Monday, January 09, 2006

Barna's Church

George Barna, respected Christian pollster and statistician, is espousing individualism over the local congregation in his recent book, REVOLUTION: Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary. With so many Christians who seem disenchanted with "organized religion", I want to analyze the pros and cons of organization within the Christian Church and see if he has a good point or not.

What first comes to mind is the historical difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Revolution. The ostensible unity of the Roman Catholic Church is juxtaposed against the fragmentation of the Protestants. The problem with Roman Catholic unity is that its hierarchical system ignores the fallen nature of humanity. The initial disparity actually lent itself to the split with the Eastern Church and later the factions that fragmented into Protestantism after Luther's failed Reformation. (The global standardization of more recent centuries has helped to correct some of the discrepancies in the Roman Catholic Church.) What happens with strong hierarchies, however, is that governing powers so centrally located are easily compromised by apostate teachers and corruption, jeopardizing not just a single congregation, but the whole system.

Christ prayed for unity. Therefore, shouldn't we strive for unity? The simple answer is yes. After all, the Church Universal is collectively the Bride of Christ. However, Christ said that He came not to bring peace but a sword. He said that He would set sons against fathers. How do we reconcile this? The sword of division is not within the Church, but between the Church and the rest of the world. We are instructed to be Holy as He is Holy. Holy is "set apart" for a special purpose and within that which is set apart, there should be unity, right?

The idea of unity is idealistic. Although we are called to be Holy, we will never reach perfect Holiness on this side of eternity. We are a fallen people and most of us will take advantage of power to serve our needs if we go without check. Many of us will even conspire to gain power that has not been properly granted us. This is the historic failing of the Roman Catholic Church. It has also been the failing of many of the more hierarchical Protestant denominations.

So, is total independence the answer? Many who have grown to despise organized religion have come from denominations with corrupt hierarchies. They may also have come from churches where ministers or congregation members in those congregations, because of poor attitudes and behaviors, soured these people to church in general. Is the answer to shun a membership-oriented fellowship in favor of fellowship that has no standard of commitment?

One argument is that one's salvation is personal and that we must be free to come to God on our own terms. The problem with this argument is that it has no scriptural basis. For example, the Great Commission has in it the command of Christ to baptize. Is the command to baptize to those who are being saved? No, it is to those who are already mature Christians in the service of Christ. Baptism is a command to the church to perform on those who are discipled to the point of realizing redemption. Baptism is a church activity that is organized to some degree. When Paul went out as commissioned by Christ, he didn't just leave people to figure out things on their own. Paul set up churches in towns complete with pastors, teachers, traditions, offerings, baptisms and the sharing of communion as also commanded by Christ.

The benefit of a local congregation is that we are held accountable for our faith among believers. We are also called to be vigilant in holding others accountable as well. It's not always fun, and a faithful church will be attacked as a group of people who threaten the power of the evil one to imprison the minds of men.

Total independence is wrong also in that the focus isn't on our dependence on Christ (whose body is the Church). Instead, the focus is on the individual. Which individual is right? Where one individual disagrees with another, Christ is not revealed. There is some room in the wings for legitimate disagreement in serious Biblical study, but unless we agree on the central tenets of Historic Christianity, we will fail to proclaim Christ. The focus must on Christ, and for His sake we must give up certain measures of independence. Where we suffer at the hands of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we must also remember Paul's admonition in his question to the Corinthians, "Why not rather be wronged?" This for the sake of Christ.

So where is the balance between too much hierarchy and too much independence? Certainly, accountability can be had in congregations for individuals. Some congregations stop there and say they need no fellowship with another congregation. Large churches may become this way and may be justified in doing so if they function like a church of churches where the power of accountability is spread out among the different groups. However, if the power remains central or the church is small, then a church is exposed to the possibility of corruption or the slide into obscurity by unbalanced teaching. There needs to be some association with other churches for the purpose of accountability. For example, a few years ago a Church in our region was removed from the Southern Baptist convention for performing a same-sex "wedding". It was held accountable for condoning sexual impurity. This form of accountability may seem mild compared to a potential hierarchical treatment of replacing the pastor. However, how many hierarchical denominations have done this lately? (Admittedly, the UMC has, but this is the exception and not the rule.) Nevertheless, there are many such pastors, bishops and others in hierarchical denominations who give reason to the hierarchy to exercise discipline against them.

I believe my denomination of choice, the Southern Baptist Church, while not perfect, has as good a balance as we can achieve. Because of the propensity of Christians to sin albeit being redeemed is the reason the Universal Church will be imperfect witnesses until Christ returns. Admitting
this and seeking the committed fellowship of believers for the purpose of accountability is the first great witness of our need for Christ. Neither hierarchy nor outright independence accomplishes this with any effectiveness. It's a good thing such as Christianity Today can hold George Barna accountable for a poor teaching.


Blogger Jeff A. Spry said...

I wonder sometimes about this as a mitigating factor in the modern movement away from "church" as we know it: for several years now we have been ushering our children and youth out of our worship services in order to give them something better suited to their "needs" so that they can learn . . . or, whatever. It's probably more about the parents than the children. Then, when they reach their teens, we send them to the youth service (many churches do this even on Sunday mornings, not just Sunday/Wednesday nights).

Then, when these insulated children reach their adult years after so many seasons of being catered to in their worship styles, they all of the sudden find themselves in a strange new world where they are not in control. Now they're "bored" or whatever meaningless emotion they can hope to muster.

So, it is little wonder they are remaking the church in their own image. We've taught them how to do it!

Tue Jan 10, 08:15:00 PM GMT-5  

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