I wrote this a couple weeks ago while flying home from a business trip. Now I’m posting it in the context of the recent killing of nine African-American Christians in Charleston, SC. And since I’m sitting at home on a Sabbath morning instead of sitting in church, apparently I should write a follow-up essay, Why I Don’t Go To Church. :)
“My name is Jeff, and I go to church.”
Yes, I am a church member. I attend a local congregation. I was part of a conversation recently about why I go to church. My basic answer was that at church I get connected to the people who are the local “body of Christ.”i That deserves some serious unpacking (by someone more insightful than me, but I’ll do my best).
I should clarify from the outset that my answer is not really about a congregation, a denomination, or a building, although each of those is inherently involved. A more complete response about attending church would deal with these directly, but that’s not my focus here.
I go to church to be in the community that, I believe, is in some mysterious way the body of Christ on earth. As an aside, for my friends who are atheists or followers of other spiritual paths, if you momentarily allow a resurrected Jesus for argument’s sake, can you imagine how frustrating it must be for him to be identified with many—okay, all—of his professed-followers? The church being the body of Jesus on earth, with Jesus being the head, sounds ridiculous from either side of that question. With that admitted, I’ll return to the argument at hand.
Being part of Jesus’ body means a few overlapping things to me at this point in my walk. First, it means to me that Jesus intends his disciples to be in community. My culture idolizes individuality and supposed independence, but my God favors community and interdependence. If God desires introverts and extroverts to be Jesus’ body together, then I need to overcome my urge to go it alone and instead explore life in community. On some level, this is about my identity (my being; who I am). My identity is part of the world-wide body of Jesus, and I engage this in my local setting (more on this soon).
Second, and this order is not necessarily sequential, this means to me that I need to believe some things relating to Jesus. The faith community is where we teach each other as we continually wrestle with the written word in a community of discernment. In church I listen, discuss, read, pray, learn, and teach (thinking/knowing). Learning and believing are community activities. Some of us may read the Bible on our own, but this is only possible in the era of the printing press. Paul wrote his letters to churches, not individuals. They were read and digested in a community. There is no private interpretation, it is said (try to figure that out).ii
Some people may personally prefer to learn through reading alone, but the authors of those books are almost certainly members of congregations and learning communities. Their thoughts didn’t appear out of a vacuum; they were formed in community even if they are later read in private.
In my faith community I have also learned that knowing things about Jesus is insufficient. I need to understand and believe the things Jesus actually taught. Believing the Apostle’s Creed is not sufficient or else I think Jesus would have written it himself. Instead, he said things like: love your neighbors, friends, and enemies; forgive people; treat people as we want to be treated; be generous; don’t fear; be humble; hunger and thirst for righteous/justiceiii; and care for people who are powerless, disrespected, and marginalized.iv To believe things about Jesus (e.g., virgin birth, resurrection, etc.) and not believe the things he is reported to have said is in my mind to miss the boat. This leads to the third point—our actions.
While psychologists have found that we act our way into thinking and not only think our way into acting, it still seems logical to me that our actions (doing) should be consistent with our identities (being) and our beliefs (knowing).
I think my actions reveal what I really believe, regardless of what I say I believe. Values are expressed in actions. Do my actions embody the teachings of Jesus? Do I forgive people, practice compassion, do justly, show impartiality, and speak honestly? If I’m more interested in religious observance than in pursuing the life of discipleship (following the way of Jesus), then I might be missing Jesus’ point.
Within this context, I want to highlight one facet of this community that is especially meaningful to me. Jesus’ opponents recognized that he showed partiality to no one.v Later, James spoke about this value, as did Peter and Paul.vi Here’s the thing: impartiality and equality presume and require community. I can’t be equal with myself in any meaningful way beyond a simple tautology. I can’t demonstrate this feature of the kingdom on my own. It’s impossible. In a community we can express equality across lines of race (so called), gender, nationality, ethnicity, socio-economic level, and all other social markers.
This radical equality should emerge in a community where members are committed to pursuing the way of Jesus, and I want to be part of this social revolution. I want to live in this egalitarian community where everyone has value, everyone is cared for, and everyone is safe. I believe this is the meaning of the body of Christ. This is why I go to church.
At this point I can imagine at least two objections, even from people who would be inclined to agree with me. First, a person doesn’t need to sit in a pew to be part of the body of Christ. Second, I’ve never seen a local congregation that looked anything like what you’ve described here. You’re ignoring how dysfunctional, oppressive, and hurtful the church can be… and frequently is.
There are other objections (e.g., Jesus was a rabbi, not God, so this is all ridiculous), but these two arguments stand out foremost in my mind. I think they are fair, and they’re worth reflecting on. Very briefly, here is my attempt at a response.
Yes, I don’t want to confine God to a certain building, day, ritual, or anything else. I can’t pretend to set or know God’s limits. I simply mean to say that in some unique way, meeting with other people who also want to live as Jesus’ body in this world has a special significance for me. Even when I feel out of rhythm or out of place in the community, I still find some form of meaning in sharing life’s journey with those who are seeking to live for Jesus, in Jesus, with Jesus (and hopefully more and more like Jesus).
And yes, the church—broadly defined—has serious problems. I am not under the delusion that Christians—again broadly defined—live up to the description I’ve given here. We aren’t that—I’m not that—but those are the ideals I want my community to embrace as established by our head, Jesus. I want to be an influence in my faith community, and I want to be part of a community that influences me in this way.
So despite the serious flaws of the church, and despite God’s presence far beyond a religiously-dedicated building or ritual, I continue to find meaning in being part of the body that Jesus has invited to join to himself. And that level of humility on Jesus’ part (joining our bodies and reputations to his) tells me that I need to be mighty welcoming of others as well!
I’ll conclude with a series of questions posed by Craig Nessan:
What would it mean for the church to take seriously the theological conviction that Jesus Christ is present in the world today as a collective person in the form of the church? How would we need to revise our individualistic notions of the Christian faith? Instead of focusing on what Christ has done and can do for me, I would instead see myself as a member whose functioning contributes to the well-being of the whole body…. I begin to search for how Christ encounters us as members of the body of Christ. I begin to think corporately about how we together give expression to Christ’s presence in the world. (Shalom Church, p. 45)
I have a feeling we can find significance in both realities—individual and corporate—without losing the other. We are individuals, and we are a body together. May we become all that Jesus would have his body to be in this world.
i 1 Cor. 12:12, 27; Rom. 12:5; Eph. 4:12, 5:23.
iii For a description of the relationship between justice and righteousness, see “The Strand of Justice” by Steven Thompson in Do Justice: Our Call to Faithful Living, edited by Nathan Brown and Joanna Darby (2014).
iv Matt. 22: 36-40; John 15:13; Matt. 5:43-48; Matt. 18:21-22; Matt. 7:12; Luke 12:15; Matt. 6:25-34; Luke 14:7-14; Matt. 5:6; Matt. 25:31-46.
vi James 2; Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11; 1 Tim. 5:21; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11; Eph. 2:14. “The apostle Paul said, ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Historian Thomas Cahill says that this was the first statement of egalitarianism in human literature” (John Ortberg, Who Is This Man?, p. 41).