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Home : Articles :
Church: The Thing

 

Church: The Thing
Charles Elliott Newbold, Jr.

We were few in number as we sat comfortably face to face in the living room of a godly couple's house. I had something to share that Wednesday night. It was the first and most significant revelation that I had received from the Holy Spirit since my conversion a couple of years before.

I titled the teaching The Thing. A horror movie had been made years before by that same title. I assured my audience that I was not going to be talking about that. However, the Thing I talked about was just as monstrous. I began that teaching by saying, "That which we call the church is not the church but is a Thing." With that teaching, I began my personal journey in discovering the idolatry of the church and the difference between it and the true bride of Christ.

Years later, my wife and I were living in west Tennessee and were waiting for direction from the Lord. While there, He led me to start a meeting on Sunday mornings and invite some people I knew to come. Some of them came. We gathered in the name of Jesus. We sang; I shared the revelations and teachings the Lord gave me; we prayed, dismissed, and went our way. We were fairly close to one another and had some contact with each other during the week. We were beginning to be the body of Christ to one another.

Then, we bought a building, renovated it, opened the doors, and had our gatherings there. We called the building "The Christian Teaching Center." I did what I believed the Lord said to do and people began to come.

We were free of men's burdensome traditions, formalities, creeds, rules and regulations, and programs. We were committed to following the Holy Spirit wherever He chose to take us. His presence was powerfully felt in most of our gatherings in those early days.

I insisted that we were not a church, that God had not called me to start a church, and that I was not to be the pastor of a church. I tried to make a distinction between the building, which we had given a name, and those of us who gathered in that building, whom I refused to name. I explained that this was a teaching center for the body of Christ in that area. Perhaps it was a mistake, but we held Sunday morning meetings for those who chose not to go elsewhere. That Sunday morning meeting became the main event of the week.

The pressure was on. Some who came there wanted it to be a church and wanted me to be their pastor. I was pastoring individuals, but I insisted we were not a church.

A local pastor disputed my contentions, insisting that we were a church. He contended that there was no scriptural precedent for the para-church ministry that we had. He said, "If you look like a duck, walk like a duck, and quack like a duck, you must be a duck. You look like a church, walk like a church, and talk like a church." I did not want to hear that then, but looking back I had to admit he was right. This Thing we call church had weaseled its way into our work. The work at the Teaching Center was never supposed to be a church.

Once we began to "have" church, we began seeking something for ourselves. We created a Thing that had gone beyond what God had called me to do. We went back to the very thing that we had come out of. We had Sunday morning and Sunday evening services, Sunday School, and a youth program. We took up offerings and put them in a bank account. Our group became known by the name I had put on the building.

I lost my vision to build up a people and began, instead, to build up a Thing. We began to go after it instead of going after the Lord Jesus Christ. We gathered around it instead of the presence of the Lord. People started leaving and they did not know why. The more they left, the more I tried to hold on to them. I felt abandoned. But it was I who had abandoned them by allowing the work to become a Thing. Not long after that, Ichabod was written over our door, spiritually speaking. 1 Sam. 4:21. As with Elijah, the brook dried up and the ravens ceased to bring their morsels. 1 Kings 17:3-7. It was time for us to move on. It took a year for me to muster enough courage to finally shut it down.

While most of us know that the word "church" as it is used in scripture refers to the people of God in Christ, we nevertheless have made a Thing of it. It is an extension of ourselves and exists as an entity unto itself.

THE EVOLUTION OF CHURCH

How did this Thing we call church evolve?

Believers in the New Testament did not have such baggage. At first they were simply called the followers of the way. They gathered spontaneously in the temple and in some synagogues for a period of time. Mostly, however, they met in private homes and went from house to house. They were drawn together by the presence of the Lord in their midst.

Christians did not have church buildings until Constantine the Great, Emperor of Rome from 306 to 337 A.D., embraced Christianity. His endorsement of the faith created a free climate for men to erect buildings "to the glory of their God."

The earliest church buildings are believed to have been built after the pattern of the Roman basilica--architecture that was firmly rooted in the traditions of the Roman empire and has no basis in scripture. Church buildings became more elaborate with the Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic influences. The layout of these cathedrals often hid the monks and choirs from the people, advancing the idea of the separation of clergy from laity which is unfounded in scripture.

During the reformation, Protestants halted the building of great edifices. The reformers were content with simple, rectangular buildings. They were primarily interested in gathering the people and having a place to preach. By the nineteenth century, however, Protestant church architecture had likewise become elaborate and consisted of elements from a variety of styles.

