title="One Spirit Resources - What's New" Article: Are There Really Demons? - One Spirit Resources
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The Watering Hole - Conversations on 21st. Century religion.

Religion 102

What is The "Church?"


 
Abstract

What is the Church and is there a difference between the Church and organized religion? Does the Church belong in politics? What is the future of the Church? The only constant is change.


What is The "Church?"

The Church is a different thing than religion. It is the people, anywhere and everywhere, who believe that the message of Jesus, the Christ, is from God and engage the transformative impact on their lives. The central theme of Jesus ministry, which can be stated in various ways, is breaking down barriers between people, and between man and God.

The Ancient Jewish religion held the ideal of breaking down barriers, as often mentioned by the prophets. But the actual practice of the religion idealized perfection, and fell short of actually breaking down barriers, just as the church often does today. Perfection is not a reachable goal - we are all accepted despite our faults and differences. An example unreachable goals was the practice of forgiveness. Forgiveness of an unintentional sin, had to be done by bringing or purchasing a sacrifice (an animal) at a house of worship. This was impractical for huge segments of the poor population. It led to corruption at the Temple.

The lack of a sense of forgiveness kept people mired in guilt and created an inpenetrable barrier in relationships. Mistreating others, and the resulting feelings of guilt and reactions, create huge impenetrable walls, hatred, and feuds. And the ritual practices of sacrifice were untenable in a world with huge population expansion and cultural change.

Jesus' ministry broke down these traditional barriers. For the practice of forgiveness, he chased out of the Temple the economic engine and resulting corruption of buying sacrifices. All you needed to do was ask your fellow man, and God, for forgiveness. He also followed the practice of baptism, which is symbolic of washing away guilt. He asked people to forgive each other 70 times 7, which meant to develop a habit of forgiving.

Jesus described the process of believing in his ways as that of being "born again," which indicates a change in direction from doing bad things, being forgiven, and now following the path of God.

Furthering the concept of breaking down barriers, Jesus took great pains to demonstrate that his following is inclusive, not exclusive. He said he did not come to judge anyone. He asked that others not judge anyone. As a result of not judging others, they would not be judged.

Jesus asked a very simple question. "Who is your neighbor?" In answer, Jesus took his ministry to places traditional Judaism would not go. He went to those who had bad illnesses, who were considered unclean (lepers). He went to those that were known to be corrupt, tax collectors, and presented his message to them. He went to women, which was not done by males. He went to prostitutes and presented his message.

He went to those of other religious beliefs, such as the Samaritans. The Samaritans believe the first five books of the Jewish Bible, but not the books of the Prophets. He did this even though the Samaritans had more tolerant rules on divorce, and Jesus was strongly opposed to divorce. He went to those who had no religion, the gentiles (Gentiles simply identified those who weren't Jews). He went to those who were hated by the Jews, their Roman overlords. He asked people to love (meaning care and goodwill toward) their enemies. He healed these people, and he presented his message to them. The barriers were gone: Everyone is our neighbor.

Jesus didn't simply break down barriers. He especially went to those who were poor and suffering, and gave them a message of hope that their situation and conditions would change, especially if they followed God's ways.

Jesus' ministry was just as much about social justice, just like older religions which taught fairness in law and taught fairness in economic trade. He taught to pay your workers fair wages, and give to the government as required. He also taught to give to the poor, even giving a needy person your own jacket.

The sum of Jesus Good News (Gospel) was in the statement, "Give to others as you would have them give to you." He said that he came that we might have life and have it abundantly. He asked his leaders (Apostles) to spread the Good News to every nation, a message of transformation, of hope, forgiveness, and treating others well.

Jesus indicated in Matthew 13 - 18, that on the belief that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the Living God, he will build his group of believers. The Messiah is the one who is set apart to perform a certain task, and was considered among Jews to be the one who would deliver their nation from outside domination (corruption).

Ekklasia, the word used in Ancient Greek for church, literally means an assembly of citizens. It is a Greek word with Greek meaning, applied to a Jewish and Aramaic custom, which grew from a similar idea of assembling people into a group. Derivatively it can mean a group of people, a group assembled to worship, and an organized religion.

The Church today is considered to be the universal church. Universal means that regardless of religious leanings, denominations, etc., we are all followers of Christ. The body of believers represents Christ on earth.

Next: The Organized Church.

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The Organized Church

The Church began as a Jewish sect, or movement, like the Sadducees and Pharisees. There were many movements in those days, such as the well known ones, the Essenes and the Nazarenes, and many of them found what they were looking for in this movement. Early believers called themselves "Christians," meaning followers of Christ.

The early church was mostly groups of people in communities, typically started by the Apostles, evangelists, or by followers of Christ. They were very loosely organized, and known to each other through the Apostles' and evangelist's journeys or their emissaries. They mostly met in people's homes. The Apostles had the role of teaching them and assisting with disputes. One of the individual churches' major roles was looking after the poor and needy.

Research shows that their decisions about morality were prompted by community problems, and guided by their teachings. There was no overall moral code central to all, nor was there even a stated Christian doctrine. Christ's teachings were what was taught, and expanded on by the Apostles, evangelists, and other notable disciples (followers).

