A few decades ago, the culture in the US could objectively be described as ‘predominantly Christian influenced.” In the past 30 or so years, that has changed dramatically. As I am writing this, in the Fall of 2020, we have seen cultural trends come to a head: increased lawlessness; disrespect for authority, institutions and one another; abandonment of principles of rational thinking and the rule of law, among others.
It is common to blame others: partisan politicians, the death of objective journalism, left-wing college professors and teachers to name a few. And, while all of these have contributed to the mess we’re in, there is one factor that few people have acknowledged: US!
I’d like for us to consider this question: Has our mindless acceptance of the division and separation fostered by the institutional church system substantially contributed to the mess we’re in?
Before I dig deeply into this and develop some recommendations for actions we can take, let me lay a bit of scriptural foundation.
God’s Will for His People
Let’s go back to the end of Jesus ministry on earth. He is getting ready to enter the Garden of Gethsemane, where Judas will betray him. This is his last recorded prayer:
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
John 17:20-23 (NIV)
So, in his last recorded prayer, he prays for ‘complete unity’ among his followers, and mentions the impact of that unity — ‘that the world will know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.’
Image the power of that! God’s love would be readily apparent to the world, and that love would be attractive and compelling to a lost world. Our unity would change the world!
What Contributes to Our Current State of Separation and Division?
It is probably for that reason that the adversary chose to attack the strongest element of God’s strategy and sew separation and division among us. Could it be that the tool that he uses to shatter Christian unity and make separation and division the comfortable status quo is – the institutional church?
Now, before you get offended and turn off to this argument, take a deep breath and consider the evidence.
At last reckoning, we have at least 40,000 denominations in this country. Additional groups are created almost daily, and church splits are so common that I suspect every adult Christian in this country has experienced at least one split in their lifetime.
Every denomination and every church split had its inception in someone’s idea that he/she had a bit fuller understanding of truth than the next guy. So, they reason, “They don’t think like us. They don’t believe exactly what we do, so let’s leave this situation and form our own group.” Presto! A new denomination.
At the very heart of every denomination is a spirit of division and separation. Where once there was one group, now there are two. This process continues to this day, rendering the picture of Christianity like a windshield shattered into thousands of shreds by a powerfully thrown rock.
Advocates of the institution will argue with this view, of course. They claim that the differences among us are superficial and that at the heart, we all believe that same thing. So, instead of the ‘complete unity’ that Christ prayed for, they support ‘partial unity.’
This view that ‘partial unity’ is acceptable was vehemently condemned by the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians, Chapter 1 (NIV)
10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,[a] in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas[b]”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?
The situation that Paul was facing was exactly the same as our divided Christianity today. The saints in Corinth all believed in Jesus and were doing their best to follow him. In today’s institution vernacular, they all believed the same basics. But they were separating themselves by following after individuals. This division is what Paul condemned.
It is NOT okay to say that you believe in the same basics, but then separate yourselves to follow after a man or a denomination. It flies in the face of Jesus’ prayer, it directly contradicts Paul’s explicit teaching, it creates separation and division among us, and it renders us less effective as agents for Kingdom change and expansion in the world.
Drive down any street in America and notice the signs in front of the church buildings. What do they invariably say? What denomination they are and the name of the pastor. In other words, the denominational name signifies how we are different than the run of the mill Christians, and the name of the pastor is, of course, the man that we follow here.
The more divided we are, the more spiritually impotent we become. It is no wonder that the Godless forces are gaining ground.
It is easy to blame the professional Christians – those who make their living off of this situation – for this mess. They should take some of the blame — all the pastors, associate pastors, professional worship leaders, administrators, seminary professors — all make their living from the institution. They have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Only a few have the courage to step out of the institution.
But the real blame falls on us. We have mindlessly accepted the institutional status quo and continued to support the system. We’ve supported it financially, we’ve passively attended the worship services, and we’ve sent our kids to Sunday school. We’ve done everything they told us we should do, while all around us the culture is sliding away.
We’ve done that because it was easy. Let the professionals lead the worship service. Let the professionals preach. Put our kids in the hands of the professionals. It is easy, it requires very little of us other than mindless acceptance.
We’ve been focused on our own small sphere, and never consider the bigger picture.
I wonder what Jesus would say? I wonder how Paul would respond?
What Should We Do?
There are no easy solutions. Some people say, “Yes, but I’m going to stay and work to reform it.” That is a prescription for failure. You will be just reproducing the flaw that created this mess – lets fix the flaws in this situation or start a new one.
The fact is that the institutional church is bigger and more powerful than any attempt to change it. As long as there are church buildings and professional Christians there will be a strong attraction to maintain the institution. Too many people make a living from it, and too many people have their identity rooted in it.
Staying in the institution just supports it. Could it be that the only real solution is to leave? Just walk away?
What would happen if you took your finger off the easy button, and accepted the responsibility to be led directly by the Holy Spirit? Get closer to God, shepherd your family to a closer relationship with Him.
When I left the institutional church, I had a sense of the fog lifting from my spiritual life. I saw things that I had never seen before. I grew closer to God, because I didn’t have the institution standing in the way of my relationship. I have more and deeper connections with other Christians and a deeper relationship with God than I ever imagined in my days inside the institution.
That is one solution, although it may not be yours at the moment. The first step toward identifying a solution for you and your family is to recognize the problem and our role in it. We have – unintentionally – helped support a system that separates Christians and creates incredible division. That flies in the face of Jesus’ passionate prayer and Paul’s direct teaching.
It’s time to recognize our role in it.