The Church: Imperfect, but Beautiful

Last week my wife returned to teaching as her summer break came to an end. The day before school started a friend from church called to let us know that she had dropped off a cooler with pre-made breakfast meals for the whole week. The next day there was another meal from another church member waiting for me at my office. These acts of kindness are simply two recent instances in which I’ve seen God’s grace through the thoughtfulness and sacrifice of others. 

I could go on and on about ways I’ve been immeasurably blessed by people in the church. From the day I first walked into a church at the age of 16, I’ve been around the most generous, gracious, and loving people I’ve ever met. None of this is to imply that the church is perfect, but it is to say that she is beautiful (by “church” I mean all those who have united to Christ by faith who then gather into local congregations all over the world).

The Church is Imperfect

The church has its flaws. God’s Word even anticipates and makes provision for the imperfections of the church. Commands like “bear with one another” and “forgive one another” clue us in to the fact that we will both be sinned against and sin against others in the church (Eph. 4:32). Further, Jesus instituted a process by which unrepentant church members should be removed from the congregation (Matt. 18:15-20). The New Testament contains a realism about the church. It doesn’t deny that the church will be filled with imperfect people, even at times wicked people. 

Thus, my intention in writing is not to deny anyone’s pain or suffering at the hands of church people. It is undeniable that some churches, whole denominations, or even eras of church history have been responsible for terrible sins. I’m not writing to defend any abuse or hypocrisy or hurt. Instead, my goal is to balance out the narrative a bit. As it is too easy to point out all the flaws in another person and deny their good qualities, in the same way, it is too easy to criticize the church without praising her virtues.

The Church is Beautiful

In the New Testament, the church is described as the bride of Christ (Rev. 21:9), the family of God (2 Cor. 6:18), the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16-17), and a people purchased by Christ’s sacrifice (Acts 20:28). What is absent from the Scriptures is the sort of attitude that is prevalent today, that the church is a burden, full of hypocrites, or inconsequential in the life of the Christian. Despite this common narrative, the church has been an undeniable force for good in history as well as the present day.

Nicholas Kristof, a writer for the New York Times and an avowed agnostic, has become an unlikely defender of the evangelical church. He writes, “Today, among urban Americans and Europeans, ‘evangelical Christian’ is sometimes a synonym for ‘rube.’ In liberal circles, evangelicals constitute one of the few groups that it’s safe to mock openly…Yet the liberal caricature of evangelicals is incomplete and unfair. I have little in common, politically or theologically, with evangelicals or, while I’m at it, conservative Roman Catholics. But I’ve been truly awed by those I’ve seen in so many remote places, combating illiteracy and warlords, famine and disease, humbly struggling to do the Lord’s work as they see it, and it is offensive to see good people derided.”

Kristof’s defense of Christians stems from something he has noticed in them, a self-sacrificial service to others as well as a generosity of time and resources. He goes on, “I must say that a disproportionate share of the aid workers I’ve met in the wildest places over the years, long after anyone sensible had evacuated, have been evangelicals, nuns or priests… Likewise, religious Americans donate more of their incomes to charity, and volunteer more hours than the nonreligious, according to polls. In the United States and abroad, the safety net of soup kitchens, food pantries and women’s shelters depends heavily on religious donations and volunteers.”

I appreciate Kristof’s observation and kind words about the church. His opinion matters. However, there is one whose judgment means infinitely more. Let’s not forget God’s verdict of the church. Christ purchased her with his blood, he loves her, and will one day return to gather her up as his bride. Let’s make sure that our words about the church are consistent with God’s. If the church is the bride of Christ, we should tread carefully in attacking her. As Ed Stetzer has said , “You can’t love Jesus and hate his wife.”

Credits

Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

Nicholas Kristof, “A Little Respect for Dr. Foster,” New York Times, March 28, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-a-little-respect-for-dr-foster.html

Stetzer, Ed, “You can’t love Jesus and hate his wife,” Twitter, 10 Aug 2019, https://twitter.com/edstetzer/status/1160378867955187713

5 Common Reasons for Quitting Church and Why We Should Reject Them

The following list is not a scientific poll. it is anecdotal. It is experiential. These are the most common reasons I’ve heard for why once faithful attendees no longer participate in church. These reasons are, however, unconvincing in the end. After all, if active involvement in a theologically robust, God-glorifying, people-loving church is God’s will for every believer, then there really are no good reasons to quit going to church. There may be good cause to move to another church, but quitting church altogether is never God’s desire for anyone. With that said, what are some of the most common reasons given for giving up on the church?

