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The bride of Christ is not a Stepford Wife

The bride of Christ is not a Stepford Wife July 20, 2018

Photo via Shutterstock.

During some vacation sightseeing a few years back, my wife and I visited a small bookshop in a Florida beach town and set to browsing. Nestled in the Religion section, I found several copies of Anne Lamott’s “Traveling Mercies” stacked together. I had honestly been on the cusp of purchasing the book before, but never committed. I felt that this many copies were my sign to pick it up.

I immediately fell in love with Lamott’s neurotic, poignant and honest voice. She writes honestly about her struggles, frustrations and confusion with her body, her family, her world and her faith. She’s candid about her past drug use, alcoholism, eating disorders and an abortion. She’s a Christian, but didn’t become one until later in life. She writes about God, faith and grace, but is a little more than rankled when dealing with right-wingers, fundamentalists and the church’s crazier family members.

A few years back, however, I would have slammed the book shut halfway through and declared Lamott a heretic.

I would have been appalled at her repeated use of the “f-word.” I would have been shocked by her admission at having several sexual partners, her irreverent views on God and — perhaps the final straw at that point — her adamant left-wing stance and support of the pro-choice movement. I would have self-righteously declared that she was not a Christian.

I’m glad God made me pause and endure a few years of growth and grace before discovering Lamott. I’m so thankful that this funny, perceptive and perhaps slightly crazed sister’s voice has been put in my head. Lamott’s writing has the tone of someone who has reached their end and only finds sense, strength and hope through Christ. She has the curiosity and joy of a young child as she discovers who this Jesus is. Her belief that the two best prayers she knows are “help me, help me, help me” and “thank you, thank you, thank you” resonate deeply with anyone who’s hit rock bottom, only to discover the grace of God waiting there.

The church needs messy people

Lamott’s voice is refreshing because it’s unlike many others that I hear from the Church. It doesn’t have the self-righteous, booming “right-ness” of preachers who drone on about doctrine but seem to lack any empathy about what it really means to be broken or doubting. Lamott makes no pretense that she was a mess before Christ, and perfect after conversion — she’s very openly a work in progress, proof that the family of God is made up of misfits, black sheep and neurotic messes, constantly in flux and under renovation, sometimes baby steps at a time.

She also makes no apologies for the ways in which her views deviate from traditional American Christianity — she’s unashamed of her liberal views or her feminist leanings. She doesn’t censor her language, clean up her failures or fear offending those who disagree with her. She’s honest in an age where I think too many Christians have been encouraged to present an image of perfection.

And it’s for that reason that I think many mainline Christians are uncomfortable with her. It’s all well, good and true to admit our brokenness and depravity; any professing Christian would agree that we are all born depraved, far from God and in need of help. But what if God puts us back together and we still look like we don’t quite fit in among the other people filling the pew?

From my experience, the Church loves diversity in theory but hates it in practice. And I’m not talking about racial diversity – I’m talking about differing viewpoints, philosophies and doctrines.

We love the idea the people come to Christ from different backgrounds and struggles. We tend to think it’s somewhat exotic when an addict repents and joins our ranks, or when someone stops sleeping around and starts living “right.”

But I think there’s also an expectation that once someone comes to Christ, they need to start conforming to the look, feel and beliefs of the Body. We expect fellow believers to listen to the same kind of music, hold the same political beliefs, subscribe to all of the same doctrines and be fans of the same subculture. When someone breaks from that mold, it makes us uncomfortable.

I’m guilty of it. When I was in college, I had several friends who came to the church from unbelieving backgrounds. I thought it was refreshing to have them come into the Body with stories different than mine and embrace Christ. But when they didn’t abandon all of their old ways — they still swore, had trouble giving up smoking, still listened to the same bands  — I was troubled. I questioned their faith. I wondered why they weren’t getting their act together. I’ve believed that people weren’t genuine believers because they swore, drank, believed you could lose your salvation or came from a Catholic background.

In doing so, I missed the brilliant, patchwork art of the Church. When we expect the Body of Christ to look like a bunch of Stepford Wives, we miss the glory of God on display in the lives of people from every political ideology, ethnic background and line of philosophy. God is infinite and multitudinous, and I genuinely believe the differing views that His children have in everything from doctrine to politics to etiquette put His complexity, diversity and brilliance on display.

Unity, not uniformity

Now I know there are two objections to this.

The first is that the Bible commands the Church to be unified. But unity does not mean uniformity.

Yes, we must stand together, but that doesn’t mean expecting everyone to look, talk and act alike. Paul said he preached one thing only  — Christ crucified. Outside of that, there is a lot of room for debate, discussion and difference. There are aspects of conservative politics that put the glory of Christ on display, just as I believe God is glorified in many aspects of liberal politics. Arminian brothers and sisters hold beliefs that highlight many of God’s attributes that seem to take a background in Calvinism, just as I believe Reformed Christians hold to many doctrines that also glorify amazing things about God. A Christian from the poorest parts of Africa has a different perspective of God’s redemption than one from the richest city in America, and God magnifies Himself through the way we come together and share the stories of what He’s done in our lives.

It’s not that we don’t hold to our own doctrines and discuss our politics passionately. We do, because God has laid these concerns on our hearts. But we don’t expect or exort others to “come around” to our way of thinking because we believe we have the final corner on Truth. We find hills to die on  — although the older I get, I learn there are fewer and fewer of those hills — and with the rest we agree to share our beliefs, listen to others and let the Spirit work on our reactions.

This doesn’t negate repentance

The other question I know people may pose regards the fact that the Bible calls us to repent of our sins and quit living our old lives. And I’m not negating those things.

The truth, though, is that sanctification works itself out differently in each of our lives. For someone coming from a life of violence and addiction, their first steps as a Christian may involve putting those things aside — and it may be years before they get around to the swearing. For someone like me, who grew up in the Church and was saved at six, I may know how to clean my language up (or just know what audiences it’s safe to cuss in), but I still have my own struggles with pride, self-righteousness and cynicism. We may tut-tut someone’s struggles, but how do we know that God simply hasn’t gotten around to those areas yet? It’s much easier to see those very visible sins and not see the successes they are making as they let go of fear and doubt. Likewise, it’s very easy to look at “good Christians” and see that they have their lives together, but we aren’t always privy to the ways they fall short every day in their struggles with lust, self-righteousness and anger.

The Body of Christ is a collection of broken people from all over the world, and to expect it to suddenly look like a collection of people all on the same page, speaking the same language and singing the same song is absurd and belittles God. When we let go of our objections and expectations of others and simply accept that we’re part of a Body filled with people who are all screwed up and in need of life, we can begin to rejoice in the differences, celebrate the new views of God we receive and begin seeing things from a new perspective.

 

About Chris Williams
Chris Williams has been writing about faith, culture and film since 2005. His work has appeared in the Source and Grosse Pointe News newspapers, Local Celebs magazine, Patheos, and Christ and Pop Culture. He is the co-host of the podcasts “CROSS.CULTURE.CRITIC.” and “It’s My Favorite.” Chris lives in the Detroit area with his wife and two children. You can read more about the author here.
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