The Christian movement was so successful, that those of the time claimed that it "Turned the world upside down." It was revolutionary and it became the belief of choice by the larger populace.

As the belief spread, there was more and more need for administration within each church. These people were called "Bishops." There were extremist beliefs cropping up, sometimes trying to take over. As churches grew larger and more powerful, they saw a need for more control over the universal church, partly to keep out the unwanted beliefs. They labeled beliefs "heresies," that they felt didn't represent Christ's teachings. Groups of "apologists" formed to defend the Church against these extremist beliefs. They soon had constructed what they considered to be "orthodox" beliefs, meaning "right" beliefs.

An example of the extremist teachings that took hold of certain people or communities of faith was Gnosticism. Gnosticism is thought to have its roots in other religions in the Middle East and Near East. There were many varieties of it, and it commonly emphasized spiritual knowledge and de-emphasis of the flesh. They tended to believe that knowledge itself was sufficient and a springboard to eternal life. What one did in the flesh was irrelevant or wholly condemned.

Gnosticism has parallels with similar movements today. There are a variety of Christian fundamentalist groups who share similar teachings, believing that "believing the right thing is the only means to everyone's salvation," and they withdraw from the world believing that it is condemned and association with it will poison them. There are other monastic groups who separate themselves from society to spend all of their time in study of the Scriptures and spiritual communion with God.

As a whole, the Church encourages spiritual communion with God, more akin to Gnosis, but also encourages people to address the real physical needs of the people. Denying either the personal God and the God of compassion, is not honest. But denying people the right to emphasize some aspect of their spiritual journey that they believe is right for them, has not been something affirmed by the Church over the centuries. It is a common tenet of the faith that religion does not dictate individual spirituality.

Did it take organizing to prevent the entire Church from falling prey to extremist beliefs? Considering the polarizing power of extremists, it was probably a necessary step, and a necessary step toward outreach to the larger world. As far as we are aware, the original Apostles and evangelists only made it to their known world: Locations in the British Aisles to India to Africa.

There is a temptation to freeze what the Church "knows" with the words of Jesus and the writings in the Jewish and Christian Bibles - the strictly orthodox. But God doesn't live in a house or a book, and we cannot contain God in any simple phrase. Such ideas as love, and the changing situation of mankind, make it imperative that we keep trying to understand and apply these unfathomable topics. While the nature of people and the nature of God doesn't change, situations do. The understanding of the Church has changed and diversified over time. In modern times the Church has addressed its thinking on ancient languages, divorce, premarital sex, sex, and a host of other issues.

Early on there was the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria (Egyptian Church), started by the Apostle Mark, the Roman Church (Eastern: Jerusalem, Ephesus, Rome, cities in-between, and Europe), started by Peter, Paul, John, and other Apostles, and the Assyrian Church (started by Apostles Thomas, Thaddeus, and Bartholomew, with Peter's blessing.

These early divisions in the Church, which were mostly geographic divisions, became permanent divisions. Catholic (Eastern, Church of Rome, spread throughout Europe and beyond), Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant, and Mormon. Protestant today: Adventists, Anabaptists, Baptists, Charismatics, Congregationalists, Evangelicals, Holiness churches, Lutherans, Methodists, Moravians, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Reformed, and Unitarians. Each of these divisions of Protestantism are further broken down into other organizations, and each has their own area of emphasis, typically caused by a reaction to something some group didn't like, or to a need that wasn't being met.

The unfortunate aspect of organization is that the first duty of any organization is to perpetuate its own existence, and it carefully guards against people leaving to other organizations by declaring that it is the only one, the only one that is right and pure, and the only way to Heaven. Sadly the inclusiveness begun by Christ is perverted into exclusiveness.

Next: The Political Church.

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The Political Church

At the time of Christ, the Romans had political and military power in the Jew's homeland, and the Greek and Roman cultural influence was destroying their culture. The heads of their religion were appointed by the government. They hated all of it, tried repeatedly to over throw the Romans, and were constantly looking for a Messiah to do the job. Jesus the Christ refused to enter the Church into politics. He separated religion from state (What is God's, give to God, what is Man's, give to man). Jesus disappointed many followers who expected him to mount a military insurrection and overthrow the Romans and rid them of the Greek and Roman influence.

Running the Roman empire was not an easy task, and the Romans had a lot of internal and external problems to deal with, not the least of which was barbarians at the gate, and the way too many religions bickering with each other within the empire. During a battle, Constantine, whose mother was Christian, had a vision about Christianity. He won the battle, and later as Emperor, declared Christianity and all other religions legal in Rome. It was a step in the right direction. Constantine encouraged the Church leaders to convene the Council of Nice, which formalized much of the religious doctrine and agreed on the official books of the Bible.

It fell to Emperor Theodosius the Great to politicize Christianity. The Goths attacked the empire from outside. He lost ground. Possibly unrelated, Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the empire, and not only squelched all competing voices within Christianity, he put all of the competing religions out of business. There was not going to be any more religious wrangling to disturb the Roman Empire.

