Thursday, February 20, 2014

Church “Anywhere and Everywhere”? Not Quite

I guess it was inevitable.  Last week, I urged Christians to stop following Christian leaders like author and speaker Donald Miller, who don’t attend church.  And, then I received e-mails and Facebook comments taking me to task, saying “Church is who we are, not where we go.”  Plus, who’s to say Miller’s community of Christian friends doesn’t constitute a church?  After all, in a post entitled, “Church Anywhere and Everywhere,” Miller describes once doing communion with his friends “on a loading dock using hot chocolate and cookies” – and conducting impromptu baptisms under a waterfall. 
Normally, I respond to these comments individually.  But, since these views are so prevalent, I decided to address them here. 
Now, I agree that all believers everywhere constitute the Church.  As Scripture says, “We were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body.”  But, church is also a local, gathering body.  Acts 2 talks about the early church meeting together regularly for teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer.  And, when speaking about how to treat an immoral brother, the Apostle Paul says, “(W)hen you are assembled . . . hand this man over to Satan.”  You see, the church is not just an ethereal reality; it’s a tangible body that provides spiritual nurture and discipline.  And, contrary to Donald Miller’s opinion, it is not optional. 
St. Cyprian wrote, “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother.”  Similarly, theologian N.T. Wright notes, “Christianity is a team sport. . . . The Christian virtues, supremely faith, hope and love . . . are designed to produce communities in which each individual has (his) own unique part to play, but within a much larger whole.”
          But, what about defining the church as a loose collection of Christians who improvise when it comes to baptism and communion?   Admittedly, this cavalier approach to the sacraments makes me cringe.  But also, to qualify as a biblical church, a group needs at bare minimum to meet regularly for worship and have defined leadership.  But, Miller doesn’t even try to argue that his community of friends constitutes a church.  He simply suggests that church is superfluous to his life and to the private spiritual agendas of him and his friends. That is patently unbiblical – and again, not a view that anyone who purports to be a Christian leader should ever espouse.   


  1. Julie, I appreciate this post and you have some great thoughts, as you always do. I'm totally with you and I agree that Church is vitally important. However, I must say that I think Protestant theology has lead Miller and others to exactly the place he's reached. The early Church never embraced the idea of church being an invisible, universal "body of believers". To them, it was clearly, The Christian Church. You could attend it and touch it. While I love the Cyprian quote, and always have, I have no idea how a Protestant can affirm the quote. Cyprian only knew of the one Christian Church. Again, to him, it was a very tangible thing/place. I guess what I'm saying is that I see a huge conundrum here for you and your fellow Evangelicals. To me, you can't deny the sacraments, claiming them only to be symbols and you can't affirm the Church as in invisible reality, and then cry foul when other Christians follow that line of thinking to its logical conclusion.

  2. Alan, I appreciate your comments too. I think Hebrews 12:1 depicts a universal Church ("since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses"). Plus, in Revelation, the Church clearly encompasses all who by faith have believed in Christ. So, I don't agree that the early church didn't believe in the universal Church. Certainly, the original NT church did! As for Cyprian, he lived during the first few centuries of the church when it was unified. So, of course he conceived of only one church. I see that early church as more authoritative than any today because it was one. Generally, when I want to know how to interpret something, I first see how the early church Fathers interpreted it and then submit to their understanding. As for the sacraments, who said I believe them to be merely symbolic? Actually, they're a wonderful example of the same reality. They are physical and tangible; yet, they also contain Christ's real presence.

  3. Thanks Julie. Perhaps you and I are playing semantics here. I'm not discounting a universal church. The difference though is that in early centuries, to be part of the universal church meant that one belonged to the one Church. They would not have regarded as Christian, one who said he "followed Christ" but had nothing to do with the one Christian Church. Hence, the Cyprian quote. Sadly though, following the 16th century, Protestant Christians were left with a strange dilemma in which they were often vehemently opposed to the doctrines and practices of other Christians, but still referred to them as "Christians." It seems to me then that since the beginning of Protestantism, Protestants have had a rather weak theology on The Church. So, what does all of this have to do with people like Miller? It seems to me rather incongruous for Evangelicals to claim that virtually every church out there is part of the true Christian Church (including many house churches), but then to tell Miller that if he's only meeting with his groups of friends on Sunday, that somehow that's not part of the Christian Church. You can't have it both ways. Either there's a tangible Christian church, or there isn't. If you (like all Evangelicals) claim that there isn't a tangible church, then you can't fault Miller for simply following along with that line of reasoning.

    As far as the sacraments, you're right, you never claimed them to be merely symbolic. However, I made the assumption that you're an Evangelical and since I know of no Evangelical denomination/group that believes in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, I inferred that to be your belief. I apologize for the incorrect assumptions.

    1. This "pastor" has simply reached the natural progression of the Protestant reformation. Once it is accepted that the Church is wrong, outdated, or whatever in regards to its doctrine, which is the unchanging doctrine of Christ, then what will ultimately result is the division and diffusion of the faithful into something completely unrecognizable from its original state. It is corruption defined and made visible in the way corrupted things deteriorate.

  4. Alan... I see what you're saying. And yes, evangelicals have a very weak ecclesiology -- and that is a very serious problem. As Kevin Miller writes in "The Strange Yet Familiar Tale of Brian, Rob and Don," it's not a fluke that Don Miller strayed from orthodox Christian teaching concerning the church. He, McClaren and Bell "flew too close to the sun. But evangelicalism fitted them with wings of wax."

    As for what constitutes a church, I'm Anglican, so I'm not a fan of do-it-yourself church. That's why I wrote "at bare minimum," it must involve regular worship, and designated leadership, neither of which Miller's group has -- at least not to my knowledge. But, I agree with you that church needs to be much more. That's in large part why I belong to a church that's part of the Great Tradition, even though I was raised Anabaptist. But, I would never say that those who don't belong to a Great Tradition church aren't part of the Body of Christ. (I don't think Catholics would either, would they?) I know way to many beautiful spirit-filled believers in other churches, including housechurches, to ever espouse that.

    As for those, like Miller, who don't belong to any tangible church -- honestly, I don't know. I don't understand how anyone could love Jesus and not love His Church. I also don't know how anyone can be in the presence of true worship and not sense His Presence -- or how anyone could hear the Bible preached and not be impacted. So, I don't know. It's certainly a huge red flag.

    Thanks so much for the interaction. I truly appreciate the perspective of my Catholic brothers and sisters. Some day, we will all be one. I have a feeling when persecution breaks out, the true church of Jesus Christ will be much easier to spot.

  5. Thanks Julie, I always love to read your posts and comments. I love your show on Saturday mornings as well.

    Not that what I think matters, but I smiled when I read that you're Anglican. I have a strong affinity for (conservative) Anglicans. I'm totally with you in not being a fan of do-it-yourself church. In the area I live, many Evangelical churches have "pastors" who have zero theological training. This is seen as not just OK, but actually as a badge of honor.

    Lastly, I so love your last comment. Just my opinion and I could be wrong, but I see the persecution of Christians in America coming in the not too distant future. It's a scary thought but at the same time, as you said, one of the benefits of that happening will be the separating of the wheat from the chaff.