Appearance or Subtance? (Aug 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Scott Simpson

I’m part of a house church, which seems to some an oxymoron. “Is it a house? or is it a church?” And sure, there’s that old saw, “the church is the people not the building” thing that I grew up with. But I think that oversimplifies the confusion. We humans are an “appearance passes for substance” sort. It’s why we don’t feel good unless we think we look good. It’s why our motivational strategies often boil down to “Fake it ‘til you make it.”

It’s why “brand” is a bigger predictor of price than “quality.”

Church is no different. Even though the rag-tag bunch referring to themselves as “the way” and having no more than a house (at best) to meet in got the whole thing got started, there’s a sense that we really “arrived” once we got thoroughly funded, hierarched, membershipped, and buildinged.

That’s “Appearance as Substance,” even when substance is there. We have trouble teasing reality out — differentiating where OUR “markers” end and GOD’s kingdom-reality begins. That’s what much of the arguing, even on the New Wineskins discussion threads, amounts to.

The Pharisees would be proud. They were the expert “Appearance Men” and they held the Temple worship within their own very tight grip. Let’s face it, a stone-blocked, location-bound, gold-filled worship structure is a very impressive and manageable thing. It gives one leverage.

But, Jesus had some “woes” for them… seven to be exact (Matthew 23:13-29). And they ALL address their (our) tendency to mistake appearance for substance.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

Institutional churches have lots of “doors” that are opened and closed in particular ways and at particular times. Being allowed in, or kept out gives power to the key-holders… who then, appear to hold the Keys of the Kingdom as well.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

Institutional churches have the advantage of pooling more funds… evangelistic trips to exotic, far-off places are not only possible, but can become preferable. These trips give a lovely appearance on newsletter listings and ministry updates… though they have often amounted to the “transplanting” of a foreign hybrid, shaped in the institutional hot-house, more than the sowing of Kingdom seed, which always finds its native expression in collaboration with local, open hearts.

Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.

Institutional churches tend to look in the mirror and see OUR structure as GOD’s structure, OUR practice as GOD’s practice, OUR ministries as GOD’s ministries, giving to US as giving to GOD, joining OUR CHURCH as joining GOD’s CHURCH. Seeing one’s own tribe as THE place where God is at work rather than seeing one’s own tribe as a subset of the LARGER WORK that God is doing in the world is mistaking the gold for the temple, mistaking the gift for the altar, mistaking the institution for God Himself.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

Institutional churches… actually, you can probably all write your own “connections” here…

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

Institutional churches must maintain appearances. Members must be disciplined for representational purposes. They can’t be out there doing THAT with people knowing they are a member HERE at 5th and Whatchamacallit! Inside… people may be dying…people may be killing each other, using each other… but as long as they’re quiet about it… well…

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

Institutional churches have a beauty that must be maintained: a building to be façaded, parking lots to be paved, pews to be upholstered, bathrooms to be upgraded, lights to be kept burning, carpets to be cleaned, classrooms to be air-conditioned, lawns to be mowed, baptisteries to be heated and filtered. Sometimes, the maintenance of the building or the campus or the reputation can take so much time, energy and focus, that no one notices a rot spreading at the core.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!

Institutional churches, more than anything else, must feel that they have arrived. We have the history of Christianity spread out behind us for two thousand years… warts and mistakes, bickerings and pettiness, even slaughterings and genocides. But WE are beyond that. WE know better. And especially, if I may as a family member… we in the tradition known as The Restoration, operate (often) under an assumption that ALL who went before us since the First Century have been apostate and fallen… we have NOT reformed… no, we have RESTORED what was nowhere to be found… institutionally speaking. And how did we do it? Well, we distilled the pattern that ALL had missed for centuries, and simply put it into place.

Build it, and He will come… we said, as though seventeen centuries had been filled will willfully obstinate church builders who would not follow the clear pattern.

If WE had lived in the days of THOSE fellows… WE would have done it right!

In an institutional church, humility is difficult; self-promotion is almost synonymous with evangelism because we’ve come to believe that joining US is joining GOD.

I’m part of a house church. We are NOT perfect, but we don’t have to be. We come together to find out what God is doing in everyone’s life and to discern how we each might need to join in via prayer, action, money, time, whatever.

We have the luxury of being obsessed with the SUBSTANCE of what God is doing right now because, some time ago, we pretty much gave up the need, the energy and the time it really does take just to keep up appearances.

categoria commentoNo Comments dataDecember 5th, 2013
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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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