A voice in the wilderness -Series

Let My People Go

(What Has Gone Wrong With The Church?)

It is almost axiomatic to say that in the last hundred years or so we have seen some sweeping changes taking place in the way we think about ourselves as Christians and the way we ‘run’ our churches and do our ministries. What is most disturbing about these changes is that there is hardly any voice being raised. We have yielded to influences from the world with nary a thought or a question raised. It is true that the church has been influenced in different ways right from first century onwards. But some such influences are nothing but blatant worldliness and instead of resisting the world, we cavorted with it and went a whoring with it.  For listen to the words of prophet Jeremiah,

“Has a nation changed its gods, 
Which are not gods?
But My people have changed their Glory
For what does not profit.
Be astonished, O heavens, at this,
And be horribly afraid;
Be very desolate,” says the LORD.
“ For My people have committed two evils:
They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters,
And hewn themselves cisterns—broken cisterns that can hold no water.
“ Is Israel a servant?
Is he a home born slave?
Why is he plundered?
The young lions roared at him, and growled;
They made his land waste;
His cities are burned, without inhabitant.
Also the people of Noph and Tahpanhes
Have broken the crown of your head.
Have you not brought this on yourself,
In that you have forsaken the LORD your God
When He led you in the way?”[1]

Today we find God’s people living as home born slaves, with no hope of deliverance, for that is the meaning of a home born slave. A slave bought at the slave market could be bought out of slavery but a home born slave remains a slave all his/her life. When you look at the condition of churches and Christians in many nations today one wonders if this is not what the Lord is saying to the churches today too. I believe that the Lord is calling us out of our bondage and the word of the Lord is to the leaders, teachers, preachers and shepherds of His flock, “ Let my people go, that they may worship me.” We have enslaved the people of God again bringing in practices, models, structures, and formats alien to the teaching of the Bible in general and more specifically to the New Testament. In the following pages we shall look at such influences of the world, which have enslaved us for centuries and have prevented is from enjoying the fullness and the freedom promised by the Lord.

1. Let My People Think

Matter and Spirit Dualism

One of the major influences over the church which began almost at the time if its inception, which has remained with us to this day and which has been debated and written about quite extensively is the influence of both platonic and Gnostic thinking over Christianity; especially in the way we perceived reality, as dualistic – of matter and spirit. Spirit as being superior to matter, that matter is evil and that the spirit is good. This not only encouraged the sacred and the secular divide in the way we constituted our life in general but also in the way we understood ministry and the church. But most importantly it also influenced our thinking in terms of how we perceive our life on earth and our understanding of heaven. This has given rise to what I would call as ‘heaven-fixation’ such that our focus in Christian living had become preparing ourselves to go to heaven. We began to emphasise and define spirituality in terms of pious living and godliness. Historically, being spiritual and godly included, good neighbourliness, compassion, upholding justice, living upright lives, purity of character, life of honesty and integrity. This is evident both from the letters of the apostles to the churches, the early church history, the pietistic movement of the 17th Century Europe, Puritanism, or even the modern Evangelical movement to a large degree. But the heaven-fixation in most Christian thinking lead to a strong and imbalanced focus on preparing ourselves for heaven rather than learning to live a life worthy of our calling here on earth as well – such that as someone wryly noted that ‘we were so heavenly-minded that we were of no earthly use’.   This can be easily seen both in the hymns that we composed and sang as part of our worship but also in the way we understood evangelism and missions. Such a focus lead to the neglect of any balanced understanding of life neither on earth nor about any solid thinking regarding earth and matter as created by a good God, pronounced good at creation and the implications of such an understanding both for our soteriology, eschatology and for a biblical understanding about our ecology. My argument is that this kind of a dichotomy in our understanding about matter and spirit which leads to neglecting the life of the mind.

The influence of platonic and Gnostic thinking upon Christianity has been well researched and written about by worthier minds down through centuries and one can find fine books on the topic in any good book store or library. I shall not dwell on it any further except to say that we are so strongly enmeshed and its insidious roots so deeply entrenched that even centuries of teaching does not seem to root it out from us. This does not mean that we resign ourselves to it and just live with it nor does it mean what we throw up our hands in despair. What we need is perceptive teachers and leaders under the grace of God who would mentor and disciple the people of God with wisdom and patience. Or to put it in the words of Paul, we need men like David, who “…served his own generation by the will of God” (Acts 13:36) and “… shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart, and guided them by the skilfulness of his hands.” (Psalm 78:72). Or men like Moses, who built the temple according to the plan shown to him on Mount Sinai. In Exodus 40, we read several times, “ Thus Moses did; according to all that the LORD had commanded him, so he did.” Then and only then we also read,   “Then the cloud covered the tabernacle of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tabernacle of meeting, because the cloud rested above it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.”

