Church: The Ugly

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It was a dark and stormy night. October 31st, 1517. In the small town of Wittenberg a nervous Monk shuffles along the path to the castle gate holding his his friar’s tunic close as the wind nearly blows him over. The rain is coming down as if God were starting a second great flood – but he is determined to complete his task. As lightning flashes across the sky, he finally reaches his destination. From his cloak he retrieves a hammer, a nail, and a large piece of parchment – one he’d spent hours deliberating on. Looking around to see if anyone was watching, he holds the parchment against the large wooden door of the castle with the nail and begins to hammer. Bang – Bang – Bang. Each slam of the hammer is echoed by a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder. He steps back finished – admiring his work but knowing this could potentially cost him is life. Looking around once more, he hesitates only for a moment then steals away back down the path before his courage fails him. There was no going back now – the Reformation had begun!!  Duh duh duh
What I just described was a dramatization of an event that probably didn’t even happen – but it got your attention didn’t it?  There is at least one thing about that story that was definitely accurate – the date.
On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther published his now famous 95 Theses. Whether he actually nailed them to the door of the Wittenberg Castle is debated, but he did at least mail them to his bishop.
The 95 Theses were basically a list of questions and complaints about some of the practices of the Roman Catholic church that Luther was a part of. He specifically objected to the sale of indulgences – which if you remember from last week were ways that people could purchase the forgiveness of sin and shorten their time in purgatory – during this specific time, the pope was trying to fund the building of St. Peter’s Basilica. Among Luther’s complaints was him questioning why the super rich pope needed to build the basilica with the poor people’s money instead of with his own.
Luther also objected to the RC belief that salvation requires more than faith, but good works, penance, sacraments, and purgatory as I discussed last week.
Within weeks, his theses were copied and distributed across Germany and within months they were spread across Europe.
Within three years Luther was excommunicated after directly defying the pope and saying that Matthew 16:18 did NOT give the pope any power.
Within ten years he was organizing his own church – something unheard of at that time –  and had published his own German translation of the New Testament from the original Greek.
While Martin Luther is most famously credited with starting the Reformation – it was actually already a long time coming. His 95 Theses were really the straw that broke the camel’s back, and he never intended to break from the church – just wanted to fix a few thing.  Nonetheless, it had begun and we are a result of that – otherwise we would all be Roman Catholic.
Elsewhere in Europe at the time, following Luther’s lead, others were breaking from the church.
In Switzerland, John Calvin rose to fame and many churches today owe their legacy to him. Calvin and Luther disagreed on a few theological matters and thus their subsequent followings have long experienced conflict.
In England, King Henry the 8th (I am, I am) decided to jump on the bandwagon and separate the Church of England from Roman Catholicism. This was partly due to the fact that King Henry wanted to divorce his wife who only bore him daughters – a story for another day.
Some time later a group that split from the Church of England calling themselves Puritans made their way across the Atlantic to settle in the New World.
Over the course of the next 100 years the Bible was translated into several languages and with the invention of  Gutenberg’s printing press God’s word became available to the common people like never before. Interesting to note: the earliest printing methods tried to replicate handwriting – since that is how all books were produced before.
In 1611 King James of England commissioned an English translation that many still use today.
It was a glorious time! Finally, the people could read the Word for themselves. Finally, we could break from the controlling hierarchy of the corrupted Roman Catholic church.
We now had a new kind of church. They called it Protestant because we protested THE church and broke away. The Roman Catholic church still considers itself the one true church – but so does the Eastern Orthodox, and I guess Protestants would to if we could all agree on something.
