I recently wrote a pragmatic response to the alleged reasons people are leaving the church. I call them alleged because I suspect there are just as many sin-inspired or self-satisfying reasons as there are “justifications.” But my goal here is not to re-pound that sand. My purpose runs deeper. I want to target the biggest problem exiters (those who are officially rejecting church all together while still claiming Jesus) face, “How exactly does one go about decapitating Jesus without killing Him in the process?”
In the western mind everything can be segregated for personalized appeal. “Selection” is the optimal word in marketing. “Customization” beckons us to put the “ME” stamp on everything from phones to diets and cars to cloths. Individuality, personalization and particularity dominate the landscape of American life, and that slams straight into Christian attitudes about spirituality, ecclesiology and theology. Specific to this topic, it laces people with the illusion that one is free to retain Jesus and their Christian spirituality, but to reject the church and all it’s irritating fragility. It’s customized spirituality at consumerism’s finest, but is such a division biblically permissible? Can a Christian separate the head of Jesus from the shoulders of His body and still follow Him in the way the New Testament specifies?
Now it would be easy to make this matter complicated by raising all the emotional and practical baggage that is associated with the discussion. However, I want to make this as simple as possible, not because simplicity makes it easier to swallow, but because some truths should be communicated to professing Christians with a simple matter-of-factness, minus the sentimental caveats that are designed to soften up the listener. And yes, I am aware that last sentence is beginning to sound a little harsh, but I would maintain that we are discussing truths here and truths are not inherently harsh. Opinions are harsh, people are harsh, circumstances can even be harsh, but truths are just truths. They may feel like cold comfort in that we don’t like certain truths, but they endure unabated precisely because they are fixed regardless of our feelings, situations or opinions. And so here is the simple truth, it is biblically impossible to decapitate Jesus, stick His head under your arm and move along with your own disembodied Christ. One must take Him head and body or – by default – He is rejected altogether.
In 1 Corinthians 12:12 & 27 Paul unequivocally highlights this truth when he writes, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ… 27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
Notice that Paul does not advocate a distinction between the Person of Christ and the Body of Christ as though they are complementary partners with distinct boarders of independence. He says that just as the body is one, so it is with Christ. Do a double take on that. The fullness of Christ isn’t isolated from the church (neither the church universal or local – remember 1 Corinthians is written to a local church after all); rather the church is an extension of what constitutes the fullness of Christ’s glory revealed. As one set of commentators put this, “Christ may be said to be a body with many members” therefore “to dishonor any part of Christ’s body is to dishonor Christ himself.”* Now we should not read this as some weird quazi-Christian-pantheism, but we must read it in the sense that the Body of Christ is ultimately indivisible from the Head of Christ because together this displays the Glory of Christ. I know this all sounds very mysterious, but truths are no less true simply because they are filled with mystery (Ephesians 5:32).
In the big picture, to reject the church – locally or universally – is to reject how Christ chooses to display His very own self. You may not want to accept that. You may attempt to reduce what you are rejecting to a frigid political institution of religious jargon and entertainment saturated marketing, but you rejecting far more in the process. For in leaving the church entirely you do more than divest yourself of a governing board, philosophy of ministry or group of people; you are also leaving that which Christ identifies as part of Himself. Therefore the raw reality is that any wholesale rejection of Christ’s Body, driven by personal hurts or biases, will not hold up as legitimate before Christ who is the Head. Jesus will not allow individuals to enthrone Him as their decapitated king. He cannot be divided against Himself for the fulness of His glory is shown through His unification as Head and Body (Ephesians 4:1-6). The gospel brought this together (Colossians 1:24-29) and no disgruntled, disenfranchised or discouraged Christian has the authority to tear it asunder.
Now are there some wonky local churches and jacked up denominations? Yes! But there are also a great number of them getting far more things right than wrong.
- Churches that are filled with people who also have been hurt, but don’t give up.
- Churches that are struggling with how to love a pluralistic culture while still maintaining a biblical vision of life.
- Churches that are fighting to pursue a healthy blend of what it takes to reach consumers while still developing true disciples.
- Churches that are proclaiming the fullness of the Bible while still admitting the ongoing battle to become everything Jesus seeks.
- Churches that are replete, not with judgmental hypocrites, but imperfect people who are imperfectly trying to “be perfect as their Father in Heaven is perfect.”
So come back! We all agree that the church at times can seem like a saggy, broken, out of shape body with stretch marks and a few scars, but it’s Jesus’s very own Body which is indivisibly and gloriously joined to His headship (Ephesians 5:25-30 & 32).
[*] Vaughen & Lea, 1 Corinthians BSC, p.150 & Ciampa & Rosner, 1 Corinthians PNTC, p.609