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The Institutionalization of the Church

by David A. DePra

The church is not a building, organization, or a social club. The church is CHRIST IN US Ė that is Ė the church is made up of people in whom Christ lives, and who are IN CHRIST. That makes that church a living organism Ė a depository for the life of Jesus.

But how many churches do you know about that actually manifest the life of Christ? Now, I am not asking whether your church has a good statement of faith, or whether it teaches from the Bible. Iím not even necessarily asking about committees, missions, or sermons. Iím asking about whether the LIFE OF CHRIST is moving in your church.

Perhaps you think Iím talking about signs and wonders. Or speaking in tongues. Perhaps you think Iím talking about demonstrative worship and praise. No. Iím not talking about any of those things either. Iím talking about LIFE Ė His life. Is it manifest in your church?

Incidentally, Iím not saying that a good statement of faith, Bible teaching, committees, missions, praise, worship, or even signs and wonders, are necessarily bad things Ė as long as they are practiced according to scripture. No. Iím simply pointing out that the church is about the life of Christ in individuals and in the congregation. Where is that life today?

The Life of Christ

The life of Christ is resurrection life. Thus, wherever the life of Christ is manifested, there will be new beginnings. This will mean forgiveness, ability to overcome, and an on-going restoration of relationships. But not as THINGS unto themselves. Christ will be the reason and the focus.

The life of Christ is Truth. Thus, where the life of Christ is manifested, Truth will reign. Yes, this will mean it is taught, defended, and preached. But Truth is more than doctrine and theology. Where Christ is manifested, Truth is something that is being REVEALED to the people involved. And the result will be FREEDOM.

The life of Christ is holy. Thus, where the life of Christ is manifested, Christians will be repenting of sin and unbelief, and will be seeking to live lives pleased to God. But it wonít be because they are forced to under a threat of punishment. It will be because they want to.

The life of Christ is love. Christians will be growing to love each other in the Lord. This will not be a soulish love Ė wherein we do whatever makes people feel good about themselves. It will be the agape love of God Ė which is being committed to GODíS HIGHEST for the one loved, regardless of cost.

I could go on and go. But the picture ought to be clear. Where a church is on the right track, Christ will be the goal. Building up others in Christ will happen. The Truth will be taught. People will talk about what God is doing in their lives. They will want Godís will, and help others find it. These will be the manifestations of the life of Christ in a church.

But what might some of the signs be that the life of Christ is NOT moving in a church? Well, for one thing, lots of politics and power struggles. When the goal isnít Christ, the goal will end up being what people make it. And usually that will turn the church into nothing more than a religious version of any other organization you might want to find. I have often wondered whether, if you were able to turn off the volume in a church, whether anyone could tell, just on the basis of motives, attitudes, and goals, whether it even WAS a church. Politics and power struggles are everything in the church today. Read James 3:13-18 for starters, and you can see how God defines such situations.

Another sign that the life of Christ is weak, or absent, in a church, is that the church tries to manufacture it. Thus, we have campaigns and ploys and gimmicks to grow our churches. We have this new approach and that new approach. But where does the Bible even hint at such things? Nowhere. The fact is, LIFE grows. LIFE multiplies. It is a law that it does. If the life of Christ were truly in a church, that LIFE could not be contained. But when the life of Christ isnít in a church, people try to fill the void with the efforts of religious flesh. And guess what? It is entirely possible to build a big church that way. Lots of money, membership, and fame. And that church might even do some good things. But the question will always be Ė is there LIFE there?

And why isnít the life of Christ in a church? One reason: It isnít in most of the people. And certainly not in leadership. That is a fact. The church is only as alive as the collective people that make it up. Life cannot emerge from a group of spiritually dead people.

Another sign that the life of Christ is not in a church is more subtle, but just as alarming. The life of Christ is absent when people talk much about the Bible, and about teachings, but little about their personal experience with Christ. I have been in churches where the people spend an hour studying the Bible, and coming up with insights, but once the study is over, they almost NEVER talk about the Lord. There is something wrong there. If Christ is in you, you are going to be caught up with Him. It doesnít mean that every word that comes out of your mouth will be about Jesus, or that you wonít tend to everyday business. But you know what I mean? When His LIFE is moving, we talk about HIM.

Another variation of this same lifeless condition is when people get excited or disappointed about, "their church," but seldom about Christ Himself. This happens a lot. The church becomes the focus, and the THING, but not Christ. This is a danger signal.

I once knew about a group of people who one day decided that God had called them to start a church. They plugged away at it for a number of years, and then because they had not grown at all, in fact had shrunk, they decided to disband. When asked why they quit, the reply was, "Because our church did not grow."

First of all, it was evident that God had never been in their attempt to have a church. Why do people think that they can start a church, hand it to God, and that He is obligated to bless whatever we begin in His name? He isnít. Secondly, the answer as to why they wanted to disband betrayed their motivation for being together to begin with. They want to HAVE A THING called, "a church." They wanted to run a church; be in charge. And when it did not happen, they quit. One might ask them, "Were you not gathering together in the name of Christ? Were you not fellowshipping? Were you not preaching Godís Word?" Assuming the answer to all of these questions would be YES, then I might ask, "So what is the problem? In that case YOU ARE the church, arenít you? And you are BEING the church, arenít you? But no. They wanted members, money, and presumably the authority to run the show. This kind of motivation is more widespread than we can imagine.