But the reformation did give us two very important things that make us distinct from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox church:
Sola Fide – By faith alone – The Roman Catholic church said that man was saved by faith PLUS baptism, communion, penance, purgatory, etc – OR whatever the pope said at the time. Martin Luther read the bible for himself and said “I can’t find that anywhere in here – all it says is by faith alone.” So, that is the mantra of the Protestant church – we are saved by faith and faith alone – no further paying for sins after baptism or spending time in purgatory. You can’t buy forgiveness. You can’t earn grace. And no human being can send you to heaven or keep you out. Romans 10:8-9 is clear: If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone – The Roman Catholic church says authority rests in scripture AND tradition – with tradition usually trumping scripture. This stems from their belief in apostolic succession as we discussed last week. Luther and the Reformers said NO – the only Apostles were the original 12 and Paul. Apostleship ended with them and the rest of us have to stick to what they said then – not what we make up now. You can’t add to it and you can’t take away from it. Scripture is our foundation.
Isn’t it refreshing knowing that we are “saved by grace through faith”, that it’s not of ourselves so that we can’t boast and we don’t have to lament about not being good enough or checking all the boxes, and that instead of relying on the whims of a human being or the shifting and changing of times – we find our source in the one thing that never changes and never fails – God’s Word!
This should have been great!
This should have been the beginning of the return of the Acts 2 church –
now the common person could again sit at the feet of the apostles by reading God’s word for themselves.
Again the people could focus on loving others instead of fixing me-me-me because it’s faith not works that saves us.
This should have brought us back to the KOINONIA that the early church had…but it didn’t.
Maybe it did in smaller circles, but for the most part it had the opposite effect.
Instead of coming together and uniting under the banner of “LOVE ONE ANOTHER” we started using the Bible as a weapon…against each other.
And we FRACTURED! We split into FACTIONS!
Now instead of fighting against church corruption, we began fighting each other over what the Scriptures mean. So, we fight over whether women should have long hair or short. We fight over just how much of the old testament law we are supposed to keep. Is it just the big ten or all of it? We debate about what it means to have an idol – is it just wooden statue or can my car be an idol? We argue over speaking in tongues and how many songs we should sing before the teaching. We disagree about the account of creation, the actuality of a global flood, and what exactly “sexual immorality” means.
We each look at the scriptures (if we even do that – most people just take the preacher’s word for it) and we find the church that preaches it the way we like to hear it, then we pick sides on some divisive issue and take a stand against each other.
This, my friends, is the UGLY.
This is not KOINONIA.
This is not FELLOWSHIP.
When it was all one catholic church, we were all at least on the same team more or less.
It’s no wonder that so many people today have simply given up on church.
They have enough strife at home and work, why get more at church?
Today there is an estimated 41,000 different Christian denominations in the world.  That’s 40,999 different groups of people who read the same Bible that we do but see some things a little differently.
Coming a little closer to home.
According to the Association of Religious Data Archives:
In 2010 here in Virginia Beach there were 265 Christian churches split into 47 recognized denominations.
And if you’ve been in church for a while you know that means there are 265 DIFFERENT churches that usually don’t play well together if they play together at all. The attitude is generally of the sort that you do church your way and I’ll do it mine, just don’t steal any of my people and I won’t steal any of yours.
At least back when it was just one big church we could say we were all on the same team.  Now instead of one big team against the forces of darkness, we are split into thousands of little teams that spend more time fighting each other than fighting the enemy.
Now, I am not saying that having different churches or even different denominations is a bad thing. I’m not saying that we should all just stop protesting and rejoin the Roman Catholic church. I don’t think that works either, for obvious reasons. Having just one way to do church simply doesn’t work in a world made of lots of different kinds of people.
In fact, I think this DIVERSITY (not fracturing) is what God intended all along. It’s just that we’re DOING IT ALL WRONG.
Let me explain.
One of the analogies used for the church – as in the universal collection of believers – is that we are the “Body of Christ.”
This concept is introduced by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. He’s writing to a church that he started because they were having all kinds of problems. They were suing each other, fighting over which preacher they liked better (Paul or Apollos), practicing incest, and all kinds of things. Basically, they were not being the ekklesia that Jesus had talked about. So he wrote them a bunch of instructions on how to live together and act like Christians. Part of his letter includes a section on spiritual gifts, and how we are all given certain abilities from God that we are to use for the benefit of others. Then he goes into this part about the body of Christ to illustrate how we are to work together even though we are all different.
