Sunday, August 29, 2010

Widgets

In Search of the Perfect Church

My friend Kathy had just finished recounting to me the myriad insufferable problems with our church.  The theology was impure, the congregation was insufficiently devoted, the leadership was distracted and divided ... in short, the church was hopelessly off-course.  She and her husband were thinking of leaving for another church that promised better everything:  from the pastor to the laity to the doctrine.  It was time to go find a congregation more pure, united, and Christ-like ... well, you know, like those wonderful first-century churches.

"Okay, Kathy", I said.  "I completely understand.  I just ask you one favor.  Call me when you find the perfect church."

I didn't want to quibble with Kathy's complaints.  There was at least some merit in many of them.  Rather, I wanted her to see the danger that comes with church shopping.  In many ways, it's like shopping for a car.  This year's model looks perfect on the showroom floor.  When you first bring it home you're thrilled with the "new-car smell", the shiny paint, and all the things it does that your old car didn't do.  And yet over time the flaws start to manifest.  After each one the thrill wears off a little more, until pretty soon it doesn't feel new anymore.  Inevitably, you start staring longingly at car commercials and in showroom windows again.

And yet, in another way a relationship with the local church is less like a car than it is a spouse.  At first everything is full of hope and promise--for better or worse, till death do you part!  That is, until you realize that it's not everything you dreamed ... it has serious flaws ... irreconcilable differences even!  Everything's changed--if only you'd known before you said "I do"!

But like in marriage, the glory of committing yourself to a particular body of believers is in actually honoring the commitmentIf loving one another was easy, we wouldn't have to be commanded to do it.  Every church has problems, many of them severe.  Every church struggles, changes, has bad apples, and goes through ugly trials.  It is the nature of a congregation of sinners that they will, in fact, sin, and that will be unpleasant for all involved.

Just as it was unpleasant for those wonderful first-century churches.  Just as it was in the immature, divided, sexually immoral, gluttonous church in Corinth; or the foolishly legalistic, "bewitched" church in Galatia; or the "lukewarm" church in Laodicea; or ... well you get the idea.

Is separation ever called for?  Certainly, as in marriage, infidelity to God's truth may be cause for divorce.  Yet this is and must be a very high bar, not mere differences over peripheral, disputable matters.  How high?  Well, even that great Protestant reformer Martin Luther persevered within the Roman Catholic church for nearly 3 years from the time he posted his provocative "95 theses" until he was separated by excommunication.  Even so, it was not he who severed the tie with Rome, but rather Rome which cut him off when he continued to preach the truth from within, until the corrupt church leadership could no longer stomach his insistence on the centrality of salvation by faith in Christ alone.

In relationship to my local church, as in my marriage, fidelity must be my first and overwhelming inclination, my consuming passion, and my ultimate objective.  As long as there is still love for Jesus present, there is still work for me to do in the place where God has planted me.

Oh, and Kathy?  I'm happy to say that she and her husband remained and served that church well and faithfully for as long as we knew them, and the church was richer for their ministry.

4 comments:

  1. I'll rush to be the first with this on behalf of my denomination (though it's generally used to remind us of our smugness): OPC - "Only Perfect Church!"

    With that out of the way, I'll mention that our congregation received three new members today, and heard them reply in the affirmative to our fourth vow: "Do you agree to submit in the Lord to the government of this church and, in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine or life, to heed its discipline?"

    Most of those whom I've heard say "yes" to that over the years have been faithful, but the next time that someone bolts the minute that some problem occurs (without so much as hearing of the church's discipline, much less heeding it) won't be the first. It's a sad commentary, but true.

    Another part of our service this morning was a unison reading of Psalm 15. Perhaps the single part which most distills its teaching - describing a righteous man - is the end of the 4th verse: "who swears to his own hurt and does not change". I'm pretty sure that, the more one reads the Psalms, the more convinced he will be that, if by "godliness", we mean being "like God, insofar as men can", then one of the cardinal qualities that must involve is "faithfulness". "It's impossible for God to lie." (Heb. 6:18, see Ps. 100:5) He never breaks His word. His promises are "yea and amen".

    The church needs many things by way of reformation, but this surely must be one of the most important: That Christians keep their word, and the world knows that, hate us though it may, it can depend on us. But it won't know that until our wives and husbands know that we won't just walk out when the going gets tough - and our congregations know the same thing.

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  2. Good post.

    We've had some people abruptly unplug over the years for various reasons. Most seem to be about the needs of their kids. Number one need it seems to me that kids want is parents who are faithful to their commitments. All of them.

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  3. You nailed this one, Jailer! I will add one caveat. I have often seen parents wobble on their commitment when a child hits the teen years and suddenly isn't as interested in church as before. "It's boring!" "None of my friends go there." "I heard that 'XYZ' Church has an exciting youth group."

    Parents suddenly become paranoid because the same child that used to LOVE church now doesn't want to go. When they are brave enough to talk to their pastor about it, I have asked them if they intend to follow their teen from church to church until the teen is an adult. What if they change churches and their teen still doesn't want to attend? Usually these sober conversations cause parents to think twice about hopping around in search of the perfect church for their teen.

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  4. I've seen cases of something even more troubling where teenagers are concerned: Realistically assessed, it was clear that the young person was slipping away, morally and spiritually. The parents' reaction was then to blame their congregation. ("If only we really cared about our youth!") So off they went, looking for a better one, where, supposedly, their child could "be fed". But what they took with them was the same home that failed the young person in the first place.

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