Someone Will Lead You Where You Do Not Want to Go

The number one rule of eating well has nothing to do with calorie counting or macronutrient profiles or super-foods or ancient grains. The most important rule of eating well is that neither willpower nor guilt nor shame is sufficient. You will eat whatever is in your house, eventually. Most of us won’t fail on good days, or right at the beginning of a new diet when our willpower is strong. But eventually, we get tired, or hungry, or we have a bad day. Then we eat what we want. The only way to succeed in the long term is to create a supportive environment, and that means acknowledging our own limitations. So, when we are “feeling strong”, we voluntarily limit our ability to make bad decisions when we are not feeling so strong by ridding our homes of foods that we will regret eating in our inevitable moments of weakness.

It is fascinating that humans can feel regret. We do something that we want to do, then at a later time, we regret that we wanted to do that thing. We are complex creatures, with desires that are constantly in flux and always contradictory. The fact that self-control is a necessary skill is strange! We want a beautiful body and we want to eat cake and sleep until noon. We want to relax and we want to excel at our jobs. A relatively simple observation is that we can’t get what we want by doing what we want. The Apostle Paul layers another observation about human nature on top of our simple model. Paul observes that some of our desires are “fleshly”: immediate, powerful, irrational, self-centered, and often evil. Anger, jealousy, envy, lust. These desires are opposed by the “spiritual”: long-term, relatively weak, rational, others-centered, and often good. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control.

So now we have a model of humanity that differentiates between good and evil, and acknowledges that the desires which are more powerful and immediate often work against us. These are the desires that win by default. It is only by conscious effort and the exertion of energy that we can control ourselves. (Though practice does make this easier over time to some extent).

That is a long, but necessary, introduction to our topic. The internet will take you where you do not want to go. Why? The model on which Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, and most other websites are built on is the advertising model. That means they can only make money if they can capture your attention for long enough to sell chunks of it to other people. Let’s put aside the privacy piece for a moment, which is troubling enough.

we-know-where-you-are

If your income depended on capturing people’s attention, which desires would you try to use? Obviously, you would appeal to, or manipulate, the more powerful desires: lust, fear, anger, hatred, disgust, envy. It’s a winning formula. Moreover, you would have a vested interest in increasing humanity’s subjugation to its own desires. Right? Of course, as humans, we are too pro-social to think in these ways. It feels manipulative. But computers don’t “feel” manipulative. Computers just execute orders. In this case, the most powerful neural networks on the planet are tasked with attracting and retaining human attention. They will do whatever works.

The most unsurprising headline of 2019 was the New York Times reporting “On YouTube’s Digital Playground, an Open Gate for Pedophiles“, at least it should have been. I’m no journalist, but I figured it out in 2014. Social media, Youtube, Netflix, all suggest content through computer algorithms. Of course, computers will stumble upon our model.

Why are people surprised that an internet-based society is a radicalized society? Those are the same thing! You can’t have one without the other, at least given our current model of free of charge internet based on advertising revenue. A radical Republican / Democrat, scared about the future and angry about what is happening, will be a more dedicated watcher than a moderate who is less emotionally invested. The algorithm doesn’t care about the party, it cares about the attention. Addiction creation is the name of the game. People with self-control will watch less, so computers are, without conscious intent, aligned against self-control. Pornography suggestions grow gradually more intense, more explicit, younger, more deviant. And in doing, will rewire the brains of those who watch it, at least according to neuroscientists Hilton, Donald L., and Clark Watts in their article “Pornography Addiction: A Neuroscience Perspective.” Surgical Neurology International 2 (2011): 19.

Side Note: This is why “Cuties” as a form of activism is such a bad idea. If you get everyone drunk to expose the problems of drinking, then for that small percentage that has the genetic proclivity, you have unintentionally created alcoholics. And if you show sexualized pre-teens to everybody to shock people in to hating the sexualization of underage female bodies, then you set some with the genetic proclivity on the path towards becoming a child predator.

Once you thing about it, it is both obvious and inevitable. People are people. The internet and social media are always there. There is no chance of removing the stuff that you will regret having watched later. What’s more, algorithms are explicitly trying to create stronger and more visceral connections between you and your flesh. You have social norms and family connections that are hopefully providing some strength to resist these trends. But the end result is inevitable. The only way to win is to stop playing the game. Willpower, shame, guilt are all insufficient. You have to create an environment that supports the spirit. And that may mean intentionally limiting access to the internet to your computer. It may mean signing up for Covenant Eyes (though this won’t prevent the increase of anxiety or political radicalization).

In the long-term, there is no question of who will win in a contest of will between computers and humanity. Humans are much smarter, much wiser, much more loving and compassionate. But we run out of willpower, we have bad days, and our wants and needs are changed by our experiences. Computers don’t run out of willpower, they don’t have bad days, they don’t get tired. Their wants and needs never change.

We can’t win this fight by engaging the enemy on their own territory. It is hard enough to win the battle of self-control without the temptations of the media machine or the internet. We’ve got to choose our own battle ground, and that means getting out from in front of the screen, except for limited engagements for specific purposes. Or we will share Peter’s fate, though I doubt our deaths will glorify God.

John 21:18 – Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go

Outgrowing Your IQ

Howard Gardener pioneered the theory of multiple intelligences in the early 1980s, and has built an impressive career out of it. He refutes the existence of g, the general intelligence factor that IQ tests ostensibly try to measure. Instead he argues for the fluidity and separability of intelligence. His work has found a widespread and eager audience because, among other things, Americans over-value intelligence, are very worried about differential achievement, and are scared to death that they don’t measure up.

I won’t spend much time dealing with Gardener’s argument. If there is such a thing as general athleticism, then there is such a thing as general intelligence. If some people run faster, jump higher, throw farther, and are more coordinated than others, then some people learn faster, calculate faster, intuit faster than others. Obviously, the stereotypical athlete from India will excel at cricket, from China at table tennis, from America at basketball, from Spain at football, from Sweden at strongman and so on. Obviously, athleticism has different aspects: strength, speed, coordination. Obviously, whatever interest a person takes will influence what they become the best at. It is a matter of fact that a great athlete from India who excels at cricket will pick up baseball and football and table tennis faster than a poor athlete from India, and vice versa. But it is also a matter of fact that a poor Chinese athlete will often beat a great American athlete at an Chinese sport unfamiliar to the American. Finally, the poor athlete that works very hard and practices very smart will sometimes beat the good athlete who is lazy and undisciplined. None of this means that athleticism doesn’t exist, it just means that athletic potential is expressed in different ways in different people, and is therefore difficult to quantify. But every sports fan can do a pretty good job of spotting extraordinary talent versus experience and technique. The analogy holds for general intelligence. It may not be easy to quantify, but we have all known people that were smart and people that were not. Simple enough.

But here is where we make a mistake. We understand that general intelligence g is real, but we assume that its relative value is constant over time. I believe that this is far from true. Instead, I propose that the value of intelligence relative to experience / wisdom declines steeply over time.

Value of IQ by years of age

How could that be? Well, let’s look at the simplest definition of intelligence, which while it obscures some important details, helps us to get a clearer understanding of the big picture.

The term Intelligence Quotient is derived from the way in which it was originally measured. A person took a test that provided them with a Mental Age Score. This score became the numerator and their chronological age was the denominator in their Intelligence Quotient, which was then multiplied by 100. Let’s say that a 10 year old girl and a 40 year old man took the same test and they both received a Mental Age score of 20. The young girl would be classified as an outstanding genius, with an Intelligence Quotient of 20/10*100 = 200! The 40 year old man would be classified as profoundly mentally disabled with an IQ of 20/40*100 = 50. This is measured intelligence at its simplest: defined as speed of learning with some important influence by one’s learning habits, subjects of learning (which may or may not be tested), and the materials of learning that are available, not to mention language and so forth.

What do we spend the first 20 or so years of life doing? Learning standardized curriculum in school with same-age children. Language is standardized, content is standardized, and habits are almost standardized (time in school makes up the majority of a child’s available time for learning). Therefore, IQ plays a very important role. Even a modest 20% difference in IQ, when everything else is being held relatively equal, will lead to significant differences over time.

In our 20s, we start our careers and have enormous amounts of “real world” material to learn. IQ is again important, but it is not as valuable as when we were in school, nor is it as recognized. In our 20s, our competition is rarely confined to those our own age, and we have had some years in which to specialize. A relatively bright engineer with an IQ of 110 and 30 years of specific experience in building design will perform far better in normal situations in that field than a brilliant engineer with an IQ of 150 and one year of experience. Or a mediocre new graduate who just spent 4 intense years learning new techniques may perform much better than a brilliant engineer with a lot of experience, but who is just beginning a transition to the new standard techniques. Of course, we would expect that in a field new to both, the more intelligent engineer would comprehend things faster.

