I have compiled a list of resource links on this page that deal with this issue, but in preface I would just like to offer a few comments of my own and a little explanation for those who have some more questions about my perspective and what motivates it. With all of the words I will share here, my purpose is to encourage us all towards deeper relationship with Christ. My heart is to offend no one. May God bless you so richly and for this moment give you ears to hear and hearts to understand the heart of a fellow brother in Christ.|
If you'd rather just get right to the website links and skip my comments, JUST CLICK HERE.
Several people have asked me why it is that I do not consider myself to be very supportive of institutional Christianity these days and why "church" attendance isn't my highest priority in life. First of all, it's not that I never set foot inside a "church". I sometimes do that and it is wonderful when Christians are touched by the Lord in a meeting. I have myself been touched by the Lord in such meetings on a number of occasions. The point of this commentary on institutional church life is that Christ must be the center of all things in the believer's life. If we make "church" attendance the center and all the programs employed by the "church" to be central (in other words the focus of our gathering), then we are deceived and we are missing out on what it really means to gather around Christ and BE the Church. I really don't like to make "church" attendance the issue because, truly, growing in intimate relationship with Christ is the only real issue that concerns me right now. This is not to say that gathering with fellow Christians is not valuable, but it is to say that the institutional church is not the only or (as I would argue) even the best manifestation of such a gathering (there are a number of reasons I strongly believe this, a few of which you will read in this article).
First of all it needs to just be plainly stated; the Church is not a building or any material thing - actually the Scripture gives us a few different typologies to describe what the Church is. One expression of the Church is that of a family; complete with brothers and sisters, children and elders, etc. Another expression of the Church is that it is called the Body of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself!!! Think of that for a moment... I know that so often we throw around the term "the body of Christ" never really considering what we are saying and what that really means. It means that Christ has so intimately joined us to Him, and connected us together in such a way, that we become His very body! These are organic, living terms friends and they have zero to do with institutions of "ministry." Quite simply put, you cannot go to church! If you are joined with Him, you are the church! You are a vital part of the living body of Jesus Christ. This understanding is absolutely crucial when you consider that so much of what is considered to be "church" today revolves around programs, buildings, schedules and human leadership. It is time we come to understand that we are the very body of Jesus and He alone is the Head of that body.
The Church as defined by T. A. Sparks:
When you begin to see the Church as being the living body of Christ, everything takes on a different light. Suddenly "church" isn't about a program, attendance of meetings, activities, or pursuits of ministry. Suddenly it is about connecting to the Head which is Christ and learning to flow with all the other members of Christ's body in submission to the Head, which is the Lord. The amazing thing also is that God never placed a requirement of there being some necessity of large numbers for this manifestation of body life to occur. Neither did He require it to transpire in a specific building, at a specific time, with a specific routine. Jesus said (in Matthew 18:20) that when just two or three gather together in His name He would be there in their midsts (of course I am not suggesting this is some kind of magical formula where all you have to do is get 2 or 3 people together and BOOM your "having church." It takes a combined hunger to meet with the Lord and minister to Him and to be willing to allow Him to lead in that setting...). My point of mentioning the Scripture in Matthew 18:20 is to expel the myth that God can only manifest His presence (or that He operates more powerfully) in the setting of an organized meeting (i.e. your local "church"). The Lord NEVER instituted such a premise for the manifestation of His presence and power. He didn't say when you meet in the mighty cathedral and sing songs, take offerings and have sermons then I will come. No, He simply said that when we gather together in His name, in agreement, however few the number (even if that number is only 2) He would show up! Praise God!
Please notice that I am making a severe distinction between the "place" we call "church" and the living, organic manifestation of the body of Christ, which is not in any way, shape or form visualized by a building or program. The "church" (of Scripture) is not a building or a program, it is people! And when God's people gather together freely (wherever they may gather, be it a home, a coffee shop, an airport, or some other place) with only one purpose to minister to Him, to hear Him, to be led by Him, to experience Him, and to encourage and edify one another towards HIM, this makeup is a corporate manifestation of the true Church; the body of Christ.
Now, I need to say another word about this, because just getting a bunch of saints together with a united purpose doesn't automatically create the Lord's idea of fellowship either. Yes, there's more to it still. Far more! Typically the institutional church creates passive Christians; we just come and sit and follow the program. The New Testament style of meeting is quite a bit different as it requires interaction and intimate connection with each other in the corporate setting. Passivity is against the pattern. The Scripture emphasizes the fact that all of us who belong to Christ are priests (1 Peter 2:9; Revelations 1:6; 5:10)! The Lord's Church is fashioned together by LIVING STONES (1 Peter 2:5). There is a unique expression of the Lord Jesus resident within each one of us individually. When we come together, then each of us should be free to contribute the unique expression of Jesus Christ that resides in each of us. When this happens, the church is manifested through real fellowship; or what the Bible calls "koinonia."
Some of the best "meetings" I ever knew growing up were informal gatherings in my parent's home. There wasn't a hint of formality about them, in fact, I shouldn't even call them "meetings" because basically what would transpire is that Christian brothers and sisters would often just drop in with very little notice and we would enjoy conversation, dinner and then usually always would gravitate towards the living room where we'd break out the guitars and gather around the piano and sing songs to the Lord, laugh together, pray for one another and just enjoy being together. No order, no rituals, no formality whatsoever and the Lord would manifest His presence so wonderfully in those times of fellowship. It was like hanging with family, just that natural. Some of the best memories of my life are from those gatherings! Sometimes it was just my family and one other brother or sister in the Lord. Sometimes the house would be full and we'd just have an amazing time together.