1 Corinthians 12
12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.
13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.
16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.
17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?
18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.
19 If they were all one part, where would the body be?
20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”
22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,
23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty,
24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it,
25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.
26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a (necessary) part of it.
After this he goes into the famous 13th chapter on love that is often used in weddings. Love is patient, love is kind, etc. The way that these two concepts go together is that this whole “Body of Christ” thing doesn’t work without love. Which is exactly what Jesus kept telling his disciples.
John 13
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Now, most of the time, this “body of Christ” analogy is used to encourage members of a church to volunteer and use their gifts in serving God through the church.  While I believe it certainly does apply to that, and agree that everyone in a church family should help out (just like how after a big family dinner we all pitch in to clean up – at least that’s how my family does it) – I think this analogy could also be applied to the DIVERSITY of churches that the Reformation caused.
Follow me on this.
One thing that Paul didn’t know back in his day that, thanks to the marvel of modern science, we know today is that the body is not only made of different parts, but of millions of individual living cells. This is something we learn in grade school now days.
But it’s not just a collection of a bunch of random cells. Each cell in our body is uniquely designed to be a part of a larger subsystem of the human body. There are skin cells, and brain cells, and bone cells, and muscle cells, and blood cells, and on and on.
Now a single cell, by itself, does not really form a body part – but all the skin cells together make up the skin, and all the brain cells together make up the brain, and all the bone cells together make up the skeleton, and so on.  And a single one of these systems does not make up a body part like an eye or foot. So really, the body parts that Paul was referring to were themselves made up of many distinct but necessary systems.
I believe that the church – as in the body of Christ on this earth –  probably works in a similar way.
We as individuals are like individual cells. And just like an individual cell serves a specific purpose and is given the attributes necessary to accomplish it’s function, each of us serves a specific purpose and are given the necessary spiritual gifts to accomplish our function.
BUT, just as one skin cell by itself cannot accomplish the purpose of the skin organ, one Christian by himself cannot accomplish what was intended to be accomplished as an Ekklesia – as a group or assembly of Christians.
I believe that, perhaps, the diversity in types of churches represents the diversity in the types of systems that make up the human body. And that the people in these churches belong there because of how they are wired and how God has designed them to fit in that specific body part, so to speak.
That means that it is the churches – the localized collections of believers – that form the actual body ‘parts’ that as a whole make up the body of Christ.
This may sound rather simplistic, but it’s not. Imagine the complexity of the human body –  when you speak of an eye, you are actually speaking of hundreds of interconnected systems, I think it is just as complex when thinking of the various churches making up the body parts of Christ.
The whole idea I’m getting at is that the different types of churches serve different purposes and are made up of the people who themselves are designed for that said purpose.
So, the many different kinds of churches exist to serve many different types of people, and when we all work together we actually do form the amazingly complex but oh so powerful body of Christ.
But since we don’t work together, we are like a body who’s organs all decide to fight each other instead of supporting each other – what happens to that kind of body? It dies – maybe not quickly, but it dies.
And I think that is what we see happening in parts of the world today – especially here in America. Church attendance is at an all time low in this country. And in Europe it’s even worse.  The church as a whole is dying. We are losing our light. We are losing our saltiness. And I think it has a lot to do with how we are not operating as a single, yet amazingly complex, body.
And it is sad, because there are so many people out there without hope. Because we – the collective we, the universal church – are not bringing it to them because we are too busy fighting amongst ourselves. And if we’re not fighting, maybe we’re just huddled in a corner and just doing our own thing, when we should be working together.
But it doesn’t have to stay that way.  And I, for one, will no longer sit on the sidelines and allow our church to be part of the problem. I know we can’t solve this for the whole world and we can’t solve this in a day, but we can at least start. Reality Church must be about more than just doing life together, we must be about loving others together – and that includes our brothers and sisters in other churches.
