“Religion is an impediment to knowing God…”

believers in exile

So says Billy Graham’s 2nd oldest child, Anne Graham Lotz. Lotz is promoting a new book about her experience as a “believer in exile”, and was featured in last week’s Newsweek magazine:

A Graham Slam

Anne Graham Lotz, the second of Billy and Ruth Graham’s five children, says it’s all right: as long as you have a personal relationship with Jesus, church doesn’t really matter. Neither does denomination. “Religion is an impediment to knowing God,” says Lotz, who is promoting a new book, The Magnificent Obsession. “Procedures, rituals, creeds: how in the world can they help you connect with God? … If you’re sprinkled when you’re baptized or dunked when you’re baptized, it doesn’t matter as far as your salvation goes.”

The article’s author, Lisa Miller, is known for her potshots at Christianity (she’s the “Religion Writer” for Newsweek) – yet the article is of interest to me because of my own “believer in exile” status. I visit an assembly that is built on sound biblical foundation (OK – not as consistently as I’d like to), yet I still find myself “gun-shy” with formally joining another assembly since I fled my pimp and the plantation a few years ago. In speaking with others, I’m finding that there are people who dearly love God and His people (and study and share the Gospel everywhere they go), yet they can’t bring themselves to “join/commit/submit” to another assembly.

Thanks to technology, one can download sermons from some of the most august theologians past and present, study from intricately crafted study bibles and reference text, and communicate with other believers across the Web (blogs, Twitter, Facebook et al) – and NEVER step in another “church building” again.

I know, I know, we’re not supposed to forsake the assembly:

Hebrews 10:25 (New American Standard Bible)

not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

Many pastors use this scripture to intimidate members into continuing to attend and support their churches – even when all manner of corruption runs rampant. Since many believers “don’t want to forsake the assembly”, they stay in corrupt (or biblically questionable) churches to keep their “fire insurance”.

The author of Hebrews (who many assume is the Apostle Paul) is clearly referring to the importance of fellowshipping with other saints/believers, but the full context of Hebrews 10 helps explain the author’s exhortation. The author clearly establishes the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice as the ultimate propitiation for man’s sin, thus explaining the importance of remembering that sacrifice through assembly (worship and encouragement).

The Newsweek article ends with the following revelation from Lotz:

Church may not be necessary to knowing God, she says, but it keeps the relationship going: “You can really love the Lord, but after a while, if you’re all by yourself, the fire goes cold.”

Fair enough, but one could argue that you’re not “by yourself” in non-traditional assembly. So I’ll ask you sage readers: Can you be “on fire” for the Lord without regularly attending a church? Can you visit and volunteer in local asembly’s without formally aligning yourself with their ministries? Has e-Ministry supplanted many “brick-and-morter” ministries today? Have many churches “choked” a relationship with God with “religion”?

I’m anxious to see the dialogue…

21 Responses to ““Religion is an impediment to knowing God…””

  1. 1 Job September 23, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    Well, the issue is ultimately obedience to scripture. Thus, regularly attending worship services falls under the same category as the mandate to get baptized upon conversion and the mandate to take communion regularly. Also, you said to look at the context.

    First, within the verse itself.

    “not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some

    Apparently, people were already withdrawing from fellowship at the time of the writing of this epistle, and the writer specifically addressed those people and their behavior. In that sense, it must be considered in the same context of Paul’s specifically addressing the misbehavior at Corinth in 1 Corinthians. Thus, there is no reason not to consider this passage to not be universally binding, that is upon all Christians until Jesus Christ returns. The only debate, then, would be what constitutes “assembling together.” Must it necessarily include preaching/hearing of sermons, songs of praise, testimony, Bible reading, and spiritual accountability? I say that it does, because I have the belief that willfully failing to partake in those activities on a regular basis results in harm to one’s spiritual health and maturity. Does it have to be at a “local congregation”? That brings in view this question: “Can you visit and volunteer in local asembly’s without formally aligning yourself with their ministries?” I have to say that if a church is not worth formally committing yourself to, then it is not worth visiting, volunteering, or supporting either. If it is a good church, join it. But the same flaws in that church – whether in the doctrine or in the pastor/members – that would keep you from formally joining it should also keep you from supporting it. Otherwise, it is similar to continuing to date a woman that you know that it is not God’s will for you to marry.

    And what constitutes a local congregation? It has to be a place where there is spiritual order, authority, spiritual gifts are exercised, spiritual growth takes place, where communion is given, and one that participates in evangelism and performs baptisms. Whether it is “traditional” or “nontraditional”, it is not a local assembly of believers and does not meet the requirements of Hebrews 10.

    Second, let us look outside the verse.

    Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful … and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and THE FURY OF A FIRE WHICH WILL CONSUME THE ADVERSARIES.

    Looks like finding a good local fellowship, oft joining together with it, and continuing and serving in it is a necessary ingredient to remaining in the faith. Now granted this poses problems for the perseverance of the saints doctrine (as does the book of Hebrews generally) but Calvinist theology considerations aside, forsaking fellowship is not something to be trifled with. Now of course, you may ask how can this be an unconditional requirement when some Christians are in remote locations cut off from other Christians, others are in prison or institutionalized etc. Well, the answer is likely found in pneumatology. If the Holy Spirit-inspired Word of God commands fellowship and you reject or disobey it, then you are resisting/grieving/quenching the Holy Spirit. By contrast, those who are unable to keep this command will be held blameless by the Holy Spirit. Also, if my reading of scripture is correct, a Christian should want to take communion and have the fellowship of other Christians, because the Holy Spirit will place that desire there. If you resist, quench, or reject the desire that the Holy Spirit is placing in your mind, will and emotions, then the result will necessarily be harm to one’s spiritual growth and spiritual health. Is that one of the things meant by Matthew 24:12’s “And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold”?

    That being said, allow me to advocate (in theory) the nontraditional fellowship i.e. a house church. (e-ministry and e-fellowship cannot substitute for human contact, and it is also rather hard to receive communion or baptism that way. However, e-ministry and e-fellowship are preferable to attending bad or false churches.) I propose that in a nontraditional fellowship, one may well have to work harder – indeed much harder – to meet the requirements. If you are a member of a traditional fellowship, then you have this nice comfortable culturally acceptable setup where you can just kick back and allow the pastor, the elders, deacons, and the 2% of the dedicated members that do 98% of the work (this is a proven statistical fact) take care of providing and maintaining a worship environment for you. You can (superficially and externally) meet the requirements of Hebrews 10 without personally contributing a thing but your attendance and passive participation. But in a nontraditional fellowship, especially if it is small, then in order to meet the requirements you may have to take on a lot more responsibility and work. YOU may have to insist that communion be offered, and perhaps offer it yourself. YOU may have to prepare and deliver the sermon, Bible reading, liturgy, etc. YOU may have to select and lead spiritual songs. YOU may have to work to make sure there is order, accountability, spiritual development, and be the person in spiritual authority. YOU may have to evangelize – or make sure that the people in your informal fellowship are evangelizing – and YOU may have to personally baptize the converts that you and your fellowship win. And if these things aren’t happening, YOU may have to be the one to say to your fellow informal worshipers “hey, are we really obeying scripture here? If we aren’t, then what should we do about it in order to bring ourselves into subjection to Jesus Christ?”

    So, if you do those things, then you may find informal fellowship to be a superior model to the fellowship experience of the vast majority of Bible-believing Christians. However, if you are not doing these things – and the other people in your informal fellowship are not either – then you may need to move on to a fellowship, whether formal or informal, that is.

    I say this as a person who myself was wearied and hurt by my various church experiences and stopped attending church for 2-3 years before resuming church attendance a little over 2 years ago. And yes, it was my study of Hebrews 10 that made me decide to begin attending church again!

    • 2 speaking truth September 23, 2009 at 4:43 pm

      Thanks for your detailed analysis, Job – and your personal insight. In the end, I agree – we need the physical touch of ministry to truely advance the Gospel. The reality is that many people are wondering if it’s worth the “church hurt” to go through “church as usual”.

      • 3 Job September 23, 2009 at 8:34 pm

        I am not advocating church as usual. That is Laodicea: lukewarm. I am advocating finding the right church or fellowship setting. I should point out that it took me and my family years of prayer and seeking to find the right church. While we were looking, we held worship and devotion at home, including communion. I went out and bought kosher unleavened crackers and everything! And for our offerings, we supported ministries like Gospel for Asia http://gfa.org

        So I am not dismissing what anyone is going through. Well, actually I did on another blog last week, was set straight by the brothers there, and I won’t do that again 🙂 Instead, I was just trying to deal with the issue as scripturally as I could. And sorry it was so long. I am working on that as well!

  2. 4 Michael Thompson September 23, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    I love and hate your blog. I hate the fact that we as Christians have to spend more time defending our churches then we do actually helping people. But I do realize that a lot of churches that do a severe disservice to their members; so I love the fact that you have been able to heal and help others heal through your words. I am an associate minister at my church and I have remained at my church through the good times and the bad times for a couple of reasons:

    1. My Pastor and church leaders are sincerely striving to do the will of God while encouraging the membership to do the same.
    2. I feel that I have an obligation to minister to the individual members of my church that God has allowed me to have an influence over.

