Let’s start with a few operative principles:
If commanded explicitly by the written Word of God in the original languages, it is authoritative; all else is suspect. (Acts 17:11 governs.)
If God did not say, God did not say; let God be true and every man a liar. (If a man says that God said what God did not say [and record as such in His written Word], that man is a liar.) What is traditional practice is not truly authoritative; the clearly written command and example of scripture is authoritative. (Just because “we’ve always done it this way,” doesn’t mean that it has the authority of God behind it … i.e., the authority of tradition is not the authority of God, even if it invokes the name of God and does so in high-sounding fashion.)
What happened historically is not automatically binding on us. (The New Testament, when it countermands the Old Testament, is binding where the Old is not.)
So let us set aside for a moment all that we have been taught about church and religion, either by indoctrination (the inputting of doctrine, which is simply teaching, until it sticks) or by traditional practice, and let’s look honestly at what the Word of God – in context, and in its original languages, not translated or paraphrased – actually says. Let us start afresh, as if we know nothing, and let God speak to us through His Word.
The “religion mountain,” after all, was carefully designed (this writer’s opinion, based on years of study and observation, if not by an actual directly-connected chain of evidence) to encapsulate - to corral - God’s people in one secure, segregated spot where they could be trained, watched over, and marginalized. It builds on a (quasi-) biblical foundation, sure, but it swerves sharply from those concepts and designs, of which God Himself is the Author, to construct buildings, enterprises, entities, systems, institutions, terms, doctrines, leadership offices, etc., that are wholly man-made and that are, in many cases, completely at odds with what God designed and intended for us and clearly recorded as such in His Word.
Our lives as children of God should revolve around Him. If it does, as it does, we will no doubt desire to be with His people, our spiritual family. But that people, that family, is not an institution – a place of belonging, going, doing, joining, self-identifying, proving, genuflecting, etc.; it is a state of being. God is the great I Am, not the great I Do; likewise, we ARE the children of God. When people start to define what constitutes the family and make up their own rules, based on tradition, interpretations of scripture, etc., that is legalism, it is law, it is religion, but it does not define the family of God – the ecclesia. Now, each household may have its own rules based on what works there, like the preferences of the head of household – take your shoes off at the door, wash your hands in the bathroom rather than in the kitchen sink, supper’s at 6, etc. – but we must take care not ever to let the convenience or preference rules of an individual gathering define membership in the Body of Christ itself. (The ONLY descriptive adjective given for any “individual church” in the New Testament is geographical.) Bear in mind the basics:
When one confesses with his mouth the Lord Jesus and believes in his heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, one becomes a child of God – part of the ecclesia, the Body of Christ, the family of God. One does not have to do anything else. There is no place one must go, nobody one must talk to, no rigmarole one must participate in, no hoops to jump through, no water one must be wetted with, no entity one must join, no ceremony one must participate in, no list to sign, no committee to meet with, no congregation to vote in favor of one’s joining, no schedule one must keep, no special diet to eat, no critters to handle, no magic words to say – nothing. When one is born again, he is born into the family of God – he is immediately a part of the ecclesia: he dies to the old and lives in the new (Galatians 2:20).
The ecclesia is the body of Christ. It is not an institution, it has no human hierarchal leadership structure, it has no schedule, it owns no buildings, it has no interaction with human governmental institutions, it has no tax exemption – nothing. It is redeemed man – men, women and children – only living individuals, collectively known as the ecclesia. It is not “the church,” though when Constantine, 300 years after Christ, lured believers, known then as “the Way,” to assemble themselves together as a church in the pagan religious fashion for the sake of public recognition and official protection, and when Bible “translators” replaced the word “ecclesia” with the English word “church” – which is NOT a translation of “ecclesia” but a substitution for it – Christians soon became accustomed to believing the two were one and the same. Practically speaking, the ecclesia is government, more accurately translated as “assembly”; positionally speaking, it is family.
In the ecclesia, there are no bosses. “Pastor” is a gift; it is not an office (in the ecclesia, though in the church it is an office). An “elder” is an older brother, not a boss. It is servant leadership – loving leadership by example, not by dictation, demand or proclamation (like a church CEO). The leadership that we are told to allow ourselves to be influenced by in the ecclesia is that from those who are closer to the Lord – our “elders” in at least that way – the “higher authorities.” It is leadership that is to draw us closer to God, not to make us subservient to any institution or institutional leadership hierarchy. An “overseer” is someone who does just that – oversees, watches over, the sheep, to make sure that one is not falling off a cliff. He is there to assist, not to lord it over, order or boss around. But in the church, an institutional structure, such offices, such hierarchical structure, are necessary because it is both government and a business. But such dictatorial human leadership is for the sake of the institution and its functionality, NOT for the people (some of whom may be ecclesia) who are found inside the institution.