Moving forward in time I also experienced a wonderful expression of body life in my own home (the Prayer Shack). This continued for about 5 years strong (without any organization or "leadership", no clergy, no program, agenda or pattern we followed - literally every gathering was unique and we never had a clue what was going to transpire). Some of the most amazing, wonderful, impacting memories I will ever have of what a real "church" meeting can be like are from those meetings in my home. People got saved, healed, started using the gifts God gave them, some saw angels and visions from the Lord... Oh it was amazing! You know what killed those meetings? I believe I can tell you exactly what killed those meetings: Organization! Eventually, we started to gather around a leader (albeit a sincere one) and an agenda because I arrived at the opinion that we needed to bring some "structure" to the meeting (we needed to have some preaching of the Word). So a leader began to teach us and we gathered in a circle around him on the floor. Yes, the Lord still moved in those gatherings though the meeting started to take on a more "formal" style. There was still prophetic ministry (though most of it was actuated by the leader now), people still prayed for one another, and we still worshipped the Lord (though often it was the leader who started a song - we even tried to institute a "worship service" - though all was spontaneous before). People started bringing their Bibles and notebooks posed to sit and hear a message and take notes, instead of participating on a more intimate relational level. Within six months no one came any more, the leader moved on, and the meetings died! I was heartbroken and didn't have a clue what had transpired. You might wonder why I would have ever imagined such a thing after nearly 5 years of some of the most incredible manifestation of the interactive fellowship of believers I had seen in a setting. It's because this stuff, this kind of thinking, is completely engrained in our heads from birth to the grave. We've had well over 500 years of traditional influence pushing us to this action (some could say close to 1,700 years if you take things all the way back to where things first started to gradually deteriorate from the New Testament pattern). Every major revival in history died because of organization! Men tried to make formulas to continue getting the same results and split off into divisions (or denominations). And when the Spirit of the Lord moved on (because He cannot and will not bind Himself to the traditions of men), they stayed locked in their programs. The same is absolutely true in our day! Nothing has changed! Instead of seeking the Lord for His mind and then obeying Him (relishing the joy of a simple, every day journey with Christ), we take comfort in a weekly program. Sadly, we are now so accustomed to this program, we actually believe this program is to be called "the church."
You see, again I must reiterate, "church" is more than just simply Christians gathered somewhere; it is Christ manifested in their gathering (through "koinonia" fellowship) and He is the central focus of every aspect of that gathering! A pure expression of that is unlikely when an agenda orders the meeting and not Christ by His Spirit and through His people. Imagine putting a group of "church-bred" Christians in a room together without a leader and without an agenda and then observing what might initially happen... Most likely (and I've watched this first hand), they will not know what to do. There will be a lot of silence. A few people might nervously try to offer something... Then, eventually, someone will try to employ some kind of order after the pattern of what is done in church, but it won't work right because they're inexperienced and so the meeting seems to be less than successful. Probably the next meeting, if there is one, fewer people will want to come. Why is this? Because Christians are not used to being "living stones", priests, active participants in a setting of relational ministry. Many folks, even in large church organizations are familiar with the concept of cell churches and perhaps some will not agree with my conclusions about them. That's fine. I recognize there may be a few exceptions out there, but by-in-large it's pretty well understood that to leave a group of individuals to have a meeting together without some kind of pattern or formula, it will result in the very kind of problems I have expressed. To prohibit this kind of "failure" from transpiring in small groups, the larger organizations that rule over them institute program to be actuated in the homes. As a result few Christians engaging in this kind of activity will experience anything more than a mini-version of an institutional church service, with only slightly less formality. Today, far too much attention is placed on buildings, programs, institutions, organizations, leadership structures, etc. (even meetings) and we wrongly call these "things" the church - and so much of what we do centers around all these other "things" and not simply Christ. I feel like I'm perhaps belaboring the point a bit here and I wish I knew exactly how to put this vision into words so that you will catch it; the vision of Christ being the center of our gatherings - of our very lives, day by day - and us being free and encouraged mutually to participate, whether it be in a gathering or some other event or circumstance - so that we can experience a true manifestation of the organic nature of His Church. Furthermore to realize, in an evern broader sense, that the manifestation of the body of Christ doesn't even need a regular "meeting" to exist or thrive at all. It can happen every day, every week, and whenever it will because of the truth that form does NOT dictate life!
