Why Leo Tolstoy and I Don’t Like Church and What I’m Trying to Do About It

I have never really liked church. This is rooted in being a pastor’s kid, always being in church, and watching my dad deal with untold masses of irrational people. When I moved out of my parent’s house, I did not go to church for several years.

During this time I was at a Christian college. This did not help my opinion of Christianity. My college years were filled with annoyance at Christianity in all its glory around me.

Then an odd thing happened: I realized that I did not like church because I understood it very well. So I had two options

  1. Leave it
  2. Try to help it

I had gone through several years of leaving it, and I tried hard to not let church idiocy bother me, but it did. Sitting on the sidelines being irritated was not turning out to be a healthy option. That’s when I came to the dreadful decision to be a pastor.

I switched my major and made plans for seminary. Here I am now, closing in on sixteen years of being a pastor.

I am the pastor of an odd church. The church I am at was founded to be a little odd. It cut out all the frills of churchiness and focused on Bible teaching. I fit in to that system. I have maintained that goal and maybe even furthered it.

We have no youth ministry. We sing from a hymn book. My sermons run about 45 minutes. Every church gathering during the week has a pretty solid chunk of time devoted to Bible teaching. We have no rituals, fancy clothing, candles, choirs, Christmas programs or Easter cantatas. We don’t do small groups, fund-raising, or busy work.

I hear many people tell me how nice that must be. “I would love to go to a church like that.” I hear this quite frequently, yet my church is rather small. Church without churchiness just doesn’t cut it for most people. I get it, and to a certain extent that’s fine. I’ve never been opposed to there being multiple churches to choose from.

It is my opinion, and a main reason why I lead my church the way I do, that church is largely messed up and distracting from the goal of knowing and following Christ.

I have been reading Leo Tolstoy lately. In his book, The Kingdom of God is Within You, he launches on the church in chapter 3. In a discussion on heresy and church he says these quotes (I encourage you to track down the book and read this chapter at least. This site has a good chunk of the chapter, but not all of it. Click here for a taste):

Heresy is the obverse side of the church. Wherever there is a church, there must be the conception of heresy. A church is a body of men who assert that they are in possession of infallible truth. Heresy is the opinion of the men without who do not admit the infallibility of the church’s truth.

All effort after a living comprehension of the doctrine [of Christ] has been made by heretics.

To assert to one’s self or of any body of men, that one is or they are in possession of perfect understanding and fulfillment of Christ’s word, is to renounce the very spirit of Christ’s teaching.

The churches as churches, as bodies which assert their own infallibility, are institutions opposed to Christianity.

The churches. . . cannot but persecute and refuse to recognize all true understanding of Christ’s words.

Tolstoy’s experience in church lead him to believe that churches all think they are the only ones with the Holy Spirit, the only ones with “truth.” To question that truth is to be a heretic. Churches have to be exclusive to the truth in order to guilt you into coming and giving them money to maintain their institutions and traditions.

Tolstoy is speaking directly about the Russian Orthodox Church, Catholicism, and Lutheranism, but throws in all branches of Protestant theology as well. He may be overstating the case a tad, not all churches are like this, but certainly the majority are, if not by direct statement, at least in action.

Let the Church stop its work of hypnotizing the masses, and deceiving children even for the briefest interval of time, and men would begin to understand Christ’s teaching. But this understanding will be the end of the churches and all their influence. And therefore the churches will not for an instant relax their zeal in the business of hypnotizing grown-up people and deceiving children. This, then, is the work of the churches: to instill a false interpretation of Christ’s teaching into men, and to prevent a true interpretation of it for the majority of so-called believers.

I think this is true.

If the church taught people to pursue Christ, churches would go out of business. So, the church interposes itself in between the individual and Christ. “You need us to get to God.”

If churches don’t give people that “religious feeling,” people think they are not being godly. People go to church for the feeling, not for learning who God is and how to pursue Him. It’s risky business to set people free.

This is the central tension I have always felt as a pastor. I am here to help people come to Christ. I am not here for me, for my legacy, for my achievements in church building. Nor am I here to fill you with false hope and happy thoughts. I am merely a guy trying to know Christ who wants you to know Christ. I try to keep everything else out of the way of that goal.

I really wished this worked! But it doesn’t, at least not according to man’s wisdom. I don’t have numbers, buildings, money, or anything of temporal measure. I will let God judge the spiritual results.

In the end, I see the problem, and I think Tolstoy did too. Whether I am actually addressing the problem in a constructive way will be revealed when I give an account to my Lord. Until then, I do hope you find Christ and pursue Him. It’s pretty much why we’re here.

