It was five years ago when I first realized I had to leave the church. It’s hard to describe how completely devastated I was by this. The church defined my whole world, everything from my weekly activities, to the origins of the universe to the meaning of my life. All of this was shattered when I left the church.
I tried not to. I thought that if I stepped back for a season, I would be able to step back in. Maybe I was just burned out. Maybe I was just misplaced.
But when I stepped back, it made things worse. I realized that I wasn’t burned out and that no tweak to my role would make a difference. Of course, I had my gripes about the church like everyone else. But this wasn’t about a few personal grievances. I knew to my toes that something was fundamentally off with church.
This was like having a bomb go off in my face. All around me were pieces of my former life and my own face, and none of them connected anymore. Nothing made sense.
You might say, “Of course your world didn’t makes sense. You were a pastor. You drank the Kool-Aid. You went too far.” But if you’re listening to this podcast, your world doesn’t make sense without church either. The church and western civilization have gown together for so long, that there is no separating them. Whether you like it or not, your life is a product of the church.
I felt this weird mix of church and culture when people came to me to ask me to perform their wedding ceremony. They didn’t believe the things I believed. Honestly, it made about as much sense as me going to a Buddhist monk to be married. Why did they do it? Because a church wedding is a cultural tradition. It’s just what you do. I suppose people want God’s blessing and thought maybe I could give it to them. I always felt like a prop, like the little man on the wedding cake.
The same thing happened at funerals. People called out of the blue to ask me to do a funeral. I would stand by the graveside, waxing eloquent about the sure hope of the resurrection, looking out on a sea of puzzled faces, knowing most of them didn’t buy a word I was saying.
And then, for me, leaving church left me tied up in knots about baptism and the Lord’s supper. These belonged to the church. How could I participate? And if I opted out of these sacred ceremonies wasn’t I opting out of God?
These questions were so hard because they are bound up with a fundamental mistake that has been a part of our lives for centuries, one that has come to define our whole existence. To abandon these traditions is to saw off the branch we are sitting on. It’s hard to get people excited about this.
But I am excited about this. And I want to warn you about today's podcast. The things I am about to say are hard to deny. But they may create a sense of free-fall in your life, just as they did in mine. I began by tugging on a few loose threads of my religion and the whole ball came unraveled. The same thing will happen to you. Listen at your own risk.
Today I will investigate how we came to this strange, untenable place. I will start by asking what Jesus actually taught, then describe what happened instead. Finally, I will tell you what has to change.
What Jesus Actually Said
Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God was the announcement of the love of God calling all things to oneness with Himself and into harmony with each other. That's what ecclesia is. Jesus kept the good news of God’s Kingdom carefully separate from any nation or human government. This point is stressed repeatedly. For example,
In the wilderness, the devil offered absolutely control of human government to Jesus. To this, Jesus replied,
“It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.’”
When Jesus announced his ministry as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s good news for the poor, the people of his home town rejoiced, but when he went on to say that the message wasn’t just for Jews, they tried to kill him.
The separation between the Kingdom of God and human government could not be more clear than in Jesus’ exchange with Pilate before his crucifixion. Pilate can’t understand why Jesus won’t fight. Jesus’ answer is,
“My Kingdom is not of this world. Otherwise my servants would be fighting.” (John 18:36)
The triumph of the Kingdom of God is not a military victory but God’s love and forgiveness of this world.
When the Spirit fell at Pentecost, the people didn’t all speak Greek or Latin or English. Each person glorified God in their own language. God’s Kingdom is not the ascendence of any tribe or tongue or nation. It is every tribe and tongue and nation experiencing the love of God.
Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God went out to the whole world and began to make a real difference. the world. But the was harnessed by Rome and turned into the church. Jesus preached the Kingdom and we got the church instead. Here’s how it happened, beginning with a primer on power.
What Happened Instead
A Primer on Power
I have long been fascinated by observing how power flows among people. I chose to write my PhD dissertation on how the Apostle Paul’s use of power. I’ll spare you the geeky details and just say that power boils down to why one person has the right to tell another person what to do.
Let's say I tell you to give me $1000.
There are two ways I could exert power to get you to do this. The first is force. I could put a gun to your head and tell you to pay me or else.
The other way would be to convince you that it was your duty. For example, I could say that I am poor and the Bible says you must care for the poor. Or, I could tell you I am on the edge of coming up with a cure for cancer and need the money to do so. I could use some tactic to convince you that giving me the money was the right thing to do.
