The Imaginary Church

After the last gospel song had ended, the choir girl stepped down from the platform and made her way down the aisle toward my seat. My heart started to pound as she drew near. But she seemed to ignore me as she stared right at the girl seated next to me and asked her in a heavy Southern drawl, “Honey, are you lost?”

I was devastated when the girl, who was my date for the night, replied, looking at me, &ldquot;No, but he is”. How I wished I could just disappear. The choir girl sat down next to me and began to tell me how I could be saved. I tried to be as polite as I could, but still end the conversation as quickly as possible. I was a good Catholic boy and that night was the first time I had ever stepped foot into a Baptist church.
In spite of my embarrassment that night, I was still smitten enough with my Baptist girlfriend to accept a Good News for Modern Man New Testament from her and promise to read it. To the astonishment of my parents, I spent every free moment for the next several weeks reading the Gospels. Before long I stopped reading out of duty and began reading with fascination. All I had ever heard from the Bible had been the verse or two that had been read in Mass each Sunday — a short lapse into understandable English in the long, droning litany of Latin.
The power of the words of this man called Jesus gripped me as I read through each of the Gospels and the Book of Acts. My heart was a blank slate, with no conscious predetermined way to understand what I was reading except to take it at face value. But I could not reconcile the stark power of what I was reading with the tiresome religious hype, in various dialects, that I was hearing in Mass on Sunday and at the Bible study on Wednesday afternoons. Finally I lost interest, and that girl lost interest in me. The scent of college and independence wafted my way, and I followed it in pursuit of an engineering degree that I was assured would lead me to security and personal fulfillment.
I met another girl in college. She had that same clean, wholesome appeal that had drawn me into that Baptist church years before. Sure enough, she was a ’born-again’ Christian. But I was wiser this time. I kept the religion at a distance as our friendship grew over the course of several years. Eventually I bought a Bible and rediscovered the Gospels that had so captivated my interest during those few weeks in high school. Again, those words gripped me.
One morning early, while I was trying to study, I found I couldn’t read any more for the tears that flooded my eyes. I believed that the God of Heaven was trying to get through to me. I collapsed to my knees and shuddered as I wept, alone in my room, crying out that I believed in the God I was reading about and that I wanted to surrender my life to Him.
For lack of anything else to do, I began going to a church that was conveniently situated on the path from where I lived to the building most of my classes were in. I was attracted to the church by its humble stone façade and its simple name: Christian Church — Disciples of Christ. That’s what I wanted to be — a disciple of Christ. The people were friendly and seemed earnest, and the pastor was a warm-hearted, soft-spoken man who looked you right in the eyes. I began to trust him. I still was having trouble reconciling what I was reading about in the Bible with what seemed to be the normal Christian life, but who was I to judge?

Hard Words

Then one day I read something that brought me up cold:

If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple ... So therefore, no one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions. (Luke 14:26-33)

I stared at the page, dumbfounded. I considered my life and my plans. I remembered my promise to surrender my life to God. I thought about what my parents would think if I quit college, gave up my career plans, sold all my possessions, and then what?
Dazed and confused, I picked up my Bible and walked to the church to see the pastor. I was so thankful that he was there, alone, in his office. My heart beating fast, I knocked on the door and he invited me in with a warm smile. Not saying much, I opened my Bible and pointed to the words on the page. I asked him what I should do.

Soothing Words

A troubled look came over his face for an instant, and then vanished, replaced by a grandfatherly smile. With soothing words he counselled me not to do anything rash, but to continue my education, and when I was finished, if I still felt that God was calling me &ldquot;into the ministry,” I could go to seminary. Perhaps some day God would call me to leave everything behind and become a missionary. Meanwhile, I should give up my possessions in my heart, and be a good steward of them for God.
I was overwhelmed with a confusing mixture of relief and disappointment. Somehow I knew in the depths of my being that the man the disciples called Master in the Bible would not have given me that answer. It was so different from the answer He had given that well-to-do young man who came to Him in Mark 10:17-31. He had told him to forsake everything, and then He had watched as the young man walked away sadly. He hadn’t softened His words to keep from upsetting the would-be disciple.
But, on the other hand, I was relieved because after many years of poor performance in and out of college I was finally on a roll, doing well, full of confidence about getting my engineering degree. Silencing that pleading voice inside of me, I took my pastor’s advice. I finished college, got married, went to seminary, and presumed to become a pastor myself. But there was always something in me to long for that fully-dedicated life that I read about in the Book of Acts.
I longed to be like Peter who had obeyed the Master’s call to leave his nets and follow Him. Somehow this rude fisherman with no education had been able to communicate the gospel that he had received with such power that this was the result:

So then, those who had received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer ... And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they were selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:41-47)

It frustrated me that, for all my education, the sermons I preached and the Bible studies I led produced no such effect. I could not see then what is so clear to me now — I could not possibly call my hearers to obey what I wasn’t living myself.

