This post is relevant for anyone else who also goes to church, examining a few similarities between “church” and “a committed romantic relationship”
Have you ever met one of those people who is always talking endlessly about their latest relationship? “This one, is the real thing!” They post pictures, they happily change their Facebook relationship status to “In a relationship”, everything is simply perfect, and they could not be happier! Because you are their friend, you know them, you’ve seen it all before, so many times; you sit there peeking through your fingers at their latest updates, hoping and praying for them that this time will be different – even though you know deep down that it won’t be …And then you ask them a few months later, and they’ve split up with this latest love of their life…they don’t want to talk about it. Well that is exactly what it is like with me and churches! Except that when it is all over, I can never seem to stop talking about it: “They were so…..!”
In exactly the same way I post these breathless updates: “I am so excited about this new church!” Or I will talk about how amazing the service was in church today: “It is always so good to be with God’s people!” And then eventually, almost inevitably, the thing will just grind to a halt.
So then I was explaining to some family members over Christmas that I had left yet another church. As I “related” this latest catalogue of woe, my father sighed and asked: “How many churches is that now, Tosin?!” Seven. The answer is that that is now 7 churches that I have significantly attended and subsequently left since moving to this city (Edinburgh) less than a decade ago. Additionally I have been part of a housegroup for another church, which I did not eventually join. It’s funny that I write a blog about relationships and a different blog which has often described my experiences with church – I’ve often been struck by the overlap between these two subjects. These similarities are mostly centred around interacting with people, getting to discover people’s characters and submitting to someone else’s authority.
If I approached my relationships the same way I approach my church interactions, I would similarly have a string of broken relationships behind me, and I would be similarly angry against men in general as I have been against churches. Miraculously though, the complete opposite is true, and that is not the case with my life at all. Despite the seeming overlap between church life and being in a relationship, my approach to these two things has been different in a few key ways.
1. Default single romantic state versus default state of being in a church
This is possibly the single biggest reason why I have avoided gross disappointment in relationships, as I have not been able to avoid it in churches. By default romantically speaking I am single, if necessary I will remain single indefinitely. I will only enter into a marriage if the relationship between us shows clear and reliable signs of being outstanding. Because of this I am so careful to check out the character of the man involved, and I am not going anywhere until that character has been thoroughly checked out! This is not true for all people by any means. I know so many people who consider themselves to be less than adequate if at any point they are not in a relationship.
And yet church-wise the complete opposite mentality has been drummed into me from childhood. It has always gone without saying that of course I must belong to a church! To be fair though, in the Christian circles we hung around in while growing up, we were always able to take it for granted that church leaders would at least have a minimum level of Christian character. (Or at least that is what I thought at the time. I wonder what my adult eyes would now be able to see in those very same situations which my younger eyes completely missed.)
The idea of sitting around to check out a church and specifically the character of the leaders before joining it would seem to many people that I know (and me myself, 8 years ago) utterly impractical idealism. “Here comes Tosin again with her exciting ideas!” If at any point I have found myself outside of a church, there has always been an anxiety within me to quickly find another church to throw myself into. But no longer, my friends! From now on my default church state is church-single, even as relationship-wise my default state is romantically-single. As with relationships, so with churches. I am only going to enter into a church if the interaction shows clear and reliable signs that it is going to be utterly outstanding; goodbye to just joining a church for the sake of just joining a church.
Regarding my marriage or any romantic relationship, because my default state is single, I am so serious about prayer. I will pray, I will seek God, I will constantly be bringing up the issue before God, praying about specific guys while watching as carefully as I can. Church-wise, one day I am actually going to pray about a church before I join it! I always took it for granted that “I am a Christian, I need to join the congregation of believers”. What is there to pray about?! But now I’ve had to conclude that not all churches can qualify as churches. Before I join a church, I really need to know that I can submit to the leadership of the pastors, that their character represents character that I can submit to. So now, as with relationships, so with churches – so much prayer will happen beforehand!
Relationship-wise – this is an issue I’ve spoken of countless times, that I don’t believe in dating as a means of assessing someone’s spouse-potential, because it is an unreliable way of assessing character; everyone is so careful to be on their best behaviour!
Church-wise I feel as if I have proven my own points regarding dating. In my recent post thanking some churches for positive things that I experienced within them, it later occurred to me that the positive things I described are exactly what people do on dates: cinema trips, ice-skating, countless shared meals! It was essentially as if I was “dating” these groups of people in the church. And just as I have described with dating, that it is not a reliable means of truly seeing someone’s character, that is exactly what I found with all these churches. I had so much fun on these “dates”. Ultimately though when I discovered what people’s characters were truly like, that overshadowed everything to the point where I could barely even remember the fun times.
4. The “2 year thing”
I’ve also proven my own point about “the 2 year thing“, where I mean getting to know someone well for 2 full years before considering them romantically. You know when people ask: “Who has 2 years to sit around evaluating someone beforehand?” And my answer is that you could simultaneously be evaluating lots of potential partners within that same 2 year period. Well exactly and exactly. If I had known then what I know now, I would have tried to find a way of evaluating LOTS of churches and especially pastors within the same 2 year period, so that at the end of it I would know whose character, vision etc I could commit to AND submit to. As it is, I have now wasted a few multiples of 2 years in various experiences and despite the tremendous amount of effort I have invested here I sit ultimately churchless, largely friendless, and disillusioned. With all that said, I think that I HAD to go through those experiences, to forcibly change my default “church status” to “church-single”, to accept that “church” largely equates to “a waste of time”, “an unnecessary frustration”.
Obviously I know that as a Christian I am not “supposed” to say that, and I also know that I am not a typical Christian, so my experiences are unlikely to be very typical. However in all candour this has certainly been true for me even if it is not true for anyone/everyone else out there.
Ironically, it was because of my experiences at church that I came up with the idea of getting to know someone for 2 full years in a non-intimate environment before considering them romantically. Well that idea has now come full-circle as I am now going to stringently apply that to churches and their pastors. I’ve got to know the pastor well before submitting to his/her leadership.
The problem though with church is that there does not seem to be an established way of discreetly checking out a church, or its leadership, without actually joining the church. That is like saying that there is no way of evaluating a husband for marriage short of actually marrying him. But then if you don’t like what you find it will be too late to do anything about it, because you are already committed for life.
Thankfully entering a church is not quite as longlasting a commitment as marriage, but leaving is always difficult, not so much for me perhaps, but more so for the church, especially if the church in question is small, and especially if you have been ubercommitted within it, as I tend to be.
What does Christian fellowship mean anyway?!
I believe that much of the frustration I have experienced has been due to a widespread misunderstanding about what Christian fellowship really means. I, like many people, have always assumed that it meant joining a church in the conventional sense, submitting to the leadership of the people there. However the idea of just going to align yourself with just anyone who claims to be a Pastor, placing yourself under their authority, without thoroughly checking them out first and getting to know them simply does not work, like it could not possibly work with marriage. Hordes of people are leaving the Church altogether in frustration, (link to Google search) after going through experiences similar to mine, sometimes far worse than mine, sometimes, sadly, even going as far as to leave the faith altogether.
In the Bible, where Jesus talks about fellowship, He says: “Where two or three of you are gathered together…”. From that very clear teaching, I believe that groups as small as two or three people satisfy the Biblical requirement for fellowship. In relationship terms, that is like “friendship”. There does not need to be any clearly defined leader. It can be fluid, there need be no rigid commitment. Going to join a bigger church and submitting to the leadership of the Pastor goes beyond that. I believe that that corresponds to committing to support the Pastor’s ministry, and committing to submit to their authority. In relationship terms, that is like “marriage”.
So what am I saying? You how some women declare that they are through with men?! Well in the same way I’m through with church. Fellowship yes, church no. Well not really through. However I’m just not willing to put myself through all that (yet) again. If you are not fed up of hearing me complain then I am certainly fed up of having to complain. That said, of the Seven Churches of the “Revelation” (or “Coming to Understanding”) of St. Tosin*, there were only three where I sincerely had good reason to complain about them. Most of the others were quite good, but just not good for me. If there is indeed an excellent church here in this city for me (
as I’m sure that there must be – surely there must be?! actually, I’m totally unconvinced) then it will just need to find me.
