How Leaving The Institutional Church Brought Us Closer To Jesus

by Simon Villeneuve

They told us that it was a biblical church. Yet, for two years, adultery was occurring right in front of us—and not one person knew about it. Each week, we, along with seven other couples came together for our Wednesday night small group Bible study. However, this week was different. Our group leader announced he had a hard meeting with one of the couples—the wife had been sleeping with another man and the man had been fixated on pornography.

The following week, we discussed the situation together. One of the wives said, “I’m not even sure what to feel right now. How do I know what’s actually going on with everyone?” It suddenly occurred to me that this couple’s sexual sin wasn’t the only sin that had been hidden behind closed doors. I realized that everyone’s sin was hidden, including ours…

In that moment, my wife, Rebekah and I felt a wave of truth crash over us: We know very little about the 14 people we’ve met with these past 100 weeks. Even more, they knew nothing about us.

Every week we shared a meal together. We shared shallow prayer requests. We saw each other at Sunday service. Some of us even served together on the Church’s worship team.

But still, our relationships felt a mile wide and a foot deep. We were each playing a role in a broken story. Friends were allowed to come to the wall, but no further.

I realized that in this church community, I was the furthest from Jesus than I had ever been.

Our circumstances brought questions to the surface—questions that had been mulling in the back of my head since joining the church at a young age.

All of a sudden, I was doubting everything. More than doubting, I was investigating. From the multi-million dollar building that kept the church in debt to the handful of female pastors on staff, every element began to initiate a divine, yet unclear conviction.

So, we started asking harder questions. We created controversial conversations. And for the first time, I began reading my Bible as if it were an instruction manual and not just a storybook. Within a few months, I was spiritually startled. We began to discover the answers to each of those weighty, crippling questions. Sadly, my suspicions were confirmed—what our church was doing, had little to do with the Bible.

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Weeks later, Rebekah and I left, only to find that our dilemma wasn’t isolated to our hometown church. This odd, shallow, unconnected culture of Christianity was festering in every other Sunday gathering we visited. Until one day, a friend invited us to his “fellowship.” Supposedly a group of Christians gathered in a home each week and were living in what they called “biblical community.”

While it pressed against everything we were accustomed to, we believed we finally found our home—a community of Christians who walked according to the Bible. Now, it’s only been a year since our leap from the institution, but our maturity, our marriage, and our joy have soared. When Dale (The Founder of Unlearn Church) asked me to write this piece, he urged me to list out what we’ve learned so far, and I have done that below.

1. Institutional Isolation Leads to Devastation

Shortly after we began questioning areas of the institutional church, I remember starting a conversation with a Christian family member who was very involved in her local church. I shared with her our disbelief how, in a church small group like ours, someone could have hidden such a sin as adultery for so long. How was it that no one knew?

She didn’t seem surprised. In fact, her response was the opposite of surprised. She said, “If I was in their shoes, I wouldn’t want anyone to know about it either.”

“You wouldn’t want anyone to know about it?” I prodded. “Don’t you want people to know you? Don’t you want to know them? And don’t you want to pursue the Bible’s instruction in James 5:16?”

Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.

I continued with, “What about the words of Galatians 6:2? Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

She sat up in her seat and said, “Not if I have to share everything. There’s a lot of darkness in my life and I’d rather keep it to myself.”

Whether her response is far-fetched or familiar to you, it’s unbiblical, it’s broken, and it’s incredibly common in the institutional church. It was that very same mindset of that Christian couple in our small group. Sadly, it makes sense. The model of institutional church isn’t built to foster close, biblical relationships. Anyone can slip in and out of one of the four Sunday services without speaking to anyone. You can go years without ever meeting the man (or woman) who teaches your family the Bible each week. You can go on almost indefinitely enjoying your uninvolved routine merely consuming but never contributing to the community you call “church.”

These doctrines of distance are nothing more than a model that prevents transparency and nurtures isolation. Proverbs 18:1 is clear on the matters of isolation, “A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; He rages against all wise judgment.” The desire to isolate or hide our sin is the same response Adam displayed in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:8).

You and I are no different. When we sin, our flesh desires to isolate. But we musn’t hide from the presence of God, His Word, or His people. Like Adam and Eve, isolation only led to devastation—to the expulsion from the Garden—the very place of community and safety that God desires for His children.

2. Spiritual Leadership Cannot Be Outsourced

Growing up, the pastor of our church always told me that as a husband and father, I needed to be the spiritual leader of my family. But what I never understood was while he expected me to lead at home, at work and even in the grocery store, I wasn’t expected to lead during church.

