Wouldn’t Christianity be better without the church?
When I was twenty or twenty-one, I used to meet a friend at a Starbucks on Sunday mornings and we were solving the world’s problems (like you do in your early twenties)— asking the big questions—and that was one I was wrestling with.
I had grown up in church.
My dad was in ministry for most of my life growing up so I experienced being in and around the church building a lot. I was in the building for services three times a week. I knew its nooks-and-crannies—the sweetest spots for hide-and-seek and where to find an ever replenishing colony of lady-bugs. (If you’re curious, they were were in the corners of the frosted windows partially hidden by the balcony stairs.)
As I got older, my dad went on staff at a different church—a larger church—I got the full experience a big, evangelical youth group. We had pizza parties, we went on mission trips, we sang songs, we sat through Bible studies, we didn’t curse, didn’t smoke, didn’t watch the “wrong movies.” And—through much of high school—I felt pretty good about myself because of it. But by the time I got to my first year of college, I found myself wondering out-loud each week in Starbucks with Ryan Smothers: What good is church anyway?
Wouldn’t Christianity be better without the church?
I grew up hearing that my “personal relationship” with God was what was most important. My reading the Bible, my prayer time, my times of worship, and especially my personal morality—my doing the right things—was central to the faith. I understood Christianity to be about “getting saved.” And “getting saved” was about “Me and Jesus”… So Christianity was about “Me about Jesus.” So the church began feeling like this extra appendage—this awkward growth—on the real thing. And the real thing is “Me and Jesus.”
The local church felt like an awkward, optional Christian club, but it didn’t feel vital or elemental or even that central.
Has anyone else every felt this way? What’s the deal with the church? Why do we do it? Here as the year is beginning, we’re in a series called “First Things” where we explore the essential elements of the Christian faith.
Last week we explored scripture and in a couple of weeks we’ll explore prayer—and I’ve never questioned those in the way that I’ve questioned this. What good is the church anyway? Why does the local church exist? Why does the local church matter?
One of the earliest Christian leaders—a fella named Paul—actually explicitly answers this question in a letter he wrote to the church in the bustling city of Ephesus. Near the middle of that letter he writes:
God’s intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 3v10)
That is the explicit answer given to us in Scripture on why the church exists. We exist to put on display—to make visible—to showcase the manifold wisdom of God.
The wisdom of God is like a brilliant musical—Les Mis or Hamilton or take your pick—and the church is the musicians and performers through whom it becomes visible. The “wisdom” of the musical is no longer mere notes and words on paper but an engrossing, captivating, embodied experience.
The wisdom of God is like a sports team’s playbook—Xs and Ox and dotted lines—and the church is the team of athletes through whom you see it get done. The “wisdom” of the playbook is no longer just good ideas or strategie but coordinated, captivating, breathtaking execution.
That’s what Paul is saying here. The “manifold wisdom” of God gets put on display by—embodied in—executed by—the church. Paul uses the common word for “wisdom” right here—sophia—but that word “manifold” is really unusual. It’s polupoikilos. It’s a fairly rare compound word—made of common words smooshed together.
It’s a combination of the word for poikilos—that means many-colored…
(When you were a kid and you opened that big box of crayons—you know, the 120 count box with the sharpener built-in to the back—when you opened that box, it’s poikilos. “Many colors.”)
…but the word Paul uses has got the boring old word “many” (polus) smooshed onto its front.
The wisdom of God is not just poikilos… it’s polupoikilos.
It’s a unique word. And the way this word appears in ancient sources, it’s not just something bigger in quantity and scope—it’s not talking about a million-count crayon box with Willy-Wonka’s-crayon-factory now built-in to the back. This word is not merely about bigger quantity; it’s deeper, more complex quality.
And so polupoikilos gets used to describe complex emotions or in-depth reasoning or—to stick with colors—this is the word that gets used for a veil or a tapestry where all the colors are woven carefully, intricately together.
It’s like the backside of tapestry, seeing a variety colors get threaded intricately together to form a single, cohesive picture. That’s the kind of wisdom that gets put on display by the church. It’s a display for any and all non-human spiritual powers out there (something to talk about another time, but that’s what Paul is saying). In the church, the entire universe and everything in it can see the Creator’s ultimate design, his big picture plans.
