, and who is not – and this not by large signs excluding people, but through our failure to acknowledge and show warmth to those who are different. We might force compliance a little less obviously, but let’s not be too quick to assume that we have nothing to learn from these distressing periods of church history.
  • The church has had an ambivalent relationship with science, sometimes denying the irrefutable. The churches poor treatment of Galileo is the classic example of this. Note that I say that the churches relationship with science has been ambivalent. It can be argued (persuasively) that the advances in science are primarily as a result of the Christian conviction that we live in a universe governed by the laws of God, and that these laws, like God, are consistent and reliable and can therefore be discovered. Overall the church has backed the scientific enterprise more than it has opposed it, but there have been periods where particular findings have caused the church to panic (what – the earth revolves around the sun. Impossible, as the Psalmist says, ‘the earth is set on firm foundations. It will not be moved’ [note the refrain of poor biblical exegesis again].) We need to be a little more confident that all truth is God’s truth, and – to quote a slogan – facts are friends. True, scientific findings are provisional, and science is as flawed an enterprise as any other. Truth is ultimately an eschatological concept. Only at the end is the truth fully know. But for all that, we should avoid lapsing into silly conspiracy theories where we default to assuming that the latest scientific findings are mischievous. Can I be a little more provocative and suggest that what can be said about the physical sciences is also true of the social sciences. I grant you, their findings are definitely more tentative than those of the physical sciences (are there any true Freudians left?), and ideology is sometimes a substitute for objectivity, but for all that, it is a mistake to block our ears to what is being postulated about the way people think, experience life and build community. It is an even more devastating mistake to deny mental health issues or to pretend that all psychological challenges can be prayed away. Sadly, such mistakes have been made too often in the past, and the pain caused has been considerable.
  • The church has repeatedly confused the essence of faith with sub cultural presentations of it. We have allowed ourselves to become overly concerned to preserve ways of doing things, instead of recognising that it is appropriate (and indeed part of the genius of Christianity) that faith should be expressed a little differently in every culture. We should allow ourselves to be enriched rather than threatened by different cultural expressions of faith. As our culture now finds itself at a time of rapid change, it is only natural that we should explore new ways of being church. A change in culture should lead to a slightly different way of expressing the essence of the faith. Sadly, like the Jews of old, we have continued to persecute our prophets. We have failed to value those who can see more deeply into the future than others, and all too often we have tried to block their calls for change, rather than heeding their call.
  • The church has erred whenever it has ignored the plight of the poor, oppressed and marginalised. Some of the churches finest moments have been when it has championed the cause of the poor, oppressed and vulnerable. Its role in the abolition of slavery is a helpful case study. While we should be rightly proud that it was the evangelical convictions of William Wilberforce that saw him work for an end to slavery, we must also ask why some of Wilberforce’s strongest opponents were Bible believing Christians. Though they read the same Bible as Wilberforce, they focused on different parts of it, and for far too long their arguments proved persuasive. That part of our heritage is shameful. Again it highlights the need for a thought through approach to biblical exegesis (OK – so this is a subtle plug to read chapter 2 of my book, The Big Picture, which is entitled ‘Beyond Proof Texts: Knowing and Living the Story’). It can be risky to champion the cause of those on the fringes. They have so little power and seem to have nothing to give back in return. But Jesus always knows what he is talking about. And when he says, ‘Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me’ he means it (Matt 25:40). Metanoia is required for each and every time we have thought that he did not, and we must learn this from our history.

I could carry on at far greater length about what we should learn from our metanoia moments. And let’s be honest, some we have not yet faced. We could even be leaving a legacy in the present that a later generation will have to apologise for. But perhaps it is enough to say that the church has erred whenever it has sought power, prestige and uniformity. It has erred when it has been small minded and petty. It has erred when it has tried to supress truth. It has erred when it has failed to champion the cause of the poor and vulnerable. It has erred when it has tried to build its own kingdom rather than the Kingdom of God. It has erred when it has failed to offer a genuinely counter-cultural option. It has erred when it has bowed to the idols of its time. It has erred when it has been in awe of large numbers. It has erred when it has succumbed to fear. It has erred when it has forgotten the heart of the gospel – ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’, ‘Christ came into the world to save sinners’ (2 Cor 5:19; 1 Tim 1:15).

Sobering reading… yes…. but thank God, there have been so many, many times when the church has carefully listened for the voice of Jesus, and has courageously followed His lead. Messy, yes, but God writes straight with crooked lines, and can build a more faithful church from the repentant heart of a church which knows it has so often failed. (And do remember my earlier argument that in the end the overall contribution of the church to the world has been overwhelmingly positive.)

Church: A risky idea

Many Christians claim that they are not religious. They are part of a wide circle of people who identify religion as a problem and a danger. Rather than being religious, they claim they simply have a relationship with Jesus and meet together with others who also have a relationship with Jesus. Fair enough, and I am not unsympathetic to the sentiment. If being religious means being superstitious or legalistic or ritualistic, count me out. But there is a risk in not taking seriously the perils of being part of a ‘religious’ community for a long time. In my forthcoming book When Faith Turn Ugly: Understanding Toxic Faith and How to Avoid It (Paternoster, due out April 2016), I have written this reflection on the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, making the simple point that the original motivation of the Pharisees was noble. Here is a little taster:

Consider Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees and religious leaders of his day, found in Matthew 23. The language is harsh and strong as Jesus repeatedly calls them blind – blind guides, blind fools, blind Pharisees. The accusation of hypocrisy is also oft repeated.

