While reading an article on another website recently, I started to think about how most church-going Christians tend to categorize and compare themselves against other folks. I feel pretty confident in talking about this subject because I was one of those church-going people for better than 30 years of my life. The article I was reading made a point about how the Lord views people as opposed to how religion often tends to categorize them. While I wouldn’t want to be guilty of plagiarizing the article I read (which was about the author’s perspective on the rapture – not the direction of my comments here), I do want to draw from some of the author’s example and utilize the following comparison for this discussion.
For the sake of example, let’s talk about a guy we’ll call Josh… Josh is a believer in Jesus; However, probably very few typical Christians would recognize him as such. For starters, Josh doesn’t go to church. Josh doesn’t have a pastor. Josh doesn’t tithe. In fact, Josh doesn’t give money to any church organization at all and, even worse, he often sleeps in on Sunday morning. Josh also doesn’t care too much about religious stuff, he doesn’t sport a fish emblem on the back of his car, he doesn’t wear Christian t-shirts, he doesn’t watch TBN, and doesn’t employ any of the typical religious lingo (what I call “Christianese”) that most other Christians do.
The impression that many church-going folks might probably gather from Josh is that Josh is not really a Christian… and I have to say that, if that frame of thinking is true of church folks who are sizing up Josh on these “qualifications”, then I’m quite sure I’m not a Christian either (at least in the eyes of a lot of these people)… In fact, I’m probably in even more spiritual trouble than our buddy Josh because I actually wear a t-shirt sometimes that says “No More Religion”, I have a website geared toward people who don’t “do church” anymore, and my wife wasn’t even a Believer when I married her (and I knew it)! By all traditional appearances, neither Josh nor myself are likely to win any “Christian-of-the-Year” awards and most church-goers, judging by typical religious standards, are going to shake their heads in disappointment at how far we have fallen.
But now I have to ask those who are concerned about Josh (or about myself… and many of those who fit in our boat of un-church-ish-ness), what does the Bible reveal as evidence of Christ at work in the life of true Believers? Jesus himself said that a good tree bears good fruit and that we would know those that belong to God by the fruits they bear… The question is, are we judging people according to the actual “fruit on their tree” – or according to some other religiously-invented criteria?
The article I referred to earlier presented an excellent list, so I am going to borrow that list for this discussion. The list is simply a mention of values and attributes which the Scripture indicates are attributes of the Believers who love God and love their neighbors.
Loving (John 13:35)
Compassionate (Mt 25:35-40; Lk 10:33)
Service-oriented (Mt 23:11)
Sacrificing (Mt 19:21; Jas 2:14)
Giving, Generous (Mt 5:42; Lk 3:11; Jas 2:15-16)
Merciful (Mt 5:7; 18:33)
Long-suffering (Mt 5:41)
Patient (Lk 8:15; Jas 1:3; 2Pe 1:6; Rev 2:2-3; 19)
Peacemaking (Mt 5:9)
Forgiving (Mt 18:21, 35; )
Fidelity in marriage (Mt 5:27-32)
Taking action on Jesus words (Mt 7:24-27)
Meek, Gentle (Mt 5:5, 22)
Humble (Mt 18:1-4; 23:12)
Trusting, Faithful (Mt 6:25-34; Lk 12:21-24)
Moral (Mt 15:19-20)
Honorable, Having integrity (Mt 5:33-37)
Prays (Mt 6:5)
Fasts (Mt 6:16-18; 9:15)
Value the Word of God (Lk 8:21; Mt 10:40-42)
Not Materialistic (Mt 6:19-21; Rev 3:17; Lk 12:15)
Not Judgmental (Mt 7:1-5)
Not Self-righteous nor Hypocritical (Mt 24:51; 6:2, 5, 16; 23:13-29)
I wish I could tell you that this is the criteria most church people use when they critique folks like Josh or myself or many of you reading this. Sadly, hardly any of these seem to make their list much of the time. The simple fact is that “going to church, tithing, listening to Christian music, and participating in church programs” are nowhere mentioned in Scripture as being attributes of a Christ follower. So why do Christians continue to judge one another (and also reject others) based on things that neither Jesus nor any of His apostles directed folks to do?
Interestingly enough, the Scripture does tell us (in the words of Jesus himself) what can actually keep you out of heaven… and, interestingly enough, Jesus also said that when the judgment comes, there are going to be a lot of people pointing to their religious credentials that are going to be rejected by the Father!
