I have discovered that it is easy to recognize when something is not right, but it is much more difficult to ask ‘why’ something is not right. Asking ‘why’ can be difficult because it may lead us to discover things that may change the course of our entire lives, as well as challenge our pre-conceived ideas that we consider normal and comforting. This article is not only an attempt to address a very important and dangerous problem within institutional Christianity, but to ask ‘why’ this problem exists and keeps repeating itself. I would like to ask you to read this article with an open mind. If you feel led, contribute your disagreement in a constructive way and add to the discussion by sharing your thoughts. If you indeed love the church (people), then we really do have the same goal.
Often times the problem I’m going to share is perpetuated by the same people who would agree that the problem exists. I would like to address the very serious problem of ‘factions’ (mistakenly called ‘local churches’) and why they exist. Let me explain…
Have you ever drove down a street (especially in the Bible belt) and noticed all the different ‘churches’ on all the different street corners? I know that I have, and it has perplexed me most of my Christian life. A couple of years ago, we moved from Columbus, Ohio to the ‘Bible Belt.’ God used this experience to open my eyes to some disturbing things that exist almost everywhere in this country, but is more visible and severe in the ‘Bible Belt’ so to speak. There was one stretch of road in the area that we moved to that literally had a church building every tenth of a mile. Sometimes they were even side by side! Some were big, some were small, and some were medium sized. Many of these buildings also had some type of pithy advertisement outside (advertising a sermon topic or some famous worship leader / speaker coming) that seemed to plead to people driving by to come to their 1.5 hour meeting that Sunday.
The competition seemed very stiff to say the least as each institution was desperately trying to get more & more people to ‘attend’ their weekly meetings. Some of these institutions tried to appeal to a younger crowd, while some emphasized their more traditional meetings to appeal to an older crowd. This is right in keeping with the American consumer and shopping culture. When one institution’s weekly meetings weren’t good enough, people simply left and went down the road to something better. While most institutional Pastors would agree this is a huge problem, most are also blind to the fact that their own system and understanding of the church is actually what keeps perpetuating the very thing they say they stand against.
If you’re like me, you have probably wondered how things got like this. After all, aren’t we all supposed to be one family? I have often wondered how these groups justify being separate from one another when they are, in some cases, literally right next to each other. (I know of one specific cinema that has 3 separate ‘church’ services in 3 separate theaters in the same building at the same time! This is no joke.) Rarely do the people, who attend the Sunday church meetings at one facility, have any meaningful fellowship with people who attend the facility next to them. If someone is asked why they don’t connect with anyone at the ‘church’ facility down the street, you might hear an answer like this:
“I am pretty involved in (enter church name here), and they ‘go’ to a completely different church. Why should I be involved with someone else from a different church?”
Although this type of behavior and attitude is normal today, it doesn’t take a theologian with a PhD to see that there is absolutely no example of anything like this in the New Testament. Even the people that I have talked to who are not Christian seem to know that there is something wrong with this picture. How can something that is supposed to be ‘one’ be so divided in identity and practice?
As a result, some ‘churches’ have attempted to fix this problem by trying to ‘collaborate’ a bit more. Recently while visiting a particular city in the Bible belt, I visited a very well known ‘church’ and had a conversation with one of its staff members. When the subject came to other churches in the area, the conversation went something like this:
ME: “So, are there many churches in this area?”
CHURCH STAFF: “Oh yes, there are many.”
ME: “Would you say there is much interaction between the churches in this area?”
CHURCH STAFF: “Oh yes, our Pastor really has a heart to work with the other churches in the area.” (said with excitement and a big smile)
ME: “Oh yeah, how’s that?”
CHURCH STAFF: “Well, we actually have an entirely different church that we let use our very own building for their weekly services and staff offices.”
ME: “Wow. That’s unheard of and quite generous.” (Tongue in cheek)
CHURCH STAFF: “Yeah, our Pastor really has a heart for all the churches in this area.” (more excitement and smiles)
ME: “Can I ask you a question?”
CHURCH STAFF: “Yes, sure.”
ME: “Is it a different church that you let use your building, or the same church?”
CHURCH STAFF: “Like I said, it is a completely different church. We like to work with other churches.” (Still smiling, but less enthusiastically)
ME: “I see. And you said that this is a completely different church that uses the same building?”
CHURCH STAFF: “Yes, that’s right.” (confused look)
ME: “Do you know why the church that meets on your property is not the same church, but a different church?”
CHURCH STAFF: “Well, because it is a completely different church.” (a more confused look)
ME: “Well I know that you said that it is a completely different church, but do you know what it is exactly that makes it a completely different church? After all, it is not location that keeps you guys separate because you guys are so close in proximity that you use the exact same building. So again, why are these two churches different churches?”
CHURCH STAFF: “Well…umm…(possibly thinking about this for the first time) because we have a completely different set of leaders, and different missional and doctrinal stances. They even have their own marketing materials as well.”
Bingo! That was the answer I was looking for, and I was also hoping this staff member would grasp the audacity of the situation. This is the reason that these church communities believed they were actually different ‘churches’. It all comes down to different communities of people being factioned around different sets of human leadership and different doctrinal stances. Again, it does not take a PhD in theology to see that this kind of example is foreign to New Testament thinking & teaching. Can you imagine one group of Christians in the city of Corinth saying they were a completely different church from another group of Christians in the city of Corinth? No way!
