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Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Is Your Church Irrelevant?

As Jesus died, the heavy, ornamented curtain of the innermost sanctuary in Jerusalem’s temple was violently and miraculously ripped in two from the top down. In that single moment in time the religion of Judaism became utterly irrelevant to the plans and purposes of God for centuries to come.

Nobody knew that, of course. Not at first.

Things carried on just as they had before the Jewish religious authorities conspired to crucify God’s son. The temple services took place as usual. We’re not told, but it’s almost inevitable that temple servants, blissfully unaware of the significance of the miracle in front of them in all its profound and wonderful symbolism and determined to maintain a 420-year tradition, took the torn curtain, repaired and restored it to its place.

Even after Pentecost and its divine establishment of a new Body of believers on earth of which the glorified Christ is Head, the young church continued to dutifully attend temple services and meet together on temple property.

They could not possibly know how irrelevant it had become.

Creeping Off to Die in a Corner

Even the apostles took a while to figure that out, and the Holy Spirit had to employ a vision and a miracle to convince them the Mosaic Law was no longer in force. Then it took repeated instruction from the apostles to get that truth through to believers.

It was a major struggle in the first century to get churches to comprehend that Grace had eclipsed Law, and an even bigger struggle to keep them that way. Today legalism remains one of the most frequently fought and heated battles within the Church, and it is the Law of Moses that is nearly always the reference point to which legalists appeal.

When some aspect of religious life has become irrelevant, whether by decree of God or through the sinfulness of man, it does not creep dutifully off to die in a corner. No, quite often the majority of religious people carry on doing exactly what they have always done until circumstances force their hand.

How Does Irrelevancy Happen?

Many local churches and denominations today are irrelevant, not because of a change in the way in which God deals with men but because they have made themselves irrelevant by choice, just as Judaism had become a mockery of itself in the time of Christ. He was compelled to approach — as a complete outsider — a religion that foretold his coming and exhibited his character in every aspect of its rituals and writings. He came to his own and his own did not receive him

Aside from changes in the dealings of God with man, irrelevance happens in at least two ways: traditionalism and innovation.

Judaism exhibited both evils:

The Error of the Pharisees

Tradition is perfectly fine until it clashes with truth. Jesus asked the Pharisees, “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”

Traditional encrustations that impede the spiritual functioning of the Church as Christ intended it are manifestations of the same deadly, mechanical attitude as that of the Pharisees. Many churches, enamored of their history and their great men of the past, are prepared to sacrifice their futures for that with which they are comfortable and familiar. They strain out gnats and swallow camels. The “weightier matters” of church life are foreign territory to them, but woe unto us if we’d like chairs instead of pews or hymns in language that can be understood by the current generation.

The Error of the Sadducees

Innovation can be as toxic as traditionalism. With no evidence for resurrection beyond the eye of faith, a sect arose within Judaism that denied life after death entirely. The Sadducees were rationalists and cynics. Their novel approach to interpreting the Old Testament would appeal to the same crowd who deny the literal truth of much of the Bible today. The hypothetical scenario they laid out to trap the Lord was essentially intended to make belief in resurrection look silly. If you can make something appear irrational and ridiculous, it is easy to get others to dismiss it.

The logic of the Sadducees is employed in many churches and denominations today: promoting roles for women that are antibiblical by appealing to “equality”, justifying sin on the basis that the impulse behind it is natural and normal, and so on. Look folks! they cry: we’ve discovered what this verse REALLY means.

There is nothing wrong with innovative application of New Testament truth to our current circumstances, and in fact it is urgently needed. But there is everything wrong with novel reinterpretation of a text that has been with us for 2,000 years.

Traditionalists and innovators are all around us. Churches and denominations today are polarizing, headed pell-mell for one error or the other. But both tradition and innovation lead to the same destination: irrelevance.

Are We in the Same Boat?

Is the Church in the same place today as Judaism was after the death of Christ?

Not exactly. The Church can never be irrelevant. It is the Body of Christ, the wife of the Lamb, a spiritual house.

Individual churches, on the other hand, can certainly become irrelevant, and many are doing so at breakneck speed. By “irrelevant” I mean that God has ceased to work through them corporately, as he ceased to work through the Pharisees and religious rulers of the Jews as a group. There was still truth to be had in the Old Testament, of which the Pharisees were de facto custodians. There were still individual Jews who believed and obeyed. But the masses were sheep without shepherds. Judaism had become irrelevant, and proved it by crucifying its own Messiah.

In the book of Revelation, we find the risen Christ pictured as standing outside a local church, just as he once stood outside Judaism. For those in such churches who seek fellowship with their Saviour, it is necessary to open the door to him, since their church doesn’t acknowledge his knock or desire his presence. One wonders exactly what the point is of calling yourself a church when you have left the Head of the Church on your doorstep.

Local churches today are perfectly free to accommodate rationalism or traditionalism to whatever extent we wish.

What we are really courting is irrelevance.

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