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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Church Membership: Considerations for Abstention

There are, I would say, historical, practical, technological and theological reasons that believers choose to isolate themselves. Some are more valid than others, but each should be considered in the light of circumstances (historical/practical), effects of culture and human depravity (technological) and context (theological). I’ll address an example of each, in that order.

The Desert Church Fathers are historical examples of believers who isolated themselves intentionally and grew closer to God. Some significant names include Chrysostom, Augustine, Athanasius, and Anthony the Great. These men demonstrated that an isolation can be very edifying, indeed, and can help us divorce ourselves from our parochial attachment to the cultural dressings of our faith.

Yet, what these men did is not what those of today who abstain from the assembly do. First, these men of God did not have multiple media blaring at them with the worldview of secularism, did not go to a workplace every day full of ungodly people and events, and furthermore, subjected themselves to forms of purgation and single-minded devotion to God. Second, many of them were driven to the desert by persecution, not their distaste for other believers. Third, the vast majority returned to either a monastic community or to the church in the culture and made a huge impact upon the local and international church. These three differences make the desert fathers a rather unlikely example for ‘abstainers’ to claim as models for their lives.

An advantage that ‘abstainers’ have over the early fathers is technology and the availability of spiritually helpful resources even while absent. The printing press, the radio, the DVD, and the internet provide a massive volume of theological information that is beneficial to the believer. We can listen to sermon series’ while driving, read the works of the early fathers with a mouse click, and read any of a seemingly limitless breadth of written works, with new ones of value being turned out monthly or more.

Yet, the advantages proffered by technology have cultural baggage. The same media that provide edification can provide ungodliness. The printing press prints heresies, the radio spews unrestrained sexuality, the DVD can be a vehicle for Passion Conferences or for gangster movies (my vice), and the internet is rife with pornography, even when it isn’t being sought. Furthermore, it is far, far easier to blow off many of these helps because it is just as easy to ignore it, turn it off, or put it down as it is to engage it. Truly, because we humans trend to laziness and selfishness, these helps are more likely to be dismissed immediately if they challenge our beliefs, and are more likely to be ignored than benefited from. On the contrary, a group of believers with the best interests of the kingdom and their brethren in mind will not allow us to merely ignore the truths of Scripture, and a preacher or Bible Study leader is far less likely to be walked out on than an internet site we disagree with is to be ignored. Technological advances do not replace the edification of fellowship and teaching of live brothers and sisters in our presence.

We must also consider the theological emphases upon individual. Salvation is an individual event, with individual people who were foreordained before time brought to Christ in individual quickenings. In Acts 8 we read of the Ethiopian eunuch who was left with himself, the Scriptures, and the Holy Spirit as he headed home, where there likely were no other believers. In 1st John 2, we read that we do not need a man to teach us what is true and what is not, because the Spirit of Truth lies within us and will discern it for us. 1st Peter 2 discusses the priesthood of the individual believer, who as a priest is individually responsible for his own conduct, confession and worship.

These theological truths do not interfere with the descriptions of and prescriptions for the regular assembly of believers for kingdom purposes. A person is saved as an individual, but he then is part of the body of believers, as described in 1st Corinthians 12, and a body is deprived of a part and of its gifts when a member abstains. We do not need a man to teach us what is true, but the discernment of the Holy Spirit is not a license to avoid the prescriptions given to the church, which are numerous! They include communal constancy in prayer (Colossians 2), breaking of bread (1 Corinthians 11), giving of thanks (Ephesians 5), watching over one another (Hebrews 12), caring for one another (1 Corinthians 12, Matthew 25), Exhorting one another (Hebrews 3), bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6), loving one another (Hebrews 13), reproving one another (Matthew 18), submitting to one another in the Lord -which is pretty difficult by yourself (1st Peter 5), ministering in gifts (1 Peter 4), that offenders seek reconciliation (Matthew 5), private admonition and public rebuke if necessary (Matthew 18, 1 Timothy 5), to conduct the assembly in good order (1 Corinthians 14). All of these flow through the assembly prescribed to gather together (Hebrews 10).

Yet, as some have already pointed out, it’s awfully hard to find a church that does all of these things. It may even be that there are large geographical areas without such a church. Again, we can’t answer for the church unless we are the bishop/pastor/elder, but we must answer for our own obedience. The first thing that must happen for a church to move toward where it should be is for one person to do it.

What I present is that few of us realize what are some of the very important behaviors we should exhibit in our hearts and lives in the community of believers, and thus we neither demonstrate these behaviors nor understand the importance of a community that looks like something more than a tribe, social club, support group or fans of a sports team (thank, David!). The next few posts will outline what these critical behaviors are. I pray you will be as convicted about them as I have been.

