For many years we were active members of a church congregation. In recent months we have gradually been loosening the ties and moving out. It has been a strange and painful process.
Recently we decided to make the break with the institution (but not necessarily with the people) complete. We are now in a phase where we feel liberated and hopeful of new things, but do not yet know what. We no longer 'go to church' on Sunday mornings. Yet our relationships with Jesus as Lord seem to be more intense. We are at a crossroads as in Brian Doerksen's 'Lead us Lord'.
One of the questions this process has forced us to consider is 'What is Church?'
A friend referred us to 'Churchianity Today' by Chip Brogden. This article seems to shed light on our position in the big open space outside the institutional congregation.
Some salient quotes:
'Those who ballyhoo the spiritual benefits of joining a church should be reminded that we are already joined to the Body of Christ, the Ecclesia, and are already realizing every spiritual benefit of membership in HIS Church. The only qualification for such membership is a New Birth. There is no responsibility but to abide in Him, and every action springs forth from that abiding. Joining a church may be good, proper, beneficial, and moral - but it is not a condition of salvation, thus it is not a condition for being a Christian.'
So we are members of HIS Church even though we are out of the organised religion congregation.
'If we are one with the Head, we are one with the Body, even if we are not gathered together. But, if we are not one with the Head, we are not one with the Body, even if we are gathered together.
'If we are walking in the Light as He is in the Light then WE HAVE fellowship with one another whether we are attending a church building or not. Joining a church is not a condition of fellowship.
'We're only pointing out how easy it is for the generally accepted attitudes, traditions, rituals and practices of Organized Religion to quickly deteriorate into something wholly other than what the Lord has in mind for a community of Believers. Our contention is that the way we go about "doing" church is far removed from what "being" the Church is all about.'
And some interesting stuff about the clergy laity distinction in organised religion:
'Support of the pastor and his vision cannot be mandated; either the Spirit bears witness with what is happening or He doesn't. Titular authority is based on perceived rank, status, charisma, spiritual gift or popular appeal: it's a fantasy, a piece of dirt painted gold.
'The philosophy of Organized Religion is to maintain the distinction between clergy and laity. To reinforce this philosophy most churches consider the pastor (or priest) to be the spiritual head of the church. Most pastors see the local church as an extension of their own personal ministry and calling, thus the congregation is made in the image of the pastor. It is important that we note this carefully, for we maintain that God's people do not belong to anyone but Christ, and the Church is His Church, and not ours. All authority is given to Him, and whatever weight or influence we as individuals have over one another is ours by reason of our depth of knowing Christ and our willingness to love and serve one another. The "elders" are just that - those who are older and more experienced in the things of the Lord, the implication being that they are more conformed to His image and are thus gentle, loving, kind, and able to instruct and encourage the younger.'
So where do we go from here? Chip Brogden has a warning about house churches. There is a risk of creating an Institutional House Church and remaining stuck in religious bondage.
'Jesus is building His Church upon the foundation of Himself. This is the only safe ground to build or stand upon.'
Chip Brogden confirms our experience. We sat for quite some time, knowing something was wrong, but unable to express it. It is possible to be troubled without knowing why. But when our hearing is sensitive, we will hear God's protest that something is being done in His name that He does not endorse.
But there is only one way go, that is by way of Christ. We cannot go with hurt, bitterness or rebellion or we may be driven into a quagmire of depression and unforgiveness. But if our experiences drive us deeper into Christ we will find healing through Him and be enabled to extend grace to those who troubled us.
'When we have seen Christ and His Church, anyone attempting to lord over, corral, enclose, intimidate, manipulate, unlawfully influence or exert his or her spiritual whims on us is rebuffed with a calm, quiet spirit. It is like striking the air, or stopping the ocean.'
So, here we are at a crossroads in a big space outside the boundary of Organized Religion. We see the cross. We see the Lord. That is all we need to see. We choose the way that He is showing us.