Where Is God in the Messiness of the Church?

I have never participated in a perfect church and have never met a perfect person, yet I believe in a God who is perfect and who is perfecting us, His people.

Toward understanding and healing the wounds of the church, I write this blog piece. The context is the very public struggles of two mega-churches in the Chicago are where I live. Last year, Bill Hybels resigned as the head of Willow Creek Church, after allegations of misconduct came to light. Just today I read about James MacDonald deciding to step down from leadership of the Harvest Bible Church in the wake of a lawsuit and allegations of poor leadership.

The two situations are different, though they both involve allegations against longtime leaders of two of the largest and most prominent churches in the Chicago area. Bill Hybels is accused of inappropriate relationships with women in the church. MacDonald is accused of mismanagement of money, heavy-handed leadership and related allegations. Both situations expose the nature of the human side of the church and the prevalence of sin in the church, even at the leadership level. (The Catholic Church is not alone in this respect.)

In the 1980’s, I became involved in a church that I thought, at the time, was the “perfect” church. It was a vibrant engaging church community. Worship was spirit-led and dynamic. The leadership was charismatic and inspiring. The church community was tight-knit and familial. This church had planted many other churches that were also thriving and growing. I spent 6 years there and knew the church intimately.

It wasn’t as perfect as I first thought, of course. People are people, even people who go to church. Within a year of my leaving to pursue what I believed God was directing me to do next, the church was splintering, disintegrating and falling apart. My pastor, the man who married my wife and I, divorced his wife within a few years of our leaving. Neither he nor his wife are involved in a church today (as far as I know).

We were devastated. This was over 25 years ago, and it still puzzles me. The coming apart at the seams of this church that I viewed as a model of what churches should be impacted me more than I would care to admit.

I realize now that I had invested more of my spiritual capital in the church and its leaders than I should have.

A friend of mine, a fellow church-goer, has been struggling with issues in his church – the leadership in particular. I have listened to him, recognizing the disappointment and disillusionment in his voice. Though I don’t know the details of the issues he has had with the leadership, I do know that he feels cut adrift; he is hurt; his faith is shaken. He has stopped going to church. He isn’t sure he can trust Christians anymore, and he is struggling to make sense of his experience. I can relate.

We left the last church we attended because of leadership, trust and personality differences that affected the people to whom we were closest in that church. Our friends were financially and personally hurt by leadership in the church. We felt we needed to stand with our friends and support them as they drifted away from the church, unable to remain in a church led by people who could not be trusted with their spiritual well being.

These are just the experiences I have had, but I don’t think I am alone in having difficult and painful experiences in churches and with the leadership of churches. Church is a messy business.

Many people turn away from the church and even from Christianity because of similar experiences. How many times have you heard someone say they don’t go to church because Christians are hypocrites? And the fact is that Christians are hypocrites!

But that shouldn’t be the end of the story.

If we are looking for perfection from the Church and from people in the Church, we are never going to find it. Even the best among us are human, and humans are prone to sin. It’s in our very nature. The human heart is sick and deceitful. (Jeremiah 17:9) Even Christians who have committed their hearts and lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior, who have been born again and have become new creatures, continue to live (as long as we live in these bodies) with that sinful “old man” that is within us that we call “the flesh”.

Paul summed it up well in Romans (7:15-19):

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

If we look long enough and hard enough within us, we can see it. Though we are tempted to look away and focus on others, we have to admit the stronghold of sin within us if we are honest. If we claim to be without fault, without sin, we are just deceiving ourselves. (1 John 1:8)

Paul, the great Apostle, recognized this in himself. Though he “delight[ed] in God’s law” in his inner being, he still saw “another law at work… waging war… making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” (Romans 7:22-23) This is the life of a Christian who is both a new creation, born again from above, living side-by-side with the fleshy old man that we also carry within us – the self to which Jesus instructed us to die. Yet, the dying is difficult, and it’s messy, and it dies hard.

So, what’s a person to do? Living in close proximity with sinful people is messy.  It’s difficult. It’s painful. It shouldn’t be this way! But it is, even in the Church. If Paul wasn’t immune to the law of sin waging war within him, none of us are! Who will rescue us from these bodies that are “subject to death?”, Paul asked, and his resounding answer is:

“Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25)

But, it’s a process as God works within both to will and to act “according to his good pleasure”. (Philippians 2:13) Of course, his good pleasure is that we love Him and love each other. There is no greater law. (Mark 12:31). “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:14) This is God’s good pleasure because love is from God. (1 John 4:7-21)

It’s a process to die to the old self with its competing tendencies and to live in the new way modeled on the Spirit of God. So we sometimes fail. But we shouldn’t give up. For we have confidence “that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)

This is why Paul said, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus….” (Romans 8:1) We are released from the consequences of the sinfulness within us. Judgment has been satisfied by the offering of Jesus on the cross. We do not have to – and should not – feel the condemnation of sin. If we have embraced what Jesus did for us, we are set free from that condemnation.

Therefore, neither should we condemn the Church or the people in the Church, even the leadership who sin and fail us. That is not to say that there aren’t and shouldn’t be repercussions from that sin. If a priest or a pastor sexually abuses a child, they should pay the full penalty of the law. Pastors whose sinful selves become obstacles to the churches they lead should step down.

What we really need is perspective. People are not God. The Church is not God. People will fail. Churches will fail. That doesn’t mean that God will fail. God is still true, though every man be a liar. (Romans 3:4)

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” (Hebrews 11:1).

I have never participated in a perfect church and have never met a perfect person, yet I believe in a God who is perfect and who is perfecting us, His people.

In my life, I went on a 15-year tailspin associated with the disintegration of what I saw as a perfect church. In truth, though, it wasn’t the disintegration of the church, the divorce of my pastor and his wife, or any of those things that caused me to flounder in doubt and sin. It was the law of sin waging war within me that caused me to wander adrift.

To the extent that my spiritual health was linked to the church and its leadership, it was unhinged from God who is the only sure foundation. The experience that I went through helped me to realize that. God worked through it all to anchor me on the right foundation. God, and God alone, is worthy of our praise and our devotion. God alone satisfies the hunger and thirst within us.

We also need to be mindful of the enemy, the devil, who is always lurking, seeking opportunity to undermine the church, weaken our faith and to cut us off from God who is our lifeline. For this reason, Peter admonishes us: “Be alert and of sober mind”. (1 Peter 5:8) We need to understand his ways, recognize his influence and resist it – “standing firm in the faith” – knowing that the family of believers around the world are going through similar difficulties. (1 Peter 5:9)

We need to draw near to God – always. If we wander off, we need to go back. In God’s wisdom, that means going back to the church. Though church is messy (because people are messy), God has ordained the church as the place where he works in us to work out our salvation.

I might never have realized my tendency to want to rely on leadership and the church to sustain me in my spiritual growth in God if not for the disappointment, disillusionment and difficulty I experienced. That doesn’t mean that I should stay away from church. God commands us to participate in the body of Christ. The hand can’t survive cut off from the arm.

I have come to see that God works through the body of Christ and all of the messiness of the church and people in the church in the process of perfecting us. In that setting, we are forced to come face to face with not only the frailties of others, but with our own frailties. We might hide them and never have to deal with them in solitude, but we can’t escape them when they chafe against the frailties of others. This, I believe, is all part of God’s plan and is necessary for the working out of our salvation and sanctification.

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