Aleteia

How to Escape Ecclesial No-Man’s-Land

Shubhika Bharathwaj
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Stop church shopping and rest in the Church Jesus founded. If you’re a Christian, you really do belong somewhere.

You're an evangelical Christian and you've been attending a Southern Baptist church. When you move to a new town, do you: (a) automatically look up the local Southern Baptist congregation and join it, or (b) try out a few different churches regardless of their denomination and find one that you think fits you?

In my experience, almost all evangelicals today follow option 'b', and this is because few evangelicals identify with a denomination; most will only go as far as to say that they “attend” a certain church. If they're more advanced theologically, they might say, for example, that they are 'Reformed' in their theology, which might somewhat limit their choice of denominations, but they are still usually uncommitted to any one denomination or organization.

I call this situation ecclesial no-man's-land.

They are Christian islands which, granted, may choose to freely associate with other believers, but only as long as they find that it "works for them". Some might be willing to stick it out with a congregation through a hard time, but at the end of the day, it's only because they choose to do so (or because they think God is calling them to for the time being), not because they think that that particular congregation is where they have to be to be a Christian.

Evangelical Protestant Christianity consists mostly of one's own personal relationship with God. The reason, then, an evangelical goes to church is to be helped with his personal relationship with God. If an evangelical feels like a church is doing that (e.g. has music he "connects with" and regularly delivers inspiring, relevant sermons), he'll attend and perhaps get involved. If he tries out a church, and he doesn't like the music, doesn't feel inspired by the preaching, doesn't like the community, or thinks it's too big or too small, etc., he'll move on to somewhere else.

There are two problems I have with this way of doing Christianity:

First, there is ultimately no real accountability. Any given church or denomination can only keep a person accountable, whether it be morally or theologically, as long as the person lets the church or denomination do so. The pastor can make suggestions to the person but has no authority over the person. If the person reaches a point where they can no longer swallow a particular church's teaching, they can simply leave and continue their personal relationship with God somewhere else, and – this is important – still be fully within their rights according to their own evangelical Protestant theology.

Second, and probably most important, God is saving a people. There is only one Bride of Christ (Eph 5). There is only one Body of Christ (1 Cor 12). There is only "one flock and one shepherd" (John 10.16). Scripture calls us to be "perfectly united in mind and thought" (1 Cor 1.10). Jesus prayed that all of his followers would be one as He and the Father are one, so that "the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." (John 17.23) God is looking to unify all people in Christ, not to have a bunch of otherwise unconnected followers who might work together insofar as it seems to benefit them personally.

I think many evangelical would honestly respond: But what other option is there? No church is Christ's Church; all congregations are imperfect and man-made. This is the best anyone can do.

But what example do we find of the Church in Acts? Do we find it legitimate for individual Christians to believe whatever they want to believe and associate and dissociate with the greater group as they please; an ecclesial free-for-all? As an example, would it have been acceptable for someone to say to St. Paul, “You know, I’m not sure I agree with everything you’re saying,” or “I don’t really connect with your style,” and then start their own church in competition with the Church of the Apostles? No, we see an organization with authority from Jesus himself, led by the apostles and those to whom they have also passed on authority, tangibly in charge of all those who would claim faith in Jesus (see Acts 15; also, all of the NT letters). That authority has been passed on, in apostolic succession, to our present day, and has been preserved in the bishops, priests, and deacons of the Catholic Church.

In the Catholic Church, there is a sure place to belong, a true home for us in the faith that does not stand or fall based on our preferences or whether we think it is giving us the church experience we are looking for, but rests firmly on the fact that it was founded, and is today shepherded, by Jesus Himself. And knowing that it is the true Church of God, with Christ as its head, we can submit ourselves and be truly molded, morally and theologically, into faithful members of the people of God.

Jesus founded a Church, and the gates of Hades have not overcome it (Matthew 16.17-20); it is still here for us today. Christ has kept his promise and has not abandoned us (Matthew 28.20). You can escape ecclesial no-man's-land.