Mere Churchianity, by Michael Spencer

I’m reluctant to review Mere Churchianity using my normal standards for a book, because much of I care about may not matter to Michael Spencer’s target audience. The writing is breezy and entertaining, and says something that needs to be heard by people who have left or are about to leave the church. So if Spencer’s book gets the disaffected to sit still long enough to absorb his one simple point—namely, that you can reject the institutional church without rejecting Jesus—it will have accomplished something important.

I am not in Spencer’s target audience, but I am a fellow traveler. I am also troubled and disaffected by what he calls churchianity, but I am more curious than he seems to be about what went wrong in the institutional church and why. And although I am no longer interested in trying to fix the institutional church, I still think it is good—for all our sakes—to speak clearly and lovingly of its weaknesses, flaws which often discourage and even prevent the kind of living to which Jesus calls his followers.

Given that, my main criticism of Mere Churchianity is that it isn’t such a book, i.e. it isn’t the book I wish he had written, and that’s not fair at all. The writing reaches dizzying heights of snark—but snark is the favored tool of the writer these days, Christian or not, and perhaps it speaks to just those people Spencer wants to reach. The content is very thin, a repetitive stream of over-the-top claims backed up by little in the way of concrete examples, glued together with attitude that is brash, funny, and rude—but if this approach gets the attention of those leaving the church, perhaps it will succeed where a more balanced and objective (and unread) attempt would fail.

I hope that Mere Churchianity succeeds in its goal of persuading those who give up on the church not to give up on Jesus. But I wish Spencer had chosen to write to a broader audience, also making clear to those who haven’t given up on the church why the grievances of those on the way out are legitimate. Perhaps he wasn’t interested in this, or perhaps it was beyond him to do so. Perhaps someone else will write that book, building on what Spencer has written here.

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24 thoughts on “Mere Churchianity, by Michael Spencer

  1. Jeff,

    A church with offices, official functions, and the organizational trappings that go with them.

  2. Rick,

    Are elder and deacon offices/functions ones that you approve of?

    What constitutes an organizational trapping vs. those things which are required to organize the tasks of the church?

    I think it would be helpful if you were to outline what you believe a biblical church looks like contrasted with what you believe the so-called institutional church looks like.

  3. Jeff,

    Are elder and deacon offices/functions ones that you approve of?

    I approve of saints functioning as elders and deacons, to the extent they are able. I don’t think the Bible requires us to institutionalize these functions, and in most cases I think it is unwise to do so. Calling a man an elder or deacon does not make him one; requiring brothers and sisters to treat a man as an elder or deacon can lead to big problems.

    What constitutes an organizational trapping vs. those things which are required to organize the tasks of the church?

    I can’t think of a single task of the church that can’t be performed by whichever brothers and sisters are inclined to perform it—except insofar as their church prohibits them from performing it.

    I think it would be helpful if you were to outline what you believe a biblical church looks like contrasted with what you believe the so-called institutional church looks like.

    I agree with the institutional church that it is biblical. I disagree with the institutional church that other patterns of Christian community are unbiblical. My problem with the institutional church is its insistence that certain practices are required by the Bible when I think they are at most optional, and in many cases unwise. These practices that are extra-biblical, not unbiblical.

  4. “you can reject the institutional church without rejecting Jesus”

    I have a lot of respect for Michael Spenser (requiescat in pace) but I cannot agree with this, which you rightly identify as the central point of his book. I simply do not believe that it is Biblical.

    In fact, I think the phrase “the institutional Church” has a lot of error packed right into it, as if “the institutional Church” and “the real Church” were two different things. The Church that is presented to us in the New Testament is anything but an invisible Church. It is a real, concrete community with real leaders, ordered worship, real problems, and concrete ways to come up with real solutions (e.g. the Apostolic council in Acts 15). There is absolutely no suggestion in the New Testament that the “real Church” is anything but “institutional.”

    That is not to say that the problems with the “institutional Church” that Spenser identifies in his book are not real problems, and that the teaching and practice that is on offer in that kind of institutional Church is often (frankly) sub-Christian, as Spenser says it is. But the answer to that problem is not the sort of lone-ranger, just-me-and-my-Bible Christianity that Spenser seems to recommend. The answer is to recognize that the “institutional Church” of modern evangelicalism is very different from the “institutional Church” that is given to us in the Scriptures and through the historic Christian tradition as “the pillar and bulwark of the Truth.”