That’s why the Church exists, according to Paul: to make known the wisdom of God to everything and everyone in the universe.
But that’s still a bit abstract… still a little fuzzy. So let’s try to make it clearer. And we’ll make clearer by bringing Paul to Starbucks. If Paul were to pull up a chair at Starbucks with me and Ryan Smothers fifteen years ago, he might tell us something like this:
The Church exists to do what isolated Christians cannot.
He would hear us wrestling with that question (“Wouldn’t Christianity be better without the church?”), but it wouldn’t make any sense to him. He would hear us skeptical of the church and how I’m obsessing over “Me and Jesus” and he would shake his head and ask…
“What are you talking about? I’m glad you as an individual care about Israel’s God and Israel’s Messiah—but if you think the Messiah—the Christ—lived and died and rose from the dead to give you an ongoing, privatized spiritual experience, then you haven’t been reading Israel’s Scriptures or reading any of my letters carefully. The Church is the whole point. In fact, the Church exists to do what you—as an individual Christian—are literally unable to do alone.”
“What do you mean?” I reply to Paul, sipping my Mocha Latte like an idiot. “I read the Bible. I pray. I sing worship songs in my car. I listen to podcasts of interesting sermons and talks. Name one thing that the church can do that I can’t do in private—by myself—me and Jesus.”
“Well, Brett” Paul replies, “You can’t have a debate. You can’t have a disagreement. You can’t have an argument.”
“Exactly,” I interrupt, “Exactly—see—you’re making my point, Paul. The church is riddled difference—with annoyances and disagreements and different personalities and differences in general.”
“I think you’re making my point, Brett. The church. is full. of differences. By yourself, you can’t have a disagreement. But, also, you can’t even have a conversation.
“You can’t have patience. You can’t have a reconciliation. You can’t extend forgiveness. You can’t experience forgiveness. You can’t inconvenience yourself. You can’t sacrifice for someone else. You can’t taste the joy of forgetting yourself by yourself. You can’t cry on another’s shoulder, and you can’t put someone else’s burden on your shoulder.
“You wanna know what you can’t do alone, Brett? I can say it in one word: Love. You cannot love in isolation. The Church exists to do what isolated Christians cannot.”
I cannot love alone.
Love—by definition—requires two different persons: a lover and the beloved, the someone being loved. If love is what we’re after—if love is what we want to experience—if love is what we want to become—here’s the rub: we cannot do that alone.
This is what Paul is talking about right before he talks about “manifold wisdom. He writes that in early chapter 3, but look what came right before it as Paul ends chapter 2:
Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.
When he came, he announced the good news of peace to you who were far away from God and to those who were near. We both have access to the Father through Christ by the one Spirit. So now you are no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, you are fellow citizens with God’s people, and you belong to God’s household. As God’s household, you are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. The whole building is joined together in him, and it grows up into a temple that is dedicated to the Lord. Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit. (Ephesians 2v14-22, CEB)
Christ—the Messiah—the Anointed One—Jesus of Nazareth—in the mystery of what he did on the cross… he is our peace (v14). When I was teenager, all of this felt really clunky, because I wanted Paul to be talking about inner peace. I was really disappointed as I began to realize that Paul is talking about Jews and Gentiles, not tranquility and zen.
It’s an incredibly intricate and compact statement that Paul is making here—like verbal origami—but the point is clear enough. In his life as Jesus—especially in his death on the cross (v16)—God has broken down the most fundamental racial and cultural barrier in the first century.
The ancient world recognized Jews as an unusual, different, separate-kind-of-people. And Jewish writers of the time could describe the world as having two races. Jews and “Gentiles” (or “the nations”). Basically, anyone who wasn’t Jewish. But the wisdom of God does not want a divided world; the wisdom of God desires a world of love.
And so God has made “one new person” (v15) one new “anthropos”—literally: a new human being—out of the two. God has loved a new humanity into existence. The two most different, incompatible, frequently hating and hostile groups brought together into a united new humanity. We all come to the broken body of Jesus and discover that all our brokenness has been overcome… by love. And that includes the brokenness between us… the brokenness of human relationships.
