Feb 19, 2022
Move inland from our beautiful beaches here in Florida, and you’re bound to come across an attention-grabbing group of plants. Citrus trees grow all along the roadsides and woodland trails. These include oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, and even the odd kumquat. Though these trees beckon to hikers in the winter with flashes of low-hanging color, their fruit usually tastes nothing like what you’d buy in a grocery store. You might as well try to eat battery acid as these fruits, which are so sour that they make your eyes water and burn your tongue. They’re also packed with inedible seeds.
These citrus trees don’t belong here. They were introduced by humans. But almost all are the descendants of cold-hardy root stocks, rather than the sweet fruit-bearing limbs citrus farmers once grafted onto those roots. Those died in freezes years ago after most of the groves were abandoned. Such “feral” plants and animals are a problem worldwide, but Florida has more than its fair share. We’re also dealing with an invasion of feral pigs, which have interbred with Eurasian wild boars to produce hairy, tusked monstrosities. Like the feral citrus, these pigs are barely edible, but unlike the citrus, they’re sometimes dangerous to humans. According to Wikipedia, a feral animal or plant is “one that lives in the wild but is descended from domesticated individuals.” Such living things retain some features of their domestic ancestors, but they usually become ill-tempered or bad-tasting. They have become this way because they began existing on their own, away from the guiding hands of humans who are interested in sweet fruits and tender meat. The resulting plants and animals are something in-between wild and domestic. They have half returned to their natural state but are far from their natural environments. As a result, they are out-of-place, no longer benefiting humans but not belonging in nature, either.
I am reminded of feral plants and animals when I meet Christians who tell me they don’t attend or belong to a church, and don’t want to. As Dr. Jeff Myers of Summit Ministries explained this week on “Upstream,” such Christians often use a familiar set of cliches. They will describe their faith as a relationship, not a religion, and insist that as long as they love and believe in Jesus, they don’t need formal worship or membership in a local congregation to follow Him. These “feral Christians” have chosen a life away from the watchful eye and caring hands of ordained shepherds, instead expressing their identities through private practices like Bible study, prayer, and listening to worship music. There is, of course, nothing wrong with such practices. But the idea that they are a sufficient replacement for corporate worship would have struck virtually any Christian before modern times as unbiblical and dangerous.
American imaginations love the notion that Christianity is primarily a one-on-one relationship with Jesus expressed through private devotion. Our culture tends to take for granted that the most important actions and decisions in a person’s life happen in isolation, not in community. We value independence and pursuit of personal dreams, and even our popular media celebrates rebellion and singular acts of heroism. The greatest people, we imagine, are the ones who stand alone. And for any sentiment, belief, or act of devotion to be genuine, it must be spontaneous. To “speak from the heart” is synonymous with making it up as you go. Reciting or singing something pre-written with a group or performing choreographed acts can seem to us servile or insincere.
The problem is that such hyper-individualism is as alien to the Bible and historical Christianity as orange trees and hogs are to Florida. Feral faith cuts those who practice it off not only from our rightful communions in the here and now, but from the millennia-old organism which Scripture identifies as the earthly presence of Christ. And this is true in at least four ways.
As I’ve already noted, it cuts those who practice it off from the visible people of God, the organism which Scripture presupposes and everywhere describes using organic metaphors. The Church is “the Body of Christ” whose many parts need one another to live and thrive (1 Cor. 12:12-27). We are grape branches, which must remain in union with the Vine and with one another in order to bear fruit (John 15:1-8), and wild olive boughs, which were grafted into the domestic root of Israel’s Messiah (Rom. 11:11-24). We are adopted sons and daughters of God, and siblings to one another and to Christ—a family whose common life happens under a common roof. (Rom. 8:17, Eph. 1:5, Mark 3:33-35). To reject all of these organic unions in favor of private devotion is like cutting a branch from a tree and keeping it in a vase—or cutting an organ out of a body and keeping it in a cooler. Both may survive for a short time, but if they remain cut off from sap and blood flow, their ultimate fate is certain.
That life-giving nourishment, no matter what your sacramental theology, comes at least in part through visible acts in the church. In cutting believers off from the Christian organism, feral Christianity also deprives them of the means of grace. The New Testament speaks of baptism and the Lord’s Supper not as optional ad-ons or private acts of devotion, but as God’s way of giving His people what He has promised them (Gal 3:27, Rom. 6:3, 1 Cor. 10:16). The Westminster Confession speaks of them as a means of grace—a grace which is “not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost.” As C. S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity, the sacraments are how God imparts “the Christ-life” to us—one of the chief means by which He spreads that “good infection” that is remaking the world. And as he warns, those who think such means crude or unnecessary are “trying to be more spiritual than God.”
What we do in gathering corporately to worship God in song, sermon, and sacrament isn’t an optional expression of private piety, but the climax of human existence—the very purpose for which we were made. As Herman Bavinck puts it, corporate worship is:
“the center point of the religious life, the source of spiritual power, [and] the inspiration for the work everyone is called to do, by the sweat of his brow, each weekday…Here alone do we find the ministry of God’s Word and the sealing of his covenant. Here, Christ himself lives in our midst and works by his spirit, here we taste the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the principle of eternal life. The Sabbath is the best of days; no other day is like it. And the church is the meeting of God with his people; no other gathering can take its place...”
In attempting a solitary faith in the wilderness, feral Christians forsake the purpose for which they were created and redeemed, and the main means by which Christ redeems them. But they also forsake the most important means by which Christ keeps his sheep domestic, and his fruit from going sour.
In places like Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, the Bible describes a process by which the institutional church confronts and disciplines members who are in sin. This solemn duty may be the most hated feature of organized religion, and the reason many Christians choose to go feral. And at times, it has certainly been abused and treated as a sword to wound the flock, rather than as a crook to retrieve strays. But it remains in Scripture, and Jesus clearly expects His people to practice it, forcing those in
serious sin either to repent or to leave the fold. Without it, there is no way to repel wolves. Without it, Christ’s Body has no immune system, and blight would consume His crops.
Those who avoid such accountability may have good intentions, and they may, in fact, be among His sheep. But here is where the laws of nature and spirituality meet: The caring hands of farmers, shepherds, and herders nourish and protect domestic things. But they also preserve that domestic identity. As with all feral plants and animals, there is a transition from cultivation back to the wild. For a time, they will continue to bear edible fruit and behave as before. Some of the oranges in the woods are still sweet, after all. But it will not last. Within a generation—sometimes less—changes begin to show, and not often for the better. The fruits sour, the tusks grow, and the faith dies. Cut off from the care of Christ’s ministers and the life of His people, what was once His becomes strange, what was once tame becomes feral, and the very relationship they thought could replace His religion dies.
None of this need befall any Christian who remains in Christ. He, after all, is the Vine, the Root, the Shepherd, the Firstborn, and the Head. It is Christ, not any earthly institution or communion, to whom we owe our ultimate allegiance and faithfulness. I believe this. But I also believe that our union with Him is corporate, rather than private. It is the type of union branches have with a vine, limbs have with a Root, sheep have with their Shepherd, little siblings have with their older Brother, and a body has with its Head. We must allow these corporate, organic pictures in Scripture to challenge our individualism, rather than the other way around, because our unity with each other is integral to our unity with Christ, and feral Christians don’t long remain Christian.