Matthew 7:21-23 (CEV) – Not everyone who calls me their Lord will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only the ones who obey my Father in heaven will get in. On the day of judgment many will call me their Lord. They will say, “We preached in your name, and in your name we forced out demons and worked many miracles.” But I will tell them, “I will have nothing to do with you! Get out of my sight, you evil people!”
The actual Greek text of this passage indicates Jesus saying to these religious folks, “I never knew you.” The word “know” is an intimate term that speaks of love, friendship, and/or approval of conduct. In short, Jesus will one day tell these people that, despite all their good deeds and even if they preached in His name, drove out demons and worked miracles, if they were not walking in genuine, personal relationship with Him and listening to what He actually told them to do, He will not care about all their religious works (no matter how apparently positive they were). This is a VERY big deal to consider!
I rather like how the Message version paraphrases the following passage:
Matthew 7:24-27 – “These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on. If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit–but nothing moved that house. It was fixed to the rock. But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach. When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards.”
We have churches full of things that have the air of godliness… Bible studies, ministry programs, sermons, religious expectations (and experiences), etc. But many times, unfortunately, people wrap themselves up in the externals but it was not Christ who led any of them. Many go through the motions and do things that they think will earn them “righteous points” with God (not to mention with other Christians – things that make them appear righteous in front of others), but they earn for them nothing because, as far as Christ is concerned, if they don’t flow from a heart that is in love with Him (and walking in obedience to the things He asks of them), they are vain works. Furthermore, if the Lord himself did not instruct them to do these things (yet they continue in them because their religious thinking dictates they should) and so, in effect, they are actually operating without authorization. They are not obeying the Master and He is NOT impressed!
Unfortunately, I believe that a lot of folks who think they are going to be accepted at the last day are actually going to be rejected and cast away! This is a frightful and sorrowful thought. They are actually going to have to hear the Savior say, “I don’t know you… You are not my friends… Nor have you ever done what I requested of you. Get out! You have no part with Me. You are a worker of evil!” Think about the magnitude of these words!
I sorrow when I see all of these mega churches producing multitudes of religious-thinking-and-doing people who have no idea what it really means to be a friend of the Master. They are “converts” but not necessarily to Christ; rather to a religious substitute! They are “members” but not necessarily of the Family of God. They are being programmed to think that simply belonging to the organization and “being involved” earns them access and favor (not to mention qualifies them officially as being a “Christian”). How many of you remember the phrase “plugged in”?
I was talking with a friend in church once about someone attending that it appeared had no genuine interest in Christianity other than to flirt with the gals in the church group and go to the activities. My church friend said to me, “Well at least they are plugged-in and going to church,” as though that was the requirement to make it into heaven. How sad to consider how many people actually believe they are ok with God just because they belong to some man-made organization. Indeed many have gained a false sense of eternal security merely by their association with a religious organization.
I don’t know how many times I listened to conversations (or took part in them myself) in my church days where people talked about whether or not so-and-so was “plugged in” to a good church. Never mind whether or not they were in love with Jesus and seeking to walk with Him daily and follow His direction for their lives. Sadly, many are deceived by the “plugged-in equals I’m okay with God” lie and many will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven because of it!
Many of these same people are always fixated on the issue of whether or not a person is in “fellowship” with other Believers. To them, if someone is not actively attending a church organization they are “not in fellowship”… and, to them, the only proper way to remedy this (so-called) lack of fellowship is to start attending a church; Preferably their church, but any Christian church will do, so long as they attend someplace. In reality, this matter of “fellowship” seems to have taken precedence over the Lordship of Jesus Christ. To so many of these folks, they could care less about what’s really going on in your relationship with Jesus so long as you are attending church. Please tell me, how is this mindset any different than saying Salvation is based upon whether or not a person attends church or not? And to boil this down even further, is this not essentially a different Gospel? I do not recall Jesus or any of His apostle teaching a doctrine of “church attendance” in order to be counted a genuine disciple of Christ.
