Living in the South, I’ve learned there are a lot of people that take pride in where they go to church.
Maybe it’s that way in the North too, but there’s something special, it seems, about your regular place of worship in the Southern United States that it becomes a line in obituaries and a talking point for local politicians. I’ve covered county-, city- and state-level politics and government for about 3 years now, and almost every one of them will list their church and how involved they are in it on their resumés.
I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong about being excited to go to your church, or being appreciative of the work a church or a few churches do. We should work to make our churches places where people want to be, where people can hear about Jesus, grow and mature and love one another well.
But there’s a pattern I’ve noticed, especially as I’ve written at times somewhat critically of the church at large:
“Don’t criticize the church. It’s not productive. It pushes people away from the message. You’re just saying what Christian haters are saying.”
I know some of my blog posts in the past have ruffled people the wrong way. I’ve gotten texts, Facebook messages and calls from well-meaning and often-right friends and family members saying, “Hey, you might want to dial it back a little bit.” I’ve deleted a couple blog posts over the years. One was about how I found K-LOVE incredibly dull and immature, that they should be “more real” when it came to Christianity, and the other I can’t remember right now.
I’ll say this now: K-LOVE serves a purpose in the body of Christ, and as much as I may have qualms with them and their methods and the music they play, they’re just doing their thing, and if people love Jesus more because of them, awesome. Far be it from me to slam them outright without acknowledging what they do and their ministry.
Please don’t make that the only takeaway from this.
But there are some things I can’t let go, and today, that thing is my desire to see the church at large change. And that change, I believe, starts with pointing out flaws and weaknesses from the inside.
This is not intended to be a Trojan horse situation. I’m not going to try to blow up the church from the inside. The purpose of this is an antibiotic. You take it and ingest it to root out what’s bad in you, to bring you healing and redirection. I don’t intend to fix all the problems with the church — that takes more people, time and money than I’ll ever have access to, and changing hearts, which I can’t do, only God can.
But I think it’s important to say this: The Church is not God. Your church is not God. My church is not God. So why do we treat it that way?
Churches — whether it’s the building or the people that gather there at least once a week — were never treated as perfect entities in the Bible. The New Testament church spent a chunk of its time trying to root out the issues and problems within its various branches. Paul’s 1 Corinthians is all about errors in the way the church was handling itself, and several sections of the New Testament speak about false teachers and the need to correct actions and attitudes within the church.
The Bible never calls on us to defend the church, either a single building or the whole institution. Paul regularly praises the faith of those who believed, the individuals, due to his teaching, but he often used that as a set-up to say, “But you’ve got this wrong. You’ve messed this up.”
I’m reading through the book of Romans right now, and I’ve tried to approach it differently than I’ve ever looked at a book of the Bible: trying to see it through the eyes of its original audience. Of course I can never do that perfectly, and I’ll bring my personal biases and perceptions and perspectives into the exercise.
But as I’ve read through Romans, especially the first few chapters, I’m seeing that it’s really about Paul showing the Jews in Rome, to whom he is writing, how messed up their attitudes are. He spends the second half of chapter 1 talking about the sinfulness of the unrighteous, that “they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die,” but “they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (v. 32).
So the Roman Jewish Christians are probably feeling pretty good at that point. “Yeah,” they might have thought, “we don’t do that stuff. We acknowledge God.” But Paul had another one coming for them.
“Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you the judge, practice these very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things” (Romans 2:1-2).
The Greek “anapologétos,” used for “have no excuse,” is literally derived from the words “not” and “to argue a case.” The Roman Christians could not argue a case for their righteousness. They did not have enough evidence to be convicted of Christlike-ness. That’s why Paul said, “Because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (2:5).
Of course, Paul didn’t stop there. He told them what it meant to be a Christ-following church in later chapters.
I’m not claiming to be on the same level as Paul — I didn’t get blindsided on the Damascus road and then spend “many days” with the disciples in Damascus (Acts 9:23) — but I think there’s something to be said for his approach.
Of course we’re willing to criticize churches that aren’t ours. I’m guilty of it. I’ve done that mess where I talk about another church that has this backwards theology or messed-up approach to mental health issues. But when it comes to our church, our place, or even “the church” at large, I’ve found that we’re often blind, either intentionally or unintentionally, to our weaknesses and, more often, the need to fix them.
The church, globally or locally, is not our object of worship. It’s not the perfect being that created us and gave us life. It’s not the perfect being that saw our sinfulness — saw the things that made our churches weak — and gave us salvation and new life in Him. It’s not the perfect being that lives and moves in us, guiding us to obedience and praise.
So we should be willing to admit our weaknesses and not be afraid of a little criticism. Far too often, it’s well-warranted. Some churches and Christians, after all:
- Supported slavery during the Civil War, citing the Bible.
- Supported the Holocaust, citing Martin Luther, a faith hero to many even today.
- Opposed interracial marriage and dating.
- Exuded and still exudes racism, sexism and homophobia.
- Supported and still supports political candidates who speak out of both sides of their mouth when it came to matters of faith.
Why do we need to be afraid of being called out for our sins and mistakes? Shouldn’t we want to change? Shouldn’t we want to be conformed to the image of Christ? The Imago Dei who loved prostitutes and tax collectors, who was not afraid to identify Himself with the “least of these,” who was deemed a rabble rouser for not following the status quo of His day, whose followers were deemed to have “turned the earth upside down” (Acts 17:6) when they loved Jesus and loved people.
Let’s be welcoming of criticism, no matter where it comes from. After all, the Church isn’t God. It doesn’t warrant our apologetics.