Governments use both forms of power to rule.
Force is effective in the short run. If you have the most bombs, you win! In the long run, though, force is a difficult and expensive way to to maintain power.
A more effective way for governments to wield power is through an ideology. Somehow convince the people that it is their duty to obey. Usually, governments call on religion for assistance. The rulers are not there by accident. God has decreed it. In some cases, such as ancient Egypt and Rome, rulers may even claim to be Gods.
The Roman Catholic Church
As with most ancient empires, Rome’s rise to world domination came about by force. Rome brought peace to the world by obliterating all opposition. This is the famous Pax Romana (Roman Peace).
But Rome understood that force was not a good long term solution. Part of Rome’s genius was the ability to welcome the gods of other nations and add them to their pantheon. Other nations could worship their own gods, as long as they paid allegiance to Caesar.
In the first three centuries A.D., Rome went through all kinds of internal and external turmoil. The year 312 AD found Constantine locked in civil war with his rival Maxentius. Before the decisive battle at the Milvian bridge, Constantine had a dream. He saw the sign of the cross and was told “by this sign you shall conquer.” After his victory, Constantine became a proponent of Christianity.
The extent of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity is debated but what is clear is this: Constantine made Christianity legal and promoted it. He also convened councils to unify its beliefs and practices. By 380 A.D. Christianity was the religion of Rome. The Roman Catholic Church was born.
This blend of the Kingdom of God and human government was directly at odds with Jesus’ life and message. The Kingdom of God was never meant to be an ideology to justify a human government. There is no way to build a bridge between the a crucified Messiah and the cross on a weapon of human conquest.
Rome was now Christian, but its openness to other religions continued. Christianity was influenced by all kinds of other religions. For example, we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25 because this is the day of Sol Invictus, the invincible sun. A visit to the Vatican library will settle any questions you may have about the eclectic nature or Roman Christianity, as Julie and I recently discovered on a visit.
In any case, the marriage of Rome and a monotheism like Christianity was a formidable force. Now, it wasn't just your civic duty to obey the law, it was your religious obligation. If you rebelled, you weren’t just disobeying the Emperor. You were disobeying the one true God. You wouldn’t just wind up in prison. You would go to eternal hell.
Very soon, Christianity became centralized and its dogmas were established. For centuries this was accepted as the divine order of things. The flow of power looks like this:
God > Church > Rome > Individual
Let’s say that you’re a medieval peasant. How do you live? You obey! You accept your divinely decreed lot and hoe your field. You pay whatever your local lord says. Who are you to question God? Your obedience to your overlord is your obedience to God.
When you were born you were baptized by the Holy Roman Empire. This wasn’t just a religious ritual. This was your citizenship. On Sundays, you go to mass, where the priest turns the bread into the body of Jesus on your behalf. The phrase uttered by the priest when this happens is “Hoc est enim corpus meum” (this is my body). In all likelihood, the peasants heard a garbled version which is where we get our phrase “hocus pocus.”
But the mass wasn’t the only hocus pocus. Church rituals kept you in good standing with God. There were seven sacraments which only the church could perform on your behalf. This included legitimating your marriage, absolving your sins, and preparing your soul to meet its Maker on your deathbed. You were completely dependent on the church, both in this age and the age to come.
Not surprisingly, this absolute power was was abused. One of the most blatant examples was the selling of indulgences. Here’s how it worked. If you wanted to shorten your time in purgatory, the best way was to give money to the church. There was even a little rhyme:
When the coin in the coffer rings
The soul from Purgatory springs
But people were beginning to question these abuses. The church was ripe for reformation.
In 1517, Martin Luther tried to reform the church. Luther was a Catholic priest who saw the abuses first hand. He claimed that there was no need for indulgences since the sacrifice of Jesus already paid for people’s sin.
Reformation is the right word to describe what Luther aimed to do. His goal was not to abandon the church. He did not question that church and government went hand in hand. He wasn’t saying the Catholic church was doing the wrong job, but that it wasn’t doing a good job. The assumption of how power flowed from God to people remained the same.
God > Church > Government > Individual
When the Catholic Church refused Luther’s reforms, he set out on his own. Calvin followed suit, along with a host of new Protestant movements, each claiming to to put the church back on track. Because the church was tied to the state, every religious reform was a political revolt. This was a recipe for war, which is what followed.
Here is Calvin’s definition of the church.
“Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments (baptism and Lord’s Supper) administered according to God’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.”
But, of course, every phrase of Calvin’s definition was debated.
Where is the Word of God preached purely? I’m guessing Calvin thought his own preaching qualified.
When was the Word of God purely heard? I’m guessing Calvin considered the Word of God “heard purely” if the hearer agreed with him.
Where are baptism and the Lord’s Supper administered “according to God’s institution?” Again, Calvin considered his views to be the gold standard.
Reformation = War!
When the peasants in Germany rose up against the established authority, (God > Church > Government > Peasant) Luther left no question about where he stood on the matter. He wrote a pamphlet titled, Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, in which he said,
“Let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly ... nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him he will strike you.”
Luther is also well known for his anti-Semitic views, spelled out in On the Jews and Their Lies, the title of which speaks for itself. Hitler found Luther’s tract useful in justifying the holocaust.
Calvin’s Geneva is another example of what happens when the Kingdom of God is folded in with human government. In Calvin’s Geneva it was against the law to skip church, speak against church leaders, dance, wear the wrong clothing, or eat the wrong things. For these and similar crimes people were punished with torture, seizure of property, banishment, public whipping, piercing of tongues, branding, and more. Servetus, who was declared a heretic by Calvin and burned alive. We have wandered far from Jesus.
Luther and Calvin were not bad men who set out to be violent. Rather, they embraced a toxic idea, the idea that God gave his power to a human institution called the church, and that the church legitimizes the government.
Over the next two hundred years, over ten million people died in wars sparked by the reformation. Christians make much of the Roman persecution of Christians. But in only ten of the first three hundred years of the church, were Christians executed by Roman emperors.” But by far the greatest slaughterer of Christians is the church.
The Reformation did not to change the fundamental order of things. It simply multiplied that order and bred a host of warring factions. Each continued to substitute the Kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus with a human institution called the church.
The Religious Right
In the 1980’s we went through a (mainly) bloodless version of the Reformation. The movement was inspired by leaders like Jerry Falwell. The idea was that we could “take this nation back for God” by forcing our religious views on everyone else at the ballot box.
The idea of “taking this nation back for God” is based on exactly the same power structure used by the Holy Roman Empire.
God > Church > Government > Individual
The response was predictable. The other side pushed back hard. This misguided attempt to usher in the Kingdom of God by means of the church and human government led to the extreme polarization we see in our nation today.
This is even more ironic because “taking this nation back for God” is profoundly un-American. The words inscribed around the rotunda in the Jefferson Memorial are,
"I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
Our nation was founded on the principle of religious liberty. Our ancestors fled the very kind of forced religion the religious right attempted to re-establish. The approach was neither Christian nor American. You would think that after seventeen centuries, we would understand by now: When you mix politics with religion you get politics.
What Must Happen
What our world needs is not a reformation of the church but a return to the message of Jesus. Jesus did not intend to start a new religion or endorse particular human government. To Jesus, every form of government was an old wineskin. Instead, Jesus announced the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God is summarized in the great commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. And if you need clarification about who qualifies as a neighbor, consult the Parable of the Good Samaritan. (Hint: your neighbor includes your enemy.)
Ecclesia is the manifestation of the Kingdom of God in this world. It operates on a different assumption of how power flows.
God > Individual > Ecclesia
Here, again, is my definition of ecclesia.
Ecclesia is the love of God, calling all things to oneness with Himself and harmony with each other.
Ecclesia is the shape God’s Kingdom takes in this world. It is not a separate movement. It infiltrates and transforms everything: every friendship, every marriage, every business, and every government. It changes how we treat the created world, from our planet itself to the family dog. Ecclesia is meant to be mixed into everything and is the hope of the world.
Ecclesia partners with nothing, least of all human government. It does not triumph by force but by love. When pushed to the limit, it will die rather than kill.
This was the dilemma faced by Jesus. Our world forced Jesus to a decision. The were two choices.
- He could call on the angels to crush the human rebellion by force (Matthew 26:53). He would have been well within his rights to do so. But he would have been out of step with God’s Kingdom. God’s Kingdom is not about rights and power. It is about love and forgiveness.
- He could die, and submerge human violence in the love and forgiveness of God. Jesus chose death. Not because he was weak. Because he was a citizen of the Kingdom of God. The first Christians understood this and were ready to die a similar death. They believed that God’s Kingdom trumped anything, even death.
