John Wesley had no intention of founding Methodism; he was attempting to reform the Church of England. Likewise, Jesus was attempting to reform Judaism; he had no intention of founding another religion. Jesus’ disciples and his early followers started the movement that became Christianity within the Jewish synagogues. When these so-called “Followers of the Way” were eventually forced to separate from Judaism around the year 88 CE, there were no membership requirements for the fledgling Christian community except interest in learning about Jesus and his teachings. They believed different things and had different points of view. They had never heard of such things as the virgin birth and the last thing a Jewish monotheist was likely to believe was that a man was God.
According to Leo Tolstoy, the famous Russian novelist, in his magnum non-fiction opus, The Kingdom of God is Within You, the idea that God or Jesus founded the church is “so utterly untrue and unfounded that one is ashamed to refute them.” Only the modern Christian church would even assert such a notion. Jesus could not have founded the church as we presently understand the word. Nothing like the idea of the church with its sacraments and its claim of infallibility can be found in Jesus’ words or in the ideas of other men of his time.
The word “church” is found four times in Matthew and in no other gospel:
1. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
2. “If another member of the church (or “if another brother”) sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” (Matthew 18:15)
3. “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” (Matthew 18:17)
4. “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church (or ‘if my brother’) sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’” (Matthew 18:21)
The word appears numerous times in the Acts of the Apostles, but it is always used simply to identify members of the body of believers. The word also can be found in several of the Epistles and Revelation.
The church as we know it came about when one group of believers was opposed by a dissenting group. Then it became necessary for each group to define their concepts of Christianity and to label all others heretics.
Even as the early “followers of the way” separated themselves from the synagogue, there were two groups – the ones who wanted to receive the uncircumcised Gentiles into their fellowship and the Judaists, who insisted that everyone (all males) be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses.
The Catholic catechism claims the church “is the society of the faithful, established by our Lord Jesus Christ… and subject to the authority of its lawful pastors, and chief of them our Holy Father the Pope.” The Greek Orthodox Church also claims that it was founded by Jesus and that its priesthood is appointed by God. The Lutheran Church’s catechism claims it is “holy Christianity” and through its “sacraments, promises, communicates, and administers salvation.” That means that the Lutherans, Catholics and Greek Orthodox churches think each other are wrong and that the only means to salvation is their church.
The Catholics insist that the Holy Spirit has been transmitted without break in their priesthood. The Greek Orthodox and the Arians assert the same. The Protestants – Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, etc. – insist that the Holy Spirit is just as present in their churches. On that subject Tolstoy wrote: “Every branch in a tree comes from the root in unbroken connection; but the fact that each branch comes from the one root, does not prove at all that each branch was the only one. It is precisely the same with the Church.”
Did Jesus intend to create the church? He did not leave any clear directions about its structure or purpose. It was the apostle Paul and others who later did that, not Jesus.
The Church Often Is Not Christ-like
The Christian Church has not had a very Christ-like existence. It has a rather horrible history, as a matter of fact, that is marked by such abominations as holy wars, sacred crusades, inquisitions, anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. The church has forced conversions or recantations of those they considered heretics by using some of the cruelest tortures in history. And this ecclesiastical nightmare has continued for centuries, all in the name of the church and/or Christianity.
All Christian churches are supposed to be good. However, it has often tried to kill or actually killed those who threaten its power; it has attempted to silence, reject, or marginalize its critics; and it has persecuted its challengers, sometimes even going to war against them. Such atrocities are not acts of love.
In the last decade or so the Southern Baptist Convention repented of their past support of slavery and racial segregation. They asked African-Americans for forgiveness for the their past actions and for any residual racism left today. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America apologized for Martin Luther’s viciously anti-Semitic statements. The United Methodist Church apologized for the brutality of a lay preacher who led a massacre during the Civil War.
The Catholic Church teaches that, as an institution, it is pure and without fault. They theorize that since their church is maintained by God, it is error free – in the past, present, and future. However, it has been guilty of jailing, torturing, and burning alive outspoken scientists, perceived heretics, natural healers, and even midwives. It has also declared wars of extermination against the Cathars, Knights Templars and other groups that disagreed with the “mother church.” The church claims that it was individual leaders not the church that committed these ghastly crimes. Catholics only recently admitted the silence of many of their adherents during the Nazi Holocaust.