Fast forward to our 40s and 50s, our prime years for productivity. People now have a rich base of experience base with 20+ years of invested time. Experience matters intellectually just as it does in athletics. Michael Jordan in 1996 was not as explosive or athletic as the Michael Jordan of 1984, but he was a better basketball player. He knew the game better, he had more experience, better reactions, better pattern recognition, more physical and emotional control. In the same manner, though not to the same degree, our cognitive abilities decline as we age. But experience, or wisdom, allow us to perform better in our 40s than we did in our 20s. Robert Sternberg, a contemporary of Gardener, has done a lot of work on the theory of wisdom, which he defines as the synthesis and crystallization of intelligence and creativity (along with other factors) over time. This is part of the explanation for why senior employees outperform their youthful counterparts in many measures, according to Harvard Business Review, even though we can safely assume that the younger cohort is, on average, slightly more intelligent due to the inevitable age-related cognitive decline.

Let’s review from a slightly different perspective. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that our intelligence is constant. When children are young, their accumulated experience is virtually nil, while their intelligence is a constant positive factor, so the relative contribution of intelligence to their life and success is large. But each year that passes, their experiential capital grows, while their intellectual capacity remains constant. For a person in their prime (40s and 50s), their experiential capital now overshadows their, still constant, intellectual capacity. Learning and insight are still important, but even those are greatly affected by the knowledge and understanding that have already been gained. So, intelligence becomes relatively less important each year.

So what? The point of this article is that IQ is important, especially when you are young. Probably too important, because of the way that we structure our children’s socialization, which is a big part of the reason why the intelligent suffer disproportionately from social disabilities, not the least of which is overweening arrogance. The intelligent, and the unintelligent, in the West identify with their intelligence level relative to their peers.

This is similar to defining one’s self by one’s athletic ability or appearance. These things are almost inevitable when you are young. But time is the great equalizer, in athletic ability, in appearance, and in intellect. A beautiful 70 year old will not win a beauty contest for college students. As people age, the relative importance of intelligence diminishes in the same way that these other inherited biological characteristics diminish. So, whatever age you are, invest in learning (especially humility), become wise, and throw your IQ score away, metaphorically speaking.

SIDE NOTES: There are many factors overlooked here, not least is that a very few fields have an exceedingly high demand for continuous novel learning, where the accumulated benefits of previous learning are less valuable. It is also true that some professions require a high level of intellect to participate: quantum physics, theoretical mathematician, and so on. But these boundary cases do not invalidate the main point that intelligence, regardless of field, becomes relatively less important over time. Nor is it insignificant that the slope of one’s potential learning is strongly influenced by one’s intelligence. This too is irrelevant because the slope of the curve is constant, meaning that the area under the curve (experience) becomes greater and greater over time.

7 – Two Kinds of Material

This series of essays has been primarily an exposition of the weakness of the church-as-building, which is the primary mode of being of the church in the religiously free world. Maybe you have been convinced by these various arguments, but you wonder about the cost of change. This will be the topic that we will address in the next couple of essays. We will start with the human cost. As Christians, people are more important than properties, even when the value of those properties is in the hundreds of billions of dollars. We need to seriously consider the consequences of our decisions on those whose callings and livelihoods are deeply entwined with the fate of the church as we know it. What happens to pastors, many of whom have dedicated their lives to the church for decades?

Some of the more cynical among us might protest that the clergy is a profession like any other, well-recompensed, and that many pastors are motivated by mercantile, even mercenary values. Therefore we should not be overly concerned with the fate of these individuals. However, this will not be our starting place. We recognize that most pastors are working out of a deep sense of calling and have made great sacrifices to continue in the ministry. It is with a sense of deep humility in the light of the lives of these great men and women that I suggest that the professional clergy will also be better off after abandoning the Temple system.

How can that be? Well, it is first necessary to make an observation about pastors in general, namely, that they come in 3 types. As with all generalizations, it is necessarily imperfect, but it does provide some helpful insights. We start with one crucial assumption: we are thinking about pastors who are called by God into the ministry. There are more than a few pastors (and Popes) who have taken the position for unworthy reasons like a desire for power, influence, or respect. We are going to ignore the impact of this change on those people, though they will be among those who fight the hardest against this necessary shift.

It will surprise no one to hear that pastors come in not-entirely-distinct types: the Leader, the Teacher, and the Shepherd. The Leader is full of ideas and inspiration, a great manager. They are always looking for ways to grow the church, to improve the quality of services, and to ensure the loyalty and satisfaction of its membership. When you walk into a Leader’s library, it will have as many books on leadership and business models as it does on the Scripture and theology. Their time is similarly prioritized: strategy, vision, management, and then everything else.

The Teacher is a master communicator. This type of pastor has a deep and growing knowledge of Scripture and they are on a constant hunt for the perfect example, the perfect metaphor to convey their understanding to others. The Teacher spends 25-30 hours a week in their study, crafting deep, touching messages. The pastors who become famous are a combination (either in their team or in themselves) of Teacher and Leader.

Finally, we have the Shepherd. Shepherds care for people. They excel at building rapport and have great emotional intelligence. Shepherds bring people together, and help them stay together. This type of pastor may not be the most studious. They may not be inspirational or great communicators. They generally love people too much to run efficient and effective meetings.

Interestingly, shepherd and teacher are both biblically ordained offices. In fact, Ephesians 4:11 implies that shepherd-teacher is a single role for those so gifted. The local church in the Scripture does not require management, or even sustained leadership. Shepherds only lead sheep in a very superficial way. That’s why shepherding was the occupation of small boys in ancient Israel. Water holes do not move, and pasture is in the same place at the same times every year. Shepherds keep the sheep together, and protect the flock. But they don’t manage the flock, or set bold new visions for the flock. That is a 20th century business model grafted on to an ancient office.

As the church, and its people, de-institutionalize, there will be opportunities for all three types of pastor to flourish. While the decentralized church will be led and taught by its own membership, it will still need outside expertise, and at times, outside arbitration. The role of elder / shepherd / teacher will be crucial to help the community stay theologically and relationally healthy. Paul was acting as a shepherd when he provided guidance on church discipline and on theology, even when he threatened retribution on the anti-Christs. Shepherds will help midwife new churches as they learn how to function on their own. They can arbitrate disputes between members, and they can prevent theological drift. We can imagine a future where a couple of Shepherds support 10-20 churches, and are supported financially by them. The Shepherd attends meetings at each church every few weeks, bringing encouraging messages and greetings from other bodies, and tying small local churches together into a larger network. It might not be a full-time job, especially at first. But as the Shepherd’s network of churches grows, and they have greater responsibilities, it could become one. Even better, these relational powerhouses are not forced to spend their days trying to manage an organization, or craft great speeches, or fundraise a ministry, or be the “chief doer” of the ministry. Those Shepherds who are also Teachers can also support the theological growth of their communities by developing materials.

Teachers, to the extent they are not equipped to be Shepherds, will also be freed to focus on their greatest passion. YouTube, Amazon, iTunes, and the rest of the internet have made this the Golden Age of content creation. Patreon allows Teachers to get paid for their smaller content. There are more universities, Bible colleges, Christian schools than at any time in history. Teachers can also create materials for local churches in their area. To the extent that the body of Christ finds their work useful, they will be able to make a profession of it. More importantly, these often introverted people will no longer be responsible for counseling, socializing, managing, and all the other responsibilities that take them away from their passion to teach.

Leaders may benefit the most from the transition. For centuries, church has been exactly the same. Leaders have struggled to implement changes or develop a vision that matches their creativity. But their success is based predominantly on their ability to make the Sunday morning service a success. Finding great musicians, great recruiters, personable pastors, visionary elder board, and preparing great sermons are the sine qua non of success. But what if the Leader was the head of a parachurch organization whose role was to support local churches and expand the kingdom? Finally, Leaders would have a blank slate to dream on. They could provide a large building and concert where multiple local churches can congregate together once a month for great music and great teaching. They could charge membership and allow individual Christians to come to a theological gym every Sunday and Wednesday. Leadership training for Christian business leaders. An afterschool program for disadvantaged youth. Nightly concerts for those needing a recharge. An incredible theological library open to the public. Service to the poor. There are a million possibilities, and immense resources to be utilized.

The scary part for existing pastors is that their livelihoods will depend on their benefit to the community.

1 Corinthians 9:11 (NIV) – If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?

Deprived of the crutch of tradition, the label of church, a weekly captive audience to whom they can make endless appeals to, they will be recompensed based on their perceived value to the local churches. It is inevitable that some Teachers will find that others develop better messages and materials, and they will be forced to find a new profession. Some Leaders will find that their vision is not compelling enough, or their managerial skills are not strong enough to survive without the crutch of guilt and tradition. They will also need to find a profession more suited to their gifts.