We are reconciled with God (v16), and called… one body. One united Temple within which God himself dwells (v21-22). And within a century of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, people were literally describing the church as “a third race.” There were Jews, and there were Gentiles, and then there was that strange new group of people called “the church” That weird group of people who were marked by confidence that God loves them—and then overflowed in love for the sick and the stranger. They cared for widows, they adopted abandoned children, they loved people regardless of social status or gender or race.
That was the manifold wisdom of God being put on display.
And, yes, of course the history of the Church is littered with examples of the church failing to perform the musical. All of us have experienced the pain of people in the church not implementing the playbook of love. But that’s no reason to abandon the church. The church is where we practice love.
The early church began with the manifold wisdom of love, and we can still see it today. We see Lorelei and Rachel giving themselves in love through food—cooking for people—and serving at the mid-week food pantry. We see the Hockersmiths—Tim and Meredith—not only foster parenting but also taking care of logistics of a fire-damaged home of another family in our community. Eight years ago when my life fell apart, I saw my church—Mosaic Birmingham—surround me, and walk with me, and—for a couple of weeks—my pastor literally housed me. They loved me back to life. My life has been wounded by the Church, yes, but my life has also been saved by the Church.
God doesn’t want isolated brains thinking right things about him. God wants full-engaged, fully alive people loving like him. The endgame of God’s wisdom is not simply “individual lives” put back together but then leaving individuals isolated. The endgame is a new humanity—together.
God’s endgame is love.
God—by his Spirit—is inviting us into the monumental, breathtaking journey of joining the Triune God in loving the world back to life. The goal isn’t a bunch of isolated people who think the similar thoughts about God—neatly next to each other like crayons in a pack. No, it’s the tapestry. a crazy number of colors wildly weaving in and out and frequently looking like a mess…
…until you can see it on the other side.
Then you see a single picture—a united Temple—the undivided body of a new humanity—a humanity learning to reflect the image of God. And when we start loving and giving and serving others we begin to look like the God who is—in himself—a community of love. The heart of the universe is Divine Relationship—the Divine Dance of Father, Son, and Spirit. That’s the mysterious Christian confession of the Trinity: God himself—the living pulse of the universe—is Relationship. And if God himself is Relationship, we’re way off course when we think we don’t need to be grafted into his people.
Isolated spirituality is not Christian spirituality. And isolated humanity is not truest humanity. God loves us too much to leave us alone.
Look, I’m an introvert—I like me some alone time—but I would NOT like me an alone life. I’m so grateful that God continues to draw me into deeper connection, deeper concern, deeper friendship with those around me. And he does that through the Church. But all of the early church’s writings—the entire New Testament—never presents us with a privatized, atomized, isolated faith. As true as it is that Jesus cares about and relates to each one of us individually and personally—how amazing! glorious hope! God cares about me!—but as true as it is…
The early church did NOT describe salvation as having “a personal relationship with Jesus” or “asking Jesus into my heart.” That’s the way some influential parts of Christianity started describing salvation in the mid-twentieth century. Those are helpful phrases (maybe) in as much as they call us to truly, deeply, personally trust God. But what we often mean by those phrases—just “me and Jesus”—would actually be alien—unrecognizable—to the apostles and early church. The question I was asking in Starbucks all those years ago (“Wouldn’t Christianity be better without the church?”) would make zero sense.
In Scripture—from Ephesians to Exodus—salvation looks like being grated into God’s diverse, earthy, complicated community of love. The Scriptures insist that God is saving the world through a particular group of people. And the question in Scripture is always: “Do you want to be a part of that people?” Will you allow the Spirit of God to include you in—to graft you into—this group of people? The emphasis is less on you inviting Jesus into your heart, and more on Jesus is inviting you into his people. Fullness of salvation is about being grafted into love. And love requires community. Fullness of salvation is about “Us and Jesus.”
…because only “us”—together—can practice love. Us… and those we think we could never get along with. Us… and those who vote differently than us. Us… and those who wave a different flag than us.
Only “us”—together—can fully reflect the image of the God who is Relationship. Loving and serving and giving. Forgiving and being forgiven. Knowing and being known.
May we repent of the ways that we consider ourselves self-sufficient. May we reject the lie that self-centered isolation—especially in our spiritual lives—will bring us fulfillment. May we believe the good news that God loves us to much to leave us alone. May we say “yes” to the heart of the universe—the Divine Relationship—Father, Son, and Spirit—and find fullness of life in his family.