Relax, Your Church is a Mess (For Now)

If you are a Christian then you love the church because you love what Jesus loves. Jesus died for her (Eph 5.2, 25) and it is Christian to love those for whom Jesus died. But Christ’s bride is one messed-up group of people because you and I are messed-up folk.

Jesus did not give himself up for the church because of who she was.  He died for her because of who he would make her to be.  Jesus knew his church would never be perfect in this life.  He would sanctify her until the last day when he raises her anew as a gift to his Father (Eph 5.26-27).  We would prune here and whittle away there, smoothing our spiritual barbs and softening our bristles.

It’s an illusion to think our churches–your church–will be spotless, wrinkle-free, holy and blameless before the day Jesus presents her to the Father.  Jesus never intended to create the perfect church in this age. He would preserve a sketchy people who by faith ride together the ups-and-downs of sin, pain, sorrow and joy until he comes again.

Meanwhile, we are one motley group of weak people running a very difficult race of faith.

According to the Reformers, the true marks of a church are the faithful preaching of God’s word, the right administration of the sacraments/ordinances, and the exercise of church discipline.  Any church aiming at those marks will go through some very painful circumstances.  We invited nosiness when we were baptized.  When Jesus came on the Galilean scene demons came out of nowhere to go toe-to-toe with the one they knew would destroy them.  Likewise, striving for and maintaining healthy churches means brawling with sin and Satan in the dark alleys of human hearts.  And no one comes away from that fight without scars.

Have you considered the reason why we have thirteen New Testament letters? They’re all, in one sense or another, responses to church conflicts.  Be it sneaky false teachers or plain old infighting, local churches suffered grievous internal conflict. There were no perfect churches in the NT.  In fact, we’re surprised to see some groups of believers still considered part of the church!  Jesus’ seven letters in Revelation 2-3 confronted imperfect churches (and in some sense all churches in all times and places).  Christ’s church is not yet what she will be when Christ gets done with her on the last day.

The ministry of Jesus invited conflict.  True gospel ministry therefore invites conflict in all churches.  We don’t relish the conflict, but we’re not surprised or excessively despaired by it. Conflict is often the means of testing faithfulness (2 Cor 2.9) and reminding us that we’re not There yet and must keep each other’s eyes fixed on Christ.

We can ignore conflict by avoiding the hard work of communal accountability to the gospel.  Offenders and offended simply slip out the side-door so as to avoid any confrontation and stain of scandal.

We can exaggerate conflict by assuming Satan is successfully destroying the church.  Satan only has as much leash as God allows, though.  Let’s be careful of ascribing to Satan what are really our own selfish, prideful desires.  No offense is unresolvable. Either by humble reconciliation or loving church discipline, Jesus has made a way to deal with church conflict.

We can understate conflict by publicly ignoring it but privately gossiping about it until the cancer takes over major organs.  Jesus gives courage to elders to confront conflict early so no bitter fruit blossoms (Heb 12.14).  Otherwise, what are probably minor offenses explode into major rifts.

We can fear conflict by running from it so we soon have a church with people exactly like us.

Or, we can consider conflict biblically.  Conflict will happen in the best of churches. That’s why we have most of the New Testament. Therefore, we should be honest about conflict.  The world doesn’t need to see a billboard of superficial, smiling suburbanites.  The world needs to see a community of sinners who have found Living Hope in the gospel and pursue peace with each other.

We should consider conflict as a means by which God exposes our own sin. He tests our love so we will enjoy even more of Christ’s power and provision.  He will allow conflict to show the world the precious value of Jesus over indwelling sin and personal hatred.

We shouldn’t be surprised by conflict if we’re striving to be healthy churches.  Satan has declared war on the church (Rev 12.17) and he snarls when we poke him.

We should see conflict in light of the big picture rather than our infinitesimally small world.  Christ is sanctifying a global community and we’re barely a sliver of it. Whatever conflict we face in the American church should be seen in light of the persecution of Christians in most of the rest of the world.

We should consider conflict part of God’s means of sanctifying his people.  We still need Christ to redeem, repent and restore.

We shouldn’t consider a healthy church the one without any conflict. There is such a thing as false peace.  The healthy church is one who deals with conflict in a Christ-exalting, saint-loving, purity-protecting way.

While conflict shouldn’t dominate a church’s life, it will be a regular condition in the life of the church.  Such is life in the age of groaning (Rom 8.22-24).  There will always be someone(s) giving into temptation, incubating wicked thoughts, hiding secret sins, etc.  The joy of Christian ministry is not making sure everyone looks perfect but making sure everyone is hoping in Christ and his perfections.

