Warning - long post ahead!
My friend Adrian Warnock informed me and the rest of the blogosphere of a couple of posts on the Messy Christian blog about her depression over going to church. You can read Messy Christian's post here and then I would suggest you read Adrian's comments here. Basically, Messy Christian has become depressed over her church experience and is considering pulling out of church altogether, although in reading her comments on Adrian's blog it looks like she is hanging in there.
I have to say that I can relate. I remember my first real bad church experience. I was in college attending a growing church with a pastor who was, and still is, one of the best preachers I had ever heard. The church looked great in every way and God was using it in my life in a mighty way. One day I came home from class and my roommate told me that the deacons (it was a Southern Baptist Church) were trying to get rid of the pastor and the chairman of the deacons was leading the charge. The reason that is significant is that I was dating the daughter of the chairman of the deacons, so I was quite torn up. This got ugly and dragged on for several months and never came to a very good resolution.
A few years later, while in seminary, I was on part time staff at a church that was in decline and I started a prayer meeting on Sunday nights, praying for revival. During that time the pastor who hired me left. One day, the interim pastor called me into his office and told me we needed to cancel the prayer meeting because there were several fine Christians (read - "moneyed" Christians) who didn't want to come out on Sunday nights and he didn't want to make it look like they were against prayer.
After that, I went to a professor and told him my story. I'll never forget his words. He said "David, the church is a whore, she has frequently been unfaithful to Christ, but she is the bride He chose and He has not forsaken her and it is not for you to forsake her (if there are any "fact-checkers" out there, I know he was quoting someone else, but I can't remember who - if you know, please tell me).
The fact is that experiences like mine and Messy Christian's are more common than not in the church. And many are tempted to just leave church altogether as this person has done.
But the truth is that the Bible does not leave us the option of leaving the church altogether. I feel for Messy Christian - I understand her angst. And in what I am about to say I want to give an apology for staying in the church, even when it is at its worst. As I do this, I have no intention of coming across heavy handed, so I will apologize in advance if anything I say sounds that way. But the truth is that, though we are not saved by the church, we are saved into the church. We cannot ever forsake it.
There are several factors that have helped me remain faithful to the church.
1. Understanding that public worship is to be preferred over private worship.
I figured I would begin with my most controversial point to get the juices flowing.
A few years ago I came across the article Public Worship to Be Preferred Before Private, by David Clarkson. This is a sermon which is an extended meditation on Psalm 87:2:
the Lord loves the gates of ZionThe "gates of Zion" referred to the public worship of the temple, and the "dwelling places of Jacob" refer to the private homes of the Israelites. Worship takes place in both, but the Lord loves the public worship of the temple more than the private worship that takes place in the home.
more than all the dwelling places of Jacob.
The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (electronic ed.) (Ps 87:2). Wheaton: Good News Publishers.
I don't have the space to cover all that Clarkson says in this sermon, but suffice it to say that this would qualify as a mini-systematic theology answering the question of which kind of worship is preferred.
For now I will just point out that our preference for personal devotions over corporate worship in the church has more to do with the individualistic spirit of the age than it does adherence to the Bible. I am not pitting the two against each other - personal devotions and family worship are vital, but they cannot replace the worship of the gathered church
In the Bible, a personal devotional life seems to be assumed. I say that simply from a cursory reading of the Psalms, particularly Psalm 119 where David proclaims his love for and constant meditation on the Word of God.
In the Old Testament one of the harshest punishments that could come upon a person was to be cut off from the assembly, while there are no corresponding punishments for failing to maintain private devotion. In other words, in the Old Testament, when someone has done something really bad, you punish them by barring them from gathered worship.
Similarly, in the New Testament, the ultimate step in church discipline is excommunication - removal from the gathered body of believers.
I find it curious that, in our day we value that which God calls a curse. Biblically, it is a horror to be separated from the people of God gathered to worship. Now, it is a virtue for some.
2. Knowing that I am a far greater sinner than anyone else in the church.
This was difficult for me. Frankly, for the first 15 years of my Christian life I considered myself a pretty good Christian. As such, I found it quite easy to be disappointed in other Christians who weren't living up to my standards. While I never forsook the church completely, I made a habit of bouncing around churches until I found Christians who were as sincere and as committed to Christ as I was.
The chickens came home to roost toward the end of my seminary career. I was applying for a ministry position and all was going well through the first round of interviews. Then they checked out my references and got some bad references on me from people I thought were my friends. It turns out that my superior attitude was showing through and turning alot of people off.
As I was reading the Messy Christian's thoughts I did not detect a superior attitude, but she and I had a similar dilemma. Both of us were prone to experiencing extreme disappointment in other Christians.
Through some faithful wounds from some friends I came to see that I too was the chief of sinners, that the struggle of Romans 7 was my struggle, and that the T (total depravity) in the TULIP applied to me before it applied to anyone else.
Since that time I have found it very hard to be disappointed in another Christian or another group of Christians. This doesn't mean I don't have disagreements with other Christians, nor does it mean I refuse to stand on my convictions. But it does mean I am always among my equals or my betters.
At one point in my life my wife and I were following a path of extreme withdrawal from the world - no public school, no secular music, no TV, and no other worldly entertainments. One day a wise pastor told me flat out I was getting it all wrong. He said that I could withdraw from the world as much as I wanted to. I could withdraw completely into a hermitage with just me and my family away from all worldly influences. But the sin I took with me into the hermitage would be far greater than the sin I left out there in the world.