Now go back for a moment to Constantine, calling on Jesus for victory in battle, painting the sign of the cross on weapons of battle. Can you imagine anything more absurd?
Why Jesus Is the Only Way
In defense of the idea that Christianity is a religion that must stomp out all other religions, John 14:6 is often quoted.
The setting of this verse is Jesus’ imminent death. He comforts the disciples by telling them he will see them again and that they need have no fear. He tells the disciples that they know the way to where he is going.
Thomas says what the were all probably thinking. “Huh? What way are you talking about? We don’t know the way.”
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:6)
We read this as if Jesus meant to say this.
“Having right beliefs about me and performing the proper religious rituals in the one true church is the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father unless they follow the right creeds, go through the right rituals and are part of the true church.
This is a direct path back to violence.
But look at Jesus’ words again. John’s gospel emphasizes putting trust in the God of love and extending that love to others—the great commandments. For example, a few verses later we read,
“This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
We receive the love of God in Christ and extend that love to others. That is what it means to obey Jesus.
For three years, Jesus demonstrated this to his disciples. He assumed they would get it by now. Love is the way to God and he is the living demonstration of love. When Jesus says “I am the way,” he is saying “Love is the way.” How could the disciples follow Jesus to the place he was going? They could trust him and love as he loved.
But then, what will Jesus do with the billions of people who do not profess Christianity? Love them! This is Jesus’ way.
But what about when Jesus says he came to bring a sword?
Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)
Here we encounter a strange paradox. Love is divisive. You wouldn’t think this would be the case, but it is. I have experienced this personally. It’s not that people hate you for loving them. They hate you for loving people they consider to be beyond the scope of God’s love.
In a universe in which God is not divided, where God’s love is actively calling all things back to unity with himself and into harmony with each another, love has no limits. But in a universe where God takes sides, there are places where love cannot not go. Must not go. In fact, to extend love to all people is a sacrilege.
Since our human family presently exists as a cacophony of exclusive dogmas we must love selectively. Love those in your group. Outside of your group are your enemies. The only way you could love them is if they joined your group.
When you cross the line and genuinely embrace someone outside of your group, your group will turn on you. Why? Because the see your love as out of bounds.
This is precisely what got Jesus in trouble. He didn’t make the religious leaders murderously angry by being too narrow but for being too wide. He accepting unacceptable people, thus invalidated their claim to have exclusive rights to God.
If the love of God flows like this.
God > Individual > Ecclesia
Then there is one human family. Every human power structure is undermined. Religions can no longer claim exclusive access to salvation. Governments can no longer claim to have God on their side.
The God revealed by Jesus does not take sides. The moment you take sides you are out of step with God. As John put it,
If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20)
Anyone who casts out “one of the least of these” from the Kingdom of God is himself cast out. Jesus’ harsh words and dire warnings are never aimed at those who fail to appreciate a piece of doctrine or flub a religious ritual. Jesus’ warnings are aimed exclusively at excluders. When you step out of the love of God you’re locked out.
But as real as outer darkness is, as literal as the weeping and gnashing of teeth may be, there is no reason to think that God will ever be unwilling to receive a lost sheep. Jesus’ sword is not a rejection of anyone. It is caused by coming face to face with a God of love.
Now, let’s take a quick look at three Christian rituals through the lens of ecclesia: Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Marriage.
Baptism in Ecclesia
Baptism in the New Testament is a symbol of transformation. In Judaism, baptism was required of new converts. So when John baptized Jews in the desert it was a symbol of a becoming a completely different kind of Jew. John’s preaching was much like Jesus’, focused on loving God and treating others fairly.
Jesus baptized people (John 3:22,26) and his disciples did as well (John 4:2). Before ascending to heaven, Jesus told his disciples to baptize new followers (Matthew 28:19).
John the Baptist emphasized that Jesus would baptize, not with water, but with God’s Spirit (Mark 1:8). In the book of Acts and in the writings of Paul, baptism of the Spirit takes center stage. Paul takes a relaxed attitude about who has the rights to perform water baptism (1 Corinthians 1:14-15). And then there is that weird verse about the Corinthians “baptizing people for the dead.” (1 Corinthians 15:29).
What are we to make of all these verses on baptism? Well, for one thing, the right to baptize is never limited to any person or group. But more importantly, it is hard to imagine Jesus, who shunned religious ritual, turning legalistic about water baptism. What matters to Jesus is not the outward ritual but the inner transformation. How many “baptized believers” today would fit Jesus’ description of the Pharisees: whitewashed tombs. Looking good on the outside. Full of rotting flesh on the inside.