I cannot tell you how many emails I have received on this subject over the years; both from pastors and church folks. They are always quoting Hebrews 10:25 – “…not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” Never-mind the fact that this passage says absolutely NOTHING about attending a church, nor does it describe fellowship as “church attendance”, nor did any such thing as a church building even exist at this time in history! They completely disregard the spirit and context of the letter here, which was to encourage Believers to pull together because the day when God would soon pour out His judgments on the Jewish nation was fast approaching. Persecution was already at the doors and many saints were afraid and some, it appears, had left the faith altogether (see the very next verse; Hebrews 10:26). The “sin” the author refers to was to renounce the profession of the Gospel they had once received. The author is pleading with them not to apostatize from their Christian faith as many had already done and were presently doing. This tells me that the “fellowship” in view here is more about “THE” Fellowship (as in, the whole body of Christ) than it is about just gathering together in little groups. “Forsake not the assembly” is very likely an admonition to stay in the Faith! Don’t quit now just because it’s getting very hard to be counted as a follower of Jesus.
No one was “attending churches” at this time so this could hardly be thought of as the directive of the author of Hebrews (except by desperate proponents of organized religion, looking for something to beat over the head of people who do not adhere to their brand of legalism). As we have seen, the author of Hebrews is exhorting the Believers to stick together because dark days were ahead (and already present). There is no admonition to have weekly religious services to satisfy this encouragement. There is no talk of being sure to endure long, boring sermons by a professional clergy. There is no instruction to pay weekly tithes to make sure God grants provision and protection (or pay for the pastor’s sports car, house and boat). There is not a single directive to “plug-in” to lots of religious programs to ensure you are “doing the Lord’s work”. There is no warning that if you don’t attend church meetings, you will be in danger of losing heaven, be considered an outcast or rebel by your Christian family, or that God will not be able to speak to you, bless your Christian serving, hear your prayers, take care of your family, or any other such nonsense! All this says is, “Brother and Sisters, stick together because hard times are coming! And don’t renounce the Gospel of Jesus because you’re afraid of persecution, death or unpopularity.”
This idea that “fellowship” is satisfied by merely attending a religious organization is completely ridiculous and also dangerous doctrine! It contradicts what Scripture teaches and that is that if we walk in the Light as Christ Himself is in the Light, we HAVE fellowship and His blood cleanses all of our sins! Fellowship is NOT had by attending a church meeting. It is had because we belong to Jesus! He has called us into fellowship with Him first and foremost and, therefore, we are IN the Fellowship if we remain in Him. This other brand of “fellowship” sold by the modern-day church organization is a distraction and a lie against Scripture. In conclusion, “forsaking the assembly” has nothing to do with attending church AT ALL!!!
What’s just as bad is that many equate “inviting someone to church” with “evangelism”! I was talking to someone once and asked if they ever shared their faith with one of their neighbors that we had been talking about… The response was, “Oh yes, I’ve invited them to church several times, but they weren’t interested.” I said in response, “Well I’m not interested either, but that has nothing to do with my knowing the Lord or not… Have you ever talked with them about anything other than invitations to church?” The answer was, “Well, yes… but it would be so great if they could come to one of the special services. They don’t want to come to church because something happened in the past that turned them off from it.” I said, “Then why keep bugging them about coming to your church? Why not just let them see Christ through you and through your relationship with them? Leave church out of it.” They said, “But if they just would come to a service I know they would love it. Our church and our pastor is so wonderful and I think it would really show them how good church can be and not like whatever bad experience they had.” I replied, “Can’t you just share the Gospel with them personally? Why do they have to come to your church at all… especially if they are not interested in that?” This person said, “Well, I was really wanting them to come to church because then they could hear a good sermon and hopefully get saved.”
Unfortunately, this is a very common mindset among so many church goers.
But let’s go back to our buddy Josh now and re-consider our assessment of his perceived “Christianity” against the fruit that Scripture tells us to look for as opposed to the qualifications that religion typically expects… With that in mind, let me tell you the rest of the story about Josh…
Even though Josh doesn’t attend church, he has a deep abiding love for the Lord and a desire to understand and walk in His ways. Josh’s one of the most humble guys I know. Josh and I often communicate on the phone or over the Internet to talk about the Lord and to encourage each other in the faith. Josh is also one of the most avid students of Scripture I’ve ever met. Josh may not tithe, but I’ve seen Josh give out of his abundance (and even his lack of abundance) many times to help others in need (including myself). Josh is a happily married man, faithful to his wife, has a great family and he raises his kids to know what it means to really have a relationship with Jesus. During a number of struggles in my life, Josh has been a most faithful friend and has prayed with me and cheered me up with his friendship and laughter. I have often been amazed at how Josh strives to live without compromise in his own life and seeks to follow the Lord’s teachings to the best of his ability, yet he is not judgmental at all, not self-righteous, and always makes you feel like you are the most important friend in his life. You never get the feeling that he thinks he better than you or that he thinks you’re less spiritual than he is, yet the testimony of his character and convictions are clearly evident and speak loudly. He’s a man of integrity, he’s not materialistic, he’s giving, generous, kind, forgiving, and the kind of guy that makes you want to be a Jesus follower because you see the genuine existence of joy and abundant life that is possible.