But Tosin, you need to be under the leadership of a Pastor!
Do I? Please show me where the Bible says that!
You know, I really do not agree with that, any more that I agree that I “need” to be under the leadership of a husband. That is, if I was married, then yes, I would need to submit to the authority of my husband. But no, I am not going to marry just anyone just so I have someone to submit to. So for a pastor: if I am in a church, then yes I have to submit to the leadership of that pastor. However I am not going to join just any subpar church just so I have a pastor to submit to.
At any rate, if/when I find a pastor who I have carefully and prayerfully checked out, and whose ministry I can wholeheartedly commit to, whose authority I can place myself under, then and only then will I join their church.
Additionally, some people believe that, unless you are a pastor, it is arrogant to presume to understand the Bible, much less explain it to other people. However, the Bible teaches that when Jesus died on the cross, the veil to the Holy of Holies in the Temple was supernaturally torn in two Matthew 27v51. The Holy of Holies was the most sacred part of the Temple, where the presence of God Himself resided. Originally only the High Priests had access into the Holy of Holies. However, this tearing symbolised that anyone could now go in, metaphorically, into the most sacred presence of God. So where previously only the High Priests could enter in the presence of God, now we all have access into the most hallowed, or holiest, presence of God. This means that exactly the same Holy Spirit to which a pastor has access, who helps him/her understand the Bible, is now equally available to each of us, if we would make the necessary effort in our relationship with God. Please take my word for it that I make the necessary effort.
Some pastors benefit from this access into the Holy of Holies, but then try to restrict access to other people, or tell people that they are “not allowed”. So they make it clear that they have access to know and understand God, but then try to act as if other people don’t have this same access, so other people have to come through them to understand God or the Bible.
But it’s like this:
For those of us who are Gentiles, ie not ethnically Jewish, before the temple veil/curtain in the Jewish Temple into the Holy of Holies was torn in two, then none of us would have been allowed into that sacred Holy of Holies, symbolising that intimacy with God. This is because only Jewish High Priests were allowed into that utterly sacred space.
It is only because that Temple veil (or curtain) was torn in two that you as a Gentile Christian or pastor have been allowed into that Holy of Holies, to cultivate a deep and intimate relationship with God. But the veil was not sewn back up after you entered; it remains ripped in two for any other Gentile to enter too. So in short, if you as a Gentile pastor can enter into the intimate and holy presence of God, anyone else can enter too by exactly that same entry, that is precisely what is symbolised by the ripping of the veil in two.
This is New Testament Theology 101. As a pastor you should know this. So please don’t act as if entry into God’s presence or holiness or understanding of God remains reserved for “special” people, whether those “special” people are pastors, or high priests, or whatever. If you are a Gentile and it was open to you, then it must equally be open to all Gentiles. Conversely, if you as a Gentile are going to insist that there are some people to whom it remains shut, then it must equally remain shut to you too.
Perhaps my husband can be my Pastor! That would make life so much easier! Instead of having to find two different people, I would only need to find a single person with pastoral authority whose heart for Christ I can truly believe in, support, and submit to. To be honest, this is not a new brainwave. I have thought of this idea so many times before! From where I am currently sitting, it seems like the most sensible way of dealing with these issues.
Signed, yours, frustrated and fed up, Tosin
POSTSCRIPT: Added January 2021:
And can you believe that after writing all this, starting approximately a year later I still threw myself under the untested leadership of yet another two Pastors in the same Church organisation, and then less than two years after joining their church I had to throw myself back out?! But now I sincerely have learned my lesson. (Shaking my head) – Never again!!!
*Maybe not directly comparable to the 7 Churches of the Revelation of St John, from the Bible book of Revelation…
For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.
PHOTO CREDITS Photo of Church by VinnyCiro on Pixabay ———————————————————————–