Why it’s Impossible for the Church to Get in the Way of the Gospel

by Bruce Nielson

Andrew Ainsworth was recently nominated for a Niblet award for his excellent post which posed the question “Do we let the Church get in the way of the Gospel?”

The analogy is that of an orange:

Any church is like an orange: it has sweet, juicy, nourishing fruit (i.e., truths that help people live better lives); and it has a tough, bitter peel that protects the fruit and holds it together (i.e. an organizational structure, prescribed forms of worship, and claims to divine authority). Were it not for its protective institutional peel, a church’s nourishing spiritual teachings would become damaged and lost; were it not for its fruitful truths, a church’s institutional peel would be hollow and purposeless.

Andrew was hardly alone in his concern. Matt Thurston expressed:

I think the problem for most True Believers is that they don’t differentiate between the peel and the fruit — it’s just one true-and-living orange. While I clearly see the difference today, it probably took me a few, often painful, years to completely untangle the gospel from the church.

…I would still maintain that if we can tease out the difference between the orange and the peel it is despite the church, not because of it. (link)

If it were an accurate analogy, one would have to wonder why the LDS Church spends so much time on the Church itself rather than the “nourishing fruits” which are the ethical teachings that help people live better lives. If this were an accurate analogy, questions such as, “Do the mantras of our testimony meetings relate more often to “the peel” or “the fruit” of our religion?” would be concerning.

But is this a correct analogy/meme for religion in general? I don’t believe it is.

Now I admit that I’m not familiar with every religion in the world. I’m not even familiar with every Christian religion in the world. But I have yet to find an exception amongst orthodox/believing versions of any religion, that the “Good News” (i.e. “Gospel”) they celebrate is universally:

That God cared enough to talk to or visit with us and He tells us that all is under his control.

This startlingly comforting message is the foundation of all believing forms of every religion I have encountered so far. Each religion dwells upon this point, though admittedly they all accepted very different things as God’s revelations to us all. But all True Believers (to use Matt’s term) of all religions seem to be in agreement upon this point: they are excited that there exists a Talking God.

The excitement True Believers experience over their respective religions has never seemed to me to be primarily about ethical teachings that teach us to live better lives. Why would a religion build themselves upon the very same ethics every single religion and even non-religion has had since the beginning of time? Ethical and moral commandments flow naturally from the concept of the talking God, of course, but they are not the primary purpose of religion. If ethical teachings really were the fruit of religions, religions would be unnecessary ornaments to ethics.

For Catholics this Talking God is manifest in a divinely appointed Church organization setup by an embodied God. For Protestants, this is largely about “the Book God wrote” or “what God said when He came to visit.” For Pentecostals, it might be about a God revealing himself today through Gifts of the Spirit. For religions built on meditation, it’s about blocking out your own voice so that you can hear God’s.

What is the Talking God of Mormonism but what is wrongly called the peel?

C.S. Lewis: Our Better Lives Are Not Our Own

C.S. Lewis explained that religion, particularly Christianity, wasn’t merely about ethics. In Mere Christianity he used the analogy of Miss Bates and her boss Dick Firkin. Miss Bates is an ill tempered Christian and Dick is a well mannered very nice non-Christian:

Before Christ has finished with Miss Bates, she is going to be very “nice” indeed. But if we left it at that, it would sound as though Christ’s only aim was to pull Miss Bates up to the same level on which Dick had been all along. We have been talking, in fact, as if Dick were all right; as if Christianity was something nasty people needed and nice ones could afford to do without; and as if niceness was all that God demanded.

Lewis goes on to demonstrate that in fact “being nice,” which in this context I see as equivalent to “living a good life,” is really more a factor of our biology, our body chemistry, and our God-given our circumstances. That in fact:

[God] created Dick’s sound nerves and good digestion, and there is plenty more where they came from. It costs God nothing, so far as we know, to create nice things: but to convert rebellious wills cost Him crucifixion. …There is a paradox here. As long as Dick does not turn to God, he thinks his niceness is his own, and just as long as he thinks that, it is not his own.

C.S. Lewis shows that while you can’t unstrap moral teachings from religion, they are not the core either.

Even 4 out of 5 Atheists Agree

I once heard Sam Harris, the militant atheist, speak. He commented that religion was largely about us wanting to trick ourselves into believing that life does not end at death. From his perspective, religion was a delusion meant to hide the awful truths of life from ourselves.

Harris was partially right, though he missed that it’s rationally impossible to separate the concept of an afterlife from the concept of life being inherently in control and thus meaningful.

However, I was struck by the fact that, though he missed some details, Harris understood the basic motivation for religion. Though to him it’s all a delusion, he at least understood that religion is not primarily about ethical teachings.

There Is No Peel

In religion, if there is a peel, claims to divine authority and prescribed forms of worship is not it. In Mormonism in particular even organizational structure is part of the claim of their Talking God. Whether delusion or real, the fruit of religion is their respective manifestation of a Talking God and what that means to the Believer.

