Let me unpack that question. Can I, as an unusually committed Christian, zealous for the kingdom, change my denomination or local church? Can I by grace bring it closer to what I (and maybe a few others) believe to be a more biblical expression of the body of Christ? I am referring here primarily to traditional, institutional churches [by the way, a somewhat dated statistic claims the existence of some 35,000 denominations world-wide]. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines ‘institutional’ as meaning a body regulated by established laws, traditions, customs, organization, etc. From my experience, there are many sincere church members posing this question today, ‘Can I change my church?’ ‘Can I gradually change it from within?’
I’ve noted with interest some of the recent courageous statements being made by Pope Francis regarding the Roman Catholic Church. I have before me two articles on the subject. In the first, from NEWS 24, Pope Francis vows to change the Vatican mentality. He mentions the Catholic Church’s many previous narcissistic popes thriving on the flattery of their courtier aides. He mentions reforming the Curia (the Vatican’s troubled Administrative HQ), pursuing an outward-looking rather than an inward-looking Church, etc. In the second article, from TIME magazine, Father James Martin reports on an interview with Pope Francis entitled, ‘We Knew We Had Spiritual Dynamite!’ It touches on some controversial topics like the role of women in the Church, gay priests, and so on. What struck me most was his indicated desire to see the Church not as a top-down organisation imposing rules, but as a people, a community, in dialogue. Impressive!
In 1978 there was another hopeful Pope, Pope John Paul 1, Albino Luciani. He died mysteriously only thirty-three days after his election. He was known as ‘the smiling Pope.’ By all accounts he was highly intelligent, a man who loved the poor, who refused to impose Christian solutions on non-Christians. He was sensitive to social problems and open to dialogue, a good pastor and a shepherd in the way Jesus was, a man of enormous faith. David Yallop in his world-celebrated book ‘In God’s Name’ maintains, very credibly, that Albino Luciani was in fact discreetly murdered by poisoning because he dared to investigate the well-known corruption within the Vatican. Yallop’s book was instigated at the request of certain important individuals within Vatican City who suspected a massive cover-up by those who stood to lose the most. It was based on monumental research over three years, sold over six million copies world-wide, and is hugely believable (read the book for yourself, I found a copy in my local public library). To this day, the central questions in Yallop’s book remain unanswered. Am I prophesying? Nope. Just submitting that it’s well-nigh impossible to try and change an institution from the inside!
Now I can tell you from personal and rather painful experience, that sincere and zealous attempts on my part as a pastor to change the top-down mentality of ‘democratically’ run churches (democracy lit. means ‘man rules’) in my own evangelical denomination over many decades, largely failed. Seven years ago the Lord sovereignly and graciously engineered my wife and I leaving our traditional pastorate. Since then we have been facilitating ‘organic house churches’ [for a definition, see my previous blogs], after the Christo-centric spirit of the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the NT Epistles. There have been up’s and down’s but more than compensating fruit and joy. This meant, amongst other things, implementing the ‘priesthood of all believers’ and above all the supremacy of Christ as functional head of his body – things most institutional churches preach but almost never practise.
You may object that you belong to an independent, free-worshipping charismatic church with the full operation of the gifts. More and more folk from that background are acknowledging that they are subject to traditionalism as much as in any orthodox denomination. In fact, sometimes ‘control’ is exercised by leadership akin to that of little popes.
Can one totally write off the institutional Church? I guess with GOD, in contrast to us mere mortals, nothing is impossible? Are there ‘Spirit-filled’ believers in institutional churches? I am sure there are, but can they sustain that position indefinitely? (more often than not, the institution shapes us). Does it behove the many who have said ‘farewell to institutionalism’ across the globe [the stream has become a torrent in many places, e.g. the Church in China – where denominations failed abjectly, house churches triumphed magnificently] to be self-righteous and uncharitable? Never! Can I as an individual believer change my institutional church from within? That’s the million dollar question…
What must I do then, if I am totally frustrated with my lovely, comfortable church which ‘cares’ for the poor but does not know the poor? Well, maybe that would require a future, separate blog. Whatever you do in the mean time, do not act hastily or uncharitably. Be patient, read your Bible from a fresh and Christ-centred perspective, and be praying much as we pray for you. Seek the counsel of the wise. The Lord will surely guide you along his way.
I know that what I have written here may ‘rock the boat’ somewhat. I run the risk of being misinterpreted and misunderstood. I have attempted to be as charitable as possible in my personal assessment of the institutional and the non-institutional. But as Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army, said long ago, ‘If you want to change the future you have to disturb the present.’
The good news is you don’t have to accept my sentiments! On the other hand…