Sunday, July 25, 2021

Oh Say What Is Church?

"He has also set eternity 
in the hearts of men; 
yet they cannot fathom 
what God has 
done from beginning to end." 
Ecclesiastes 3:11

I was listening to Elder Eyring's talk he gave called, "The Power of Sustaining Faith". In the talk he spoke of sustaining Church leadership. He reminded the members that the church leadership are "imperfect human beings" and followed up with, "as are you." He said that when you sustain them and keep the promise to sustain the leaders of the church it will take, "unshakable faith that the Lord called them. Keeping those promises will also bring eternal happiness." Then as an Apostle of the Lord, he solemnly witnessed that if you did not sustain the leadership of the Church it, "will bring sorrow to you and to those you love—and even losses beyond your power to imagine."

That was an intense moment when I heard him say that. Not because I felt it was true, but because I imagined what it was like for other's to hear and trust that is accurate. 

It's been a few years since we have been to church. I know there are people praying for us and our's what I would do if the roles were reversed and I still believed salvation was only to be found in church and temple attendance. I would pray for me (and my children) because - as Elder Eyring inferred, our family is destined to inherit a lower kingdom bringing sorrow to us, and those we love (who will hopefully visit us from the Celestial Kingdom as they sorrow (for eternity) at the sad choices we made to worship Jesus at home). Those would truly be losses "beyond your power to imagine."

Elder Eyring says that when we are asked if we sustain our Church leadership we should, beforehand, with careful and prayerful thought, "look back on your recent thoughts, words, and deeds" and ask ourselves the following: "Have I thought or spoken of human weakness in the people I have pledged to sustain?" This was a new moment for me as I saw him speak that we aren't to even think, let alone speak of any Church leader having any human weaknesses. I thought on how far we've come as a church...even Joseph Smith didn't hold himself to that standard! How often do you read the Doctrine and Covenants and see the Lord telling Joseph he needs to do better? And for goodness sakes alive - Joseph even went to the trouble to publish his failings and rebukes from the Lord for the world to read.

Do you see that happening in the church today?

We have gone from Joseph's day (and Paul and the Apostles were the exact same way) where they spoke of their weaknesses and had open disagreements with each other to the point today where we aren't to even "think" of our leaders having weaknesses.


When I compare the ancient Church that arose following the death of Jesus, it looks nothing like our church today. Back in the time after Christ's death, Apostles journeyed without purse or scrip. They were mocked, stoned, beaten, and thrown in prison. Today the Apostles are given awards, honorary degrees, cars, homes, flights to their desired location, hotels, food, and all their clothing. It seems so different from what the ancient Apostles experienced. But we can't even think that, right?

Stephen being stoned

I want community. I want "church." But what is church? Is it where two or three are gathered together in Christ, or is it assembly halls and lavish temples with stone flown in from the far corners of the earth? It is easy for leadership to blame the members for their lack of commitment and outside forces causing the decline in church attendance and devotion, few in the church leadership are taking an honest look at how the local congregation might be part of the problem. Instead of inviting people into a compelling engagement with God, they have resorted to pressure or manipulation claiming that their sustaining of authority and attendance is an obligation and without it people will end up devoured by sin, seduced by false theology, or withered up spiritually "beyond your power to imagine." 

Yet people keep leaving. Some reject both God and the church, having never met a God more real than the failures of the institution they attended. They conclude its failure must be proof that God must be a fantasy and plunge headlong into he excesses of a lost world. While its easy to blame the problems on flawed humans, Jesus said the powers of darkness couldn't overcome it, so how can human frailty? Paul, the early apostle, even broadened the scope of that promise, saying Jesus would, "present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless" (Ephesians 5:27). That's quite a picture, and it's hard to see that the church of our day is any closer to that reality than the church of Paul's day.

If you share my frustration with the disparity between the church as Scripture talks about her and what we see reflected in our religious institutions, you're not alone. You're standing in a long line the includes the likes of Francis of Assisi, John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and nameless others who dared to ask the difficult questions and struggled with the uncomfortable answers.