What came with politics was conflicting goals and corruption. As Jesus warned, you can't love both wealth and God. Politics means wealth and power, and people fall in love with both.

The entire history of the Church from 325 AD into the 16th. Century is one rife with political corruption and the religion of convenience and debased values. In the 16th. Century, people realized the fallen condition of the Church and rebelled against it, and began the Protestant Reformation movement. The Protestants formed new branches of Christianity. The Catholic Church took measures to clean itself up in succeeding centuries.

As examples of the Church losing its way, early excursions into the Americas by various countries, held the belief that people in those lands were savages and could be killed with impunity. The lands were plundered and people slaughtered for the wealth that was there. Church leaders of congregations were very corrupt. A person could decide he wanted to commit a sin, go to a priest and pay a few dollars, and then go do it. The leaders in the church were appointees, and appointments could be purchased.

In the 17th. Century, the Congregationalist Church became a proponent of the adult conversion experience, along with the idea of the more personal God. In the 18th. Century, the Mormon movement claimed to be an entirely new Christian movement, based on spiritual revelations. It was met with extreme skepticism and declarations of heresy, as established denominations tried to protect from member migration to the new. In the 19th. Century, Charismatic groups began to emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts and modern day miracles. These were also met with extreme skepticism and declarations of heresy, as established denominations tried to protect from member migration to the new.

Also in the 19th., Churches began to try to reunify with each other. Various ones have found their doctrines common enough to merge. The United Church of Christ (UCC), which has its roots in Congregationalism, attempts to have full relations with other mainline Protestant denominations and tries to be a reunifying influence when possible. It has full relations with Presbyterians and others. It is very inclusive, is community action minded, is progressive on civil rights, gay rights, and women's rights, and each congregation is autonomous in beliefs and action.

Next: Future of the Church.

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Future of the Church

No one can ever predict anything about the church, except that it will change. Throughout the Centuries, from all of Judaism through all of Christianity, religious groups that have failed to change have simply faded. Our God is not the god of the static, but a god of variety and progress. When the church becomes oppressive and resists change, the people consistently rise up and change it. People were not made for religion. Religion was made for the people. People were not made for the 100, 500, a thousand, or three thousand years ago. (Jesus: People were not made for the Sabbath.)

It follows that as religions, the church has to stay relevant and we have to adapt and be sensitive to changes in our situation.

Today the church has a major problem with declining memberships. People in the US, and many other European countries, call themselves "Christian," apparently buying into the concepts that Christ taught, but they don't attend religious services. Membership in all denominations has been declining at a consistent rapid rate since the 1960s. It took the Southern Baptists and fundamentalists longer to start the decline, but it is the same for them. The Catholic Church is seeing some resurgence in the US due to the influx of Latin American citizens, who are largely Catholic.

Why is membership declining? There are two major factors. One, as young adults who are raised in the church leave for college, they feel that church is irrelevant to them, and they cease going. They don't go, and their children don't go. Two, the church doesn't get new members because the perception among many outside the church is that they don't like the people they see in the church. Christians are the reason others don't like the church.

Outsiders not liking Christians has at least six reasons:

1. People today have very little time available, so religious services are the first thing to go.

2. There is too much public and private wrangling among Christians about who is acceptable to them. It's as if Christians substituted the book of Deuteronomy, with all of its lists of things unacceptable to God, and draconian punishments, for the love expressed in the New Testament. This lacks the message of God leading people into a better life through Good News. This is simply hateful messaging and outsiders don't like it. It raises the question, "Who else is good enough to be with these people? Am I? The ways of God and Christ and the Church have become characterized as being ways of intolerance. While science, scientists, and the well educated are more friendly toward religion than in the last of of the 20th. Century, atheism is actually on the increase.

3. The TV and radio evangelists often appear like circus performances and people don't want to be associated with what obviously must go on in a church. These obviously have an appeal to some, and should not be shunned, but the mainstream of religious thought is not represented.

4. Individuals and relatives have been hurt by the practices of some churches, and don't want to go near them.

5. Churches really don't seem relevant, and their publicly shouted positions overshadow anything of relevance that they do offer.

6. People, especially men, dislike being "told" how to live their lives. Helping people understand by applying love to situations, in a discussion where they make up their own minds, is the best teacher. In life, we learn experientially, not by following lists of rules. Obviously there has to be some rules, such as against killing.

Christ created an inclusive environment that broke down the walls between people. Through organized religion, people have erected their own walls out of fear and intolerance. So people in huge numbers are deciding to be Christians, and not to be religious. Many of these people will eventually organize their own religous meetings. They watch favored religious people and programs with religious themes on TV. In contrast, in recent history, those who have started their own independent churches, mostly seem to have the theme of around an organizing principle of their stand on things they don't like, isolation, and self protection, rather than focusing on being an inclusive and helpful community.

One thing we can predict is that people want to believe in God, and to have a spiritual connection, and they will continue to do that as the Church that Christ created. The other thing we can predict is that churches who fail to respond to people's needs will continue to fail, as they always have.

Dorian Scott Cole

End

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