Christ emphasized the personal nature of that relationship. (Matthew 10:32, 33) His call is, “Come to me.” not come to an organization or to a church or denomination. (Matthew 11: 28) Similarly, in his illustration of the vine, he did not say, I am the vine, church organizations are the branches, and you are twigs springing from those branches ,” but rather, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” hence directly connected to him, abiding in him. (John 15: 5) There is no such thing as a group or collective faith, except as each individual within that group has expressed his or her faith personally and individually. So, too, with conviction. There can be no group conviction. It must be personal, individual. Otherwise, it is a borrowed conviction as well as a borrowed faith, and this is no faith at all.
This individuality is repeatedly stressed in Scripture. Romans 10:9-11 states:
“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The Scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” – NRSV. (Note: The Greek verbs for “confess” and “believe” are singular, directed to the individual.)
In this letter to the Romans, the apostle also writes:
For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written: “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So then, each of us will be accountable to God. – Romans 14:10-12, NRSV.
At the time of judgment, we do not appear before God and his Son as members of some church group or organization. We stand as individuals, “each of us.”
True, reference is made to the “body of Christ.” How does one become a member thereof? Is it by association or affiliation with a denomination or with a church group? The Scriptures indicate that this has no relevance or bearing on the matter, making clear that one becomes a member solely by being joined to the Head, the One who is the sole mediator between God and man, and that is Christ.–1 Timothy 2:3-6.
Being part of Christ’s “body” carries with it a heavenly “citizenship.” (Philippians 3:20; Hebrews 12:18-24) That citizenship is not dependent on geographical location or upon certain environment. The case of the Ethiopian baptized by Phillip illustrates how body membership is unaffected by any such factors. (See Acts 8:26-39.) Following his baptism in symbol of his acceptance of Christ as his Redeemer and as his Head, the Ethiopian continued on his way to his native land. In so doing, he left behind the region where there were congregations of Christians with certain men serving as elders or assistants in caring for the needs of their fellow Christians. He went into a region where these elements were absent. Yet he could go on his way “rejoicing,” for the distance and degree of aloneness did not produce isolation from the “body of Christ” since his attachment to his Head remained intact. Nor did his circumstances jeopardize or weaken in any sense his heavenly citizenship. Doubtless, in time he would find at least some individuals who would share his faith in God’s Son, but in the meantime he was as much a member of the “body of Christ” as any other member thereof.
Recognizing these Scriptural truths regarding what being a member of Christ’s congregation or “church” actually involves, internationally known Swiss scholar Emil Brunner writes:
“Where the Word of God is preached and believed, where two or three meet in the name of Christ, there is the Church. Whatever else may be said about the Church, this is fundamental. This statement has never-not even at the present day-been understood in all its revolutionary power. The meeting of two or three must be recognized to be the Church in however imperfect a form. When a father gathers his household round him to expound the Gospel to them in his humble simple way, or where a layman, out of a full heart, proclaims the word of God to a group of young people, there is the Church. Whoever departs from this rule, whoever thinks that something else has to be added to make this a real Church, has misunderstood the meaning of the very heart of the evangelical Faith. [The Divine Imperative, Emil Brünner (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia), 1937, page 529, underlining ours]
For many it seems a difficult thing to achieve a sense of personal relationship with God and Christ, one not dependent on some subsidiary relationship with an institution. Some almost seem to fear any one-on-one relationship with their Creator and his Son. Surely, we would never feel comfortable about that relationship if we felt it depended upon some perfection in ourselves, some success in exemplifying to a superior degree than other believers, such qualities as knowledge, self-sacrifice, etc. We enjoy it because of God’s love and his giving his beloved Son for us. There is no other basis for the resulting sense of security that is so desirable and needed.