    If your institutional Church is not Biblical and traditional, don’t strike out on your own; instead, cleave to the Apostolic Church.

  5. Chris (and Rick),

    That has been my thinking as well. I don’t believe that there is any church that is not part of the “institutional church”, including the most primitive, restorationist house church that does not consider itself part of the institutional church . That is why I requested an outline which would give us a picture of the contrast. Rick’s clarification regarding the establishment of extra-biblical practices as *requirements* is a helpful first step. But I was hoping that he would paint for me a clearer picture of the “institutional” church and then a picture of whatever this thing is that is not the institutional church in more concrete terms. Normally, folks who take this tack say “Well, just read the book of Acts” which is not too helpful since 1.) I see lots of things in Acts that many of this mindset often consider extra-biblical, and 2.) it ignores implications, and trajectories from the rest of Scripture.

  6. Jeff,

    I don’t believe that there is any church that is not part of the “institutional church”, including the most primitive, restorationist house church that does not consider itself part of the institutional church.

    I think a church that does not have a process for joining would be outside the institutional church. And I think that a church which did not appoint elders, deacons, pastors, or any other officials would be outside the institutional church. But I think that both would be viable churches.

  7. I was once a member (no vows, did not sign anything) of a lay-elder led church. None of the elders went to seminary. The elders were not appointed but recognized. I am still not sure how that occurred, but it did. We did meet at a designated time every Sunday for worship which included singing, teaching, and corporate prayer. We did not have an offering, but people simply placed their gifts in plate that was at the back of the main room but this was not part of the worship time. I baptized my own daughter with the approval of the elders. We did own a small building but were not part of a denomination. It was a very close-knit group. Folks would visit and often comment that “this is what it must have been like in Acts.”

    At one point, one of the elders felt led to dedicate more time to study and prayer as he was doing a good bit of the teaching. In addition, he was very effective in counseling others who were in need and this took quite a bit of time. His job allowed him to cut back his hours to less than full-time. Eventually, several folks suggested that we should consider paying him for his sacrifice of time and income. He was initially quite reticent to accept it because of the expectations that normally came with such an arrangement in “institutional” churches. He eventually became comfortable with the gifts of the members and his fears did not come to pass. This change did not result in anyone referring to him as “our pastor”. He was just one of the elders who was being supported so as to dedicate more time to shepherding duties and it was clear to others that this was his calling.

    After 4 or 5 years he felt it was biblical for him to be ordained, or commissioned, by the laying on of hands of a minister. This was done by a pastor of another church, who was a friend and well known by many of us in the church. A year or two after this, most members of the church would refer to him as “our pastor”. The eldership still operated the same as it always had.

    Throughout all of this, which covers over 10 years, the essential character of the church remained essentially the same.

    My question to you is the following. Based on my description, would you consider the initial circumstances such that you would consider it a non-instituional church? If so, did it become part of the institutional church when the elder received financial support from the members? Or…did it become part of the institutional church when the elder was ordained and eventually called a pastor?

  8. In the second sentence of my last paragraph, I meant to ask if you considered the initial circumstances of the church as I described it as not being part of the institutional church.

  9. Jeff,

    Would you consider the initial circumstances of the church as I described it as not being part of the institutional church.

    You mention that you gathered for singing, teaching, and corporate prayer. If the elders were in charge of those things (particularly the teaching) I would say that in spirit and in practice the church was institutional.

    Did it become part of the institutional church when the elder received financial support from the members?

    The church took a major step towards becoming fully institutional not when he accepted financial support, but when he set himself aside as specially called to the ministry.

    Wiser heads might have said: No, leaning so heavily on your gifts, much less paying you so you can “devote” yourself to exercising them, would make it too easy for the rest of us to neglect our own responsibilities to one another. And have not set him aside at all.

    Did it become part of the institutional church when the elder was ordained and eventually called a pastor?

    At this point the church overtly acknowledged and enshrined what it had believed all along. Don’t you think that, for example, when that pastor is no longer able to serve another will be appointed to fill his office, without having walked the same long path?