Many of the ecclesia do decide to associate themselves with a church institution where a lot of good things happen – some scriptural, many man-made, most generally positive, but none scripturally required as part of the pathway to heaven or in any way more “spiritual” (whatever that means) or more in alignment with God’s good graces. The ecclesia is not the institution, however, nor is it part of the institution, nor is the institution the ecclesia. The institution may contain some of the ecclesia, but it also contains many who are not ecclesia. The ecclesia contains none of the institution.
Unfortunately, many do not understand or think through these distinctions, and because translators of the Bible saw fit to substitute the word “church” for all but three of the usages of “ecclesia” in the New Testament (three times in Acts 19 “ecclesia” is translated in most English Bibles not as “church” but as “assembly”; it is referencing a civil government body), most have been brought up to believe that the ecclesia is the church and that the church is the ecclesia. Not so.
We have learned to mask the differences between the church and the ecclesia by differentiating between “the local church” and the “church universal,” but that just confuses the issue further. For all of the distinctives about “church” are descriptive of either the “local church” or some mega-church institution, such as the Roman Catholic Church, both of which are completely extra-biblical and based solely on tradition. If we concede the foundational existence of a “church universal,” we must go the second mile and answer unanswerable questions, such as about how one can be a member of the one and not of the other.
Again, one does nothing to join the ecclesia. One becomes part of the family, the ecclesia, at the moment one is born again and, thus, adopted into the family of God. One joins a church, however, by other means. It is not automatic. It is religion; it is focused on keeping “the law.”
In the New Testament, when Paul wrote to the ecclesia in a particular geographical area, he was not writing to an institution; he was writing to all of the believers – the ecclesia; his brothers and sisters in the family of God – in that geographical area. Not a single one had “joined” any church: there was no such thing in existence. (There was no such thing as the “first century church.”) They were believers who were in each others’ lives daily and in each others’ homes.
Can we go to church and learn more of Christ? Absolutely. Is the Word of God taught there? Often, but not always (and seldom the whole counsel of God). Can we meet with Jesus there? The Word tells us that wherever two or more are gathered together, there is He in the midst of them. Does that make the institution itself authoritative? Think about it. Search the scriptures. Pray. The answer is evident.
The reasons, therefore, for the existence of the church as an institution are not biblical (neither of biblical direction nor requirement). We have, nonetheless, in many different manifestations, very much an institution called church, with many centuries of history and experience. We have, also, quite a few other institutions that also have no specific biblical source or backing that also are very much a part of our lives on a daily basis. Just because they are not directly mandated by scripture, however, does not make them all “bad.” They are not UN-biblical, necessarily, if they are EXTRA-biblical (meaning that that do not occur in scripture). And, because those institutions are around and part of our lives, if we can use them to accomplish a purpose that IS biblical, as long as it is not UN-biblical, it would seem not unwise to do so (as long as, and to the extent that, one does not replace what IS biblical with what is NOT). That is part of the motivation of this writer in suggesting a broader use of the venue of the church than only that which is traditionally regarded as “religious,” for if God speaks to an issue, the place that claims to be “His mouthpiece” on earth surely should not be mute on the matter.
One may respond to these discoveries with a feeling of betrayal and disgust – “I’ve been lied to!” – and may want nothing more to do with the church. (That is surely part of the reason for the dwindling number of regular church attendees.) Or one may look beyond that, acknowledging that most of us have been deceived for generations through no fault of our own (we can make the same argument on every one of the “7 Mountains” – law, government, money & banking, education, health, etc.), but also see that the church is here and can serve a useful and positive role in our lives – that it has benefits due to tenure, so to speak, that can serve biblical purposes.
If we have a “religion” mountain that is respected as authoritative by the other “mountains,” and if the authority upon which most think that mountain resides is the Word of God, we should not shy away from any opportunity to proclaim ALL of that authority from the top of that mountain, even if doing so steps on the toes of the other “dons” who rule in those other mountains. But ultimately we must bow the knee to the One Who created and rules all.