Instead, another man who I hardly knew taught the Bible to my wife on Sunday morning. My children went to children’s church and were led by someone who, most of the time, wasn’t even old enough to have a family of their own.

You see, God is clear about how each person should function in the church. Particularly as a husband, and father, I didn’t feel settled in the outsourcing of my spiritual headship to the teaching pastor at the pulpit or the teenager in the children’s church.

There’s nothing more damaging to my spiritual leadership than passively sitting by while others lead in my place.

Instead of paying a worship pastor to lead flawlessly from a well-lit stage, God’s word commands every person in the church to bring a song (1 Corinthians 14:26). Instead of listening to the same pastor each week, God’s word commands that two or three shall teach and that the church should judge their words (1 Corinthians 14:29, 31). Instead of sending my kids to Sunday School, God’s word commands that I should be the one teaching spiritual truth to my children (Deuteronomy 6:7).

In our biblical community, we have a meeting and not a service. I get to bring a song, I get to teach the Bible, I get to pray for those around me, I get to confess our needs to my brothers and sisters,  I get to feed my wife and children the bread and the cup with my own hands, but most of all, I get to do it with my children at my feet.

I am not a “teaching pastor” or denominationally “ordained.” I did not go to Seminary or Bible college. I’m just a man walking out the Bible’s instruction for how a group of Christians should behave.

3. The Church is a Body, Not a Building

As long as I can remember, our family went to church. Looking back on the handful of churches my family attended, all I can remember are the buildings. The people are a blur. Relationships have faded. To be honest, I couldn’t even tell you the pastor’s names.

In fact, as a child, I clearly remember a time when our family was church shopping—the act of circuiting the Christian churches in town to see which one we wanted to attend. However, there was one church that I just loved. I pleaded with my parents to let us stay there—not just because I was tired of shopping but because they had a fancy new projector and tech system I could see myself operating one day.

Regrettably, until last year I’ve always thought of the church as a building or a place to go or a destination with fascinating items to play with. Not because anyone taught it to me, but simply because it’s how everyone talks. You’ve probably experienced a similar understanding. You’ve probably even driven by a well-cared for church building and said, “That’s a beautiful church!”

However, nowhere in the New Testament do we find the term “church” referring to a building. In every one of its 115 appearances in the New Testament, the Greek word for church, ekklesia, never refers to a building but to an assembly of God’s people.

The birth of the church referenced as a “building” is generally agreed to derive from the era of Clement of Alexandria in AD 190. And even then, his words weren’t referring to a large, public building but to the homes where Christians had been gathering for nearly 200 years.

Recently, I was debating with the worship pastor at a local church. He argued that first and second-century Jewish Christians regularly met in temples for worship and by this example was his justification for the purpose and necessity of modern church buildings.

While there may be some truth to his historical narrative, we must not forget that when Jesus cleared the temple, He also communicated, rather clearly, that the temple would be replaced with Himself (John 2:13-24).

When Jesus came, he fulfilled the religious purpose of the temple in Himself in Mark 14:58, “We heard Him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands.” When He died and resurrected, Christ became a “life-giving spirit” so that He could take up residence in His people—the Church—making them His Temple (1 Corinthians 15:45-47).

Are church buildings inherently bad? No. But they are extra-biblical. They do tell us something about God that isn’t true. They help us believe that He is more present there than anywhere else. They convince us that church is a place to go and not a people to be. So the next time you drive by a church building, think about the purpose of that building through the lens of the Bible. Consider what kind of budget is required to manage and operate that facility and why a group of Christians has decided that building and sustaining a man-made temple is wiser than simply becoming the Temple themselves.

I’ll never forget the night that I felt closer to Jesus than I had in years. Rebekah and I had met a Christian couple online and had invited them over for dinner. We hardly knew them. But we shared our real questions and our real struggles with the institutional church. They listened. But they did something that no one else had done before. They cared enough to tell us the Truth. They read God’s Word with us and they prayed for us right there on the floor of our living room. And for the first time, we saw what I believe is the fruit of biblically-minded believers. They helped us escape the surface, to walk out the scriptures, and to leave the building. Who would have thought that we needed to walk away to come closer to Jesus?

Do you have a similar story? Is God revealing His truth about the church to your family? I would love to hear about it in the comments below.

Simon is an entrepreneur, blogger, and advocate for biblical house church. He and his wife have three children and live in Oregon.

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