I still remember the very first time that I was hurt by someone in a church that I attended. Even now, I can still remember how it felt people to have leave with hurtful words on their lips, when decisions have been made that felt like a knife being straddled in my back and when I have felt abandoned in times of need.
Most of the writing in the New Testament exists because the church has never been perfect. In fact, most of the New Testament letters and epistles were written specifically because there were significant pastoral issues in the church. 1
- Galatians was written to combat legalism (Galatians 1:6-7, 3:1-3, 4:9, 5:1)
- Colossians was written to fight heresy (Colossians 2:4, 8)
- 2 Timothy was written to ease tension in pastoral succession (2 Timothy 4:9-16)
- Philippians was written to resolve conflict and selfish ambition (Philippians 2:3-22)
- 1 and 2 Corinthians were written to mediate a whole host of problems centred around the issues of human pride in gifting and speaking that led to arrogant and love-less religious activity.
That’s not even to mention the letters to the churches in Revelation (Ch. 2-3), one of which is so unhealthy, it makes Jesus want to vomit (Revelation 3:16). Martin Luther King writes,
“I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion… Consequently, everyday I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust’ | 2
In light of these struggles, it’s understandable why those whose faith has been damaged by the church would want to leave it. Many victims of abusive and neglectful church cultures feel that the church has robbed them of faith. That experience is both traumatic and tragic, and perhaps to some degree, true. God himself has become too painful for them to behold in their mind; his face and words have been merged with the harmful faces and words of flawed and harmful people they know too well to be incomplete and shallow. 3
For those who find their faith mangled in a head-on collision with the church, is there the way forward?
The Often Untold Story
The only issue with the narrative above is the untold reality that I am a part of the problem. I have contributed to the pains and hurts of other people, as they have contributed to mine. I have not loved the church as Jesus has told me to. I have not loved His people as Jesus has told me. I have not treated my neighbour as myself. I have taken my leaders for granted and let them bleed spiritually dry and then turned around and blamed them for not feeding the sheep well. I have been part of the problem.
Christianity may be the only faith with a public, dramatic, open and honest declaration of our own incompleteness as the marker between those who follow Jesus and those who do not. To follow Jesus you must declare that you have fallen short of the glory of God, that you have not desired God as you ought and that your rebellion against God has not only defied your sovereign creator but resulted in the brokenness we see around us.
The narrative of pointing the church whilst turning a blind eye to our own inadequacies and shortcomings is unhelpful at best, and most likely far worse. Yes, let us put to death the too-often polished veneer hiding rotting floorboards that has overcome the Church, and let us be truth-tellers filled with the courage and conviction of the scriptures, but let us not become white-washed tombs ourselves (Matt 23:13-15), outwardly appearing beautiful whilst inwardly full of dead bones.
The Flesh and Bones
Our experience of the church has too often shaped our theology of the church, leaving us with the assumption that any gathering of people who believe in Jesus and who do churchy things together resembles the church. But if that’s all the church is, you don’t need the church at all. You can probably learn more about Jesus from your favourite podcasts and preachers than your local church, and there are many places to give to that do incredible work throughout the world.
You can get a meal with friends any day of the week, but the church is the one place you can publicly proclaim a transformation from death to life in front of a newly adopted family filled with brothers and sisters. You can be captivated by the latest band, but church is the only place you can stand alongside the ‘cloud of witnesses’ and saints of old and affirm the creeds of centuries. You can put on the latest threads and have the freshest cut, but the church is the only place you can be laid bare by the confession of sin as you are embraced by the church and a loving father who has sent His Son to redeem a lost humanity.
The Scriptures paint a picture that is far richer than a minimalist theology of church can describe.
The Church is not a dispensable footnote in God’s plan to repossess and redeem the world 4 . The church is filled with fishers of men (Matt 4:19), the salt of the earth (5:13), branches of the vine (John 15:5-10), ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:20), exiles in a foreign land (1 Peter 1:1) 5 . It is a colony of the coming global reign of Christ (Eph 1:22-23) and a preview of what His kingdom will look like in the end (1 Cor 6:1-8). The church is where Christ gets glory (Eph 3:21).
