I contemplated splitting today’s article into two parts, but I’m hoping to wrap this series up on Friday! It’s really time to put the topic of performance-based religion away and focus all the attention on the One with Whom we have a relationship. So, please bear with me…or skip it and come back in a few days. But please don’t forget: performance-based religion kills relationship and makes the devil extremely happy!
We want to feel good about our performance as Christians. It’s human nature and it fits “the way the world works.” Your raise at work depends on a performance evaluation. My son’s report card shows an evaluation of his performance. Investments rate “good” or “bad” based on the performance of a fund over time. Everything related to human potential or human achievement—from weight loss programs, to political campaigns, to “spiritual formation”—becomes measurable according to frail human understanding. Problem: “the way the world works” and Kingdom principals are not compatible!
Should we even be thinking about our performance as Christians? What if we just started responding to what He has already performed! When we bring our performance-based mentality into the church by teaching a “checklist of holiness” and exhorting believers to conform to that list, we put everyone’s focus on self instead of Christ! All worldly endeavors may be at the mercy of an evaluation system, but one’s standing in Christ is not! The performance-based mentality of American culture, imported into the church, kills faith and freedom!
Those enslaving “to do lists” I’ve been complaining about set us up to judge the performance of others. Performance-based religion transforms a choir’s contribution on Sunday into performance rather than praise. Someone’s response will then be to evaluate that performance according to their own musical preference or by comparison to a “better choir” at another church. The number of hours each person invests in keeping church programs running becomes a competition, and “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord” (Romans 12:11 NIV) becomes “I’m more zealous and fervent than Sister So-and So and Brother Bodybuilder.” Pride or resentment—or both—make their home in our hearts.
Many years ago, I attended a church “nominating committee” meeting. A worthy gentleman was nominated for a vacancy on the Board of Trustees for the coming year. Most members of the group nodded agreeably and applauded the suggestion. Then one woman, whose extended family contributed mightily to the “running of the church” through financial endowment and service (via monopolization of rotational lay leadership positions—not by “washing feet”) huffed, “Well, I don’t know why we should nominate someone who never attends the Wednesday night service!” Her male relative ”serving” on the committee “seconded that condemnation”.
Happily, the rest of the nominating committee stood united behind the nominee, and the gentleman in question was approved by the full church board and eventually fulfilled his tenure as a trustee through diligent service. He also continued his Wednesday-night involvement with a non-affiliated Christian organization in the community, of which the woman who opposed him had full knowledge! Legalists are often so afraid someone will “do better” than they! They want to control everything they can in order to keep the playing field level! Long after that committee meeting ended, sour grapes were still in fruitful abundance. The backbiting and hushed whispers of dissension which ensued foreshadowed woe in the months and years to come. Names got taken, if you now what I mean. I wish I could refer to the persons involved in this story as “brothers and sisters”. But it is a sad truth: the relational, familial quality of the church Christ said He Himself will build (Matthew 16:18) simply cannot, and never will, develop where performance-based religion governs decision-making.
The first century church, as depicted in Acts and the epistles, is shown to make decisions “in one accord”. In his letters, while he does identify qualities of good leadership, we find Paul describing leadership in terms of function—not titled position. Determining who holds an “office” based on performance (i.e. being there every time the doors open, the amount of money given, being “on board with” the legacy/vision of human beings who ”lord it over” the “church”) is not scriptural.
The select few who endlessly “control” the identity and destiny of some local churches —having been “found approved” by adhering religiously to their “to do list”— end up complaining that 20% of the people do 80% of the “work” (terms and conditions may vary depending on who does the math). The standards that disenfranchise others who would like to serve are often based on errors in their reading of scripture. Isn’t it a pity they can’t find anyone “qualified” who “measures up” to the Bible’s guidance—their reading of it—concerning “leadership”? Is it any wonder many serve out their terms on councils and committees (or resign) and never accept another position?
The characteristics of the church I see in scripture include: 1) being built by Christ—not people; 2) the entire assembly reaching agreement and making decisions “in one accord” as led by the Holy Spirit; and 3) “brothers and sisters” manifesting Christ by “loving one another”. Therefore: Who’s the head of the family? Is there unity in the family? Do family members express their relationship as love? Correct answer to the first question: Jesus. If the answer to question 2 is “no”, then are we really submitted to Jesus as the head of the church, and how can we hope to answer question 3 in the affirmative? We dare not complicate this paragraph by raising the issue of where the Holy Spirit fits in, but I think you realize we’ve got serious trouble in view. I’m left to question whether the “thing” (i.e. the church) we humans try to “lead” has anything to do with His Church. Someone coined the phrase “voluntary association of the saved”. I don’t find that a flattering description of the Bride of Christ, bought with His blood! But if you’ve ever been involved in the slightest leadership role in an organized local church, you may feel challenged to admit what we’ve been conditioned to call “the church” isn’t the true Bride!