  10. Rick,

    Your last question is a good one. In this particular local body, it would be quite unlikely that another elder would “hired” as pastor from outside. First, the church had a pastor before the lay-elder-only history began. When that pastor left, it was consciously decided to not seek a new pastor due to a conviction that the normal process of hiring a pastor was unnatural and, as you would say, extra-biblical for reasons that you would probably endorse. In addition, it was agreed that for someone to become an elder, they would have to have been there for a sufficient period of time such that it would be clear to everyone that they were shepherding. Becoming an elder would then simply be acknowledging what was already clear. Several families left because we did not seek a pastor. In addition, there was a time when an individual from out-of-town, who was made aware of our church, moved to our locale with the intent of becoming an elder in the church. Our position regarding elders which I just described was communicated to him. This did not dissuade him. He came, did some teaching, and attempted to lead when he found opportunity, but it was clear that this was quite an inorganic and unnatural situation. He eventually left when he was not recognized as an elder. When the one elder took the call to spend a significant amount of his time focused on shepherding, we had many discussions about the dangers that often accompany that type of situation.

    Another question that may be of interest would be, “After the one elder became the pastor, did the other elders do less shepherding? Did they leave most of the work of shepherding to the pastor?” and second, “After the one elder became the pastor, did the non-elder members of the church exercise their gifts less in ministry?” I can’t speak for the present situation but only within 5 years of the elder becoming pastor. He was already doing a significant piece of the teaching. It was clear that he had the gift of teaching and he was quite willing to do it. The other two elders still did teach, and even some non-elder men occasionally taught, usually at the mid-week bible study. The church has always been of such a size that every member was active and needed in different aspects of body life. Second, the church culture was quite consciously aware of the dangers of a paid vocational pastor and were quite deliberate in not adopting the normal attitude of being a “pew sitters” or of having a list of expectations that are normally assigned to the “pastor”.

    *************

    To summarize thus far, is it safe to say that you would include the following practices as extra-biblical and hence part of the institutional church or churchianity.

    1.) Appointed elders
    2.) Teaching done primarily by elders
    3.) Worship lead by elders
    4.) Elders who consider any aspect of their shepherding as a vocational calling
    5.) Elders financially supported by the congregation in a regular fashion for the purpose of spending a significant amount of time doing work of the ministry. (as opposed to special giving).

    I would be interested in hearing about your own personal church-history pilgrimage, what you think a non-institutional church looks like and why, and how you came to those conclusions. You can email me privately.

  11. Another point of clarification.

    During worship, the teaching was done nearly always by an elder. The singing was led by a non-elder, and corporate prayer was simply a time when anyone could pray as led, including women and children. An elder did close that time of prayer.

  12. Jeff,

    Maybe it’s better to say that I think any random collection of believers is equipped and qualified to gather as the church. When I hear from others that, no, you also need X to be a proper gathering, the X always has an institutional nature to it—at least I can’t think of any exceptions.

    Please keep in mind that I don’t use “extrabiblical” as some sort of negative epithet. All I mean is something that is not required by the Bible, and therefore optional.

    I would be interested in hearing about your own personal church-history pilgrimage …

    Sorry, but I’m not interested in pursuing that angle. My history certainly led me to my conclusions, but I think they stand on their own and can be discussed objectively.

  13. I am not sure what a random collection of believers is. Maybe you can put some flesh on that.

    I agree that this can be discussed on its own merits outside of one’s experience, but no one comes to conclusions on these things outside of their experience. It is not a discussion of abstracts. After all, the original post and the book to which it refers is completely couched in experience. “I am a fellow traveler. I am also troubled and disaffected by what he calls churchianity…you can reject the institutional church [i.e. your experience with it] without rejecting Jesus.”

    With regard to epithets, I have met many folks in my life who have referred to the “institutional church” and “churchianity” and there has not been one who did not use those terms in a pejorative manner. You yourself said, …“…what went wrong in the institutional church” Further, no one who uses those terms is merely asserting that they just wish that some folks would desist from making extra-biblical practices into requirements. None say, “I do not find that to be unbiblical, and I have no problem with you adopting that optional practice, just don’t tell me that it is a required practice for all churches.” Rather, they always assert that those extra-biblical practices are precisely part of the problem. They actively promote their view of the church as the ideal, the one that we need to return to, usually a reference to their view if the “New Testament pattern”.

  14. Jeff,

    I am not sure what a random collection of believers is. Maybe you can put some flesh on that.

    Twenty-seven people from six families in a neighborhood cul-de-sac gather together for a block party. During the chit-chat it emerges that all are Christians, most attend local churches, none are members. Would it be legitimate to have a church meeting right then and there? Would it be legitimate for them to decide to meet on a regular basis? Would it be legitimate for them to forgo attending their current church in order to meet?

