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.


6 Responses to “A Caution to Church Haters”


  1. Wayne Jacobsen

     

    Hi Jim and Amy. I appreciate your hearts here to make sure we’re all included in the grace we need and part of Jesus drawing us all together under one Head. I almost never respond to blogs, but someone sent me this link today and I felt it important to at least speak into your misconception. You’d be hard pressed to find in So You Don’t Want To Go To Church Anymore, the attitude you are challenging here. I don’t hold a grudge against people who find congregations helpful to their journey and do not think they should be treated with anything other than love and grace. I actually speak very positively about Christ’s church however she lives in him, inside or beyond our human institutions. You may be painting with a broader brush than you need to here and misrepresenting not only the content of that book, but also my personal heart toward God’s people wherever and however they gather in him.

    Reply
    • Jim Spiegel

       

      Thanks for your comments and clarification, Wayne. However, I don’t think I have misrepresented your book or created any misconceptions about its message. Notice my wording when referencing your book, which I was very careful with. I only stated that your book and the others evidence the trend I discuss, which is growing criticism of the church—a pretty safe claim. I didn’t affirm that you or the other authors are yourselves critical of the “invisible” church, though when it comes to local “institutional” church bodies, you clearly are. So I don’t think I painted with too broad a brush or misrepresented your book or your heart towards the people of God. Having said that, one could argue that you do have something like a grudge against the local church. As Tim Challies says in his review of your book, “from cover-to-cover, the book is heartlessly negative towards the local church.” As to whether that is accurate, I suppose we can leave that to readers to decide.

      Reply
  2. Christopher Watson

     

    Amen to all of those points. Clearly the authors of these types of books feel they are the “brains” in the body of Christ, without appreciation that they will “stroke out” separated from the heart, lungs,….

    Reply
  3. Marie

     

    Over the last couple days I’ve spent time either engaging with or just reading up on popular groups who are critical of Christianity and Christians. I think what jumped out at me the most was a podcast in which an influential critic admitted how much nicer the world would be if Christians could all be murdered. The host of the podcast and another guest agreed with him, before the original commenter admitted that he realized it wasn’t a viable option. Not. Comforting. At. All.

    I’m not saying the Church hasn’t made incomprehensible choices worthy of the strongest condemnation, which in many cases it still perpetuates… Within my own community I often speak against empty, loveless religion and injustice within the Church. But I’m shocked at how extreme the antagonism against all Christians has become in America, how people are almost chomping at the bit to see not just sinful religion wiped out, but to see even the most redeeming and inspiring parts of the Christian community destroyed.

    Reply
  4. Steve

     

    I don’t see the problem being those that criticize the institutional church, but rather the ability or desire of the church to accept such criticisms. Much like Jesus criticizing the organized religious institutions of his time, so the church seems to reject and villainize those who do. After all, the church sees itself as the defender of “truth”, who should criticize it in its mission? As they say, criticism is good for the soul….or in some cases, the soulless church.

    Reply

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