Why Church?

It’s inevitable that somewhere along our Christian walk there will come a dissenter, naysayer or, on a good day, a genuine seeker.

We learn to deal with these people with a half smile, or direct engagement, or hopefully, with the guidance of the Spirit. One of the common arguments I’ve heard is “Why do I have to go to church? It’s full of hypocrites and holier-than-thous who only turn up for their weekly God-fix. Most of them aren’t real Christians.”

Yeah, they’re probably right.

Jesus didn’t speak of forming a “Church”, only of a new kingdom, where we walk with God and death is no more. That’s a pretty big deal on its own, but yeah, no “Church”. So, fair question, why church?

“Church” in the New Testament refers to a body of believers. Can I be a Christian and not go to a specific, purpose built building yet still be a member of this “Church”? Well, maybe. It depends on you, your fortitude, and what you understand that was meant by the term “the body of Christ”.

Many moons past I fell out with organised religion. I felt let down by people I’d trusted and thought better of. I walked, and I kept walking. I walked for eleven years, and in that time underwent a different form of rebirth. Perhaps “unbirth” would be a better term. I drifted from the fellowship of other believers and set out as a lone wolf.

In a pretty short time I came to see that the people weren’t wrong or bad, they were just gullible, easily led, and not for nothing were they known as “Sheep”. I read theological works, but everything about the kingdom of God and the person of Christ became difficult, where before it had all been simple. We were also now into the Internet Age, and I met and spoke to others from diverse theological backgrounds online. Eventually, having been subjected to every conceivable piece of misinformation, misunderstanding and just plain wrong doctrine, and no longer a believer, I turned to the atheist chat rooms and forums. I was a successful debating atheist. I like debating, although nowadays it’s a lot more friendly, but then it was savage, and included well worn tropes like imaginary friends and sky-fairies.

Eventually, even that became tiresome and I slowed down to a gentle trot as opposed to the full-on raging gallop. I became a semi-retired atheist.

ordo salutisAfter my eleven years in the spiritual wilderness I was driving a well-worn route from London to my home in Bristol, a journey of about 120 miles – not really far in my line of business. Two thirds of the way home I became a Christian, maybe for the first time. There was no vision, no voice in my head, I wasn’t forced from the road, which at 80 miles an hour is a good thing. No, I just knew. I can only describe it as an overwhelming sense of RELIEF. Like when you’re climbing a long set of steps with your kid sitting on your shoulder and you lift him down at the top. That kind of relief. I didn’t cry or drop to my knees (though I sometimes did when I was carrying the child), but I just felt DIFFERENT. Still, it took me a year before I set foot inside another church.

I spent that year studying, this time with renewed vigour. I finally returned to a Reformed Baptist church where I’d attended for a year or so in my pre-atheistic times. Eventually I left because a few things for me became unbearable. Firstly, I wasn’t a Baptist. They knew my position and accepted it, but we mutually enjoyed the fellowship so we both compromised. Secondly, I missed the Liturgy. I saw free prayer as being dominated by a small number of old-faithfuls who could be relied upon to fill an uncomfortable silence. Lastly, the God they showed me didn’t line up either with my own ideas of God or my own experience of him. I determined to read the bible from end to end, and found that the Calvinistic overtones I’d been shown just weren’t there.

I moved back to my old church. Guess what? Every person who had let me down, disappointed me and (I felt) caused my initial departure was still there. But they embraced me, welcomed me back. I saw for the first time their dedication to Christ and their faithful commitment to each other. Maybe, just maybe, it had been me with the problem.

So, back to the point: Why go to church?

Because Christ was all about fellowship. He gathered people together for the purpose of evangelism, he gathered people together for meals. For an itinerant preacher he sure had a lot of friends. He famously said “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matt 18:20). Now this may or may not refer to a worship gathering, but read your New Testament and tell me where Christ says this is a solo enterprise. There is strength in fellowship. Knowing you are one of a body of people isn’t enough if you never meet with them. Praying together becomes contrived and just a little bit weird if it’s only done over the Internet and the common breaking of bread in His name is nigh-on impossible.

