In Amy’s last post she highlighted the hypocrisy implicit in the way some Christians preach grace towards certain people outside the church but withhold grace to their fellow Christians within the church. I see this attitude as part of a larger, disturbing trend, as it has become rather fashionable of late for Christians to be critical of the church. This is evident in such recent books as David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me, Wayne Jacobsen and Dave Coleman’s So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore, and Kelly Bean’s just released How to be a Christian Without Going to Church. I would like to offer a word of caution to those who so freely criticize the church and even, as in Bean’s case, recommend that Christians spurn church attendance and formal membership altogether.
First, we need to keep in mind that “the Church” is not an abstract entity but is composed of real people, fellow followers of Christ who aim, albeit imperfectly and sometimes very awkwardly, to worship and serve God together in local communities. So to reject “the church” is to reject particular people. And to hold a grudge against “the church” is to refuse to forgive or withhold grace from particular people. When reading the accounts of some who have followed this path, its hard not to interpret their attitude toward the church as genuine hatred. And that’s what’s scary, because from hatred of “the church” it is just a short step to hatred of Christians. And hatred of Christians is tantamount to hatred of Christ.
Consider the experience of the Pharisee Saul on the road to Damascus, leading to his conversion and eventual apostleship. Here is the account as recorded by Luke in Acts 9:
Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
Notice Jesus’ choice of words here. Twice he clarifies to Saul whom he really is persecuting with all of his “murderous threats,” namely Jesus himself. Those who follow Christ—“the Lord’s disciples”—constitute the church, which is the “body of Christ” as the Apostle Paul would later declare (1 Cor. 12:27; Eph. 3:6; Col. 1:24). For all of our foibles, failures, and petty preoccupations, the followers of Christ—yes, even in formally organized ecclesial structures—are somehow, mysteriously united to, and the most tangible expression of, our Lord. So any condemnation of the church is impudent, to say the least.
Am I saying that no critical commentary or assessment of the global church, a local church or particular Christians is ever appropriate? Not at all. In fact, this is crucial for the life of the church when done properly. Genuinely constructive critical engagement is often powerfully redemptive, as it has been at so many junctures of church history. But wholesale rejection, condemnation, or abandonment of the church, as is increasingly being encouraged these days, is neither constructive nor redemptive. In fact, its more like, well, persecution.
So we should take this as a caution against vitriolic pronouncements about, let alone endorsements to divorce oneself from, “the church.” Instead, let’s go for ethical, theological, and socio-cultural critique, whether of particular churches, denominations or individual Christians. This can be done pointedly but with love. (Successfully or not, that’s what I’m going for in this very post.) Like Amy, I would hope we can show at least as much grace to our own as we show to those outside the Christian community.