Paul’s Church was the Hotel California

hotel-californiaMy bishop recently referenced a speech by Candler president Dr. Jan Love to my alma mater Boston University back in 2010. In the speech, Dr. Love (very fun to type!) writes about how the early Christian community did not see itself as able to kick out members or for members to leave the body.

In I Corinthians chapter 12, Paul talks about many gifts but one spirit, many members but one body, and a number of roles in the church, but one church. Paul uses the human body as a metaphor to describe the church as the body of Christ in which all are members but with various functions. Ideally, all work together for the common good. The parts of the body that seem the weakest are often the most indispensable (12:12-31). Paul’s descriptions of the body seem almost humorous in their approach to conflict.

First he makes clear that we cannot absent ourselves from the body of Christ. Beginning with verse 15, he says “If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.”  Having declared that we cannot simply opt out of this body when we don’t like how it’s working, Paul then goes on to say that we cannot dispense with any member either. Beginning in verses 21, he says “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'”

So to Paul, once someone is part of the Christian community, they cannot opt out of their accountability and purpose. But furthermore, the Christian community cannot kick out a member either.

While one could take this passage to be cult-like in its forced retention of its membership, it could also be taken as a corrective to the schismatic tendencies of our present day:

Diversity and various gifts among the people of God are inherent parts of the church, thanks be to God! But when that diversity and variety turns into divisions, invidious and menacing differences, and downright animosity, even open hostility, according to Paul, we can’t just say about ourselves that I don’t belong here. Let me out! We cannot opt out just because we don’t like the diversity and the differences. Furthermore, we cannot say to someone else, you have to leave! We can’t kick anyone out of the Body of Christ!

While this pushes against our American consumeristic model of church where we can church-hop and church-shop around to find the one that meets our felt needs, it’s also a model of understanding that helps within a church body: what if we removed the temptation to exclude others? What if we ceased wanting to divide a church into concentric circles of insiders and outsiders? What if churches stopped drawing lines in the sand and said “if we do this, we will leave”–and lived it out?

Paul’s vision of church unity are not unlike the song lyrics to The Eagles’ Hotel California:  “You can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave.” While the song itself is not an applicable metaphor for the church (hopefully), the reminder of the deeper-than-surface-wounds fidelity that people have to their churches–and the accompanying distraught when it seems to be going astray–might be a helpful study or reflection on a church where the voices calling for schism are getting louder and louder.



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  1. Chris says

    Do you think that Christians who try to distance themselves from the popular notion of Christianity (i.e. those who call themselves “Christ-followers” or the folks at do a disservice to the church as a whole? What about groups like RMN, which allow churches to identify as a smaller subset of a denomination? Those would seem to be drawing those “concentric circles” of insiders and outsiders. Would non-conservative/evangelical religious folks better serve Christ and one another by just calling themselves “Christians” and letting their words and actions help define what “Christian” means to the world?

  2. Christian says

    And he wrote:
    Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. 4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. 5 For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.[a] 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. 7 Therefore do not be partners with them. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10 and find out what pleases the Lord. 11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. 13 But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.

    Those who claim to be in the church but are still in darkness are not actually in the church. And the church should not partner with them. We are instead to expose them for their lies and perversions of Truth. And Jeremy you will not deceive with empty words.

    You can’t leave that which you are not a part. You, Jeremy, can’t withdraw your membership from the Republican Party, anymore than a false teacher can withdraw from the church. Sorry, but David Koresh was neither a hand or a foot or any part of the body. Fred Phelps is NOT part of the body. And liberals who distort the Truth are disobedient and will suffer God’s wrath unless they repent and seek God’s Truth in God’s Word. We in the church cannot be partners with those who are disobedient.

    So do all the mental gymnastics you want with the message from 1 Corinthians but you can;t read it out of context. Paul is not speaking about being connected with parts outside the body to begin with.

