There continues to be, at least in some circles, a negative view of the church as an organization. The idea of multiple denominations, competing theologies, and doctrinal divisions have created a stench in the spiritual nostrils of some, and become a hindrance at best to others. I wouldn’t have thought this to be true, but I still personally hear the same thread of complaints lobbed at Christianity and many of them have to do with the corruption of the church and it’s leadership. Even when this isn’t the excuse there is the backhanded attack on the church in the form of the excessive elevation of a personal relationship with God. Don’t hear me wrong, I believe in a personal relationship with Jesus, I believe that my individual sins needed (and need) to be forgiven, and I do not believe that redemption and righteousness can “rub off” on someone like a syrupy residue; we all make decisions to follow Jesus as individuals. However, to think that the Bible teaches anything in the way of a private, or isolated, faith is absolutely untrue.
The church. She stands conspicuously on the horizon of history as a soiled and drunken bride, a bottle of poison in one hand and a Cross in the other. She has more self-inflicted wounds than any other figure in existence. If she wasn’t so dead-set on making it to the end we would have called her suicidal. She fights herself, she gnaws at her own limbs, she tears the beautiful dress that her Groom had custom made for her, and she finds that every wound, every gash, and every torn place miraculously heals much faster than it should. She has lashed out at the world in fits of anger uncharacteristic of a lady on the verge of the happiest day of her life. We’d blame it on stress except she hasn’t had to worry about any of the preparations for the ceremony, they’ve all been taken care of. She takes long pulls of the poison then holds the Cross in front of her like a shield; or perhaps like a license for her crooked steps and questionable diatribes. But after all of the centuries of swinging from righteous to repulsive and back again, she should be tired – exhausted really – still she stands. Hell’s gates have pushed, pressed, and pummeled but, in holding to the promise of the Groom, they have miraculously not prevailed. In fact it seems that she stands only because of the unseen hand of her Groom as He keeps her from doing permanent damage to herself.
This may seem to be an overly dramatic picture of the church, but I would challenge you to look throughout history and see if I am not actually being kind. This might also seem contradictory to my opening paragraph about the attacks on the church and the “religious machinery” that is its structure. Allow me to attempt to make a simple point now that hopefully explains everything.
In the book of Exodus there is a subtle juxtaposition that is drawn, and it isn’t really explained until the very last verses of the book. In this book there are basically three characters: God, Moses, and Israel. You can draw Aaron in or Pharaoh or Joshua, but really the main three characters are the constants that the story revolves around. God is the nucleus, the essence, and the hinge of the entire story (this is true of every story in the Bible, but blatantly so in this book). In His place of centrality the rest of the story is about how Moses and Israel interact with Him. I know that Exodus is about redemption, plagues, vengeance, and construction – but I also tend to believe that these themes are the vehicles that tell the story of how Moses and Israel approach and interface with God.
Moses gains much credit throughout the book. He is the one who cannot turn away from the divine flame at the burning bush; he walked into Pharaoh’s court over and over again with little regard for his own life; he, without training, became the man responsible for the destiny of at least a million people; he is credited with one of the most famous miracles in the Bible at the Red Sea; he separates himself from the crowd as he continually goes up into God’s presence on the mountain; he intercedes for the Israelites and seems to have talked God out of an epic judgement; he is the one guy that gets to deliver the commandments of God that we still recognize today as the greatest and most concise legal “document” ever written. This is Moses. All of Israel’s leaders from here on out would be judged against this standard. And what Exodus truly seems to focus on is just how much this one man experienced God. It is an important and recurring theme in Exodus that Moses continually throws caution and safety to the breeze if there is a chance that he can get closer to God. This is juxtaposed with a nation of people who seem bent on standing at arms length from their Redeemer. The movement that seems to be happening in Exodus is one of growing division: Moses toward the presence of God and the rest of the Hebrews away from Him.
This would seem to illustrate the modern elevation of the individual pursuit of God. “Be like Moses, chase God no matter what everyone else is doing. Guess what, you can see God’s glory with your own eyes if you will pull away from the group, leave the community behind, and just get into the presence of God.” See how the language begins to chip away at the roots of the church as a congregation? How many times in the last 15 years have you heard the words “organized religion” used like profanity? We hate the group. The group holds us down. The machinery of the church slows down everything and keeps us from achieving our ascendant and rapturous moments with God.
But then there is the last part of Exodus which becomes pesky for those who would glorify the role of the individual.
Leading up to the last chapter in the book there is some tedious reading. You get to read about curtain colors, lengths, widths, rings, types of wood, size of sheets, depth of basins, the recipe for incense, and the materials for furniture. Much of the second half of the book of Exodus is tough to get through without having your eyes cross. But what happens, though it is subtle, is important. There is a moving away from the individualistic picture of Moses and God. Suddenly it takes everyone to build a Temple (or Tabernacle in this case). It takes the supernaturally imparted gifts of some construction workers to make the furniture to God’s exact specifications. It takes a great deal of resources from all of the citizens of the wilderness commune to adequately supply the project that God has in mind. There is absolutely no elevation of the individual as we move through this section of Exodus. It take, it seems, a village to raise a church.
And at the end of this joint venture we read these words:
34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 35 And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.
It seems that as incredible as Moses’ experiences were, as glorious and powerful and memorable as his time in God’s presence was, they were nothing when compared to the thick and foreboding presence of the Creator that was made possible by the work and cooperation of the community. Friends, the wilderness Tabernacle was not thrown together without planning, organization, cooperation, teamwork, and levels of leadership. To think that this structure was built by accident is insulting, and to say that God divinely looped, tied, bolted, and sewed it together is foolish.
God loves us as individuals, but there is a spiritual dynamic that seems to indicate that we are much better together than apart.
I am no fan of the graft and debauchery that has taken place in the “organized church” over the last two thousand years. But let me tell you what means more to me than all of those mistakes, stumbles, and sins: God. If I truly want to know the depths of God’s glory, the nearness of His presence, the power of His hands, and the majesty of His nature then I cannot rely solely on my own personal pursuits to get there. Within the context of the church, as imperfect as it may seem, God has given us the ability to experience Him in deeper ways than we can as individuals. I believe the rest of the Bible supports this theme, not merely Exodus (Rom 12:3-5, 1 Cor 12:12-26). As intimately as Moses knew God one-on-one, the Bible says that when the work of the community came together the density of the manifested glory of God was so strong that Moses – who had been with God in the clouds on the mountain top – couldn’t even set foot in the Tabernacle.
It takes more than one person to build what God wants built. Don’t let anyone tell you that the church is not both an organization as well as an organism. Structure, authority, boundaries, and processes are all a part of God’s church. And despite the inevitable problems that will arise, God is the one who set it up this way. Don’t settle for a version of Christianity that is satisfied with what one person can do; become a part of what only the family of God, the body of Christ, the community of faith can do together.