Despite these convictions I so desire to share with my brothers and sisters in Christ (this call to freedom in God), still the typical thought is: "if we do whatever we decide do in His name then He is the center". But if it were that simple, then the poor folks in Matthew 7:21-23 have really been misled by God, for they also called Him Lord and they boasted that they did so much in His name, many wonderful and amazing things - but Christ told them to depart from Him and He called them workers of iniquity! Think of that! He also said, "I never knew you." No, God hasn't misled anyone, but often times we are ourselves misled by those things we do in His name that we place before Him. The simple fact is that just doing things in the name of the Lord (even if they're good things) doesn't mean that He is the center and it doesn't mean that by participating in those things you become spiritually better or closer to God. Obviously Scripture reveals to us that it is possible to spend a lifetime serving the Lord, doing good things in His name, and still have Him say, "depart, I never knew you." That is what we need to get through our heads! We must know Him! Nothing else matters without this! So again, I repeat this critical point, if Jesus isn't the Lord (the very center) of the meeting, leading the gathering, there present as the Invisible Leader of His body (not some pastor), and if His body (i.e. all the people gathered) are not participant in the expression of His life (not just sitting on pews listening to songs and sermons), unencumbered by religious traditions, rules, regulations and legalism and if they are not actively engaging the very heart of Christ, romancing Him, ministering to HIS NEED, then it isn't the Lord's gathering at all; it isn't a manifestation of the Lord's church - not even close. The Lord's church is an organic, living manifestation of His body. You cannot attend it... It is not a place... It is not a program... It's not a meeting... It is His very life, His character, His nature, His presence manifested through His people, who are His body, with Him at the center of it all. So when you hear me say that I do not "go to church", understand that what I am suggesting to you is this distinction of who and what the true church of the Lord is. It isn't someplace you can go! It is who He is and who you are and who we are together in HIM when He is made the center of our lives and especially our gathering.
I sincerely believe that when I am fully connected with the Head, which is the Lord Jesus, I am also fully connected as a part of His body (whether I am physically present with other believers at a given time or not). In other words, "church" attendance does not make a person part of the body of Christ... knowing Christ does! Again, the point is to get thoroughly connected to Christ and stay connected to Him, walking in intimate relationship with Him. When we are connected intimately with the Lord, He becomes the Master of our hearts and He has promised to lead us and direct us into all truth (John 16:13-15). His Spirit brings conviction concerning sin, righteousness and judgement (John 16:8), He teaches and brings direction (Luke 12:12; John 14:26; 1 Jojn 2:27), comfort and strength (John 14:16; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17; Ephesians 3:16), counsel (Ephesians 1:11; Revelation 3:18), renewal (Titus 3:5), sanctification (2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2), and He works the elements of change in our hearts (2 Corinthians 3:18) necessary to move us ahead and grow us up spiritually.
In my life there have been plenty of distractions to this process of spiritual growth, some wrought from my own interests that drew me away from keeping a central focus on the Lord and some have been deliberate distractions from the enemy... Unfortunately, a number of the components that make up institutional church life have also become serious distractions to that simple purpose and desire in my life to draw ever so close to Him. I know it may be difficult for some people to imagine that "church" could actually become a distraction to the quest of knowing Christ intimately since most everyone views "church" as being essential to this purpose, and so I offer these comments and the following list of website links to help broaden your understanding as to how and why "church" (again I am referring to the institutional church; i.e. all of its programs, endless (week after week) meetings, emotional song services, pet doctrines, rules and regulations) might actually be considered a distraction to the process of accelerated spiritual growth in the lives of many believers.
Some people have tried to suggest that my current decision to not "religiously attend church" is simply one of hurt or bitterness. While I have received my share of hurts while participating in churchworld, I do not believe I am harboring resentments due to this (though I will honestly tell you these are also things I have had to work through and continue to work through as the Spirit of the Lord brings them to the surface in my heart to deal with). Certainly everyone faces circumstances in their life that cause pain, but it is what we do with that pain that is important. Do we allow it to drive us to bitterness, unforgiveness and isolation from others? That is a serious temptation and a trap that many have fallen into. The other option, however, is to allow that pain to work a humility and brokenness in our lives that pushes us to Jesus and teaches us to embrace a life that operates in mercy. It's a road of death; death to self. It's not easy, but it is the most direct route to intimacy with Jesus and true spiritual growth. The Word of the Lord teaches us that "unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." (John 12:24) In God's kingdom, without death there cannot be life. This is opposite the way most of us tend to think. We think death is loss and so we often do our best to avoid it, but the Lord teaches us it is actually gain and the way to realize His resurection life (Mark 8:35; Hebrews 12:2; 1 Peter 4:1-2; Romans 8:13-14; Colossians 3:1-17; etc.)!
If I were to summarize what I believe is transpiring in my spiritual walk with the Lord right now, I would hope I could say it is a death to the things of the flesh, selfish pursuits and mindsets, and a complete refocusing of all of my attentions and passions on Christ alone. One of the most impacting purposes of me coming to a more intimate relational knowledge of Christ is so that when all of my sustenance, hope and confidence is in Him only (not man, not institutions of ministry, not from all the head knowledge I possess) and when my heart has been healed by His touch, the fire of my first love rekindled, and I have learned to hear His voice and respond with obedience, this begins to positively affect the relationships I have with other Christians (including those within the institutional church) and the influence my life has on the lost. Organizational ministry most often teaches us to "do things for the Lord" rather than just emphasize intimate relationship with Christ and allowing Christ to direct the affairs pertaining to ministry in the life of every believer. In this way it (the institutional church program) is an interferance and distraction. And because it carries an appearance of godliness and all sufficiency it causes many to become passive in their walk with God. The "doing" (by attending church regularly and participating in programs) becomes a distraction from "the being." We engage in so many activities that are excercised in the name of the Lord, but I believe it so often blinds us from the greater responsibility, which is to know Christ and to be motivated by relationship with the Lord and obedience to the still small voice of His Spirit inside us. The noise of "church life" is often so loud that we really don't learn to hear Him.
I'm tempted at this point to offer some of my perspectives on leadership in "the church" and how far I believe we have fled from the Scriptural design and example. I realize, however, that this can be a controversial issue since the current understanding of what leadership in "the church" is and how it is intended to operate is so severely ingrained in our heads from years of tradition. There are some excellent books available that deal with this topic thoroughly from a strictly biblical perspective. One of my absolute favorites is called "Who Is Your Covering?: A Fresh Look at Leadership, Authority, and Accountability" by Frank Viola. I highly recommend this title to be read by every Christian and especially those in positions of "church" ministry.
The organization so often, by its very nature and existence, exalts itself over true relational interaction among the body. In other words, programs are more important than establishing and building close relationships. Why? Because sometimes building relationship and dealing with "family" can be messy and difficult. Organized religion seems to offer the grand resolve for all of this. No mess, no fuss, just go with the flow, do what you're expected to do, and everything functions like clockwork. Nobody cares to mention that clocks have no life and they always move in a circle and click along at the same boring pace. From one round to another nothing changes. The body who succombs to this kind of continual function, just dries up inside. The worst part is that, most of the time, they don't even know it. They just keep doing what they've always done. On occasion, there are a few who become wise to their desperate need for life. They start seeking it out. But often their quest is shot down by those around them (sometimes by those in leadership). They are told to conform, that this is the way things are supposed to be, it's just a little dry spell it will pass, just stay plugged in. Organized religion pushes people away from learning to establish close relationships and especially to be able to live those out in a meeting.
This is another reason why I have perceived institutional "churchianity" as a distraction. I am having to learn how to connect with people on a more sincere and intimate level (not to mention learning to reach out to God and learn to hear HIM without the aid of many religious voices around always telling me what to do). The "church" environment typically breeds a lack of intimacy on a number of levels (both concerning God and among brothers and sisters in Christ). Thankfully there are sometimes exceptions, but most of the time people in churches just don't have, know how to, or desire to build intimate friendships with each other. Church becomes an easy place to hide and leave the flesh unchallenged, but all the while feeling as if you have done your spiritual duty before God because you have "faithfully attended church" (and perhaps "paid your tithe" - oops, did I go to far with that one? Naaa... heh heh). With a handshake and a brief greeting or surfacey chit chat, people smile and then leave and most often never have any more contact with one another during the week. Even less do people have a relationship with their leaders (i.e. the pastor) outside of the weekly church service (his very "position" make such informal kinds of fellowship virtually impossible). We become a religious machine and not a functional body. Even our relationship with God is not nakedly sincere. We learn to approach Him through scores of other "mediums" and instead of receiving our nourishment directly from Him in a vibrant relationship, we substitute it with formula, books, and by heaping up religious teachers to tell us what we want to hear. Again, sometimes there are exceptions but they are just that - exceptions. I really believe God has a better plan for how we gather, how we live, and what we deem as important.
But no one, or perhaps I should say few, are interested in really seeing a manifestation of the living Church transpire when we gather. Sure many would say they do want that and I mostly believe their response is sincere, though the response is most likely still influenced by a religious bias and concept of what they have been led to believe "the church" is and how it should function in this world. A great problem with most institutional churches is that there really isn't much room for spontaneous life in the meeting... They have a schedule to keep. The prayer I hate to hear the most in an institutional meeting is the one where someone says, "God, we don't want to follow man's agenda today, we want to follow Your agenda and be led by Your Spirit." After 30 years of hearing this kind of prayer in just about every service I've been to, most every single time, it is prayed and then we go about with our agenda and schedule. It's like we're teasing the Lord with a false prospect of engaging in relationship with His Spirit in the course of our gathering. We are blatantly lying to Him, telling Him that we intend to follow His leading, when we know good and well that we already have the entire meeting planned out and even know when it is scheduled to end. God help us! Open our eyes to what we are doing to You and to Your people.
I truly want Christ without all the "stuff" that man throws in the way. Of course some of that will probably be inevitable, but what I'm saying is that I need not place myself within an environment that distracts me from the simple desire to know the Lord without all the trappings of religion. As much as I know Christians within the walls of institutional churches are often sincere, they can be a distraction sometimes too because they help to always recite to you what the institution requires of you. Granted their words are most often spoken from ignorance and also because of the years of tradition they have been ingrained with. I do not say that my desire for Him and my personal decision to part with the institutional mindset and approach concerning how believers meet together is somehow qualified by a rejection of or hatred for those who are a part of institutional Christianity. God forbid anyone would imagine such a thing! They are as much a part of God's heart as I am.
It is the program the system employs that I detest. A program that suggests, "follow all these steps and you will grow spiritually," instead of simply, "follow Christ." A program that calls itself "biblical" when almost none of its practices have any foundation in New Testament Scripture (I recommend you read the book "Beyond Radical" by Gene Edwards). A program that employs its own host of "commandments", which are said to be "from God" but are only the doctrines of men. I must say that for the little bit of good that happens inside the institutional gathering, there seems to be more of just a host of "stuff" that serves no eternal purpose in the believer's life at all, and even worse is sometimes an obstacle to having a vibrant, impacting, liberated experience with Christ with my brothers and sisters in the Lord. Routine just shreds all the spiritual expectancy out of your heart.
