But Isn't the Church Terrible?

(Note: "Tom" is not a single real person. He is the fictional dialogue partner I sometimes use to share questions and responses I've received from those wrestling with Christianity with identifying details removed.)

Dear Tom,

You expressed doubts and deep anger at the church. You see in it embodied proof that Christianity is untenable. The hypocrisy, the abuse, the pettiness, and the arrogance you observe in Christian communities seem an insurmountable objection to the Christian faith. To that, I want to say two things.

One: I agree with much of your critique. I mean that honestly, not trying to dismiss or sidestep the problems. I feel a deep sadness and a deep rage at many things I see in churches, both in news stories and at the level of personal experience.

All churches are wrestling with significant sins. This reality is perhaps the easiest to excuse; we are all sinners, I might say, and the church is meant to be a community of unrighteous people learning to follow Jesus. Any congregation that had no members struggling with gossip or pride or selfishness would not be doing a very good job of welcoming those who need grace and growth. We shouldn't only respect clubs that wouldn't allow screw-ups like us as members.

Yet even here, I want to validate the anger you feel. I'm afraid churches sometimes use the truth that nobody is perfect to dismiss the very real damage that sin causes. We are sinful people, but we must always be repenting people as well, with tears and broken hearts enabled by the grace of Jesus Christ. There is a cheap grace that too many churches exhibit with such ordinary sins, accepting them rather than grieving them and seeking to change. Over time, such unserious discipleship breeds people who use God's grace as an excuse for their failures rather than as a scalpel doing surgery on the dark corners of their hearts.

More angering are the sins of those with power within the church. Scripture tells us that those who lead and teach are held to a higher standard; not many should aspire to such positions, but many do, and some with the worst of motivations. One has only to read the many discussions of false teachers in the New Testament to recognize that greed, pomposity, and promiscuity have long been appetites some have sought to feed while overseeing the table of the Lord.

There are horrible sins perpetrated by leaders in the church, and there are many congregations who become complicit in those sins by failing to address them. While it is not the church's fault per se when a leader falls, it often indicates a failure to properly test them beforehand and always becomes a failure if their sins are not disciplined appropriately after the fact. Sometimes this failure is systemic (as when leaders are given too much power without the proper authority), sometimes it is personal (as when charisma or care becomes a currency that somehow pays for their terrible crimes), but it is always evil. Jesus is a lover of all, but he is no respecter of persons or their supposed gifts.

And there are institutional sins of churches as a whole. Mass cover-ups. Sweeping compromises of the gospel with the spirit of the age. Attempts in one era to support a sinful social order that, in a decade or a century, are revealed as complicity with terrible wrongs.

Again, I say all of that to agree to a great extent with your doubts. They are understandable. Indeed, they are in a real sense Christian frustrations. Jesus tells us that the church as a community of faith is meant to be the revelation of His glory to the nations and His embodied presence on the earth. Inasmuch as we fall short of that calling, it is Jesus Himself who we are insulting, and such blasphemy ought to produce anger and sorrow.

That said, I would like to push back in some areas as well. I'm not seeking to ignore your objections, but to complicate their sweeping nature.

In the first place, the specific stories you have in mind are true but also incomplete in the picture they provide. More than that, they are part of a narrative crafted with a purpose, a sort of anti-PR campaign against Christianity. The empowered storytellers of culture always have an agenda. For hundreds of years that agenda involved supporting "the church" while arguing for specific sorts of churches being better than others. Read the Russian romances or Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope and you'll encounter churches and clergypeople of all types, some worthy of great respect, some sympathetic in their human struggles, and some irreducable rapscallions. The specific distribution of heroes and ne'er-do-wells tells you something of the author's sympathies, but the narrative left readers with a general sense that there was both beauty and brokenness in the people of God.

Compare that to modern stories and the contrast is stark. In fiction, the church has nearly disappeared and, in its rare appearances, is almost never portrayed in a positive light. It is, at best, a hidebound past to be escaped and at worst the greatest source of society's ills. Likewise, the news tends to focus on the church's failures and scandals. That negativity is less a calculated agenda than a response to social forces, but it is nonetheless real. Even when positive stories are shared, they tend to get far less notice than the pastoral implosions and affairs.

None of which excuses the sins such stories reveal. There is much that is wrong with the church, and perhaps especially the church in our time and place (although I'm not sure that is the case). I'm all for shining light into its shadows. However, in the form we have it today, it does create a distorted narrative.

I have had the privilege, over the years, to be a part of a number of churches and, through my denominational work, to glimpse into a large number more. A few of them have been, by my estimation, entirely terrible places. I have seen communities so warped by toxicity that I personally want to just burn them to the ground. 

