Joel Miller writes a blog for Patheos called Where Christian Theology Meets Real Life. Many times today Christians act like and even claim that they can be effective Christians without the Church. That kind of thing reminds me of Steve Brown’s famous commentary, “Comes from hell and smells like smoke.” It really is a lie that the Bible refutes. This blog post was written over a year ago, but provides food for thought and discussion about why Christians need the church.
By Joel J. Miller
There’s an old story about several blind men who try describing an elephant after touching various parts of it. Because the elephant is quite large, each man can only touch a limited portion. So the man touching the leg says the elephant is like a tree, while the one touching the tail says it’s like a snake, and so on, each man coming to a different, incomplete conclusion about the beast.
That story comes to mind as I reflect on the increasing number of people who claim to be Christians yet distance themselves from the church.
World magazine recently reported on a statement from celebrity — and professed Christian — Justin Beiber that underscores this distancing. “I don’t consider myself religious,” said Beiber. “I haven’t been to church in a long time, but I know I have a relationship with Him.”
Take that comment as you like and for what it’s worth, but it seems to elevate private experience of God over a shared experience, something manifest in the church among fellow believers. It reminds me of Tom T. Hall’s song (and one covered during the Jesus People movement):
Me and Jesus, we got our own thing going
Me and Jesus, we got it all worked out
Me and Jesus, we got our own thing going
We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about
But I don’t buy it, and I think Christians like Beiber are missing out.
Jesus doesn’t come by himself. Christ comes with a posse: Mary and the apostles and the martyrs and you and me and all the other saints — past, present, and future. We don’t get Jesus to ourselves, and we shouldn’t want Jesus by ourselves. Jesus is best known in community.
Why? Go back to the elephant. God is infinite. We cannot comprehend him and can hardly appreciate the little bit revealed to us. We’re like the blind men, each with our part of the pachyderm. What the blind men need is not a smaller elephant of which they can get a better individual hold. They need more blind men to tell them about their part of the elephant.
That’s one thing the church is supposed to be about: We need all the other experiences of God to help us better know and appreciate him. Our own experience is not enough. We need each other.
Jesus modeled this for us. He worked not with just one disciple, not with just three, not just six, not even just twelve. Some had more intimate experiences of him; some had particular revelation (for instance, the Transfiguration, which only Peter, James, and John experienced). The others needed those revelations too, but by God’s design they could only access them by relationship, through community.
And notice that it wasn’t enough to have merely one Gospel, one perspective. The apostles affirmed four Gospels, four perspectives on the life and ministry of Jesus. And what holds for the writing and preservation of four Gospels applies to their interpretation.
“Each person [reads] in accordance with his capacity, and it is interpreted in accordance with what has been given to him,” wrote Ephraim the Syrian. “If there were [only] one meaning in the words, the first interpreter would find it, and all other [readers] would have neither the toil of seeking nor the pleasure of finding.”
But we don’t live by ourselves. What one person finds, he shares with the others, and it’s the cumulative insight of the church that gives us the best picture of Christ, a picture that reflects not only a diversity of contemporary opinion but those of centuries upon centuries.
We live and worship God in community because we can’t see enough of him on our own. Christians who isolate themselves from the body are consigning themselves to a peculiarly distorted and limited view of God.
The Christian faith isn’t about Jesus and me. By necessity it’s about Jesus and us.