Trying to align myself with all the requirements of pleasing and "ministering" to the institution has, in a number of ways, blinded me from a great deal of truth and it has kept me chained with mindsets of fear, inferiority, confusion, frustration, and pride - not to mention passivity, lethargy and apathy. If there is anything really notable I could say about the institutional church and the affect it has had on my life, it would probably be that it has pushed me to this place by it's own empty, lifeless, and routinely boring nature. I am so desperate for God now and so hungry to experience a true, living expression of vibrant, organic body life that I could never desire organized religion again. I thank God for saving me (which happened to transpire within the institution) and for bringing people into my life to minister truth and love. I do not credit these things to the institution but to Christ and to the loving, obedient response of His servants.
It was A.W. Tozer who once said, ""One hundred religious persons knit into a unity by careful organization do not constitute a church any more than eleven dead men make a football team." I offer that quote as a preface to stress my point that this thing we call "church" that is attended once or twice a week for an hour or two, just because we have titled it "church" doesn't mean it's the church we see exampled and defined in Scripture. I don't believe that organized institutional religious gatherings should be regarded as the most important part of our Christian lives. I say that so boldly because Christians must get it through their heads that the "church" they attend each week (the building and program) is NOT representative, by any stretch of the imagination, of the gathering that Scripture esteems as being significant. God, in His Word, NEVER makes any emphasis out of, neither does He give concern for, the routines and rituals men perform and choose to call "godly." Especially where these things distract His people from the relational aspect of body life and the direct communion His people are to have with the Head, which is Christ. Also when these "righteous" acts cover up our sin and we refuse to humble ourselves, repent and turn to His ways. Even wilder is the fact that God calls those who perform their religious routines while covering their sin and refusing to repent His enemies!!! You will find these things to be absolutely true in the Scripture, both Old and New testaments. God does not care about our fancy religious organization. He cares about what lies in our hearts and how we respond in sincerity to His heart and with obedience to His Word.
I will say it again another way: The building you visit and the program you engage in does not in the least respect constitute the Lord's Church, neither is the establishment you worship at biblically identified as "the House of the Lord" (though it is so commonly referred to as such in our day - but is an Old Covenant term applicable only to the physical temple in Israel... a temple that was destroyed thousands of years ago and that God NEVER intended to serve as the example for our "replacement" concept of "church" identified as the physical building we worship at). Besides the frequent comparisons we wrongly make between the Old Covenant Temple and our modern religious establishments, so much of the terminology we use to define our organizations are, quite honestly, wrought from years of tradition (mostly from Roman Catholic influence and not the Bible at all - this is verifiable, documented, historical fact).
One more time I will repeat it that the institutional church, the program of religious routine that 500,000,000 Protestant Christians engage in today, IS NOT THE CHURCH OF THE BIBLE and does not personify the biblical body of Christ! The institutional church is a man-made organization, that is all! I do not believe that God regards it with any of the grand significance that we ourselves generally attribute to it. The Lord's Church involves the complete, worldwide BODY of all believers in Jesus Christ - and the smaller gatherings are just a part of the larger whole. In short, if you have been truly born again, married with Christ, then you are a part of His Church REGARDLESS OF WHAT INSTITUTIONAL "church" YOU MAY ATTEND OR MAY NOT ATTEND! Then there is the local expression of the body of Christ, which we see so clearly in the pages of the New Testament; it is a local gathering together of the saints who are part of the larger body of Christ. But it is more than just a mere gathering; it is a unique expression of the Lord's Church that can only be birthed by the Lord Himself. This gathering corporately expresses His life and manifests it through individuals. And this is not just two hours a week at some religious gathering, it is far more than that! This expression of "the church" represents a community of believers, tied together relationally and in corporate submission to the Master, who is Christ. He Himself leads them. Every part of this expression of the Lord's Church centers around Him, NOT programs, pastors, and routines.
"The church is the company of those who trust in Christ, not the ecclesiastical organization with its Popes, Bishops and clergy. The latter, therefore, have no authority to define Christian truth and compel obedience to their decrees. These offices were, in fact, of human origin. Peter had no special place among the apostles, and clerical distinctions were foreign to the Word of God..."
John W. Kennedy
The Torch of the Testimony (p. 124)
1965, SeedSowers Books AVAILABE HERE
The third manifestation of the Lord's Church (which, by the way, is directly tied to the first two I mentioned) is that each of us, individually, are the Church of the Lord. We are His Temple! This is true both corporately and individually, but first individually because there cannot be a corporate expression if He is not first the Lord of each person. His Spirit DOES NOT dwell in temples built with human hands, but within the hearts of men and in an eternal kingdom that He himself has structured and that is not material.
"For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building." (1 Corinthians 3:9 - NASB - emphasis added)
"Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?" (1 Corinthians 3:16 - KJV - emphasis added)
"...for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people." (2 Corinthians 6:16b - KJV - emphasis added)
"And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, 'Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.'" (Revelation 21:3 - KJV)
"It is through Christ that all of us, Jews and Gentiles, are able to come in the one Spirit into the presence of the Father. So then, you Gentiles are not foreigners or strangers any longer; you are now citizens together with God's people and members of the family of God. You, too, are built upon the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets, the cornerstone being Christ Jesus himself. He is the one who holds the whole building together and makes it grow into a sacred temple dedicated to the Lord. In union with him you too are being built together with all the others into a place where God lives through his Spirit." (Ephesians 2:18-22 - GNB)
Note that in the preceding passage (and the one in 1 Corinthians 3:9) the term "building" is used metaphorically to describe the united body of Christ, who Himself is the foundation, the very cornerstone, of the Church. Note also that it is Christ Himself who is responsible to hold all of us together and cause us to grow and mature into that which He has desired. What is the responsibility of apostles and prophets in this "building"? Their role is to set people's attention upon Christ! The foundation they lay is not a mortal system of religion, but it is Christ the Lord. This is immensely significant!
One last time I will reiterate that the religious organization that people today refer to as "the church" is merely an establishment of man, built by human hands, maintained by human effort and employed by human agendas and schedules and, difficult as it might be to swallow, human authority structures. This "system" is not once defined anywhere in the Word of God as being something that makes you any more or less a part of the body of Christ Jesus! It is wrong to judge a brother or sister in Christ who is not a "member" of a "church." That does not in the least invalidate their standing with God and their validity as a member of the Lord's true Church! You want to join an organization or religious club? Fine, but NEVER elevate that organization over the body of Christ and then make it an idol by calling it His Church. You want to belong to some denominational church? Ok, but don't you dare turn your nose up at those who don't "worship" the system (or that don't worship at the system) and regard it as being God's prized invention and special interest.
Christians in institutional churches tend to look at each other and pass judgement because they esteem this organizational thing as being so vital to their Christian experience. Friends, we need to approach our Christianity from a relational aspect; relationship with Christ, a life centered around Him, and a love sparked by His grace and His presence in our lives and the experiential knowledge of who He really is and all that He has done for us. Second to this being enthralled with Christ, we must become relationally minded towards one another, NOT ORGANIZATIONALLY MINDED! A meeting of itself is not evil, and I am not suggesting that. It is good for saints to meet together and the Scripture confirms that we should not neglect to do so (Hebrews 10:25), but are we engaging in the right kind of meeting; the meeting that we see exampled in Scripture? Do we realize that it only takes 2 or more gathered in agreement (Matthew 18:20) to constitute a meeting where the Lord's presence is manifested? Do we understand that "church" is not a building, not an organization, not an institution, not a program, not a "ministry," not a scheduled meeting with list of required rituals that need be performed routinely, but CHURCH IS WHO WE ARE TOGETHER!!! THE BODY OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST!!!
There's not necessarily anything wrong with belonging to a club or some organization, just don't call it "the House of the Lord." If you like where you are and think all of this stuff is just too radical, that's fine, stay put and pursue the Lord with all your heart, just don't judge and reject other Christians who choose to "meet" in other ways or that don't choose to "join" a "church" at all. I know that God is merciful and He is able to deal in each of our lives with grace, patience and love. I spent 30 years of my life in the institutional church and believed a lot of stupid things, but God still penetrated through all of that and touched my heart. He led me along by His grace and He fed me, nurtured me and changed my life. He poured out his renewing power in my life and filled my home with His manifest presence. Because my heart of hearts has been set on Him, the institutional church wasn't a complete obstical. I believe the same is true for every one of His dear children. As much as I am weary of the routine called "church" and as much I believe it hinders spiritual growth in so many ways, I all the more believe that God is faithful and He is so amazing and good and He can touch people's live inside. I would be lost if this wasn't true about God! But just because God is merciful to our shortcomings and longsuffering, kind and forgiving, doesn't mean we should use that mercy as a licence to remain in sin and stagnation when we come to a knowledge of the truth and experience the revelation of the Lord; that He is more than religion and He has more than our human attempts to orchestrate religious activity can possibly offer. With all my heart I believe there is higher road! I am seeking to ride on it! I want to learn how to fit into God's more excellent way.
Honestly, I don't expect that the organized institutional church structure is going to disapear or completely change all her ways in my lifetime. Some people think that, maybe, when persecution comes to the Church that everything will have to change in our institutions. I used to believe that too (and part of me still wants to), but the more I read about how denominations have responded to persecution and tribulation throughout history, I find that none of them changed - only slightly in their approach or they just redefined a few things! They just found new ways to continue with their rituals and traditions, and then of course when hard times passed, they were back at it again. Gene Edwards says the following about the question of whether change is a likelihood:
So, with the help of Jesus, my thought processes are being reprogrammed by the Word of God and the renewing work of the Spirit of God in my life. God's interest is to change the hearts of people, not some organization. I really believe that. So I'm not going to fight religion. When we, individually, discover the risen Lord and return to our first love and passion for His presence, His Word, and a willingness to obey His leading without question, then things will really start to happen. Organized religion will go on doing what it does, but we don't have to. We don't have to get stuck in a dry, boring routine. We don't have to argue, fight with or try to prove them all wrong. We just need to get on fire for the Lord. When that happens, His body comes alive! His will is accomplished through us. His message and His love is manifested and the world will take notice (and so will many of those trapped in religion). Right now, the world could care less about religion. They know our faults better than we are willing to admit.
This why I have problems with organized religion and why I have stepped out of its direct influence; because it fights against life, it distorts the truth and it repells the lost. I believe the body of Christ has become distracted from being completely enamored with Christ, passionately in love with Him and completely obedient to His call. Instead we are too often caught up with the pursuits of ministry, programs, material things, knowledge, human agendas, religious mindsets, and a host of other distractions from the truth. I believe the Lord is calling us back to Him. Calling us to come away from the distractions and embrace Him again; our first love. This is where I am at right now. I am becoming so desperate for Him and so sick of myself.
