Nesting Doll Religion

on , , , ,

1 comment

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. (1 Cor. 12:12)

I come from a conservative church background, so when I made the eyebrow-raising decision to join a charismatic Vineyard church seven years ago, I was all but renouncing my faith. When Amber*, another lifelong member of my conservative church, left to join the Vineyard church, our former pastor and several of his church members openly speculated about her salvation.

A little while later this same pastor met with Amber, warning her against her choice by making all sorts of claims about the Vineyard movement. By this time, though, she had already met with the Vineyard's pastor to learn about his beliefs, and she got to know the beliefs of her new Vineyard friends as well. So as she sat in this meeting with her former pastor, she already realized that he didn't actually know what he was talking about. Of course the Vineyard wasn't perfect, but he made claims about the Vineyard that came from rumor, not fact, and she--timid but with a clear conscience--corrected his misunderstandings. And she's been a member of the Vineyard church ever since.

When I heard this story, I wondered how I would feel if someone questioned my salvation simply for changing denominations. I'd probably be upset at whoever was spreading that kind of slander about me. But then I'd realize that the problem is bigger than this one pastor, bigger than his church, and bigger than his denomination even.

I spent six years at that Vineyard church, and I saw a few of them (not their pastor, though) do the same thing--I saw an elder, a youth leader, and another program leader question the salvation of people from other churches, specifically people who fit their definition of legalistic. And their definition was pretty broad too--it included anyone who focuses "too much" on Bible study and theology. (Funny enough, their definition includes Jesus--I don't think they realized just how studious He had been, even as a child!)

Years later I'm still scratching my head over why it's so easy for people to set up their own religion within a religion, like a system of nesting dolls. The biggest doll is Christianity. The next biggest could be evangelicalism. The next, "umbrella groups" with similar views. The next, individual denominations. The next, individual congregations. And the smallest, individual believers within the congregations.

But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it. How strange a body would be if it had only one part! Yes, there are many parts, but only one body. The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” (1 Cor. 12:18-21)

These religions within Christianity each have their own idols and sacrifices. They slander people who don't belong, and make false accusations about them. They decide who is and isn't really saved. And they convince themselves just how right they are to be separate from the others in the Body of Christ.

Why are we prone to doing this? Maybe people are afraid of anything that's different and out of their comfort zone. We know that in the end God will join believers of every tribe and tongue and nation, which seems to suggest a little diversity there. But I guess everyone assumes that God will show the others how *our* denomination really had it right, and how in God's wisdom heaven will be structured exactly like our home church. Won't that be divine?!!

On the other hand, maybe the answer is about human pride, and the pride of correct doctrine. We think we've got all our doctrinal ducks in a row, and our denominational chest swells as we gleefully, sheepishly, piously, humbly shine our light of truth so that wayward believers can find their way onto our membership roster. But it isn't just the dogmatic types that can feel pride of correct doctrine. As Jerry Bridges points out in "Respectable Sins" even believers who dispise theology and doctrine can feel pride in their own ideas about faith.

Where do we Christians get our ideas from, I wonder? We assume it comes down to people having different interpretations of God's Word. But thinking over what I've witnessed these last 10 years, I'm realizing the problem goes much deeper: People aren't reading God's Word.

For six years I attended that Vineyard church and I saw people say they wanted guidance from God about one issue or another. The assumption was that they wanted it to come through prayer or a word of knowledge. Either they didn't realize or didn't want to realize that God had often already given the answer in His Word.

One Vineyard church elder and I chatted about Scriptures on the topic of accountability among members of a congregation. This elder used their own reasons to explain away every verse on this subject. This person was so concerned about all the mistakes that believers *might* make in trying to hold each other accountable that they thought it best not to have accountability at all. In blunt terms, this person trusted their own wisdom over God's Word.

On another occasion, a Vineyard youth leader said how uncomfortable they were around deep Bible study because it reminded them of leglism. Bible study leads to legalism, which leads to hypocrisy, arguments and division in the church, they said. Now I want to pause a moment and acknowledge the incredible damage that the Church has suffered because of graceless faith and legalism. The threat is real, and I understand why they would feel this way about Bible studies and theology that sound more dogmatic than life-giving. The problem, though, is when they treat the Bible as though it's contagious and can spread the disease of hypocrisy if you get too close.

This is true for more conservative churches too, because many of the traditions they defend so fiercely are nowhere found in Scripture. Many ideas I was raised with in my conservative tradition, which I thought were just about on par with the Ten Commandments, are based more on human emotion and comfort than on Scripture. Tradition is where some of these believers find their safety and security, and it's why they fight so hard against any ideas to the contrary.

People prefer their own wisdom over God's. No wonder it's so easy for new 'religions' to pop up within the Body of Christ. The Church of the Eyes claims to see truth better than everyone else. The Church of the Nose can smell out the enemy better than anyone else. The Church of the Right Big Toe says "I've always done it this way and so should you" and, well, you get the idea. And everyone decides who's in and who's out, who's saved and who isn't.

So what have I taken away from all this? When it comes to charismatic churches, I've learned to be on my guard. Believers who are well-meaning want to emphasize love and grace and peace and healing, all of which are good and were God's idea to begin with, but they may be trusting in themselves and their methods more than in God's Word. I'm on my guard at conservative churches too: those well-meaning believers want to be sure everyone's on the straight and narrow, but again, they may be trusting in their traditions more than in God's Word--so their version of the straight and narrow might be more like a dark cluttered alley on the wrong side of town.

My advice: If there's ever a question on your heart, some people may tell you to pray about it (which is good) or they might give you the church's traditional answer to it (which may or may not be good). But they might not know that God has already answered your question in the Bible. Worse, they might not encourage you to look for it in Scripture.

Meanwhile, if we don't know the whole Bible, and know it well, we'll be easily convinced of something that could be totally taken out of context. It's important to know the whole Bible, and to know all of it deeply. And if Scripture doesn't seem clear, then read up on it, far and wide, among theologians who've studied the original languages, whose insight is reliable, who exude an attitude of grace, who aren't afraid to challenge popular trends OR established traditions if they don't line up with Scripture. And if it really is a grey issue, a good theologian will be honest about that too.

God will never disagree with Himself. If it sounds like He's telling you something, or telling somebody else something through prayer or a word of knowledge or church tradition, test it against Scripture. If what people tell you is true, then Scripture will bear it out. And if it isn't true, God's Word will show you that too.

And then He'll show you how to get along with a bunch of believers who seem to bicker about everything. I don't know about you, but sometimes this one makes me want to hide in my own nesting doll on a deserted island in another galaxy! Then He reminds me to just keep studying His Word, build bridges with other believers, and encourage everyone to do the same! :)

*These stories are real, but names have been changed.

1 comment