    By being a part of a fellowship, you can continue to search the scriptures for yourself and listen to the greatest preachers; then you can pass on those things that you learn to help fill the holes in the needs of a congregations. You just might be the big toe on the left foot that a particular church is missing in it’s body (I Corinthians 12). Sometimes you need to join an assembly, not for your sake, but for the sake of the assembly.


    • 5 speaking truth September 23, 2009 at 4:47 pm

      Thanks for your story, Michael. As I’ve said in many previous articles, I have no problem recognizing the fallibility of man (serving with people who make mistakes while striving to be Christlike) – but I won’t “submit” to corrupt leaders who revel in their corruption and try to pass it off as holiness.

      Your final point is an almost identical echo from a man that I greatly admire (Pastor Tony Carter of East Point Church here in metro Atlanta) – sometimes you need to fellowship with an assembly to exercise the gifts that God has given you (I won’y say “join” just yet…).

      You’ve got a great blog – come back and comment again…

    • 6 gcmwatch September 23, 2009 at 10:38 pm

      lol @ Michael: “I love and hate your blog”

      That was refreshingly honest.

  3. 7 Pastor Jim September 23, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    *Reading with great interest*

  4. 9 Pastor Jim September 23, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    Michael, I love your opening line.
    ‘I love and hate your blog.’ That is high praise.

  5. 12 gcmwatch September 23, 2009 at 11:04 pm

    IST, in this time of growing apostasy many are trying to navigate the rough waters you lay out in the excellent post. So, thank you.

    It reminds me of John the Baptist going outside the city (where the Pharisees were large and in charge) to conduct services. I think because of his calling he rejected submitting to the ruling religious structure. It would assassinate his mission.

    This is a painful process to de-connect from the hurt, pain and dissapointment then learn to re-connect properly in fellowship with other believers.

    I am going through the process myself. When I sensed my own brother (a bishop) hinting at me about joining his confab of churches, I immediately put my walls up and told him I wasnt entertaining that idea presently. Although I long for what I had, the aversion to false teaching, passivity and manipulative leaders keeps me at bay. I cannot put that noose around my neck just to be a part of the club.

    I know that God has given me gifts the church needs. I dont say that arrogantly, just as a matter of record.

    And in recognition of that and as a believer in exile I am using this venue to exercise that gift (and responsibility) in a way that still ACCOMPLISHES the same thing a brick and mortar church would.

    See Jer 3:15

    God does not dwell in buildings, but in us. And if we are in the blogosphere, HE is also here. Thus, we draw together assembling ourselves in fellowship just like Heb 10:25 says we should.

    As the the needs of fellowship such as accountability, we have to remember that one has to FIRST learn accountability to Christ, not people. He is first in all things. If we submit to people and not him or leverage him as equal to people we lose. However once the true foundation is established, we can enter into mutual accountability within the leadership paradigm.

    Again, this can be accomplished without a brick and mortar setting.

    We explored this on my blog if anyone cares to read. We need to keep having these discussions IST, so thanks for putting it up.

  6. 13 N Lewis September 24, 2009 at 9:02 am

    IST–I hear what you are saying and I too understand but struggle with the forsaking the gathering together part. Sometimes church can be so overwhelming with the must do’s and the have too’s that you just rather stayed home and watched online! I hate to see the begging that goes on even in my own church. People are not going to give anymore than what they had planned to give wether they prayed about it and did what God told them to do or not. And you telling the story about how you and your family had nothting and gave your last and have been blessed every since means nothing to me…I praise God for your blessing but I’m still only going to give what I planned! That can make attending/joining/submitting hard. But I think in order for us to use/understand/and grow our gifts in God we have to be around the people of God and those who desire him in order to be equipped to do Matt 28:20.

  7. 14 rascoe1 September 24, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    ST, since leaving the church I was a member of in October 08, I have been a regular visitor of this little church in Stone Mountain, I have thought about takeing membership, but is still a little leery about doing so. I go there to fellowship with other belivers and the Word from the pulpit is properly divided. I give thanks for the ministries of John McArthur, Voddie Baucham and Paul Washer. SermonAudio.com helps a lot. I have never understood the Word more. I have been listening quite a bit to Jonathan Edwards and it is just eye opening. I still go out and minister with a group I was involved with (street ministry), but my “food” is right off my computer.

  8. 15 dr. jay worth allen September 25, 2009 at 11:14 am

    Christianity is the religion of a Book. Christianity is based upon the impregnable rock of Holy scripture. Thus, the starting point of all doctrinal discussion, the teaching in any assembly must be based on the Bible. Upon the foundation of Divine inspiration of the Bible stands or falls the entire edifice of Christian truth.