There may be some growing pains, but divorcing the role and income of the pastor from the edifice of the church will end up better for all. It is the same principle that makes the line item veto such a powerful tool in the hands of the executive. Decentralization allows the body of Christ to make finer-grained decisions about how they wish to invest their hard earned money for the kingdom of God.

5 – More Safe, More Sound

The last 4 essays (here, here, here, and here) on the state of the “local church as we know it” has adumbrated the theological and philosophical shortcomings of the Temple model, which is short for “the church meeting in a building led by a professional clergy sponsored and protected by the government” model. But there are more practical issues that come as direct consequences of the Temple model. The Temple model is a far more dangerous way of structuring God’s family than the decentralized system modeled by Jesus and expounded by the New Testament authors.

“Preposterous!”, you say. “Libel bordering on the criminal! You may have fooled people with your cherry-picked biblical references, but to call the church dangerous is pure foolishness!” Is it really? Or have you, through constant exposure, become inured to the risks of attending church?

The Temple system is a centralized system, a system in which power and authority from the many are distilled into a few people. It is also a scalable system, one of our favorite buzzwords, meaning that the same kind of system that works for 30 people will work for 30,000. The bigger the church, the more strict the adherence to the model, the more potent are the power and authority distilled into a few people. It is a public system, open to all. As I have repeated ad nauseum, if humans were angels, then none of this would be a problem. But, as Christians, we are supposed to be more aware, not less, of the sinful nature and desires of humanity, just as we are more hopeful, not less, that the power of God can transform them.

As Christians with a robust anthropology, it should come as no surprise that positions of spiritual authority over children attract sexual predators. You may never have been abused, and thank God I wasn’t. But several of my close friends were, and my former youth pastor is currently serving a life sentence for grooming and molesting several young girls. The Catholic church has had its share of bad press too. Every church has to do background checks, develop extensive child safety policies, strategically place security cameras, and purchase expensive legal insurance. Distilled power is a potent elixir, and the more distilled, the more potent. A decentralized church in which all are participants is small by design. It presents a valueless target for sexual predators. There is no continuous supply of children or teenagers, far from the protective eyes of family and friends. There are still risks because most sexual abuse is perpetrated by family. But the risks are far less. The precautions taken and boundaries set in a family are not institutional (cameras, policies, checks), but relational and personal. Visitors arrive because they are invited, not because they saw a sign or an advertisement.

Maybe you don’t have children or teenagers and are uninterested in their safety. How many times have you seen a mass shooting at a public church gathering? The only way that a public institution can respond to such a threat is to institute safety policies, provide active shooter trainings for staff, install more video cameras, and hire security guards to protect the congregation. Some of the congregation, feeling unsafe, will begin to carry weapons in order to protect themselves. These mass shootings will not end any time soon, and it will not be long until an armed congregant seeking to protect their family will shoot an innocent bystander on accident. Is this the way of Jesus? It is hard to say. But it much easier to say that the decentralized, private system of church does not offer a target for the shooter. The same design that thwarts religious persecution and government oppression also greatly reduces the risk of mass shootings.

Perhaps, in addition to not having children or teenagers, you are a well-trained, armed soldier or police officer. As such, you are not afraid of attacks by mass shooters. How often have you been to church since the pandemic started? In a mass gathering of people, open to the public, there are only a few ways to prevent the spread of disease. The most obvious is to stop having service. In rough order of decreasing severity, churches can: provide online-only services, have a physical service but limit entrance to persons who have reserved a place, mandate the use of protective equipment, forbid activities which require physical touch (baptism, communion), mandate spacing, etc. These policies are required to meet government guidelines (remember the institutional church cannot exist without government sponsorship!) and to limit legal liability (not an inconsiderable expense). But, perhaps most insidiously, these measures are required because the congregation is big and does not know each other well enough to trust one another with their health. As a result, church attendance declines.

It’s a fact that the only necessary people at a church service are the clergy. Why risk death and disease just to consume a message?

Faith, never meant to operate in isolation, begins to waver. Doubts begin to assail us. The addict loses their support group and relapses. The struggling marriage, dealing with increased stress and decreased support, shatters. The suffering are abandoned, those who lose their jobs are left to their own devices. The church, charged with loving its enemies, does not even care for its own! What a shameful state! Who wants to get invited to that club? What use sharing a gospel that our actions proclaim is a powerless, worthless mass of hypocrisy?

But the same sinful, frightened people will relate to each other differently in a different kind of system. When you know each person in your church and meet in a small group, it is easier to trust one another. When you know that your contribution to the gathering of the body in worship is essential, it is much harder to abandon your friends. The same soldier who is willing to jump on a live grenade to protect his friends in war, will sit on his couch and watch an online service during a pandemic. Why take the risk? The soldier knows his sacrifice isn’t necessary for others, and he is equally sure that he isn’t missing much by not attending.

But the small group continues to meet, in spite of any government mandates to the contrary, because they are beholden first of all to God, not to the government. They know they need to meet. They take precautions based on their own discussions, not policy, or lawsuit prevention. They bolster one another’s faith, providing support and needed human contact. They don’t just talk about how to keep themselves safe, they look outward and consider how they might use their God-given assurance of eternal life to serve those in need. In so doing, they proclaim the truth of the gospel, and follow the example of Jesus and his disciples, as the church has done in times past.

Perhaps this too is unimportant to you. You are a childless super-soldier, immune to disease. But the final threat is one that even you must consider. The revocation of government protection and the concomitant commencement of religious persecution. It hasn’t happened recently. But it has happened, and it is happening all over the world. When there is a transition from religious freedom to a theocratic or anti-religious form of government, churches burn and clergy are arrested. Instantly, the church lacks a place to meet and it lacks leadership. They are the public symbol of opposition to the New Order. We saw it in the USSR in the 1920s, in China in the 1900s, in Cambodia, Iran and Yemen in the 1970s and 80s. If the church is a public entity, and the government turns against it, the church burns. In fact, even if the church is government sponsored, if the majority of people turn against it, the church burns. Look no farther than Indonesia to see the proof of that statement. Overtly religiously free, but when there is provocation, or a threat to the authority of the dominant religion, churches burn.

Here’s the irony though. Even though the church is stripped of its meeting place and its leadership at a single blow, those churches flourish. They are forced to rediscover the anti-Temple, the clergy-less, place-less, headless form that flourished under oppression for hundreds of years. The church that Jesus created didn’t need Paul or Peter or John to lead it. Paul and Peter and John were free to give their lives for the gospel, to model the Christian life, to serve the church. They led for a time, knowing and anticipating that their time in leadership would be occasional and short-term. They did not act like the President of a modern nation, to be evacuated in times of danger, they were Joan of Arc, leading and inspiring her troops from the front line. The church in the religiously free world has been safe for a long time, but that is no promise that it will continue to stay so. The more faithful that church is to the difficult and counter-cultural teachings of Jesus, the more of a target it will become for persecution.

There is not time to examine all the multitude of risks of harm that we face from a centralized model, where we constantly come into contact with strangers whose intentions we do not know. There isn’t time to examine the great environmental harm caused by our massive, air-conditioned, single use facilities. There isn’t time to examine the addictive effects that the potent liquor of distilled power has on the men and women who wield it and are soon wedded to it. Nor how that power has been used to the harm of the congregation. Suffice it to say that attending church is associated with many dangers. The anti-Temple, the decentralized, private church is based not only a theologically superior understanding, but, as we would expect, it is a safer and more appropriate model for all times and seasons.

4 – Better than an Orphanage

We started this series of essays with the premise that a formulation of the local church that required government protection to survive could not be the foundation of community for the Christian. Community is an essential part of the faith, while government protections are fickle and involve compromise. The unwary reader might be tempted to assume that the solution then is to remove the church body from the church building and to continue on with business as usual. We began an investigation of the Temple in our last essay, and we will approach the same issue from a different, and more sympathetic, direction in this essay.

Until now, it may seem that these essays are just a series of condemnations of the current system, and by extension, a condemnation of those who uphold it. But nothing could be further from the truth. Pastors, by and large, are good people. At their best, they are talented, motivated, humble, self-sacrificing seekers after God. They work long hours and often receive little in return except heartache. They carry a heavy burden of responsibility, and they are always on call. Church leaders are not the villains of this tale. They are tragic heroes, good people doing their best to work inside a flawed system.

It is easier to look at systems where we are less emotionally invested, just as it is often easier to help a friend see a problem more clearly than to deal with the same problem ourselves. Distance brings a certain clarity, so let us take a brief diversion from considering church to considering a less inflammatory institution.

