Paul F Pavao
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This has been a long time coming. I have needed a page to which to refer those who are offended by my reference to "Christian clubs."
According to Acts 2, the very first church was formed spontaneously when the Jews visiting Jerusalem during Pentecost heard a mighty, rushing wind that turned out to be the Holy Spirit falling upon the apostles. Peter explained what was happening, then explained why it was happening.
In the process, he preached the Gospel of the King to them, and 3,000 men were convicted, converted, and baptized.
This is the Bible's description of that first church:
As far as I can tell from the Bible, a church is a group of Christians in one locality—a town or city—who have surrendered to Jesus as King and are adopted by God as his family (1 Tim. 3:15). They gather together to encourage one another in obedience.
The Bible also tells us that they love one another (Jn. 13:34-35), that Jesus longs for them to be in as much unity as he is with his Father (Jn. 17:20-23), that they take care of one another even across large distances (2 Cor. 8-9), and that their life is one of togetherness and sharing (Acts 2:47; 4:32).
A lot of people think that this kind of sharing and love only happened in the church in Jerusalem. Even a quick glance at church history shows this is not true, however. The sharing, unity, and love of the Christians continued for centuries. (Well, at least a couple centuries.)
Can you imagine a letter from a major Christian leader today that read: "Labor together with one another. Strive in company together. Run together; suffer together; sleep together; awake together as the stewards, assessors, and servants of God"?
None of us can imagine such a thing, but that is exactly what Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, wrote to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, around AD 110. Both those bishops were appointed by apostles to their positions. The Christianity they knew about at the beginning of the second century, eighty years after the founding of the church in Jerusalem, apparently involved sleeping and waking together.
That, biblically, is a church. It is people, gathered as one, loving one another, and growing together in obedience and in the knowledge of God.
You can find problems in churches, including people living in sin. Paul spoke of his concern that he might find members of the Corinthian church that had not repented of "uncleanness, fornication, and lasciviousness" (2 Cor. 12:21).
Although Paul told them in his first letter to purge the loaf of leaven by putting out the wicked from among them (1 Cor. 5:7-13), the Corinthians clearly had not accomplished that. From experience, I can tell you there is a reason for that.
Trying to keep the church leaven-free is very, very difficult. If you've never given effort to this, and many (if not most) churches haven't, some of the hindrances to purifying the church in the way Paul describes are unexpected.
For example, we often fail to put a wicked person out of the church, because mercy causes us to believe the person is weak rather than rebellious, divisive, or wicked. We wait, and we pray with and counsel the person, being deceived into believing they are trying to get better and be delivered from the evil habits. In the meantime, they wreak havoc in the church and sometimes give it a bad testimony among outsiders.
These kind of problems cannot be avoided without throwing out all mercy, and we cannot do that. I am sure this kind of thing is the reason that Paul could tell the Corinthians to purge the church, but later be worried that there would be those who had not repented of sexual immorality.
There will always be counterfeit Christians in the church that have not been found out because the members of the church are merciful. There will be others found living in sin that the church is working with, counseling, and helping to be delivered from addiction. Some of those will not be sincere or will grow tired of the battle to trust God and obtain self-control and perseverance (2 Pet. 1:5-7).
Thus, I am not saying that a church must be perfect in order to be biblical. An imperfect church with some defective, damaged members, however, should still be noticeably a group of disciples, gathered together to pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace with pure hearts. They should be recognizable as a family that takes care of one another, sharing both their lives and their possessions. That is what families do, even imperfect ones.
In contrast, the standard way to start a church today is to build, buy or rent a building, and then to hire a pastor. Advertising is then done, whether by mail, by a big sign out front, by ads in the paper, or by other means, to gain a "membership" and increase "attendance."
When people come, they are treated to a standard Christian "service." There is singing, and words are usually supplied so that the "congregants" can sing along. An offering is taken because there is a mortgage or rent and a pastor's salary to pay. Then the pastor earns his salary by giving a speech, preferably from the Bible, and preferably interesting and inspiring.
The people who attend this "church" will point out the car window as they drive by the building and say, "That is my church." They will tell their friends that they "go to such-and-such church over on such-and-such street."
Do they mean by this that they attend the gathering of a family of people, sold out to King Jesus and helping each other to obey him? No, by "church" modern Christians mean a building.
I hear your objections already. You know that the church is people, not a building. This is even said from the pulpit by the pastor you hired to give you a Christian speech every week.
But you don't know it. You may know it the way you know that Native Americans are called Indians because Christopher Columbus thought he had arrived in India, not the Americas. If asked, you could dig the information out. On the spur of the moment, though, you are going to continue the 500-year-old error of calling Native Americans Indians and the even older error of calling buildings churches.
How do you get people to stop prolonging Columbus' error? You do so by getting them to call the tribes of America "Native Americans" rather than Indians.
How do you get people to stop prolonging the error of calling buildings churches?
Yeah, that's why I call them Christian clubs. It seems a very accurate term.
I am writing this page from the lobby of the largest Southern Baptist Church in the United States. I'm sipping tea from the coffee shop, and the lobby, though not as lavish as some church buildings, is at least 10,000 square feet (100'x100'). My daughter is taking violin lessons from a member here, and I am passing time waiting for her lesson to end.
Ironically, while I was waiting a girl about my daughter's age came into the lobby on her phone. "I'm in the church now," she said in a voice urgent enough to indicate she was trying to find someone.
Clearly, to this young girl the "church" is the building. Where did she get that idea from? I'm sure she got it from the way her parents talk. This is not to fault the parents because they are just doing what almost every Christian in the USA does.
What do clubs do? They have a leadership structure to schedule meetings and give advice on how those meetings are to be run. They set rules for membership. They also do fundraisers and collect dues in order to finance the activities of the club.
The Boy Scouts do this; the Girl Scouts do this; the Moose Lodge does this; and Christian clubs do this.
The meetings of most clubs are more interactive than Christian clubs are. As a member of a Christian club, you can sing along with the other members of the club, singing songs that were picked out before you arrived. You can also participate in putting money in the offering plate. For the most part, though, you are going to sit in a pew and listen.
In the Boy Scouts, you do crafts in the meetings, learning and participating. You go on campouts. You earn badges in your off-time.
Most clubs provide more participation opportunities than Christian clubs, but they are all just clubs. They are not families.
Elk Lodge members may become friends and participate in each others' lives. That can happen in the Boy Scouts. It can happen in Christian clubs, too. On a small basis, here and there, some members become friends, and a few become lifelong friends that function, on a tiny basis, much like a family.
No club, however, is seen as a family overall. No club asks a person to put the club, and the other members of the club, ahead of biological family. Even Christian clubs don't do that.
Churches do, however. At least biblical churches do.
Until we stop calling buildings, and the meetings that go on in them, churches, we are never going to start looking for what the real signs of a church are. If we don't see the problem, and if we are not looking for a solution, then we, who consider ourselves Christians and a part of churches, are never going to really be a church, nor produce the fruit that churches produce.
That is why I refer to denominations and the meetings they hold as Christian clubs rather than churches. I want us to return to being churches. I want us to notice that we don't look like or act like biblical churches, and I want us to start looking for ways that we can.