It is often difficult for us as Christians who value our institutional programs so highly to imagine that they could actually be a distraction that keeps us preoccupied away from our Lord. Again, I do not say that meetings are evil in and of themselves, but even good things can be a distraction sometimes. In a large sense, through organization we have often removed power from the hands of the Lord who moves by His Spirit and we have given the control to men (even if they be men of good intention). We have sought after what seems to be good for us and all but rejected what will lead us to the death the Lord requires... a death that will produce life.
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for My sake shall find it." (Matthew 16:24-25 - KJV)
I would like to reprint a portion of a fantastic article by Chip Brogden, a sincere brother in Christ with a passionate heart for the Lord and a love for God's people. It seems to express well at least a good portion of why "the weekly church meeting" is not the be all and end all of what constitutes real Christianity. Following this excerpt from the article you find a list of links to some inspiring and informative websites on the subject of New Testament restoration. God bless you!
So the question is: have you seen the Lord? I do not mean in a dream or a vision, but I mean have you seen the Lord because the Father has revealed Him in you? It is possible to pray a prayer, but not see the Lord. It is possible to perform good works, but not see the Lord. It is possible (and quite common) to attend church meetings all your life, but not see the Lord. Two men who claimed to know Jesus walked with Him on the road to Emmaus, but they did not know Who He was until their eyes were opened. Many people are in the same situation. We cannot see Him until the eyes of our heart are opened, and when we are thus illuminated from within, we will see Him, we will know Him.
If you have read the Scriptures you know that many who say, "Lord, Lord" and do mighty things in the name of the Lord are, in fact, not known by Him at all, and will have no part in the Kingdom of God. This ought to bring us to our knees. This ought to cause us to search our hearts. Do we really know the Lord? Have we really seen Him? Has God revealed His Son to us?
When we look at the history of God's dealings with man we see a pattern emerging, and this pattern is illustrated for us in the Mountain of Transfiguration, an event recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Here is the pattern. First, the Lord sovereignly reveals His glory to us. Then, we try to grasp the Lord with fleshly hands. Finally, the Lord moves on, and we must either move with Him or stay where we are. Let us look at each point more particularly....
Here is a point that needs to be made. When the Father is pleased to reveal His Son to us, it is for His glory, not ours. So often we seek spiritual things because we desire a name, or power, or glory for ourselves. This is not permitted in the Kingdom where Christ is All in All. What we see of the Lord is for His glory, and not our own.
But just observe how quickly the Self comes into the picture. "Master, it is good for us to be here!" Good for us. Good for us. Good for us. We hear this sentiment all the time. "Isn't it good to be in the house of God today?" "I really enjoyed the message." "I loved the music." "What a lovely service." "I'm so happy I found this little group." Or, "I didn't get anything out of that message." "The music was awful." "They don't have anything for my kids." I, I, I. Me, me, me. Good for us, or not good for us. The music, the preaching, the service, everything is for us, for our needs.
This is why we continually stress that the reason we do not attend or sponsor meetings with any regularity is simply because the Lord's Need is often not met in these meetings. Self permeates so much of what we do (or do not do), even in spiritual matters where Self is supposed to be denied. Peter is a man full of himself. So his reaction to the glory of the Lord is, "It is good for us! Let us build for You..." This is how many works, denominations and ministries are begun. The Lord sovereignly reveals something of His glory to a handful of people, and they begin to build something - a church, a movement, a denomination - in order to contain that glory. Or, the Lord visits His people in a particular meeting or setting. It is good for us: so we decide to meet again the next week in hopes that we can experience more of the same. And so on. We believe if only we can find the right combination of music, or teaching, or worship, or people, then it will be "good for us" every time we meet. Soon, however, the Life is gone and the glory is departed, but the meetings continue!
"I will build My Church," Jesus says. That is Life. "Let us build for You," Peter says. That is Death. To see if a thing is living or dead we need only trace its source. Not only is "let us build" wrong, but "let us build FOR YOU" is equally wrong. Each is motivated by the same thing: "It is good for us."
What Peter did not realize, and what we, too, fail to perceive, is that the glory is in Christ, and not in a method, a meeting, or a movement: and it is for Him, and not for us. How quickly "It is good for us..." turns into "Let us build for You..." How subtle our flesh is! How often in the name of "fellowship" have we have built something "for" the Lord Jesus that really serves our own agenda?
"LISTEN TO HIM"
Scripture records that Peter did not know what he was saying, even while he was offering to build something for Jesus. Jesus gave him no reply. Instead, a cloud enveloped them, and a voice spoke: "This is My beloved Son. Listen to Him!"
The Father is continually pointing us to the Son as All in All. He is working all things together towards the fulfillment of His Purpose, which is for Christ to have the preeminence in all things. So it is at this point that the Lord Jesus begins to descend into the valley, and the disciples must decide if they will stay on the mountain or follow Him down. The mountain is full of light, power, and glory. But the valley is full of darkness and demons. "It is good for US to be HERE, Lord! Let us build something for You!"