To be an orphan is a terrible thing, a dangerous fate. We have all seen, either in person or on the screen, children caring for children. It is a scene to move anyone’s heart, and it has spurred more than a few blessed saints to sacrificial action. George Müller and Eliza Hamilton are among the most famous of these saints. They were both deeply touched by the size and immediacy of the need, so they built orphanages to help meet that need. In these places, orphaned children were able to find shelter, safety, regular sustenance, education, even friendship.

But the orphanage was always supposed to be a temporary solution. As long as orphans live in an orphanage, they do not live in a family. The director of the orphanage may be a better parent than anyone that you or I know. The staff may be more deeply skilled, relationally astute, and compassionate than our own parents. But no matter how wise and loving and compassionate and paternal/maternal, no director or staff can turn a hundred orphans into a real family. They cannot transform themselves into a professional parent.

The height of achievement, requiring incredible dedication, patience, and love, is to create an orphanage with a family-like atmosphere and parent-like role models. That in itself is almost impossible. An orphanage, at its best, can start to feel a little bit like a good family. It is like the shadow of a good family. But, the very structures that allow it to meet the needs of the many, prevent it from becoming a family. The transience of the children is a necessary feature, as are the regulations and procedures for their safety. Professional staff are required, and these professionals have to go home to their real families. It would be impossible for a family to adopt a hundred children, and it is equally impossible for an orphanage to become a family. Everyone knows (especially those who work in orphanages!!) that the best possible outcome for an orphan is not a happy childhood in a great orphanage, but to be adopted into a great family.

In the real world, orphanages are necessary. The shadow of a family is better than life on the streets. There are not enough people who are willing to adopt children. So those who create and staff orphanages are doing God’s work. It is no insult to them to point out that an institution is not a family. It is not a lack of dedication or care on the part of the staff, or an unclear vision on the part of the leadership. An orphanage cannot be a family in the same way that a human boy cannot become a dog. The boy may act like a dog, run like a dog, bark like a dog, but he is still a boy. And an orphanage will always be an orphanage, and not a family.

If humans were angels, then the orphanage system would work as well as a real family. The children, abandoned by their own parents, would never wonder if the staff really loved them or if they just pretended to care because they needed the paycheck to be able to care for their real children. The children wouldn’t be afraid to build deep relationships because the pain of separation when your best friend gets adopted would be worth the price. The children wouldn’t have attachment disorders because of necessary staff turnover and vacation. The director would always be able to make great decisions even under constant and intense financial pressure. The staff would never feel overworked because of how much they love their job of caring for traumatized children.

But humans are not angels, and as we all know, it is difficult enough to create a healthy family environment even with all of the benefits that the family system brings. There is a permanence, and a relational closeness in a family that does not exist in an orphanage. This permanence encourages long-term investment and vulnerability, thought it does not guarantee it. Even though the staff and leadership are great people doing the best that they can, they can’t overcome their system.

It is trivial to prove that some families are impermanent, some are not close or loving. Living in some families is worse than living in an orphanage. But the family has potential to be something that the orphanage can never be.

Now we come back to the local church as we know it. Does your church bear a greater resemblance to an orphanage or a family? Hopefully, your church has a wonderful, wise, loving pastor who teaches the Word and great programs that meet many of your needs. At its best, it may even feel “family-like”. But the very systems that allow your church to serve 100-10,000 people prevent it from every being a family. It will always be a shadow of what could be. The Temple model is necessary to serve large numbers of people. The staff, the pastor, even the members are transient. If we were angels, we would invest anyway. If we were angels, we would become heavily involved in ministry even though we were paying other people to do it. If the pastor were an angel, he would never dominate or exercise his authority to harm others. But we aren’t angels, we are humans. Why, then, are we relying on a model that exploits our weaknesses and buries our strengths? Why are we content to live our lives in an orphanage instead of forming spiritual families and exercising our universal role as a royal priesthood?

Have we become institutionalized as so many orphans do?

Institutionalized

(of a person) apathetic and dependent after a long period in an institution

Oxford Languages

That sounds very much like the consumer-oriented church-as-building that so many of us are familiar with. We have been institutionalized, and, at some level, that is not our fault. But it is still something that we must deal with. We must realize that we fear the freedom and vulnerability that are required of spiritual family life. We must acknowledge that we are comfortable in our institution and that we don’t want to take responsibility for being “a royal priesthood”, for being an ambassador, sharing the gospel, building community. We have to de-institutionalize, not only the church, but ourselves.

An orphanage cannot become a family by reducing its size, or even by selling its facility. An orphanage can only become a family by becoming a family. By moving the relationship from a professional, temporary one to a familial, permanent one. A church may sell its building and may have a very small, family-sized congregation. But that doesn’t make it a family either. We can solve the initial problem of needing government protection by abandoning our properties, but we are doing ourselves a disservice if we keep the same system. The Temple system and the priestly class is excluded by the outlines drawn by the via negativa. Therefore, the solution is not the abandonment of our buildings, but the abandonment of the Temple model. No more centralized services, no more professional priests at the center, setting agendas and exercising power. However we choose to imagine church, we must be true to its essence, instead of settling for what is efficient, known, comfortable.

The call for participation by all places definite limits on the size of the church family. Its need to be unstoppable in the face of persecution places restrictions on how and where it meets. Its essential nature as a family places restrictions on the transience of its membership. Its egalitarian nature and the royal blood of all members has implications for the role and authority of leaders.

Maybe the church was your orphanage. It was a place you needed, the best that was available. I hope you had a great experience inside of it. But your best life is not to be found inside of an orphanage, but by creating a real family.

3 – Learning from the Temple

In our last two essays, we have shown that going to church is a necessity for a believer. But we have also seen that the church as we know is not capable of fulfilling its role as the centerpiece of Christian community because it is dependent on government protections. We ended with the question, “Does the revolutionary gathering of the unstoppable, indivisible kingdom of God take place in our government-sponsored and approved church buildings?” To answer that question, we must clarify what we mean by “go to church”. Or, to be more precise, what we don’t mean by “go to church”.

Our theological traditions have spent a lot of time travelling the via minimus, “the minimal road”. The best example is an understanding of salvation from the conversion of the thief on the cross. Anything more than the thief’s proclamation cannot be required for salvation, because the thief was saved. The via minimus is a road worthy of examination, but its unrelenting focus on the minimum requirements of the faith stands in contradiction to the teachings of Jesus, who continually held out a vision of a full commitment, and an overflowing abundance.

Alternatively, theologians travel the via maximus, the “maximal road”. In this framework, theologians try to say as much as can possibly be said about a subject. This too is a road worthy of examination, but its very comprehensiveness tends towards theo-philosophical hubris and overlooking the mystery and majesty of God. It is not uncommon for a book on the Trinity to start off with the words “The Trinity is a mystery that no one can understand” at the commencement of an 800 page treatise showing that they really think they do.

In the next several essays, we will primarily, but not exclusively, follow a different path. It is an ancient way of thinking primarily used by the early Orthodox church called the via negativa. It a way of thinking in which we examine those things that cannot be true. The via negativa is based on a common observation: it is much easier to identify problems than to propose solutions. This is true in life, which is complicated enough, but even more true in theology. The via negativa doesn’t try to fill in the details of how the church should function. Because the whatever the church is must be able to survive and thrive all over the world: in the tribal culture of Papua, in traditional Yemeni culture, as well as in Los Angeles. The via negativa helps us outline what the church is not, giving us space to use our creativity and adapt to our context, as we work together with the Holy Spirit to form what is and should be.

There are two primary ways to understand church that exist in the religiously free world today. But both are rooted in flawed historical and theological understandings.

The first is to understand “church” as the place where I meet with God, preferably alone in nature. This tradition goes back to the Desert Fathers, one of whom said, ‘I cannot be with you and with God”. It is based ont he truth each believer is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). It is a tradition endorsed by the Gnostic Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas, who said “Many stand outside at the door, but it is the solitaries who will enter the bridal chamber.” (75) and “I am the All. Cleave a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up a stone, and You will find Me there.” (77). It is the call to worship God alone in the quiet place, on the mountain, in the wilderness. For God is everywhere, and inside of me. Wherever I choose to seek, there God may be found. That is necessary and beautiful revelation. After all, the Gospel of Luke says

Luke 5:16 (NIV) – But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.

The majority of us don’t spend enough time alone with God in prayer. But this time in seclusion, while necessary for the formation of our soul and the development of our relationship with God, is not an alternative to the communal life of the church body, any more than eating food is an alternative to drinking water. They are both essential to our health. We cannot live a life isolated from our family in Jesus, the body of Christ. We need other people’s perspectives to counter our own biases and misunderstandings. As humans, we are social beings, and we cannot avoid the influence that other humans have on us, for good and for ill. We need to live in and spend a significant amount of time with people that share our beliefs. Beliefs that we hold by faith, in spite of what we see. We need to be a part of a community that struggles to embody love and mercy. Nor can we fulfill our roles in the kingdom from a place of isolation. Ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:20) cannot be hermits. The via negativa says that church is not just me and God meeting alone, however majestic the location.

