Proposal for the foundation of a new spiritual movement

Not long ago I flirted with a theory that the first century Christian church served a noble purpose. I thought perhaps that it acted as a warm and tender mother parenting her children through to Christian independence, at which point they would be free to leave the home and strike out on their own. Paul even refers to himself as a nursing mother (1 Thessalonians 2:7) feeding his infants milk (1 Corinthians 3:12) until they had reached maturity, thrown off the traits of a babe, and put childish ways behind. (1 Corinthians 13:11)

I figured that men such as Paul had indeed grasped the truth of what Jesus had been trying to express: The kingdom of God is within; the (holy) spirit is not bestowed from without, but wells up from deep inside. We have to be able to tap into it. The secret to doing that is found in Jesus' expression, "Your sins are forgiven." Access to this well-spring has been sealed up. A thick hard crust has formed through years of ill-treatment, messed up experiences, and bad management. When we learn how to forgive ourselves we begin to break through this thick layer of rock, and eventually we will burst through to the real person hidden below. We will release a rush of the spirit. Enlightenment? A spiritual awakening? Whatever it is, it's not like anything we have experienced before.

I romantically imagined this was the kind of breakthrough Paul had experienced on the way to Damascus. He made it more sure during his silent years. He wanted other people to experience this breakthrough, so he worked to form Christian communities - churches - throughout Asia and Macedonia, in order to give people a wholesome environment in which they could grow and mature as people. It would put men and women in a position where they too might experience the "fullness of the Christ." Paul did not believe that all those who associated with the Christian church had really benefited in the same way he had. They could not all claim to have been - as he described in his letter to the Galatians - called by God's grace and had his son revealed in them. But he believed that if he provided the right spiritual soil, it would give men and women the opportunity to be blessed with such a revelation.

To the congregation in Ephesus, Paul wrote:
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13)
Paul did not believe the church to be made up of fully fledged Christians. It is obvious from his letters that he saw the church to be made up of some spiritually mature individuals, but many more who still struggled with the flesh and had not allowed room for the spirit in their lives. He was constantly exhorting the congregation to give themselves over to God's spirit. At Romans 8:12-17 he says:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to son-ship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs — heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
Once they had succumbed to this son-ship in the fullest sense, they would be free spirits. To turn back and deny the Christ once such an event had been experienced would be akin to "grieving God's holy spirit." However, once a man could say that 'God has revealed his son in me', he would be free to detach himself from the congregation. He would be free to live his own life, perhaps start his own ministry, just as Paul had done. The work of the parent church is done. It has accomplished what it set out to do.

Sadly, an honest reading of the New Testament makes this a very hard notion to defend. Paul looks increasingly like a man fiercely protective of his church and body of doctrines. He obviously held a strong belief that the end was coming - that Christ would come again and do what it was always imagined the Christ was meant to do, that is wreak vengeance on the ungodly - and he appeared to become even more rigid the longer time went by. The Christian church increasingly begins to take on a similar appearance to the Israelite nation. You will receive the blessing if you adhere to the law of the Christ - according to Paul's interpretation - but you will be cursed if you fall short.

Paul makes it quite clear to Timothy that all his exertions have been to establish his own church. In his second letter to Timothy, he laments, "You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes." We never get to hear Phygelus' and Hermogenes' side of the argument. Perhaps they were going elsewhere to worship as a Christian. Were the teachings of Hymenaeus and Philetus really like gangrene, or was that just Paul's opinion because they were presenting an alternative to his vision? He reminds Timothy, "You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings — what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured." Paul would not abide competition. Abandoning his church was to abandon him. Because he saw himself as the conduit for God's spirit, to leave his church was to leave the Christ. Whatever noble intentions Paul may have started out with it would still be possible for him to be caught up in his own self-importance. It would be hard not to be seduced by the ability to captivate an audience, having them be willing to hear you talk all night, or call a group of older men across the country and have them weeping at your departure.

In this way, the Christian congregation does not become an environment in which spirituality can grow to full maturity, it simply becomes another means by which people are held as slaves. The dream of a community designed to nurture people's latent spirituality and draw out of them the strength to face life as happy and confident human beings cannot be found in the first century Christian congregation, or any attempt to imitate it.

