What is the purpose of the church, anyway? It’s got to be more than just a social club; more than simply a place for Christian singles to find eligible marriageable partners; or just a place to connect with others who believe and generally act like you; and in just so many cases look and dress similarly to you also. We’ve got to go beyond the mere superficialities here and explore this question deeper, from both theological and biblical perspectives.
Surely one should not contemplate the notion of… leaving the church to find God?! This very topic is, in fact, the subject of an upcoming 2-part podcast that Gary Hayes and I will be doing, starting on the 1st of September.
Thinking theologically, surely the church is the place that the “spiritual seeker” comes to find God. It’s got to be a place whereby people connect with God in new and meaningful ways, and to discover what a life spent following God looks like.
From another point of view: isn’t the church where you go to learn what it truly means to “be a disciple of Jesus Christ”? And how does that process happen, anyway? Well, we go to church to receive good, solid biblical teaching, with the outcome being that we can not only learn the content of Scripture in terms of knowledge, but also appropriate it in terms of real-life applications in the real world. And on it goes. These sorts of answers to these lines of questioning would, I suspect, be what most Christians would probably answer reflexively. Church is all that, and more, surely. Isn’t it?
While church may be all that and more for many Christians—and I sincerely trust and hope that it is—there’s another angle of vision that needs to be examined here: that of leaving the church to find God. Why would anybody need to do that? There are at least two theological and biblical reasons that may answer the question. The first is an all-too common tendency that many have, which is to associate a physical space (in this case, a church building) with God’s presence. This is a core belief that holds that somehow, “the church building is a sacred space,” even though it’s nothing more than a pile of bricks, mortar, and timber.
The residue of this theology is with us today. In European cathedrals, men are not allowed to wear hats inside the sanctuary—ostensibly as a sign of respect in a sacred space. Most have a strictly enforced dress code, too. Just to give a few examples of this: In Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, women aren’t allowed to have bare shoulders or knees showing, and are required to cover up or they’ll be turned away at the door. The good news is that the Basilica thoughtfully provides shawls so women can cover up bare shoulders or knees.
The dress code is also strictly enforced at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Men must wear long trousers (no shorts) and cover their shoulders, women must not have either bare shoulders or skirts shorter than knee length. In most European cathedrals, there are “enforcers” who can oftentimes be a bit harsh when laying down the law for under-dressed offenders. But surely, it’s just an historic building, a pile of ancient brick, mortar and timbers too, isn’t it? Why then do we need a dress code to visit an old church?
Are those cathedrals indeed “sacred spaces” that we dishonour by displaying bared shoulders or knees? Is God profoundly offended by one’s outward appearance, or does he examine the condition of a person’s heart instead?
The Beliefs of Ancient Israel: An Historical Overview
Secondly, let’s take a look at the biblical record. Historically, many ancient Israelites fell into this flawed and faulty way of thinking too. Over the centuries, they came to believe that the temple in Jerusalem (and before that, the tabernacle) was the physical space whereby God himself dwelt. The origins of this belief came from the fact that the Ark of the Covenant was placed first in the tabernacle during the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness, then later in Jerusalem by David once it was conquered, and then finally—and much more permanently—in Solomon’s temple.
Hayes argues that with the presence of the ark finally established in Jerusalem, this is the foundation of the tradition of Zion’s election—the idea that Jerusalem was the holy city of God where his presence lived. Hayes comments on this firmly-entrenched belief: “Nonetheless, with or without the temple, the presence of the ark in Jerusalem meant that Yahweh was now dwelling there and had chosen this place for his abode.”
This sort of belief is evidenced in places like Psalms 78.68 and 132.13, which demonstrate such theological themes as “God chose Zion for his dwelling place.” It’s easy to see how such theology could not only take root, but grow and become firmly a part of Israel’s theological worldview over the centuries.
The Babylonian Exile: Destroying a Temple and a Worldview
The major theological crisis for ancient Israel was, of course, when the pre- and exilic prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Isaiah directly confronted and challenged that sort of deeply-entrenched theology. They foretold some very unpopular things when they categorically prophesied that both the Temple, and the holy city of Jerusalem, would be destroyed at some point during the Babylonian exile.
Surely this could not ever happen! Both the first lot of Jewish exiles, forced to live in Babylon, and the Jews left behind in Jerusalem prior to its destruction, were outraged! They argued to the contrary: “Jerusalem is God’s holy city, and he lives in the Temple! Based upon his immutable promises and covenant,” they stoutly maintained, “surely God would never allow his chosen dwelling place to be razed to the ground.”
But the Temple was in fact destroyed in 586 BCE, and along with it their flawed and faulty theological worldview was smashed into a thousand pieces also.
