I walked past a cult church today. Well, OK, “cult” is a subjective labelling. I walked past a sect today. I was out with Caitlin wandering through an area of town that was new to me, and came across a sign on a building proclaiming “Jesus Christ!” Once again, I wondered what I was doing here as a church planter - Japan already has a local church and there are a reasonable number in my area - until I realised that the church was one that I had been warned against by a local pastor here.
How do you tell when a church becomes a sect? The obvious answer is in its teachings, and yeah, this one in particular is pretty off the wall, but in general it’s not so easy to say; there’s a huge diversity within Christian teaching and the boundaries are fuzzy. It’s easy enough to use proof texts from the Bible to pull down other Christians and call them nasty names, but I can’t help thinking that isn’t what the Bible is for.
But there is an easier way to tell. A sect is sectarian; it’s a church that has decided that it already has as much of the truth as it needs, and that it need not learn from any other Christians. We’ve got the Bible, we’ve got the Holy Spirit - we don’t need anything else. It’s a misunderstanding of that same Bible which always talks about greeting one another, teaching one another, learning from one another, having mutual concern for one another, encouraging one another and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, but there you go. That’s what a sect does: it rejects the gift of one another that God has given us. So because it thinks it doesn’t need to learn from other Christians, it closes itself off, to the point at which it simply doesn’t have the opportunity to learn from any other Christians, and so will never know when it’s becoming idiosyncratic or heretical. In that sense, ecumenism is a mark of the Church. Churches that don’t work with other churches are sects.
I suppose the logical conclusion of this is that an awful lot of Evangelical denominations are sects. Hmm.
I’m told that it’s like a paradigm shift - either you get it, or you don’t. It’s hard for us to explain what it is we do here to those who don’t get it, and it’s painful and tiring to feel just as misunderstood by Christians as by non-Christians. You expect non-Christians to not get it. But Christians, no matter how much they talk and even teach that “Church isn’t a building, it’s a people”, still get mighty freaked out when you don’t have a simple answer to the question “where do you go to church?”
We don’t go to church. We are church. For where two or three are assembled in my name, I am there among them.
And there’s the other classic one, “which church do you go to?” Well, there’s only one, isn’t there? Or is Christ divided?
I’m not even trying to be smart-ass. We do have a regular group of people that we meet with and worship with and pray with and read the Bible together with, but it’s not on a Sunday morning and it doesn’t even have a name. We’re toying with the idea of giving it a name partly so we don’t bend the minds of other Christians we meet, but equally we’re toying with the idea of not giving it a name because, well, some minds need bending. But the nature of my job means that I go to a different church every Sunday, whether it’s because I’m asked to preach or because I’m visiting local churches to build up good relationships with the pastors precisely so that they don’t wonder who these strange missionaries are who don’t even have a regular Sunday morning church community.
Because that’s how it works here. You belong to one church, you are a member of that church, you turn up to that church every Sunday morning and there will be a register taken and if you’re not there, you’re liable to get a phone call from the pastor wondering where you were. Visiting another church of your own denomination is OK, at a pinch; visiting another church of another denomination is right out. And so someone even asked us this morning, “is there another church you’re supposed to be at?” Implication: you’re not supposed to be at this one.
The congregational model leads to an incredibly low view of Church. Even though we may recite the Apostle’s Creed every Sunday (“I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church”), for all practical purposes, the local congregation is the Church. That’s all that people can see. And so when we blunder in with a high view of Church and this crazy idea that the Church is the body of Christ universal and that anyone who is a friend of Christ is a friend of mine, and I’ll meet with two or three other Christians, or more, and that’s The Church constituted right there, the one with the capital letters, people still wonder what kind of Christians we must be if we don’t go to a regular church that they’ve heard of on a regular Sunday morning.
And yet how horrible it must be to be part of a church like that - to deliberately choose to lock yourself into the same group of people every week, to hear the same set of preachers preach the same set of sermons, to receive little or no outside influences, to never see how anyone else does it or to feel like you’re betraying a commitment if you do, to be cut off from the wider Body of Christ, to reject the gift of one another, to close yourself off, and to get to a point where you simply don’t have the opportunity to learn from any other Christians, to never know when you’re becoming idiosyncratic or heretical.
The congregational model makes sectarians of us all.