I’ve had people remark that I’m hard on Christians. Whether on this blog, on social media or in conversation, my harshest words are often for professing believers, while I tend to go easy on those who don’t share my beliefs.
I’m not going to deny this — and no, I’m not going to use the excuse that “Jesus’ strongest rebukes were for the religious teachers of the day.” I’m not Jesus, and that statement both ignores Christ’s repeated calls to repentance and sets up a self-righteous place for me to sit and rebel against authority (which I have enough of a tendency to do on my own, thank you very much).
The truth is that my most severe critiques and passionate pleas for change happen to be directed toward the Church. There are two reasons for this:
1.) I’m a Christian. I believe that my strongest words should be directed not toward those who don’t share my beliefs but toward those who profess to love Jesus and have been charged with displaying Him to the world.
2.) I’ve seen the ugliness the Church is capable of.
That seems like a cheap shot, but it’s not. I remember sitting in the congregation of my Baptist church as a teenager, watching in horror and confusion as angry adults ground the service to a halt to scream at each other and the leadership over something as petty and nonsensical as a copier that may or may not have been ordered. Not after church, either — this was in the middle of Sunday morning worship, the culmination of months of in-fighting, in which nasty, anonymous letters were sent throughout the congregation, church members regularly stopped to scream at each other in the lobby and absurd allegations were made about the church’s leaders. It was only a few years after my family had left our previous church because of bitterness and in-fighting among the congregation there, and only a few years after the previous pastor of the church killed himself in his office because of false allegations by contentious members.
When I was a kid, my mom had to explain that my AWANA leader would no longer help me memorize my verses because he and his wife were getting a divorce, and he had left the church. When I asked what “divorce” was and why they were getting one, my mom had the unenviable task of explaining adultery. I’ve seen many men who raised me spiritually or led our congregations resign from the ministry because of infidelity or abandon their wives once the burden of ministry became too much. I’ve seen Christian friends use slurs to talk about gay people. I’ve been party to discussions where people are so focused on defending their political views that they forget about brotherly love, gentleness and respect. I’ve been part of theological arguments where we are so intent on being right that we forget humility and to acknowledge that we could be wrong about a great many things. I’ve seen Christians shun family in the name of evangelism, friendships torn apart over doctrinal disagreements and marriages decimated over chauvinistic misunderstandings of submission. And I haven’t even gotten to the American Church’s anger, self-righteousness and foolishness when it comes to engaging our culture. Also, there’s the whole mess that is evangelicalism and Trump that I think just goes without saying.
And yet . . .
I wouldn’t speak words of correction about the Church if I hated it. Despite the ugliness that we too often display as believers, there is a beauty to the Church that still shines.
I’ve seen the church body rally around sick and dying members, grieving with the ailing and their family. I’ve seen men and women leave the comforts of American culture because they feel compelled to help the sick and needy on the other side of the world. When I was hospitalized in 2002, it was members of a church I hadn’t even attended for a year who showed up, prayed and supported me. Despite the men who modeled faith poorly, I can relate numerous tales of men and women of God who still love their families and live out their faith with sincerity. I can tell you about friendships that I thought I’d long ago destroyed that have been rebuilt because of grace, prayer and a listening ear in a moment of need. I’ve seen pastors moved to tears as they pray for their congregations, churches that care for their community in times of crisis, and young men and women washing the feet of the homeless and unloved in downtown areas. I’ve watched people lay down their pride to forgive friends of grievous wrongs. I’ve seen some of the men who left their families confess their sin and begin pursuing Christ with a passion, and I’ve been blessed to be born into a family with a long and inspiring legacy of faith. I remember that on that terrible Sunday when the adults screamed and pointed fingers a few quietly got up, walked to the front pew, knelt down and prayed.
These stories aren’t as loud and splashy as the negative ones. They don’t rock us to our core the way a wound does. But when put together, they weave a tapestry of beauty and grace that makes me remember why I still go to church on Sunday mornings and why I still call myself a Christian, even in the moments where I’m tempted to turn my back.
How do I reconcile this?
I remember that we’re all screwed up in this family. If I want to embrace the possibility that the Church can accomplish great things and play a role in redeeming the world, I must remember that same body is comprised of broken sinners who don’t always do the things they should. There will come a time when members of this body act in ways that are painful, grievous and unbecoming of followers of Christ. They will show hatred and anger and lust. They will rebel and mistreat others. They will act just like people who compose any other group. But it feels more hurtful and damaging because of the goodness we know the Church is capable of. It brings us to our knees again, asking God for help, healing, grace and forgiveness…and since the only good the Church can do is by Him, that’s a good place to start.
“The Church is a whore, but she is also my mother,” Augustine said. “The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints” goes another quote. And when I get angry at the Church or the behavior of fellow believers, I turn to these sayings. I get angry at the way the Church whores after political power, popularity, wealth and “right-ness.” But then I remember the side that has nurtured, encouraged and changed me. If I truly believe we are sinners saved by grace, I must accept the tension. So I still believe in the Church. I love the Church. She is my family.