It also means we can’t be afraid of “losing people” to other churches.  To be honest, if someone is part of our church – Reality Church – but just can’t find their place, I would so much rather that they attend another church that moves them to become all that God wants them to be. It could simply be the case that you are a skin cell and our church is made of bone cells. You need to find a church of skin cells, because there you will truly thrive.
I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a local pastor of a Methodist church. I had to interview him for a school paper. In the conversation I learned that he had some very different beliefs than me, but mostly the same on the important stuff. Then he told me about how in a previous church he pastored, his Methodist church partnered with three other churches of different persuasions – Pentecostal, Baptist, and Lutheran (about as different as you can be) – and the four of them worked together to provide services to the homeless and poor in their area. One had a food pantry, another had a clothing closet, they took turns during the week to do meals, etc. And what was even more amazing is he told me that when individuals or families they had helped started showing interest in attending his church, he would talk with them about what they were looking for – and if he could tell that they had leanings that would be better suited for one of the other churches – he pointed them their way.  Amazing!  A pastor of a church suggesting that a potential member go to another kind of church that he thought would better suit them.
It made an impact on me, and I want to be like that.  It’s not about everyone coming to our church.  We can’t please everyone and we shouldn’t want to. We have a certain DNA here that only people with that same DNA will fit into – and that’s OK.
I believe we will make a much greater impact if we are made up of the people who belong here than if we try to be everything to all people.
So, in order to actually reach everyone – we need to work together as the different kinds of churches. And that is what I aim for us to do as Reality Church.  Just yesterday I attended a men’s conference put on by Bridge Church. Some of our former members go there, and even though it’s not the kind of church I would attend – I believe they are doing the same thing that we are called to do for the people they are called to do it for.
So, what does that mean for us? What does that mean for you?
It means to be on the lookout for ways we can cooperate with the other 265+ churches in our city. The only place we should do battle is on the SOFTBALL field (which we now have games on Friday nights). I’m going to do my part and have started talking with other pastors. Right now I’m in the process of starting a relationship with St. John’s Baptist over on Holland, looking to partner with them to serve the homeless in the fall. I don’t know where it will go, but I think we can do way more damage on the battlefield if we work together instead of against each other.
For you it also means that I give you permission to leave our church. I’m not saying that I want you to. I don’t. But if you are not jiving with what I’ve been talking about. If you are not interested in getting back to the Acts 2 kind of church where we do life together and love others together and look more like a family gathering than a rock concert, then this may not be the church for you. And that’s ok. But if those things fire you up and get you excited and create that sense of “YES” inside of you, then perhaps you are a bone cell among bone cells and you are right at home. Either way, the important thing is that you find where it is you fit and give it all you got!
Notice I didn’t say find the place that meets all your needs and wants. I said find the place you fit.
Because the the purpose of a cell is not to just take up space and soak up resources. All the cells in a body PERFORM some FUNCTION.  Your place in a church is not only in the seats.
I’m not saying that your needs and wants are not important, they are, but the whole point of the body of Christ is action – and it takes everyone rowing to move the ship.
That doesn’t mean everyone has to serve in the nursery or the set up team. It just means you need to be engaged. I’ll be talking more about this in a few weeks. But for now, for you as an individual, if you think you belong here, be thinking and praying about how you can become a functional member, a functional cell in this church – or if you think you’re another kind of cell – then find the organ/church where you belong and get plugged in. And for us as a church, you’ll be hearing more about this in the weeks to come. We’re done competing, it’s time to be what Jesus prayed we would be:
John 17
20 “My prayer is not for them alone (the disciples). I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,
21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—
23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
And this all goes back to what I’ve been talking about this whole series. The GOOD church – the EKKLESIA that Jesus founded on the unmovable PETRA, on the rock of our salvation – the KOINONIA, the fellowship that the first church had.
We sit here two thousand years later and the church has gone from good, to bad, to ugly – isn’t it time we get back to the good?