Over and over again, a common theme is voiced to me about The Church. That it is a place of hypocrisy, a magnet for legalists, the anti-thesis of true godliness. And in ways I have to agree. There have been several church groups and particular people in the congregations I have attended that would certainly reflect the above sentiments. Indeed, I can say first-hand that in many ways, church is not all it was cracked-up to be. After all, it is full of imperfect people on various paths of the Christian journey (or not, because let’s be serious, not everyone who darkens the church doors would call themselves a believer) and all the above are people who are in various stages of growth, maturity and understanding. How could church be anything but imperfect?
But the problem is that church (The Church) has been held up to a high standard, and for good reason as it represents the Body of Christ. And when the people that represent The True Church fall short, so too does the reputation of the church. We are the only Jesus that some will ever see. And at times, we are doing a poor job at making Him recognizable, I’m afraid.
Speaking personally, I have followed a roller-coaster ride of emotions over the years, which could only be described as a love-hate relationship with The Church. There are times when disappointment is over-shadowed by mountain-top highs of grace in action. And there are extreme lows when legalism, silly opinions not based on biblical fact and judgmental attitudes prevail. When Christians had become my worst enemies. And I had all but lost faith in people, especially those who call themselves Christ-followers. I think one of the problems with all of this is that those of us who are tired of looking for true examples of Christians are really just frustrated that many Christians aren’t all they’ve been touted to be according to the standards set in the Bible. And as far as Church goes, many people similarly frustrated with The Church are really just tired of pretending that this mess we see inside the four walls of the church is truly what church was intended to be. We are tired of playing church. Which seems like such a trivial, juvenile activity. And when we tire of this activity, we do so because we crave deeper knowledge of what Church was intended to be, as Christ designed it.
I believe that the Church is the people. And the people who make up the true church are believers. Many believers are new to the faith. These Christians are the most impressionable. They are often the most excited about their faith. They are often the most zealous. Other believers are growing Christians. They fall into many different categories: babes, toddlers, teens, mature. A sign that these Christians are growing is that Jesus is evident in their life. By their fruits (the good things that accompany Christians who show us what Jesus really looks like) we know them. Then there are Christians who are not growing. They fall into many categories as well: babes, toddlers, teens, young adults, old adults, immature. A sign that these Christians are not growing, despite the fact that they might have been Christians for years and years and years is that Jesus is not evident in their life. And I’m not talking about rule-following. I am talking about EVIDENCE. Grace. Compassion. Mercy. Love. Joy. Humility. Peace. Hope. And all the other Fruit of the Spirit. Gratitude. And an abiding faith in people as bearing the direct imprint of God.
And so much more than this. I barely scratch the surface.
The truth is. The church, if it really was functioning the way God intended, would lead by example. The strongest would lead the weakest even if it meant that babes would be leading the so-called senior citizens of the faith. Sometimes grace appears to be travelling vertically. People often talk about grace coming down, as if to say that the sinners on the bottom end of the continuum need grace from the saints at the top. I say that the sinners everywhere along the continuum need to extend grace downwards, sideways, and yes- even upwards to the people who think they need it the least. The saints (even the judgemental ones) sometimes need grace, even as they exhibit less than saintly behaviors like legalism, hypocrisy and unjustified conclusions about other Christians in the Church (and all because the behaviours of said latter group of people don’t line up with the former’s interpretation of the Bible.) The Saints act and do these anti-godly things, causing the Church to reflect their incorrect interpretations of what they deem right or wrong because they have been led to believe that Church is a performance. A list of rights and wrongs. An act. A show.
Which we know according to Jesus, it is not.
Those who love the Church know that church can never be a performance. Because nothing we sinners can ever say or do will ever be enough to earn us God’s forgiveness. To earn us heaven. And we who know this can never live up to even the highest of standards and not somehow err somewhere along the way. Love’s salvation is not a hard-earned prize, but a gift. And we re-gift and offer up grace upon grace when we love people in spite of who they are. Even if they think they are Saints. When they are really just sinners like the rest of us.
Sinners know that they are completely undone apart from Christ’s mercy through the cross. And we can love both Sinners and Saints even when either/or don’t yet know who they really are (lost without Christ) and who they can become when Christ is recognizable (the reflection of Christ). And when sinners choose grace, forgiveness and love instead of bitterness, anger and resentment, they are able to truly love the Church as Christ loves her.
As if she were His beautiful, ravishing bride.