January 17, 2014

The Church is not the Church

Rondall Reynoso

Church1I received this kind question on the Faith on View Facebook page this morning. I think it is a good question and as I set about to give my perspective on Facebook I decided that this actually made for a good blog post. I don’t know how objective I am actually able to be but I will attempt to give my perspective.

I value your musings on this question because you have a diverse background and perspective which I feel enables you to be objective with your responses regardless of the subject discussed:

Do you have an opinion on why some people seem attracted (or mesmerized) to a faith that is preoccupied with salvation to the near total disregard for development of Christian growth in the convert? (drive-by evangelism). If everyone were to achieve salvation, would the church, in their eyes, then become irrelevant?

Over the last few years I’ve become fond of the expression, “The Church is not the Church.” By that I mean that the church that we see is not the same as the Ecclesia that was talked about in the New Testament. The Ecclesia are those people who have made an existential commitment to God. Growth in that commitment is unavoidable. Once one has committed themselves to God in this way they almost cannot even help but wanting to understand Him more and to engage in Christian Growth.

The goal does not become growing consonance with Truth but increasing identification with the Fraternity. Church members know how they need to act to fit in and it becomes about fitting in.

 The Church on the other hand is a club, a fraternity. Its interest is often less God than self-perpetuation. Let me be clear that there are an awful lot of the Ecclesia in the Church. I just don’t think they are exactly the same nor are their motivations. But, this leads to the Church being Pharisaical. The goal does not become growing consonance with Truth but increasing identification with the Fraternity. Church members know how they need to act to fit in and it becomes about fitting in. I think this is also a large part of why politics has become so important to the Church. Our politics have very little to do with helping others come to know the maker of all things. They are typically about preserving our identity. I think this is true even on issues like abortion. That is why the rhetoric is defensive and polemical rather than grace filled and compassionate.

ChurchSeveral years back I took my son to the statewide boy’s camp for our denomination. The main speaker was the Duck Commander of Duck Dynasty, which is a whole other blog post, but after he was done the state leader got up and made an “altar call.” But, it was done in such a way that he as merely asking those kids whose heads were bowed to be obedient to him. I actually positioned myself to make sure my son didn’t go forward. There were 30 or more young boys who went forward. I believe that there is a good chance that those boys will suffer with assurance of their salvation, maybe for the rest of their lives, because they did not make a commitment to God and his Truth—they were obedient to a leader. But, this leader can now promote how many salvations, new club members, he got, which justifies his part of the club’s existence. Sadly though, this is completely disconnected from these boy’s spiritual standings. I think evangelicalism has been affected by this for far too long and I believe this lack of depth is part of why we see such a movement of young people to more traditional (read liturgical) traditions.

I believe this fraternity mentality has helped us to completely misunderstand cultural engagement and the spiritual war. I wrote in another location:

The Culture War paradigm confuses the war to be for cultural territory where forces must be rallied to oppose behaviors which the Christian community opposes, to fight unwanted laws, and to lobby for Christian values. As a result, the power of the army of believers is both misdirected and diluted. In essence, the Culture War paradigm views the spiritual war as a conflict between God and Satan for cultural territory. However, the war is not for Satan’s cultural territory. It is for the souls of humanity. It is, in reality, a rescue mission not a mission of conquest. By misidentifying the nature of the spiritual conflict, contemporary Christianity has misappropriated resources and misdirected efforts. To an extent, the power of the Army of Believers has been mitigated by misunderstanding the purpose of the war.

I think the Culture War is largely about one club against another. The thing about fraternities, also, is they become increasingly self-obsessed and cloistered. That may well be part of why the Church today has so much trouble relating to or even understanding the perspective of the world. We are no longer seeking to be all things to all people as Paul strove. We are recruiters for our Fraternity. Life is eternally pledge week on a college campus.

There is a lot of pride in Church but very little in Ecclesia. Because Church is about us an Ecclesia is about God.

 What would happen if everyone were to achieve salvation/ club membership in this perspective? I think the club would just split and they would focus on getting members of the other splinter group to migrate over to theirs.