Others understand “go to church” as the Christian equivalent of going to the Temple. This is a natural development because the Temple was central to the thought world of first-century Judaism. The church of the New Testament is described in relation to the already-familiar Temple. This is how most people today think about church. It is a building Christians go to offer their sacrifices (of money), to hear a sacred person speak and offer blessings, and to participate in worship ceremonies. Some parts of the Temple ceremony were made obsolete by the sacrifice of Jesus, of course. There are no more animal sacrifices, no more yearly pilgrimage, no more high priest, and many of the annual festivals are no longer held. But the overall structure remains the same. There is a professional clergy whose livelihood depends on the sacrifice, although the priesthood is no longer hereditary. Worship has a visible public location. (Interestingly, it does not bother anyone that it is not a singular location, like the Temple. It seems as if there is some conflation in our thinking between the Jerusalem Temple and the synagogues that replaced it.) Although Christians have all heard the occasional “The church isn’t the building, it is the people”, COVID has demonstrated the depth of our belief in that statement. Corporate worship did not happen once the buildings were shut down.

So, we are forced to reconsider our premise. Were Christians intended to build their concept the church based on the operation and philosophy of the Temple in the Hebrew Scriptures?

Galatians 3:24-25 (NIV) – So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

The Law was our guardian, guide, and teacher. But in this case, Christians are operating under the assumption that the Hebrew Scriptures are showing us how things should be done. I would argue instead that the primary purpose of the Old Testament is to reveal the necessity of a Savior who makes a new way by showing us the consequences of going about things the wrong way.

For example, few of us hold to the idea anymore that a nation should be Christian, and that the expansion of that nation through war and violence is good. That took more than a thousand years to figure out, even though the failures of Israel as God’s nation are clear and plentiful, suggesting that this was part of the lesson the Scriptures were meant to teach.

What would happen if we analyzed the Temple in the same way? The Jerusalem temple is the place where God dwells and where humans can meet with God. This is system is not exclusive to the Hebrews. Almost every religion has its temples and holy places. But we are not amazed by the holiness of the Israelites, are we? It seems obvious that neither the Temple nor the Tabernacle in all their perfection had any discernible affect on promoting holiness or restraining immorality among the nation of Israel, and God, through His prophets, frequently comments on the fact.

Then the Temple gets destroyed, and rebuilt, and destroyed again, and rebuilt again. It is newly rebuilt when Jesus arrives on the scene. How does it function in the gospels? The Temple functions entirely as a stumbling block, except for a few isolated incidents where it highlights the faithfulness of holy person (like Anna). Jesus was murdered, in part, because he claimed that if the Temple was destroyed, he could rebuild it in three days. The Temple was where people met God, not in Jesus. Ironically, the Temple which bore no graven image, became an idol in itself.

Jesus was crucified, in part, because he congregated with Samaritan women and said, “Believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” (John 4:21b) The Temple was a symbol of national and racial pride, which gave Jews the right to exclude, not only the Gentiles (foreigners), and their near cousins, the Samaritans, but also the poor and sick of their own people.

Jesus was crucified, in part, because he overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple, crying out: “‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Luke 19:46) The Temple was where the professional clergy had to work to earn their livelihood.

Jesus was killed, in part, because he said to the crippled man, “Your sins are forgiven.” The Temple was the place where the clergy offered sacrifices for the forgiveness of sin. What was their role if not to mediate between God and man? And, more practically, how would the priests eat if there were no sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins?

Why was the Temple such a stumbling block? Was the problem just the Pharisees? By all accounts the Pharisees, on the whole, wanted to honor God and made great personal sacrifices to do that. The problem wasn’t that particular group of people. It was that the particular group of people was human. If men were angels, the system would make little difference. But humans are prone to sin. We are prone to greed, and desire for power and fame, and revenge. Christians not excepted, except for Jesus, who, though he was tempted in the desert, remained faithful. So the Temple system itself combined with the foibles of humanity leads inevitably to failure. If God’s Temple build for God’s people who were given God’s law could not succeed in that system, then surely we need to give it up. The lesson that we are to draw from the Hebrew Scriptures is that the Temple system does not do what God wants it to do. That truth is highlighted again and again in the New Testament.

Hebrews 10 goes on at great length about how the sacrificial system was never effective, and is no longer necessary because Jesus is our new high priest and our sacrificial lamb. The Temple is obsolete, both geographically and philosophically. Go read that chapter, as you find the time.

1 Peter 2 transforms the imagery of the failed(!) Temple system

1 Peter 2: 4-5, 9-10 – As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual Temple to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. …. But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Remember that this same Peter spent a lot of time preaching in the Temple after the crucifixion. This difficult truth took time to take root, as did the idea that the Jewish God was actually the God of all the nations. But, as he grows old in the ministry, Peter writes that all Christians are now professional clergy, all are royal leaders, all are people with a new identity in Jesus, and that all people are welcome in this new family. This people is defined by God’s mercy, not their ancestry. They are defined by their acceptance of all kinds of people, and their rejection by (not of!) other people. Much like universal suffrage expanded the right to vote to all people, Peter’s universal priesthood expands that role to all people, and thus obviates the necessity for a priestly class. 1 Corinthians 3, 1 Corinthians 6, 2 Corinthians 6, and Ephesians 4 go on at great length how the Spirit of God now dwells in His holy temple, which is the individual believer and the group of believers gathered as a body.

When the body gathers, who offers instruction?

1 Corinthians 14:26 (NIV) – What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.

According to Paul, the answer is “each of you”! Whose responsibility to build up the church, “each of you”. But this is a hard teaching, as so many of Jesus’ teachings are. It runs counter to the system of the Temple, which is part of the human way. In the human way, the priests become the powerful, arbitrators of God’s favor. They become wealthy. Who, after observing the wealth and power collected by the Catholic Church over the millennia can think otherwise? And then, in the human way, some other path to power presents itself, and the Temple is overthrown by the kingdom. It is an endless cycle fueled by thirst for wealth and power, and aided by the misguided, but honorable intentions of the faithful.

It is unsurprising that once the Christian church became powerful with the sponsorship of Emperor Constantine it quickly reverted to the system of the world, which is embodied in the system and philosophy of the Temple. Again there were professional clergy, who mediated between God and man. Again there were the mass of attenders whose duty was to offer sacrifices. Again the Temple became a symbol of national pride, and a source of wartime aggression. Again, the Temple became a place that was accepted by men, but in its pride, rejected those it considered unworthy. Again the Temple was God’s house that could be looted and destroyed, or constructed in an unbelieving nation whose inhabitants could be forced to attend. Again the Temple became a place where a profit could be made, power could be found, and again the Temple became a place often ruled by people who sought power and profit.

By accepting the Temple system, Christians have been forced to take these verses in 1 Peter and 1 Corinthians as theological ideals, true in the same sense that we are “new people” or “seated in the heavenlies”. We can’t really be priests or leaders because we still have a priestly class, though it is no longer hereditary. So we our priesthood and leadership mean that we are “imputed” with priestly honor and kingly titles.

Christians take Paul’s injunctions as suggestions for a particular congregation in a particular culture, instead of mandates for the church. This, I believe, is a failure to understand that Paul’s injunctions around corporate worship were as counter-cultural to that context as they are to ours. Those commands are not ad hoc, they are a direct consequence of the theology of the church Paul lays out in 1 Corinthians 11-13. The theology of the church that Peter and Paul are building, together(!), is based on the imagery of the Temple, but rejects the Temple as a religious system.

Now let us look at the modern church building. Does it resemble the New Testament understanding of the gathering of the body? Does every person bring something to teach at each gathering? Does every person function as a priest? Does every person act as an ambassador for the kingdom of God?

It does not seem possible to embrace the physical Temple model with its centralized service and the decentralized spiritual Temple at the same time. Either the pastor teaches, or we all teach. Not both. Either the Temple and its own workings require the majority of the offerings of the saints, or the spiritual sacrifices offered by believers are primarily given to people (believers and not) to aid them in their times of need or to bless them for their service. Either the Temple has a professional staff or all believers are priests with vocations as tent-makers.

More practically, a public building whose activities are officially sanctioned by the government can hardly be said to be “rejected by man”. In what sense, then, do our monasteries and cathedrals and church building projects uphold the ethos of the Son of Man who had no place to lay his head?

