Question Anything But Church
In case you missed it, I am making an outrageous claim. I am saying that the church is not a natural extension of the message of Jesus but a radical departure from it. If you haven’t questioned my sanity, I question yours. I am taking a swipe at one of the fundamental building blocks of western civilization.
People have debated the tenets of Christianity for ages: the nature of God, the divinity of Christ, what happens when we die, how to be saved, the right way to be baptized and take communion… These issues split us into camps but leave us under the broad umbrella of Christianity.
There is one aspect of Christianity too sacred to be questioned: the church. It’s fine to revive the church, to reform the church, to modernize the church, to despise the church, and even to leave the church. What is not acceptable, not ever, not under any circumstances, is to question the church.
The Unimaginable World Without Church
Church is the child of a marriage between Christ and Constantine. It bears little resemblance with the teachings of Jesus. But it has been around since the fourth century, claiming to be the embodiment of Christ in this world. It is as much a part of our universe as the sun and moon and stars. A world without church is a world in which we can no longer find our bearings. We can imagine a world without God. We could never imagine a world without church.
Leaving church was the most distressing and disorienting experience of my life. I was a lost soul, awash in a sea of questions, without rudder or compass. Leaving church didn’t just force me to make a few adjustments. It blasted a gaping hole through my whole existence, both as a Christian and as an American.
The Hole Where Church Used to Be
It wasn’t inspiration that I missed when I left church. I felt closer to God in the Sierras than in church. I like to take long walks on Sundays and spend time in my books and Bible. This is far more nourishing than sitting through a church service. When I look around Sundays, it is obvious that I’m not alone.
Of course there is always that lady on the second row, lifting her hands, dancing to the music. And there is always that man who “Amens” every point of the sermon and laughs at every joke. But if you take a general survey the faces in the room, you’ll find most of them vacant. They look like a crowd at the airport waiting for a delayed flight, checking with their watches to see when they can go.
No, it wasn’t the absence of inspiration that hit me like a Mack truck when I left church. It was the loss connection with other people and a defined path to God. When I left church, I lost both my friends and my way.
Ecclesia: Filling the Hole with a Mountain
After four years, I am starting to recover. I’m finding new friends whose love comes without creedal requirements. I’m getting reacquainted with a God who is wild and mysterious and unpredictable. As difficult as my transition has been, I wake up every morning and bless God for it.
Throwing rocks at church is easy and ordinary. Why would I do that? Church is a shadow from my past. Ecclesia is the light ahead, bright as new creation.
Ecclesia is not a theory. It is a way of life, as gritty as the dirt beneath my fingernails. In these last five episodes, I will bring Ecclesia down to earth. I want it to be so clear that a child can understand. Indeed, if a child cannot understand it, I have badly missed my target.
“Let the little children come to me,” said Jesus. “Do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” (Luke 18:16)
I’ll start today by painting a picture. In the weeks that follow, I will focus in on the pieces of that picture. As we go, you will see that Ecclesia does more than fill the hole left by church. It rises to become the Mountain of God.
Religion: Molehills of Men
To see the dizzying glory of Ecclesia, it is necessary to clear away the underbrush of religion. Religion blocks the view because it is the opposite of Ecclesia.
Divided God, Divided People
The heart of religion is a God who takes sides. There is always some form of “us” and “them.” Because God takes sides, we must too. The picture looks like this.
That’s “us” on the blue side. Whether we regard those on the red side with hatred or compassion makes little difference. They are “them.” We call them by many names: enemies, infidels, apostates, unbelievers, lost, rejected by God, bound for Hell, missions projects, unchurched, wrong. Those on our side are friends, true followers, orthodox, believers, saved, loved by God, bound for Heaven, brothers and sisters, churched, right.
When the world is viewed through the eyes of religion, there is only one possible outcome: division.
Salvation Man’s Way
Julie and I recently visited the enormous fountains constructed on the site of the Twin Towers. I have never experienced anything that so powerfully captures both infinite grief and transcendent hope.
The planes that smashed into the Twin Towers are the incarnation of religion. The love that came in the aftermath of 911 is the Kingdom of God incarnate.