Maybe the most important element is that we always have pride in our clubs. We have worked hard to make them better and to attract new pledges. There is a lot of pride in Church but very little in Ecclesia. Because Church is about us an Ecclesia is about God. One thing that struck me when I lived in Louisiana was how much talk there was about “Baptist.” That particular fraternity is very important to some people. I could never relate to that. For me, what is important is saving faith in Christ. I could care less what fraternity they decided to align with or even if they slipped off the Church radar into home churches (which can also be a fraternity). It is all beside the point. What is important is God. Not me. Not my club.

Rondall Reynoso


Rondall is an artist, scholar, and speaker. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Lee University in Cleveland, TN. He holds an MFA in Painting and an MS in Art History from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY and is completing a Ph.D. in Art History and Aesthetics from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.

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  • Sharon Irvine says:

    I am surprised at the assertion that the motivation for attending to a call for salvation may influence that individual’s assurance of salvation. Can we truly extricate the influence of authority in any child’s conversion?

    • Sharon, that is a fair question. I do however think this is a very important issue. A child choosing to obey a church authority figure and thus going forward in this instance is not the same as a child making the existential commitment to Christ. My concern in the situation I referenced is that the way the “call” was given made it so that any obedient child regardless of any change in their spiritual state could have (probably should have) gone forward. It was the only time I’ve seen a “call” handled so carelessly. If any of those children went forward out of obedience rather than because of true conversion I think it is very likely that they will struggle with assurance of salvation simply because they are not, in fact, redeemed.

      I think the motivation for responding to a call to salvation makes all the difference. From my perspective, the faith is entirely inward. If they respond out of anything other than a saving contrition then there is a reason for concern.

      • Sharon Irvine says:

        I suppose that I am personally reassured that salvation is a condition of the heart over time. This is, likely, my Wesleyan background surfacing. In this tradition, salvation is not a high-stakes moment that prescribes the individual’s future relationship with God. But rather, it is a commitment that is nurtured and developed by the Ecclesia. (I enjoyed that distinction and understand your description only as I understand men and women of God in my tradition). It is the decisions and actions of the individual after choosing salvation that describe the confidence and assurance of his or her relationship with God, or his or her salvation.

        Now, it may be that a child is overly impressionable and substitutes church persona for God. He or she may have been more likely to respond to the call. And, it is likely that as soon as the next wave of super cool people comes around (a term of trade in religious circles) he or she will abandon the rigors of commitment. This covered nicely in Matthew by the parable of the seeds.

        However, we are promised that whoever seeks will find. I cannot accept that an individual truly seeking God may be barred from finding God simply by virtue of the purity of the moment of salvation.

        I am thankful that God’s power is not limited by man’s narcissism and that he can manage his work even through an imperfect vessel.

        • Thanks for the clarification. I actually agree with pretty much everything you say. I do think there is a moment of salvation though I also think we may not always be able to identify it. It can be kind of like a boy not knowing exactly when he fell in love with a girl all he knows is at one point he didn’t love her but now he does.

          To clarify my point, I don’t think that an individual truly seeking God will be barred at all from finding him. The Wesleyan tradition and the Baptist tradition are actually fairly different on the issue of eternal security. In the Baptist world there is the doctrine often called Once Saved Always Saved or in a more formal context it is called the Perseverance of the Saints. So, in the Baptist world, at least some parts of it, these kids will be encouraged sometimes explicitly and often implicitly to not worry about their eternal state because they went forward at that kids camp. My concern is that some, maybe many, of these kids did not make a decision for God at the conference they simply were obedient to the leader. I think those are very different. Some of these kids will struggle because they never actually made a decision but the religious machine tells them they did.

          I will admit that part of my concern is with the Perseverance of the Saints doctrine. My own theology is more Classical Arminian, which has consonance with both Wesleyanism and Reformed theology. In some ways, it is a kind of midway point. I think that at times the Perseverance of the Saints combined with a type of easy believism plus throw in some Christian Nationalism and some people never fully consider their spiritual state or are lulled into s sense of security which down deep they know, or should know, is at odds with the truth.

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