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Monday, October 17, 2016

A Chaotic Mess

Yesterday I mentioned one similarity between churches in 2016 and life in Israel in the time of the judges roughly three thousand years ago.

This was an era repeatedly characterized with the statements, “There was no king in Israel” and “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes”. There was, of course, God’s law, given to Moses, and the name of Jehovah, the God who had brought Israel out of Egypt into Canaan. These somewhat influenced but did not control the daily habits of Israelite worshipers. The revealed truth of God was thoroughly co-mingled with the thinking and religious influences of Israel’s pagan neighbours.

In short, Israel was a chaotic mess.

Micah’s Idol

In Judges 17 we read the story of Micah the Ephraimite, whose mother made him a silver image out of 900 pieces of silver to occupy a place of honour in his household shrine. Micah took his newly minted idol, enshrined it, and promptly ordained one of his own sons to be the family priest.

You see the confusion: Worship of Jehovah, good. Worship of Jehovah via idols in home shrines, exceedingly bad.

Later, an actual Levite (from the official “priestly tribe”) happened by. Micah bumped his son out of the job and procured the priestly services of the Levite instead for the princely annual cost of ten pieces of silver (less than 1% of what he’d earlier stolen from his mother), a suit of clothes and room and board, after which he enthusiastically declared, “Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, because I have a Levite as priest”.

Again, confusion: Levitical priesthood, great. Retaining a personal priest, not so great.

The Religious Stewpot

The sort of spectacularly muddled thinking that extracts a principle selectively from God’s law and stirs it into one’s religious stewpot — along with sinful traditions, outside influences, skewed motivations and outright disobedience — is truly impressive. Sadly, it is not unique to Micah or to Israel.

Most obviously, in the silver image we have idolatry. In the ordination of Micah’s son we have nepotism. In his confidence that hiring an actual Levite would lead to prosperity, we have superstition. In the building of shrines and the acceptance of household gods like the surrounding nations, we see Micah succumbing to peer pressure.

Worst of all, there was one house of God in Israel, not many, where at least three times a year every Israelite male was commanded to appear before the Lord. In the time of the judges, that house was located in Shiloh in the hill country of Ephraim, not far from where Micah lived. It was there the priests were to serve, not in the back yards of rich Ephraimites. Whatever motivated Micah to set up his own place of worship, it had nothing to do with living an onerous distance from the true house of God. Was it laziness, or ignorance, or perhaps a desire for fame and prominence? We don’t know, but whatever the motive, he was setting an awful precedent and disobeying the direct command of God.

Maybe he was just confused.

Props and Tropes

But let’s not get on our high horses here. While perhaps not so far down the road as Micah, many evangelical churches today are littered with the same sort of debris that characterized his attempts to serve Jehovah. Many of the spiritual props and familiar tropes associated with evangelicalism have their origins in places far removed from the New Testament:
  • The steeple derives from pagan Babylon and Egypt.
  • The platform and lectern are lineal descendants of the bishop’s chair and pulpitum, dividing clergy from laity.
  • The pew was unknown for the first thousand years of church history, but its ubiquity has turned groups of spiritually gifted worshipers all over the world into passive audiences.
  • The rigid order of service in most modern gatherings precludes the simplicity and spontaneity of first century worship.
  • The modern “pastor” is little more than a defrocked priest. He occupies a position of religious intermediary that did not exist in the early church. Modern “ordination” has no New Testament equivalent.
None of these things are necessary to the Christian faith; not a single one was taught by Christ or the apostles. And yet they have become some of the most readily-identifiable features of church life — and not just in high churches, but among evangelicals.

Pagan Christianity

I could go on. Dozens of extra-biblical and anti-biblical props, tropes, practices and habits of worship have crept into Christendom over the centuries. But Frank Viola and George Barna have already documented most of these in Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices.

I do make a distinction between the two sorts of influences. Not all extra-biblical ideas and practices are actually anti-biblical. It might be argued that one or two outside influences, traditions, superstitions or legalistic quirks might not negatively influence the development of church life in any serious way (after all, Micah’s nepotism was not the biggest problem he had in getting back to the real worship of Jehovah). In combination, however, these things can be deadly. Twenty or thirty of them working together have made many modern churches into institutions I suspect would be unrecognizable to the apostles were they to show up uninvited on a Sunday morning.

Seeking God

It is ironic that in all of his profound confusion, amidst pagan influences and bad practice, Micah appears to have been genuinely motivated to seek God, or at least to seek his blessing. So are many believers in the churches today.

My question is: If we actually found God amidst two millennia’s worth of religious clutter, would we even recognize him?

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