The logic of religion is inescapable. If God is on our side, others must be converted. It’s a heavenly battle. We are soldiers of God. Conversion is the only form that love can take for “them.” We must bring them to our side, God’s side.
The aim of religion is always to get “them” to join “us.” How? It always involves some form of coercion. This is not always physical. It can take many forms. Here are five.
- Violence. Examples abound: the 911 attacks, bombing an abortion clinic, burning a church, the Crusades. Physical violence gets a lot of press but it doesn’t work very well. It rarely converts “them” to “us.” It drives the wedge deeper.
- Force of Argument. The pen is mightier than the sword. Rather than bomb “them” in into subjection we reason them into subjection. We win the argument. Who could argue with that?
- Political Pressure. This is strength by numbers. We take our war to the ballot box. The efforts of the Religious Right to “take this country back for God” in the 80’s are a great example of this.
- Bribery. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. We lure the infidels into God’s camp with gifts. Most of the good deeds done by churces for people outside the church fall into this category. It’s as transparent as a Hare Krishna handing out flowers at the airport.
- Rejection. Those who fail to conform are shunned and even publicly denounced and humiliated. Fit in or be cast out.
The tools of religion vary but the assumption remains constant: God is on our side. Others must be saved. The goal of religion is to turn “them” into “us.” When we get everyone over here on our side, God’s side, the world will be saved.
All religions claim to save the world but the result of religion is the destruction of the world. As Jon Stewart put it,
Religion. It's given people hope,
in a world torn apart by religion.
Why Relationships in Religious Communities Are Weird
I have known may wonderful people and had many great friends in the church, but my best relationships have always been outside of the church. Julie and I have often puzzled about this. We loved the people in our church. What was it that made relationships with church friends always feel on edge? We came up with three possible reasons.
1. With our non-religious friends, we could be ourselves. There was no underlying fear that we would say or do the wrong thing. Our non-religious friends let it all hang out and expected us to do the same. They wanted to know what we really thought, not what we are supposed to think. We behave as we really felt, not as we were supposed to. Inside of church there were expectations. Outside of church “you and me were free to be you and me.”
2. In church, there was always the specter of a church issue popping up and draw a line between us. It might be as trivial as the color of the carpet or as monumental as the nature of God. In any case, when the issue arose, it sent a fault lines through the community. We lost dozens of friends by being on the wrong side of a fault line.
The ironic thing is that we almost never cared one way or the other about the issues. But the inevitably of new fault lines emerging made every relationship slightly unstable. Sure, we were friends at the moment. Would we be friends when the ground shifted?
Reflecting on this more deeply, it stuck us that our idea of a God with a divided heart is at the root of the problem. A God who separates “us” from “them” soon separates “us” from “us.”
3. In church, we relationships tended to be artificial. “This is your small group.” “Here is your accountability partner.” “Meet your new Sunday School friends.” All this was done with the best of intentions, but friendship cannot be assigned. If it doesn’t occur naturally, organically, it isn’t real.
Love Without Lines
To summarize, religions are human systems that draw a circumference around God and seek to draw others into that circumference.
Ecclesia is a God with no circumference. There is no need to get people on God’s side because God doesn’t take sides. Jesus loved Samaritans and Centurions as much as Jews. His God did not draw lines, he erased them.
The only conflict Jesus experienced was with those who loved the lines. More about that in a moment. But first, let’s turn our attention to the alternative to religion: The Mountain of God.
The Mountain of God
Last year, Julie and I had the chance to go to Italy. The cathedrals were breathtaking. But as I stood in them, I heard the words of the disciples echoing off the walls. They stood with Jesus before Herod’s temple in Jerusalem and said,
“Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” (Mark 13:1)
Jesus responded, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down.” (Mark 13:2)
The Kingdom of God demolishes the work of human hands, be it the Jewish temple, St. Paul’s Cathedral, or the Pyramids of Egypt. It sweeps away nations. It dissolves every human creeds to dust. It laughs at every God made by human hands.
Isaiah pictured the coming of God’s Kingdom as a mountain that would rise to cover all the earth.
Now it will come about that
In the last days
The mountain of the house of the Lord
Will be established as the chief of the mountains,
And will be raised above the hills;
And all the nations will stream to it.
