Have you been hurt by a church? Offended by some in the church? Angered by a church? Have you simply been so frustrated with a church because it acts like a social club, does not do effective ministry and missions, or just does not do what a church is “supposed to do”? Have you actually left or been tempted to leave church and never go back?
I am confident the majority of Christians have seen, heard about, or experienced some of the above at some point in their lives. In fact, some of us have even contributed to these unfortunate situations (I confess!).
In recent years I have known pastors who have been wrongly fired by dysfunctional and unrepentant congregations. I know staff members who have left ministry altogether after serving under an unhealthy and insecure pastor. I know quite a few long-time church members who have simply gotten fed up with the same old “stuff” and have either dropped out or are considering leaving the local church. What to do when the church (yes, I mean the people) act these ways? How should we respond?
To begin with, there are three responses to avoid: One, we should not ignore, excuse, or overlook sinful behavior. Issues must be prayed about and dealt with according to Matthew 18. Two, we should also not respond in like manner. Scripture is clear that returning evil for evil is not an acceptable response (Luke 6:35; 1 Peter 3:9). Three, we should not abandon church, leaving the fellowship because of all those unspiritual, mean hypocrites. Sure, there may be a bunch of them, but what does it say about me when I make myself out to be so spiritually superior that I just dump the church? Sounds a bit like the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:10-14. Ouch!
So what are some appropriate responses?
One, choose to forgive. Oh, sure you say, the Sunday School answer. Well, that’s right. As followers of Jesus we have no choice but to forgive those who have wronged us, wronged others, or who have done damage to the church. Now, forgiving them does not mean we have to agree with them, that we avoid Biblical confrontation, or that church discipline is not called for. It also doesn’t mean there are occasions when it is time to move on and leave that particular local church. Forgiving does mean choosing not to hold a grudge, not to speak evil about that person, and perhaps overlooking a ton of offenses. Even though some offenses have to be dealt with according to Matthew 18, it doesn’t mean every single little offense has to be. Sometimes we just need to overlook things said or done to us out of love. No, I didn’t say it was easy. I have struggled myself plenty with forgiveness.
Two, adjust our expectations. I think we pretty much know we can’t find the perfect church, but I am talking about more than that. Re-read 1 Corinthians. Guess what? That is more normal than not. This whole church, body of Christ, “one another” stuff is a whole lot harder than we often care to admit. It takes work – the work of love, forgiveness, and overlooking a ton of stuff.
Three, improve our perspective. Take it a bit further than adjustment of individual expectations. As a matter of fact, take it way beyond the individual. That is, this whole church thing is pretty much what the New Testament is about. Yes, it does begin with individual regeneration, but there really is not, as the cliché goes, such a thing as churchless Christianity. Now, I know some would agree with that statement but then point to the universal church. “I am,” they say, “a part of the church. I just don’t really have to go to a church.” But the New Testament is all about the local gathering of believers. They are the universal Body of Christ and a local church. They go to a church at some point and in some fashion. Certainly, there is plenty of room for debate on different expressions of church, but my point is there is no excuse for not gathering on a regular basis with a body of believers. Biblically speaking, there is no other option. The local church is the culturally appropriate expression of the Kingdom. Could be a house church, could be a megachurch. There is something to the idea that the world will know us by how we gather, love each other, treat each other, and then reach out to them. I just can’t do that all by myself.
Four, consider the family. One of the Biblical images for the church is as the family of God. That image has a couple of implications. On the one hand, if it is like a family, then it is as messy and difficult as most families can be. Being a family is joyful and a wonderful blessing . . . and also at times hard work, frustrating, and annoying. On the other hand, some biological families are so dysfunctional and abusive that members are estranged from each other. Consequently, the church can be and should be the family for them. In fact, our eternal family will not be our biological family. It will be the church! Certainly, it is wonderful if our biological family is also part of the church family. But, bottom line, if we are the church and the church is a family and we are spending eternity together, we are compelled by Scripture to build that relationship now, hard as it may be.
None of this is to deny the real pain, disappointment, humiliation, anger, or frustration that we all sometimes experience. I have myself often wanted to scream, fight, mercilessly criticize, or just blow it all off and leave. I do give in to a bit of that temptation at times. At other times, I try to bite my tongue, take a long look in the mirror, work on forgiving, and thank God that he hasn’t revoked my church membership for the foolish things I have said and done.