How many tabernacles on the mountaintop have been made in the Name of Jesus - when Jesus has long ago descended into the valley? How many people and places claim the presence and glory of God, when the glory has long ago departed? I can think of several instances in which the Lord genuinely moved in a group, church, or meeting long ago, and now that group, church, or meeting has built an entire movement around the experience. What began in the Spirit is now perpetuated by the flesh, and "it is good for us". It is a shame that some people cannot realize that there is no presence, or glory, or power, or anything apart from the Lord Jesus. We can claim to have the presence, the glory, and the power, but if we do not have the Lord Himself, then these things are only spiritual counterfeits.
Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fish, and the crowd thought, "It is good for us to be here!" But Jesus left during the night and crossed the lake. The people woke up the next morning to find Him gone, and crossed the lake in a desperate attempt to locate Him. But when they found Jesus, He said, in essence, "You are only following Me because I filled your stomachs with food." It is important to make this distinction, because I am afraid that if something is deemed "good for us" then we will begin to follow IT and miss the Lord. John records this episode in order to signify that the real miracle is not that the Lord gave them bread to eat, but that the Lord gives Himself to us as Living Bread. Which would you rather have, a full stomach, or eternal life? The presence of God, or God Himself? The glory of God, or God Himself? Do we want salvation, or a Savior? Do we want a healing, or a Great Physician? Do we want what the Lord can give us, or Who the Lord is?
Christians seek many spiritual things: anointing, power, gifts, blessing, fruit, wisdom, prosperity. I pray the Lord will make us thoroughly and completely dissatisfied with THINGS, even the things He gives us, and make us hungry and thirsty for Himself. May we judge things not by whether they are "good for us", but whether they are good for the Lord, whether His Will is done in them, whether His Need is met by them, whether His Purpose is fulfilled in them, whether His Son is seen through them. He is the Only One, the Beloved Son of God. May the Lord be transfigured before us! Amen.
The entire article "Good For Us" can be viewed at the author's website: Watchman.Net.
There are some great websites that deal specifically with the biblical concepts of how to gather as a body and which support the vision of New Testament restoration. Some of these groups might seem a little radical to those unfamiliar with many of these perspectives and who are used to the institutional mindset (which would just as much include me as I have been a part of this system for most all of my life). If you enjoyed the previous excerpt from Chip Brogden's article, you will be pleased to find a large number of articles on the following websites that are just as challenging and encouraging. If you're interested in some great book titles related to this subject, see my TruthForFree.com Book Store.
While there are indeed many sources on the Web that speak in terms of New Testament concepts of ministry, these are some of my own personal favorites. This is not to say that I agree absolutely with every aspect presented, but overall there is some really good information on these sites... really really good information. There are a great deal of immensely encouraging articles that will build you up, excite your faith, inspire new hope and vision, and just bless your socks off. Some of it you may also find challenging, convicting and perhaps (hopefully) disturbing to your flesh. Reading through some of the articles on these pages may help some of you understand a little better where I am coming from in light of the subject of "church attendance" versus the desire to know the Lord intimately and engage in real body life! Much of what is presented on the following sites agree with my personal perspectives on the Christian life; however, if you have any specific questions you may also write to me and ask. Please note that I am really not interested in arguing or engaging contentious debates about various doctrinal differences of opinion. Sincere questions and comments are welcome.
I think it's absolutely great that the Internet offers Christians everywhere, no matter whether they are "officially ordained" of some church organization or not, the opportunity to share their faith and excercise their God-given gifts and operate in their anointings freely to bless the body of Christ. I have to say that, while so many in the institutional church gage their acceptance or rejection of teaching on the premise of whether the person teaching has a prominent title or whether or not a person is a well-known minister or something, I have found so many of these articles to be just astounding in their presentation of sound Bible teaching and incredibly encouraging ministry! It's really a shame that so many within the body of Christ (who are members of organizational churches) get shut down when the Spirit of the Lord is just waiting to bust forth from their lives in true ministry to the body of Christ. Take some time to browse and read. You will be blessed and probably surprised!
I would like to invite you also to download a magnificent book that has been a real encouragement as the Lord has been dealing with me concerning my relationship with Him. The book is also available from the website below known as Watchman.Net (a great site I encourage you to visit), but here is a direct link to the download page. The book is absolutely free and highly recommended: Strength For The Journey by Chip Brogden.
The Assembly Life - An article by Watchman Nee (actually this is an excerpt from the book by the same name) presenting some challenging thoughts concerning modern concepts of church government and the importance of Christians realizing their position in the kingdom of God as priests and kings. Please note that Nee's position is not traditional and this is just an excerpt from the complete work. Nee is not opposed to godly ministers who serve the body of Christ with love and faithfulness. In this article Nee seeks to deal with the grand misconception, which the modern church has fallen prey to, by looking to church leaders as mediators between themselves and God, thus de-emphasizing the individual believer's responsibility to live under the Lordship and direction of Christ. The book can be purchased at http://www.bibledata.com/ for just over $5.00
The following are some great messages on the subject of New Testament Restoration that I have compiled from various sources on the Web. Most of these messages can also be found on one or more of the sites listed above. I have copied a few of my favorite messages here. Most of them are targeted towards those who are currently involved in a house church, however, I believe the wisdom presented in these messages can impact Christians who are part of institutional messages as well or those who are curious about what the "house church movement" is all about. Enjoy!
Note: Most of the following files require Real Audio Player. If the streaming option doesn't work try downloading the file to your hard drive and then play it.