Guess what? Josh is real guy! That’s not his real name, but he’s really my friend… and I’m proud to say that he’s not the only friend I have like this out here in the land of no-more-religion. When I put up the life of a guy like Josh next to those characteristics that Jesus and His apostles taught were to be regarded as evidence and “fruit” of those who truly follow Him, I know that Josh knows the Master. It’s obvious. He meets the criteria… Maybe not the criteria that a lot of church folks have been led to believe matter, but that is of no concern to me (ahem… or Josh).
It’s so strange now, the way I find myself looking at other people around me (compared with how I used to look at a lot of people when I was church boy)… Whether they currently profess to be “Christians” or not, my desire is to see with different eyes and to speak only when the Lord gives me words to speak (since my own mouth too often gets me in trouble). It’s so easy to pre-judge people by appearances. I still struggle with this at times, but the Lord has often reminded me of my own shortcomings and the long journey I have traveled to even get to this realization. Just because I know better, doesn’t necessarily mean I always do better… but with God’s grace I am growing as His disciple and learning to love and obey His lead rather than my own.
Jesus spent his days among folks that the religious crowd had a real problem with. Having drinks in the home of tax collectors and some of the most despised, rejected and even wicked sinners in society, Jesus seemed to actually enjoy their company… and He wasn’t there just because it was some clever religious tactic to get them to believe in Him or join his “spiritual club”. He actually liked them! He actually enjoyed spending time with them! And yes, He had compassion on them and desired for them to be welcomed into the Father’s embrace. He dared to get close to the people no one else wanted anything to do with; the sick and diseased, the sinners, the societal rejects… or, you know… basically everyone you don’t usually see going to church.
Now days I do not find it such a struggle to be around people that I once avoided simply because they weren’t Christians or even simply because they didn’t attend some church organization. I also don’t find my “Christianity” to be something I always feel pressure to push on other people. Gone is my “church-born evangelistic compulsion”. What a relief it is to be able to comfortably be among other people without always sizing them up in my head and trying to figure out how I might introduce them to religion, or look for a clever way to get away from them because of a fear they might infect me away from mine. To begin to see people through the eyes of Jesus is a wonderful thing. It doesn’t require compromise at all. It doesn’t require religious condescending behavior. It doesn’t require talking about Jesus every five seconds. But I have found that if a light truly burns within a person’s heart, it is difficult to hide the light. In other words, even if the light within us doesn’t seem all that glowing by a religious person’s legalistic standards (or perhaps even our own), when that little light is placed in darkness (among people who are in darkness) it cannot help but shine bright. So it is better to just BE who we are and remain transparent and honest. Of course God may work through us and God will work through us as we remain submitted to Him. But we should not be anxious about this. We ought to trust and rest in the confidence that God is well able to bring whomever He wills into relationship with Him. After all, the Scripture itself says that it is the Father who draws people to Christ!
John 6:44-45 – For no one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws them to Me, and at the last day I will raise them up. As it is written in the Scriptures, ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from Him comes to Me.
Remember when Jesus asked His followers who they thought He was and Peter replied:
Matthew 16:16-17 – Simon Peter spoke up, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus told him: Simon, son of Jonah, you are blessed! You didn’t discover this on your own. It was shown to you by my Father in heaven.
God will draw people. God will reveal His truth to people.
Sometimes Christians act like God is dead or doesn’t exist at all, because they seem to think He is powerless to do anything with all of their religionizing. They must be thinking:
“How can people worship the Father, unless there is a formal worship service each week?”
“How can people know how to live each day, unless a professional pastor gives them a well-prepared sermon every Sunday to tell them what to do?”
“How can people serve God, unless there is a church program to participate in?”
“How can people be faithful to God, unless they are faithful to attend church services every week?”
“How can people come to know Christ, unless we setup evangelism programs to manipulate their thinking to see how good of an idea it is to become a Christian and start going to church?”
