The Beautiful Church and the Church for the Beautiful

“The early church was married to poverty, prisons, and persecutions. Today ‘the church’ is married to prosperity, personality, and popularity” – Leonard Ravenhill

In the 20th chapter of Jeremiah, the prophet discusses (in clear agony) why he preaches and prophesies as he does. Verse 9 is perhaps the most well known verse of the chapter: “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”

Over the past few weeks I have wanted to write posts about politics, the Ukraine, Venezuela, immigration, and gay marriage … but every time I think to start writing I am stuck at one place: The Beautiful Church and the Church for the Beautiful. While I don’t at all want to liken my piddly little blog to Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry, I mention him here to note that sometimes there are things that so consume our thoughts that we cannot be clear on anything else until we have gotten them out. Sometimes you have to, as I heard an old preacher say “write yourself empty”. And so I shall.

As I read my Bible, particularly the minor prophets and the gospels, I tend to wonder if there was ever any group more despised in prophetic ministry than religious leaders. The prophets railed against he priests and their corruption of the law; and no group was more lambasted by Jesus than the scribes and pharisees. I don’t point this out to say that “all religious leaders are always bad” – not by any stretch. Rather, I hope to make the opposite point – that religious leadership (whatever that means today) is no de facto stamp of legitimacy.

The Bible is addressed, by and large, to the believers, and the things that are written there are written with purpose. The warnings to “watch out” and “do not be deceived” are all meant for the faithful, and they are put there for a reason. So if we are told to watch out (e.g., for the leaven of the pharisees) and if the ministries of the prophets and the Lord Himself made great strides against the persons heading up the religious structures of the day, then I think, at the very least, it behooves us to keep a weather eye on the state of our hearts, the state of the church, and the motives that drive it.

The early church carried on the ministry of the Lord in seeking out the poor and bedraggled souls of this world. When the Lord kicked off His ministry He read from Isaiah 61:1-2, and would later refer back to the same verse when He defended His ministry to queries from John the Baptist. The broken and hurting were and are of great value to Him. In Matt 25 He indicates that a person’s standing at the final  judgment will be related to how he dealt with “the least of these” while he was on the earth. James goes on to decry “partiality” amongst the church – favoring those who are well dressed while telling the poor to “stand over there or sit down at my feet” (see James 2:1-4).

In the Beautiful Church, people are of value. The more they have been hated and oppressed by the world the more the Beautiful Church values them, and longs to hold them close and share the love of Christ. But the church must always be on guard for the leaven of the pharisees, and for dysfunction in its mission. The Beautiful Church stands in stark contrast to the Church for the Beautiful …

I’ve noted in many times and places my disdain for the Word of Faith movement (i.e., New Age Mysticism wrapped in a veneer of scriptures twisted out of context). While some reading this may extend the notions here of the “Church for the Beautiful” to places like the Emergent Church, my focus will tend to be on what I have seen and dealt with in WoF.

I’ll reiterate here that WoF is not simply “prosperity doctrine” – but rather self-worship. It focuses on the power of the individual (released by “faith” … though typically “faith in faith” rather than “faith in God”). Furthermore, the WoFers hold that a Christian should walk in “victory over the world” and that suffering, poverty, and sickness are all an indication of defeat by the world. Thus, just like Job’s friends, they come to the indelible conclusion that Christians who are hurting, or poor, or sick, (or add your own list of common human conditions) must be the way they are because they lack faith, and thus must somehow be “worth less” than those who don’t have these problems.

(In various times and places the WoFers will go so far as to despise the cross. Teachers like Kenneth Hagin and Joyce Meyer have even indicated that the cross was not sufficient for redemption, but that Jesus had to suffer horrors in hell before we could be saved. Of course this is nowhere in the Bible, and I merely point it out to say that these folks will even minimalize the cross, because it seems like loss and failure to them.)

Sadly for these folks the church is still filled with people who hurt. Yes, these hurting ones are Christians, but they still struggle with the abuses they have suffered at the hands of this world. This grinds against the desire for “beautiful” people without problems. (I don’t mean physical beauty, of course – but implied, perceived faultlessness.) So, in the Church for the Beautiful, there is a strong preference for folks who don’t have issues – perhaps who have never faced real hardships in life (and thus have very little to overcome) … the beautiful people.

There’s more to it, naturally. There is a love of the hierarchy and who is in “leadership” (or who is the “queen bee”) – this continual (often subconscious) drone of pecking order and who is the greater and who is the lesser. (The disciples themselves struggled with this at times too.) In the Church for the Beautiful there will be special seats for the special people – but someone with physical difficulties ought not try to sit in such seats (so they can see) … they will be asked to move, they are not amongst the beautiful ones (please, if you haven’t read it already, turn over to James 2:1-4). Those with issues, challenges, difficulties, and ugly scars aren’t told to leave, of course – they are merely told to “know their place” (… like in the back row).

Perhaps most importantly, the Church for the Beautiful is focused primarily on the functioning of the enterprise of the church, perhaps without regard as to whether this relates well to the agenda of the kingdom of God. Social gatherings that strengthen the community are of great value (as, I think they should be) but selfless giving to third world brethren or homeless single mothers, well, these are far less interesting.  And there is an absolute dread of anything that smells of disunity (and people who disagree can expect to be moved out of the way with all due haste). This is not to say that unity is bad, but unity that comes at the cost of openness and integrity is indeed a bad thing.

It is nothing new to human history that people will work contrary to the will of God, believing they are in His service. The Lord warned in John 16:2 that people would kill Christians and believe they were doing a service to God. Saul was so zealous for God that he persecuted the Christians (until the Lord intervened). Indeed, it is the nature of wolves that they eat the sheep and think nothing is wrong … this is (as they see it) the purpose of the sheep, to be consumed to fulfill the desires of the wolf. The Church for the Beautiful is merely a mild reflection of these.

So what shall we do with this Church for the Beautiful? What shall we do with these practitioners of social church who measure greatness in the filling of seats and the smiles across the pews and the success and “well adjustedness” of the people – with little passing thought for the mission of the church in a broken world? What shall we make of these Stepford Christians?

I honestly don’t know. Other than to say we need not fear them or clamor for their approval (and it is of little use to convince them of their error). We serve the Lord and Him only. One suspects passages like “they have their reward already” and “come out from among them” are reasonably applied here.

I have more to say on the subject. But for now, I will note that I think I have successfully said enough to blog about something else in the morning. But, if the time should come that I must “write myself empty” again, then we will have another chat.

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