Should you stay or should you go?

“This is what the Lord says: ‘In the time of my favor I will answer you, and in the day of salvation I will help you; I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people, to restore the land and to reassign its desolate inheritances.’” (Isaiah 49:8)

“Flee from Babylon!
    Run for your lives!
    Do not be destroyed because of her sins.” (Jeremiah 51:6)

Some of us like to quantify things when it comes to decision-making. When your car reaches x miles, it’s time to trade it (and trade one set of car payments for another). Others can only pine for the pre-COVID days when you could drop $200 on a family outing to the ballpark, but they still use baseball criteria to evaluate stores and services that have let them down (“I used to like them, but, you know, ‘three strikes and you’re out’”)

I don’t know of anything comparably precise for evaluating church performance. When Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive another believer (“up to seven times?”), Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times [or ESV seventy times seven] (Mt 18:22).  

After that answer, Jesus then told the parable of the unmerciful servant with even more hyperbolic numbers (18:23-35). So if anyone is thinking, <Click>, that’s 71 (or 484). This is a friendly reminder that you have six chances left and after that I’m out of here, then you’ve missed the point.

(And I’m not trying to insult anyone’s intelligence with that, but I’ve heard some pretty arbitrary standards applied to churches, more arbitrary than the conventional wisdom of “three strikes and you’re out.”)

Having said that, recent church history in general, and my personal experiences within that, demonstrate that to maintain a vibrant spiritual life there has been a lot of coming and going that is not only acceptable but vital. There is no point in withering on the vine just to show your institutional loyalty to the vine.

I’ve written about this previously, but about the time I was ready to start college in 1975, the church I grew up in, was confirmed in, and even taught Sunday school in taught me one overriding truth: if this was Christianity then I wanted nothing to do with it.

A few years later, after becoming a believer and moving back to my hometown, I met several former high school classmates who experienced the same thing: raised in the church, obliged to attend church, disappointed with the church, found new life in an entirely different kind of church.

Is it harsh to say that? I don’t think so. If you have a couple of minutes, watch the end of Ingmar Berman’s Winter Light, about a country pastor’s crisis of faith while reflecting on its meaning in the clear, harsh “winter light” reality he lives in.

As he enters the church to the sonorous notes of the pipe organ, it is virtually empty except for him, the organist and the sexton. He turns toward the good-sized, empty sanctuary and intones, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty; heaven and earth are full of your glory.”

Is this an affirmation of faith in the bleak “winter light” of his life? Or is it a stale, mechanical recitation of something that has lost its significance and relevance? In my generation, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, we saw enough of the latter to turn in our choir robes and shake the dust from our feet.

Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68). If that were true—and eventually we learned that it was—we knew those words weren’t being delivered to (or through) our local church. 

One of most perplexing questions I have about the broad sweep of church history is why the church continued in its decline for so long before there was a Reformation (which, incidentally, wasn’t as radical in its implementation as some would have you believe).

But by the end of the 15th century, it was time. According to the historian William Manchester (A World Lit Only by Fire), it’s hard to appreciate in our egalitarian world how absolute the power of the papacy was at that point.

The Pope of today may be an influential spokesman in some circles, but medieval popes held absolute sway over millions of souls whose worst fear was excommunication. This meant life (bad enough) and death (worse yet) outside of the church, meaning damnation. Prelates sent recalcitrant nobles on pilgrimages of penance extending thousands of miles. To question church teaching probably meant the stake.

One way of interpreting this is that it was one long illustration of the disastrous consequences of asking for a king, as ancient Israel had done (1 Sam 8:1-21). As the Lord had told a disheartened Samuel, “it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king” (8:7). In doing so, they were “forsaking me and serving other gods,” the Lord said.

When Samuel, obeying God’s command, told the people what the consequences of asking for a king would be, he used the verb take six times in eight verses (8:10-18). They would cry out for relief, Samuel warned, and the Lord would not answer.

Pope Alexander VI, when he wasn’t drawing lines in the water with his shepherd’s crook to divide the New World between Portugal and Spain in 1494 (as if it were his right), did a fair amount of taking himself. The church was already taking money for forgiveness, which became the last straw as far as Luther was concerned. But Alexander took his daughter–evidence there was one thing he didn’t take, the priestly vow of celibacy–as his mistress.

That’s what “kings”–idols, really–do. Their relentless taking is just another way of saying that their wants are insatiable. They can never get enough. And since no one can serve two masters, eventually you learn to love the Lord with all your heart or you capitulate to your idols, like the rich young man with “great wealth.”

Israel’s mistake of asking for a king lasted a long time, too, several centuries in fact. And then came the decline in “king quality” after God accommodated the people’s request. David was a man after God’s heart, Solomon turned aside from wisdom that remains embedded in Scripture (i.e., he became the fool in many of his proverbs), and his son Rehoboam treated the people harshly and they left, splitting the kingdom into northern and southern halves.

Eventually, there was no kingdom, north or south. Or to be more precise, they still had kings, but now they were foreign kings, who didn’t give a fig about God’s law (even Saul paid lip service to that). Assyria attacked the northern tribes and the Babylonians struck the south. After that, they were a subject people right up to the time of the restoration of the true kingdom of heaven—which arrived in unexpected forms–when the King of Kings was enthroned.

To continue the discussion, we have to grasp that last fact. Everything God does in, to and through our churches has that in view. The Servant of the Lord—Isaiah’s picture of the Messiah—was sent “to restore the land and to reassign its desolate inheritances” (Isa 49:8).

Churches may spring up like mushrooms in the lawn the morning after a spring shower. They may sink roots and grow strong and true. Or they may become like Hosea’s description of Israel, “a spreading vine; he brought forth fruit for himself. As his fruit increased, he built more altars; as his land prospered, he adorned his sacred stones” (Hos 10:1).

As I’ve written previously, a church can even become something unrecognizably foreign to the kingdom of God, like Babylon, in fact. It’s no coincidence that equating Babylon with a corrupt church appears again and again in church history. And that’s why, on occasion, we must come out of it.

Note: I recommend borrowing or buying A World Lit Only by Fire (mentioned above) if you’d like to read a fascinating account of the times by a great historian. But, as a reminder, I don’t monetize anything on this site. I do not receive anything for mentions, recommendations or links posted.

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