Some months ago I read a Goodreads interview with author Ted Dekker. It answered some questions left in my mind after reading other interviews (such as, how can you write about some of the things you do without suffering spiritual damage). It also repeated something that Dekker has alluded to in other interviews I have read—namely, his distaste for conventional Christianity. He told Goodreads that he is surprised people classify him as a Christian author, since much of what he writes is “against religion.”
In one sense, Dekker reminds me of a typical youngish postmodernist who prefers spirituality to “religion,” except that Dekker is more specific about what constitutes genuine “spirituality.” (His definition: searching for the true God, not simply feeling emotional about spiritual issues.) In another sense, he is a typical exponent of the “not a religion, a relationship” mantra—albeit that he takes that idea farther than most evangelicals.
Individualism is not an entirely bad thing. In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton traces increased emphasis on the individual back to the first Christmas, when Christ was born as an outcast. “There is in that alone the touch of a revolution, as of the world turned upside down…. Individuals became important, in a sense in which no instruments can be important. A man could not be a means to an end, at any rate to any other man’s end.” Christianity certainly upholds the importance of the individual.
But the individualism of Christianity is quite different from the individualism (sometimes better termed “self-centeredness,” and in fact quite destructive of the older individualism) that now permeates American culture. While Dekker’s books (I’ve read something like eleven) do not espouse that sort of individualism, his conception of religion is extremely individualistic—in the American sense of the word. The individualism isn’t so much a matter of the individual being free to choose between Christian religious traditions as that of being free to follow Christ while simultaneously ignoring all Christian religious traditions.
But what if religion is the problem? We have all known Christians who were self-absorbed, or lied often, or spread gossip, or wielded their faith (which they misunderstood) like a sword. Is breaking free from them the solution?
In one sense, Dekker is quite right—Christ did not come to earth to found a religion. At least, the word appears nowhere in the New Testament. What Christ did found set Christianity apart from every other system of belief. Christ founded a church—the Church. And the Church’s existence marks Christianity as distinct from other belief systems. It may be called a religion for the sake of convenience, but, more fundamentally, it is a Church. No other belief system of my acquaintance so emphasizes unity for its own sake. We are Christ’s body—“organs of one another.” We are Christ’s building, “fitly framed together.” We are His bride. I do not believe that Dekker would necessarily deny any of the Biblical doctrines about the Church. But I believe he undervalues them.
Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor was the one who really brought my attention to exactly what it means for the Church to be Christ’s Body. The Church was not exactly a comfortable place for her, since she was, as she said, “peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness.” (I sympathize, although I suffer more from “pre-modern consciousness.”) O’Connor at any rate did not dump “religion” in favor of an isolated spirituality. She wrote to a friend, “I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed.”
In a country where self-centeredness runs rampant, disguised as individualism or success, we cannot afford to sidestep the Church in our desire to be authentically Christian. According to the New Testament, it is impossible to find the authenticity we seek without the Church. As C. S. Lewis wrote in his essay “Membership”:
The Christian is not called to individualism but to membership in the mystical body….. We are all constantly teaching and learning, forgiving and being forgiven, representing Christ to man when we intercede, and man to Christ when others intercede for us. The sacrifice of selfish privacy which is daily demanded of us is daily repaid a hundredfold in the true growth of personality which the life of the Body encourages. Those who are members of one another become as diverse as the hand and the ear. That is why the worldlings are so monotonously alike compared with the almost fantastic variety of the saints. Obedience is the road to freedom, humility the road to pleasure, unity the road to personality.
That isn’t to say that if your local church situation is toxic, that you should stay—although leaving, even when necessary, should be a matter for serious prayer. You aren’t switching hairdressers, after all. And the Church isn’t a beauty parlor. It’s more like a building under construction. Sometimes the insulation sticks out, and the loose electrical wires can be dangerous. But the builder tells us that it will be finished some day. And I’ve heard a rumor that it may become a temple.