  3. Tyler says

    This is a good post if we make sure there is one caveat – SIN is a reason for someone to be removed. What I mean is this – your post emphasizes that just because we don’t agree with someone/something doesn’t mean we should leave nor does it mean we can kick someone out. That part I am 150% with you on!! It is absolutely critical that we understand this and ACT IT OUT.

    However, there IS a reason to remove someone from the church according to Jesus. Matthew 18 (NIV) says 15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” It is clear here that if someone is continually sinning, refusing to repent or acknowledge their sin as an issue, they should not be part of the church. To be clear, i see this differently than someone who does acknowledge their sin but struggles with it daily. They are to be helped. But to the one who doesn’t care of their sin, and chooses to disregard the word of the church, is, according to Jesus, to be treated as a pagan or tax collector (which includes removing).

    Again, there is a LARGE difference between sin and just disagreement. There are few disagreements that I would say warrant removal (claiming Jesus is not the Christ or did not die for our sins could be one… see Paul’s warning against those who teach contrary to what he taught them). I am proud to say I belong to a congregation in person and an online Christian gaming community that has immense diveristy of opinion over many “hot topics” and we praise God for it!

  4. Paul Anthony Preussler says

    It is greatly misleading to propose that the Pauline epistles depict an early church devoid of excommunication, when, on the contrary, the primary New Testament basis for excommunication is derived from them.

    1 Corinthians 5 unambiguously advises the Corinthians to separate themselves from immoral persons, on the grounds that “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.”

    2 Thessalonians 3 directs the removal of idle persons living off of the generosity of the church, whilst being able to work, yet making no contribution on their own effort to the well-being of others.

    Romans 16:17-18 authorizes the excommunication of divisive people and troublemakers, those who cause scandal; in effect, schismatics. This warning was echoed in the pastoral epistle to Titus.

    Finally, Galatians 1:8-9, which is charmingly quoted in the hymn sung before the Epistle reading in the Syriac church, represents the Biblical basis for the use of the word ‘anathema’; in instructing churches to anathematize those who teach false doctrine. These instructions were echoed in 2 John, suggesting that the practice of anathema was not confined to the Pauline school. 2 John interestingly enough largely deals with the growing threat of Gnosticism against the early church, and is particularly relevant now, in an era when blasphemous Gnostic gospels are thought to provide access to a ‘historical Jesus’ not found in the canonical New Testament.

    Lastly, speaking of the Gospels, Christ himself outlines a dispute resolution procedure that involves excommunication as a last step in Matthew 18:17.

    We furthermore know without a doubt that the obvious exegesis of these passages is the correct one, that they were not merely allegorical in nature, because the early Church practiced excommunication with an intensity and severity that is unheard of in modern times. Yet the remarkable thing to consider is that as severe as the early church was, the heretics were worse; Fr. John Behr of St. Vladimir’s Seminary gave an excellent lecture, available on YouTube, where he points out that the early church was more willing to accept a degree of diversity in thought than the heretics who separated from it, such as the Marcionists and Valentinists, who tolerated no dissent from their officially mandated theology. History suggests that the early church ceased to be a broad church around the time of the Council of Ephesus, when Nestorius was anathematized; this lead directly to a schism that has permanently separated the Assyrians; a similar schism occurred at Chalcedon albeit on a much larger scale, although this schism has now been resolved. It seems that after a century of fighting the Arian heresy, the fifth century church, living in the terrifying world of the Western Empire on the brink of collapse, had a rather short fuse. In the modern era, where we benefit from slightly more social stability, in that our decadent society more closely resembles Rome of the second century, it is possible to exercise more pastoral economy, especially with regards to the laity; however, I am of the opinion that the modern UMC has become rather too tolerant, in North America at least, of those willing to discard the traditional Christian faith in favor of a new synthetic religion more in tune with modern political opinion.