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7 thoughts on “Why Leo Tolstoy and I Don’t Like Church and What I’m Trying to Do About It”

  1. I struggle with church. Don’t fit well theologically. For example, there is a good Baptist church near me and I enjoy visiting but I’m not 100% on board doctrinally. They are KJV only and hold firmly to eternal security. I reject both.

    I also work nearly every Sunday so that hurts too.

  2. There are no perfect churches. I have seen the value of being in a church, belonging to a group, learning to love others, being edified by those who help me think better and more thoroughly. Church seems to be a major impact in Spiritual growth according to the NT. Unfortunately, church has become such a sham of what was intended, I’m not sure just “being in a church” does anything anymore. One reason I became a pastor is so I’d never have to look for a church to go to!

  3. I thought Tolstoy was a bit overly critical. It is not difficult to point to the abuses of church bodies, that is plain in history, and is more due to human nature, than to the idea of gathering into a body called a church.

    But there is still the ideal presented by Christ in the New Testament (and I don’t see God’s purpose for Israel in the Old Testament as that much different either…ie. to be a missionary people in the world). Take Christ’s statement:

    John 17:23
    I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.

    How are people to “know that God has sent Christ”? By the perfect unity of Christ’s followers. It is the primary evidence that Jesus has worked on humans—that he can take diverse people of radically different characters, and unite them in the closest bonds.

    And this was not just a general “unity” of agreement in a few “basics of faith”. The apostles, disciples, and members of the early church were absolutely in unity, in feeling, thought, and action.

    They believed that Christ was the Messiah, who fulfilled the prophecies. They believed that the faith of Jesus was the faith of Abraham, which justified and converted people, changing them from children of Satan to children of God. They believed that Christ’s work in the heavenly temple was now to be the focus of the church on earth (as opposed to the old Jewish temple). And on, and on. There was a very sweet unity and love.

    Tolstoy did not dwell on any of the good that was done by church bodies. How about the Waldensian church, which preserved the word of God in a time of darkness? What about Zinzendorf’s community who sent so many dedicated missionaries into the darkest corners of the world? What about the sanctifying effect of the Methodist revival on England and America? Or the separation of church and state preserved by Anabaptist congregations, and later Baptists? Somehow, I can’t put this all aside as worthless.

    I was raised a Catholic, but still I can point to some good things that came out of that. I attended a non-denominational Bible Camp in summers, run by a Church of Christ minister. Again, I would say this had more of a good influence on me. I can’t think of a single core doctrine I’ve learned that I haven’t received from people working in church groups.

    I can see Tolstoy was laboring under the oppressive atmosphere of the Russian Orthodox church-state alliance, and it no doubt made him skeptical. But every good reform that has taken place deals not just with the abuses, but lays a solid foundation of good doctrine to take the place of the old. And a religious movement will soon come to nothing if it does not start organizing into a visible church body. Organization is a part of life. It only becomes a hindrance when it is a shell in which no life is left flowing.

  4. Yes, he goes overboard. He’s pretty much upset about everything in this book, which is somewhat ironic seeing as how it’s about non-resistance to evil! I think it was just the general Russian atmosphere tainting his views. At the same time, all his fault-finding has truth in it and I think he’s right, if not a tad overzealous and indiscriminate.

  5. Yea, there were a few places in that chapter you linked to where it wasn’t clear if he believed that the Bible was inspired or not.

    I had some contact with a Doukhobor a while back. They were a reform group that came out of Russia. But they do not believe that all the Bible is inspired, which pretty much means they can pick and choose.

    I can understand how such groups are formed. Satan gets control of a church hierarchy, and leads them to take oppressive measures, usually hand in hand with an oppressive state power. At the same time, this oppressive hierarchy hold out the Bible as the justification for their stance.

    So eventually, there is a counter-reaction which “throws out the baby with the bathwater”. The people reject the hierarchy and the Bible at the same time.

    Fortunately, Luther’s reformation was not that kind. He clearly pointed out the errors in, for example, the 95 theses, but at the same time, was pointing to the true gospel. Any reformation, to be successful, must not be built on just criticism, but must hold out something better in contrast.

    It would have been nicer if Tolstoy would have used a format like the Sermon on the Mount: “you have been told this and this, but I tell you this instead.” Maybe he did later in the book. I always wanted to read it, but never had the time. I’m not a fast reader like you!

  6. I would not hold Tolstoy up as a great theologian. I have not seen anything that touches on the inspiration of Scripture. It seems to me he is holding that Bible higher than the church. His main point is pacifism, so his chapter on church is basically: Not many believers actually live according to “Resist not evil” in the Sermon on the Mount, this shouldn’t be surprising because the church doesn’t teach “resist not evil” because they are all about themselves.

    He seems to be more or less an anarchist politically. I think he’s just fed up!

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