Terry L. Johnson
This is the twelfth of 18 articles in a series entitled “Who Needs the Church?”
The most common reason for refusing to be involved in church, or even attend, is the bad behavior of its members. Hypocrisy, in a word, is the obstacle. One has been hurt by the negligence or harshness or cruelty of a member. Or perhaps one has been turned off by the political views or social or moral views that one perceives characterize a given congregation. Or one has become disillusioned by the dishonesty or vulgarity or immorality of members; maybe a member who is a church leader; a member who dresses up nicely on Sunday, who looks the part, talks the part, plays the part on the church grounds, but behaves poorly all week long. This member who pretends to be one thing on Sunday sadly is quite a different person throughout the week.
The discrepancy between the ideal church and the actual church is so troubling for some people that they simply quit. They stop coming. They want nothing to do with church. They don’t want to be anywhere near that hypocrite or those many hypocrites and their bad behavior and bad opinions.
What can we say about this? Simply this: the church is made up of people. People, Christian people, redeemed people, church people, are still people. People do bad things. They always have and they always will. That is why the bad behavior of members should never become the criteria for determining our personal level of involvement in the life of the church. If it were, we would never darken the church’s doors simply because there are a host of bad people in there. This is always the case and always has been.
The Apostle Peter had to deal with the deception of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) and the covetousness of Simon the Magician (Acts 8:9-24). The Apostle Paul constantly had to defend himself from the attacks of other believers who out of “envy and rivalry” and “selfish ambition” falsely accused him of one thing or another (Phil 1:15-18; Gal 1:10; 4:16-17; 6:13; 2 Cor 10:9-12). He was abandoned by Phygelus and Hermogenes (2 Tim 1:15), deserted by Demas (2 Tim 4:10), and greatly harmed by Alexander the coppersmith (2 Tim 4:14). The Apostle John had to deal with Diotrephes, “who loves to be preeminent” (3 Jn 9). Advance warning was given by the Apostle Paul to the Ephesian elders of the “fierce wolves” who would “come in among you, not sparing the flock.” Bad men would arise “from among your own selves,” from among the elders, who would speak “twisted things” in order to ‘”draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29, 30). Jude warns of “certain people” who “crept in unnoticed,” who pervert grace and deny Christ (Jude 4). Ever thus! The church has always been a mixed multitude of wheat and tares which grow up together and cannot be separated until the last day (Mt 13:24-30).
In many areas of life the ideal can become the enemy of the achievable. For example, expectations in marriage are crucial. If I am expecting unending marital bliss from the moment I marry and instead encounter periodic doses of tension, disagreement, and discouragement, I may conclude that I married the wrong person. If I am realistic about what is achievable in marriage between two children of Adam, I will take marital conflict in stride. The key is, what am I expecting? If I have utopian expectations for my country, I will find occasions for disillusionment at every turn. Ideals are good to have. Yet they should always be held in the context of the achievable. This is the wisdom behind the quip of Churchill (and I paraphrase), ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest.’ The same could be said of the United States. It is the worst, the most evil nation on earth, except for all the rest. Compared to the ideal, it fails. However, compared to the history and achievements of every other nation across the globe, compared to what nations and peoples actually do, compared to what is achievable in the collective entities we call nations, there are compelling reasons to be thankful for what we have.
The failings of the German church during the Hitler era were considerable. The so-called “German Christianity” was horribly compromised and a disgrace to the name Christian. Yet the German church, particularly the “Confessing Church” of the faithful, failed compared to what? Albert Einstein, no less, wrote commending the German church for its resistance to Hitler. He compared the church not to a standard of perfection, but to the other institutions of German society: the press, the universities, the politicians, the army, the labor unions, which all capitulated while faithful Lutherans and Catholics continued to resist right to the end.
The disciples of Christ are not perfected in this world. Sanctification is a lifelong project. Likewise, the disciples of Christ as a collective entity, as a church, are not perfected. It is not perfected. It will remain deeply flawed until Jesus returns. This is by God’s design, however it may be curious to us. He does not intend to perfect us until glory. In the meantime we all stumble, fall, and fail.
This is why the bad behavior or bad opinions of members should never be allowed to become the criteria by which I determine my involvement or non-involvement. If it were a valid criteria, the church could never have been formed. As C. H. Spurgeon once said (again, I paraphrase), ‘If you find the perfect church, don’t join it, you’ll ruin it.’ Exactly. The very concept of the church means that bad people like me have to join with and put up with bad people like you. We all bring our baggage with us into the church where it causes problems. No wonder we have to be told, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Eph 4:32).
Terry L. Johnson is the senior minister of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, GA. He is author of various books including Leading in Worship, Worshipping with Calvin, Serving with Calvin, and The Identity and Attributes of God.
TAGS: wheat and tares; problems in the church; hypocrites in the church; expectations of the church; ideals of the church; “Confessing Church;” Matthew 13:24-30