This is a long post, but I want to begin to respond to a few of the biblical issues that are raised in George Barna’s book, Revolution in regards to his understanding of the church. Indeed, for Barna, “capital C” Church, that mystical communion of all believers as the body of Christ is the point of the New Testament and never the pedestrian “small c” church of people who gather, worship, commit their lives, minister and live together. The first, though “invisible” is what matters. The local church is optional at best.
I will offer my own understanding of the difference and juxtaposition of Big C and little
C(c)hurch, but first I want to examine Barna’s own words:
“…when the word church appears in the Bible, it refers to people who are called out from society to be the full expression of Jesus Christ on earth. That reminds me of what being a revolutionary is all about: rejecting the norm and paying the cost to stand apart from the crowd to honor God.
“In fact, when the Bible admonishes us to gather together it does not imply that that should be a church service of congregational event [Cites Hebrews 10:25]. Such interaction could be in a worship service or at Starbucks….”
“In fact, there is no verse in Scripture that links the concepts of worshipping God and a ‘church meeting.’ The Bible does not tell us that worship must happen in a church sanctuary and therefore must be associated with a local church. It simply tells us that we must worship God regularly and purely, in spirit and truth…
“…the Bible never describes ‘church’ the way we have configured it. The Bible goes to great lengths to teach us principles for living and theology for understanding. However it provides very little guidance in terms of methods and structures we must use to make those principles and insights prevail in our lives. It seems that God doesn’t really care how we honor and serve Him as long as he is number one in our lives and our practices are consistent with his parameters. If a local church facilitates that kind of life then, it is good. And if a person is able to live a godly life outside of the congregation-based faith, then that, too is good.
“True Revolutionaries agree that being isolated from other believers—i.e. the Church (note the capital C)—is unbiblical. However, while they may not be integrated into a formal church congregation, they are not isolated from the Church. They may not belong to a specific collection of saints that engages in routines and customs at particular location and under the leadership of a specific individual or group. However, neither are they spiritual untouchables who have no connection to the global Church. Every Revolutionary I have interviewed described a network of Christians to whom he or she relates regularly and a portfolio of spiritual activities which he or she engages on a regular basis.”(p. 113-114)
Let me state at the outset that I intend to show that this is woefully deficient ecclesiology that is both dangerous to Christians and an inadequate exegesis of the Scriptures. (Again, Barna’s not entirely to blame here, most of us have been taught this kind of ecclesiology over the years. Indeed, I was, too.)
As I have said before, I’m a product of the success of mid-20th century evangelicalism that rightly restored and reignited the popular idea that God wants to not only save us from hell, but more than that, passionately desires to have “a personal relationship” with us. Unfortunately, what I (and most of us) heard in those kinds of messages is that we can have a personal and private relationship with Christ. And I wanted that. Not church, but Jesus. Shortly after I committed my life to following Christ, I bought a T-shirt that said “JC and me.” It was my not-so subtle way of sharing my faith and it described my new found belief perfectly. This wasn’t my parents’ religion, this wasn’t about tradition or ritual, it was just about “JC and me.” A sentiment that always sounds good until you start reading the Bible.
What is the earliest result of the very first Christian sermon? Peter preached the gospel and Acts 2:41-42 says “So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Not much “just JC and me” there. The earliest believers trust the good news about Jesus and join—through baptism—the fellowship of people who also trust this message.
Notice also that the first “spiritual disciplines” were all communal ones. They did not race home, have a personal quiet time and give up smoking, but instead, “devoted themselves” to “the apostles teaching” (shared beliefs), fellowship (shared relationships), breaking of bread (shared meals) and the prayers (shared spiritual life)” all expressed in a communal life together—in a specific group of people. Being a Christian did not mean committing to some “principles”, a “network of relationships” and a “portfolio” of practices that each deemed would personally help them to make God “number one in their life.”
Instead the passage goes on to demonstrate just how quickly and how completely the personal conversion experience reoriented a new convert’s whole communal life—with a specific group of people.
43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.
It’s really difficult to find anywhere in the Bible where, someone just “accepts Jesus” and then goes merrily on their way, seeking to live for God by themselves in whatever manner they see fit. It just doesn’t happen. Yet that is what so many of us do and what Barna is endorsing. We think that salvation consists of intellectual assent to the right statements and a desire to clean up one’s act. Well meaning Christians relegate the church to “support” and “assistance” for the individual journey of following Christ. Personally, it took nearly a decade of being a committed Christian before I realized how inextricable to Christian faith is the Community of Christian people.
Consider a couple of other things:
- What we could call a “non-churched Christian” today was considered in the first century to be a person “turned over to Satan”. (1 Corinthians 5:5, 1 Timothy 1:18. Admittedly this was a matter of church discipline that removed the believer from the fellowship, but the point is still the same. In the first century, to be outside of fellowship was considered a qite serious and even dangerous affair--vastly different than today.)
- 1 Peter 2:10 equates receiving God’s mercy with being part of the people of God (again, not just some mystical metaphor, but being part of the community of God’s people to whom they joined their lives) and NOT being part of the people of God with NOT receiving God’s mercy.
- The discussion of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 doesn’t address questions about how to be the “Capital C” body of Christ, but instead how Paul instructs a specific group of people how to celebrate the sacrament meal without alienating anyone or leaving anyone behind. He doesn’t tell the Corinthians, “If the way they are doing this meal isn’t helping your personal walk with Christ, eat at home or find some other supper (In fact, he says just the opposite!)
- Lastly for now, the biggest issue of the New Testament is the inclusion of Jews and Gentiles in one Church. That was not a metaphorical question, but practical, applicable and experienced in specific communities.
While Revolutionaries today “may not belong to a specific collection of saints that engages in routines and customs at particular location and under the leadership of a specific individual or group,” the most revolutionary thing about the first Christians is that they—both Jew and Gentile—did.