“Gentlemen, the church is your enemy.”
With these words an old German theologian opened his first lecture to the young seminarians sitting before him. He both shocked and puzzled them, but his words definitely caught and held their attention.
This has been true enough in more than one period of history. Problems were already beginning in the early church even before the Apostles passed on. All the seeds of thorn and weed that could choke out or tangle up the Gospel were already present and mentioned in the New Testament: Legalistic religion, sub-Christian views of Jesus, pagan philosophy, antinomianism, phony do-nothing religion, syncretism, and more.
Believers have had to fight continuously to keep the standards high and to prevent the slide into some sort of bogus Christianity leading to a bogus church: Jesus plus something else, or just something else without Jesus.
It’s no different today.
In fact, in my own denomination (as in many of the old mainline Protestant communities) fully two-thirds of the ordained pastors no longer agree that Jesus is the only way to God and salvation. Jesus is one more way among many, even a “more excellent way,” but he isn’t the way. For a great number of church people he is certainly not the Lord of history and Savior of the world. Such a claim is just too offensive and unacceptable to our modern tastes.
But there’s more. The church today is in total confusion about right and wrong. It has abandoned its claim to know what pleases God and what doesn’t. For the most part this is due to its deliberate turning away from the principle of Sola Scriptura (the authority of Scripture alone), one of the basic planks of the Reformation.
It’s not that somehow we’ve discovered that the Bible is not authoritative, or that its history has been proven by scholars to be unreliable (it’s just the opposite), or that modern social sciences have demonstrated biblical morality to be indefensible. No, the church has put the Bible on the back shelf just because it doesn’t like what it says.
I’m not trying to defend some quirky, sideshow version of Christianity. I’m talking about just plain old mainstream, historic, core biblical theology that most Christians of most generations would recognize as the essence of the faith. There can be a broad spectrum of discussable differences under the big tent of what we can call “Christian”—differences regarding church organization, varieties of baptism, views of the end of the world, and all of that—but there is one core, one set of basics, without which there can be no Christianity.
The core is pretty straightforward: Jesus Christ is the only Son of God and Savior of the world, who died for our sins on the cross, and was raised physically from the dead on Easter morning. Salvation is by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, because of Jesus alone, by the authority of Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone. There’s a bit more to it when fleshed out, but that’s the very heart of the Gospel that much of the “organized church” has thrown out.
It’s the loss of this core that makes the church the Gospel’s enemy.
Whereas apologetics (the rational defense of the Gospel) used to be aimed in the direction of the unbelieving culture (the original reason for the creation of our greatest American universities), now such defense is most needed within the church. It’s there where the greatest war against the Gospel is being waged, and many pastors and bishops are leading the charge.
What’s the answer? Where do we go from here? Some denominations are simply starting over. They’re pulling out from their official structures and rebuilding from the ground up, returning to their roots and recovering the beliefs that first formed them. Others are trying to reform their churches from within, usually a far more difficult task.
Still many others today are just leaving the church entirely—lock, stock, and barrel. They continue to believe the basics of the faith, but find that they just don’t belong anywhere anymore. Going to church on Sunday? Not interested.
But what looks like the destruction of the Christian church can be a real opportunity for something real and fresh to emerge. The Gospel is a living thing, it vibrates with life and power, it can still transform people and societies because Jesus is still at the center of it, and he is (and always will be) alive and well. As long as that’s true, the real church can exist anywhere, anytime, in any form, with few or many.
We can and should take advantage of this wide open door. We can join together with people who still share the basics; we can gather in kitchens, storefronts, motorcycle clubs, under a tree, or anywhere we choose to worship a risen and living Lord, asking him to show us how to be his church again. Without all the baggage and barnacles accumulated over the centuries we could actually find the original joy and freedom that got the whole thing going in the first place.
Have you ever been a member of a church you thought was actually opposed to the Gospel? What do you think is the future of the Christian church in our society?