Isaiah 53:2 (NIV) – He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

Jesus, the true Temple, had no attractiveness to enhance his ministry. But the Temple was gorgeous, and attractiveness is what the Temple-like ministry of the church building is all about. For if there are no people sitting in the building, then there is no ministry, and if there is no ministry, then there is no money to support the ministers. This paradigm places well-intentioned pastors in a difficult situation with conflicted motivations, much as the Pharisees and Sadducees of the first century. Since pastors are people, then we know what to expect over the long term if people are placed in such situations. Sin.

So the Temple will become a big, beautiful, and powerful building, or the spiritual temple will be small, dispersed groups of people with nothing to commend it except the Spirit. It can’t be both.

Do you ever get the sense when you read the New Testament that Jesus was just trying to multiply the number of Temples? To baptize the synagogue model already in place? Or were he and his disciples starting something new?

Conflicted motivations are inevitable if we choose to follow a Temple model of religion. Humans are humans, with the needs and motivations that humans have. This is why a nation cannot be Christian (until Jesus returns) and this is why a church building operated as the Temple cannot be the center of Christian community and be faithful to the teachings of Jesus. It will always devolve to active professional clergy serving as mediators to a largely passive congregation. These clergy will always be forced to compromise because of their need for public acceptance and sponsorship.

The via negativa shows us that the way of the Temple is a way that we cannot go. While the community of believers may own a building, that building may never become a Temple where worship must take place. While their may be (and should be) ministers who earn their livelihood from the gospel, their role is not to be Temple priests. While their may be (and should be) sacrifices given because of the gospel, those sacrifices are not to be Temple subsidies. The via negativa does not define for us what we should do. But we have taken a very short, but very important, first step. We have identified a single wrong path out of an infinite number of wrong paths. It is a wrong path that has been blessed by God for more than a thousand years. It as a wrong path that played a crucial role in my own faith. It is the reason I am able to write these things today. But as Balaam’s donkey has taught us, blessings do not come because of the worthiness of the channel. God does not only provide blessing through the good things of the world, but also the bad. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. So we must continue to endeavor to find a path that is closer to the truth.

2 – Is It Necessary to Go to Church?

After the dismal showing of the church over the last 6 months, and our investigation into the reasons why, some might be tempted to give up on the whole enterprise. I have heard more anti-church sentiment in the last 6 months from committed followers of Jesus than at any time in my life. Many people who profess a deep love for Jesus and endeavor to follow his teachings would argue that church and Christianity are not necessarily coterminous. Having been hurt by people in a particular church, disappointed by its actions, current or historical, or just bored, they retreat to abstract membership in the global family of God. Membership in a local manifestation of that global family is too costly, too irrelevant, too distasteful, too hypocritical, too biased, too judgmental, too restrictive, too passe, or too time-consuming. Most of these people wouldn’t argue that attending a church is bad, per se, it is just not good for them, nor is it necessary. They can worship God on their own, grow in faith on their own. After all, are we not saved by grace alone, not by church attendance? Here we will attempt to put forth arguments for the necessity of going to church, by which we mean “being a deeply connected part of a regular gathering of believers to worship God and love one another” without assuming that church-as-we-know-it is the perfect form for that gathering. 

The argument I make here is not a complex one, nor does it strive to be comprehensive. 

1 John 2:9-11 (NIV)  Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. 11 But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness.

I John 3:16 (NIV) – This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.

The church is defined by willingness to die for those whom we must love. This is why Jesus, as well as John and every other New Testament writer, use familial language to describe the church. This is how you know you are part of the kingdom: you love other members of the kingdom and follow the example of the King in sacrificing yourself for them. This is decidedly different from promoting the cause of individuals or groups that you are passionate about on social media. Passions come and go. Social media activism costs nothing. You cannot love people that you don’t know deeply. Nor can you sacrifice your life and goods and convenience for “people”. The person or people for whom we give our lives are known to us, they have names and stories. We have shared experiences. Love must be concrete and personal for the disciple that Jesus loved, “not in words or speech, but with actions and in truth”. Like Jesus’ death on the cross.

There is much room for misunderstanding in this passage because so many cultural concepts which were taken for granted have changed immensely in the millennia since these words were penned. Family is that which defines you, gives your place in the world in the first century. Not so for us, who earn our place in the world and define ourselves through our actions and are defined by our experiences, both positive and oppressive. There are not many of us who would hesitate to leave behind family to go to a better university or get a better job. There are few of us who would allow our parents to choose our spouse or our careers, nor do we honor our parents by providing financial support as soon as we start working. It is a different world, and we must not read our cultural conceptions into John’s writings. For him, the church is a family. Perhaps we would use the word clan. Every member, regardless of station or class or gender, is equal as younger siblings of Jesus, as we all offer honor to God the Father. It is not possible to be part of the clan, the global church, without being part of a family, an ekklesia or local church. And this real, connected, spiritual family is what Jesus “leaves” his biological family to join.

Luke 8:19-21 (NIV) Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. 20 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” He replied, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.”

It is not possible to become a Christian without the mediation of a person. Their culture was not widely literate, the printing press had not been invented, and information was not impersonal. It was never about the comprehension (or memorization) of a set of abstract truths. As Paul says,

1 Corinthians 4:14-16 (NIV) “I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. 15 Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. 16 Therefore I urge you to imitate me. 

The faith is modeled. Faith is composed, in part, of propositional truths, but these truths must be caught as well as taught. Why urge imitation if obedience was sufficient? Why does Jesus say that the student will become like the teacher? The readers knew Paul from his words and his actions. They knew how he treated people and watched how he worked and prayed. They knew his flaws and foibles. The disciples did not read Jesus’ book. They lived with him. When people wanted to learn from Jesus, he taught them. But then he invited them to follow him. How can you love that which you do not know? How can you imitate that which you are not connected to? How can you sacrifice for those whose needs you have never seen? How can others love or imitate you or sacrifice for you of whom they have never heard?

The ekklesia is not only conceived of as a family, but also as a human body. 

1 Corinthians 12:12-14, 27-29 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. … Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? …

Read 1 Corinthians 12 in full, as you have the time. Can you be separated from the body of Christ and remain a member of Christ? That would be an incomprehensible question to Paul. He moves freely from discussing the church in chapter 12, with its many parts and functions, to the love which must characterize all believers in chapter 13, to how the local gathering of believers must function in chapter 14. Are we to believe that one can be part of a global body to which one has no connection and be characterized by love which has no outlet among the family of God? Is chapter 14 irrelevant, which provides the context for which chapters 12 and 13 are written? Of course not. God’s body has no toenail clippings, which can exist independently of the body without harm. 

The necessity of gathering as believers regularly, to worship, give and receive encouragement, is difficult to prove by the Scripture because it is assumed by the Scripture. It will take nearly 2000 years for personal relationships to become so transient, family to become such a weak structure, information to flow so freely and abstractly, culture to be so individualistic, that anyone could even imagine that such a thing would need to be said. Paul didn’t write “Meetest thou regularly with thine congregation” because it never occurred to him that it would be necessary. You have never seen a Bible verse stating that your heart must keep beating or that you must continue to breathe while you worship God. But you still do those things. Those truths are so fundamental that it seems ridiculous to state them. 

We heard the gospel message which commands deep love and relationship, and deals with relational problems like forgiveness and reconciliation, from a person who, not coincidentally, is one of those with whom I am commanded to practice these teachings. I am commanded to share these truths through my words and deeds with others, with whom I must also practice these teachings. That this process might become individualistic and impersonal is Kafka-esque in its absurdity. That it might become virtual is incomprehensible given the present form of virtual communication. Hebrews 10, then, far from being a proof-text of the need to gather, is an encouragement in a similar manner to Paul’s exhortations to be filled with the Spirit. This is something you ought to know and be doing, so do it, even when you feel like leaving the faith.

Hebrews 10:24-25 – And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Don’t give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Who is the we and the us who must do the considering and the encouraging? They are you and the fellow believers who are a part of your local ekklesia. The underlying cultural milieu assumes that family is constant and costly. That family defines you and provides a space for growth. That family is imperfect. Family problems were no easier to solve before cell phones. To import our consumer-centric, entertainment-seeking, freedom-loving individualism into the Scripture is as ridiculous as trying to justify chattel slavery from the New Testament. And it is just as easy. You and I are not better people than the white Christians of the 18th and 19th centuries, we are just facing different issues from a different viewpoint. 

The local church as a family, a place of deep relationships, and transformation, and reproduction is absolutely necessary from a Scriptural perspective. It answers the question, “Can we attend church virtually?” The answer is yes, provided that your virtual experience brings you into deep, vulnerable, transformative communion with a group of people that you love and sacrifice for, and are willing to die for. More importantly, it brings us to our central question, “Does the revolutionary gathering of the unstoppable, indivisible kingdom of God take place in our government-sponsored and approved church buildings?”