The claim of the church is that baptism is essential and that the church alone has the right to baptize takes us back to our old flow of power.
God > Church > Government > Individual
As an American we take the government out. As a European you don’t. Either way, if you want to be right with God, you must be baptized. And if you want to be baptized, you must be right with the church.
But what if authority flows like this:
God > Individual > Ecclesia
In this scenario, anyone can choose to be baptized by anyone as a sign of embracing the Kingdom of God. You are not baptized into the church but into the Kingdom. And never forget that outward washings and religious rituals mean nothing unless they symbolize an inner transformation. Fighting over the form of baptism or who has the right to baptize is a denial of the very thing baptism represents: transference to a Kingdom of love.
Any person should feel free to baptize any other person as an expression of their allegiance to God’s Kingdom.
The Lord’s Supper in Ecclesia
Like baptism, the Lord’s Supper is a celebration of God’s Kingdom. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus gave his followers a way to reinterpret the Passover meal as a sign of the Kingdom.
The early believers celebrated this regularly, maybe every time they ate! In the ancient world, eating with another person was a symbol of acceptance. What could be more natural than celebrating Christ’s presence at a meal. Just as Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors, Jesus eats with us.
The church turned this symbol of acceptance into a religious ritual. The rite they created was so exclusive that it could only be performed by a Priest. This was the magical moment when the bread was literally turned into the flesh of Jesus. Hocus Pocus. The magic bread kept you in good standing with God.
Protestants changed their interpretation of what happened during the Lord’s Supper but kept the idea that the Lord’s Supper was the exclusive right of the church. As a pastor, I was warned to “guard the table” to make sure no unworthy people participated in the “church ordinance.”
I Googled “guard the table” and nearly broke out in hives reading all the angry words about the right way to do the Lord’s supper. I couldn’t help but reflect that Jesus did a lousy job of “guarding the table” by allowing Judas to participate.
Also, one of the biggest gripes about Jesus was that he not only hung around with tax collectors and sinners. He even ate with them! It is height of irony to create a table in Jesus’ name and “guard it” from sinners.
We’re back to the flow of power. If it goes like this,
God > Church > Government > You
then the Lord’s supper is the exclusive property of the church (you’ll have to decide which one) which confers God’s approval on those who participate.
But if power flows like this,
God > You > Ecclesia
Than all are invited to the table. The only ones who wind up excluded are those who, like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son, stand outside complaining that the Father is not doing a good job of “guarding the table.”
Practically speaking, this means that every time we eat, we should go out of our way to welcome all kinds of people to our table and celebrate Christ’s presence in our midst. That’s a dinner Jesus would actually attend!
Marriage in Ecclesia
Nowhere is the tangled up mess between church and state more clear than in the recent fights about who is legally married. This topic will get a whole issue at some point, but for today, let’s just review the flow of power.
If it flows like this,
God > Church > Government > Individual
then the church has the right to say who is married and who is not. Historically, this is one of the ways the church has maintained power over people. If the church didn’t validate your marriage, you weren’t married. You’d do just about anything to get the girl.
In the United States, where church and state are separate (at least in theory), this power of legitimizing marriage falls to the government. It’s up to each group to influence the government to get their definition of marriage approved so they can force it on everyone else.
This is like the post Reformation chaos. There is no way it can be resolved peacefully.
But if power flows like this,
God > Individual > Ecclesia,
then marriage is a vow between two people and God, to be celebrated by the ecclesia. If a man and a woman, or two men, or two women make such a vow, that’s between them and God. No church or government can invalidate it. Based on their convictions, people may or may not celebrate such a union. But whether or not they celebrate it, there is no option about accepting the people and regarding them to be part of the one human family.
Of course, the government can decide how to tax people based on their living situation. But neither the government nor the church has the right to say when two people are married. Only God does.
The New Creation
It boils down to this: The message of God’s Kingdom is summarized by the great commandments: Love God and love your neighbor.
When we live by these commandments, we live in God’s Kingdom. We are part of God’s ecclesia which is God, calling all things to oneness with Himself and harmony with each other.
Will we embrace Jesus’ message? It’s harder than it sounds. For me, this has required leaving the church. This is by far the hardest thing I have ever done. I’ll tell my story and explore this issue more in next week’s episode: “Breaking up with Church Is Hard to Do.”