    • John says

      Paul and Tyler, thanks for pulling together the scripture verses dealing with setting apart from the Christian community those who willfully and persistently disrupt the covenantal life of that community. We would do well to note that the steps enumerated in Matthew 18 are incremental in order that the disharmony brought about by a sinful brother or sister be resolved in the simplest way possible… confession, forgiveness, and restoration of relationship. It is only when resolution is not gained at a given step that the next step in the process is taken. Through it all, even to the point of excommunication from the body, the objective is to bring forth reconciliation and restoration to the body. Although we often look askance at our Mennonite brothers’ and sisters’ practices of the Ban and shunning, both are not taken lightly and are done out of love for the banished sinner, with the hope that he or she will in time confess their sins and seek forgiveness and return to the community. Clearly, the early church DID see separation as possible and occasionally necessary. I’m not sure that local communities today who are fearful that exercising separation when necessary is somehow uncharitable or “unchristian” are indeed healthy parts of the larger Body of Christ.

  5. Paul Anthony Preussler says

    By the way, my apologies for prefacing two separate paragraphs with “lastly” and “finally”; a regrettable failure of proofreading on my part as I iterated over the list of relevant passages and lost track of my position.

  6. Paul Anthony Preussler says

    I should also add that there is a reverse implication of the original post that is rather sinister, that being the inability of members to leave. I am comforted, as a dissident, confessional Methodist, that if worse comes to worst, I have the freedom to leave the UMC and associate with another denomination. This condition historically did not exist, and in fact exists only due to the Church being ripped apart by schismatics and heretics; the Methodist Episcopal Church in North America was forcibly separated from the Church of England by politics, and I’m not sure Wesley would be entirely happy to see that the Methodists in England had left the established church. That said, beginning with the burning of Priscillus, (an event I consider to mark the end of the golden age of the early church, when its decisions and moral authority were above reproach), the religious freedom guaranteed by the Edict of Milan disappeared, and in the middle ages, the Latin Church was very much like the Hotel California; you could leave it only at the price of your mortal existence. This contributed to Protestantism, but in the case of the Reformed tradition, nothing changed, as witness Calvin’s role in the burning of a heretic in Geneva.

    I would say the most important freedom we have gained as a result of the independence of this country, and perhaps the only worthy result of the Enlightenment, has been religious freedom. One is no longer compelled to endure the obvious corruption of Christian doctrine at the hands of a morally bankrupt hierarchy. Yet there are many who wish to change this; one pervasive trend among the 9Marks churches has been towards attempting to deny church members the right to leave, and using communications between pastors to make cross-town church changes impossible. The SSPX campaigns not only for the restoration of the Tridentine mass (a laudable goal in itself), yet also for the suppression of religious liberty (a less laudable objective, and one that ironically, were it to be achieved, would most likely mean the end of the SSPX itself).

    The experience of the early church of the first four centuries however suggests that the early Church was certainly not something that you could join, but not leave, or be expelled from; on the contrary, many left, including many heretics, who left of their own volition to form rival religions long before being pronounced anathema, and many were forcibly excommunicated, for offenses ranging from murder to sexual immorality to promoting dissent. It would have been ludicrous for the same church which continually saw its clergy and laity murdered at the hands of Roman authorities to attempt to deny the religious freedom it required from its own membership; in the same light, I would propose that when a modern church attempts to deny the importance of freedom of religion, is when it ceases to become a valid member of the body of Christ, and instead descends to the level of a heretical cult.

  7. Paul Anthony Preussler says

    There is one remaining point that should be made here. There is a valid pastoral direction in which the author of this blog can, and in my opinion, should move. While I feel that it is wrong to say that excommunication is inconsistent with Pauline theology, when in fact, to my knowledge, Paul is the only Biblical author who uses the word ‘anathema’, and indeed most NT authority for excommunication is derived from his Epistles, and it is equally wrong to suggest a church that we cannot leave, even if we want to (for this would reduce the modern church to something like the dreadful fifteenth century Roman Catholic Church, or to the level of Scientology or any number of other modern cults that are like flypaper), there is a valid point to be made against the aberrant practices of some Protestant communities, particularly those associated with 9Marks, the Southern Baptists, and the PCA (which has fallen far since the death of James Kennedy).