1 – A Flaw in the Foundation of Local Church

Matthew 7:24-25 – “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.”

The words of Jesus give us hope. Hope that as we anchor our lives in his teachings, we are saved, even through the inevitable flood. Thus, the flood is our test and, if we have ears to hear, our teacher. When, by the grace of God, we are able to weather the storm, the strength of our foundation is proven.

Matthew 7:26-27 -But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

If COVID-19 is our flood, then the fall of our churches into irrelevance was not a great crash. There was barely a whisper. Christians barely cared that local churches shut down. How much less those who don’t believe? Our foundation was not just cracked, it has crumbled.

We can’t help but remember that the early church flourished during the Plague of Antonine in the 160s AD, which killed almost 10% of the population, and the Plague of Cyprian in the 250s, which killed more than a million people. They withstood these floods while experiencing religious persecution, torture, and death. Disasters the likes of which we can scarcely imagine today. Those Christians gained notoriety for their fearless care of the sick of all beliefs and backgrounds. The teachings of Jesus had never been more relevant, the local church never more viable, never more unstoppable.

Yet, we find ourselves in the opposite situation. The church that couldn’t be stopped by executions or tortures or famines or plagues can now be closed on a governor’s whim. How can the church that is to overcome the very gates of hell be halted by bureaucrats?

What changed? What flaw has the flood revealed in our foundation – our practice and our beliefs?

I propose the hypothesis that an organization which can be stopped, can be closed, can be shut down, by anyone or anything, cannot be the local church, regardless of what we, by habit or custom, choose to name it. Christians are an ekklesia, a community. Community is not an optional add-on to faith in God. Community is imperative, it is at the root of who we are. To paraphrase Saint Cyprian, “there is no Christianity outside of the church”.

So we come to the problem, which is simple to understand, though not easy to fix. Our ecclesiology, which means our theology of the church and the community of God, is entirely predicated on Christendom or religious freedom. In Christendom, the church grows and is protected by the power of the State, because the State, somehow, is Christian. Religious freedom is the use of the power of the state to protect the church from persecution or discrimination by others.

Do you see the problem? Our local churches, with their big buildings and signs announcing worship times and professional ministers and advertisements and livestreams, could never have existed in ancient Greece or Rome or in modern China or Iraq. Our churches live and move and have their being, not just in Him, but also, and necessarily, in a bubble of governmental protections. Like an immuno-compromised patient placed in protective isolation, our churches cannot survive outside of their bubbles of protection. The sad truth is that churches, the vanguard of the unstoppable kingdom of God, can exist only because the authorities allow them to. And they only suffer us to exist as long as we follow their rules and don’t cause trouble.

This is unacceptable! The world needs the church in all its glory, in all its love and self-sacrificial service, in its willingness to confront the untruth and injustice, and in its eagerness to reach out and accept people, to reproduce and adapt itself. The world needs the church at its best, for the challenges that we face in the 21st century are immense.

But we have confused the church building with the local church. We have carefully, painstakingly unwrapped the butterfly from the cocoon. We have removed every hardship and obstacle from joining a “church” so that our buildings might be filled and our ministers might be paid. We have created laws that allow us to give financially without feeling the cost. We have done our best to eliminate boredom, and offer a sense of meaning and maybe even belonging. You can even serve, if you are a public speaker, a musician, good with children, or a friendly extrovert. The church is still beautiful and brightly colored. She has experienced a kind of transformation. She is no longer a caterpillar, but she still cannot fly! She flops around on the lab table, hoping to change the world before she is pinned to the mounting board.

That, my friends, is the situation that we find ourselves in today. Will the church in the religiously free world become a relic preserved in formaldehyde and mounted for all to observe what used to be?

No! This cannot be! We are the people of God. God has used the flood to show us a deep flaw in our foundation, a flaw that has survived for generations. Now, today, we must be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we might again reclaim, not our political power, not our good name, but our role as ambassadors for God’s kingdom of love and justice and our right relationship with the family of believers.

So we return to my hypothesis. The single proposition which changes everything about the way that we understand the local church. A formulation of the local church which exists at the sufferance of the authorities cannot be the local church. The “church building” is nothing more than a para-church ministry, and nothing less. I say that with all respect to para-church ministries. World Vision and World Relief serve an amazing role helping the poor in the name of Jesus. International Justice Mission supports victims of human trafficking. BGEA brings the gospel to the world on a large stage, and New Tribes Mission does the same for the most remote peoples of the world. K-Love radio station provides uplifting music for Christian families around the world. These are all important, beautiful ministries worthy of our support. But none of them are “church”. They exist beside the church, to support the church, and to help the church fulfill its mission. If they die, due to a lack of funds or changes in the laws of the land, the church will continue. In the same way, the “church building” which we have called local church for the last several centuries, with its public services, property, professionally trained ministers who deliver interesting sermons and play great music are para-church ministries. They exist to support the local church. But they are not “church” for many reasons, not least of which is, they exist only at the sufferance of the authorities. Can you imagine the church as you know it remaining faithful in the face of death or even moderate persecution. I repeat, an institution which can only exist in a democratic society with religious freedom cannot be the sine qua non of the Christian community.

So what’s the alternative? To try to seize more national power to protect ourselves and our right to worship freely? How many times must we play that game before we figure out that Christianity and power do not go well together, not least because those who desire power are more than willing to pretend to be Christian in order to get it? No, the battle for earthly power is not the way to recover the church, nor does it seem consonant with the Way.

The church itself must change, and that’s where we find an interesting truth. For all the diversity in the formulation and practice and hierarchy of public churches across times and nations and cultures, there is remarkable unity in the practice of the underground church. Look at the New Testament, and compare it with the underground church in China, Somalia, or the USSR. It is families of people meeting in homes with other people of diverse backgrounds, reading the Scriptures and discussing them, and sharing a meal in communion with one another. Every member a vital element, responsible for giving care, bringing comfort, and sharing the gospel. This is the local church as it should be, as it must be. So different from what it is, how it works, who it benefits, and why it is right now.

“But my church has great small groups!”, you may protest. Thank God for that! And a chocolate cake has an egg, but that doesn’t make it a healthy breakfast. In the same way, just because a “church building” has some small groups that some of their members attend as an additional activity, that doesn’t make it a local church. It is still a captive to the whims of the powers that be.

We need a great reversal. We need the

It is possible for a collection of local churches in the New Testament sense to support a church building. But the groups meeting in the home are primary and their ministries to feed the poor and care for the sick and bless the community are primary. The para-church “church building” is there as a support to the ministry of the home churches. Not the other way around, which is how it normally works.

There can be no doubt. If the church is to be meaningful, then we must recover the underground, the private, the unstoppable church, and lift it high. This seemingly small shift is like the shift from “the greatest among you shall be your servant”. It will have monumental consequences for all parts of our spiritual lives. Fragility is the crack in our foundation that has caused many of our collapses, not least are apathetic and essentially meaningless response to COVID-19. Our fragility is the result of our quest for power, influence, and recognition. Our refusal to live as “foreigners and strangers”. This is where we must do the hard work of rebuilding the foundation, and tearing down some of what was build on the broken parts. This won’t be easy, it won’t be fast. It will be the work of years and decades. Repairing a foundation is always difficult. But it is work that must be done.

Matthew 16:18b – I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

Theology of Fear – A Good Emotion Gone Bad

This is my third post on what seems to be the most pressing topic in the church today. Here are links to the first two: the introduction and the fear of God, which set the stage for today.

In order to theologize about fear, we must have a theology of emotion. For a long time, the majority of Christians, under the influence of the Stoic philosophers, believed in the idea of an impassible God, incapable of experiencing emotion. Of course, in the last century, some traditions, Christian and otherwise, have made their emotions into gods. I affirm that God explicitly describes Himself in emotional terms, and commands humans to orient themselves in particular ways towards their emotions. From this, and God’s creation of humanity, we see that God created the human capacity for emotional response, and declared it to be Good. If you want to do a little more reading on this subject, the Biblical Counseling Coalition has a long, but interesting article “Toward a Theology of Emotion“.

So we start with the fact that fear is an emotion and the human capacity for emotion is a good part of God’s creation. That means fear can be good, at least in some sense. This is obvious and true to our experience. In its most extreme form, fear manifests itself in the fight/flight/freeze mechanism. It shortcuts lengthy cognitive processes when we perceive something dangerous, and allows us to react exceedingly quickly, without thought. What a good gift! It is not unique to humans, of course. All animals have an adrenal response and it helps all of us to survive in dangerous situations where the length of our life is determined by the speed and accuracy of our reactions. You see a snake, and you jump back before you even recognize it as a snake.