A few others have been remarkable places of beauty. Still imperfect, still at times failing and hurting people, but nonetheless communities where there is incredible generosity and healing. Churches that members choose not to move away from for career or family connections because they love so much. Churches that leave people with little glimpses of the kingdom of heaven.

And the rest, probably the majority, have been communities with profound gifts and significant weaknesses. Somewhere on the road between Babylon and Jerusalem, somewhere in the process of the old Adam being replaced with the image of Christ. Good and broken places, all at once.

(The same, I should say, is true of pastors. I've known some profoundly faithful saints who I felt lived next door to Jesus. I've cast my vote to strip others of their office because of the depths of their sin. And the rest are jumbles of generosity and pride and piety and prayerlessness and wisdom and stupidity; I suspect you know I count myself in that last camp.)

That is perhaps not the most compelling view of the church; I doubt a marketing company would suggest that "some are great, some are terrible, many are just okay" is the ideal image campaign. Yet even such a measured assessment seems exuberantly positive compared to the stories I hear most culture-makers tell. This is simply to say: perhaps your sense of things, while not entirely wrong, is skewed.

A second way I would push back: there are ways in which your objection exhibits a certain distortion wrought of pride. But for that to make sense and hopefully not seem too harsh, let me humble myself by explaining something I have learned over years of doing church work.

Any given church, if it were to fully realize its calling from God, would be doing a hundred different things well. Caring for different groups, running different ministries, and speaking into different issues. I won't enumerate all of these tasks, but here is the point. In any particular church, there are perhaps thirty of those things the church excels at, another forty they do passably well, and thirty at which they are failures. Likewise, for every hundred members of a church, I suspect that thirty are receiving excellent care and discipleship, another fifty are being shepherded and cared for in a real but incomplete way, and twenty are slipping through the cracks. A truly excellent, faithful church might shift ten items to the left in each category, but no church succeeds at doing everything well or caring for every individual as they should.

I don't say that to be dismissive of the failures. Truthfully, it is one of the great sources of grief for me in ministry. I ache over my own inability to make the church perfectly like Jesus (or to make myself, as its pastor, perfectly like His either). There are relational failures, broken hearts, overlooked warning signs and community-wounding missteps in my ministry and in every church I have ever observed.

No, I point that out because as a young person, a new believer, and a pastor-in-training, I was too quick to critique churches. The reason, I have come to realize, was my own arrogance. I believed that someone like me could have a 100% success rate. That if we just worked hard enough and knew enough and everyone did what I told them, we wouldn't have the same weaknesses and failures. I was wrong. 

There is nothing wrong with being critical when the goal is to encourage and help a person or group to improve. However, there is a sort of over-criticism that expects others to live at a level we ourselves cannot sustain. I fall short of my own standards. I am at times hypocritical and at other times don't even realize my failures. That is why we need a deep and wide gospel of grace: all of us are constantly falling short and causing damage to the world in the process. Only the free welcome Jesus provides can allow us to look squarely at our failings and nevertheless with confidence approach the heavenly throne.

Christ's welcome leads to my last area of push-back. The distinctive mark of Christianity is that it rests on the undeserved love of God. This is the gospel: that we turned from God and turned against God, but that over and over He nonetheless pursues and draws near to us. That pursuit climaxes in the coming of Jesus, God becoming one of us and living the life we will always far short of and dying the death we all deserve and rising to new life for our restoration, all done simply because of His unswerving, unwavering, inescapable love.

That gospel of God's grace does not excuse the extremes of abuse and toxicity we both hate in some churches. Grace is not an excuse to keep on sinning; indeed, to be hardened in such evils is a proof one has never truly experienced it. Grace undoes our self-justifications, brings deep and true repentance, and creates a spirit of humility and compassion. If a person or community claims the name of Christ without exhibiting such fruit, they are not people adopting the low places into which the rivers of mercy flow. They deserve an appropriate condemnation, and Scripture readily gives it.

Yet we must not let such justice for the hard-hearted self-deceiver make us miss the general shape of the Christian community. It is a place where broken, messy, sinful people can find welcome and begin to heal. This process will itself involve much brokenness, mess and sin. To demand a church that is sinless, or at least nearly sinless, is to remove the grace of God and replace it with the slave-master of perfection.

All of that comes together in the last place I'd like to push: I don't pretend to see into your heart, but I wonder if part of your frustration comes from trying to serve that same slave-master yourself. Sometimes our condemnations of others reveal a self-condemnation we are living under ourselves. We hate the church for not being better than it is because we hate ourselves because we are not as good as we think we should be.

The solution to this is not to lower our standard of goodness, but it is to find them met in the good news of the goodness of Jesus. He rescues us and embraces us and invites us into His family even though He knows, better than we ourselves do, that we are broken and messy and sinful. The ultimate answer to seeing failures in the church is in recognizing our own failures and choosing to join a people that together are living on the foundation of grace.

In Christ,