    If the teaching within an assembly (be it called a Church or whatever) is not based upon the truth, the sure foundation of the Word of God it is healthier for anyone to stay at home and pray – rather than be the prey of treacherous men or comprising doctrine.

    (Sorry for my late response. We’ve been in the studio recording our new CD and my reading has gone by the way . . . )

    Dr. Jay

  9. 16 Ann Brock September 26, 2009 at 9:34 am

    ST great article! “Can you be “on fire” for the Lord without regularly attending a church?” Now I tried it that way for over a year and found out it just doesn’t work for me…What I miss most was the charge atmosphere of being with other believers.

  10. 17 miss-melly September 27, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    Thanks IST for all your hard work. My eyes began to open after the Lakeland revival clips were shown in my Church. I started investigating the Word for myself and also checked on the internet, which led me to websites exposing error and heresy. After all this I found myself pulling away from church, I felt different to everyone there, why couldnt they see what I was seeing? I agree with Ann, when you are not in constant communication with other believers it is very easy to slip back into the world. To be honest I find unsaved people to be more loyal in their friendships than Christians.
    I find myself in a real quandry. I love fellowshipping with other believers, but find it hard to get a balance in that most Churches have great fellowship but the doctrine is “live your best life now” type of thing and the other side of the spectrum is good solid Bible preaching and teaching but no fellowship outside of Sunday. I have chosen the latter, my flesh would love the other LOL because I love socialising but to be serious Church is not a social event but to come and worship, give praise, honour and Glory to our Heavenly Father.

  11. 18 elder jimmy September 29, 2009 at 6:58 pm

    I pastor a church where I have the majority of regular attendees and financial supporters are Christians who have been burned by their previous church experience. I had to shift my understanding of pastoring to include people who have not yet taken the traditional “right hand of fellowship”. We must become pastors of a parish or of a community in orfer to include all who have becoome members of the mystical Body; which is not defined by the legal limitations of the modern understanding of church membership; which includes voting rights, etc.

    The passage in Hebrews directly relates to saints who refrain from gathering together with other believers. It does not endorce our adapted version of what being a member of The Church is.

  12. 19 Lorikate October 12, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    Wow, I have been struggling with this issue for YEARS. When I first met my husband, he attended a church that used to be a Pilgrim Holiness church. So I get frowned upon for not attending church night and day. My husband now teaches Sunday School (with my help)and we’ve pretty much been told that if we don’t attend at least Sunday morning and Sunday night, that we would be asked to stop teaching – because we were being bad examples to the teenagers. It really bothered me that there’s a minimum attendance requirement. The Hebrews verse gets brought up over and over again, and I told them I would study the passage and come to my own conclusions. Well, I’ve come across this post as part of my studies and it really helps to see that I’m not the only one struggling with things like church attendance and membership (which I don’t believe in). Personally I think that committing to one church is a good thing – and by commitment I don’t mean signing a piece of paper and becoming a member. I think that we should be involved in a church, yet the level of involvement has to be up to the individual – not up to board members and general consensus. Frankly, I’m tired of the attitudes I get when I tell people that I’m not going to Sunday night services until I feel personally convicted to do so. That way I’ll know that, when I decide to go, I’ll have a DESIRE to be there – not a mandate. Thanks for a great post, I really appreciate it.

  13. 20 Frank Scurley October 15, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    I dont know If I said it already but …Great site…keep up the good work. 🙂 I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    …..Frank Scurley

  14. 21 growinginlove November 20, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    I just found your blog today and from what I’ve seen, I can relate to a lot of what you have to say…

    In my personal opinion, one CAN be on fire for the Lord without pledging membership to an building/institution. Speaking from my own experience, my relationship with God is stronger and deeper than it has EVER been in my life so far since I stepped away from the institutional church..I spend my whole life being an avid twice-weekly church attendee, but I didn’t have a relationship with God. And the sick part about it is that it gave me a false sense of security, and only when I stepped out of the “church” system did I realize it. I actually just recently wrote about this subject on my blog. I understand the importance of fellowshipping with fellow believers but why does it have to be so formally and systematically structured and dictated regarding place, time, quantity, etc? I’d rather fellowship in a living room with 3 other believers of the TRUE faith than a sanctuary full of people who have religion but no relationship with the Father..or worse, yoking myself with believers and teachers/preachers/pastors of “another jesus” and “another gospel”. I’ve seen too much dependency on the “church” system, and God as a “fallback” instead of being dependent upon God with the fellowship of believers acting as a system of encouragement. We must not forget that WE are the Church, the building is just a building.

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