The Church, we treat her with such disdain. My generation may be the most critical of her yet. My generation, who claims open-mindedness and tolerance, is perhaps the most intolerant and insolent group when it comes to The Church. I include myself in that description, because I too have found myself quick to find fault and place blame on the Body of Christ.
And I think it’s time to take a step back and stop finger-pointing for a minute.
Because The Church is us. The Church is simply made up of followers of Christ, and when we start to publish books and write “open letters” that claim we love Jesus, but we hate The Church, we are hypocrites, and possibly the worst kind. When we say we hate The Church, we are really saying we hate the people Jesus loves, the people he calls his Bride. How quick we criticize those who Jesus has called forgiven and righteous. Jesus says he is one with The Church, so if we say we hate The Church, we are really saying we hate him.
Now, before you get huffy and start to spout off the failings of The Church, breathe for a moment and really read what I’m saying. I’m not saying The Church is perfect, and I’m not saying every “church” that exists is The Church (my capitalization of “The Church” is no typo, but intentional). What I am saying is that the true Church that Jesus calls his Bride exists in these tiny church buildings (or non-church buildings), simply because his people are in them, the people who call him Lord, who have accepted his forgiveness.
We have to be careful what we criticize, because ultimately we are criticizing people when we talk about the institution, and that’s a very dangerous, judgmental game to play.
Are we really going to say we hate The Church because people hurt us within it? Have we never hurt people? We are forgiven, we who drove the nails through God’s hands, and we are forgiven for many of the same sins we call out in others. When did we take on the robes of Pharisees and forget that Christ saved us as beggars? Can we confidently cast the first stone?
Hear me, there are some very screwed up churches out there, with deceptive doctrine and people who call themselves followers of Christ who are nothing of the sort; those who abuse, extort and harm people in the name of God. But the god they preach is not Christ. They are not his bride.
The Church exists with true followers of Christ. Those who love him because they know he loved them first, those who seek him and exalt in the grace given them, those who read and study his word because they desire to know him, those who defend truth with grace and mercy. Those who struggle with their own sin and forgiveness, in this already-but-not-yet paradigm. The title “church” means nothing without those elements. So, yes there is a place of criticism of wrong doctrines, and injustice enacted in the name of Christ. But unfortunately, we don’t do that very often. Instead of addressing the destructive teachings of those who use Christ’s name for personal gain, we instead attack Christ’s Bride, sometimes because of legitimate hurt, but often because of our own pettiness.
I was convicted on this point recently.
Our weeks have been wonky lately, with a new baby and traveling rotations and lack of sleep. So we were away from our church home for six weeks. And I was able to criticize her for countless things, I painted her as this failure to meet my spiritual needs, and blamed the people within.
Then we went to church again, and were reunited with the variety of people who are The Church.
And I realized, it’s really easy to criticize someone when I remove myself from them. It’s easy to find fault, and feed that dark critical heart with every nit-picky detail I can conjure. I can so easily forget all that I’ve been forgiven of so I can hold on to what has hurt me. But when I’m in the midst of it, when I am with these people who are saved by the same grace as me, these people who revel in the glory of God, and reach their hands to him because they fail on their own too; I realize I need them, and I have just as many failings they could criticize, and I find myself hoping they have more grace for me than I have had for them. My church is far from perfect (a group of imperfect people hardly could achieve perfection), she is full of broken people who’s hearts are mended daily by our Creator. She is full of people who forget to be gracious (like me); full of people who are caught up in themselves and forget to reach out on Sunday or during the week (like me); full of people who make mistakes and hurt other people (like me), full of people struggling in the battle against sin (like me). But these are the same people who are being renewed by the Holy Spirit, convicted daily, and learning through each failing moment how much they really need this grace given by a powerful God. Just like me.
It is easy to find fault in people, but it takes true grace, patience, forgiveness, and love to really live with people and walk this faith with them. We are designed to do it. I forget that so easily, and yet I have seen it so clearly so many times. There are no other people who I feel so connected to besides The Church. I have walked and worshiped with The Church in Malawi, Egypt, Oxford, and numerous American small towns and cities, and when I forget about myself and look to my God I see with new eyes what family really looks like. I see his Bride for who she really is, this beautiful people made up of every ethnicity, with every range of personality and gift spread across nations and united by the single strong thread of being loved by God and loving him. We come to our God broken, orphaned, and alone in the depth of our depravity; and he mends us, becomes our father and gives us a family. And like every family we are a little disjointed, we disagree on some things and we fight. But what we must never do is walk away. We can never stop forgiving and asking forgiveness. Because we will be hurt, and we will hurt others. But our God has given us a great love, a love that covers a multitude of sins. A love that offers kind words in exchange for cruelty, a love that changes hearts through forgiveness and mercy, a love for sinners like us.
You see, I am The Church, and if I walk away from her, I walk away from Jesus. Because she is Jesus’ Bride, these are those whom he loves. And if I claim to love him I also must love those he loves; these broken, loved people, who are just like me.
Ephesians 2:19-22 (NASB)
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit