Churchianity vs Christianity, Part 4

Churchianity vs Christianity, Part 4

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.

Matthew 23:13

One of the aspects that separates Christian churches from each other, both within and outside of specific denominations, is the degree of certainty with which they present the nature of God, the teachings of the Bible, and our relationship with and to both. My own denomination, the United Methodist Church, allows a great deal of interpretational leeway among its churches, so much so that one can experience one United Methodist church as very conservative and another as very progressive, often located within blocks of each other.

Perhaps the most obvious clue for attendees in identifying a church’s level of certainly is the degree to which they interpret scripture literally. Some churches present the Bible as if it provides a set of clear-cut rules to follow while others see it as a record of various authors struggling with how best to understand our relationship to God in the context of their specific life circumstances. One key, with regard to determining where a church is on the spectrum between Churchianity and Christianity, is in determining whether a church’s interpretations and doctrines benefit the church or whether their interpretations move people closer to the life of Jesus. For example, do the teachings make people more reliant on the church as their intermediary between themselves and Christ, or do its teachings and actions lead its members closer to becoming “little Christs” even apart from the church. One can argue that the former types of churches may be locking “people out of the kingdom of heaven,” as Jesus accused the scribes and Pharisees of doing.

Churches that claim to interpret scripture literally believe that God dictated the Bible to human authors, thus making the text inerrant, meaning it is completely true as written and without nuance, allegory, or inconsistency. This brand of theology drives many people away from all churches, the Bible, and Jesus because they feel such believers are hypocritical, judgmental, and out of touch with reality, and they assume all Christians are that way too. Biblical interpretation is one of the primary ways that some people judge a church and its members along the spectrum of Churchianity to Christianity.

While I doubt that any church follows the Bible literally in every circumstance, including those who claim to do so, I am also not aware of any church that never utilizes a literal interpretation of parts of the Bible. So there is a wide spectrum of biblical application that churches fall within. One danger of understanding the Bible too literally is in presenting it in ways that will not stretch to reach sincere seekers in their specific need or where they are in their spiritual development. The Bible loses much of its beauty and relevance when we ignore its nuanced inferences and applications. On the other hand, a danger of dismissing all literal interpretation of the Bible is in believing there is no underlying truth or meaning supporting our lives. Instead of seeking to have God shape our lives in God’s image, we shape God according to our preferences and fleeting desires, ending up with an unstable, unreliable faith life. Any church that always offers firm answers about God, life, and the relationship between God and life almost certainly falls on the literal side of the spectrum and is likely to only reach a small, exclusive slice of humanity.

Another way of naming this spectrum is in how much churches portend to know contrasted against how much they concede not knowing. In one of his Daily Meditations, Richard Rohr wrote, “The Bible, in its entirety, finds a fine balance between knowing and not-knowing…What I’ve called “Churchianity” typically needs to speak with absolutes and certainties. It thinks it has the right and the obligation to make total truth-claims and feels very insecure when it cannot.”[1] While I am mostly comfortable with both knowing and not-knowing, I also understand that the chaotic nature of many people’s lives demands some sense of order, clarity, and certainty before any church teaching can be useful to them. Indeed, our need for knowing and our comfort level with not knowing may shift over time. Sometimes we need to contract into certainty so we can gain our footing in difficult times. Other times we need to expand into uncertainty so we can grow into whatever is next in our lives.

Christians must find an acceptable balance between knowing and not-knowing, certainty and uncertainty. When God becomes too familiar and predictable, however, we are almost certainly practicing a form of Churchianity.

This is the 4th in the series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.


[1] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations, January 31, 2021.

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