Overcoming Four Church Myths
Don't be fooled by these common—and dangerous—misconceptions.

When people encounter new things, their first tendency is to fit them into existing categories. If truth be told, most of us shy away from strange and unusual things that don't fit our expectations. It reminds me of a Northerner who ate his first tamale by peeling down the husk and eating it like a banana. I saw another try to actually eat the corn husk with a knife and fork! If we don't know better, we'll draw wrong conclusions about the true nature of things based on personal experiences or cultural norms.

The Bible portrays the church as something strange and unusual. But many Christians approach the local church in ways that conform more to the patterns of the world than to the pattern of God's Word. Like mad scientists piecing together a monster from countless incompatible pieces without a clear pattern or guiding principle, too many Christians today have re-created the church after their own imaginations, according to their own likes and dislikes. Clustered around this mutant creature falsely called "church," proponents propagate four common myths that help keep the beast alive—four untruths that have become so accepted by many evangelicals that they believe them without question. But the time has come to refute the myths and slay the monster, replacing it with a corporate body reflecting marks and works of authenticity and created according to God's image for the church.

Myth 1: The church is merely a human organization

Though comprised of humans, the church itself is not merely a human organization. Jesus Christ is the head of the church, and the church is mystically his spiritual and physical body on earth (Eph. 1:22–23; 5:23; Col. 1:18). While we may distinguish the spiritual and physical aspects of the church, we must never separate them. Too often evangelicals have divorced the spiritual, heavenly, invisible, and eternal church from its physical, earthly, visible, historical manifestation. The result has been to treat local, visible churches as merely human organizations rather than as unique conduits through which God works his heavenly, spiritual purposes in history. Such dichotomizing has allowed Christians to treat their churches as they treat other human organizations—like a political party or a club.

In the world's political realm, if we don't like what our party stands for or if we lose confidence in its candidates, we just run against them, vote them out, or change the platform. If things get too bad, we can join another party or start our own. But in 1 Corinthians 3:3–4, Paul reprimands the church for taking sides and forming parties.

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February 22, 2013

Displaying 1–10 of 11 comments

Kim Hughes

April 15, 2013  2:00pm

"...where two or three are gathered in my name...?"

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John L

March 11, 2013  1:55pm

@ Brian "Jesus left us ONE Church." Jesus left us a true compass heading (himself - his love). The "church" are those following the Heading, not some local-physical group of people gathering in some building putting their faith in some propositional belief system for some future salvation. "If he came back tomorrow and asked where his Church is, where would you point?" I would point to all those people on the planet, religious and non-religious, who are actively pursuing a life focused on loving others, a life of giving, serving, building cultural bridges, fostering joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, empathy, goodness, and fidelity. I would point to people who are deliberately and consciously growing in patience, who are trying to be less envious and boastful, who are abandoning pride (especially religious pride), who honor others lavishly, who do not seek after their own identity, who are learning how to not be easily angered, who keep no record of wrongs, who protect, trust, hope, and persevere in all these ways. I would point to those people who have abandoned religious pretense for the sole purpose of loving others as they have been first loved, to those who have given up on the "tribe of the one true church" and become truly free in the unfailing hope of embodied, unconditional love. I would point to those who recognize that all their religious knowledge will fail. To those who admit that all of their prophesies and holy utterances and every important religious trinket – will fail. To those who are letting go of old, crumbling institutional religious systems and are courageously rebuilding a perennial, actionable love in Christ's image, and those brave souls achieving similar breakthroughs over other religious and political environments. If there is a "true church" I would say it looks something like that.

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brian

March 02, 2013  8:00am

Tim, Would Jesus' church KNOW that it's his Church? Would it be 2000 years old? Would it have a traceable lineage of successors to the apostles? Would it claim to be the Church Jesus founded? So, although the Eastern and Roman rites aren't together as they ought be, they can answer affirmatively to these questions, and they can rest in knowing their sacraments are valid. This sacramental reality is the life of the Church. We don't see the Church as a brand, and Eastern and Roman rites aren't denominations. Remembering your math, a denominator is part of a fraction. These fractions splintered off from a whole. I can't speak for Karen, but i think she and I see the "Church" as a visible mystery of Christ's mystical body. Most protestants simply see it as the invisible connection between "true" Christians. She and i cannot see things in terms of brands, but the guy who leaves his congregation because he disagrees with his pastor on such-and-such and doesn't feel fed, and then who starts a church in his living room, can do so. Jesus left us ONE Church. If he came back tomorrow and asked where his Church is, where would you point?

