There exists in ecclesiastical reality a vast distinction between the Spiritual church and the Institutional church.
On the day that Peter verbalized Jesus’ true identity, that “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus declared “.... I will build My church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
From Jesus’ statement, taken by itself and in isolation, one might assume a record would follow that would parallel the construction of a building; a foundation would be laid upon which a superstructure would be erected, resulting in some sort of functional edifice.
But church history reflects a different story; indeed ours is a saga rife with disagreements, disunity, divisions and ungodly partitions of a Body that was intended, that was destined to become “one” in Christ.
And yet with all the dark, dysfunctional history of a divided church, Christ “loved the church and gave Himself for her.” Those who profess love for Christ while voicing disdain for His church, who speak in derisive tones regarding those who have confessed love for the church expose a glaring deficiency of the Spirit of Christ in their own lives.
The injuries sustained by those in relationship with the church, the often deep, spiritual wounds incurred were derived not from the church, but are the natural and inevitable consequence of religion, and not the church that Jesus promised He would build.
Religion is the cradle of the Institutional church, and the children of the Institutional church are Intolerance, Spiritual Manipulation and Death. Religion separates, while Christ unites. Religion kills, but Christ brings life. The tension of the “church” today is increasingly one between “Institution” and “Spirit.” “The letter kills, but the Spirit makes alive” are not the words of a contemporary Emergent leader, but of Jesus.
When we discuss existing discontent and rejection of the church we are not referring to the spiritual church. In fact, it is a misstatement for any truly born-again follower of Jesus Christ to say that he or she has rejected “the church” or that “the church” has failed or that “the church” has injured them.
It is the misrepresentation of the church that is not the church that causes deep injury and pain to human hearts. The doubly painful effect of this distortion is that injured people tend to believe it was the church, the life-giving community of heaven on earth that produced their wounds when in fact it was an imposter that hurt them.
The truth is that injury and failure cannot proceed from the true, spiritual church. The spiritual church is the heart of God’s nature and activity, the revelation of His glory in the earth. The spiritual church is God’s chosen vehicle to manifest His nature to mankind, even as Jesus of Nazareth was God’s chosen Vehicle to manifest Himself to men. The true Church is wound-healing, life-giving, hope-restoring and future-promising. The true expression of the church will always bring life and never death.
Let me be clear: God loves the church! He created the church through the blood of His own Son and He will never abandon the entity He has chosen to become the Bride of Jesus; “...even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.”
There is no place for a follower of Jesus to throw stones at the “apple” of God’s eye – the true and living church.
However we are not speaking of this entity when we talk about change or reformation in the church. We’re talking about the religious system of man that masquerades, that is a pretender, that dominates the spiritual landscape of religious life today: The Institutionalization of the true church - the “form of godliness” that “denies the power thereof” is the target of objection. The danger of this Pharisaical cadaver is that it produces spiritual death. Jesus said to the religious leaders of His day, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.”
The spiritual must be lived, walked out in a practical manner. Therefore the church must have a body, a form, a skeleton to live and walk with and through. Just as man is spirit, soul and body, so the church must possess a body. That body may be cared for, exercised, fed, rested, and strengthened by the manner in which we treat it; or it may be neglected, abused and weakened by our behavior toward it.
There are rules of physical health that may not be successfully violated if one is to enjoy good physical condition. If we feed our bodies junk food, we pay the price in reduced health. If we exercise our bodies and give them pure and proper food, they rise to the challenge of increased stress and demand and grow stronger: The same is true in the spiritual realm.
If we examine the effect of the Institution of the church, what has become the “Business of Organized Religion” in Western nations especially, but also increasingly among other nations who have imitated Western Christianity, we find a steady stream of disillusioned, disheartened, wounded, broken hearts walking away from whatever expression of “church” they have known.
The collective Institution, the “Professional Religionists” have created an abusive, exclusive system out of the Company that Jesus engendered to be a receptive, grace-filled, mercy-giving, society of “Love, Acceptance and Forgiveness.”
Our governmental structure – not the structure that Christ gave us, but our imitations of secular government and our reproduction and baptism of secular business systems is the thing that has in many instances replaced the true church. It matters not a whit if a man chooses to affiliate or associate with one denomination or another or any non-denominational organization as a means of finding his comfort zone within the church. None of these things truly matter; if a man or woman is born again of the Spirit by the blood of Jesus Christ, he or she is a member of “the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven.”
If our pursuit is the kingdom of God and a new creation lifestyle and order, our denominational, sectarian and theological differences all will be washed away in the atmosphere of the supremacy of the government of heaven and by the glory of the administration of Jesus. The common denominator among us all will be “by grace (were) we saved through faith, and that not of (our)selves...”
It’s the structure, the form that man creates to accommodate the spiritual Body that is enemy of spiritual and Body life in Christ. Dr. C.M. Ward had it right when he stated, “The tendency of religion is to muddy.” Jesus said, “you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition.” Eugene Peterson translates these words, “ . . . you cancel God’s command with your rules.”
If we look with a clear eye at the church that Jesus birthed and compare it with the religious morass of our current hour, we must conclude that we have drifted, or more correctly steered ourselves miles from the original template. But merely capturing the format of the primitive, New Testament church is not the solution either. The thing that must be discovered is not a cookie cutter image of a church form that has not existed in two millennia, but rather it is the heart of the Father, the image of the Son and the life of the Spirit that will produce an authentic representation of His church in the earth.
This is the thing that will finally answer the question, “How should we do church?” When form flows from the functioning presence of the living Spirit of God within and among God’s people, shape and structure will appear as it will appear, and will effectively serve the needs of the Body. This necessarily means that “church” may well appear differently in different locales. And it is this potent possibility that causes some to tremble with fear of the unknown and in the insecurity of lack of control.
Yet this is the thing that must happen. Whatever its form, the church must serve the needs of man instead of man serving the needs of the church. Too many wounded, broken, hurting people have entered supposed “sanctuaries,” hoping that somehow, the church could provide healing and restoration to their souls. Some found help, but the majority exited worship services more disillusioned than when they came; their fading hopes dashed by a lifeless institution that could not, by virtue of its very lifelessness, produce life.
It’s the wineskin, and not the wine that is the problem. It’s the skeleton and not the spirit that must change. It’s the “after-market add-ons” that we must abandon if we are to truly become the church we seek. But another jettisoning of forms and structures is not sufficient to produce a true, life-giving church. Jesus is building His church, and we are not. Jesus is Author of our constitution and by-laws, and man is not. The Lord of the church, the Head of the Body is also the Master Potter Who alone is qualified to shape, form and create the lovely and life-sustaining entity called “church.”
The gates of hell have not and cannot prevail against the church – the spiritual church. But the gates of hell have played havoc with our Institutions and because so many people have (mistakenly) connected the Institution with the true, spiritual church, their anticipations have been met with disappointment. The church – the true church is existent today. But she is not the imposter that masquerades herself in gowns of self-importance, human wisdom, self-promotion and spiritual superiority. She is the humble, plain-spoken imitator and reflected image of Jesus, destined to be purified and prepared, adorned in His righteousness, ready to serve, to touch, to bless, to heal.
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