This is a vision of the Kingdom of God, a day when all nations would together. Isaiah continues,
They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
And never again will they learn war.
City on a Mountain
The Kingdom of God is a vision of world peace. This is Isaiah’s mountain. The city on the mountain is those who follow Jesus.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14).
Who are Jesus’ followers? They are those who keep his commands.
What are Jesus’ commands? #1 Love God. #2 Love your neighbor.
We enter the Kingdom of God when we receive the love of God, when we welcome God’s presence in our lives and let God make us whole. We live as children of the Kingdom when we allow the love of God to flow through us to our sisters and brothers. Who qualifies as a sister? As a brother? Those on whom the sun shines. In other words, everyone.
The Shape of God’s Mountain
At the beginning of this episode, I promised to be give you a concrete picture of Ecclesia. Here it is.
Isaiah’s mountain is the Kingdom of God. The rulers of this world may scorn its simplicity and laugh at its impotence. They may try it, convict it, hang it on a cross, and wash their hands of it. But the mountain of God will rise from the dead, crushing human arrogance.
The Mountain of God calls all things to unity with God and harmony with each other. This is the Kingdom of God. This is Ecclesia.
This picture outlines the way God’s Kingdom is established in this world. It does not come by church or state. It comes though a single human heart, as a mustard seed. When love flows from God, through you, to another person, God’s Kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as in heaven.
In the weeks that follow, I will examine each piece of this picture. I will get specific about how this plays out in your life and our world. For today, here is an overview.
The Power of Love
I remember only one thing my high school biology teacher said. It was the first day of class, and he asked us to examine the picture on the cover of our biology textbook and tell us what we saw.
“Trees?” said one student.
“Yes, but that’s not what I’m after,” he replied.
“Still not what I’m looking for,” he said.
Then someone got it.
“Exactly!” he said. He then launched into a sermon in praise of the sun. “Everything, and I mean everything that happens in our amazing world is solar powered. Everything from the wind to the waves to photosynthesis to our cars to own breath is powered by the sun’s energy. No sun, no life!”
For some reason, that stuck with me. I think of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount.
“God causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)
The sun is makes no distinction between people. It shines just as warmly on a King as on a peasant. It doesn’t care if you are Donald Trump or the bag lady.
Every partisan vision of saving the world is refuted by three words: God is love.
Ground Zero: Your Own Heart
The most important element in this picture you. You must allow the love of God to penetrate you deeply. Like Peter, you may not consider it appropriate for God to wash your feet. But only when the Master washes your feet, are you part of God’s Kingdom.
You don’t enter the Kingdom by making a sacrifice for God. You begin by letting God make a sacrifice for you. You begin by grace or you stay at square one.
You are not a sun. You’re not even a generator. Everything you have to give you must first receive. So receive! Let God love you. Let God make you whole. This is not selfish. It is how the Kingdom comes. Your heart is the field in which God plants the mustard seed. You must let God do this.
But how do you make peace with God without religion to show the way? And once you have made peace, what path do you follow to grow? How can you be sure you’re following God, not just chasing your wishful thinking?
These are vitally important questions that deserve a whole episode. I will address them in the next episode, The Tree Planted by the Water.
Close to Home: Your Friends
After you allow the love of God to invade your soul, you’re ready to love others. You’re ready for friendship. Your friends do not need to be limited to any particular group. You don’t need an exclusive group of “Christian” friends, or Republican friends, or NASCAR friends. In fact you will be made richer if there is variety.
But where will you find these friends? They are right under your nose. I’ll show you, and explain how to deepen those friendships in an episode titled, Two Trees Planted by the Water.
Sociologists have determined that the maximum number of people you can have a meaningful relationship with is about 150. Beyond this, it’s just a sea of faces. Your brain simply can’t handle the data. These are the 150 people in your neighborhood. This could be made up of the people you work with, the people you share a hobby with, and, of course, your actual neighbors. In an episode titled Cross the Street and Meet Your Neighbor! I’ll show you how to turn your life into a superhighway for the Kingdom of God that transforms your neighborhood.
The Whole Wide World
How far does love extend? To the whole wide world, even to your enemy. In the final episode of the ecclesia series I will explore the ways we can allow the love of God to flow through us to the world at large, especially to our enemies.
Ecclesia was never meant to a separation from the world to hide in a national or religious sect. It was meant to be like salt in food, like yeast in dough, penetrating all existence. Ecclesia is the love of God, lavished on the world, making it new. Sound wonderful? It is!
But it’s also war.
Why Love Is War
God doesn’t get through to us by cracking us on the head. It gets through to us by melting our hearts. But why does this create so much conflict? Why did so many people hate Jesus? Why was he killed?
We’re all for a God who blesses our group and we are comfortable with the idea of loving those who love us. We like a God on our side and we’re all for love, as long as it discriminates. We aren’t so crazy about a God who loves our enemies. But this is exactly what God does.
What Made People Mad at Jesus
The Mountain of God obliterates every molehill of man. Jesus ignored every human kingdom, be it religious, political, economic, or any of the thousand ways that people separate themselves and claim special privilege with God.
This is what got Jesus into trouble. It’s why he was so controversial. It wasn’t that he took sides with one group and offended another. It was that he refused to take sides with anyone at all.
Jesus did not draw lines between religions or nations or social classes. He drew a line between love and hate. Those who considered themselves specially loved by God because of their religious beliefs, national identity, or economic status, found Jesus’ equal treatment of all people insufferable.
Jesus was crucified because he didn’t understand that God was a Jew. For not going along with the popular idea that salvation meant the destruction of the nation of Rome and the enthronement of the nation of Israel. Jesus was maddeningly obtuse about the fact that riches were a sign of God’s special favor that set the rich apart from the poor. He didn’t get that some people are just plain gross: lepers, sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes.
Jesus’ love flattened every human distinctions along with its attached kingdom. Who did this anger? Nearly everyone. The fact that God is on the side of all people is great news unless you think you are part of a group with special status. In one way or another, most of us think this. Our identity, our economic status, and our whole understanding of the world are threatened by the Kingdom of God.
Why I Am a Christian But I Don’t Believe in Christianity
Turning Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God into a religion called “Christianity” is not a misstep. It is a catastrophic failure. It doesn’t just miss Jesus’ point. It gets it exactly backwards.
This is why I gladly embrace the title “Christian,” but I do not believe in Christianity. The term “Christian” is used three times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26, 26:28, 1 Peter 4:16). The term “Christianity,” never.
The term “Christian” was originally a term of derision. It was like calling a follower of Sun Myung Moon a “Moonie.” It meant, “You’re one of those brainwashed Christ-followers.” The early followers of Jesus wore the term as a badge of honor. They were proud to follow Jesus. So am I.
I am captivated by Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom. I make my home on Isaiah’s mountain. I choose love for all people without distinction. In this, I am a follower of Christ, though not of a believer in Christianity.
“Christianity” is a religion, hammered out in creeds and councils at the behest of Rome. It comes with all the trappings of religion: creeds, dogmas, heretics, rituals, insiders, and most of all a clear line between “us” and “them.”
Christianity in the New Testament?
The tracings of Christianity are already visible in the later writings of New Testament. The beginnings of this fossilization are latched onto by the makers of religion. They view this corruption as the full flower of Jesus’ teaching. They honor this dogma more than the words of Christ. It’s no wonder. You won’t find a breath of religion in Jesus’ teachings.
The Mountain of God is not composed of human orthodoxy or institutions. It is as wild as wind, made of the love that flows from God and between one human heart and another. This love brings us into oneness with God and harmony with each other. It is as manifold as nature itself.
This is not a new religion. It is the end of religion. It is freedom. It is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, self control. It is world peace. It is the Mountain of God.
Raised above the hills;
And all the nations will stream to it
They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
And never again will they learn war.
(Isaiah 2: 2b, 4)
The Kingdom of God starts with you. In the next episode, I will focus on how a human soul makes contact with God and grows, in other words, how the Kingdom of God enters this world.
Maybe you can’t conceive of a connection with God or a path of growth that does not involve religion. If that’s true, I have some liberating news for you along with some practical advice. See you in the next episode!