In the scriptures, you simply see the church of Corinth, Ephesus, Rome, Sardis, etc…There was only one church in these cities, and these churches were identified by which city they were located in, nothing else. Yes, there were many different local church communities that met in the same city (and no, they didn’t all meet together in one big group), but they all considered themselves a part of the same church. They didn’t organize around specific human leaders or doctrinal affiliations, and they didn’t have different church names that distinguished one group from another like we do today. There is no biblical evidence to support this practice. It was simply the church of Corinth for example. They all had Jesus in common, and He was the head of their specific local fellowships as well as the larger church across the city. Local church groups were simply identified by location. Church in Corinth was distinguished from the church in Ephesus because of location. Again, this had nothing to do with being factioned around a different set of leaders or doctrinal positions.
There was, however, a specific situation that arose with the church in the city of Corinth when the church tried to separate from each other and faction around 4 different leaders. One group wanted to be identified as followers of Paul, another as followers of Apollos, another as followers of Peter, and then there was the ‘super spiritual’ group that wanted to separate from the rest of the other groups and say they were following Christ. I’m sure these groups all had well sounding arguments as to why they thought they needed to be a separate faction from the others. I’m sure they liked these individual leaders and the teachings (doctrines) that each seemed to emphasize. That is why they wanted to organize a separate group around these specific people. This is no different than what happens today as we form separate ‘churches’ around human leaders. If Paul hadn’t stepped in, there would have been 4 different ‘churches’ in the city of Corinth. We would do well to consider Paul’s question to the Corinthian believers about this attempt to divide the body of Jesus into factions:
“Has Christ been divided?…” (1 Cor. 1:13)
The truth is Christ has not been divided, and His very own body here on the earth should reflect this glorious truth. Unfortunately, this is not practiced today. I know that this might sound harsh, but most of what we call ‘church’ planting today is nothing more than ‘faction’ planting. It is NOT church planting. Yes, the church (people) can be caught up in these ‘factions’, but what is really meant by ‘church’, is simply just another faction. How do I know this? Because I have done it!
I was trained and taught to be an institutional church planter according to the system that was passed down to my spiritual leaders. According to an institutional / factional understanding of the church, one of the first things that must be accomplished when thinking about a ‘church’ plant is the identification of a ‘point man’ or a human leader whom the faction will be built around. After all, who will lead this thing? Once the clergy figure is identified, then a faction of people can be built around them. Eventually there is a ‘mission’ or a doctrinal stance that they begin to rally around. Then they usually pick a name for themselves to distinguish themselves from the other ‘factions’ that are in their target area. Once they arrive at the city of their destination, they have simply added to the number of other ‘factions’ in the city that are calling themselves churches. This is a tragedy and it should not continue to be repeated because it has no Biblical precedent. This violates the basic premise of what the local church actually is.
So, what am I saying? Am I saying that local churches should not be planted? No way! I am saying that local ‘factions’ should not be planted. A local faction is built around a human leader(s) that rally around a mission / vision for the city, or a set of doctrinal tenants. (This is not a good thing no matter how noble the specific mission may be). A true local church must be planted around something much greater and more profound. Many people can agree and recognize that there is a problem regarding the factional institutional ‘church’ culture that I have mentioned in this article, but until we’re ready to recognize and destroy the systems of thought that actually fuel these factions, (and until we’re ready to do something about it), we’ll just keep perpetuating and validating the problem. The first step toward understanding what a local church actually is, is understanding what it’s not. We need a repentance (change of mindset) regarding the very nature of church itself before we will have eyes to see the Bride of Christ as she truly is.
So, do you have a factional understanding of the church?
I’d like to ask you to ponder some questions that may be revealing…
1. What is the basis of the relationship between you and others in your local church community? Is the basis of the relationship the fact that you both attend the same weekly meeting on Sunday or have allegiance to the same human leader(s) (pastor) or institution? If you answered yes to these questions, then you may have a factional understanding of the church. The basis of your ‘church’ relationships must be based on something greater and more profound.
2. When a brother or sister in Christ moves away or stops attending your weekly 1.5 hour ‘church’ meeting, do you forget about them, stop communicating with them, or stop viewing them as important family members? If the answer is yes, then you may have a factional understanding of the church. Our communication with them must be based on something greater and more profound.
3. When a brother or sister (IN CHRIST) disagrees with you regarding matters of doctrine, does that keep you from perceiving Christ in them and from valuing them as fellow brothers and sisters? Does this offence make you angry and keep you from having fellowship with them? If the answer is yes, then you may have a factional understanding of the church. You must be able to perceive something greater and more profound in them.
4. Do you belong to a ‘church’ simply because you greatly respect or have allegiance to a particular human leader or institution / denomination? If the answer is yes, then you may have a factional understanding of the church. Your commitment to a local church community must be based on something greater and more profound.
5. Are you aware that in New Testament times, there were occasions in which local churches were planted by church planters who then left the local church on their own BEFORE elders were present and recognized? Sometimes it was years before church elders / leaders emerged and were recognized. Do you know how these churches functioned? If you do not know these things, it could be because you hold to a factional understanding of the church. The local church, as described in the New Testament, was governed and led by someone greater and more profound.
6. Do you know what specifically (not generally) should hold Biblical local church communities together? If the answer is no, it could be because you have a factional understanding of the church. (HINT: A local church community should never be held together by a membership document, commitment to a human leader / institution, or a commitment to a specific doctrinal stance since these things are Biblically foreign ideas)
I hope some of these questions have been helpful for you. Blessings to you as you embark on this journey of discovery.
For His glory in the church,
(Note: This article generated a large volume of questions and objections that warranted a response in a separate article titled ‘A Defense Of The Indefensible- The Top 3 Objections Against My Last Article’ (click here to read this article)