If we claim that Jesus founded the church, should it not at least share his values? Do we really think the church reflects the priorities of Jesus? Often times, unfortunately, the answer is no. As Philip Gulley wrote: “If the church were Christian, we would do what Jesus did – equip one another to live better in this world and stop fretting about the next one.”
Some Churches Are Dull
When we consider that so many churches have dull services, use archaic, ambiguous and almost meaningless words, and practically incomprehensible ritual, it is amazing that anyone goes to church. How could something so vital, glorious, and joyous have become so dull, boring, irrelevant and meaningless? How did the elaborate ritual and ceremony of some church services evolve from the simple teachings of Jesus? Many former church members heard so much meaningless drivel preached in sermons that they finally decided it was a waste of time to listen to them and withdrew.
Bruce Barton claims that the church hates change and I agree. Generally, it sticks to old methods, seem-ingly believing they are sacred just because they are the way it has always been done. Preserving tradition is often far more important than relevance. Former Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong says something very similar: “Many churches would, if given the choice, choose to die rather than change.”
Church Labels Nonconformists
Once Constantine, the Roman emperor, decided that his empire might crumble unless he forced the Christian church to define its faith, anyone who strayed from their definition was labeled a heretic. In the early church there were several sects that flourished; for example, the Ebionites, who regarded Jesus as a mortal human messianic prophet but not as divine and they continued to follow all the Jewish laws and rites; the Arians, who claimed that the Father and Son were distinct beings, that the Son was not equal to the Father, and the Docetists, a Gnostic sect who believed that Jesus had no human body and only appeared to die on the cross. All of these groups, and others, were labeled heretics.
Has it ever occurred to you that John Wesley, Martin Luther, Joan of Arc, Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Tertullian, Origen, and even Jesus decided to “buck the system”? According to the established religious order, they made unauthorized choices. These spiritual heroes chose to “kick against the pricks,” to disobey traditional orthodoxy and to express their love of God in unconventional ways. Some of those people died for their disobedience, while others were excommunicated or left their churches voluntarily.
Some Churches Still Instill Antiquated Theology
One of the problems with the church is its insistence on instilling into its members relics of beliefs that are difficult or impossible to justify. Many churches still instill into their congregants antiquated theology of a theistic God, of the Trinity, of the virgin birth, of Mary as the Mother of God and a perpetual virgin, of a bodily resurrection of Jesus, of original sin, of idol worship, of the veneration and kissing of holy relics, and of other practically extinct concepts that have little or no meaning for twenty-first century men and women.
According to the May 2011 Gallup Poll, ninety-two percent of Americans said they believe in God. And, believe it or not, since 1943 the vast majority of Americans believe in God. However, belief in God has not always brought about high church attendance and membership. There have been periods of low attendance and membership. John Lamont, who wrote an article in First Things in April 2010, explains:
During the Revolution, less than one-fifth of Americans claimed church membership. By the mid-19th century, one-third did so. Today, more than half are church members, and approximately 40 percent attend church once a week and that number has remained fairly constant since at least the 1930s.
In Gallup’s 74 year trend of church membership they report:
In the 1937 Gallup Poll, 73% of Americans said they were church members. That number stayed in the 70% range in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. By the 1970s, however, the number began to slip, although as recently as 1999, 70% said they were church members. Since 2002, self-reported church membership has been between 63% and 65%.
If the majority of Americans believe in God, why have they lost their faith in the church? One reason is that mainline churches have tended to look backwards – living or dying on their history and traditions – rather than building the church of the future. The challenge for older churches is to understand that, although it is important to honor the past, it is not who we were but who or what the church needs to become. If churches have not changed much in the last sixty years, their membership and attendance will likely continue to dwindle. For those mainline churches who have awakened and embraced post-modernism, they most likely have more vibrate ministries. Many of the newer non-denominational churches did not have to reinterpret their setting in culture because they were born in our contemporary culture. Or the churches that had the leadership to constantly think about and implement the vision and mission of the church year by year will stay strong.
Why Remain in the Church?
I have remained in the church but struggled with the beliefs that I learned as a child. For years I was afraid to question or reject what I had been taught for fear there was not anything to replace them.
However, I now believe the church is worthy of our attendance and support. It is extremely important to be an active member of the Christian community. For one thing, those of us who want to see the church change have the obligation not to stand outside and criticize but to stay inside and work for more courageous thinking, a greater willingness to discard the useless, and a deeper faith.
In my opinion, we need a church that is a lifelong learning community that is open to questions, doubts and dialogue.