Thus, to transpose the issue historically, one could perhaps make the claim for the exiles that “one could leave the Temple to find God.” From their point of view, everything in their entire faith and belief system was intrinsically tied to the Temple—both in terms of God’s own presence, but also the fact that the entire priestly class existed to serve their spiritual needs. If the Temple is little more than a pile of rubble, its priests killed or deported to Babylon, and we are sitting here nearly a thousand miles away to boot—how can we have our sins forgiven and gain access to God? From their point of view, one can see how theologically devastating the Temple’s destruction would have been. It represented the loss of everything they understood, everything to which they clung; their entire identity as a people, their way of life, faith and culture.
But the counter-argument by prophets such as Ezekiel, who lived among his fellow-exiles in Babylon, was this: both the Temple, and the city of Jerusalem, need to be destroyed. Why the need for such devastation? For no other reason than the fact that the entire belief system of the exiles needed to be smashed into a million pieces. But was such a drastic and unprecedented move really necessary? Again, the answer was a resounding “yes.” Why?
Simply this: their faith had become rote and formulaic; they had been for centuries simply “going through the motions.” The Israelites counted on their privileged status as “God’s chosen people” and looked down their noses at everybody else who was a pagan, a Gentile who was far from God and had no chance of ever getting there. God’s blessing would remain on them forever, they reasoned, and they reveled in their glorified position.
In theory, it should have been impossible for a Jew living outside the land of Israel to connect with God, once the Temple was destroyed and the priests gone. But there is evidence in Scripture of many righteous Jews who “found God” (to put it that way) outside of their homeland. There are many examples of exiled Jews who lived a righteous life outside of the land, such as Ezekiel; Daniel; Mordecai; and of course, Esther, to name but a few.
One could even argue that for such examples, it was far more difficult (and, as I say, theoretically impossible) for them to live righteous, godly lives in exile. One could even go farther, and make the claim that it was the very destruction of the Temple, together with its flawed and faulty theology that tied God’s presence to a physical space, as well as a formulaic and ritualistic religion, that made such righteous lives the shining examples that they are.
So where does all of that historical context and biblical overview of ancient Israel leave us today, in terms of addressing the issue of “leaving the church to find God”? Examine your own beliefs and theological certainties that you take for granted. In your “heart of hearts” (despite knowing better intellectually), do you still cling to the belief that the physical building (where the church meets, by the way) is somehow to be considered a sacred or sanctified space?
And what, exactly, makes it any more “sacred” than a group of people having a Bible study, or a prayer meeting, or simply just enjoying community and fellowship, in a Starbucks, a pub, or somebody’s house? Surely a pile of brick, mortar and timber can’t possibly be somehow made “sacred” or sanctified. By the same theological logic, shouldn’t a strip club, an adult bookstore, or a crack house be considered “profane,” surely?
A second issue concerns the formulaic nature of what much of Christianity has become. Like the ancient Israelites, it’s all too common for many sincere Christians to fall into a rote performance. Here’s the way it works: “I go to church every week; sing a few worship songs, listen to a sermon from the Bible, and drop some money in the plate as it passes me by. I help out here and there around the building; I attend a weekly Bible study and prayer meeting, and go on the occasional mission trip to help build houses for the poor somewhere in the world. I pray (somewhat) regularly; I read my Bible (somewhat) regularly; and generally try and ‘do the right thing’ where God, and others, are concerned. I don’t cheat, steal, or lie (for the most part); I pay my taxes, I’m a good citizen, and therefore, I think I’m doing pretty well in the God department.”
But surely this is an example of how Christianity can be turned into a formula. “Do A, B, and C (whatever the things your pastor tells you need doing for God), and he’ll take care of you. The blessings will flow, and you’ll cap the whole thing off by getting into heaven someday when you die.”
But, as Donald Miller says in his thought-provoking work Searching for God Knows What, you can’t have a relationship with an idea, or a concept. You can only have a relationship with a genuine person. Theological beliefs, and knowledge of the Bible’s contents, are not the same things as having a relationship with the living God.
And therefore, I argue that someone reading this article may well need to leave the church in order to find God. Sadly, if the church is little more than a “conformity factory” whereby we are all going through the motions without questioning why we are doing what we’re doing every week, month, and year, than we may be in a lot of trouble. Like the ancient Israelites, who had to find new ways to get to God once the Temple had been destroyed, maybe you need to do some deconstruction of your own.
 Hayes, John H. “The Tradition of Zion’s Inviolability.” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 82, No. 4 (December 1963): 421.
Miller, Donald. Searching for God Knows What. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004.