    Specifically, it should be stressed that:
    – The freedom of religion is unassailable, and as important as the freedom of expression.
    – The liberty we enjoy to depart individual congregations that we feel have strayed from Biblical teaching should be exercised where needed, without scorn, but with great caution, as it is a sad outcome, like a divorce.
    – Laity should not be prevented from leaving by their confessional hierarchy under any circumstances; the freedom of resignation should never be questioned.
    – Clergy should not encourage or require their parishioners to shun those who leave; they should never publically criticize individual parishioners or former parishioners in order to cause humiliation or social isolation; they should not abuse their authority in this or in any other respect to the detriment of those under their care, and those who do, should themselves be anathematized and excommunicated.
    – The need to avoid capriciously excommunicating laity and subjecting them to psychological trauma does not extend to a universal tolerance for misbehavior; those who disrupt church services, for example, must be ministered to in a different manner from the rest of the flock, and some must occasionally, and dreadfully, be excommunicated; lastly, the need to exercise extreme economy when dealing with laity does not extend to the granting of an unlimited line of credit to clergy for doctrinal or dogmatic abuses; clergy must be expected to conform fully to church tradition, canon law, and most importantly, biblical teaching, and in their personal dealings, must be beyond criticism.
    – Regarding political opinions, the individual politics of laity and especially clergy, to the extent that they do not violate the canons, traditions or scriptures of the church, should not be questioned; one can safely be a political liberal or a political conservative, and a pastor, provided one does not politicize the clerical office in such a manner that discredits the congregation or the faith. Pastors should understand their mission not in political terms, or as the pursuit of a political agenda, but rather, as a mandate to effect the cure of souls.

    I feel the author of this blog has elsewhere expressed a desire to move in this direction; and I believe that this is an area where he could apply his liberal worldview, in the manner of Kallistos Ware, among others, for the good of the church, provided the temptation to rebel for the sake of rebellion against the perceived strictures of orthodoxy can be avoided.

    • says

      Paul, thanks for your comments. Your fears, however, have already been addressed in the post. Here’s the text from above:

      While one could take this passage to be cult-like in its forced retention of its membership, it could also be taken as a corrective to the schismatic tendencies of our present day.

      Thus, the conversation is not about the points made in the above post but rather if the “ideal” put forth in this passage is a corrective that would be unlikely to be achieved but would be an ideal to strive towards, an expression of which could be marginally better than our schismatic tendencies.

  8. Paul Anthony Preussler says

    Well, if you want to interpret the aforementioned verses of Paul cited by the author to the effect that those who profess Christianity yet are not in communion with you, are still a part of the universal Church, that might be legitimate, and this has historically been the most successful approach within Protestantism towards Ecumenism. This is generally rejected in the East; the late Ignatius IV of Antioch proposed if such were the case, that would mean the gates of Hell had prevailed over the Church. However, even amongst the Eastern Orthodox it is generally accepted that while they can say with certainty where the church is, they cannot say where it is not. I would propose that the last part of that statement forms the basis for an irenic approach to ecumenical rapprochement in the church as a whole, and also towards rapprochement with those who have gone astray. Indeed, it is part of the reason why I personally pay attention to this blog, as opposed to dismissing it as irredeemable blasphemy (which I’m sure many fundamentalists do). Heretics might well be in a better spiritual condition than those completely untouched by Christ in any form, and if nothing else, contribute to apophatic theology.

    However, I would observe that neither Dr. Love or yourself seem to interpret Paul in the clearest light possible; I would say more than any other figure of the New Testament, Paul wrote the book on excommunication. Also, I would say that there are limits to how far we should go to avoid schism; Luther (while certainly being a heretic, at least according to traditional sacramental theology) may have through schism saved both those who went along with him, and also the Roman Catholic Church. There is a boundary that can be crossed, after which one ceases to be a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word.

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