In the sixth year, in the sixth month on the fifth day, while I was sitting in my house and the elders of Judah were sitting before me, the hand of the Sovereign Lord came on me there. I looked, and I saw a figure like that of a man. From what appeared to be his waist down he was like fire, and from there up his appearance was as bright as glowing metal. He stretched out what looked like a hand and took me by the hair or my head. The spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and in visions of God he took me to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the north gate of the inner court, where the idol that provokes to jealousy stood. And there before me was the glory of the God of Israel, as in the vision I had seen in the plain.
I think that there are some things here that can make some conventional Christians a bit nervous… I already discussed how it could be awkward in the previous study. How, after Ezekiel had been doing weird things for a year and a half, a visitation by the elders could seem like, at the very least, they were checking on him. Checking to see that he was truly still a respecter and follower of the true path. Checking, maybe, to see that his ‘doctrine’ was orthodox. Maybe even wanting to be reassured that his mental health was normal. Then, suddenly he loses consciousness in their midst…
The elders were not to know what was really going on. They were not to know that he had been taken away in spirit and was seeing visions. Probably they thought that the weird actions of the previous prophetic tasks had taken a severe toll on his body. At this point, their most likely concern was about Ezekiel’s health.
I touched, briefly, on how we may feel ourselves, to see not one elder but a whole bunch of them approaching our house, or knocking on our door. Such a thing is not a normal pastoral visit – something more serious was going on.
This does bring in some questions.
The structure of the church is not exactly the same as the old Judaic system, but if you are a church member then you are part of an organised structure. These days it is common or fashionable to criticise or even try to avoid organised religion within Christianity. One of the reasons for this is the recognition that there is indeed a very important difference between being religious and being a Christian. This is an area that both the church authorities and individual Christians need to consider carefully, and I would even say that a lack of consideration in this area is one of the many reasons for a fall in church attendance over the past century.
One thing we see in the book of Ezekiel – despite the relative heavy-handedness of the religious authorities in the prophet’s community, there is never any word of criticism about them.
The prophecies themselves, of course, often refer to the rebellion of the Israelites and the leadership in particular, and so this must surely include some criticism of the ineffectiveness of the elders of the true faith with regard to opposing the false religion and promoting a desire for commitment to the one God of Israel. And yet there is no criticism of the elders, or the community of believers he is planted in. Indeed, it seems that he was always open to them, and did not shut them out. There is even a sense of respect, although I am sure that the elders themselves would have found it difficult to understand or even believe Ezekiel’s actions sometimes. And certainly to have his spirit removed from his body while they were sitting with him would have been disconcerting…
I speculated on their reaction to this in the previous study, but yet I still find myself asking the question for how it might be today: how would church authorities react? And it works two ways: how do we respond to church authorities?
I have met, both in real life and in the virtual world of social media, many Christians who are not committed to any local Christian community. I don’t mean that these people are not committed to the body of Christ, but more specifically that they are not committed to a church or fellowship, and are not members of any specific body. There can be a number of reasons for this, and so the first thing I want to say here is this: if you are involved in church leadership at all and you come across a person who is not committed in this way, or is thinking of ending such a commitment – DO NOT MAKE ASSUMPTIONS!!
There can be many reasons why this situation is happening. You can’t just assume that it is rebellion or an ‘independent spirit’ (whatever that might mean – it seems to me that to accuse someone of this is an indication of the need to control that may exist in the person making such an accusation). Often these situations arise out of hurts in the past, or unresolved issues that have remained unresolved because of pride.
It is too easy, also, to assume that the pride issue is affecting the person avoiding attendance, but it can just as easily be sinful pride in the church leadership team. Just because you are leaders does not make you infallible. In fact, because you are leaders, the spiritual forces opposed to Christ and his church have a greater interest in you than in ordinary church members. Leaders will face more temptations and battles in their personal lives.
Leaders – because of this you need to face one very important fact: you need the congregation more than the congregation needs you! And one way that you need them is for their prayers and watchfulness, to keep you safe and protected from the evil one. More than that, they may know, before you do or are willing to admit it yourself, when you have begun to slide to the dark side – and it will usually show in your attitude to your family and others at first.
It has to be said that, in the modern world, the church can be both a blessing and a curse. I have never had a problem with the fact that there are different denominations – I see all Christians as being members of the one body of Christ, and united in him. Denominations themselves do not always see it this way, and this is problem number one… Even after the first major split – the Great Schism as it it known, that separated Catholicism from Orthodoxy – there was still the recognition that the membership on either side of the divide was trying to follow Christ as best as they could.
But since the beginning of Protestantism, we have begun to witness some very ugly things. Of course there is a history of friction between Protestants and Catholics, because the latter considered the former to be spreading heresy and so battled to eliminate this threat through military action and in severe punishment of protestant believers that would not recant. To purify the souls, they burnt many at the stake – probably millions.
