They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.1 John 2:19
I was a Church baby from the womb. I came up through AWANA, Bible camp, youth group, FCA and many iterations of different movements and perspectives all intentionally designed to make the Church seem like a place that was tolerant, accepting, relevant and—I cringe as I type this—cool. I went to undergrad where I eventually settled on and attended a church which was by no means perfect (no church is). I helped lead the youth ministry, eventually became a youth pastor and then left that post to pursue an M. Div., which I received nearly 5 years later.
But as far as conversations about the Church1 goes, it is not my experience (nor anyone’s experience) that’s important. Why anyone would begin their long, cliche diatribe by seeking to detail and thereby validate their experience as someone on the inside—someone who like, really gets it, y’all, who has been around a long enough to have a superior perspective, diagnosis and solution to the issues that plague the Church—well, that’s beyond my ability to discern. But that doesn’t stop them from posting, blogging, podcasting away as they criticize Christ’s bride, the community they have been a part of for so long yet are somehow not responsible for any of its issues.
What’s their solution? Deconstruct your faith. Take a step back from your church. Seek Jesus on your own because the only place he ever asked you to meet him is in your heart. At best, this take is moronic and at worst, it’s demonic. And the way I see things, this take (held by “Christian” writers, musicians, “pastors,” and celebrities) is becoming increasingly popular as experience itself—however flawed by our biases, our limited knowledge of a situation or our private agendas—increasingly becomes everyone’s personal and ultimate authority. In what follows, I don’t intend to offer an exhaustive handling of the doctrine of the Church. But I do think there are some things missing from the conversation when these cool icons of Christian culture announce their exit from the Church in what’s either a desperate last gasp for continued relevance or a new, hip perspective they’ll undoubtedly use to hit the bestseller list again.
A Perfect Church
One of the things I’m most struck by as I read the scriptures is the unwavering love God has for his people despite their constant rebellion. As I am prone to wander and drift toward wicked desires and my own indwelling sin, this is an amazing comfort. I’m comforted by this because, while sin is in a sense natural, it is still wicked; it is still what separates me from a holy God. And yet, despite my real and present wickedness, God pursues me because he loves and is jealous for his bride. In short, God has gone to great lengths to purchase the Church and sanctify her, and one day he will present her as perfect.
But the bride is not yet perfect; it’s quite the contrary. With somewhat regularity, we read of sexual scandals, the embezzlement of funds, pastors who have to step away due to a moral failure, abuse, false teachings and more. I bring this up specifically because this is one of the leading reasons I have seen for why people have “deconstructed their faith” and are leaving the Church. These church situations are terrible and unhealthy; they deserve the harshest criticism they receive. But when the headlines stop coming and the attention is focused elsewhere, there remains behind a heartbroken and needy people with trust issues.
The good news is that a healthy church is the perfect place to work through these trust issues and to heal the wounds caused by our experiences in unhealthy churches. God has designed the Church that way and gifted her with qualified people to help lead her and build her up in love (Ephesians 4:11-16). To tell these people that THE Church—not their previous, unhealthy church—is the problem harms these people a great deal, because it hinders them from finding the kind of fellowship God has designed to help them heal. The solution to unhealthy churches is not to remove yourself from the Church altogether, but to find a healthy church. There are currently no perfect churches, but there are plenty of churches who accurately teach the scriptures and disciple their body toward Christ.
One Body, Many Members
In the fabric of God’s creation, he designed the body of Christ to have a healthy kind of codependence on one another. The Church is described in 1 Corinthians 12 as being one body with many members. God’s intention is that these members all work together in harmonious accord, and the text goes to great lengths to spell out that there are no insignificant parts of the body that can simply be removed or neglected. Just as we are not to say to any part of the body, “I have no need of you” and cast them off, we are not to say to the body, “You have no need of me” and sever ourselves from fellowship. To do so is to communicate to the members of Christ’s body the severest level of indifference and disdain possible.
I think this stems from generations of Christian culture that have prioritized the “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” over the corporate relationship a believer has with its local church. In many ways, there are swaths of Christians who don’t understand that they’re meant to be a part of the body, and they don’t understand that they’re a part of the eternal mission of God to redeem a people for himself. I don’t mean to emphasize one over the other; I only mean to say that when we do emphasize the personal walk with Christ more than membership to the body of Christ, many understand that to mean that one is essential and one is optional.
Christians who have stepped away from the Church with the attitude of “Jesus never asked me to meet him anywhere but in my heart” or “I love Jesus but don’t love the Church” are placing themselves in a very dangerous place. I am saying this very intentionally: This is the most arrogant thing I have ever heard. That a believer thinks they can be a body unto themselves and take their portable Jesus with them on the road as they neglect to submit themselves to the membership and community in a body of believers is the height of arrogance. Coffee with Jesus on your front porch is not a church, and that’s not because church requires a building with pews, a steeple and an organ; it’s because Christians are called to love and fellowship with one another and you can’t ‘one another’ by yourself.
With what I’ve said so far, this next line will come as a shock to some, but I’ll say it anyway: Some of you need to leave your “church.” The reason why is that some of you don’t go to a real church, but instead weekly gather in a building you call a church despite the fact that the Bible is not rightly preached and the sacraments are not rightly given. As George Whitefield once said, “I am verily persuaded the generality of preachers talk of an unknown, unfelt Christ. And the reason why congregations have been so dead, is because dead men preach to them.”
It is no surprise to me that generations of Christian culture who have pushed the Bible to the far margins of their worship services, and have engineered their Sunday gatherings to be about reaching the lost rather than worshipping God and edifying the saints, and have sought to make people comfortable instead of confronting sin, and have striven for relevance over truth in every possible way, has received a massive population of people who have no interest in the Church as their well-deserved byproduct. These people don’t believe church really matters, and I don’t blame them; we’ve essentially told them that in the form of pithy, self-help sermons that communicate that they’re the center of the universe.
I think part of the reason why so many people are eager to leave the Church (and don’t see it as a loss of any kind when they do) is because they haven’t been to a healthy church. They think they’ve tasted of Christianity, but they’ve only had their ears professionally tickled by weak men, unworthy of the office they hold and the pulpit they profane. Sundays are just lights, camera, action. It’s no wonder they either leave or they neglect to gather (Hebrews 10:25).
The Church is not perfect. It has many flaws because it is led by many a flawed men. I don’t deny that it has issues, but these things will not always be this way. Christ will build his Church, perfect his bride and forever unite us to himself one day. On that day, petty arguments will no longer separate the true Church. But I do not think that the solution to the disagreements we have now is a reason why Christians should leave the Church—or worse, try to refashion the Church in their own image.
Christ has so designed the Church that it is meant to bring together individual Christians operating in various roles to build one another up in love. Comprised of individual believers, the Church needs all its members, and individual believers need the Church. We need each other. This is the design of God for his Church, and anything short of this is disobedience.
The Church is not yet perfect.
You need the Church.
Jesus IS good.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.Ephesians 4.11-16
1Like most, I lowercase the use of “church” when I am referencing a particular church body, church in a general sense, etc. I capitalize the word when I am referring to THE Church, the comprehensive collective of blood-bought saints throughout all times and places.