The Problem With the Church Is...
The problem with the Church is... Well, now wait a minute! Who says there is something wrong with the Church? A lot of Christians, that's who. After all, where did you think all those multitudes of denominations came from? Some group of Christians thinks there is something wrong in the Church, and if the other Christians disagree, pretty soon there is a split and a new denomination shows up. Many of these are so small that they are almost invisible, so it's difficult to know just how many there are and how many variations of Christianity exist. Of course, the big breakups came with the divisions between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, and between the Catholics and the Protestants. In both cases there were those who felt the leaders in the Church were wrong, tried to change their opinions, and then eventually split off into a separate Church.
It's a little embarrassing, in a way. Just what is true Christianity anyway and how is anyone supposed to sort this all out? We might try to find out what the disagreements are. Of course, there are differences in theology, but overall, Christian denominations have a lot more in common than they hold in differences. But one thing that is quite dissimilar is Church organization. In fact, that is often the very thing that causes splits within a Church. You can find hierarchical organization (like the Catholics), patriarchic (like the Orthodox), democratic (like the Baptists) and just about every other variation you can think of. These variations generally focus on leadership and authority and whether there should be a few, many, or just one authority for the Church.
One thing all these variations in organization all have in common is that the authority has to be held and exercised by human beings. That right there tends to cause problems. Once you have some position of authority there will be people who seek that authority for all the wrong reasons, usually out of pride, vanity, or self-righteous attitudes. It's not always with evil motives, however. It's typical human behavior to think that if someone (like you) has the solution that someone (like you) should be put in charge so that the solution can be implemented. This doesn't just apply to the offices of the Church either. You can see the same types of arguments over who should teach Bible classes, or Sunday school, or minister to youth, etc.
Well then, if the problem is that leaders, being human, tend to have human weaknesses that lead to problems, then maybe the solution is a kind of leaderless Church, or maybe even a non-organized Church that is almost an ad hoc fellowship. At the least, many will say, there shouldn't just be one man (pastor or priest) in charge of the fellowship. Authority should be somehow distributed among various ministers. Or, like the "five-fold" ministry types, they will say that we need not just pastors, but also apostles, prophets, and evangelists as well.
There was a time in my own spiritual journey when I pondered this whole question and came to believe that once you have some institution or formal organization there are bound to be problems and thus you really couldn't have an organized Church at all. I still believe that to some extent, but have had to revise things a bit over the years. It is certainly true that any form of organization has a tendency towards corruption over time. But, conversely, any form of organization can avoid that corruption as well. I finally came to understand that the problems in the Church is not the organization of the people, but the people of the organization.
That shouldn't come as a surprise, really, because Christianity starts with the understanding that man is in a fallen condition, a state of sin, and thus must have a savior. We also understand that improvement in our spiritual condition develops over time such that most of our life is filled with missteps and backsliding as we work out our salvation. Given that as a premise it's not too difficult to conclude that anytime imperfect human beings are involved in something there are bound to be some problems. Just trying to fix things by reorganization doesn't alter the fundamental condition of man. But it seems that trying out some new organization is still the most popular way to fix problems in a church.
One popular idea these days is that we need to get back to the original, true, Church of the New Testament. All of these accumulated doctrines and organizational structures need to be swept away so that we can recover "true" Christianity. That's a wonderful sentiment, and that's exactly the path I went down in my own spiritual journey. For close to thirty years I have been trying to find out what that "original true" Christianity was. I wanted to know what it was that would cause the earliest Christians to risk life itself rather than back down on what they believed. I wanted to know what it was that caused Christianity to sweep across the Pagan Roman Empire like a wildfire.
The irony is that when you get back to the very beginnings of Christianity you find that they had just as many problems back then as we have today! You can read about them in the book of Acts, in the Pauline epistles, as well as the epistles of James, and Jude and Peter and John. In fact, problems in the Church and questions of organization and authority have always been part of Christianity. Trying to get back to the original Christianity gets you back to the same problem that you started with. Yikes.
The most concise enumeration of Church problems is that given in Revelation chapters two and three. If you want to know what the problem of the Church today is, just look at what Jesus said:
Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted. Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent. (Rev 2:1-5)
Notice first the list of things that are praised (vv. 2-3). Most of the people complaining about problems in the Church concentrate on those very things. We proclaim against the false teachers and arrogant pastors that are recurring problems in the Church. But also notice that there is something more than that required. They had not really corrected their failings by throwing out the false teachers. The Church had lost its first love. Well, there you go. That's a major problem isn't it?
When people think of religion they usually think of a form of ritual and worship, or a set of doctrines that someone believes in, or a philosophical system that the person lives by. It is all too easy to consider Christianity to be those same things. But the uniqueness of Christianity is that it is a religion about a person - Jesus Christ. Thus, Christianity isn't really a religion in the usual sense of the word. What we mean by a Christian is someone who follows Jesus Christ, calls Him Lord and Savior, and relies on Him for answers to the questions of life and death. It is a person to person relationship that is at the center of Christianity. I sometimes even go so far as to say that Christianity is not a moral code to live by. That sounds confusing perhaps, but it really is true. To make Christianity into a moral code, or worship practice, that YOU follow puts the focus on you and takes it off of Jesus. What is said in the Bible is that Jesus will come to dwell with us (John 14:23) and that He will send the Holy Spirit to walk along side (John 14:16). To be Christian is to have the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9-11) and the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16). Thus, our relationship with Jesus is one of union and that's what makes a person a Christian. That relationship of unity is precisely what is meant by faith. Put simply, our first love is faith in Jesus Christ. Whenever the Church attempts to put something else in place of faith in Jesus, the Church will fall into error.
What Revelation 2:5 warns is that when that first love is lost the candlestick that represents the Church is removed. This is a wonderful metaphor. When faith is displaced with something else, the light of the Spirit goes out and the people will stumble around in darkness. Having lost that leading of the Spirit, and seeing the problems and ineffectiveness arise because of it, people will start trying to do something to get things going again. Unfortunately, without first returning to faith, any solution that is proposed will do nothing but cause further deterioration in the Church. No matter what organizational changes are made, no matter what new programs are invented, without the Spirit of Christ, nothing good will come of it.
Trying out all these other things simply makes the problem worse. Faith in Jesus is displaced even further by a worldly attempt at problem solving. The idea of reorganization, different leadership, a new philosophy, and new programs and structures is exactly how the world tries to solve problems. It doesn't work for very long for the reasons I explained earlier. Unless the heart of the people is changed, no change in the organization will make any lasting difference.
In times past the Church understood this. There would be periodic calls for fasting and prayer, or men would put aside the finer things of life to concentrate on their spiritual condition. Christians would often make a difficult pilgrimage to some remote place in order to force the mind to think only on the things of God. The old-time tent revival was another way that Christians used to revitalize the Church. Moving out of the nice building into a simple tent removed all the trappings of religion and helped the people focus once again on what should be their first love. It's too bad that things like pilgrimages and tent revivals seem to have become just more trite, ritualistic performance of religion. But we can do something like that from time to time. Put aside all the issues of doctrine and organization and leadership roles and just concentrate on Jesus Christ and your walk with him.
So, that's my answer. The problem with the Church is that it has lost its first love. It has focused on social programs and political solutions, reorganization and complex programs, new forms of worship, and tedious, inventive arguments over long established doctrines in order to try and fix problems when the real problem is a loss of faith in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Until the Church returns to the same level of faith in the person of Jesus Christ that the first Christians had, repenting of all clever, worldly solutions, nothing will change.