Jesus' church is not a human creation. Rather, it is the fruit of the relationships of those who are part of a new creation - the redeemed race of humanity that relates to Him as the Head. Rather than thinking of the church as a group to join, it might be better to look for that reality in the conversations, connections, and collaborations He gives us each day. As you will see, it can appear almost anywhere at any time. "Where two or three are gathered together in my name...there I am in the midst of them." (Matthew 18:20)

We have to make a distinction in our minds between the church that humanity has attempted to build for two thousand years, and the community of the new creation that Jesus is building. They are not the same, ancient, restored, or otherwise. It's that our conformity-based structures cannot produce the internal transformation necessary for the church to take shape among us. It is important to see how our doctrines, rituals, and structures can fail us...I'm not saying that they are evil. This isn't a matter of whether these are good or bad, but how we use them. If they enhance our growing relationship with God, great! It's when they become a substitute for the relationship we lack that they are problematic. Ritual can open our hearts into a wider world and help us reflect on Him, or it can become meaningless repetition that only makes us feel more distant from the Living God.

Structure is essental to coordinate people to accomplish specific tasks, but history shows us that no group structure can successfully reflect the life of Jesus' church for very long. It happens subtly but, over time, people end up serving the structure. They become dependent on it, instead of following Him. In the end, however, no creed, ritual, or structure can contain the church Jesus is building. Because the church takes expression wherever people are learning to live alongside Jesus as new creatures in Him, it can appear almost anywhere. It's a family, and that family is defined by the nature of the relationships of love to one another. "Church" in it's purest definition, describes the family of God that Jesus is working and moving in. 

I know there are some who may read this post who have stopped attending traditional church either because they were pushed out for asking the wrong questions or because they could no longer continue to serve the demands of an institution that seemed so at odds with the passion for Christ growing in their hearts. No one in such a situation leaves easily, having spent decades serving in local congregations and engaged in multiple efforts to reform them. In the end, people like me leave not to abandon our faith, but to explore that faith on a more vibrant journey than those structures would allow.

It isn't about the meetings we attend or avoid, but whether we are coming alive in His kingdom and sharing that life with others in whatever format He places us. Often in church we talk about realities we aren't truly experiencing. We talk about being a family, but real relationships are undermined by a controlling system that requires membership to follow leadership instead of following Jesus (or equating "flawed leadership" to be perfect in their leadership positions and therefore are the equivalent of following Jesus). I think the church hopes that by pushing members to follow the leadership it will produce a relationship with Jesus, but it never turns out that way. Most church members are too dependent on the program and the leadership to explore their own spiritual journey.

You can't read the Gospels without realizing that Jesus was not as preoccupied with the church as we are today. As far as we know, he didn't teach his disciples how to plant them, build them, or manage them. He didn't hold any leadership training conferences, give them a handbook with all they needed to know safely tucked inside, or even start a seminary. He didn't show them how to form and manage a nonprofit organization. He didn't teach them how to hold a sacrament meeting. Instead He simply walked through life, touching people He met, showing them the reality of His Father's Kingdom, and inviting them to live in it. He wasn't ever in a meeting that looked like our Sunday services. In fact, he didn't seem to do one thing that would have prepared His disciples to hold a congregational service or build an international organization to sustain the life of His followers.

Of course just because He didn't do those things doesn't mean we can't. But it might make us wonder about their value or at least question the idea that you can't be a part of His church if you're not involved with the members who are doing those things. Jesus didn't talk much about the church at all, mentioning it only twice. He said simply that he would build it and guard it.

Our view of "church life" today has far more to do with institutional identity, meetings, rituals, ethics, and doctrines than demonstrating what a community of Godly love looks like. I know some of you may be thinking that "ministering" is exactly what God's church looks like. But I have to ask you - do you like being "assigned" a friend who will end at some point as the roster get's shuffled and you get 'reassigned' to make another friend? The body of Christ is a living, breathing organization. The stone that was cut without hands was not an organized 501c3! It is the body of Christ that is so unstoppable, so alive in Christ that nothing can keep it from covering the whole earth. It's not a program. And you won't find it in a Handbook of Instructions.

You will only find it in Him.

When you kneel and offer the most heartfelt prayer of your life and tell Him - "I am YOURS! Do with me what you will. Take my life - it's Yours. Take my house, it's Yours. Take my Family, they are Yours. All that I have is YOURS." Watch what He does with those who truly love Him. You aren't promised a life of ease. For goodness sake, Abinadi was burned at the stake! But you are promised a communion with Him and an assurance that you do and will have lot and part in that Kingdom.

For a man to lay down his all—his character and reputation, his honor and applause, his good name among men, his houses, his lands, his brothers and sisters, his wife and children, and even his own life also, counting all things but filth and dross for the excellency of the knowledge of Jesus Christ—requires more than mere belief or supposition that he is doing the will of God. It requires actual knowledge, realizing that when these sufferings are ended, he will enter into eternal rest and be a partaker of the glory of God. (Lectures on Faith 6: 5)

Jesus At The Center
Darlene Zschech

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