About the Author
Bruce Nielson is a Sunday School teacher for his ward in Utah and lives with his wife and four children. As one lady in class put it, “Geez, we talk about just about anything in Sunday School.” Luckily the Bishop hasn’t fired him yet.

7 thoughts on “Why it’s Impossible for the Church to Get in the Way of the Gospel

  1. Bruce, thanks for this post. I will be interested to see some of the responses.

    My personal opinion is that there are a myriad of reasons we spend so much time on the structure of the Church rather than just sitting around discussing how we can become good people. One reason is the whole issue of authority, which is central to our doctrine. Another has to do with why you encourage people to go to church in the first place. In other words, why do we not say to our members, “oh, stay at home on Sunday, study the scriptures, be a good person — it’s all good!” The reason we don’t do that is that the whole point of becoming a better Christian is to surround yourself with people like you. It helps you become a better person, and it helps them, and you inevitably serve them, and they serve you, and it becomes a symbiotic relationship of mutual improvement. If you’re going to do that well, you need to have SOME kind of structure.

    The last point is that Jesus DOES seem to be concerned with structure. One of the first things he did in Israel and in the Americas was to set up a structure, with 12 apostles, etc. Why would he do that if he didn’t care about the Church having some kind of structure? In our day, Joseph Smith spent an extraordinary amount of time considering the issue of structure. Again, why, unless the Lord is concerned with such things?

    We could also speculate about structure being necessary for future calamities, but that would be speculation. Nevertheless, it is an additional thing to think about.

  2. Good points, GeoffB. I suppose there are a heck of a lot of ways to tackle this. I think “what my religion means to me personally ” can’t be removed from the discussion.

  3. This is a really good article. God organized this church to be the way the Gospel was carried to the world and without the church the Gospel ceases to function. I loved the C. S. Lewis quote also.

  4. Great post. While I completely agree with you Bruce. I also wanted to bring a female voice to the discussion. Women ( more then men) have a tendency to “over do” their church callings. They don’t just teach a lesson. They make handouts, favors, decorate the table to nines etc… Sometimes this kind of attention to duty is needed; other times it is just showing off. Sisters tend to wear themselves out ( and every one else) with a lot of frills they attach to the “church”. Often times women in leadership will require all of these extras from other women. When I read Andrew’s post, that is what I took from it. We need to concentrate on the gospel message and treat each other with love and not get so caught up in unimportant things.

    Thanks for your post it is good to remember the church as it is, is purposefully organized.

  5. The fruit+peel analogy isn’t perfect, but it has its uses. Sometimes I’ve used the “box versus contents” or “vehicle versus payload” analogies.

    I often think God put the precious Gospel of his Son in a plain wrapper in order to hide it in plain sight from the proud. Kind of like the story where a King puts something in one of the three boxes of gold, silver, and lead.

    (Sidebar: After all, it’s a church whose official representatives to non-members are 19 and 20 year-olds. If someone asked Pres Monson to join the church, Pres Monson would summon two missionaries from the local mission, wouldn’t he? VIP investigators don’t get “special” missionaries do they?)

    “Mormonism” is like unto green jello and funeral potatoes. “The Gospel” is Christ and Him crucified, apostles, prophets, scripture, the Holy Ghost, etc.

    In his book “The Divine Center”, Stephen Covey calls the institutional church the _scaffolding_ that builds eternal families.

    Also in Revelation (or maybe in section 76, I forget), there will be no organizational “church” in the celestial kingdom, and no one will be teaching anyone else the gospel, because everyone there will already know it by then. In one respect, and I know it’s a semantic thing, it’s like there will be no “religion” in heaven. “Christian” will have no meaning, because there will be nothing un-Christ-like there.

    We’re not the only church who has a church-versus-gospel “problem”, or situations that give rise to a “people versus programs” dichotomy. I’ve heard evangelicals decry “church-ianity” in regards to other Christian believers who put their institution (the physical facilities, the programs, the employees) above the Good News.

    The fruit-verus-peel, or box-versus-contents analogy helped me get over a couple stumbling blocks that I had back in my early days that helped lead me out of the church. I got hurt by some people who tried to make programs universal to all participants. And I got misled by imperfect people in leadership positions and imperfect fellow members.

    For me to process it all, I think I need some sort of dichotomy or division. Yes, the head of the church, Jesus Christ, is perfect, but everyone below him, from the prophet on down, is a mortal human being. An organization where all the rank-and-file, and all the hierarchy except the Commander-in-chief is fallible. It is not and cannot be perfect.

    In and of itself even even the line-upon-line method (used by Christ and Heavenly Father to reveal themselves and the Gospel and the truths about our eternal existance) guarantees that we don’t have the full picture at any time. The best we can say is we have everything that’s been revealed so far. But also, much has been obviously held back, and some even taken away, because we aren’t ready for it. (2/3rds of the Book of Mormon is held back.)

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