Have you ever heard a fellow believer say that he or she is interested in the “deep things” of God?
Perhaps the words were stated differently, but with the same basic meaning: “I believe the Lord has called me to a higher Christian life.” Or something similar.
Have you ever witnessed the excitement when such a person discovers a group of believers with similar noble intentions, especially if the group appears to have already made some progress into these “deeper” or “higher” things of God?
Have you ever noticed how often such liaisons fall apart? And how often somebody (or a few bodies) ends up disappointed, offended or hurt? Or, if they manage to stick it out, how often the group tends to become so insular and elitist that you end up feeling more comfortable around the shallow folks from the little traditional church around the corner?
Paul’s words to the Romans come to mind: The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.
1. Romans 7: The Efforts of the Flesh
Firstly, Paul’s apt words above come from Romans 7 – the chapter that is famous for teaching us that any religious intentions are doomed if they depend on the abilities of the flesh. Whilst the law does a great job of formulating the spiritual “ideal”, it does not impart the life necessary to live up to that ideal.
Of course we regularly forget this, and so we take God’s “thou shalt” to mean “thou can”. But we are mistaken. As Paul concludes in Romans 7, the desire to do good does not imply any ability to do so.
Similarly, a group’s desire to be the “true church” says absolutely nothing about their ecclesiastical aptitude. Passion is not necessarily an indicator of talent, as television music reality shows regularly reveal. Spiritual passion is even less so, according to Paul. When acted upon, it will only succeed in revealing spiritual incapacity, the aim being to force us to look away from ourselves and to God who is the builder of his own church, thank you.
2. John 4: The Religious Wish Dream
Secondly, human liaisons that aim to fulfill personal needs are doomed to fail. The alarming divorce rate testifies quite clearly to this. When we are attracted to people because they make us happy, we will end up feeling contempt for them when they make us unhappy. That is, unfortunately, the tail end of the deal.
Of course the same goes for people who make us feel spiritual…
No chapter in the Bible illustrates this quite like John 4. Jesus uses the water at the bottom of the well as a metaphor for the serial marriages of the Samaritan woman. “Drink of this, and you will thirst again”, he says. In essence: “You keep on drawing from a well, but it does not satisfy. You are looking for me, but you are looking in the wrong places. No husband can fill the emptiness within you or make you whole. You are, in fact, attributing God-like characteristics to fallen human beings when you expect them to do so.”
The answer? “Come and drink from me. That is the only place where you will find life and satisfaction.”
The same goes for church life. When our personal needs manifest as an ecclesiastical “wish dream”, as Bonhoeffer called it, we are heading for disaster.
Wayne Jacobsen has done a wonderful job of addressing this very thing in his article Why House Church isn’t the Answer (you have to read it) so I will not elaborate any further.
3. 1 Timothy 3: Conceit
Finally, and most importantly, the single thing that is most deadening to a group of believers is the sincere conviction that they have discovered something that others are still looking for. The problem with this type of thinking is more than the sheer arrogance that underlies it. It is the insinuation that God reserves his fullness, and the glory thereof, for a select group of believers who have discovered the secrets to access it.
Here too, Bonhoeffer, is worth quoting. (keep in mind that monasticism is a mindset rather than a movement.)
Monasticism was represented as an individual achievement which the mass of the laity could not be expected to emulate. By thus limiting the application of the commandments of Jesus to a restricted group of specialists, the Church evolved the fatal conception of the double standard—a maximum and a minimum standard of Christian obedience. Whenever the Church was accused of being too secularized, it could always point to monasticism as an opportunity of living a higher life within the fold, and thus justify the other possibility of a lower standard of life for others. …By and large, the fatal error of monasticism lay not so much in its rigorism as in the extent to which it departed from genuine Christianity by setting up itself as the individual achievement of a select few, and so claiming a special merit of its own.
And then, of course, there are the wise words of T. Austin Sparks:
We must beware of thinking in terms of advanced or special doctrines. Scriptural teaching is not departmental or sectional. We may hear of ‘higher truth’ or ‘advanced teaching’, as though there were something special reserved for the few. So there arises the idea of ‘higher life’ with ‘higher teaching’, as opposed to being a simple believer, content with ‘the simple gospel’. I want very emphatically to contradict any such notion. Wherever you look in the New Testament you will never find any support for this idea… Nobody should make a special kind of ‘Overcomer’ teaching, for this is what God intended Calvary to mean for every believer. God had spiritual victory as His thought when He first forgave us our sins, and in His mind this is to be the normal development of every Christian’s life.
Years ago I posted a cartoon that generated more interest on this blog than anything else I’d ever posted, probably because it was truer than anything else here. It was drawn by Saji George and beautifully captures the mindset referred to above.
The Way of Deliverance
There is a remarkably simple way out of this trap, and it is to be found in the realization that less is always more in God’s kingdom.
Paul solves the riddle of Romans 7 by stating that the Spirit does what the law cannot do. Similarly, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that there are no longer earthly pockets of God’s presence, and that worship will now be in “spirit and truth”.
True worship is now accessible without a pilgrimage, without ever having to ask “where”? We no longer need to look for the house of God. The house of God has come to us. Jacob’s ladder has replaced Babel’s tower. Knowledge is no longer the enlightenment of an elite inner circle, but an awakening to love which is accessible to all. The Holy of Holies is no longer an elusive and mystical destiny, but a continuous reality in the heart of the believer. The fire is no longer on the mountain. It has come down to rest on each one of us.
Where can I find a true church? The question is fundamentally flawed. You cannot find what you already are. To leave a group of regenerate believers to find the true church is like leaving your wife and kids to find true humanity. Unless the situation has become so dysfunctional that your personal spiritual health depends on it, or unless you have a sense that the Lord is sending you to become part of a group of believers for the sake of fulfilling your call to service amongst them, you should think twice before packing up.
“I, the one speaking to you — I am he”, said Jesus to the woman at the well. What we are yearning for has been under our noses all along.
The Lord has designed his body to function optimally in its simplest form. Two or three are needed, and there He is. Surely we do not believe that we need more than Him? So then what is all the fuss about? In Him is the fullness of the Godhead, and through Him that fullness dwells in us. His presence is continuously there, and it will not leave or forsake us. When two or three gather, his indwelling presence manifests as an objective bodily presence, and church happens in its most optimal form.
This, and this alone, is what matters.
(PS: Joshua Lawson has recently written an excellent article along these lines, Beware the homogenization of church life, which I highly recommend.)