The Art of Imagining

You see, I had learned well in seminary the art of imagining, and I got lots of practice in my Christian life during the years that followed. First, I learned to imagine no possessions. It was easier than actually having to give them up. After all, nobody else was doing it, and it just wasn’t practical. Where would I live? How would I make a living? What would I eat? What would I wear? No, He must not have meant it literally. He just didn’t want us to be materialistic. He was only concerned with whether we loved our possessions more than Him. As long as I was ready to let go of things whenever He called me to, then I was really obeying Him. (Of course, since I was the judge of whether He was calling me to give up my possessions, there was very little chance of it ever occurring.)
Having held on to my possessions, it wasn’t hard to imagine that I was trusting God to meet my daily needs, as the Gospels told me I should (Matthew 6:19-34). Yet each month as I sat down to pay the bills, especially the hundreds of dollars I spent for health insurance, life insurance, homeowners insurance, and disability insurance, I knew deep down inside that I was fooling myself about trusting God. I consoled myself that since I paid my tithes faithfully and gave to charity, He knew my heart. After all, most Christians agreed that it just wasn’t responsible or practical these days to live without savings and insurance, even if they didn’t agree on much else.

Imaginary Unity?

Now that troubled me: Why couldn’t Christians agree on so many things? Beyond the most basic things — the deity of Christ, His sacrificial death and resurrection, that He and the Father and the Spirit are one (things even the demons believe, according to James 2:19) — you couldn’t get even one congregation to agree on much else, let alone all sincere Christians everywhere. Every church I was ever in was teeming with factions and undercurrents of complaint, bitterness and envy.
So I learned to imagine the unity that the Son of God prayed for just before He went to the cross:

I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may be one, even as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You have given Me I have given to them; that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them, and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You loved Me. (John 17:20-23)

I did not actually see people living together in unity like they did in Acts 2:41-43. Even in seminary, which presumably was filled with the most dedicated Christians you could expect to find, entire courses were devoted to explaining all the different ways that the various denominations believe and practice their religion. There was a virtual celebration of disunity, a reveling in it, calling it the richness of the Christian tradition. I was never challenged to compare this so-called unity in diversity with the pure, simple oneness of mind and purpose that the Father has with the Son, which was so obviously the Son’s heartfelt prayer for His disciples.
But John 17:23 spoke of a perfect unity that the world could see. That meant people who were actually living together in peace, demonstrating the life that their Master had lived on the earth — a visible body of people in every place (city or town; 1 Timothy 2:8), under one church government (Titus 1:5), who would give the world reason to believe that the Father actually sent His Son.

A Mystical Body?

Because of the obvious lack of such a representation in Christianity, I learned to imagine the Body of Christ. This mystical Body was said to consist of all the sincere Christians in all the churches all over the world. There had to be such a mystical Body (since there wasn’t a visible Body), otherwise, how could we understand and explain what the Bible said about the Church being that spotless Bride for which the Son of God would eventually return?
Was I a part of this mystical Body? Was I spotless? If I wasn’t spotless, how could the Body be spotless? Can the whole be greater than the sum of its parts? When I was honest with myself, I could plainly see that I wasn’t even becoming spotless — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control were not the increasing, abundant fruit of my life. So I learned to imagine myself becoming Christ-like, or at least I tried desperately to imagine such an amazing transformation.
The trouble was that imagining no possessions, imagining everyone living together in complete unity, imagining that I would someday get my life together ... it was like looking down the railroad tracks and imagining that the rails would eventually come together. As far as you care to follow the tracks, the rails never come together. It’s just an illusion on the horizon.
All my imaginings only led me into further despair and cynicism as the years went by. Somehow I managed to keep up a pretty convincing façade, so that few people other than my wife seemed to suspect that I was falling apart inside. More than once I contemplated suicide, and might have gone through with it had it not been for the trusting eyes of my children.
Then I met a disciple. He told me that he had actually given up everything, all his possessions, his career, his independence, his sovereignty, his family, his friends — everything to follow Yahshua, the Son of God. As he spoke to me, my heart was stirred and I saw myself again, alone in my room reading, So therefore, no one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions. I saw myself standing at the pastor’s door with a trembling heart, wondering what he would say. I heard his soothing words again, and I saw that I had been lied to, and had gladly believed the lie. I had propagated the lie. I felt dirty and cheap, sick over the years I had wasted, just ’playing church’.

The Reality of the New Covenant

I accepted this disciple’s invitation to come to dinner at his house that night, along with my whole family. I met a whole houseful of disciples who had all given up everything for the sake of their Master Yahshua, and were living a life of unity, sharing all things in common. They were daily devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer, taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart. I shook myself to make sure I was awake, that I wasn’t just imagining such a miracle.
In time, all of my defenses crumbled, all of my complex reasoning to hold on to my own life gave way to the wonderful reality of this peculiar people I had stumbled upon. The frustrated, lonely wreck of a man that I was died in the waters of baptism, and I was born a disciple. I am inexpressibly thankful to be living in the reality of the New Covenant, saved from the futility of the imaginary church.
~ David

The Twelve Tribes is a confederation of twelve self-governing tribes, composed of self-governing communities. We are disciples of the Son of God whose name in Hebrew is Yahshua. We follow the pattern of the early church in Acts 2:44 and 4:32, truly believing everything that is written in the Old and New Covenants of the Bible, and sharing all things in common.

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