In more modern times, there is not usually such extreme action, although in parts of the world there can still be violence and division of communities as a result (the troubles of Ireland, and Northern Ireland in particular, are sadly not the only example of this). But different denominations have varied responses…
The oldest protestant denominations now have a respect towards Catholics, even though sometimes grudgingly. But over the past 200 years the spectrum of what constitutes Protestantism has grown immensely – and I would say, rather more than it should. So you have the whole spectrum of accepting that the gospel is preached by Catholics, but that there are some heresies in the structure of the church, through to those who preach that the Catholics teach the devil’s gospel and that Catholics are Satan worshippers.
There is also a worrying trend here. From what I and many others have observed, the more heavy-handed and controlling the leadership of the church, the more likely they are to say that those different to them are of the devil.
And that last observation is key. It points to a deep sense of insecurity in the founders or leaders of those who go to such extreme views – and yes, it is extreme! They would claim I speak nonsense, because they do not need a ‘sense of security’ when they have god. But I would repeat with conviction: THE MORE CONTROLLING YOU ARE, THE MORE YOU ARE LIKELY TO JUDGE AS DAMNED THOSE WHO THINK DIFFERENTLY TO YOU, THEN THE MORE INSECURE YOU ARE AS A PERSON AND THE LESS YOU ACTUALLY UNDERSTAND BOTH GOD AND THE SCRIPTURES.
Those who have been following me for some time know that it is not my usual thing to capitalise so much, but this is a very important statement.
I will not shirk away from the scriptures that, as a whole, encourage being a part of a Christian community – with commitment to others and even a degree of submission to one another. But I will also not judge those who, for the present season of their lives, choose to continue onward in their faith without organised religion at all. And for this situation, I see the problem lies mostly in the structure and leadership of the organised churches.
Many who do not attend now do actually love the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, and also do all they can to love their neighbour as themselves. They even love other Christians dearly. But they will not want to attend church beyond special family invitations to weddings and funerals and the like. And most often you will find that they have been hurt badly and abused.
I once thought that it was the grace of God that brought about the different denominations with their different styles both of worship and leadership. Why? Because people are different and have different needs.
Some will flourish more in the kind of church where pastoral care is gentle and light, and where the structure is free and easy – as, for example, in most Episcopalian communities. Others flourish more in a more academic setting, like a university lecture theatre, with all the learning that entails – as, for example, many baptist and evangelical churches. Others still feel more secure when the leadership is more interventionist and there are tighter controls. Some would find this stifling and restrictive, and yet to others this is a warm blanket. You will find this in some of the stricter baptist and evangelical churches, and also the brethren denominations.
But also you will find this kind of thing taken to the extreme – where the leadership demands a certain dress style and rebukes for wrong clothes. Or where they create their own shops, their own schools, and stop members from even owning radios or televisions for fear of ‘pollution from the world.’ And now I would say that you are treading the borderline between Christianity and cults.
But cultism is something that I would say is evil in nature. Cults remove free thinking, free choice, individuality, and even the right to question. These facts are in direct opposition to the respect that God himself gives to his creation! No – don’t ask me to quote chapter and verse. If you do that, you prove that you do not understand what I am saying here. Yes, I could find many quotes and whole stories from the bible to prove this. But just stop and think simply of what it means to be a human being. Cults, by their very nature, are in opposition to your human nature. God, by his nature, created us as human beings… do you now understand the difference?
GOD IS NOT OPPOSED TO OUR HUMANITY, BECAUSE HE CREATED US AS HUMAN BEINGS. HE IS ONLY OPPOSED TO THE EFFECTS OF THE FALL.
What is sad is that the ideas, structures, and heavy-handedness that has existed in the very insecure leadership and systems of the cults has now begun to invade the church in general. And the evil one can use that, creating insecurity in the leadership of all churches, and also opening leaders to sinful pride and arrogance. This in turn results in the consideration as sinful any questioning of their authority or decisions. And this results, in turn, in arguments and battles with those in the congregation who love the Lord with all their heart, but yet have concern about what is happening in the church.
What is the reaction in many leadership teams? To fall back on the crutch of legalism – which is a denial of the power of the gospel and a leading into sin.
Today, if there is one thing that suffers more than anything else in the church, it is love. True love. The die-for-you love. Not emotional, although that can also happen, but practical love. When Jesus spoke about love in the gospels, it was always associated with doing practical things – even for your enemies and those in opposition to you.
In some churches, when a leader feels opposition, they do not bring love, but bring ‘discipline’ instead. Or even cast them out from the church or from any form of care.
The teaching of Jesus would say that you ask this member first if everything is OK at home. Do they have enough food and drink? Do they need new shoes or clothes? Have they got any problems? Can they afford to pay the bills? Can the church help to deal with the needs?
Oops! When was the last time they spoke like this with the member that annoys them?
As I said above, I do not shrink from the position of the new testament scriptures, that Christians should be part of the local body of Christ and both submitted and committed to each other. But some communities and churches have made themselves unworthy of this. And they are blind to the fact. And this even exists, I would say, in every denomination (I mean examples could be found in every denomination, and not that the whole denomination itself is necessarily evil).
Some churches force the congregation into religion instead of into Christ. In the final analysis, this is the crux of the problem.