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There is a healthy relationship with Jesus without a relationship to the church.

(In response to Tim Stafford, senior writer for Christianity Today's article "The Church—Why Bother?}

by john o'keefe


I have to admit, this is somewhat new for me; not the disagreeing part, but the part where I actually voice the concerns i have about a particular article and author that i disagree with strongly.  but I think what Tim Stafford has shared (in his Christian Today article) is so wrong, so misguided, so hurtful, so not scriptural and so not Christian that I felt a strong need to stand firm on scripture and call him on his views.  now, some may see this as "arguing" with a brother, or "causing" dissention in the church, or even as "not very postmodern", but I think this article and the ideas that flow from it are so poorly based, so poorly grounded, and can be so misused that I am very willing to be labeled "whatever" in the eyes of time and those who agree with him.  heck, I am willing to be racked over the coals because I just think Tim's kind of thinking causes more problems then it solves.  Now, what I am going to do is point out what I believe are flaws in Tim's argument, and then share with you the way I believe Scripture speaks.


The Faulty Premise of Stafford 

Let me start with his premise that "for you to be saved, you must attend a church."  Stafford implies (in several places) that salvation is based on going to church.  Now if that is the case it it stands to reason that it must be the "right church" and I wonder, which one would that be?  Could it be that Stafford found the perfect church and that we all now should attend the one he suggests?  After all, if salvation is delivered, or found, in or through the church then what does it matter what my relationship with Christ is?  All i need do is go to church on a weekly bases and sit there, and I will be saved.  the idea that salvation is tied to the church is both nonbibical and controlling.  to even suggest that it is the case shows a weak theological stance and a poor understanding of salvation by faith - 


Stafford uses the term "Gnostic" to describe those who have no relationship with his expression of church, but I wonder if he knows what that word means?  It seems to me that someone once said that we would be worshiping God in spirit and truth, now who could that someone be?  Jesus Christ!  Is Stafford telling me that Jesus got it wrong?  that we need to abide by the worship styles of the old, and not follow the teachings of Christ?  In John 4:23-24 (NIV) Jesus says, "Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”  In no place in Scripture is the church viewed as a "literal" body of Christ, but is explained as a "figurative" body meaning those gather together.  in fact, in more places the church viewed as a community of people who gather in homes.  the church is seen as a "household."  and if the church today was a "house" a place of safety, then I think more people would be in church today.  The idea that one "must" be in church for salvation is so not scriptural and so not a teaching of the church that Stafford is too far off base.  What Stafford seems to forget is what is plainly stated in Acts 4:12 "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” Or what is said in Romans 1:16, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile."  Stafford also misquotes Cyprian's (a "Bishop and Martyr" who died in 258 AD) call to "be in church."  Cyprian's call was to be in "Mass" and that any disconnection to that Mass is seen as being "outside salvation."

He Missed The Boat 

I find if funny that he brings out the "para-church" groups as part of the problem (the funny part is that he makes his living from para-church groups paying for ad space on the CT site) - but history shows that para-church groups formed and grew because the church failed to do it's "job" - it failed to share the faith, so para-church groups formed to do it for them, it failed to reach the poor, so the para-church groups did it for them - it failed to feed the hungry, cloth the naked and care for the sick, so the para-church groups did it for them.  By the end of ww2, American "Christians" who attended church were too busy playing Christian and writing checks to truly put their faith into action.  They found that it was easier to base the church on the politics of the day, then the teachings of Christ.


What Stafford seems to forget is that of the 23 million he quotes as "not being in church" yet claiming to be Christian is that most of that number come from denominations that over the past 20 years have lost over 50% of their people.  most are not from "seeker" church as he likes to think, but rather from what I call "old-line" denominations, Methodist (all kinds) Baptist (all 250 denominations of them) Presbyterians (all) and other "smaller" denominations.  Denominations that have spent more time worried about their "power base" then in teaching people to live a Christian life.  Denominations more concerned with collecting their fees, then in helping make disciples of people and teach them to live about the human standards they set for themselves.


Fallen is Not an Excuse

Stafford writes: "In February 2003, Christianity Today featured Bono, lead singer for the rock group U2, and his campaign for the church to become more involved in the fight against AIDS. Bono emerged as a star example of the unchurched Christian."  funny, that a call to help those suffering with aids is seen as "strange" to a man who goes to church - yet the call comes from a man who is deeper in faith then those filling the churches.  The idea that means as Christians we are to "do" our faith seems to be foreign to Stafford.  His idea seems to be "just be in church, and all will be fine."  i wonder how much of that is based on the lose of collections and how much is truly concerned with teaching the people to love, not gossip and not backbite those sitting next to them.  It's funny that he is critical of bono going to a Roman Catholic church when the theology he seems to be expressing is "salvation can not happen apart from the church" is very Roman Catholic.  Stafford writes, "I don't want to be hard on Bono and other unchurched Christians. Churches are not always nice places. Some of the church fathers used "No salvation outside the church" to stifle dissent and maintain a monopoly on power. Even today a demand for church commitment can be the basis for abusing people, using fear and conformity to rule."   He also expresses the idea that if you are treated bad in a church it makes you closer to God.  And that caused me great concern, because he quotes scripture to back that up (2 Corinthians 1 & 4).  But, after reading it, i was given peace in my spirit when i realized he misquoted the scripture and that Paul is speaking on the way the world treats us, and not the way the church treats us.  All that did for me was make is certain in my mind that Stafford confuse the world with the church.  The idea that those in the church should treat me as those outside the church is misguided and harmful.  Allowing people to abuse members of the church and call into question their theology for saying that it is wrong, is just not scriptural.  Funny, he knows that it is wrong, and can (and in my opinion always - always - does) cause a power play on others.  yet he thinks that is ok, and the abuse is worth the effort - bad form.  We are called by the very Scripture he seems to be ignoring to live above human desires, to live in the light of Christ and express the love we MUST have for each other.  But Stafford, like many in the Evangelical community us the "fall of man" as a copout to treat people poorly and to abuse others and get away with it.  what does Smith do with the following scripture:


Mark 7:20-23:  "He went on: “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’ ” 


Romans 1:28-32:  "Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, Godhaters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them."


1 Corinthian 5:6-8:  "Your boasting is not good. Don't you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?  Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast–as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.  Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth."


Ephesians 4:29-32: "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.  And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.  Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you."


Colossians 3:5-11:  "Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.  Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.  You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived.  But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.  Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.  Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all."


Titus 3:3-7:  "At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.  But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared,  he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.  This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone."


1 Peter 2:1-3:  "Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.  Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good."


To be honest, there are a ton of other scriptures that make my point that the is a gathering of changed people, and if that change is not happening then they are not a church.  So, if a person does not go to Stafford's backbiting church then they are ok, because that is not a "church"  To me, dear I say that i question their commitment to the teachings of Christ and their love for the teachings of humanity.  They are using the "fall" as a copout to walking in the light of Christ.  The idea that  "A significant minority of Christians feel wounded by the church," is so not the case.  Does he reality see 23 million as a "minority?"  Then, he blames his friend (and I have to think he needs to learn the meaning of what friendship is) for looking to his church for help - and not getting the help he needed - the church let's people down, and then blames the people they let down.  Stafford seems to be carrying on the misconceptions of the church and the misguided teachings of the church past.  When he asks, "The hard questions come next: Just what do they miss?"  My first response is, gossip and backstabbing, ignoring needs, closed minds, malice, unrighteous spirits and the non-teaching of the love, grace and forgiveness of Christ.  One needs to remember that Paul left many churches that treated him in a bad way.  Stafford strives hard to voice that Paul had troubles stayed with the church; but he uses poor logic to defend that idea.  He expresses that Paul had troubles with a certain church in Asia, but he does not mention that Paul was not at that Church any longer - he left.  He felt that what they did was wrong, so he left that church.  My suggestion to Stafford is that he reread his Pauline letters, and see that Paul is very against churches that express the faith as he claimed.


Talk about not getting the bigger picture, and seeing that his words will fall upon deaf ears he writes, "How can we communicate this to unchurched Christians? The only way I know is to preach it. We need to tell them, even if it goes against the grain of our culture. We need to tell them, even if talking so frankly goes against our philosophy of outreach.Stafford needs to remember, that "unchurched" means they are not in church to hear the voice that proclaims they are wrong.  Which brings to life the point that the church has become it's own best listener and is so inbred that new ideas escape them and cause them to live in fear.


When Stafford adds, "If people commit themselves to the church, they will undoubtedly suffer. The church will fail them and frustrate them, because it is a human institution. Yet it will also bless them, even as it fails. A living, breathing congregation is the only place to live in a healthy relationship to God. That is because it is the only place on earth where Jesus has chosen to dwell. How can you enjoy the benefits of Christ if you detach yourself from the living Christ?"  I have to say, sorry, how can it be "the biblical body of church" the "bride of Christ" and then "a human institution?"  How can we ignore the call to life a life not based in human tradition, but in a life transformed by the spirit?  If we say, it is a "both/and" thing - that it can.  And, if we can have a "both/and" then not going to church is a valid movement of God in his people.



The main problem I am having with Stafford and his stance is that it is not found in scripture and it is so closed to the working of the holy spirit.  Stafford forgets that many of the people outside the church are very much Christian.  Maybe not the way he would like to limit the definition, but they are very Christian.  I find that the theology expressed by Stafford naturally flows to the desire of claiming that one church is "more" church then another.  If i do not attend his church, am I still a Christian?  If i do not agree with him, am I still a Christian?  If i read Stafford the right way, the answer is "no, I am not."  I find Stafford's "logic" faulty, limited and closed.  but then again, could it just be how he wants to define church?


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