1) “There are hypocrites in church.”

Yes, there are hypocrites in every church. And it is certainly easy to grow weary of those who say one thing and do another. It is also easy to forget that we are often just as guilty of hypocrisy. There are many ways that we fail to even live up to our own expectations of ourselves, much less God’s will for us. Thankfully, God’s love for us is not based on our ability to do what we know is best in every moment. In fact, God saves those who are willing to admit that they are often hypocrites and acknowledge they are in need of God’s grace. So, to those decrying all the hypocrites inside the church, God’s invitation is that there is always room for one more.

2) “I’ve been hurt by someone at church.”

The church is a family and like most families, there will be hurt along the way. For many, it is ordinary relational difficulty that produces a root of bitterness; that root grows into resentment and eventually results in total avoidance. God’s Word anticipates this kind of division and calls us to protect unity (Ephesians 4:3), forgive those who hurt us (Colossians 3:13), and restore broken relationships (Matthew 5:24).

For others, the hurt is more severe such as abuse or assault. These greivous sins ought not to be taken lightly and are not taken so by God. However, God’s plan for upholding those who have been terribly sinned against includes the church (1 Thessalonians 5:14), not fleeing from the church. This is not to say that one must remain in the same church in which they were abused/assaulted, in many cases they should not.

3) “I can’t find a church that meets all my needs”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against the danger of desiring a church that is a perfect fit, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly.”

It feels good to believe that we are so spiritual that no church can attain our standards, but Bonhoeffer reminds us that this attitude flows from pride. He provokes the question, “Is it truly our super-spirituality which leads us to believe no church is good enough for us? Or, is that the best excuse we can find to stop gathering with the church while easing our consciences?”

4) “I don’t need the church.”

Many assume the church is nothing more than a spiritual pep rally to get us through the week ahead. It is unsurprising then that so many see the church as unimportant or unnecessary. After all, we have our Bibles and we have Jesus, so who needs the church? The obvious problem is that this directly contradicts the teaching of Scripture. God actually designed us in such a way that we need one another. We need teaching, accountability, encouragement, love, prayer, fellowship, singing, etc. and gathering regularly in church is God’s plan for providing these opportunities for us (Ephesians 4:1-16).

5) “I’m too busy to go to church.”

In a sermon series concerning the church, Dr. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones admonished those whom he called “trippers”–those who regularly found better things to do than gather with the church. He told his congregation, “Unless you feel that something is being offered and given to you here [at church] which no other institution can offer or equal, well then, in the name of Heaven, go out into the country or to the seaside. The church of Christ is a church of believers, an association of people banded together by a common belief and a common love. You don’t believe? Well, above all, don’t pretend that you do, go to the country and the seaside. All I ask of you is, be consistent. When someone dies in your family, do not come to ask the church in which you do not believe to come bury him. Go to the seaside for consolation…”

Why is Martyn Lloyd-Jones so strong with his words? Because he understood the importance of the church in the life of the believer. He knew that the church is a group of believers “banded together.” He believed that one of the evidences of genuine faith in Christ is a love for God, a love for God’s Word, and a love for God’s people.

We tend to make time for what we consider important. For Martyn Lloyd-Jones, few things were more important than gathering with other Christians and sitting under the preaching of God’s Word.

Does God Really Desire Faithfulness in Church?

The temptation to give up on the church is not a new one. The original recipients of the letter written to the Hebrews were tempted to stop gathering with the church out of fear—fear of persecution and fear of social contempt. The personal safety and reputation of these churchgoers were on the line. To these beleaguered Christians, the author writes, “… let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some…” (Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV). In other words, God’s agenda for you will never involve giving up on regularly gathering in a local church.


Credits

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Hebrews 10:24-25 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (San Francisco: Harper, 1954), 27.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones quoted in Iaian Murray. The Life of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: 1899-1981 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2013).

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash