When I was growing up I really believed that the church had everything perfect. We had perfect doctrine. We had perfect practice. We had it right and the only other people who also had it right were some unnamed group of people on some remote island who happened upon a Bible, formed a church and lo and behold, it looked just like a Church of Christ. That was the story I heard growing up anyway.
As we age we get more critical of things. Over time we begin to see issues and flaws. We find out that the church is full of imperfect people doing imperfect things. We meet people from other fellowships who (if you grew up in a hyper-conservative environment) we were told were lost and we see they have just as deep of a faith as we do. All of a sudden, the church we were taught that was so perfect doesn’t look so pristine as we were once taught and once thought. Eventually, many fall away, go somewhere else or just sit in the pew as a critic. It is really all pretty sad how Satan has his hand in our lives and gets things all stirred up like this. It is up to us to be mature enough to find a path through all the messiness to embrace a walk that is closer to God despite our shortcomings.
It can be hard to see beauty in imperfection. In fact, the world around us tries harder each year to heighten our sense of discernment toward flaws and imperfections. We live in an age of air brushed models and special effects that can turn a sound stage into a tropical paradise or a metropolis with just a few clicks. The church in all its imperfections can seem marred, unattractive and less and less the “place to be” (we will get into the church is not a place thing later).
Let’s be honest, the church isn’t perfect. Let’s continue to be honest…one of the reasons the church isn’t perfect is because I am part of the church and I’m not perfect either. It bugs me when people are hyper-critical about the church but never seem to be very much in touch with the fact that they are imperfect as well. If you don’t start there, you are going to miss the whole point. Paul wrote something in 2 Corinthians 4:1-12 that is a vitally important starting point that I want to use to frame this discussion of what church is all about. You don’t start a discussion about how perfect we are and then find out we aren’t. You start a discussion about the church with how broken we are and then discuss what God is doing to make that right. That, to me, is the right path through this story. I know that because that is the narrative arc of scripture.
“Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”
There have been billions of words recorded both digitally and in print that point out all the problems with the church. The church will always be imperfect this side of the second coming. Can the church have a place in this world in spite of its imperfections? Can we join ourselves to a body that won’t always get it right? Will we associate ourselves with imperfect people? Many have said “no” and that is a shame. Many have turned down the idea of “church” because there is “nothing in it for me” or because “the church is full of hypocrites.” We have heard these phrases more times than I can count.
Let’s go back to Paul’s words here in 2 Corinthians 4. He said the church is a clay community. We are earthen vessels that are undergoing a tremendous amount of pressure in this world. We are hard-pressed, perplexed, persecuted, struck down and not always appealing…(none of those things are appealing in and of themselves, are they?). If we want a community that lacks cracks, we won’t find it. But the truth is, it is the cracks that make us beautiful because the cracks remind us that we are undergoing the pressure God has called us to endure. What some see as ugly and distasteful, I argue are the marks of authentic people in authentic community. So you can say the church isn’t meeting your needs or there isn’t anything there for you but make sure you aren’t taking the cheap way out in order to avoid cracks in your own clay because they are already there. Let’s just be honest about that too.
“There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
– Leonard Cohen “Anthem”
I was also raised this way. Pretty soon, I realized how inconsistent it was to say in one breath that we are not perfect but forgiven, and in the next that everyone else is mistaken, and therefore lost.
Unfortunately, the Churches of Christ apply “we all have cracks in our pottery” to themselves and not to other churches or those who dissent from or leave the Church of Christ. It is kind of like: “Don’t leave us, because we are imperfect. But, for God’s sake, don’t go to the denominations, because they are imperfect.”. That is very hypocritical. I left the Church of Christ, not for being imperfect, but for being fatally flawed. They worship a book called the New Testament and not Jesus Christ. Their version of faith is intellectual assent to the facts about Jesus and the Gospel, and not a heartfelt conversion to the new relationship (covenant) with God by faith.
I understand what you are saying. It has happened. I do want to remind you that I and many others are still very much a part of the Church of Christ and don’t belong with the “they” you are describing. A more accurate phrase might be “some in Churches of Christ….”
From my reading, the “They” outweigh the “Some”. I consider you and others like you the some who are for freedom in Christ.
Thanks Gary…I really do think things are improving! I hope that is the case but either way, we continue to do what we can to please the Lord and help others along the way.
Great article, Matt. I remember growing up with a definition of the gospel as “facts to be believed, commands to be obeyed, and promises to be received.” There was little to nothing said about how broken we are and how the God who is love is fixing things in the whole world.
We err greatly when we speak of the church more than we speak of the Savior of the church. It is not the perfection of the church that saves us; it is the perfection of the Savior.
Most cofC “lessons” focused on the church. Rarely was Jesus mentioned. I agree with you.