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Karen

March 01, 2013  11:59pm

Tim, a Bahai person or New Ager might ask the same of you for choosing the "brand name" Christian or Christ follower or Bible believer or whatever label you choose to use identify your intent to follow Jesus Christ as exclusively Lord and God (as best you understand that). Does that mean your attempted fidelity to Jesus Christ, rather than Bahai or New Age inclusive spirituality, is a work of the flesh and not the leading of the Holy Spirit? We've been around this block before. I'm learning better than to enter into debate with someone whose mind is made up, and I would have thought my intent not to battle would have been clear by my closing comment to Brian. I am interested in being faithful to what I understand is true and right, not in convincing everyone else that I am correct in so doing. Kind regards. Karen

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Tim

March 01, 2013  10:24pm

Brian & Karen So we observe an evangelical, a Catholic and an Eastern Orthodox demonstrating loyalty to their own corporate brand name driven lens. Is it possible that this displays the reality that a brand name lens adds distortion and corruption to connecting with God in unity that He never designed to be implemented and is a work of the flesh rather than the Spirit? Will you merely continue the battle of the brand names?

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Karen

March 01, 2013  8:11am

Thanks, Brian. (I'm Karen, not Bob–it's a bit confusing, but the commenters' names appear at the bottom of their comments.) I know that this is the Roman Catholic perspective. The Eastern Orthodox simply beg to differ on this and will offer ouir own Scriptural and historical evidence for our position. (For one example, see here: http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/papaldogma.aspx). I have obviously found the EO faith and case more compelling. I also suspect that Dr. Swigel, looking at Scripture through an Evangelical lens, would view much of what the EO articulate in the development of their theology and understanding of the apostolic deposit as "new" doctrines. And so I'm sure these questions not be resolved in this thread. Kind regards, Karen

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brian

March 01, 2013  6:35am

Bob, Thanks for clarifying, and as a Roman Catholic, I'll jump in also and point out an innacuracy on your part. You say, "In the EO Church, you will find no discontinuous, genuinely "new" doctrines, like Purgatory, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and Papal Infallibility as is found in the post-Schism Roman Catholic Church.)." What you call new doctrines in the RCC are not new at all. They are biblical. Some reading from Catholic apologists will clear this up. As you say, "the entire apostolic doctrinal deposit was made before the death of the Apostles." The Roman Catholic Church knows and understands this as well. Blessing.

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Karen

February 27, 2013  3:48pm

Thanks Dr. Swigel. I think you have astutely identified many common myths among American Christians. We could probably identify a few more. I'm about halfway through your book and just read the section excerpted in this post this morning. I became Eastern Orthodox almost six years ago now, so obviously I came to some different conclusions about where "the church" in her institutional manifestation is located than you did. I'm very glad, though, to see Evangelicals like yourself encouraging others to rediscover forgotten parts of our common heritage in church history and develop a greater depth of understanding of what has come before. I think your book is a great resource to that end. (As an aside, I did notice an inaccuracy in an assertion you make on page 78 that the Eastern Orthodox Church, like the Roman Catholic Church, believes it "may contribute new doctrines. . . " to what has gone before. According to the EO Church, the entire apostolic doctrinal deposit was made before the death of the Apostles through the Holy Spirit's work leading them into "all truth" in fulfillment of Christ's promise to them. What has and may develop in the Eastern Orthodox Church are practices–how doctrine is applied in different cultural circumstances–and the articulation of doctrine where new words may be used to clarify and defend that same apostolic deposit of faith in the face of various heresies that crop up. An example would be the teaching that Jesus Christ was fully God, therefore "consubstantial" with the Father, as well as fully Man and also that the Holy Spirit is God, the third Person of the Trinity. This Trinitarian reality was fully revealed to the Apostles and is fully revealed in the apostolic faith the church received from them and is evident in the Scriptures. However the early Church Fathers, in response to various heresies asserting otherwise and offering competing interpretations of Scripture, made this more explicit and clear in the 1st and 2nd Ecumenical Councils that produced the Nicene-Constantinoplian Creed. This Creed introduced no new teaching–it merely clarified what had been received in the face of challenges from heresies. All subsequent doctrinal "development" in the Eastern Orthodox Church is also of this same nature. In the EO Church, you will find no discontinuous, genuinely "new" doctrines, like Purgatory, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and Papal Infallibility as is found in the post-Schism Roman Catholic Church.)

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Bob

February 26, 2013  1:36pm

Are these bona fide issues or just axes to grind? And for what purpose? I have seen few studies and know few practitioners who see these as critical issues with the possible exception of number four.

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Gary

February 25, 2013  7:27pm

Why do the Lone Ranger the poster child for do-it-yourself Christianity? The Ranger was never alone. He HAD Tonto, for crying out loud! He also knew every sheriff in the American southwest by name, had a nephew who kept his silver mine (from whence those legendary bullets came), and counted many many Indians as friends. It's high time Christians found some other symbol for the pious particles that drift with neither accountability nor fellowship.

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