I love the church. Jesus died for her (Eph 5.2, 25) and it’s good to love those for whom Jesus died. But she is one messed-up group of people, in large part because I am one messed-up person.
Jesus gave himself up for the church not because of who the church was but because of who he would make the church to be. Jesus knew full well his church would never be perfect in this life. He would have to sanctify her until the last day, when he would raise up new bodies to present to his Father (Eph 5.26-27). We serve an illusion if we think our churches will be spotless, wrinkle-free, holy and blameless before the day Jesus presents her on that day. It was never Jesus’ intention to create the perfect church in this age, but to preserve a faithful people who ride the ups-and-downs of sin, pain, sorrow and joy by faith in the One to Come.
In the meantime, we are one messed-up group of people running a difficult race of faith.
The Reformers identified the true marks of a church to be the right preaching of God’s word, the right administration of the sacraments/ordinances and the exercise of church discipline. Any church trying to hit those marks will go through some very painful circumstances. 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 meeting sin and Satan in the dark alleys of human hearts. And no one comes away without scars in that fight.
Have you considered the reason why we have thirteen New Testament letters? They’re all, in one sense or another, responses to church conflicts. There were no perfect churches in the NT and, in fact, we’re surprised to see some groups of NT believers still even considered part of the church! Jesus seven letters in Revelation 2-3 were to confront imperfect churches. Until the end of time, Christ’s church will not be what she will be when Christ gets done with her on the last day.
The ministry of Jesus invited conflict. Therefore, true gospel ministry invites conflict in the “best” of churches. We don’t relish the conflict, but we’re not surprised or excessively despaired by it. In fact, conflict is often the means of testing faithfulness (2 Cor 2.9) and reminding us that we’re not There yet and therefore must keep eyes fixed on Christ.
We can ignore conflict, wanting to avoid the hard work of communal accountability to the gospel. We let folks slip out the side-door so as to avoid any confrontation and stain of scandal.
We can exaggerate conflict, assuming Satan is successfully destroying the church. But Satan only has as much leash as God allows.
We can understate conflict, acting like it’s not there until the cancer takes over major organs. Suddenly a group is “led by the Spirit” to start a new church.
We can fear conflict, running from it so much that we end up being with people who are exactly like us.
Or, we can consider conflict biblically. In the best of churches, conflict will happen. That’s why we have most of the New Testament. Therefore:
- We should be honest about it. The world doesn’t need to see a superficial billboard of smiling suburbanites. The world needs to see a community of sinners who have found Living Hope in the gospel.
- We shouldn’t be surprised by it if we’re striving to be healthy churches. Satan has declared war on the church (Rev 12.17) and when we poke him he snarls.
- We should see it in light of the big picture. 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. 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 in 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).