I Still Love (and Need) the Church

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a Christian who is a member of a relatively small church. Your church was planted (i.e. newly founded) several years ago in a cosmopolitan city known for its commerce and trade. The founder of your church has since moved on to another city, but you write him a letter because you are overwhelmed by the problems that are everywhere in the church.

You write him about all the chaos and hypocrisy you are seeing…

  • The church is full of divisive people who align themselves with their favourite preachers and teachers, constantly arguing with each other about who’s right and who’s best.
  • In line with popular philosophy, some of the people in the church are convinced that the Christian doctrine about “resurrection from the dead” is just a spiritual thing. They’re saying that when we die, our souls go on but our bodies simply stay dead, forever.
  • There is a temple in town belonging to another religion, and some of the prominent church members are participating in worship there and brushing it off as no big deal. Others who used to be part of that religion are freaking out, afraid even to eat food that has been “tainted” by being prepared at the temple.
  • Certain men and women in the church are in conflict over gender roles and how men and women ought to behave during the worship service.
  • People are bringing contributions of food for the Communion meal, but the wealthy people aren’t willing to share their own food and drink, so the poor members of the church have nothing to eat.
  • At least one individual in the church is suing another in civil court over a financial dispute.
  • Some members of the church are soliciting prostitutes.
  • A young man in the church is sleeping with his step-mother (!!), and the church isn’t doing or saying anything about it.
  • Other members have decided that sex is ungodly and are refusing to have sex with their spouses. There is at least one young man who is postponing marriage to his fiancée for this very reason.
  • Still others are married to non-Christian spouses whom they have begun thinking of as “unholy,” so that they are considering divorce (not to mention their attitudes toward their now-“unclean” children!).
  • People are very proud of the “spiritual gifts” which God has given them, looking down on other church members who are gifted in different ways that are less prestigious.
  • People with the rather spectacular spiritual gifts of tongues and prophecy are dominating the worship service, turning it into a circus of self-expression and leaving everyone else confused by the chaos and disorder.
  • Everyone cares more about expressing their own desires and their own rights, especially the more prominent members. They aren’t concerned with the effect their actions have on one another. They run roughshod over each other. They don’t really love each other.

The founder of the church is a good and faithful man. Can you imagine what he will think when he reads your letter? What do you expect him to tell you?

Will he tell you to get out of that dysfunctional place? Will he swear off that church altogether? Perhaps he will give up on the Christian faith, saying that religion is useless or worse. Perhaps he will declare that churches are all full of hypocrites, that Jesus would have nothing to do with people like this. Perhaps he will complain that Christians don’t care about the poor and needy after all.

Perhaps that’s what you or I might do. But we might be surprised to discover that the founder offers a very different response.

In fact, the apostle Paul didn’t write off the church he had founded in first-century Corinth. Instead, he replied with a letter we now include in the New Testament as 1 Corinthians. Given the problems in the Corinthian church, it’s a firm but shockingly gracious response. After a brief greeting, his first words are, “I give thanks to my God always for you” (1 Corinthians 1:4). Personally, I would have begun the letter with a little more rage and a little less thanksgiving.

It’s unmistakable: This is a man who loved this church. Despite all their insanities and hypocrisies, he loved them. His love leaps off the page even more when you read his other letter to them (2 Corinthians).

Oh, and by the way, the church in Corinth kept making a mess of things. About 50 years later, they re-established their reputation for dysfunction and hypocrisy. As Clement of Rome lambasted them after yet another schism and insurrection within the church:

Righteousness and peace are now far departed from you, inasmuch as every one abandons the fear of God, and is become blind in His faith, neither walks in the ordinances of His appointment, nor acts a part becoming a Christian, but walks after his own wicked lusts, resuming the practice of an unrighteous and ungodly envy, by which death itself entered into the world.

1 Clement 3 [1]

I have heard and read similar criticisms of Christians and churches, though perhaps none as eloquent and scathing as Clement’s. Usually the modern criticisms come from those who walked away from the church, or from the Christian faith. I know that much of the content of their criticisms is true. I’m no dummy. I see all the same things. From my vantage point as a pastor of a North American evangelical church, I’ve seen firsthand hypocrisy, deceit, spiritual abuse, divisive spirits, uncaring hearts—from the leadership on down. And on top of these things, I hear even worse reports that baffle and grieve me about a multitude of other North American churches. My point in writing about the church in Corinth is that these are not new phenomena. These problems go all the way back to the church in Corinth—a church that tested the patience and sanity of Paul himself (and later Clement). A multitude of screwed-up churches exist in every time and place throughout church history, and they always will, until Jesus Christ returns.

If you’ll “deconstruct” and walk away from the North American evangelical church…would you have done the same in Corinth? Would you have loved that church—or turned away in contempt?

Yes, some people do love the church but have endured abuse and trauma, so that even entering a church building is an overwhelming experience. And others struggle with overwhelming social anxiety. They need patience and understanding. I don’t question their love for the church, which endures despite their weakness. I consider them faithful disciples of Christ, as they learn how to overcome these struggles and slowly make their way back to the church.

My concern, rather, is the more common pathway that begins with disdain for churches and other Christians for all their hypocrisy and dysfunction. I know myself well enough to know how that cancer would spread in me. Any disdain in my heart would metastasize into contempt—turning my back and walking away, hating the church, swearing it off forever. I simply must not follow that pathway.

I know enough to know who I would become if I were to walk away. That cultivation of disdain would only feed my existing tendency toward the venomous sin of contempt. I know what sort of poison can sprout from such a seed. I’m grateful that the Lord has, again and again, put me in churches where my contempt must eventually be dealt with and crucified. I would never have crucified it myself, without the church that has shaped me. Whatever good has been done, has been done in the context of the church, through the Spirit.

The moment I believe that I can do without the church is the moment I begin the long, dark slide back into contempt, with its underlying boast in its own righteousness, cleverness, enlightenment, and maturity. I can’t afford to travel down that express lane to hell. I need to be right where I am. There are people here with righteousness and faith I don’t have, gifts I haven’t been given. People that I need, and love.

Yes, the Lord Jesus Christ has the right to say to a local church, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Revelation 2:5). That is his call to make—not mine. Am I a prophet of the Lord? Do I have the right to remove the lampstand myself? Has he granted me authority to pronounce my own judgment on his church—let alone all churches? May God preserve me from such a delusion. It is not my place to utter any word of contempt against what Paul called the temple of the Holy Spirit.

Do you not know that you [plural] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

1 Corinthians 3:16–17

I still need that temple, and that Spirit, and those people. I still need the church, and I still love it.

[1] Clement of Rome, “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1), eds. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, & A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 6.

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