    It is not a discussion of abstracts. After all, the original post and the book to which it refers is completely couched in experience. “I am a fellow traveler. I am also troubled and disaffected by what he calls churchianity…you can reject the institutional church [i.e. your experience with it] without rejecting Jesus.”

    Jeff, you are wrong about this. It is exactly a discussion of abstracts. For example, I was led to study the question of whether the Bible grants elders an official status because I saw so many instances where men had gained that position and then proceeded to abuse it. Nevertheless, there is no need to discuss the specific abuses I saw (unless you dispute that such abuse can occur, in which case I’d need to serve them up as counterexamples).

    My only points about official eldership are: I don’t think the Bible either commands or prohibits it; and given that it is optional, I think the dangers of a man abusing the office outweigh any benefits he might gain form official status, and therefore it is an unwise path to follow. Can’t we discuss those two points without the specifics of my experience?

    With regard to epithets, I have met many folks in my life who have referred to the “institutional church” and “churchianity” and there has not been one who did not use those terms in a pejorative manner.

    Well, you’ve met at least one, namely me, unless you are calling me a liar. And Spencer is another; he is quite explicit in his book that he casts his lot with the institutional church.

    Just because the model of the institutional church is flawed in ways that encourages various abuses doesn’t mean that such abuses are inevitable, or that particular men can’t use the model for good. Pointing out how flaws in the model encourage abuses is not the same as contemptuously dismissing the model. Italian sports cars are engineered for speed rather than safety, are insanely expensive to purchase and maintain, are uncomfortable, have no space for passengers or cargo, and don’t do a better job of getting you to your destination. You still want an Italian sports car? Drive one with my blessings!

    None say, “I do not find that to be unbiblical, and I have no problem with you adopting that optional practice, just don’t tell me that it is a required practice for all churches.”

    Isn’t this exactly what I said at the end of comment #4 above?

    Rather, they always assert that those extra-biblical practices are precisely part of the problem. They actively promote their view of the church as the ideal, the one that we need to return to, usually a reference to their view if the “New Testament pattern”.

    Of those who take sides, most promote their own view as the ideal. I don’t take sides. When I get the urge to fix someone else’s view of the church, I lie down until it passes, repeating to myself John 21:22b: “What is that to you? You follow Me!”

  15. any random collection of believers is equipped and qualified to gather as the church

    Is there an example in the New Testament of such a random collection of believers “gathering as the church”? It seems to me that the local churches discussed in the New Testament are communities that were founded by an Apostle and either led by an Apostle or led by shepherds who were appointed by an Apostle. None of them, so far as I can tell, were “self-gathered.”

    If churches did not “gather themselves” in the New Testament, what would give us the authority to do that now?

  16. Twenty-seven people from six families in a neighborhood cul-de-sac gather together for a block party. During the chit-chat it emerges that all are Christians, most attend local churches, none are members. Would it be legitimate to have a church meeting right then and there? Would it be legitimate for them to decide to meet on a regular basis? Would it be legitimate for them to forgo attending their current church in order to meet?

    OK. That helps. I see no reason why they could not fellowship consciously yet extemporaneously at that block party. From my perspective, it would be fine for them to form a new local body in their neighborhood. (When they did that, I would consider them part the institutional church. You would not because they presumably would not have yet adopted practices that you define as part of the institutional church.) However, I would imagine that the forming of this body would come about after a number of meetings and discussions. Though it may be part of their motivation for forming a new body, I very much doubt that their immediate proximity can persevere as their primary reason for doing so, not as long as they own cars. (My observation is that most house churches are not formed by people that live close to one another, but by people that want to be part of a house church.) And, given that everyone has their own church experiences :-), both good and bad, discussion of certain practices is unavoidable. How they proceed is the question. Now, this (i.e. their primary motivation for forming a new body and the idea of proximity) may be the crux of the issue and something worthy of discussion.

    Jeff, you are wrong about this. It is exactly a discussion of abstracts.

