Last week my West Texas friend Dale posted a 2007 article by Ed Stetzer that caught my attention. To be specific, it was the title that got me: “You Can’t Love Jesus and Hate His Wife.”
Let me acknowledge that I have good friends whom I love and care about and who are a whole lot smarter than I am that hold a different opinion of this article than I do and that’s okay. To be fair, Stetzer makes some really great points about how churches shouldn’t be attacking each other and I love when he writes, “it does not matter if a church meets in a cathedral or a coffee shop, but the church does matter.” I agree – the Church does matter.
But there’s an important distinction to make between the Church that Jesus promised to build and the myriad organizations where believers gather. As believers of Jesus we do ourselves a disservice if we think the local church is interchangeable with the Church. And let’s be clear. This is not a small or insignificant distinction.
The title of the article alone carries an overall tone that’s troublesome. It’s as though Stetzer is saying, “If you mess with the church then you don’t really love Jesus.” As my friend James commented, “When anyone tries to guilt me into loving the church better (by not offering constructive criticism, of course) – my first question is always, “What do you mean by ‘church?'” Defining terms is always a really good place to start.
Throughout the article he equates the “little c” church with the “big C” Church and seems to imply that the latter is dependent on the functionality of the former. He argues for the supremacy of the church and even does a bit of out-of-context Bible quoting (i.e. proof texting) to make a point. He quotes Jesus’ words from Matthew 16.18: “The forces of Hades (Hell) will not stand against it.” The problem here is that he leaves out the first half of the passage and it’s fairly important to understanding what Jesus is referring to. The full verse reads:
“And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the forces of Hades will not overpower it.” Matthew 16.18 (HCSB)
There are different interpretations regarding what Jesus meant when he said he’d build the church upon “this rock.” What there’s no debate over, however, is that the entity Jesus says will endure is not an organization. It’s much bigger than that. It can’t be captured, packaged, and marketed. It endures because it cannot be limited by the most clever strategies we can devise. It is not limited to a denomination or legal entity.
Where in the world is…?
Baptist minister and civil rights activist Will D. Campbell once said:
“Hell, I don’t know what the church is. Jesus said something about the fact that He was going to build the church. He did say that nothing would prevail over it . . . even the gates of Hell, but He didn’t ask me to build it. And He certainly didn’t ask me to define it. I believe the church is at work in the world only because of my faith in this Jesus person. Trouble is, I don’t know what Jesus is up to or where His church is. That’s good because if I found the church then I’d give it a name and start running it.”
Organizations come and go. They go through cycles of good times and bad. Some continue, others don’t. What Jesus is building, however, is beyond any organization, denomination, and 503c non-profit that we can imagine. It’s the collection of believers in Jesus all around the world regardless of whether or not they are affiliated with a local church. That is the living and breathing organism that will prevail against any attack thrown at it and it’s important that we understand that distinction if we are to thrive as followers of Jesus in today’s world.
During Paul’s day he wrote a letter to a group of believers in a city called Corinth. In that city some of Jesus’ followers had started to brag about who had baptized them and to whom they owed allegiance. He wrote:
“Some of you are saying, ‘I am a follower of Paul.’ Others are saying, ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Peter,’ or ‘I follow only Christ.’ Has Christ been divided into factions? Was I, Paul, crucified for you? Were any of you baptized in the name of Paul? Of course not!” 1 Corinthians 1.12-23(NLT)
As believers in Jesus, it’s vital that our allegiance be not to organizations or people. Our devotion is to Christ and remembering that all who follow him – regardless of whether or not we’re attenders of a faith community – work together as equal partners in sharing and living out the Good News. And yes, part of that devotion to one another involves not only celebrating our victories, but also being able to have the freedom to express concerns and questions when we don’t quite get it right.
Say it ain’t so, Luther!
500 years ago, Martin Luther nailed what is known as the Ninety-five Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. The document listed some questions and critiques Luther had for the church. He got in quite a bit of trouble for raising his questions and was eventually kicked out of the Catholic Church for publicly criticizing what was happening.
But what if someone had told Luther it wasn’t right for him to express his concerns? Actually, there were people that told him he shouldn’t do that – the church leaders. It’s a good thing for all of us that Luther held his ground. That event led to the Reformation that resulted in a ton of great outcomes that benefitted not just believers, but all of humanity, not the least of which was putting the Bible in the hands of regular people like you and me.
When we read an article like the one Ed Stetzer wrote almost ten years ago and allow ourselves to be guilted into thinking we don’t have a right to question or express our concerns, we give up a very important part of what it means to live in authentic community. We put organizations and people onto a pedestal that they were never meant to be on. That’s a price none of us can afford to pay.
As I stated in a previous blog post, “don’t forget that the church is no substitute for the Church.”