House Churches seem to be in vogue, particularly as of course the early Church started that way. But did it start that way as an intended model for future generations or from necessity? I argue the latter. as soon as The Way started to gain acceptance numbers of believers started to gather together in ever larger groups. Were that not the case we wouldn’t have Church as we now understand it. It is man’s natural instinct to form groups in cultures, and like attracts like. Join any online hobby group and see how long it is before somebody notices that half a dozen of you live within 100 miles of each other and “Let’s get together…”

To be part of a body of people is, for me, essentially a part of the Christian faith. You’ll never agree 100% with the theology of your peers, but you will learn. My congregation is at the upper end of middle aged. I thought that if church is all about new blood then we’re failing, until somebody pointed out to me how lucky I was to be sharing my worship with so many decades of faithful witness. Nobody goes to my church for the entertainment. we’re relatively high-church Anglicans, so why would they? No, they go to quietly worship God, to confess their sins, to be assured of God’s forgiveness and to partake of Holy Communion with Him.

So let’s gather together and bear witness to our faith in Christ, and maybe God will enable the building of his kingdom. You won’t do it on your own.

The Order of Salvation

Broadly speaking, Christians believe that we are, as a race, separated from God and in need of restoration. We sin, and sin is offensive to God and outside of his intentions for us. Because of our separation, God suffers, we suffer and the world is in a state of corruption, and because it is outside of our capabilities to put things right God must take the initiative, which he does through the sacrifice of his son on our behalf. Christ died bearing the sins of us all and rose to new life, conquering both sin and death for the believer. Believers are thus saved from destruction and brought by Christ to new life with him. Anyone who studies the faith must have some form of blueprint for the process of salvation in order to provide himself with a framework upon which to build his studies.

I can only write this piece from a personal perspective, as there are several theological stances on the order of salvation and any conclusion one reaches on which one is right is entirely dependant upon which aspect one starts with. What follows is, I hope, a non-heretical, generally acceptable, but carefully considered order, based on scripture. First, it will help to identify the key components. They are:

  • Grace
  • Faith
  • Justification
  • Baptism
  • Regeneration
  • Sanctification
  • Glorification

Grace

graceGod’s grace is not a commodity. It doesn’t come in buckets, litres, pounds or yards. God’s grace is his merciful and unmerited favour towards us. It is his unerring and unfailing kindness towards his creation. Some branches of theology attempt to further define it by categorising it into “strengths”, from “common grace” to “irresistible grace”, the weakest to the strongest. I reject any attempt to categorise; God is not “a little bit kind” or “so kind that you have no choice but to comply with his wishes”. His grace is universal and constant, surrounding us from our conception, giving us air to breathe, food to eat, and life to live.

Traditionally, our separation came at The Fall, the point at which man first sinned and all life changed. This “Original Sin” or loss of original holiness was passed from parent to child and the whole of humankind is said to suffer the effects of that sin, rendering us unable to turn to God of our own volition. Only god’s grace can enable us in such a way that we can turn to him.

There is a theological divide at this point, where Christianity is drawn along two distinct and contrary paths. On the one hand we have the views of the Arminians, called after Jacob Arminius, a Dutch Reformer of the sixteenth century. Arminius believed as the majority of Christians and I do, including the Catholic Church, that grace comes before anything else, and is thus “prevenient”. All may come to Christ, but those who reject him seal their own damnation. On the other hand we have the beliefs of John Calvin, who said that grace was not universal, but limited, specific and irresistible; God chooses whom he will save, enables them only to believe, and damns the rest, who according to Calvin were created for that purpose. Whatever path you follow, grace is your starting point, and without it we would all be “dead in our sins” and would remain unsaved.