The enchantment with church buildings throughout the centuries has contributed to the institutionalization of the church system as we now know it.

THE ETYMOLOGY OF THE WORD "CHURCH"

With the inclination toward the construction of buildings for the worship of God, it is little wonder that the translators of the King James Version of the Bible chose to translate the Greek word ekklesia by using the English word "church." A deeper look at the etymology of the word "church" is quite revealing.

Moving backwards into time, the word "church" was derived from the Old English word cirice which is related to the Norwegian/Scandinavian word kirkja. These were derived from the Germanic word kirka; which was derived from the late Greek word Kyrite; which was derived from the Greek word kurios which means "ruler," "lord," "master." In the Greek, Kuriake oika means "lord's house." Thus, the word church came to mean "a building set apart or consecrated for public worship." 3 {1}

Though the word "church" does not have its root in the Greek term ekklesia; it is used to translate ekklesia. Ekklesia is the formation of two Greek words: ek which means "out of" and kaleo which means "to call." Combined, the word literally means "to call out of." Ekklesia was commonly used among the Greeks in reference to a body of citizens who "gathered" to discuss the affairs of state. 3 {2} A correct and quite appropriate translation of ekklesia is "called-out-ones" although there are times when the context demands that "assembly" or "gathering-of-called-out-ones" be used. The word has to do with a people who are called-out to be gathered together.

Perhaps the translators of the King James version of the Bible had in mind that the body of Christ could be thought of as a spiritual kuriake oika (Lord's house) since we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. 1 Cor. 3:16. Perhaps. But, from that time to this, the word church is used to refer to more than people. Its use has been so adulterated that we ought never to use it when we are referring to the body of Christ. It is appropriate to use the word "church" when we are actually talking about a building but not when we are talking about the body of Christ. What we call church is a Thing. The ekklesia is a people.

THE THING

We organize this Thing. We name it, incorporate it, elect officers to it, open bank accounts in its name, and train and hire staff to run it. We take up money for it. We devise campaigns to recruit more people to join it. We track attendance to it. We love it, get mad at it, resign from it, and leave it. If we are particularly fond of it, we make up brochures and buy ads to market it.

We evaluate the Thing to determine its success or failure. "The praise service was good," we might say. "The sermon was okay." "The offering was poor." "The attendance was down."

Ask a pastor how his church is coming along and he may answer with such comments as: "Oh, our building program is great." "We're getting in members left and right." "We've doubled our membership in the last year." "We are losing people out of the back door as fast as they come in the front." See where his heart is? He is evaluating the thing over which he is likely the head. The growth of his church reflects upon his success or failure as its leader. If, on the other hand, he answers regarding the spiritual well-being of the people, he understands more of what it means to be the body of Christ. "Well, you know, many of them have endured some affliction, but it has made them stronger in the Lord."

If he talks about his people in a possessive sense, he is snared by his own conceit. They are not his people. On the other hand, if he talks about the sheep who belong to the good shepherd who is Jesus Christ, he may be free and more likely to set God's people free.

FOR THE SAKE OF IT

Soon after a church is started, it nearly always takes on an existence of its own and begins to exist for its own sake. The people in it exist to serve it rather than it existing to serve the people. Those dedicated to keeping the church going expect their members to attend it, support it, and serve it. They plan various programs that fit the model of what they think a full service church ought to look like.

The Conners family had been supported by their church for eight years of difficult but faithful duty on the mission field. After their return, they attended their church for awhile before dropping out. The first pastoral or administrative inquiry about them was by the church accountant. "Are the Conners attending church?" "No," a friend of theirs answered. "Why?" "For no particular reason." He was indignant. "After all the money we've given them, now when they could help they're not around." Perhaps that would have been a genuine concern under other circumstances, but his interest in them came one and a half years after their return. As Mrs. Conners regretfully said, "I was frustrated by the obvious fact that no one on staff seemed to notice we were no longer going there and when they did notice, the first comment was about money." Had the money been spent on the Conners? No. They were in another land to be spent by the Lord for the sake of serving the saints there. It seems the Conners were expected to serve the institution, but were themselves abandoned by the so-called leadership within that institution.

Brother Billy became the pastor of West Side Church after his father died. His father founded the church. Brother Billy announced one Sunday that he was fulfilling his vision to have a jail and bus ministry. "We lack these things to be a complete church," he explained. "We need volunteers for the jail ministry and for the bus ministry. Sign-up sheets are on the back table." Many dear hearts who felt no calling for such service signed on to make Brother Billy feel okay about himself and his church. They had to serve him so he could fulfill his vision for a Thing.