I know what someone is thinking right now: Well, you know, the church is human beings, and none of us are perfect. There’s no such thing as a “perfect church”. You’re just finding fault. With all due respect, it’s not up to me to find fault. The faults are self-evident for anyone who has ever observed or been caught up in a “family feud” and gone home saying, “Lord, it’s just not supposed to be this way.” I’m supporting my premise that performance-based religion doesn’t produce church as Jesus wants it and I’m giving you evidence.
No such thing as a “perfect church”? Let’s get something straight right now! Hymnist Samuel Stone knew better, and he was standing on scripturally solid ground when he penned these words: “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord! She is His new creation, by water and the Word! From Heaven He came and sought her, to be His Holy Bride. With His own blood He bought her and for her life He died.”
No such thing as a perfect church? She’s a Holy Bride, His beloved! Her holiness is in Him and to Him she is perfection. The redemptive act of salvation accomplished by the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world creates the church and perfects her. It’s a sad thing so few Christians can’t see her perfection, but small wonder if they’ve never seen her. When His people gather under His sovereign headship, in their place of total dependence on Him—in Him—she shines as a perfect expression and reflection of His glory, His grace (and graciousness), love and holiness. In love, we are to speak the truth—Christ—to one another, until we bring our assembly into total dependence on Him and He is made manifest in our midst. There is no other reason to meet together and call it “church”!
If you think there’s no such thing as a perfect church, Paul would roll up his sleeves and tune up his voice to go ten rounds of serpent-slaying debate to prove you wrong. He would concede no one is perfect as an individual human being. But Paul’s understanding of the corporate body of Christ included the conceptualization of the church not as a hodge-podge of mere imperfect—and yes, “saved”—human beings, but as a new species. Corporately, the new species in Christ, as an expression or incarnation of His Body on earth, is an expression of perfection in Christ. Maybe we need to ask our Lord to show us His bride as He sees her instead of “Church-as-we-know-it”!
The fruit promised in the lives of believers, and in the church, is borne from a place of total dependence on Him where we “abide in” Him. The devil is happy when we become absorbed in measuring our progress toward some imaginary point where we “attain righteousness” or when we adopt “the law” as a tool of measurement. Why? Because, in order to look at ourselves, we have to leave the place where we’re hidden—the place of total dependence on Christ! Our holiness and righteousness depend on Him, not on the law.
Next time there’s a “family feud” in your local church, you’ll probably hear someone say, “Oh, the devil is attacking us because we belong to the Lord! Coming under attack is a sign we’re doing something right”. And you might be the one who sets the “family straight”:
Guess what! The devil doesn’t need to “attack” our church. All he had to do was give us a “to do list” and chain us to our “human” nature. He’s just sitting back, gleefully watching flesh reap fleshly corruption. “We’re doing it right?” Brothers and sisters, we can’t do anything right apart from Him. We set ourselves apart from Christ by embracing that “to do list” and we lost our connection to grace—just like Adam and Eve; just like the foolish Galatians. What looks like an attack is our mess we did “right”…but we were wrong. It’s true: “we can’t do anything apart from Him”, so now we’ve smeared His name! Now the devil has us blaming the Lord by default and we don’t even know it!
Aha…you see? You weren’t doing “something right” after all! Whatever you guys did, it was “apart from Him” because I know He didn’t make that mess! If you are the one who has to speak up, call for corporate repentance, and exhort everyone to seek the cross, they might crucify you, but someone has to do it! You might have to drag Sister So-and-So kicking and screaming to the altar…but she might get delivered!
The devil is overjoyed when our absorption in “how we’re doing”—individually or corporately—becomes more important than the One we belong to or how we treat one another. It’s time to make the devil unhappy! The accuser might have power in the world, but where we are—in Christ—the devil has none! It’s time for the real Bride of Christ to stand up and shake off performance-based religion and all other enslaving traditions. It’s time to abandon the focus on human effort (personal evaluation and programs), stationary centers of operation (buildings) and competitive infighting. It’s time to enter the Sabbath rest of Grace in Him so He can send us to another place “at the same time”—out into the world to serve and manifest His Kingdom. We do that as a family, without needing to measure our own—or one another’s—performance.