It's the same with those who withdraw from the church. They do so to find a purer church, all the while forgetting their own impurity. Sure, churches are disappointing because they are full of sinners, but knowing that I am a greatest sinner in the church house on any given Sunday morning prevents me from being disappointed in other Christians.
In addition, Paul tells us in Philippians 2:3 to consider others better than ourselves. If we are considering others better than ourselves, how can we be disappointed in them.
3. God is There
While it is true that God is always with us, there is some sense in which He is present in corporate worship in a way He is not present in private worship.
Although I think the context of Matthew 18:20 refers to Jesus' presence with the church in its disciplinary process, there is a secondary sense in which it applies to Christians coming together for worship.
"For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”It seems obvious that Jesus is present with the two or three in a way that He is not present with the one.
The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (electronic ed.) (Mt 18:20). Wheaton: Good News Publishers.
Some believe that this is all we need to constitute a church - two or three friends gathered together. It doesn't matter when you meet, and it certainly doesn't have to be in an institutional setting. I have read those who believe that this verse interprets Hebrews 10:25:
not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.In other words, some say that the command to gather together can be carried out apart from the institution, where two or three believers gather. The problem with this is that the word here in the Greek for "meet together" is "episunagoge" - it refers to the synagogue worship. There is scholarly debate about if and how, the church was patterned after the synagogue, but what is clear in this passage is that the gathering together of the Christians follows the pattern of the synagogue. It is a formal, institutional setting.
The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (electronic ed.) (Heb 10:25). Wheaton: Good News Publishers.
I don't believe we have the option of interpreting Hebrews 10:25 in light of Matthew 18:20, except to say that, if God is present amongst two or three who are gathered together for church discipline, how much more present is He when dozens or more are gathered for worship.
Since I have been married I have gone to two of my wife's high school reunions. I go there because she is there and she wants me by her side. I know when I go to this reunion that my role will be stand and sit, smile and nod at the appropriate times and generally not embarass her. I will be in an environment where I don't know anyone and am an outsider. It is reason enough to go because she is there. It is reason enough to go to church because God is there.
4. The church is a place where I worship with those who would be my natural enemies.
Consider the famous passage in Colossians 3:11:
Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is call, and in all.What I find interesting is that Pauls groups together not only different cultures in the church, but cultures which are natural enemies. Jews and Greeks were not only divided culturally but religiously. The barbarians were barbaric, but the Scythians were more barbaric than the barbarians, they were considered to be the most pagan of peoples. The oppressors and the oppressed were brought together when slave and free were brought together.
The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (electronic ed.) (Col 3:11). Wheaton: Good News Publishers.
On purpose, Christ chose that His church was to be made up of people who would have no natural affinities. I'll resist the urge to go off on a tirade against the principle of homogenous groups and simply say that God wants us to be in a place where we are linked together with people whom we may naturally be uncomfortable with. This does not mean that it is wrong to try to find a group with whom you can be comfortable, but it does mean that this is not your highest value. Worship of God is the highest value. Being a part of the body is a higher value than personal comfort or affinity.
5. Christians are unrecognizable as Christians apart from the body.
John 13:35 comes to mind here:
By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”I realize that someone can look at this passage and say "fine, I can love Christians without being a part of an institutional church." But that seems to me to be a variation on the them of "loving only those who love me." We tend to want to get together with a group of people who are just like us and love them. We don't want to put ourselves in places where we have to love Christians who aren't like us. But I am not sure that Jesus would recognize this as love, and I doubt the world would.
The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (electronic ed.) (Jn 13:35). Wheaton: Good News Publishers.
The fact is that God's purpose in salvation is not to build up a bunch of strong individual Christians who are disconnected from one another. I exist for the sake of the community, not the other way around. Of course I do benefit from the community, but this is a fringe benefit - I exist to build the community.
I tell people that Christ died for His bride and we cannot claim to have Him if we disavow that for which He died. Christ died for the church, not disconnected individuals without relation to one another.
No, this is not incipient Roman Catholicism. We are not saved by the church, but we are saved into the church. And it is a weak argument to say that Christ is referring to the invisible church here. I forget the figures, but in almost every case in which the term "church" is used in the New Testament, it refers to a local body of believers, under the leadership of pastors, teachers, etc., not the invisible church.
6. Concluding Thoughts
There is much more that could be said. For example, how do you make sense of commands to be submissive to church leaders if you withdraw from the church. But I am trying to show that there is more at stake in our participation in the life of the church than we realize.
I completely sympathize with Messy Christian's concerns. This "worship as performance" mentality is deadly, yet it is prevalent. And, sad to say, Biblical preaching is at low tide in our world. In a recent magazine article, a leading Christian preacher said that the expository sermon has come, has had its day, and is now gone. Hence, we get fed a diet of spiritual junk food all the time.
My plea would be that Messy Christian and those like her not give up. There are Biblical churches out there. Also, I would encourage us all to remove terms like "good church" "bad church" "alive church" "dead church" and other such terms from our vocabulary. There are only true churches and false churches. True churches are known by the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments. We may not be able to find a church that we consider "good" in the sense that the worship is what we want it to be, the fellowship is warm, etc.. But if they preach the word and administer the sacraments in their integrity they are a true church. The church at Corinth was riddled with problems, but was still a true church.
My prayers are with all of the Messy Christians of the world, like me, that we will remain faithful to the bride, because we are a part of the bride.