After spending much of 2014 and 2015 visiting churches, I have become increasingly aware that people flock to church groups with tight doctrinal standards.
As many note, these still show growth both in the US and overseas. The more theologically progressive mainline denominations with looser doctrinal boundaries show declining numbers.
The more rapidly growing churches rarely ordain women and, as a rule, exclude females from top-level decision-making bodies. Many are almost viciously anti-gay; others offer a limited welcome to the gay/lesbian population, making it clear that the so-called “homosexual lifestyle” will not be tolerated. No tolerance for same-sex marriages will take place on their premises.
Even though there are major differences in theology, almost all tight-doctrine churches declare that they are truly “biblical” in belief and world-view.
Life is easier in a tight doctrinal standard church
What draws people to these places?
I think such churches make life much, much easier for their adherents. Here’s why:
- Many decisions are already pre-made for them.
- They don’t have to wrestle with complex questions of sexuality or biology.
- People know their places (i.e., men in leadership/women in the homes).
- More constricted boundaries paradoxically give more freedom within because no energy is wasted on trying to change things.
- Those who don’t agree either leave or are kicked out.
- Many can find biblical justification for what look like hateful actions and prejudicial decisions.
- They can point to their growth as a sign of God’s blessing without having to ask if that is actually true or not.
- Humans have always formed in-group/out-group bonds as they offer both safety and a sense of identity.
Is This Biblical?
With that, I now ask the question: is this truly a “biblical” way to live? I know as I read the Gospels, I see Jesus routinely breaking the rules that the first-century Rabbi-informed Jewish community used to keep their group and religious identities intact.
- Jesus touched the worst of unclean (bleeding women, lepers and tax collectors) and mingled with sinners.
- He asked people to follow the Law in a far deeper sense by reminding those around him that lust (experienced by everyone) equals adultery and anger (experienced by everyone) equals murder.
- It was to those without voice (women) that the message of the Resurrection was initially entrusted.
- It was to the outsider (the Samaritan woman) that the role of first evangelist was given.
- It was to the despised (Peter, the betrayer) that the commission of feeding the sheep was handed.
Like it or not, that gospel is not popular and never will be. That gospel calls us to lay down our lives for our enemies, to put vengeance aside, to relinquish power, not gain it.
So I do wonder if the measurement of “Look at all the people there–God must be blessing them!” is itself actually “biblical.”
The Problem With the Established Church
I do strongly believe that it is within the gathering, the “ecclesia,” the church, that we will find our strength to live out such a complex call. We need one another for strength, for guidance, for correction, for collective power to stand for good and against evil and injustice in whatever forms we find them. We need places where our children will be instructed, our teens shaped, our adults molded into Christian perfection.
We need one another for strength, for guidance, for correction, for collective power to stand for good and against evil and injustice in whatever forms we find them.
We need places where our children will find top class instruction; our teens challenged to own their faith lives; our adults molded into Christian perfection.
We must be connected to one another in basic unity in order to have what it takes to keep going.
When a church becomes a business . . .
But when the church becomes a business, when labors under burdensome bureaucratic layers and indecipherable procedural manuals, when it needs a high court to interpret the rules, when its purpose is to bring in enough money to pay everyone and only survive, then we no longer have freedom to live in any kind of biblical manner.
I believe this is what John Wesley saw from his inside perch as a Church of England priest. He developed and honed methods so that people might find ways to live as Jesus commanded.
United Methodists, and many other established denominations with way too many bosses and lowering numbers of overworked laborers, have become the very thing that Wesley (and Luther and so many others) sought to address and reform.
We cannot replicate the methods Wesley developed and used in the 18th century. That was a different time, a different world.
What we can do is replicate the aroma of grace that informed the methods. Therein is our hope.
If we chose not to replicate that aroma of grace, then have we reached the time to disband? Can we still be known as those who honor their call to follow Jesus and lay down their lives for their enemies?
Living in grace and love of our enemy insists on the far more challenging path. Moreover, this path doesn’t build big churches and moneyed institutions.
I used to think it was easy to follow Jesus. Then I grew up. It’s hard. It always has been. But that’s our call. I wish I could say I am succeeding.