Ironically, we addressed this very point all throughout the book, stating that we were writing the book precisely *because* we love the church and no longer want to see her hindered (at best) or sabotaged (at worst) by a human-invented system that has often smothered her personality and robbed her freedom.
Here’s one such place in the book where we make this point loud and clear:
“Why are you so critical of the church? God loves the church. It angers me that you’re so judgmental about it.
This question is a good example of the problem we are trying to expose in this book. Namely, many Christians are confused about what the Bible means when it uses the word “church.” The word “church” refers to God’s people. More specifically, it refers to the gathered community of those who follow Jesus. It does not refer to a system, a denomination, a building, an institution, or a service.
We have written this book because we love the church very much. And we want to see her function in a way that brings glory to God . . . In short, it is because of our love for the church and our desire to see God’s people set free that we have written this book. And it is our hope that God will use it to help change the course of church history.”
(Pagan Christianity, Viola/Barna, Tyndale, 2008, p. 251)
Historically, every reformer and every revolutionary loved the church. Though each one was accused of hating her. In fact, love for the church was the very reason why past reformers tried to change the religious systems of their day . . . systems that they believed subverted the house of the living God. It’s also why past revolutionaries left the religious institutions to which they belonged in order to begin new expressions of the Body of Christ that they felt were more faithful to Jesus, the apostles, and the Scriptures.
When my book From Eternity to Here released earlier this year, some who were under the impression that I do not love the church were shocked. The reason being that I make the church the center of God’s Eternal Purpose in Christ. But of course, I’m speaking of the church that the New Testament envisions. Not the substitutes that we have created to replace her.
I recall reading one person who said in front of a group of Christian leaders: “Frank really loves the church. He is passionate about her. He just has an issue with certain religious practices that have been traditionally accepted and called ‘church.’”
This man got it. Precisely.
Yet it’s incredibly difficult to get this idea across to many Christians. The concept that there is a difference between the church (ekklesia) of Jesus Christ and an order of worship (that people call “church”), a pastor preaching a sermon (that people call “church”), a denomination (that people call “church”), a building (that people call a “church”), and a clergy system (that people call “church”) is terribly hard for some folks to see.
The circuitry simply won’t allow that difference to take hold in some people’s minds.
How can it when the word “church” has been so profoundly redefined from what it was understood in the New Testament?
In our day, people who watch a preacher on television give a sermon believe they have been to church. This sort of thinking is the basis for all the “Internet Campus Churches” where people will watch a sermon on the Internet and say they’ve been to church. So “church” has been reduced from a local community of believers who assemble regularly (as all New Testament scholars would argue) to watching a sermon on a flat screen.
My love for the church is so strong that I’m an opponent of the popular “postchurch” view that’s beginning to take root in the West. Christianity Today’s recently published my article on the postchurch perspective.
In this blog post, I’d like to take another crack at trying to distinguish between the system that many call “church” and what I mean when I say “church.” It’s the latter that I love very much. As for the former, while God uses it and blesses His people despite of it, it should never be confused with the ekklesia of God and, therefore, is open for strong critique, massive adjustment, and even disposal in the wake of what God intended for the body of Christ.
Recently, I was in a conversation with a person who was playing devil’s advocate with me regarding my passion for the church of Jesus Christ over/against the system that many people call “church.”
Here’s how the conversation went:
Question: Are you saying that God doesn’t use the institutional church?
My answer: Not at all. As I say in Pagan Christianity, I owe my salvation and baptism to it. But what God uses doesn’t equate His approval. God uses many things that do not reflect His perfect will or His original intention. So God’s “use” or even “blessing” is a flawed metric for determining God’s original intention. Remember, God blessed His people when they were living in Babylon, but that was not His perfect will. Neither were the synagogues that they built while there. God’s perfect will was for His temple to be rebuilt in Jerusalem.
Question: But God’s people are in the institution.
My answer: Right. But that doesn’t make those institutions “churches” or sacred. God’s people are in hospitals, businesses, school systems, and governments. They are even in the nation-state (which was created and sustained by violence). But that doesn’t make hospitals, schools, governments, and nation-states the ekklesia of God.
Let me use the illustration of an automobile to demonstrate the difference between the *institutional church system* that Christians often call “church” and the ekklesia of God — a local group of believers who assemble regularly and share life together as a community under the headship of Christ.
Follow the logic . . .
God use churches. Yes, but God also uses automobiles. That doesn’t make automobiles churches.
God’s people are in these institutions. Yes, God’s people often drive automobiles too, but that doesn’t make them churches.
God uses institutional churches to save people. Right. But I’ve shared the gospel numerous times with people in an automobile, and I have two friends that have had profound encounters with God in automobiles, one of them being saved in a car. Yet these things do not make automobiles the church of Jesus Christ.
God uses institutional churches to teach Christians. Right. But I’ve had many occasions where I’ve been taught by or I’ve taught someone the things of God in an automobile. Especially on long road trips.
God’s people worship God in institutions. Right, but I fellowship with the Lord often in an automobile, have had some of my best times of praise and worship in an automobile, and I have even sensed God’s presence to the point of tears in an automobile. But that doesn’t make automobiles churches.
God loves the institutions we call “churches.” Really, how can you be so sure? Does He love automobiles too? Reflect on the above and tell me why He would love a religious institution more than He would love an automobile, when in fact He has chosen to use both. God certainly loves His people who are often in various religious institutions, but to say that He loves a system or an institution is something open for debate.
So while God uses automobiles, God’s people are in automobiles, and automobiles have often been used as a tool to save the lost, teach God’s people, and worship the Lord, that doesn’t make automobiles the ekklesia of God.
And so it is with those institutions and systems that we call “churches.”
Point: I deeply love the church, but I do not love the religious systems that call themselves “churches.” Such systems are not the bride of Jesus Christ. My feelings toward them are pretty much the same as automobiles; they can be used for good or bad; but they aren’t “sacred” and should never replace or substitute the ekklesia. Further, I have no loyalty nor allegiance to these systems, just as I don’t have any allegiance to the nation-state. My allegiance is to Jesus Christ, God’s Kingdom, and the body of Christ.
The ekklesia is the fiancé of my Lord. She is the most beautiful girl in the world (to quote Charlie Rich), and God is “out-of-His-head” in love with her.
Thus a person cannot rightly love Jesus and hate His wife. But neither can they honor Him properly by replacing His glorious wife for a man-made substitute that has coopted her name. Jesus isn’t marrying a building, a denomination, an order of worship, a clerical organization, or a religious system.
There’s massive confusion today because some have confused the ekklesia with a religious system. And if one raises questions about the latter, some confuse it with an attack on the former.
And therein lies the rub.