Spare a thought for the recipients of the harangue. Contrary to popular belief, when your average Pharisee signed up for the job it wasn’t because he was desperate to be classified a hypocrite. To the contrary, only the brightest and the best made the grade. The job requirements were daunting – being able to recite the first five books of the Bible by heart just one of many. You can imagine a budding young Pharisee in his equivalent of a Sunday School class. The teacher asks – ‘so who can recite Leviticus for us?’ ‘Pick me miss, pick me miss!’ is the enthusiastic plea from all prospective Pharisee candidates.

Indeed, we don’t understand the religious leaders of Jesus’ day until we remember that there was a time when they were bright eyed, idealistic and passionate in their commitment to God. No one else would fast or pray as long. Keeping all the law was more than a minor obsession. So how did it come to end in their being dismissed as blind fools and hypocrites?

Don Carson insightfully suggests that they allowed three errors to creep in.  Somehow trivia made its way to centre stage, while the really important matters of the law (which Jesus suggests are justice, mercy and faithfulness) slipped to the edges. And then there was the muddle between appearances and reality. Because most people are a little superficial, it became so much easier to ensure that things looked right, rather than that they were actually right. Closing the trio was the lapse into fussing about changing everyone’s heart – everyone, bar their own.

While this might have been their trio of errors, is there something inherent in the religious enterprise that is likely to see the most worthy of disciples eventually lapse into becoming a Pharisee?

I think that final question must be taken with the utmost seriousness. Churches are risky enterprises because they are called to be salt and light for the world. They are called to be prophetic. They are God’s representatives. And they are made up of people like you and me. Paul writes, ‘We have this treasure in jars of clay'(2 Cor 4:7). There is such a small step between being prophetic and being judgmental and self righteous. It is so tempting to claim grace for our sins, but to impose a different standard for everyone else. And the more we study God and the ways of God, the greater the risk that we forget that the God we study is the God who studies us. We are accountable for how we use the knowledge we have. And there is always so much we don’t know. A long time in a church community can often make us think, ‘I am OK, but you are not…’ The pull towards becoming a Pharisee has always been strong, and it is as strong in our day as it was in Jesus’ day. In short, there are some inherent risks in the idea of church, and it is better to face them than to pretend that they don’t exist.

Church: A powerful ideal

None of what I have written should be taken to suggest that I think that church is a bad idea. Messy – yes. Risky – yes. But still transformingly powerful. But it is at its most powerful when we allow it to return to basics. Jesus promised, ‘where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them’ (Matt 18:20). Be our church community large or small, if it is genuinely gathering in the name of Jesus, and if it takes time to heed the presence of the One in whose name it is gathered, it has the power and potential to be God’s instrument in the world. There is still something remarkably prophetic about the church. When a ‘fellowship of differents’ (to quote Scot McKnight again) gathers in the name of Jesus, and when they commit to a life of love, and forgiveness and obedience to the call of God… well, something powerful happens. People become more generous, more creative, more positive, more hopeful… they become bigger, even more Christlike. And that is always good news.

Nice chatting…



  1. Hi Brian, I appreciate the effort it must take to tackle such a big topic in such a short form. Your use of Matt 18:20 challenges my understanding of the context. I’ll have to have a think about this. I notice in this post you use “gathering in the name of Jesus” as opposed to your previous statement “gathering and Jesus will be present.” Is there a difference? Does one contradict the ascension? I reckon that kind of thing matters a lot to people with a churchless faith.

    • Thanks Justin. Picking up on your does the presence of Jesus reverse the Ascension, I guess the classic answer is that Jesus is present through the Spirit. And Jesus’ teaching on the Spirit in both John 14 and 16 lends this good support. The fascinating question is of course… Present when two or three gather, but surely also present when we are on our own (an lo I am with you even to the end of the age – Matt 28:20). So in what way is the presence different? In principle, this is the same question as ‘in what way is Jesus specially present at the sacraments’. I’m with Calvin on this – in a mysterious way God is more present. The more present is an idea difficult to articulate at a cerebral level (surely you are there or not there), yet strangely it is very easy to grasp experientially. In our hearts we know we experience the presence of God more fully in some settings than in others. And I know you are smart enough to note that I am rotating through the members of the Trinity quite intentionally in my answer.

      In the context of our ecclesiology, perhaps we should link it to Eph 3:18 that it is only together ‘with all the saints’ that we can begin to appreciate the depth of God’s love. So though our gathering may be of only 2 or 3 (or 300 or 3000) in principle we gather aware that we are part of this far greater community, and that together with them we are on a quest to discover and live out the love of God… And we do that in the presence of Jesus who at all times accompanies us.

  2. Recently on entering a church in which I worship infrequently, I met an acquaintance, who, in the presence of others, asked me loudly, “What brings you here?”. Though embarrassed,I knew what the person meant. I have thought about the question, put the emphasis on each word in turn and discovered a host of other unconsidered questions. Thank you, Brian, for your thought provoking series.

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