The Church vs the Christ

The Church vs The Christ

“In the first century in Palestine, Christianity was a community of believers. Then Christianity moved to Greece and became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome and became an institution. Then it moved to Europe and became a culture. And then it moved to America and became a business.” Priscilla Shirer[1]

Evangelist and author Pricilla Shirer summarizes the evolution of Christianity well in today’s epilogue. The Christian church has morphed from its original formation as a community of committed believers into its current form, 2000 years later, as a business. In between it was a philosophy, an institution, and a culture. But the original shape of Christianity, the face that formed from those having direct fellowship with Jesus of Nazareth, was a community of people on fire for a new way of living and of understanding life. While many expressions of Christianity today retain vestiges of an earlier community, philosophy, institution, and culture, overall we have fallen far and hard from our roots, at least in my opinion.

Of course there are benefits that accrue from operating as a business, including benefits that may allow us to form more faithful communities of believers, particularly in terms of serving the needy. Even those efforts, however, prove as shallow and transitory as a quarterly profit and loss statement without a foundational grounding in community. When the original vision for Christianity gets buried under the survivalistic business practices we see from many churches, what we are left with is a far cry from the Christianity which was a gathering of followers of Christ. What we have instead is Churchianity, a gathering of followers of a church removed from its moorings.

Relegating to and relying on the Church as the guide and intermediary for believers has a long history. Not until the last few hundred years have the faithful had direct access to the Bible and other sacred texts from which to learn and grow. The invention of the printing press allowed for the wide distribution of books, and until those texts were translated into more accessible languages, and until the masses learned to read, sacred texts were unavailable to most folks. So the Church became the keeper of the written history of religion. Except for oral histories passed between generations, and except for those few contemplative practitioners who shared their direct experiences with the Holy, the sole source for religious teaching was the Church. Many of us behave as if it were still true today.

The beginnings of our need for a go-between to communicate with God goes back at least to Moses, where Moses was the chosen mediator between God and the Hebrew people. Moses communed with God on the mountain, but the people saw only smoke and fire and heard only thunder. Moses communicated the messages of God to the people. The tradition continued with the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem where its innermost sanctum, the Holy of Holies, was believed to house God. Only the Chief Priest, and only on rare occasions, was allowed to enter the presence of God in that sacred place. It was the Chief Priest who then communicated the messages of God to the people. This inner sanctum was separated from the other priests and the people by a thick curtain. The Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 27:50-51) records that the moment Jesus died on the cross, the temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom. This passage symbolizes the opening of God’s presence to everyone, with or without mediation from anyone else.

To the extent that Jesus opened direct access to God for us, the Christian Church has largely downplayed that possibility. The Roman Catholic Church established a hierarchy such that the Pope was the mediator with God, and the bishops and priests were the mediators between the Pope and the people. Protestant churches organized themselves with similar hierarchies that implied, sometimes explicitly, that the Word of God, the will of God, and the correct interpretation of scripture is passed to the people through the preacher.

This history laid the foundation for churches becoming our stand-in for God. Perhaps it is not surprising that most churches do a poor job of teaching their congregations to become competent and comfortable with direct communication with God. The fault does not fall so much on the churches or preachers as on the people who expect their churches to assume roles and work that was never intended to belong solely to the church. The church, as a community of believers, can focus and multiply the works of its individual members but it cannot replace them. Easy as it is to rely on churches for God matters, drawing near to the church instead of God misses the point and leaves us spiritually adrift.

This is the 46th 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] Evangelist Pricilla Shirer, as quoted in www.UntilAllHaveHeard1.wordpress.com/2014/03/11/when-christianity-became-a-business/, accessed November 18, 2021.

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