Sunday, July 28, 2019

The True Church

The world is full of religious people who don’t have any use for actual instruction from God. When we come across them today, we should not be surprised. They have been around since the very beginning of human history. They like the trappings of institutionalized religiosity but have no use for the spiritual reality these forms and conventions too easily conceal.

Cain was no atheist, no secular man. He observed the formalities. He made offerings to God. He spoke to God directly, and God spoke to him both before and after he murdered his brother, giving moral instruction where both surely knew it would never be heeded.

It didn’t help Cain any, but you can’t say God didn’t try.

Circumventing God’s Will

Then there is Balaam. Balaam was a prophet from the mountains of Aram (modern day Syria). He was no local Moabite oracle. In hope of having the nation of Israel cursed, the king of Moab persuaded him to travel the better part of two hundred kilometers on the back of a sometimes-reluctant donkey. Balaam had an established reputation in his field, and King Balak wanted the best. He said, “I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” Things like effective blessing and cursing do not generally happen unless God is involved.

And God was. He spoke to Balaam personally and repeatedly. He told him exactly what to do and say. Among the prophets of his day, to the best of our knowledge only Moses was more privileged in this regard.

And yet Balaam spent almost three chapters in the book of Numbers trying to circumvent the revealed will of God. Though well aware that God is “not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind,” Balaam tried unsuccessfully on five separate occasions to get God to do precisely that, later conspiring to injure Israel another way, and thereby hastening his own demise. Evidently he did not stop to benefit from the content of his own prophesies.

How can anyone account for that? Balaam understood both God’s character and his power. He interacted with God personally on numerous occasions, yet did not retain sufficient knowledge of God to discourage him from trying unsuccessfully to maneuver around God’s revealed will.

Truth No Longer Weighs In

One more. The chief priests, scribes and elders of Judah challenged Jesus to tell them on whose authority he was teaching, preaching and healing the sick. Jesus responded to their question with another question, asking “Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?”

Now, if you were to ask that of the disciples, they would surely have answered “from heaven” without hesitation. Even if they had been quite theologically ignorant on that particular point, which they were not, it was characteristic of eleven of the twelve disciples to pursue truth. They were looking to do the things that pleased God. They often failed, of course, as do we all, but they failed in the process of trying to do the right thing, not because they were obdurately turned in the wrong moral direction.

Thus, confronted with a question they could not answer, they would have put their heads together and tried to find the most honest, accurate possible response. One might have offered, “Well, it certainly seems like John came in the spirit and power of Elijah.” Another might have pointed out that John had been willing to die for his beliefs. They would have weighed the evidence and, right or wrong, given Jesus a forthright answer to his question.

The deliberations of the chief priests, scribes and elders are a fascinating study in pragmatic dissembling. It’s about nothing more elevated than self-preservation and maintaining appearances. Luke records, “They discussed it with one another, saying, ‘If we say, “From heaven,” he will say, “Why did you not believe him?” But if we say, “From man,” all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.’ So they answered that they did not know where it came from.”

In short, the so-called men of God decided to lie through their teeth.

These were religious men, yet with them truth did not even get to weigh in. The will of God got not so much as a passing nod. Far be it from the religious authorities to consult the Old Testament. Rather, their considerations were entirely personal and pragmatic, much as were Balaam’s and Cain’s.

A Spirit in Opposition

How does something like this happen? These men were the God-constituted moral authority for his people. Jesus upheld their authority, saying, “Do and observe whatever they tell you,” even as they challenged his. Yet despite having the Law of Moses, the Psalms and the Prophets, despite possessing the authority of God and the respect of the people, these men were not merely ignorant of God’s will but aligned against it and acting in direct opposition to it.

The spirit at work in Cain, Balaam and the chief priests is still at work today. He has been plying his trade under the guise of institutional religion for nearly 4,000 years. Secularism, materialism, atheism, agnosticism and half a dozen other “isms” have taken their best crack at the Church which Jesus Christ is building, but nothing is more dangerous to that project than religious men.

Religious men who have genuinely heard God’s voice. Religious men who can tell you what God is really like. Religious men who have seen him at work and understand his power. Religious men who sit in the modern equivalent of the seat of Moses, and who, from that privileged position, have shared truths that have been a blessing to many.

Religious men who know exactly what the word of God teaches, but who refuse to do what it says.

Apostasy Underway

When the institutional churches eventually reach the state of utter apostasy (assuming they are not there already), when the Protestant denominations begin to behave like institutional churches (a process which is nearly complete), and when even the non-denominational evangelicals act so much like denominations that they are functionally indistinguishable from one another (and signs of this are everywhere), it will not be because the churches have been persuaded to embrace open unbelief, but because they have gradually surrendered themselves to a counterfeit religiosity that apes devotion to God, all the while methodically circumventing his expressed will and teaching others to do the same.

Be sure God has not been caught by surprise. In the days of Elijah, fourteen thousand knees in Israel never hit the dirt in deference to the false god Baal. God preserved himself a remnant. During the Tribulation period, God will preserve a further 144,000 Israelites blameless in a time of absolute apostasy. Be sure he is doing the same thing today.

The True Church

What would the true church look like, the one Jesus Christ is building?