Whatever its apparent benefits, organizational membership can never equal the beauty and strengthening comfort that such personal relationship brings. Christ likens himself to a shepherd who does not look upon his sheep simply as an anonymous conglomerate group, but one who “calls his own sheep by name”. (John 10:3) He knows each of us and cares for us as individuals. Of our loving heavenly Father, the apostle writes: “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” – 1 Peter 5:7.
Following the death of Christ, a process of institutionalization set in among his professed followers. The personal nature of one’s relationship with God and his Son was adversely affected, diminished.
Charles Davis was for many years a priest and prominent theologian (and editor of the British journal The Clergy Review) in the largest of the institutions that developed, the Roman Catholic Church. Explaining the reason for his decision to withdraw from his lifelong affiliation with that institution in the late 1960s, he wrote in his book A Question of Conscience:
“I remain a Christian, but I have come to see that the Church as it exists and works at present is an obstacle in the lives of the committed Christians I know and admire. It is not the source of the values they cherish and promote. On the contrary, they live and work in constant tension and opposition to it. Many can remain Roman Catholics only because they live their Christian lives on the fringe of the institutional Church and largely ignore it. I respect their position. In the present confused period people will work out their Christian commitment in different ways. But their solution was not open to me; in my position I was too involved. I had to ask bluntly whether I still believed in the Roman Catholic Church as an institution. I found that the answer was no. [Underlining ours]
He then sets out the crucial issues that brought him to this conviction:
“For me Christian commitment is inseparable from concern for truth and concern for people. I do not find either of these represented by the official Church. There is concern for authority at the expense of truth, and I am constantly saddened by instances of the damage done to persons by workings of an impersonal and unfree system. Further, I do not think that the claim the Church makes as an institution rests upon any adequate biblical and historical basis. . . . [A Question of Conscience, page 16]
He later adds:
“One of the factors that drove me from the Catholic Church was the unhappiness I met within it, and I was caught up myself in the destructive tensions that at present mark its life. I am now like a man who has jumped off a jerky whirligig–bruised and shaken, but with a growing sense of stillness and peace.”
Within the institutional framework he found that:
“… it seems almost impossible to hold a courteous and reasonable discussion with a conflict of opinions on a pressing or topical issue. The air is immediately filled with denunciations, cries of heresy or error, charges of disloyalty or bad faith. . . . I began to wonder whether an institution, that was cramping people to the point where love and serenity were abnormally difficult and frequently destroyed, was the community of Christ.”
Of the reaction of Church leaders to the problem, he wrote:
“They… continue to exacerbate the situation by calling for submission and patient inaction under the rubric of obedience and love. [A Question of Conscience, pages 20, 21.]
People of many different religious backgrounds have come to similar crossroads in their lives. They, too, may be told they should simply “wait on the Lord” while remaining passively submissive to the system with which they are affiliated. Some find they cannot conscientiously do so. Davis’ words describe the situation of many:
“Having had no alternative manner of being Christians put before them, they have drifted away from the Christian faith. The faith of many of these people could be brought to maturity if they could be shown how to live and socially structure the Christian faith without imprisoning themselves within the obsolete structures of the existing denominations. . .They often have a sense that no one has the same difficulties and problems as themselves or feels the same needs; the official lines are so pervasive, the pressure that any lack of conformity is due to personal perversity is so insistent. . . . They do not recognize that it is often the Christian faith they have that leads them to reject institutional structures inimical to the self-understanding and freedom of man and to Christian truth and love. [A Question of Conscience, pages 237, 238.]
Separating from a religious structure that one finds to be seriously flawed, and freedom from that structure’s control is of itself no solution, no guarantee of improvement. Some who separate are essentially no better off than before, have no idea how to use Christian freedom in a good and beneficial, God-honoring way; some exchange one set of combined true and false beliefs for another set of true and false beliefs. We are not interested in “getting people out of some particular organization” but in enhancing and deepening their appreciation of a genuine personal relationship with God and Christ.
[Quotations made from A Question of Conscience, by Charles Davis (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1967). Permission to quote granted by the author.]
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