Let My People Worship

Sanctuary Worship

But another major influence from early times, about which we hardly read or hear anyone talking about is the influence of neighbouring faiths, including Judaism upon Christian worship. One such influence that has had a deeply debilitating effect not only upon how we worship but also on the way we understand church, its place and witness in the world is what I refer to as ‘sanctuary-mentality’ to worship. The idea of a house of God, house of worship or house of prayer referring to a physical structure of a building, temple, or a cathedral is alien to New Testament thinking. This is evident both in the words of the Lord in John 4:23-24, His general teaching as given to us in the gospels and also the apostolic writings. We certainly do read about Christians/believers gathering from house to house and also on the first day of the week. We do know that often such gatherings took place in homes, in Jewish synagogues and wherever they could meet. But we do not read either the Lord, the apostles or the early church fathers emphasising construction of places of worship, or any physical structures, which were to be identified as churches.

Sanctuary-oriented worship has also given rise to the need for administrative and organisational structures. It also made it necessary for ecclesiastical orders and liturgical forms. And in the 21st century, in our desire for ecstatic worship we have reduced it to a mere charismatic performance of a few minutes on a Sunday morning.   It is true that these do have a tremendous amount of aesthetic and sentimental value. It is also true that these forms and structures do help in Christian devotion and in the larger issue of Christian belonging and do safeguard the believers from being scattered in the world. But on the other extreme is the fact that we have ghettoised the church instead of being diffused as ‘salt and light’ in the world. It is also true that these brought in not only different kinds of power dynamics and politics into the church leading to perennial animosities and deep fissures. Today we almost see a global phenomenon of churches strapped with power politics over buildings, organisational issues, and leadership struggles so much so that many ‘churches’ are embroiled in endemic court cases against their own brothers and sisters in the Lord, spending astronomical sums to escape legal tangles. And in order to perpetuate our hold we indulge in cheap parochialism, nepotism, favouritism, partiality and compromising truth and honesty.

The point I am making is that these forms and structures have enslaved us rather than releasing us to worship the Lord in Sprit and in truth. And so the Lord says to us again –“Let my people go that they may worship me.”

First, we must remember that these forms and structures might have social and organisational value but they do not have any scriptural sanction. It is true that one cannot argue a case from silence but it can be safely deduced from the references made both by the Lord and the apostles that worship in the New Testament era is not sanctuary-oriented. I would go one step forward and suggest that a word study of worship in scripture clearly indicates that worship in NT is service-oriented. Worship is not something that is done just for a few minutes on a Sunday morning cloistered in a building. Worship is how and why we live the way we live out their in the world, visible in life-styles of loving sacrifice in the service of people for the love of God. We were not meant to build structures of political, administrative, financial power but to deny ourselves such trappings of identity, security and power.

I wonder if this is one reason why the Lord has allowed the huge cathedrals in Europe and USA to become empty in the last century, so that worship could go back into our lifestyles and not be enshrined in buildings and live our lives out there in the world as followers of Christ.

This kind of ‘sanctuary’ mentality has also given rise to a very cultic and narrow understanding of church and worship. So much so for most people including a majority of Christians, church is something that you attend or go to on a Sunday morning. Nothing could be further from the truth. Can you see how narrow and enslaving this kind of thinking is? Can you see how it has given rise to all kinds of corruption and evil for the sake of building, safeguarding and perpetuating these forms? And also how such structures encourage power-politics in the name of stewardship?

Church is people called out of the world to belong to God, but are scattered in the world to love and serve others because of their love for God. They gather together as often as they can, for fellowship through the ministry of the Word of God. But today our understanding of the church is so secularised and institutionalised that we are hardly in a position to even visualise or think of anything different. And we tend to read back into scripture from our present skewed thinking rather than unravelling what the scripture teaches.

To Be Continued….

[1] Jeremiah 2:11 – 17.


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