People often grow weary of these works of men and drop out. Leadership is hard to find. If the services or programs were really meeting people's needs, people would be more likely to support them. A lack of support may be a clear indication that the event no longer meets a need worth supporting.

PROVOKING GUILT

If we do not provide the expected support for the Thing and its programs, whether we want to or not, whether we are called to serve in a certain capacity or not, we are made to feel guilty. Have you ever felt guilty for missing a function of the church? Those little shame-based voices in your head whisper "naughty, naughty." "It was my fault the program failed. I didn't give enough of my time and money to it." You can know by those feelings of guilt that you are serving a Thing and not the Master.

When we are asked by leadership in the church to make a commitment to the church, we are actually being asked to make a commitment to the Thing. Our loyalty is measured by how well we serve this Thing. We are thought to be slothful Christians if we do not support it; and if we do not even attend a local church, we are assumed to be backsliders.

On the other hand, when we "do" church, we have expectations that it ought to be a certain way. It has to work according to our expectations, or we will feel like it has failed.

If the Thing has to work a certain way before it is successful, then those who support it will be pressured into performing in such a way as to make it a success. If it is not a success, someone is to blame. It is either the people's fault, the pastor's fault, the choir director's fault, or the church board's fault.

What if you and I have different expectations about how a church should work? We will have conflict. There will always be conflict in the church because there will always be expectations in conflict. These are man's expectations, not God's.

ADDICTED TO THE THING

Some people are clinically classified as religious addicts. I am a recovering church-addict. Soon after my conversion in 1978, I saw how this church Thing was an idolatrous system of men's traditions. I despised it (not the people in it); yet, I felt a seductive pull back into it.

I needed it. I had previously found my identity in it. I had presence, power, and position in it. As the pastor of it, I thought I owned at least a part of it. My heart would secretly boast, "This is mine!" It was my source of financial support. It was the only thing I was trained to do. I was joined to it and it was joined to me.

We bond with that Thing we call church and thereby get in bondage to it. We join it and it somehow takes possession of us. We do, in fact, get addicted to it. As Dennis Loewen wrote, "It is addictive. How do we know? One way is that we all go through withdrawal when we leave it."

Some discerning believers who attend spiritually stagnant churches realize they no longer need to be there. The Holy Spirit is absent. The services are dead. The preacher is boring. People argue over petty, irrelevant issues. They feel their tithes are wasted on worthless salaries, programs, and mortgages. Their huge buildings stand empty more often than not. They feel obligated to serve on committees that serve the institution more than they serve the people. They see the leadership trying one gimmick after another to make the Thing relevant in order to get more people to join it and be active in it.

These precious believers want to leave but find that they cannot. Mother wouldn't understand. "Why, that stained glass window was dedicated in grandpa's name. How can you even think about leaving?" They rationalize that they have life-long friends there. "How can I leave them?" They are made to feel like traitors, deserters, troublemakers, or mavericks. Some people disown their own family members who leave their "faith." Some traditions believe that a person will go to hell if they leave their particular brand of church.

So, they feel stuck in the system. They put on their Sunday morning smiles and hide their secret resentments for feeling stuck. They shake and howdy down the aisle, pretending, "Isn't it good to be in the house of the Lord?" They settle into their familiar pews and begin again to fellowship with the backs of people's heads.

Many who dare to leave one church go down the street hoping for a better "spiritual climate" only to find the same old whore in a brand new dress. Only the rules are slightly different. They go from church to church looking for that which is genuine only to find more phony religious facades; they go looking for Spirit and truth only to find more flesh and hypocrisy. Yet, they continue their search, because they are addicted to it. They bob up and down on their wooden horses unable to dismount because of the velocity of that carousel--the church system that perpetually spins round and round, going nowhere.

A few discerning persons are able to break away from the bondage of church, but often leave damaged and resentful. Some of these attend anonymous groups, seeking recovery from the religious abuses inflicted upon them by these religious systems of men's traditions.

Church, as we have come to experience it, permeates every aspect of our society. It is the only thing we have seen and known that supposedly represents Christ. In going after it, just as did Israel of old, we have played the harlot and provoked the Lord to jealousy.

I hope you are praying for the Holy Spirit to lift the veil from over your eyes to see how church is a counterfeit system, to see how we have made a Thing out of who we are in Christ and gone after it instead of Jesus.

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