Origins of meaning
When I use the word ‘church,’ I use it how it was used in the Bible. In its simplest, it means those people who believe Jesus Christ was the Son of God he claimed to be, and accept His death and resurrection for all the true life He offers. (see I Corinthians 15:3-4) The most complicated the word ‘church’ gets is to describe those who gather together to encourage each other.
I say ‘hopeful’ because I have been discovering the history of the church that shows a continuity of that simplicity, which is distinguishable from the machinations of those who wield religion for the sake of power. This hopeful history does not glorify or make excuses for oftentimes brutal oppression by those who claim God’s authority for themselves.
Neither does this history find meaning in arguing over which man-made religious organization has divine sanction. Instead, this history concentrates on lives that demonstrate the love birthed in their souls by the Spirit of God. And this history regularly uncovers examples of true lives of faith in Jesus Christ that are either ignored or covered up by those who seek to tell a religious history with the goal to validate their own religious status.
Why is this offensive to some?
Writing an overview of this history is not an attempt to condemn anyone. If someone is offended by such a discussion, it is like being offended because someone points out that a person is selling a useless or harmful product, resulting at best in wasting of time and money. You may chose to notice the warning or not. You may chose to go on taking part in the drama; but to get mad at the person who mentions it is pointless.
People gravitate toward labels, rituals, and power. However, all of these things are specifically denied as important in the teachings of Jesus and his disciples in the early church. We are told that the church will not be like the world, with men ruling over one another. (Matthew 20:25-28) When a tendency arises to claim allegiance to one teacher over another, the truly godly teachers refuse any recognition that would put them between Jesus Christ and their fellow believers (I Corinthians 3:4-6). In conflicts about rituals, freedom from bondage to rituals is clearly stated (Colossians 2:15-17). The real guidelines for any believers gathering together are that they are to love one another with all humility.
Who represents the church?
These are some of the reasons that it seems quite reasonable to ask if the authoritative religious institutions of historical repute represent the church, also known as the followers of Jesus Christ; or if some believers just happen to occasionally be part of them. The well documented torture and killing of those who will not bow down to such institutions makes them and their leaders even more suspect.
In noticing these horrible facts of history, there is no real distinction between so-called Protestant or Catholic factions. Both type (and there is more than once type of each) tried to exert governmental authority, with its inherent use of force, to tell people what they were allowed to believe. It boggles the mind that they may have really thought they could do so. Possibly, though, all they really wanted was outward obedience and submission.
In most western nations these days, religious organizations do not have the same overt political power, though many people still try to use governmental means to control their fellow man’s spiritual choices. We are told that such religious organizations have all come to their senses and mended their ways, but their own political maneuverings belie that. They seem more to only be lacking the same opportunity.
So what about the history of the church apart from such organizations, for surely we can say that the wars and conflicts that are listed are really only the history of these religious organizations and not of God’s people, the true church, who live in love and peace. What has happened to the historical record of those who attempted to live in love and peace?
Who writes history?
To try to answer that, it can be helpful to consider who writes history. The powerful write and disseminate history. Who are ‘the powerful?’ They are those who successfully seek to rule over other men. What type of person seeks to rule over other men? Almost always someone who is a mix of arrogant and bully.
I grant you that once in a while someone who values the individual sovereignty of each of their fellow humans will enter the fray. Unfortunately, they are usually not willing to play the dirty games or sacrifice their family life to get to the top. Besides that, if they attempt to do away with power, someone else is always ready to come fill the power gap. Thus, the top layer of power is almost certainly filled with those willing to do whatever it takes to get there and stay there.
I suspect this is why Jesus said His church would not be based on that typical kind of worldly power structure. For one thing, those who humbly recognize who they are in God’s sight, also recognize who others are in God’s sight. From this perspective, leadership is merely offered or sought out, not enforced.
Such a people do not trumpet their own religious experiences or expertise. They only tell of them to encourage others or glorify their Creator. They certainly do not go around killing or otherwise punishing those who disagree with them. (The topic of choosing who to fellowship with or disassociating in fellowship, from those who are deemed overtly and distinctly immoral or harmful, is another subject; but the honest reader will admit that these are the same basic sorts of steps that everyone takes about who they trust and get involved with. As such, it is not a uniquely religious problem.)
The long mess of religion and politics
Some sifting through the documents of the past reveals that the religious powers had a strong tendency to align themselves with political power. To maintain this status, they had to disallow disagreement with their edicts. What is the point of having such power if everyone is allowed to make their own decisions about faith in God? People who would not submit were treated as heretics.
It is true that being labeled a heretic did not automatically mean that someone was a true follower of Jesus Christ, but many who were so labeled were part of the true church. I have recently been reading some books (listed below) that untangle accusations of heresy. What is shown is that there is no historical basis for any of the Catholic or Protestant organizations to claim they, and they alone through history, represent God. God represents God, and His people will freely associate with those of character and spiritual maturity. No power structure needed.
Protestants will likely immediately claim verses about “obeying” leaders, but a short study of the translation and context show that this is not a top down leading nor a mindless following. The original language indicates finding those who are worth looking to for guidance, then giving reasonable weight to their suggestions. A believer’s main leader is always Jesus Christ and His Holy Spirit.
Catholics will probably recite the passage wherein Jesus says, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church.” The trouble with this is that there is a whole theme Biblically of Jesus being the metaphorical rock, from when Moses got water out of the rocks to passages about Jesus being the chief cornerstone (from Isaiah 28:16 to Romans 9:33, see more listed below). With that theme so strongly established, it seems reasonable to think Jesus is again referring to this. As for the ‘keys’ subsequently mentioned, by this point in the conversation, Jesus seems to be speaking to all of his disciples again. This statement appears to be a promise to all believers in Jesus Christ, in line with similar promises for all believers, but told first to the disciples.
The truth isn’t hidden
The most important truths of the Bible are repeated and embedded in multiple places. If God had wanted His church to morph into the organizations that claim His authority today, He would have made it very clear. What is made clear is the equality of all believers who have been reborn into His life and fellowship. He is the Father of all and we are all brothers.
Which makes me wonder: Who decided to embellish or change the simple guidelines in the Bible? When and why did someone decide to make laws that only sprinkling was allowed for baptism? Or when and why did it become heresy to suggest that praying to dead people is different than asking your live friends to pray for you? Who decided it was ‘Christian’ to use violence against someone if they didn’t participate in certain rituals on a given day of the week, with appropriate supervision and sanction?
As far as I can see (and I have read the whole Bible a few times) the simplicity of the message for the church is: We are to encourage one another in love, both to live this life in joy and revel in the unique hope of eternity with God. Seeing that such simplicity of faith did exist throughout history gives me hope and perspective.
God did not abandon His church to the hands of power hungry men. He did not wait hundreds of years to let the simple truth of the gospel be known again. He does not require payments to religious leaders to secure our salvation or sacrifice of family time to perform rituals to sooth His pride. The hope He offers is secure through the ages. He alone bridges that gap that human rebellion created. We need only respond with accepting hope.
Verses on Jesus as the rock:
- Psalm 118:22
- Isaiah 8:14
- Daniel 2:34, 35, 45
- Matthew 21:42
- Mark 12:10
- Luke 20:17
- I Peter 2:4, 6, 7, 8
- Acts 4:11
- Romans 9:33
- I Corinthians 10:4