The Proposal
In the absence of such a positive environment, and in recognition of man's inherent desire for community, I propose the foundation of a new spiritual movement based exclusively on the power of forgiveness. The emphasis would be on the need for forgiveness, and the emphasis of the emphasis would be on the need to forgive oneself.

Forgiveness knows no denomination, it is universal. Forgiveness does not demand a belief in God. Such a community would afford a place to go where one does not feel judged, where one truly feels the power of the statement, "Your sins are forgiven." A community where one can believe such a statement because it is a fact of life, a reality, and not a condition brought about because a man died in agony on the cross for you, providing the cognitive dissonance of a free gift that somehow must be paid for, but the price is too high to ever afford.

The ultimate goal of such a community would not be to grow in numbers but to shrink in size, as those who choose to associate would be taught to stand on their own two feet, and could begin to face the world with a confidence they never knew they possessed. The Greek word for forgiveness is aphiemi and it means, primarily, "to send forth, send away". So those who learn the power of forgiveness in their own lives, and "send away" the bitterness and resentment that weigh them down, and ultimately learn the highest form of forgiveness - that of forgiving yourself - would themselves be "sent forth" into the world to live the real life as their authentic self. The person who has learnt the power of forgiveness is not sent forth by the community - no - he or she reaches a point when they send themselves forth. The community will present an ever-changing face as new associates arrive, and old ones leave. Of course, if any choose to stay and use their new-found freedom to be there for others, they are most welcome to.

A community meeting might open with a short encouraging discourse on the nature of forgiveness, or a related subject, and then simply afford an opportunity for people to get to know one another. The very nature of the over-arching theme of forgiveness would of itself set the tone for the gathering. It would gradually become obvious who has more of a clear grasp on the meaning of forgiveness, and these ones would be in a position to share this understanding with others. Nobody would be put on the defensive, or encouraged to pour out their life story. Primarily they would be persuaded that with the right tools they would be able to adjust themselves. This is something that is achieved through ones own experience. No one else can do the fixing for us. The end result becomes all the more extraordinary.

There would be no opening or closing prayer. There would be no hymns and singing. There would be no ritual order of service. The only slightly unusual addition might be that the meeting place could provide a room, or a corner, for the purpose of undisturbed silence where anyone can sit and be still, simply occupy the space, or bask in the buzz and chatter, and it would be a perfectly natural thing to do. It is not about the noise all around us, it is about the stillness we are able to find within ourselves.

Such a community would not demand adherence to a body of laws laid down in an ancient manuscript. With two words Socrates unlocked the secrets of the universe: gnĊthi seauton, "Know thyself". 400 years later Jesus said the same thing with only slightly less economy of words, "Your sins are forgiven." Both understood these fundamental truths without the need for a law code.

Under what name might such a movement exist? It would be best if the name contained some reference to forgiveness. We might want to shy away from any reference to "Church" or "Congregation" as it would endow it with too religious a feel. Perhaps "Community" would suffice. Maybe a suggestion could be made that it has no religious connections. I do not necessarily recommend it be called the "Free Unaffiliated Community Of Forgiveness", especially if it is bears the tag-line, "We don't want you to stay," although, it must be said, it would be a revolutionary battle-cry to be able to put those initials on any form demanding to know what church you belong to. Perhaps something like "Non-denominational Community of Forgiveness" would be more fitting, and not so upsetting to those of a more delicate constitution.

Flippancy aside, and whatever it is decided upon to call it, I believe that the foundation of such a spiritual movement, unattached to any religious denomination, constitutes a viable proposition. This really could work. I think independent communities could exist as self-contained concerns, perhaps with a loose affiliation to a central hub. There might be a handful of principal tenets binding the communities together and setting them apart from others: The emphasis being on forgiveness, especially the forgiving of oneself; a simple meeting with no prayer or singing - there might be a short encouraging discourse, but the emphasis will be on association; it will not be identified with any one denomination. Above all things, it could be a place where people could come if they felt lost and unsure of themselves - or even if they felt happy and secure - and they could have their spiritual needs met without any feeling of pressure or urgency.