    Rick, I think that we may be in partial agreement here. I agreed that one can discuss these things on their own merits outside of one’s personal experience, and accept your desire to do so. I was simply voicing some surprise at your reticence because the original post was clearly contextualized in personal experience (yours, Spencer’s, and the potential reader who shares some level of disaffection). Further, in requesting some insight into your own pilgrimage, I was not interested in details, but rather the general experiences such as you just gave…”I saw so many instances where men….. That helps me understand why and how you come to your conclusions and from my point of view, proves that this is not an abstract discussion in a particular sense. To clarify, we may very well discuss it without revealing our own experiences, and we may discuss only the so-called “objective” principles and practices, but behind our discussion lies the real people and opinion forming experiences that we are and have had. I find that sharing these experiences is exactly how we would talk to one another if we were talking around the wood stove. I understand the variety of reasons as to why it may be undesirable in certain public contexts and respect that.

    My only points about official eldership are: I don’t think the Bible either commands or prohibits it; and given that it is optional, I think the dangers of a man abusing the office outweigh any benefits he might gain form official status, and therefore it is an unwise path to follow. Can’t we discuss those two points without the specifics of my experience?

    Yes, as I explained above and in my earlier comment, we can indeed discuss this without any context of personal experience. I am interested in further discussing and clarifying this specific point (official eldership) and would like to follow up on it later because it would help in terms of understanding how one concludes that a practice is optional and extra-biblical, and secondly, because the issue of the necessity, or lack thereof, of recognized elders is one of those foundational aspects of local church organization.

    Well, you’ve met at least one, namely me, unless you are calling me a liar.

    No, I am not calling you a liar. I do however believe that your original post has a pejorative tone with regard to the institutional church and you will have a difficult time convincing me that the term “churchianity” is not universally understood as carrying negative freight. As such, it was my perception, apparently incorrect, that there was a disjoint between your post and what you say at the end of comment #4, which I clearly understood.

    Of those who take sides, most promote their own view as the ideal. I don’t take sides. When I get the urge to fix someone else’s view of the church, I lie down until it passes, repeating to myself John 21:22b: “What is that to you? You follow Me!”

    Well, it is unavoidable that as one points out weaknesses and failures in some general sense, that others will take those evaluations and apply them to existing particulars. You may be quite deliberate and faithful in being careful to only tend your own garden, but the fact that you make known your views on how you like to tend your garden, and why you do not tend it in some other way, inevitably leads others to consider how it might apply to them. Of course, this is their prerogative.

    And just to be clear, your evaluations are no skin off of my nose. I am sincerely interested in your specific views.

  17. There is no indication in Acts 16 that Lydia gathered a church; only that she herself believed and was baptized. Her conversion did not even take place in Thyatira, but in Phillipi. Thyatira was her city of origin, but she resided in Phillipi at the time of her conversion. We have no way of knowing whether she ever returned to Thyatira or had anything to do with the founding of the Church there.

    As a resident of Phillipi, we may presume that Lydia was a member of the Phillipian church, which was not “gathered” but founded by St Paul and committed by him to the leadership of the bishops (Phil 1.1) whom he appointed.

  18. Chris,

    To further add to Rick’s example, Acts 11 talks about the spread of the gospel in the Gentile lands, centered in Antioch, as the Christians went there due to persecution. The text does not specifically tell us that there was what you called “self gathering” but I would think that it would be very unnatural for Holy Spirit indwelt believers to not gather together in some form in those circumstances. To your point though, upon hearing this, the church did not just leave them without shepherds. Barnabas and Paul went there and discipled them for a year.

  19. Chris,

    Sorry, I should have written “Lydia’s church in Philippi, for one.”

    There is no indication in Acts 16 that Lydia gathered a church; only that she herself believed and was baptized.

    Her house in Philippi is where Paul and Silas went to meet with the brothers and sisters one last time before leaving town. That is a church by my standards, though not by yours.

    As a resident of Phillipi, we may presume that Lydia was a member of the Phillipian church …

    Agreed.

    which was not “gathered” but founded by St Paul and committed by him to the leadership of the bishops (Phil 1.1) whom he appointed.

    Here you’ve lost me. Paul greets the saints, bishops, and deacons in Philippi, but gives no indication that he founded their gathering or appointed any of their leaders.

  20. The text does not specifically say that believers gathered themselves into a church, and we can only imagine or presume that they did. And the only reason that people make that presumption is that they import their understanding of what “church” is into the text.

    To be fair, we who have a more traditional ecclesiology also import our understanding of church into the text. But I should say that the history of the Church from the immediate sub-Apostolic period onwards supports that way of looking at it. See, for example, the discussion of leadership in the Church after the Apostles in the first epistle of Clement (ca 95 AD).

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