Faith

faithThe link between grace and faith is well established, in that most theological positions hold that man is unable to turn to God without grace. As said above, this position can be rigidly held, where grace is seen as almost an enabling substance which is 100% effective upon those to whom it is administered, to a looser definition, which can say as little as that our very existence is in itself a gracious act. Similarly, faith can be seen as a gift of God, given only to those whom he has fore-ordained will believe, to a voluntary action of man’s, brought about by a recognition of his need for salvation from his broken relationship with God. A third view understands that the grace of God is shown to us in the giving of his Son for our sake, and that Christ’s action alone shows us sufficient grace to enable our faith, though some will reject this graceful act and continue in a broken relationship with God. It’s important to accept that faith goes beyond a mere intellectual assent given to the idea of Christ’s sacrifice, or agreement that he was, in fact, a person who really lived 2,000 years ago. As a child, you may have jumped from a swing at it’s highest point, having faith that your father would catch you. This is very different from merely acknowledging your father’s existence.

Justification

Justification is the act of being declared righteous. It is the point at which God recognises your faith and declares you one of his people. Romans 4:

9 [Cometh] this blessedness then upon the circumcision [only], or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness.

10 How was it then reckoned ? when he was in circumcision, or inuncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision.

11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which [he had yet] being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe , though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also:

12 And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which [he had] being [yet] uncircumcised.

13 For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, [was] not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.

Justification then comes through faith, to all who believe.

Baptism

baptismThe placement of baptism is a difficult one for  some. For many, baptism is analogous with circumcision, and as we have seen, Abraham was declared righteous BEFORE his circumcision, therefore baptism must follow justification. However, most would see that faith leads to obedience, and obedience requires baptism. For many the process of baptism would include the washing away of the stain of sin, forgiveness for past sins, justification and regeneration. Those of us who baptise infants and those unable to make their own decisions through mental impairment do so on the understanding that the individual is brought into the family of the Church, cleansed, forgiven and given new life. As time progresses is it hoped and believed that the grace of God will work within the individual to strengthen and build faith, which is ultimately personally declared at confirmation, where further helpful grace is imparted.

Regeneration

Regeneration is the process of New Birth, Rebirth or being Born Again. It is also described by Christ as being “Born from above” (John 3:7). God, after justifying us, gives us new life in the Power of the Holy Spirit. We then work with God, empowered by his grace and our faith to become the person he would have us be. The traditional churches see Baptism as the most common means of effecting regeneration, though God can use any means he pleases. Baptist churches deny God this freedom, rejecting baptismal regeneration and reducing baptism to mere ordinance – something we undergo because God says we must, but without specific salvific purpose.

Sanctification

sanctificationBeing born again does not, in itself, make us perfect. The process of gradual perfection is known as Sanctification. As we live a life fulfilling our Christian calling we grow daily in our faith. Our faith, in turn, leads to good works and we grow more Christlike. What may have started with some difficulty becomes “second nature” over time as our sanctification progresses, always aiming for Christian perfection. Most will say we can never achieve this perfection in this life, which has led some to believe in some form of post-mortem sanctification to complete the work. This is a huge debate. Catholics hold to a view of Purgatory, more of a state of being than a location, where sanctification continues and punishments for venial (or minor, non-mortal) sin takes place. Some hold similar views without using the word “Purgatory”, and many reject the view that sanctification continues in time, but that God makes all things perfect for believers prior to their final judgement. John Wesley, founder of Methodism and a lifelong Anglican priest, held that Christian Perfection was achieved on a daily basis, whereby every single decision a man makes is the best possible decision in God’s eyes, given the wherewithal of the individual. Man must make God his first thought in every action. Some have confused his view with Sinless Perfection, the ability to never sin, which he never agreed with nor supported in any way.

Glorification

glorificationThe act of being Glorified. This, then, is salvation, the point at which one is actually saved following death and final judgement. Some, particularly Protestants, will see salvation as occurring at the first point of belief. On this basis they may argue that salvation once given, cannot be lost, as God will complete the work started in an individual. In this God acts Monergistically. Orthodox believers (by which I mean non-Protestants) see salvation as a process, never complete until the very end. This is a Synergistic process whereby an individual CAN turn his back on God and foolishly walk away.

As a member of the Church of England, and therefore an Anglican, the above ordo salutis (order of salvation) can be seen to have both catholic and reformed elements. It is the order I personally adopt and one held by churches worldwide.