In the past year I’ve mindfully responded to Christian leaders who argue for church as synonymous with knowing and relating to God and for church leavers as somehow needing to make their way back to the church in order to make their way back to God. I’ve questioned their assumptions regarding church leavers and opposed them making the formal and institutional expression labeled church as synonymous with the church itself and with knowing God. Yet while Christian leaders do note that their life’s work amounts to temporary refuges amidst the broader formal church they are either unable or unwilling to accept that such exceptions simply aren’t enough to redeem the broader church or the paradigm behind it. Clearly the “doing church paradigm” is so strong that it defines the faith for them and in turn they define the faith of others in relation to it. And though they can recognize the difference between good or healthy and bad or unhealthy churches that they can’t recognize such churches as expressions of a highly problematic paradigm they have bought into and continue not only being guided by but also which they bolster, reinforce and promote. They are then complicit in perpetuating an extremely concerning “doing church paradigm”.
The power of paradigms is that you don’t see them while seeing everything through them. They are invisible yet guide our thinking and behaving. And because they’re invisible we don’t work with our paradigms while all your work is guided by them. Paradigms are unconscious and deeply rooted within us. And Church leaders are locked into a “doing church paradigm” and, in turn, lock others into this paradigm by doing church and making it central in every way.
And though the nature of paradigms is part of the problem it is further complicated by the language we use. For when speaking about “church” we imprecisely blend 1) buildings, 2 meetings, 3) projects, 4) services, and 5) people and end up in problematic conversations about different things with a lot of room for misunderstanding and miscommunication and not only do feelings get hurt but relationships get broken. It is perhaps better to unbundle the concept of the people from the business. Hence I speak of “the people” as the Ekklesia and “the business of doing church” as meaning the visible and invisible legal and formal structures and activities as the Church. I find this distinction very helpful not only in my own thinking but also for assisting others in processing their conflicted relationship with and experiences of the Church.
Clarifying our language brings us to the place where we know what we are speaking about when we are speaking about the Ekklesia and when we are speaking about the Church. We can clarify our feelings and experiences in relation to each without unfairly painting over everything. And, more importantly, it helps differentiate our respective experience of and relationship with the Church from our relationship with and experience of God. And, most importantly, it enables us to see where and how we’ve replaced a relationship with God with a relationship with the Church and therewith relating to God with meeting about God.
And it’s this that brings me to the math hack that’s the title of this post which requires some explanation.
E ≠ C
Where E is the Ekklesia and C is the Church we recognise that the Ekklesia is not equal to (≠) nor synonymous with the Church. First and foremost and forever we must note that the Ekklesia is personal and not institutional. And if that’s the case then we can never substitute the business of meeting about God in the Church with the pursuit of and engagement with God as one who draws near in Person to meet with the Ekklesia.
C ⊬ E
Where C is the Church and E is the Ekklesia we recognize that the establishment and success of the Church does not prove (⊬) or determine the existence of the Ekklesia. As the Church exists as a separate legal but fictional person as institution and/or business creating separately and independently of the real people who come and go it can never be synonymous with the Ekklesia. And furthermore, as God relates as a Person to persons therewith constituting the Ekklesia the establishment of the Church a legal fictional person can never relate to or express God and that doing so makes the Church itself into an idol.
Conjunction and disjunction
This does not stop the Ekklesia from establishing the Church as it has done since very early on. There is an early conjunction between the Ekklesia and the Church where the Church is helpful to the Ekklesia and when the Ekklesia gathers to meet with God. But whenever it is the Church succeeds the Ekklesia it then becomes what we use to determine that the Ekklesia and God are still around. We then have the problem that the ongoing and perpetual services, activities and products of the Church are God’s ongoing presence and work and those members of the Church are then the Ekklesia. There is a bait and switch that takes place, as demonstrated in history, wherein the relational presence of God is exchanged for enduring institution and offices of the Church as though the presence of God can be inherited and commodified. Here the immediate relationship with God as present in Person is repeatedly exchanged for God as mediated through the Church. When the Church experiences renewal it is in this later context and, inevitably, as demonstrated in every Awakening, every Renewal, and every Revival the first and most enduring and persistent critic of God and the Ekklesia emerging is the Church. It is as though during historical periods that God draws near and people respond to God and then when God withdraws that we replace God with the Church. We do so because of the “doing church paradigm” which precedes and succeeds God’s visitations. And just as the Ekklesia works toward establishing the Church and therewith there being a conjunction between the two so too must the Ekklesia take responsibility and work toward a disjunction between the two. The problematic situation we are in, and which is entirely of our own doing, is that we conjoined God and therewith the practice of Christianity to the Church rather than to people and therewith the Ekklesia who practice of the relational presence of God.
The solution is not more of the Church as this further entrenches an institutional and formal expression as what Christianity “is”. The solution is rather shifting toward what Christianity “is” being a practice. Specifically the practice of our relationship with God or the practice of the relational presence of God. What Christianity “is” must center on pursuing and engaging God as the One who draws near in Person to meet with us. Such a practice is individual, finds expression and is worked out when paying attention to all our relationships as one walking in an enduring and persistent companionship with God, and can be practiced in community when gathering to meet with others and with God.