A successful church is not one that has money, or members. The need for those is one WE have created by turning the church into an organization with bills. Rather, a successful church is one that has as its goal Jesus Christ. That church has a ministry that builds up others in Christ. In other words, a church that is in Godís will is ALIVE in Christ Ė because the individuals are alive in Christ. His life is governing, and is the reason why the church IS.

Dead Religion

Once LIFE IN CHRIST gives way to an organization about Christ, you eventually end up with dead religion. This is what happened to the subsequent generations after the apostolic age. They kept the FORM, and they kept the DOCTRINES, but forsook the LIFE. And as a result, the form and the doctrines even became corrupt.

When you sever the church from Christ Himself, and try to turn Christ into mere religion, you have severed LIFE. The result is DEATH.

This is a condition that continues right down to today. For example, God has given pastors and teachers in his church. They are GIFTS of the Holy Spirit. But despite giving a certain amount of lip service to that fact, how do most churches come to have a pastor? Well, they find someone with a seminary degree. They often look for someone who they believe will grow their church, and not rock the boat. They want someone who will basically do what he is told. They rarely want anyone who will challenge them. It is a sad fact that when seeking a pastor, most churches do not even DISCUSS the spiritual life of the church, and the impact that the prospective pastor will bring to that. This is almost totally ignored, even though it is the PRIME issue in the mind of God.

It is an unfortunate state of affairs today, but so many churches have leadership that has no business being in those positions. The mandates of scripture about leadership are ignored almost completely. Theological education and natural personality is the requirement for a pastor, and those running churches often have bad attitudes, with no idea what Godís mind is for his church.

I would never suggest that this is the state of affairs everywhere. There are many Godly leaders who are aware of Godís goal in churches. But as long as the goal is money, membership, and size, and the environment is political and power struggles, the life of Christ cannot move.

Christ cannot move in a church where these things abound because they first thing He will do if He moves is dismantle them. If you really want the life of Christ to move in your church expect big-time upheavals.

If Jesus Started All Over Again

Picture this hypothetical situation: Jesus Christ sends a message to His Body from heaven stating, "Starting tomorrow at noon, I am going to begin all over again with my church." Then He goes on to tell us what He means. He says, "Starting tomorrow at noon, all academic credentials, and all degrees, are eliminated from everyone in the Body of Christ. Furthermore, all ordinations of every kind are hereby dissolved. Beginning tomorrow at noon, there are no distinctions between clergy and laymen. Eventually, I will again call leadership in my Body. But starting at noon tomorrow, there will be none. I am starting over again on the right basis."

Jesus continues, "Effective at noon tomorrow, all denominations are hereby dismantled. Thus, all people in positions of authority, administrative or clergy, in those denominations, are hereby reduced to being nothing more than simple members of my Body. All churches as organizations are also dissolved. All ministries of all kinds are hereby non-existent. All the money which every church and ministry holds is to be turned over to a general fund which I will use at my discretion. All property which churches, or ministries called by My name hold, is to be handed over to Me as well."

Then Jesus begins to talk about His new direction for His church: "Beginning tomorrow at noon, there is only one thing which is going to matter to Me. And it is upon this one thing that everything else is going to be built. The only thing that is going to matter starting tomorrow at noon is your relationship to Me. Iím not talking about the, "religious you," or the, "church face," you put on, or the person you THINK you are. Iím talking about the REAL YOU -- who you really are TO Me. Starting tomorrow, I donít care about your credentials, degrees, intelligence, or natural gifts. We will never again talk about them. Additionally, I donít care about what you have done in the past, or what you think you deserve, or are qualified to do. Neither do I care about your failures of the past Ė as long as you acknowledge them. What I care about is who you are TO Me Ė the REAL YOU. Starting tomorrow at noon, that will be the basis upon which I build My church. Who do you say that I am? And what are you to Me, in response? My new beginning for the Body of Christ is going to be based on that, and that alone."

If Jesus sent such a message to us from heaven, many of us would not believe it was a message from Him. Perhaps we would resent Him for it. Or perhaps we would not understand it. What would your reaction be?

The sobering reality is that this hypothetical message is not hypothetical at all. It was Jesusí charge to His church from the beginning. The only thing hypothetical is that it isnít a policy that is going to be implemented tomorrow at noon. It was inaugurated over two-thousand years ago. Itís just that most of us have practically ignored it.

You see, most of what we think is important to Christ isnít important at all. He really doesnít care about my degrees, credentials, and ordinations. He doesnít define success as position, members, money, property, and as building a big denomination. Jesus never started those things, and while He has been quite merciful to work with individuals involved in them, He is never going to be in those things. Jesus is interested ONLY in what the above words say He is interested in: Our personal relationship to Him. There isnít the slightest possibility that anything else we do for Him, or present to Him, is going to change that.

