As my reading moves through the development of the church, I cannot help but compare that early ideal with the church of today. Attending many different variations and taking two years of church history has been educational but not always filled with happy discoveries. If ten people were asked about church and their opinion of it, the answers could vary from ‘the best thing in my life’ to a streak of cussing.
Both those first Christians and today’s believers are persecuted. Is it for the same reasons? Or has Christianity experienced changes that warrant some of today’s negative attitudes?
In the beginning, Christians were called members of the Way, likely based on Jesus’ words: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Then a believer called Barnabas teamed up with Saul (Paul) and worked together in Antioch until that church was thriving. It was here that believers were first called Christians. (Acts 11:26)
This name stuck. About then, some Jewish religious leaders believed in Jesus, but many began saying ‘NO WAY’ as they rejected faith in Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation. They clung to a belief system that they thought gave them opportunity to earn the favor of God by their own goodness. This is a major belief today yet an interesting thing happens with that belief — when those who hold it find out that their goodness is not giving them what they seek, they often move away from any religious beliefs.
The other options include saying God is dead or a myth, that sin is just a word, and there is no need for forgiveness, or salvation, and there is no afterlife. This nihilistic approach fails to satisfy the heart but some think it explains life and offers an way out of spiritual considerations.
However, the ‘organized church’ also has slid from salvation by faith into a philosophy of human reasoning with a first step of saying no to the idea that all have sinned and cannot please God by our own efforts. Instead of accepting Christ as the Way but not wanting to deny spirituality, sections of the ‘church’ stepped on a slippery slope where Christianity became a status, a thing to claim — going to church became a ‘respectable’ thing to do. In the Americas, believing in Jesus was much like saying “I believe in apple pie and the flag.” In other words, the condition of the heart does not matter because outward appearance is good enough. If people went to church, they seemed to be good people. Over many years, the church divided into people who genuinely follow Christ and those who just go. However, the Bible says:
But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his and let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.” (2 Timothy 2:19)
The standard of God has always been about sin that separates us from God. Sin is defined as running my own life instead of living as God directs.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him (on the Messiah) the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)
The NT is all about Jesus who bore our sin that we might be turned back to God rather than go our own way. However, the OT and our own experience shows that this takes more that personal efforts to be ‘nice’ and follow all the ‘rules.’ We fall short because our own efforts will not remove our sin. We need a Savior and if we cannot admit that, we are stuck with those personal efforts.
One of those efforts might be church attendance . . . and if that is all it is, it doesn’t work. In a local church made up of genuine believers, a sinful soul may be accepted by loving people yet they will be praying for his salvation. On the other hand, if that person attends a ‘liberal’ church that has changed the Gospel to one of ‘do your best’ they might feel more freedom, yet their unsaved condition has not changed. Church does not fix sin either.
Another solution is to redefine sin, salvation and wave goodbye to church because ‘it doesn’t work for me and it is only a building full of hypocrites.’ Sadly both reasons can be true.
This Sunday, someone new to our church said he liked the simplicity of it. The Gospel is preached, questions are answered, and the Bible is used — it is not a place to be entertained but to hear the truth.
Jesus said “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) He also talked about false teachers getting into His church. He knows who has stepped onto that slippery slope. He also knows who belongs to Him and promises to preserve His people and keep us from getting muddled.
Jesus, You know the true and the twisted, the claims of righteousness based on ‘how good I am’ or outward appearance. All through the ages, even when they were dark, You were building Your church. One day, You will reign and Your people will shine like the stars. In the meantime, may we be faithful to You in this mess of religious confusion.