We live in the age of the hope of glory (Rom 5.2; Col 1.27), knowing the day is coming soon when we will finally, and in reality, be the glorious people for whom Christ died.  Until then “with perseverance we wait eagerly for it” (Rom 8.25).  So, relax, your church is a mess.  But not for too much longer.

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Slow to Type, Slow to Anger (Christians & the Social Media Baals)

Like the God who made us, we humans are incessant communicators.  We will use anything to talk to each other: a rock on a cave wall, a reed dipped in plant dye, a Dixie cup and long string, mechanical arms that stamp letters on paper, or digital pixels that bounce of satellites into mobile devices.  God communicates so naturally his image-bearers do so, too.

Social media is not inherently evil any more than the teletype, telephone or mechanical pencil were evil when invented.  Today’s tweet was yesterday’s pamphlet.  Today’s status update was yesterday’s bulletin board note.  We humans will devise anything to communicate. Our problem is not what we use to communicate, but the way in which we use it.

James wrote “beloved brethren” (i.e. professing Christians) “must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.  Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” (Jas 1.19-21).

In our oft-volatile relationships with one another Christians love one another by talking less and listening more.  We do far more receiving of the word than expecting others to receive it from us.

James could not remotely envision Facebook or Twitter but the principles still applies.  Such is the beauty of Scripture for all people, in all places, for all times. Christians are to be slow to type and slow to anger.  Jesus’ disciples are no longer of this world (Jn 17.16) and therefore do not handle our relationships in worldly ways. That includes how prone we are to vent on social media in the name of Christian piety.

We’re all guilty of it.  Someone offends us and we go off on them on Facebook in generalities, insinuations and innuendo.  Instead, we should lovingly, patiently, privately and prayerfully take up the offense with them.  Love doesn’t go off about generic people “out there” or the anonymous “you” who treat(s) us this or that way. We make it sound like we are the pious ones, defending virtue and Christian responsibility against “those people” who act so unbecomingly.  The world is lucky to have someone who will call out sin.  With a wink-wink we summon our in-the-know friends to our sympathetic aid.  We hope that person-who-shall-not-be-named reads it and is brought to tears in holy conviction (which never works and typically stirs up more anger).  We then pat ourselves on the back for correcting a brother or sister.  If we are honest, our rants are really about serving our own egos than serving our neighbor as we pile up “likes.”

In reality, though, we are cowards.  We use God’s name in vain and treat our enemies as things/its/ideas, not persons.  We would rather throw a handful of rocks out of a moving car hoping one of them hits the bully who offended us.  Such is not “in humility, receiving the word implanted, which able to save your souls.”   Jesus does not treat us anonymously.  He lovingly comes to us, calls us by name (Jn 10.3) and makes peace with us.  Christians should no more use social media to shame others any more than they would post a handwritten note on a city hall bulletin board.  The “Golden Rule” is enough to restrain us (Lk 6.31).

I love a good tweet as much as the next guy.  I appreciate the renewed relationships social media has afforded across state, national, and global lines.  But we are citizens of heaven (Phil 3.20) and how we communicate in heaven informs how we communicate on earth.

Jesus provided the means by which we handle interpersonal conflict in the church. If we are offended and cannot graciously overlook the offense (1 Pt 4.8) then we are to go to our brother (Mt 16.15).  We do not rush to Facebook to talk about him without really talking about him.  We talk to him because we love him.  The world is ruthless, vindictive, passive-aggressive and shameful.  The church is anything but those things; therefore, Christians are not to update statuses the way the world does.  Self-justifying people ask who their neighbors really are (Lk 6.29).  Jesus-loving people don’t parse ideas.  They “go and do likewise” (Lk 6.37).

Jesus prescribed that unresolved conflict be handled within the merciful confines of the church (Mt 16.16-18).  Christians should never assume the liberty, especially in the name of God, to publicly shame one another before the world.  We do not want to give the world any more fodder by slandering them or especially our own (Col 3.8; 1 Pt 2.1).  Satan is the slanderer and accuser and we want nothing to do with being like him.  Therefore, we keep the circle as small as possible as long as possible.

We do not want to sully Christ’s name or unnecessarily or intentionally shame our brother’s name.  We handle our business in-house, where there is pastoral protection, love, humility and courage.  If we must eventually “go public” then we do so with our pastors/elders, not with our “friends” or “followers.”

Social media has its place and value.  But its place and value are limited and governed by the rules of Zion.  Jesus never made anonymous threats or offered generic love.  He dealt with our offenses personally, lovingly and decisively.  The next time we are compelled to Facebook to call out “you know who” let us go instead to prayer and then to them.  Let us remember that God “has not dealt with us according to our sins” (Ps 103.10).  We may find that what we could not wait to write is actually not worth being said.  If you will not go to your brother then you should not go to your “friends.”

“Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn 4.11).     

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