Ponderings: Churchless Christianity?

A movement going under the phrase “churchless Christianity” is growing. It basically means holding on to Jesus, but letting go of the institutional church. I want to use this week’s “Ponderings” to reflect upon it with you.

I want to offer a pastoral word and a theological word, using a quote from E. Stanley Jones to provide the basis for both: “The body without the spirit is a corpse; the spirit without the body is a ghost.”

The pastoral word is this: those who want to keep Jesus and dump the church are recognizing that the body without the spirit is a corpse. We cannot deny that too many churches have failed to manifest Jesus and the salvation he came to offer. John Wesley saw it in the Church of England of his day and called it “dead orthodoxy.” It is to our shame that this exists anytime or anyplace. We dare not pull false robes of alleged righteousness around ourselves and ignore what people are telling us as they walk away.  And to the extent that people have been misled, disillusioned, or abused by the church, we can only repent. We must pray for a renewal of the church—and be active in helping bring it to pass, first and foremost by a deep renewal in our own hearts, but also as agents of renewal as God wills.

But theologically, those who are leaving fail to see that the spirit without a body is a ghost. No religion has ever been designed to operate without some form of community. Privatized spirituality is a ghost without a body. Christianity rejects individualization.  It begins in our theology of the Trinity, and it is evidenced in the creation itself (“it is not good for the man to be alone”). The rejection of privatization continues from there to the end of the Bible–even in the new heaven and new earth. To be a “God person” is to be part of “the people of God.”  When it comes to the Christian church itself, Jesus took steps which led to its creation before he left the earth.  Why?  Because the Spirit cannot come (as he promised that the Spirit would) and simply “float in the air.”  A spirit without a body is a ghost.

The church is the Body of Christ. True, a distinction must always be made between Jesus and the church. But a distinction and a separation are not the same. Separation is not a renewal, it is a “decapitation.” No body lives with its head separated from the rest of its parts. Jesus has willed to be manifest in a body (a community) of believers.

But bodies get sick. And when they do, they need to be healed, not abandoned. Reformation, not separation, is the way to new life. In fact, we must have people who clearly see the failings of the church to stay in it; otherwise, only the blind are left to lead the blind.  Churchless Christianity is a great sadness; it is also a great danger—both for those who leave, and for those who are left behind.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 43 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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