I will get around to the second part of my Submission post soon, but I felt that this topic was too important to neglect. I actually feel like this topic, in a strange sort of way, relates to the topic of submission, so I hope that it might act as a segue.
I was reading something the other day that troubled me. The conversation started with a question of why we attend church? To me, that’s a pretty fair and legitimate question, one that I have grappled with over and over. While I have struggled with the Bride of Christ on the earth, I have often gone back to a quote that is attributed to Martin Luther, “The church is a whore, and she is my mother.” I’m not sure if Luther was truly the author or not, but authorship is not the point, the fact is that the church is imperfect but she still belongs to me and I am still responsible to her.
The church is imperfect because she is made up of fallible and imperfect people like me. Yet, God chose her to be His agent of change in the world through the Holy Spirit. You might love her, you might hate her, but if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you still have an obligation to be a part of her. I am not dictating that we all need to be a part of a mega-church, but I am saying that we need to be part of a community of believers that comes together for the sake of, among other things, worship and service. That's going to look very different depending on where we are geographically and culturally, but fellowship and coming together are essential parts of it.
The writer of Hebrews writes in chapter 10:
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
These are some great reasons why the “church” needs to continue to meet and exist: to spur one another on and to encourage one another. Do you see the “one another” there, not once, but twice? The church is not about you, it’s a community made up of individuals but not focused on the individual, but focused on a purpose which is much greater good than the individual. The church’s purpose is to build the Kingdom of God, God’s community on earth.
What troubled me the most about what I read were comments from people who had, at least temporarily abandoned church. They want to do church by themselves, giving money to the things that they want to give money to, serving the ministries that they want to serve, and doing things that, in my opinion, make the focus not outward but rather inward. They have couched their reasoning in language that makes it seem as if their motives are noble and I legitimately think that some of their motives are, but it still seems a cop-out to me.
As I read the comments about retreating from church I began to realize why divorce has become such a viable option for even those in the church. Instead of staying and facing the difficulty of redemption, reformation, repentance, and restoration, why not just bail and start over again? We run away instead of dealing with the hurt and making efforts to be part of the change. How is that a viable option? We serve a God who is in the business of redemption, not complete destruction and rebuilding. When the world was destroyed by the flood in Genesis, God made a covenant with Noah that He would never again destroy all living creatures as He had done. Yet giving up on “church” is disowning her as our mother and ultimately saying that God’s change agent on the earth is incapable of accomplishing His will. It seems to be questioning whether He can really do what He said that He would do through the people that He said that He would do it through.
I have been in church long enough to have seen that we have sufficiently screwed things up. Prior to my current ministry position, I have had my fair share of being "burned" by people in ministry who should have acted better and who should know better than to have done what they did. I have seen how our focus as the body of Christ has been distorted by things that we think are the issue when things that are happening right under our noses are not being addressed and confronted. But I still remain a part of church.
Are there times when it's legitimate to take a "break" from church? I have seen people who have taken a hiatus from church, I think that I have been one of them, and I have to say, I can't blame them. There are times when there have been sufficient hurts and healing needs to take place. All possible avenues for change have been taken and nothing but brick walls have been encountered. I just wonder if we stay and fight as hard as we could. I wonder if the efforts that we make mean have really brought us to a place where we should just abandon the church or if we should not instead seek out way that we can make a difference where we are, albeit small. We all want to change the world, but it's not going to happen in one swift action, it's going to happen one life at a time.
I often wonder if we have such a distorted ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) that it would be unrecognizable to the 1st century church. But can’t God redeem it? In Scripture, He remains faithful and true to Israel despite her gallivanting around and “sleeping” with other lovers. Should we not remain faithful to the Bride of Christ?
There is legitimate criticism out there regarding church budgets and why we spend as much as we do on some of the things that we do. At the same time, there are churches that strive to be 50/50 churches, operating on 50% of their budget and giving the other 50% away. I'm not saying that we have "figured it out" when it comes to church and how it should be done, but just because we have not successfully found the balance does not mean that we pack up our things and say "to hell" with the institution.
Our own sanctification, our becoming like Jesus, is not something that happens overnight, despite what you may hear some people say. Why should we expect that the church is going to wake up one day and find that everything is perfect? There were issues with the church when it first began, there are issues with the church today, and I think that there will still be issues with the church when Christ returns, does that mean that we stop striving? Galatians 6:9 says, "Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time, we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." Persistence and perseverance need to be characteristics that followers of Jesus Christ exhibit.
Here’s a challenge for those of you who have given up on church or “organized” religion: why not be change agents within the change agent? Why not make efforts to see that God redeems His body? Why not pray that God might get loose and have His way? Even though many of us might think that we can objectively look at the church, our vision is still distorted by sin and we cannot see as clearly as we think that we can. The church is the church because it is made up of people who call themselves followers of Christ, if the followers of Christ on earth are not organized and representative of him, we are being disobedient to our purpose, our mission, and God’s goal for humanity: redemption, restoration, and community with their Creator and with their fellow creations. At the risk of sounding cheesy, the words of a song have been running through my head as I think through all of this: If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change. Change needs to start with us first, then we can change the world.
When we are faced with hardship and difficulty, it’s a cop-out to bail. Why not face the difficulty? Did God not say that He would give us everything that we need to accomplish His will (Hebrews 13:21)? If God bailed on us every time that we failed, there would be no redemption, no forgiveness, and we would all be destined to remain separated from God. Let’s not forget Jesus’ words in Luke 12, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” If we who have been saved by grace and who are continually forgiven by such grace should give up on the church who is desperately in need of grace, God help us all!