February 22, 2013
Overcoming Four Church Myths
Don’t be fooled by these common—and dangerous—misconceptions.
When people encounter new things, their first tendency is to fit them into existing categories. If truth be told, most of us shy away from strange and unusual things that don’t fit our expectations. It reminds me of a Northerner who ate his first tamale by peeling down the husk and eating it like a banana. I saw another try to actually eat the corn husk with a knife and fork! If we don’t know better, we’ll draw wrong conclusions about the true nature of things based on personal experiences or cultural norms.
Myth 1: The church is merely a human organization
Though comprised of humans, the church itself is not merely a human organization. Jesus Christ is the head of the church, and the church is mystically his spiritual and physical body on earth (Eph. 1:22–23; 5:23; Col. 1:18). While we may distinguish the spiritual and physical aspects of the church, we must never separate them. Too often evangelicals have divorced the spiritual, heavenly, invisible, and eternal church from its physical, earthly, visible, historical manifestation. The result has been to treat local, visible churches as merely human organizations rather than as unique conduits through which God works his heavenly, spiritual purposes in history. Such dichotomizing has allowed Christians to treat their churches as they treat other human organizations—like a political party or a club.
In the world’s political realm, if we don’t like what our party stands for or if we lose confidence in its candidates, we just run against them, vote them out, or change the platform. If things get too bad, we can join another party or start our own. But in 1 Corinthians 3:3–4, Paul reprimands the church for taking sides and forming parties.
Neither should we treat the church like a club, with members who direct the organization according to the will of the majority. These Latin words are engraved in the Minnesota state capitol building: VOX POPULI, VOX DEI—“The Voice of the People Is the Voice of God.” Many Christians act like the church should be run by majority rule. However, after Israel demanded a king “like all the nations” to rule over them (1 Sam. 8:20), God told his prophet Samuel, “Obey their voice and make them a king” (8:22). By listening to the voice of the people, Israel ended up with just what they asked for: a king like the nations’ rather than a king of God’s own choosing. In the case of King Saul, the voice of the people was not the voice of God.
There is something supernatural about the church. It’s made up of people who have otherwise nothing in common. It’s not united by political constitutions, common interest, or corporate bylaws. It’s united by the Spirit of God around the person and work of Jesus Christ pursuing a common mission in the world.
Myth 2: The church is a supermarket for spiritual groceries
In the world of supermarkets, we like options, variety, and freedom to choose. Sadly, we often treat the church as if it were just one of many supermarkets that provide us with spiritual groceries. Consequently, we’re living in a Christian culture that regards church shopping, hopping, and dropping as normal.
Our supermarket mentality and the plethora of differing churches make our modern situation both unique and dangerous. We never seem to find just the right church, and this dissatisfaction can lead to a never-ending church shopping spree. I once knew a seminary student who, after six months of living in Dallas, still hadn’t settled down at a local church. Each Sunday he would try out a different church, then move on to another the following Sunday. Eventually he began following a well-known Christian preacher who didn’t have a church at the time but guest-preached at a different church each Sunday. So, like a groupie following a rock band, this wandering sheep followed that celebrity preacher from church to church. This is an example of an indefinite church shopping spree turned into an extreme case of church hopping.
Church dropping disturbs me the most. This is the practice of quitting church altogether, staying home Sunday mornings to watch preachers on TV or to listen to worship services by radio or podcast. This believer tries to live the Christian life outside a living local, physical church community. We see this trend in the so-called “virtual church,” where phony relationships are forged in simulated online communities without real, physical, body and soul commitment.
Our relationship to a local church is like our relationship to a family. It’s a covenantal relationship designed for the purpose of building each other up and exhorting each other to love and good works. If we look at our commitment to the local church through the lens of covenant commitment, the picture isn’t pretty. The solution? Start treating the local church less like a shopping mall and more like a family, less like a convenience store and more like a covenant community.
Myth 3: The church is just a gathering of a few believers
Several years ago when some of my friends and I prayed over our food at a fast-food joint, two scraggly men approached from across the restaurant and introduced themselves as a church. They explained that after visiting all the churches in the area they decided that none of them was preaching the true gospel, so those two men got together and decided, “We’ll be our own church.” There they stood, like the Lone Ranger and Tonto, grinning triumphantly in the bright fluorescent light, obviously proud of their do-it-yourself church.
Today some Christians have dropped out of established churches in favor of “home churches” or “family churches.” While the concept of a church meeting in a home has biblical and historical precedence (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19), many times an organization that calls itself a “house church” today is not a church at all, but just a bunch of disgruntled believers who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) make it work in a real established community of Christians.
Let’s be clear. A Bible study is not a church. It’s a Bible study. Getting together in the home for prayer is not a church. It’s a prayer meeting. A herd of Christians with a guitar and tambourine is not a church. It’s a sing-along. A man or woman opening the Bible and preaching at a willing crowd is not a church. It’s an exercise of free speech. A gathering of saints for eating and gossiping (often misconstrued as “fellowship”) is not a church. It’s a party.
From a biblical, historical, and theological perspective, an authentic church must consist of certain marks and works. The essential marks of a local church include:
• Orthodoxy: the proclamation of the central truths of the Christian faith regarding God, the person and work of Christ, and salvation
• Order: the positions of biblically qualified and properly appointed leaders
• Ordinances: the practice of baptism as the rite of institution into the covenant community, and the Lord’s Supper as the rite of sustained fellowship.
Besides these three marks, three essential works of a church include:
• Evangelism: gathering others to God by the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ
• Edification: growing believers toward maturity in Christ through teaching and discipline in genuine community
• Exaltation: glorifying God through adoration and service.
These marks and works not only place a church firmly on the foundation of the New Testament, but they also connect every true local church historically to the first church of the apostles. All true churches are united in glorifying God through building out and building up the body of Christ worldwide. True local churches are part of something bigger than themselves.
Myth 4: The church is optional
Like me, you’ve probably heard the words “church is optional” said about (or by) a person who has confessed Christ but who has dropped out of the church scene. Individual stories vary. Some people were beat up by an abusive church. Others were forced into church by their parents and finally got out from under their thumb when they left home. Some slid into a sinful lifestyle, and church got too convicting. I don’t know many Christians who would neglect local church involvement to such an extreme, but most people I know place a much lower value on the local church than the Bible does.
Part of the problem is our mystical, individualistic view of the spiritual life. Many of us have been misled into thinking that our spiritual health depends entirely on a direct personal relationship with God—that the key to spiritual growth is a private quite time that somehow summons the Holy Spirit and flushes away our sins. While I don’t reject the importance of personal spiritual disciplines, they are only part of God’s plan for spiritual health and growth.
To grow in Christ, believers need each other. In fact, God gave us our individual spiritual gifts for the growth of the community (1 Cor. 12:7). As radical as this may sound to those participating in an individualistic, me-theistic cultural evangelicalism, we must reject the idea that balanced spiritual growth can occur outside of a covenant commitment to an authentic local church.
We should prayerfully consider each decision we make regarding our local churches—from membership and attendance to our level of involvement and decisions regarding departure. If we seek to honor him and demonstrate genuine love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, the Lord will guide us in wise, prudent, and godly decisions regarding our involvement in the local church.
Michael Svigel is assistant professor of theological studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. This is an excerpt from RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith (Crossway, 2012).