“The tendency of sin is centrifugal. It pulls us out of harmony with our neighbors. It estranges us not only from our Maker but from our fellow-creatures too. We all know from experience how a community, whether a college, a hospital, a factory or an office, can become a hotbed of jealousy and animosity. We find it difficult ‘to dwell together in unity’”.*
A college, a hospital, a factory, an office…
Surely not a church.
Many years ago, I heard some wisdom about church. If a person gossips out of church, they will gossip in church. If a person thirsts for power out of church, they will thirst for power in church. If a person is hateful and spiteful out of church, they will be hateful and spiteful in church.
We could go on and on. Think of any harmful behavior that can pit people against other people and put it in the sentence “If a person is… out of church, they will…in church.”
We have high expectations for houses of worship. We think of church as a refuge from bad behaviors. We visualize Christians holding hands and singing “Kum Ba Ya” with peaceful faces and warm hearts. The divisiveness of American society is not welcome in the church but the reality is…it is.
People are people and just because they walk into God’s house, they don’t leave their humanity outside.
John Stott, in his book Basic Christianity expresses a deep knowledge about how church should function. “God’s plan is to reconcile us to each other as well as to Himself. So He does not save independent, unconnected individuals in isolation from one another; He is calling out a people for His own possession.” .
It certainly did not seem that way in the beginning.
God asked Abraham to leave his home in Mesopotamia to possess a new land and have manydescendants. His grandson Jacob had twelve sons, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. These people thought of themselves as separate from other peoples. They tried hard to develop a culture apart from the influence of surrounding cultures. Sometimes they were successful but sometimes other cultures invaded their insulated world. When that happened God was incensed but after suffering and finally repentance, He accepted His people back.
Then came Jesus, the Messiah, the One who would explain to the world the whole kingdom of God.
We find out that God never intended His people to be set apart. His people would be in the north, south, east and west (every “race, kindred and language”). Jesus clearly states “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Stott cites the Apostle Paul who says “If you are Christ’s then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” [Galatians 3: 29].
Stott recalls Paul’s image of the human body to describe the working of God’s church. Every member is like an organ of the body. Christ is the head of the church, controlling the body’s activities. Every organ does not have the same function but every organ is necessary for the effectiveness of the body and human life. My pastor preached a sermon on Christian unity and likened the church to a puzzle. Every member of the church fits into the puzzle as a single piece fits into a real puzzle. All members contribute. Together they make the puzzle complete; it takes all of us. None of us is alike however; we all bring unique skills to church and as we use them, we can make the church function as a unified institution.
It is amazing when a church works together as a unit. The Holy Spirit courses through members and “there is one body and one Spirit” says Paul. Outward divisions cannot destroy inward spiritual unity. I have seen this in my life numerous times. Take for example the worldly concern for politics. What is important in a church? Is it politics or should it be “we are all Christians, we love Jesus Christ and we want to move His Kingdom forward in this world.” I have worked side by side with people who do not see “the world” as I do, but that never mattered. I love them and they love me and we work together for God and His Son Jesus. Worldly issues never even come up.
Why do things go sideways in some churches? People develop anger, misbehave, disrespect others, etc. Stott correctly states “the church is people—sinful and fallible people. This is no reason to shun it, for we are sinful and fallible ourselves” . I have had so many conversation with non-believers who say that the church is full of hypocrites, that they preach one thing and do another. Another reason is the fact that some go to church as a requirement, not going because they want to or feel a need to. Maybe they see other people and want business contacts. Attending some churches may increase their status in the community [a certain congregation is “cool”]. Stott says there are multiple reasons that people put their names on church rolls but they “have never had their names, ‘as Jesus put it’ written in heaven” .
God knows who are His. Some people profess faith but others actually exercise faith. God sees down into a person’s heart. While the professing people can go to church with the exercising people, they are not identical Christians.
The Holy Spirit at work in the church creates love in the church. I don’t even have to know another Christian to feel the love of God in them. They may not be like me but the bond of Jesus is a real bond. “The relationship which exists and grows between the children of God is deeper and sweeter even than blood relationships” . This is the kinship of the family of God. If you have ever felt it, it is not sentimental. It is not emotional. It is grounded in the recognition of the need for self-sacrifice. When your heart is right with God, you want to serve others, to help others, to enrich other’s lives.
What kills the centrifugal force of sin? It is this kind of love in a church. Whereas sin divides people, the uniting love for God counteracts division. Whereas sin separates people, the uniting love for God reconciles all differences.
Even though there will always be churches that are dead or dying and there will always be churches that are torn apart by warring factions, there will also always be churches that are getting it right. Even though there will always be churches that can’t figure out the love of Jesus and there will always be churches that call themselves Christian and can’t provide any evidence that this is so, there will also always be churches that are providing hope and light for a dark world.
No matter what is happening, Christians need a house of worship however imperfect it may be. I know some people may correctly call out certain congregations for being hypocrites and that is the excuse they provide for never attending church.
I would say they are right. The church is full of hypocrites. The church is full of sinners. To use an old expression, the church is full of beggars trying to tell other beggars where to find bread.
The church may be full of hypocrites, sinners and beggars, but it is also that special place…
where you will find God.