“How will Believers be able to make personal decisions in their lives and for their families, unless they schedule a counselling session with the pastor?”
“How can anyone be thought of as a faithful and godly steward of their finances, unless they tithe to an institutional church?”
“How can anyone be recognized as being a Christian, unless they identify themselves by the name of the religious organization they attend?”
On and on this logic goes… Do you see it? It does not require the voice of the Holy Spirit at all… and yet people are constantly told that they must attend church and participate in religion to be qualified as a legitimate Christian (of course, not always in those exact words). This is why I really believe the devil is in the details when it comes to the whole business of church. Man (or perhaps I should say “Satan”) has done quite a successful job convincing people to accept a definition of “Church” that neither Jesus nor any of His apostles ever once taught! The religious masses have largely accepted a counterfeit Christianity and actually rejected the Lord’s Body in the process.
I always add this disclaimer when I talk about this subject, because inadvertently someone misunderstands me… and that disclaimer is that I am not suggesting that everyone who attends a “church” is apostate from the Faith. Nor am I suggesting that Christians gathering together in a building (i.e. a “church” building) is somehow automatically evil. Many of the activities that go on in “church” (despite people’s ignorance about some of the things I’m talking about) are not bad things and some may even be beneficial. Social clubs (which, in my opinion, is the category that many churches fall into) can have a recognizable societal benefit (and this is true whether they are Christian or not). That doesn’t mean there is always a spiritual benefit… especially if the Lord and the revelation of the Body of Christ is replaced by a social substitute that uses His name as a label. What I am referring to is the religious mindset that often accompanies these activities; that subtly drives it and maintains it and that Christians have yielded their hearts to and inevitably been deceived by. This mindset has effectively taken over in so many places and among so many people. The voice of the Spirit has been subtly replaced by the voice of religion and hardly anyone seems to realize it. Does it not make sense that the devil would use something that appears to be good, to twist it, and deceive people away from reliance on Christ? Deception is not deception unless it’s deception. How’s that for a profound statement? But, seriously, think about it!
Listen friends, I have visited some of the most popular churches around. The kind that look really polished on the surface. I’ve been involved with churches that many would regard as the best of the best (in terms of excellent programs, sound doctrine, good worship music, etc.) and still have seen the devil at the reigns and lives destroyed. I’ve seen religious leaders that are believed to be “godly” by most, who at the same time are oppressive to others, manipulative, liars, arrogant, and spiritually corrupt. I’ve seen church organizations that started out with good doctrine, devolve into heresy and spiritually abusive behavior; manifesting anything but the character of Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, I’m simply saying that I care not about the labels those in religion choose to place on us. I worry more for their sakes that their diseased thinking is going to eventually lead them to hell (as those who will cry “Lord, Lord,” and may have to hear Him respond with, “Depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness… I never knew you.” We, in the Family of God, need to learn to start discerning the Body of Christ by the Spirit of God and fruit on the tree and not by petty religious criteria. If you’re a church-going person reading this, please know that I am not suggesting you are lost… but I am challenging you to regard and guard against the mindsets I have described in this post. Many of us on the “outside” of your institutional religious world view are not enemies of Christ, nor are we invalidated saints because we avoid traditional organized religion. We are not “out of fellowship” just because we may not “attend a fellowship”. You, dear church-going friend, need to understand what Fellowship is according to the doctrine of Jesus and stop judging others by way of their involvement or lack thereof in religious institutions and programs (or by judging on surface appearances that are evaluated by the legalistic ideals of religion, rather than the things God calls essential).
The same passage you (my church-going friends) throw at those outside the four walls, I will strongly challenge you with; forsake not the assembling of yourselves together. That means with US! Flush the idea that tells you this “assembling” is your weekly church service and start thinking of the Body of Christ, the Church, as the Family of Christ of which any who call on His name are a part of. Together we are assembled in Him and this is what enables us to have fellowship with one another. Fellowship is not merely something you do or someplace you go. It is something we who know Him HAVE because we belong to Him. Stop rejecting the non-church man, because church (as man has defined it) does not even begin to describe the Church of the Living God! Stop placing religion in-between your relationships with other people. Instead, place Christ at the center and watch what happens! Stop looking at the surface and passing judgment based on the arrogance of piety and starting looking for the fruit of the Spirit and regarding your spiritual family as brothers and sisters in Christ, not fellow church members.
Let us not give the devil a foothold among us any longer! This is an appeal to the Family of God!