In defense of the church, part V: process

There are churches out there that are actively poisonous, no question, and there are people who have been badly hurt by such churches. (Not all of them are in the pews, either—some are pastors.) That said, there are a lot of folks out there complaining about the church for a lot less reason, whose gritching essentially boils down to “the church isn’t perfect according to my standards.” Well, no, it isn’t. You aren’t perfect according to its standards either, believe me. There are three things that need to be said here:

1) It’s an old saw, but it bears repeating because it obviously hasn’t occurred to a lot of people: If you ever find a perfect church, it will stop being perfect the minute you join. This is the most basic thing to understand: every church is an imperfect combination of imperfect people, of whom you are one.

2) Every good church is in process: specifically, in the process of being grown by God the Father through the work of Jesus Christ as applied to us in the power of the Holy Spirit into the church which God intends for us to be. Every church will hurt you at times; every church will let you down at times; every church will fall short of what it’s supposed to be at times. That’s because every church is made up of people, and people do that. What matters is how theyrespond to those times, and particularly how the leadership responds; churches ought to admit their failures and shortcomings, apologize and try to make things right, and then work to address them and get better. A church that generally does that, with leaders who usually model that approach, deserve support and praise, not to be bashed for their mistakes. (Even the best of churches won’t always respond as they should; when they don’t, though, they should be corrected gently and graciously, with humility about our own imperfection.)

We have to understand that we can’t expect the church to get everything right; the most we have the right to expect is that the church be in the right process, moving in the right direction. That’s what the church is, after all: not a bunch of people who have it all together, but a bunch of people who are together, growing together, following Jesus together, and helping each other along the way. We need, as Jared put it, to be willing to “submit to community,” even with all its inevitable imperfections, if we’re going to live as Christ calls us to live.

3) If you want to receive grace, show grace. It amazes me how many people gracelessly and self-righteously bash churches for being graceless and self-righteous. If you show that sort of attitude, you’re as much a problem as the church you’re criticizing.

The general principle here, it seems to me, is one that Tim Lane and Paul Tripp articulate well in their book Relationships: A Mess Worth Making, in a passage quoted by Jimmy D. atCruciform Life:

Worshipping God as Savior means that I acknowledge that I am a sinner in relationship with other sinners. I remember that you are still in the middle of God’s work of redemption—as am I. He is still convicting you, teaching you, and changing your heart. He is faithfully doing all these things at the best time and in the best way possible. None of us ever gets to be in relationship with a finished person. God’s redemptive work of change is ongoing in all of our lives. When I forget this, I become self-righteous, impatient, critical, and judgmental. I give in to the temptation to play God and try to change you in ways only God can . . .

When I fail to worship God as Savior, I am too casual about my sin and too focused on yours. Our relationships are often harmed when we try to atone for our own sins while condemning the other person for his. When you are sinned against, you will be impacted by the weaknesses and failures of that other person. When this happens, you need to allow God to use you as an instrument in His redemptive hands rather than seeking to make changes in the other person yourself. Only God can accomplish these things. Are you trying to do work in someone’s life that only the Savior can do? (HT: Jared)

Many churches are guilty of this mistake on a systemic level, and I don’t blame anyone for avoiding such congregations. Even those that aren’t, even those that consciously teach and preach and disciple against this, will still struggle with it, because it’s one of the subtlest of the sins that beset us, and one of the most insidious forms of spiritual pride. But when we bash “the church” for being imperfect without acknowledging our own imperfection, when we denounce “the church” as sinful without confessing that we too are sinners—when we insist that the problems of “the church” are everyone else’s fault and we are innocent of all responsibility and all blame—then we too are guilty of being “too casual about my sin and too focused on yours.”

There are, to be sure, many congregations that have problems that are intractable, and many people who have worn themselves out trying (and failing) to bring change to such congregations; but the answer to that is not to write off “the church” as a whole. Rather, it’s to find a church that will love you for who you are while you heal, and in which, when you’re ready, you can step up and use the gifts God has given you to help grow his church into what he wants us all to be. I do not deny that the church is imperfect, sin-riddled, flawed; I simply deny that that’s justification for attacking or dismissing it. Rather, it’s our call to do our part to help fix the problem.

Previous posts in this series:

Part I: Preaching

Part II: The institution

Part III: Doctrine

Part IV: Jesus

Posted in Church and ministry.


  1. I like that term – “submit to the community”. I think I have have reconciled in my spirit that the human element will never be perfect. I think that’s why the bible tells us to bear with one another and make allowances for one another. There is nothing new under the sun. But somehow we are suposed to make it work.

    I think that we can submit to community as long as we don’t check our brains at the door. However, we should still wear our heart on our sleeve. I hope I’m making sense with all of my cliche’s!!! What I mean is that we should be authentic and vulnerable with one another but trust our gut when something doesn’t seem right.

    This post reminds me of the joke that goes like this:

    “I don’t want to go to church because there are too many hypocrites there”

    “Well there’s always room for one more”

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