But fear is not merely a glandular response to immediate physical danger. Fear, like all emotions, comes in various levels and intensities. While the extreme reactions to fear seem instinctual, other fears are learned. You might have noticed that children and teenagers tend to have the same instinctual fear reactions to loud noises, snakes, and threatening postures as adults, but they are completely unafraid of other things (like fire, walking in the middle of a busy street, driving too fast, etc.). These are learned fears, normally based on (painful) experience. There is such a thing as a “healthy dose” of fear. It keeps us from being reckless with our lives and the lives of others. Fear, and its less intense cousin, caution, help us to pay attention.

But fear is not always a helpful emotion. The adrenal response that saved us from stampeding elephants in the distant past gives us inflammation and adrenal fatigue when we have to sit in rush hour traffic. Psychology Today’s article “Where Did My IQ Points Go?” talks about the role of the amygdala in emotion, and how it redirects energy from the prefrontal cortex (decision making) to sensory attention. Learned fears from past relationships keep us from being open to new ones. Over a fifth of adults (and almost a third of teenagers) suffer from anxiety disorder in any given year. The startle reflex is a great way to avoid snakes, but a bad way to react to the stock market.

Fear is an emotion, created by God. Like all other emotions, it can be good, but it is not always good. Emotions, all emotions, can also be misdirected. Mental illness, caused by physical, chemical, or emotional trauma, often a function of our genetic predisposition and our environment, is a real and debilitating “disordering” of the emotions. Fear can become pervasive and overpowering. We may develop phobias or anxiety disorders. Fear is a good servant, but a terrible master.

God gives us specific ways to think about, and to participate in, our own emotional well-being. This is what we talked about last time, where we saw that the fear of God is the root of a healthy relationship with fear. We saw that Christians are not to be characterized by fear, except the fear of God which relativizes all other fears.

Emotions do not stand alone! They are influenced by many things. Think of the love that you feel for someone close to you. What would happen if you moved far away? And started keeping a daily journal of all the ways in which that person had slighted you over the years? And listing all the things that they had that you wanted? It wouldn’t take a very long time for your love for that person to grow weaker, would it? Yet we tend to act as if our fears, our anxieties, our worries are somehow natural, inborn, unavoidable consequences of our situation.

That is not true, but it is easy. We place ourselves in situations where every single day we watch and listen to ten times more content about the problems and tragedies of the world than its successes. Then we regard the resulting massive increase in anxiety and stress as an unavoidable part of life. Humans, prone to jealousy, watch and listen to ten times more content on social media every day related to the successes of the members of their social group compared to their struggles and failures. But it doesn’t occur to us that this might be causing jealousy, fear of failure, and stress. Or we feel like a failure because we don’t have enough faith to overcome these emotions.

But that is a faulty understanding of faith and humanity. Our choices influence our emotions, though they don’t determine them. We are finite, fallible human beings. Our lack of fear or anxiety is not to be based on a Stoic resolve not to care about the things of this world.

Matthew 6:31-33 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

We choose not to fear because we believe that God is a good provider. We see in the Scripture is that God commands us to construct our own mental and emotional health. “Rejoice”, “Give thanks”, “Be glad!” are positive practices that support our faith, and reduce our propensity to be anxious. “Fear not!” in a negative command that acknowledges the reality of fear, but asks us to refuse it entry, to place it in perspective. How? By giving them over to God.

It it our own involvement in our emotional health which needs to be considered carefully by the church today. We argue about the use of psychotropic drugs or psychotherapy to deal with anxiety, while we ignore the factors that might be contributing to it. We focus on how to deal with existing fears instead of talking about how to minimize our fears. We must think about these things even if we are suffering from mental illness because of a brain tumor, a traumatic injury, PTSD. The fact that we may need clinical therapy and drugs does not mean that we don’t need to think about how the rest of our lives are going to support our treatment.

We, as the people of God, are remarkably ignorant of the motivations of those who produce the media content that consumes our lives (11 hours a day on average). There is only one motive for creating and delivering free media: profit through advertising. That requires playing on the emotions: sex, fear, hate, comedy in order to “purchase” your attention.

Is it any surprise that a society which consumes more and more "free" content has become more and more afraid, more sexualized, more hateful, and more amused? 

We pretend that we can consume what we want, when we want, and still the live the lives we want. We know that’s not true about food, and it is reflected pretty quickly in our waistlines. We know it’s not true for sex, and I’m telling you that it’s not true for media. If you want to live a long and healthy life, you need to eat well. If you want to have healthy relationships, you need to regulate your sexual appetites. And if you want to have a healthy emotional life, you cannot be an ignorant consumer of media.

I’m no psychologist, but I believe that we can do much better with a few minor improvements.

  1. Think of broadcast (widespread) news as a special, super-expensive, very unhealthy dessert. It’s okay every once in a while, but definitely shouldn’t be consumed (or produced) every week, much less every day. I’m talking both about News and social media here. Use that time to cultivate deep personal relationships instead. Become part of a small group that you can trust and grow in.
  2. Reconsider your relationship with entertainment. I know that entertainment is the third rail of American theology, that which cannot be critiqued. But if we want to turn our emotional health around, we must at least consider how it is being hijacked by the 11 hours per day the average American spends consuming media. Fear sells, not only newspapers, but more fear.
  3. Since we view broadcast media to be dessert (including social media), we can be activists only in areas where our personal relationships and activities can make a difference. So pick one or two big things to care about, and do something about them. But you are a finite human, just like me. You cannot do something about all the problems of the globe, or even be well-informed about them.
  4. Be thankful. Lots of people do lots of very bad things. Everybody does some bad things. But lots of people do very good things, and everybody does some good things. That’s something to be thankful for.
  5. If you are mentally sick, go see a psychologist or counselor. Prefer someone with a similar set of beliefs, but psychologists are giving you tools to understand yourself. Some will be good, some will be bad, and some will be irrelevant. But get help if you need it.

That’s enough for today. Fear is good, in some cases. But humans must construct their own support structures for emotional health. That means small instead of big, local instead of global, personal instead of impersonal, and not letting people give me fear packaged with my entertainment or news.

Theology of Fear – Whom Shall I Fear?

Last time, I wrote about the need to develop some theology around fear in 2020. It seems like a good place to begin theologizing about fear is at the beginning.

Proverbs 1:7 – The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.

The Western world has a terrible fear of fear. It smacks of authoritarianism, absolutism, and oppression. The idea of divine justice seems both unfair and immoral. After all, we live in democracies with a social contract. We are rooted in the ideas of a social contract and the consent of the governed. Who elected God?” and “How dare He hold me responsible to standards that I never agreed to?” So, consciously or unconsciously, we have moved as a society toward a God of love and mercy. WHICH IS TRUE! But not the whole truth. We reinterpret fear as respect. But this requires some hermeneutica gymnastics. After all, Jesus seems to paint a very different picture.

Luke 12:4-5 – “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom you should fear: Fear the one who, after the killing, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!

Followers of Jesus are commanded, twice, with an exclamation mark, to fear God because of His power and the coming judgment of evil. But, interestingly enough, our fear of God and His justice is explicitly linked to not fearing other humans. All a human can threaten a follower of Jesus with is pain and eventual death, which are not inconsiderable threats! But somehow our fear of God should override our fear of people. The greater overshadows the lesser. The author of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus came to set us free of our fear of death.

Hebrews 2:14-15 – Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise shared in their humanity, so that through death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil), and set free those who were held in slavery all their lives by their fear of death

The fear of death results in lifelong slavery. A biblical theology of fear begins with placing fear in the right perspective. We are to fear God, who is loving and merciful, knowing that our status as beloved children offers ultimate protection. After all, “perfect love casts out fear”. But the fear inherent in recognizing God’s ultimate power is what should set the follower of Jesus free from other fears. Fear of hunger, nakedness, shame, death, poverty, and loss of relationship are all to be rejected. We find these topics covered not only in Jesus’ words (e.g., Luke 12-22-34), but also explicitly reiterated by every New Testament author except James (whose theological framework makes explicit mention of fear unnecessary). Let’s just pick a few examples in addition to the ones already shown.

Romans 8:15 – For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”

Apostle Paul

1 Peter 5:6-7 – Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.  Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

Apostle Peter

Hebrews 13:5-6 – Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”

Author of Hebrews

Revelation 1:17 – When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last.

Apostle John

We see these writers again and again emphasizes that God is to be the root of Christian fearlessness. God’s power, His faithfulness, His love. Not our personal courage or bravery. The writers also are committed to the idea that the fear of people and circumstances is a form of slavery, but we are to be free! This is not new. This is not even theology, not yet. But it is a useful and necessary foundation for the theological work that we must do. The challenge lies not in the understanding, but in the application, as James so ably pointed out. So we end this first chapter where we started, in the book of Proverbs.

Proverbs 29:25 – Fear of man will prove to be a snare,
    but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.