Monday, September 2, 2013

Taking the Exit - Why I left the Institutional Church

This past July I attended my last Sunday morning service. Most likely it is the last institutional church I will ever be a member of. I had been coming to this point for a long time.

I have been a Christ-follower for 40 years. I started out Catholic but left my faith when I was 14. I returned to faith in a small Evangelical church when  I was 18. In all I have been a part of four different churches. Of the four, two had moral failures of the leadership and one had a culture clash and power struggle that decimated the church.

At first glance, these problems would appear to be the weaknesses and failures of men. However, I realized that the failures were structural. Because of the power structures in place, the failures of men became the failures of institutions. I realized that the power structure itself was the problem.

I have always wondered how we went from Christ's teaching "call no one master", "do not Lord over others", and "you have one teacher and you are all brothers" to the hierarchies we see today. I finally found the "tipping point" in history. It occurred between ~100 AD to ~150 AD. St Clement taught obedience to a hierarchy (bishop, presbyter, elder). The result was a passive laity totally subordinate to clergy. After that, Ignatius of Antioch sealed the deal by affirming this arrangement in his writings before he was martyred. At that point the church became a power structure. Despite major and minor attempts at reform, the power structures of the institutional church remain until this day.

But is that what Jesus intended? Was His kingdom meant to be another earthly power structure? Or was it to be a place with only one head, Christ himself?  A place where all men and women are brothers and sisters. A place where everyone is empowered to serve one another. A place with no agenda but the well being of another. I had been looking to the institution to reflect this kind of kingdom and found it wanting. I might hope to find Jesus' kingdom in another institution, but that would be like panning for gold in the shower. It is possible in theory, but just not likely.

So now my faith journey has taken me outside of the institutional system I have been a part of for 40 years. I would be lying if I did not admit its effect on me. I had become dependent on it.
"These walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That's institutionalized. " - Red (Shawshank Redemption)
So what will this require of me? It will require me to mature in my faith. I can no longer be dependent on someone else to set the course or to take the initiative. I will need to be more open. I will need to be more hospitable. I will need to be more receptive to God's work in the world, both inside and outside of the institution.

Taking the exit and leaving the main highway is scary when the roads do not show up on your GPS. However I have a feeling a great many others have taken the exit as well.  Sooner or later, I expect to find them. I may even find people who are willing to journey with me. Time will tell.