I’ve alluded to this topic probably several times, the most recent being in my post “Questions of Heresy?”. It’s probably time to cover this one head on, because in my opinion it is at the root of many of our relgious practices. A lot of the disputes that divide the church, and a lot of the resistance to new things, boil down to a confusion between method and principle.
It is apparent through the Scriptures that God does not change. This makes sense, since Someone who is eternally perfect has no need to evolve. His character, His nature, His love, the things that He likes and dislikes…all of this remains constant, and always has. However, it is also apparent that while God does not change, His methods do. (A key example of this is in Isa. 43:19, when He says, “Behold, I am doing a new thing.”) Because man does change over time, God will alter His methods in His relentless quest to reach man.
By the same token…there are principles in Scripture that I believe derive from God’s constant nature, and these should not be tampered with. But there are often a wide range of methods that we can employ to fulfill those principles.
The problem that so often occurs with the church is that we employ a method for so long that we begin to confuse it for the principle that we are trying to fulfill. When this happens, our method essentially becomes one of those sacred cows people talk about, and this is one of the key ingredients that turns our relationship with God into religion. Over time, the method loses its effectiveness, but we hold onto it tightly because we deem it sacred. So when someone comes along and challenges the method’s effectiveness and suggests a better one, it often creates havoc. The method often will be staunchly defended–even though it isn’t really working–and the person will sometimes even be labeled a heretic, even though there has been no tampering with Scripture. All this happens when we confuse method for principle.
Let’s look at one example of what I’m talking about. The church has a mandate in Heb. 10:25 not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. I consider this to be a Biblical principle. However, there is very little said in Scripture about when, where or how to assemble. It relates a few methods that the early church used to fulfill that principle, but otherwise the Bible gives a great deal of latitude. I personally believe this is on purpose–to allow the church to adapt to the different cultures of the world and last through the centuries.
Now look at the church today. There are people who believe if you do not meet at a set time on Sunday morning, or in a specific building, or follow a specific liturgy, you haven’t been to church, and therefore you haven’t fulfilled this principle. And the first time someone suggests a different method of meeting–the “don’t forsake the assembly” Scripture gets thrown at them. This has nothing to do with principle, and everything to do with method. It’s just that we’ve carried this method for so long that we don’t know how to handle it when someone says we might be able to do it another way.
I’m a pragmatist about these things, which means I’m into what works. So if your methods are working for you and bringing good results and truly helping you fulfill the principles of Scripture, I’m inclined to leave you alone about it. It is when your system or method no longer works, or is counter-productive, or violates Scriptural principles, that I want to say, “Hey, are you sure this is the best way you could be doing this?”
Now to a more direct example, and the crux of the matter. To me, institutional Christianity is a method–not a principle. If you look at Scripture carefully, you’ll find that most of the trappings of institutional church–from the buildings to the government structure to the order of service–most of these are extra-Biblical (which means they aren’t found in Scripture at all). And some elements are currently even in violation of Scripture. There are methods we have used for centuries, and perhaps at one point they were effective in fulfilling certain principles of Scripture. But they are only methods. Many of our methods aren’t necessarily bad in and of themselves. But they should not be held as sacred. If our methods aren’t producing good fruit, we should change them–without compromising Scriptural principles.
So all that to say…I do not have a moral problem with the institutional church in general, and I do not consider myself a better Christian than others because I am outside of it. I have not broken fellowship with the Body of Christ that remains within those walls. I simply believe this is a method that is losing ground rapidly, one that in most cases no longer works, and one that has never fully allowed the church to be all she is meant to be. My journey outside the walls is an honest attempt to find a more effective way to live my faith and fulfill the mission of Christ. And my hope in processing this publicly is that my journey would encourage others to simply strip off the filters through which we hear and see things, and take an honest look at the state of things in the church, and make honest decisions about our methods to make us more effective and fruitful in the world.