The incredible thing about all of this is that there is going to come an end to this age. When, we cannot know. But when that end does come, we are going to have to face the very Truth that this, "hypothetical" situation presents. We are going to have to face the fact that the ground has ALWAYS been level at the foot of the Cross. Jesus doesnít care about whether we have degrees, credentials, or ordinations. Our natural gifts arenít going to matter. What we think we have done for Him isnít going to count either. He is going to care only about what we are in relationship to Him. And He is going to hold us accountable for the lives we have affected as the result of it in this age.

Christians by the thousands continue to think that their position in ministry or church somehow correlates to the amount of their eternal reward. It doesnít. Thousands believe that if they give money, or are used to saved souls, that they are earning a reward. They arenít. In the end, what we have supposedly, "done for God," isnít even going to be mentioned by Jesus at all Ė even though we might mention it. Again, despite all of the good and necessary ways in which we may have served the Lord, and been used of Him, it is going to come down to one thing: Our individual and personal relationship to Jesus.

What do we think we are going to be doing for all eternity? Well, specifics aside, we are going to be living with God forever! Well, how do we expect to be able to function in a relationship with God THEN, if we arenít functioning NOW? Do you see what I mean? I may think I am doing many things for God NOW, but what is my TRUE relationship with Him Ė in the secret places where no one can see but God? Does God REALLY have possession of me? Do I really belong to Him? Do I REALLY believe? Or I am in this thing for what I want to get out of it?

Right now, you have a relationship with Christ. And in one way or another, despite all of our games, religiosity, and self-righteousness, that relationship with Him is exactly what DEFINES US. Indeed, in the end, it is ALL that is going to define us. Examine yourself. Who are you in relationship to Jesus?

If Jesus started all over again tomorrow, how would we fit in? The good news, or perhaps sobering news, is that there is coming a day when everything in our hypothetical situation is going to actually happen. Jesus will return, and it will be a new beginning. And at that time, all that is going to matter is our relationship with Him.

There is more good news. Jesus isnít going to start over again with His church. But we can start all over again with HIM. We can do that as individuals, or we can do it as a church. There are always new beginnings with Jesus Christ.

The Day the Church Became

On the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit brought down the life of Jesus Christ, and all of those in the upper room were born again. The Holy Spirit had been with them, but as Jesus said, He would now be IN them. But just as those disciples were born again that day, so was the church born.

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why we know that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is not a second blessing, but is, in fact, CHRIST IN US. No one disputes that fact that the church was born on that day of Pentecost. But once we admit that, we have to admit that no one could have been born again before that day, for the church must be born precisely at the point that the members of the church are born again in Christ. Is not the church made up of those in whom Christ dwells? Yes. So the church was born that day only because it was on that day that Christ came to dwell in those disciples, and they were born again. This is one of the many proofs to the effect that Acts 2 was not a second blessing, but was actually the one and only blessing of Christ coming to indwell believers for the very first time.

But what I want us to see about Acts 2 is that Jesus never told the disciples to start a church. He never told them to start a movement. Not once in the NT, from the words of Jesus, or the apostles, do you ever hear a mention of the need to grow the church in numbers. In fact, Jesus never told the disciples to start anything. Rather, than start a church on the day of Pentecost, the disciples BECAME the church. The church wasnít started, it was born.

It was from that new birth Ė based on the fact that the disciples had received from above the very life of Christ within Ė that the church moved forward. Over the course of time, doctrines and teachings emerged from this new birth Ė as a necessary instruction as to what it all meant, and how to walk in it. Furthermore, there were likely various forms and practices that were shaped Ė ways to worship, and ways to meet, and how to meet. But all of those things emerged from Christ Ė they emerged as practical outworking of the LIFE. But they were NOT the life. The life was CHRIST IN THEM.

Can we see what happened? Over the course of time, the teachings, doctrines, forms, and the howís and whatís were KEPT. But the LIFE was lost. It was lost through unbelief, and it was lost through compromise. But it was lost. And what emerged from this was a church that was barely a hollow shell of what God wanted. In a few hundred years, this hollow shell, now corrupt even in itís teachings about Christ, gained power. And it came to rule the world for a millennium.

God, of course, wasnít defeated. He was quietly building His body. But for the most part, no one could see it. The Body of Christ has nothing to do with the church that is in the public eye. Those who had Christ in them were peasants, farmers, and people whose name we will never know in this age. The Body of Christ consists of those who have been in Christ over the last two thousand years. And the organizations and the buildings and the leadership and the educated have nothing to do with who is in the Body of Christ. It didnít then, and it doesnít now.

I say it again Ė the church isnít about where you meet. You are no more right with God because you meet in a home than if you meet in a church building. And the church isnít about what you DO when you meet. You can have hour-long worship services and praise, and have a hundred people seem to work signs and wonders. Whether those things are of God is another matter to be considered. What does matter is that the church is CHRIST IN PEOPLE. And until we get back to that, there is going to be nothing more than a hollow shell.

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