But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God , the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:22-24)
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the Church. That is not unusual for those in the mainline denominations. But it is also not unusual among many other Christians, including those who belong to the Southern Baptists, the Assemblies of God and the Missionary Alliance. There are so many different kinds of church movements today that many of us think often about what it means to be the Church.
There is the emergent movement, the missional movement, the mystical church and recently I found this, a web site which has in part developed off of the popularity of the book The Shack, LifeStream. Wayne Jacobsen is the founder of this site and it was some of his words both via video and those written which finally begin to once again plunge my mind (and heart) deeply into the subject of the Church.
Jacobsen reminds me of other teachers, some are in those other movements, who tend to mix a lot of truth with some error. Enough error to throw everything off kilter, and enough truth to cause some to fall into the error. When someone begins casting aspersions on “institutional Christianity,” and suggesting that it is okay to leave the institutional church and find others who share your own desire for relationships they are actually speaking against that which belongs to Jesus Christ.
Yes, the Church is more than an institution, it is the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, Mount Zion, the “City of the Living God.” But within all of those names and metaphors it is also the various and particular institutions called denominations. They are the places God has chosen and allowed as a gathering place for his people. There he has placed his people under the care of leaders. They are the places where we, as believers, are called to seek fellowship and grow close to the Lord. Only God can remove his lamp stand (light) from particular Churches. (Rev 5:5)
True, some of these churches or denominations may become apostate. The Congregational Church almost did in early American history when the Unitarians developed within its ministry.
But only when apostate leadership enforces rulings that Christians cannot scripturally teach or participate in should believers see a need for all faithful Christians to leave. Probably they would be forced to leave anyway! (This is not to deny the many other reasons for some members leaving.)
No, a Christian cannot faithfully teach heresy or be involved in antinomianism. For instance, if in the nineteenth century Unitarianism (the denying of the Trinity) had completely overtaken the Congregational Church so that those ordained had to subscribe to the understanding that the Trinity was a false belief or were required to teach such heresy then faithful Christians would have had to leave. Thankfully that did not happen.
Another problem occurs when a church, emulating various cults, may develop abusive leadership.1 That might be the time for many to leave, but not to their home to seek other like minded people in a relationship. But to particular churches and denominations that Jesus Christ has allowed to be established for the health and safety of his people.
Jehovah Witnesses, Latter Day Saints (Mormons), Christian Scientists as well as other various new religions developed and grew when one charismatic person insisted that either all of the churches were wrong, (Joseph Smith and Charles Taze Russell) or all of their interpretations of the essentials of the faith were wrong, (Mary Baker Eddy and, yes, Oprah Winfrey.) They did not start out with a complete system, but as they denied some of Christianity or even focused on what they hated about the Church they grew farther and farther away.
The Church, the body of Christ, receives promises given by her Lord. Jesus promises that his Church will be built on the rock of faith and the gates of hell will not over power her. (Matthew 16:18) Jesus Christ will perfect his Church until his return. As the verse above states we have come to a blood sacrifice that speaks "better than the blood of Abel." For even now the children of the Father, although sinners, are righteous in the sight of God because of the righteousness they are given in Jesus Christ.
There is an old Spiritual rewritten with almost every singing. It is about the Church. "Tis that Old Ship of Zion." One of the variations I like says "Ain't no danger in this water-get on board, get on board."
1. Several good books on this subject are, Churches that Abuse: Help for those hurt by legalism, authoritarian leadership, Spiritual Intimidation, and Recovering from Churches that Abuse, by Dr. Ronald M. Enroth. Another good book recommended to me by Enroth is Unholy Devotion: Why Cults Lure Christians, by Harold L. Bussell.