The Scriptures reveal to us what we would never discover on our own. The church – not an ideal congregation but the real one that you go to every week, with the man who falls asleep, and the lady who talks too much about herself, and the kids who run around during the service and bang on the drums – is the flesh and bones of Jesus. It’s his body, he tells us – inseparable from Him as your heart and lungs and kidneys and fingers are from you (Eph 5:29-30; 1 Cor 12:12-31). 6
The Gospel and Church
When Christ died for the church, he made it his own. He identified it with himself. He put his name on it and uses the most intimate kind of language to describe how it is connected to him: His body, His people and His bride. That’s why persecuting the church is persecuting Christ (Acts 9:5).
Think about what that means. It means that Christ has put his name on the immature Christians, and the Christians who speak too much, and the Christians who don’t sing during praise songs. He put his name on the sleepers during sermons, and the grumpy sound desk guy, and the young person who can’t sit still for four consecutive minutes. He puts his name on the drunk, and on the tattered, and on the rich and on the every week attender.
How wide, how long, how high and deep God’s love is for us in Christ Jesus! It covers a multitude of sins and embraces the sinner. Oh, what a saviour. Yet, still, many people claim to love Jesus, but not His people. We do not like His church. We do not like His bride. Yet, it is our love for Jesus that should lead us to loving His people. When we are reminded of who we are, stone-cold wretches, the foolish, the lepers and the sinners, it should be no small thing to embrace those who are just like us: saved solely by grace through faith.
It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said:
“If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognising my sinfulness at all. My sin is of necessity the worst, the most serious, the most objectionable. Those who would serve others in the community must descend all the way down to this depth of humility. How could I possibly serve another in unfeigned humility if their sins appear to me to be seriously worse than my own” 7
If we see sin in our brothers and sisters, we should throw ourselves to the feet of the father. Quick, remember the gospel!
God’s Means of Stirring Our Affections
Church is the one time that God’s people gather together as one and combine multiple means of grace to not only stir our affections, but to stir the affections of those around us. We were made to worship Jesus together. Amongst the multitude. With the great horde. God didn’t fashion us to enjoy him as solitary individuals but as happy members of a countlessly large family of adopted orphans. 8
This is no chummy hobnob with drinks and a game on the TV. It is an all-in, life-or-death collective venture in the face of great evil and overwhelming opposition. 9 True fellowship is less like friends gathered together to watch the Super Bowl and more like players on the field in blood, sweat and tears, huddled together for the next down. 10
Hebrews 10:24-25 says:
‘And 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, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near’
In the same way, the church is our greatest weapon in our fight for satisfaction in Christ, by gently encouraging us to stir our affections. When our hearts are cold and our ears are closed, God’s community sings to us, prays for us and reads with us as God himself opens our wooden hearts. They stoke our affections when our fire grows low.
There is no room for believing that we can follow Jesus Monday through Saturday and then ignore meeting with His people on Sunday, without affecting our relationship. When attending Church matters to us less, eventually, our faith will matter less to us as well. Our fire tends to dim and our light begins to flicker when we cut ourselves off from the people that Christ is crafting for himself.
Apostles, Prophets, Teachers
One final thought: In Ephesians 4:11-16, the Apostle Paul writes:
‘And He (Jesus) gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
It is very likely that God has gifted millennials in this generation to be prophets, apostles, teachers, shepherds and evangelists for building up the body of Christ into the fullness of Christ. We should be those things for the church. We should start new things and new movements. We should be truth-tellers in church and lead people back to repentance. Yet all of those things involve being party of the body.
Friends, I pray that we could learn to love the church as much as Christ does. That even when it is difficult, we could pray for our brothers and sisters, being honest truth-tellers and gentle in correction and rebuke, but never forgetting that when we critique the church, we do so as members of His body and His people, that Christ is sanctifying, justifying, redeeming and washing clean, day by day.
Jimmy founded Stirring our Affections in 2016 | Married to Sarah, Pastor in Melbourne and eternally loved and satisfied by Christ