Well, compared to an intemperate man of the soil physically well equipped to defend his pride and crush his perceived enemies, it would look quite a bit like poor, defenseless Abel. Not very impressive. He probably never saw Cain coming.

Compared to a great Aramean prophet renowned hundreds of miles from home, and hoping to receive the wealth of a lifetime in exchange for his services, it would look a lot like a bunch of former slaves wandering in the wilderness. Surely the true God could not be dwelling amidst that rabble … could he?

Compared to the Pharisees and Sadducees, it would look a lot like a rag-tag group of fishermen, despised tax collectors and known insurgents. Very unofficial. Very un-institutional. Very unlikely.

That’s what the true church looks like today. That’s what it will look like tomorrow. In fact, that’s what it’s always looked like.


  1. Hmm, I am wondering if you've got it right here. First, I have noticed from what I have read here so far that you seem to have, for some reason, an issue with institutionalization. Now I wonder if that is true in general or just with regard to religiously aligned institutions. I can understand and agree with that in general because, institutions, e.g., a News organization as we see nowadays, can simply turn bad because of the leadership holding prejudices, being biased and so on. And that I think is why institutional structure can be bad. But that does not always impugn all of the institutional cohorts and does not imply that institutional structure is worthless or always useless. After all institutions are nothing more than an organizational skeleton enabling people to hold things together and manage better. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. As far as I know and experience all the time, the individual attending to services and worship in a church organized as an institutional entity has by no means left their intellect, sound judgement and opinion at the door when entering the institutional building. You have a serious misconception there. I don't want to be unkind but I think you have painted yourselve a little bit into a corner there by thinking that with your propensity for thorough research and analytical skills you are the only one who's got it right all the time. The word for that is (probably only slight ;-) hubris?
    In a way I think you have it wrong because it is clear that the Holy Spirit never stands by the sidelines and is of course fully able to work and deal with human character, abilities, handiwork and organization no matter what. And to me that definitely includes the entire spectrum of institutionalization that mankind is capable of building and working within or it would be too fatalistic. We are all judged as individuals after all and not to which club we belong.

    1. Nothing against institutions in principle. It's just that the New Testament church was never designed to operate in institutional mode.

    2. That suggests a contradiction to me. E.g , you are very interested, as demonstrated here, in that the Bible is interpreted correctly (and with that any needed procedure and methodology) all of which, to not deteriorate with distance, time, and communication actually would require an institutional, central approach that is universally acknowledged as "correct." It's clear that if you don't have that then miscommunication would happen as in the game Telephone and over distance and with time the Christian message would be in shambles. I think that"s why you are attempting so hard to hold it all together over here. In order to prevent that a central institutional type of approach is actually needed. In my opinion it does not follow that the message will now get garbled by the institution instead of by Telephone game mechanics. I am convinced that there are competent enough people in the institution to prevent that. So, consequently, what we are talking about is a dispute about what is considered to be the 'correct' interpretation of scriptural passages and, in that case, my convenience principle kicks in. I. e., people will pick the interpretation most convenient for them for potentially a variety of reasons (personal, public, emotional, professional, etc.) whatever suits them the most. And that's where hair splitting becomes an art and a downright profession or hobby. To me that seems unnecessary since Christ's teaching is pretty basic and straightforward and was not intended only for someone with a college degree. It is just intended for honest people.

    3. Q, are you seriously suggesting that Catholics agree about ANYTHING? Let's be realistic here ...

      If we are honest, both Catholicism and Protestantism (and probably the Orthodox tradition too, though I know less about it) are rife with diversity of interpretation. Catholicism may have a Pope, but how his words are interpreted and applied at the local level varies wildly. I know plenty of Catholics, and I am very confident the Roman tradition does not speak with a united voice.

      Am I wrong? I'm happy to let you make your case.

    4. That is not how Catholicism works. The basic event is the Catholic mass and that follows a repetitive yearly format (with differences determined by season and repetitive feast days). The ordinary Catholic basically never hears from the Pope but has a community centered around mass, school, events, etc . We hear more frequently from the Diocesan Bishop and it is your choice to what extend you want to get involved with anything. Some people like official and/or extracurricular events and others never attend. The Catholic through the seasons follows biblical readings presented at mass that pertain to the yearly or more short term cycles. So there is a lot of repetition over the years in the format and readings that allows you to become well versed in the Bible just by attending mass. If you wish you can attend additional Bible study, retreats, events etc.. My suggestion to you is to attend some Catholic masses for information purposes. We have often attended various Protestant services as part of our community ecumenical involvement and for years have written and published an ecumenical newsletter shared with the Catholic and various very courteous local Protestant denominations. As far as I know, and that can be verified from the internet, there are constant ecumenical efforts being made between the Catholic and various Protestant faiths looking towards reconciliation, mutual understanding and a common purpose in Christ without animosity. I assume that you are correct that throughout history (since Christ) there have always been changes of one sort or another in the Catholic but also the Protestant knowledge and interpretation concerning the practical application of the Christian faith. That is not necessarily a negative I think. So forget any notions that the Catholic marches in lock step to the Pope's or anyone else's command. What does unify the Catholic however is the belief in the reality of the Eucharist and the various sacraments of the church.