4 Comments:

  • Hammertime,

    Thanks for your devotion to this blog. I really enjoyed this post. Your scripture references cogently point to the essential role of the local church in the life of the believer.

    Many Blessings,

    gomatter

    By Blogger gomatter, at 1/10/2007 10:35:00 PM  

  • Hello Hammer,

    I have seen your comments in David's blog and decided to hop over here and read what you have to say.

    A appreciate your tenacity in sticking with a body of believers, and five years ago, my wife and I would never have considered leaving the Church. Oh, we had left a couple of churches for disagreements over theology and ethical issues, but we never left THE CHURCH.

    Let me say that five years ago we were one of those families that was at church when the doors opened, and we were the ones to lock up after everyone left. All day Sunday and on Wednesday evenings.

    We have had a family tragedy, and it has been a tough time for us. However, we were particularly distressed by all the things which were going on in the church while we were distracted. Some of what has happened I would classify as bordering on heresy, and then there was some management faux pas which really unveiled an arrogant attitude on the part of leadership.

    The bottom line was the we felt we were no longer welcome at our own church ... and while we were still trying to decide, the senior pastor told another member that "they no longer attend here." Which I thought was interesting, since we had not made up our own minds.

    While that might constitute reason enough to leave a church, on its own, it is not justification to leave THE CHURCH.

    Unfortunately, while we were looking at other churches in the same denomination, we not only found similar problems in those churches, we also found that gossip about us was transpiring between them.

    In the end, we went to a small church in a totally different denomination. Things are far from perfect, but at least the sermons are clear, and on target, and we are outside the gossip machine.

    We are not sure if we will stay here for any length of time ... and if we do leave, we might just step out for a long while. Like David S., I am getting really disgusted with people who dabble in Christianity.

    To paraphrase Ghandi, "I love Christ, it is Christians I can't stand."

    Buz

    By Blogger Buz, at 1/11/2007 12:28:00 AM  

  • Gomatter, thanks for your commendation.

    Buz,
    Hang around for the series. I think you can benefit greatly from what I have benefited greatly from and am about to share.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 1/12/2007 09:37:00 AM  

  • Hammer,
    OK, I'm late, but I do have a couple of things to say in response to this post.

    "many of them [the Desert Fathers] were driven to the desert by persecution, not their distaste for other believers."

    This is a crucial point - the original Christian ascetics weren't driven by distrust or dislike of other Christians. No, they distrusted themselves. Their ascetism was an attempt to master their self, to draw closer to God by not allowing the sinful self to have mastery.

    Also, as you say, they weren't cut off. Although they didn't meet other people often, they did all live within the community and discipline of believers - many ascetics were renowned preachers and counsellors.

    "Technological advances do not replace the edification of fellowship and teaching of live brothers and sisters in our presence."

    Again, you're right here. The mere fact that a resource is available doesn't feed us spiritually. Nor, for that matter, does reading or listening to it. Only in the company of other people do our own blinkers get properly challenged.

    "We must also consider the theological emphases upon individual. Salvation is an individual event, with individual people who were foreordained before time brought to Christ in individual quickenings."

    Here, though, I think you're straying. (Your comments in the next post actually get closer to the mark, so I don't think we disagree fundamentally.) The Bible does not view salvation as primarily about the individual - the Incarnation wasn't so that individual human beings could be saved. No, God came to Earth to save the whole of Creation, to save all humankind and all of nature, to remake what was broken. There is no salvation of the individual without the salvation of Creation.

    That is not to say that salvation is primarily corporate, but to say that a focus exclusively on the individual (on my salvation, on my righteousness, on my faith) is neither biblical nor Christian. It is as members of the Body of Christ that we partake of salvation - only in relation to Christ and one another are we truly Christians.

    For example, you refer to 1 Peter 2, saying, "1st Peter 2 discusses the priesthood of the individual believer, who as a priest is individually responsible for his own conduct, confession and worship." However, that is not what being a priest is about. A priest is one who represents God, who intercedes with God for others. If we are a nation of priests (again, a group, not as individuals) then that says that we are the representatives of God before the world, and those who intercede with God for the world. Our priesthood is neither for ourselves nor assigned to us primarily as individuals - it's for other people and assigned because we are members of the holy group.

    "as some have already pointed out, it’s awfully hard to find a church that does all of these things...The first thing that must happen for a church to move toward where it should be is for one person to do it."

    This is the point, I think. If we look for a church that is perfect then we're doomed before we begin. Nothing in this world is perfect - including the church, individual churches and individuals Christians. If our local church is so antisocial or whatever that we simply cannot find a home there, that's one thing. But to say that, until we've found the perfect church we won't attend any church, is simple arrogance. Most particularly, it effectively means, "a church with whose positions I completely agree" - and therefore a church that will fail to challenge us properly.

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 1/25/2007 06:37:00 AM  

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