All of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3.8-9)
When talking with LGBT and other believers who’ve withdrawn from the Body of Christ, sooner or later the conversation comes down to this: “I have faith. But I want nothing to do with organized religion.” There’s no good answer to this—even though I’m convinced avoiding religious rejection is tantamount to accepting it. When we permit unwelcoming denominations, congregations, or individuals to force our surrender from seeking inclusion where we're welcome, we reinforce the notion we're unworthy of acceptance. We become complicit to the lie—the heresy—that God prefers certain kinds of people and doesn’t love all of us equally.
That everyone who comes to God will be received isn’t open to debate. It’s the bedrock of Christianity Jesus lays in statement after statement, most famously in John 3.16 (the most-beloved, oft-quoted, and—apparently—misread scripture of many who subscribe to exclusionary doctrines): “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (Emphasis added.) Given grace’s pricelessness, however, it’s easy to understand why some try to protect it with qualifiers. No less than Peter makes this mistake. In Acts 10, it takes an epiphany for him to confess, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism.” (v34) Yet, despite Christ’s emphatic teaching and the Apostles’ determination to honor it, since the first, Christianity has been plagued by attempts to shut people out.
There’s no good answer for those who disdain organized religion because they’re absolutely correct. Organized religion falls short of its higher purpose by trying to safeguard core ideals with government and guidelines. Since faith is a human endeavor, it lends itself to a human approach. Thus we define what it is by what it isn’t—the same way we organize everything in life. From there it’s a hop, skip, and jump to categorizing who can and can’t believe, and what does and doesn’t evidence belief. Harms caused by our instinctive “this-not-that” scheme explain why so many resist organized religion. But, if we step back to see the wider perspective, we recognize their complaints focus on symptoms of a rarely acknowledged paradox: organizations are natural enemies of faith. By design, they set parameters and implement procedures, whereas faith breaks barriers by imparting principles to overcome them. That’s why “churches,” i.e., religious organizations, remain at perpetual loggerheads with The Church, the transcendent, universal community of faith—the Body of Christ, the physical entity that expresses God’s presence and fulfills God’s purpose in the world.
The Apostles struggle mightily with this conflict. As we read the Book of Acts and the Epistles, we’re consistently struck by the Early Church’s fragile condition. Its leaders and people are keenly aware they’re doing something new and revolutionary. They have no template, model, or precedent, let alone a formally adopted text or theology, for reference; basically, they’re inventing The Church as they go. Its phenomenal growth—starting with 3000 at Pentecost, with hundreds being added by the day—as well as its unheard-of diversity (based on adamant belief in unrestricted inclusion) and rapid expansion across the Roman Empire create organizational nightmares. Urgency to adhere to Christ’s principles generates urgency to institute lines of authority so the teaching and far-flung congregations stay intact. After much prayer and discussion, the Apostles meet this challenge in a unique fashion. Instead of institutionalizing Christianity as a religion, they revert to its roots as a community of like-minded believers. Faith for them surpasses religion’s legal and ritualistic impositions on constituents’ lives. It’s a way of life that all believers share in common, yet each expresses individually in relation to Christ, just as the original disciples related to Jesus.
Therein lies the distinction between churches and faith communities. The former are organizations striving to protect ideals they profess by conforming to time-honored governance and guidelines pursuant to faith. The latter are organisms whose faith evolves with time, as they pursue commonly held ideals in response to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. In other words, churches are built; communities grow—if not numerically, always in spirit, knowledge, and obedience to Christ’s commands. Churches foster allegiance to their leaders, who are no less fallible than those expected to comply with their direction. Faith communities honor their leaders’ service to God, as Paul explains when chiding the Corinthians’ organizational disputes over leadership. “Since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned each to his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” (1 Corinthians 3.5-6)
Differences between churches/religious organizations and communities/spiritual organisms are subtle, yet nonetheless huge. What makes things all the trickier is faith communities are most commonly housed in churches. That’s why writing off organized religion is unwise. Believers in search of community who’ve also been hurt by church have to separate the two, realizing they’re unlikely to find one without the other. Now the question turns to how does one know he/she’s found an organic faith community nested in an organized church?
Contrary to popular thought, size, structure, style, activity, and/or presentation aren’t reliable indicators. Many large, enthusiastically run and supported churches thrive as organizations. Yet they falter as organisms by neglecting to nurture the common purpose and interpersonal dynamic 1 Peter 3.8-9 describes as chief markers of authentic faith communities: “All of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” Community is where we practice our faith. It’s where we join with other believers in like-minded obedience to Christ’s commands. It’s where our capacity for sympathy, love, compassion, and humility is tested, where failure is forgiven and frailty is overcome. It’s where we learn how to answer our calling to repay wrongs and insults with blessings. Community is where we grow.
When we enter a church and observe these traits, we’ve crossed the threshold from organized religion to organic faith. And while it’s true, one need not be in community to have faith it’s no less true faith is unlikely to grow without it. Our gifts and needs ache to be expressed. Our faith longs to grow. Dismissing The Church as a monolith of organized religion—a human institution as apt to harm as to help—only hurts us. There is community somewhere inside its walls and not until we overcome our phobias to seek community where we’re genuinely welcome and accepted can it be found.
Churches are built. Faith communities grow.