What it cost me to go outside the camp of institutional Christianity

Posted on November 3, 2012

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by: Joshua Lawson

My decision to leave the institutional church was not made lightly. Nor did it come about primarily as a result of bitterness, rebellion, or discontentment with the status quo. These and other similar elements may have been part of the mix at any given point in time, but what happened in my case was the product of an overwhelmingly positive vision and nothing less. I caught a glimpse of a better way, plain and simple. What little I saw was enough to draw me out and lead me on, and it is that same vision which leads me to this day.

There is a great difference between a people moved by mere disaffection, discontent, disgruntledness, difference of opinion, personal dislike or preference, and one moved by the constraint of a great Divine vision- by the inwrought reaction of God, registered with pain in the heart. (T. Austin Sparks)

Now, as much as I’d like to tell you the Lord bore me out of the institutional church on eagles’ wings in one mighty, sweeping act of deliverance… well, he didn’t. Most days felt quite the opposite, actually. The whole experience just wasn’t very pleasant. Sorry if that takes the romance out of it, but it’s true.

You see, I was something of a rising star in the circles I once moved in. I don’t mean to boast in saying that, I’m just being honest. I had the Bible knowledge, the charisma, the gifting, and the ability to speak well in front of a crowd. I could out-pray most brothers and my zeal for God was unmatched by nearly every person I knew.

But if I may borrow a phrase from Paul, it was all a pile of garbage. Most of the life I had built up outwardly in pursuit of God I was compelled to relinquish upon really seeing Christ for the first time. There simply was no comparison. As they say, it was out with the old and in with the new. But it was no smooth exchange, let me tell you. There was some real conflict involved. My purpose in writing this post will be to tell you a little about that conflict, starting with my personal struggle in relation to

SUBMISSION TO AUTHORITY

Depending on which Christian tradition you hail from there will be more or less of an emphasis on the matter of submitting to those in authority. At the time of my transition from Christianity to Christ I was fairly rooted in a situation where there was a heavy emphasis on this matter. In no uncertain terms it was conveyed to us that the men and women in positions of leadership were put there by God himself, so to question what they said or to speak in any way that might seem to undermine their instruction was to come against God’s authority. Individuals were expected to submit their wills and learn to deny themselves through obedience to God-appointed leadership. That’s the teaching in a nutshell.

Now, it’s not so much the teaching itself that causes problems as it is what certain leaders do with it. After all, there is an element of truth to it. But make no mistake about it: Considerable havoc can easily be wreaked upon impressionable young hearts with the age-old call to “submit to authority.” And very much of it can be inflicted unintentionally by otherwise well-meaning peers and elders.

So when I began to see Christ and the church in this new way, I was horribly conflicted within. Some days it was too much to bear and I would repent of my insurrection and seek God’s forgiveness for my rebellious ways. At times I wondered if I’d deceived myself and was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. At the very depth of my despair I doubted my own motives and would hesitate to even share my heart with other brothers, fearing that I meant to mislead them into my own self-conceived error.

Indeed, it was a trying time.

Ultimately my confusion over this matter was cleared up, and it came about the same way the rest of my deliverance ever has: by the revelation of Christ. One day I turned to Matthew 28 and heard the Lord say, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” In a flash I saw that spiritual authority is determined not by position but by the measure of Christ. With that simple realization all the bondage began to go. Granted, it took a great deal of time and persistent effort on the Lord’s part working within to really settle my heart in freedom, but the process began with that simple view of Christ the suffering servant being the measuring stick of true authority.

LOSING FACE

If all this sounds a bit over-dramatic to you, please understand there is a difference between the simple refusal to “go to church” on Sunday and the painful process of having your heart wrenched free from a system of thought and practice which your own identity and perhaps even vocation has become bound up with. When I relate to you my experience of leaving the institutional church I don’t mean to say I just decided to quit showing up on Sundays. That is nothing in and of itself. It may be a valid step in relation to something real, but by itself it is nothing.

You see, there is an entire mindset which forms the practice of traditional Christianity. To have your mind renewed until every fiber of your being has been extricated from the governance of that mindset is what I’m referring to when I talk about leaving the institutional church. In other words, this is no small matter.

If you’ve been there, you know that it hurts. It hurts to have your mind ripped free from something you were once so much a part of, so deeply invested in, and it hurts to come under suspicion and misunderstanding from friends and peers because of it.

On top of all that, if you are one who wrestles with pride over your self-image and the fear of what other people think of you then you are in for a real struggle. I know this because it was true in my case. While in the end I found it to be a great liberation to lose face in front of my peers and watch helplessly as my own “spiritual” image crumbled to the ground, at the time it was nothing pleasant. Whereas before I was associated with the spiritual big guns of my community, after my fall from grace (in the eyes of men, not God) I found myself at the lower end of the totem pole spending time with the “weaker” members of the body.

It was like I had placed myself at the head of the table, so to speak, when God came along and said, “Sorry son, but I have a spot for you down at the other end.”

To no longer be called upon to speak, to be blacklisted, looked upon with suspicion, and told to keep your views to yourself under fear of expulsion so as not to cause division… all this can be quite devastating to an ego which was set upon spiritual “greatness.” But when the dust settled and I found myself free from all sorts of false influences and considerations-shackles which I hadn’t even been aware of before-I became overwhelmingly grateful for every second of the whole nauseating ordeal.

I trust if your experience has been anything similar, or perhaps if you are facing a similar set of circumstances in the present, that in time you will feel the same. We follow One who has a way of making all things work together for the good of those who are called according to His purpose.

HERE I STAND, SO HELP ME GOD

It is deep in the Protestant tradition to follow the leading of one’s conscience………………………

Read the rest of Joshua’s article HERE at his blog!

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