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How Should We View the Church?
Answer: the way the gospel views us.
The past few years of my spiritual life have brought two distinct, intersecting truths to the surface of my consciousness. First, the answer to shame, insecurity, and fear in my own individual heart is the gospel, because the gospel not only confirms my real guilt but assures me that this guilt has been dealt with in love, forever. Second, the answer to my suspicion, cynicism, and even hatred toward those I perceive as my enemies is also the gospel, because the gospel tells me that those people are as loved as I am, and withholding from others the grace that was given to me is a sign that I myself have not experienced deep enough forgiveness.
When I translate the gospel into thinking about truth, culture, and the church, what I get is a profound sense that being a Christian is a disadvantage in the rat race to “win” social or political power. The gospel is a disadvantage because it tells me that I’m a sinner, and I cannot genuinely believe that I am a sinner while at the same time marketing myself or my ideas as the cure-all for the world’s ills. It’s a disadvantage also because the experience of the gospel makes certain worldly strategies unthinkable. In secular politics, I am supposed to crush my opponent with every tool available to me, even if it means stretching the truth or doing to him what I would not want done to me. The Bible says that my willingness to do that is evidence against my genuinely knowing Jesus. Disadvantage.
The thing about the gospel is that it moves so quickly from how we are treated by God to how we treat others. It’s horribly inconvenient. But it gets worse: the Bible tells us that if we refuse to treat others the way we believe God has treated us in Christ, it will turn out in the end that we actually were not treated by God the way we thought we were. The grace we will have thought we received will turn out to be a mirage. The most famous prayer in the history of the world features one of the strongest threats in Scripture: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15)
Why does Jesus say this? Why is there a seeming condition on his offer of forgiveness for our sins? Why is the condition forgiving others? I think one answer must be that forgiving people who sin against us is one of the primary ways we remember who we really are. To forgive the person who hurts us is to tell ourselves again, “I am the one who trespassed against God. God forgave me, and I am not a better sinner than this person who has trespassed against me.” Remember that Jesus said he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Mark 2:17). The ones who are saved are the ones who, by mercy, hear that call. To withhold forgiveness is to stop our ears.
I say all of that to say this. What is missing from much evangelical conversation about the state of the “the church” is the gospel. I’m not trying to Jesus-juke or be a smart alec. I mean this literally. Over the last few years the #1 topic I see dividing and defining American Protestants is not abortion, LGBT, or Donald Trump; it’s the question of how we should think, feel, and talk about the church. Almost every meaningful controversy, salient debate, or tragic scandal in evangelicalism right now can be mapped onto a grid of options for how Christians are to relate to the collective body of believers in which they find themselves.
This tension is exemplified by a tense exchange between two men whom I admire. David French is a superb writer and an unusually compelling journalist. In the recent past, particularly since the election of Donald Trump, David’s writing has increasingly focused on the moral failures of a plurality of conservative American evangelicals. The failures of the predominantly white, evangelical church clearly occupy much of David’s attention and concern, and this comes through in his forceful and frequently blunt criticisms of it.
Kevin DeYoung is a Presbyterian pastor. He is also a wonderfully gifted writer and an excellent theologian. This week, Kevin expressed dismay at David’s criticisms of wide swaths of white evangelicalism. Kevin believes that the church has faults, yes, and white evangelicals need a prophetic voice to the conscience like the rest of the Body of Christ. But, Kevin writes, David’s writing condemns huge numbers of sincere, Bible-believing, neighbor-loving Christians merely on the basis that they are constituent members of the abstraction known as “white evangelicals.” Continual, un-nuanced criticism of white evangelicals, Kevin says, is not the inevitable outcome of a fair and balanced evaluation, but a tidy narrative that will please certain people in positions of elite cultural authority by reminding them of who the Wrong Kind of People really are.
My point in this post is not to tell you which side to pick here, French or DeYoung. This is simply one, mostly inconsequential example of a dynamic that is much bigger than two writers. We could instead talk about the conversation over “deconstruction,” the process by which Millennials and others throw off the traditional religion in which they were raised and choose a seemingly more compassionate, inclusive, tolerant, and less “toxic” version (often by jettisoning teachings they believe to be hateful).
What’s interesting about the deconstruction debate is that, while it might present as a typical theological argument, the more explosive subtext is the question of how we are to describe people who deconstruct. Should we sympathize or rebuke? Should we admit the church’s complicity in sin and abuse, or should we emphasize the claims of Christ? Should our default posture be lament over our corporate failures or confidence in the Bible’s teachings?
For al the layers of meaning in the French-DeYoung dialogue—for all the concerns about polling data, defining terms, specifying criticisms, and writing with pure motives—I truly believe the main issue is, “How are we supposed to feel toward and talk about the church?” David’s recent writing exemplifies one answer. Is it the right one?
A few weeks ago Trevin Wax wrote what I consider to be one of the most helpful pieces on this subject to appear yet. In “You Can’t Reform a Church You Hate,” Trevin reminds us that “love precedes renewal.” Those who want to talk about the church’s failures in order to prophetically chart a better course need to realize that this work requires an attachment to the Body of Christ that is equally as strong as the attachment to correcting her. Trevin:
Those of us who mourn the complicity of the church in manifest evil must differentiate between a kind of deconstruction that tears down a building and celebrates the rubble and the kind that strips away the moldy walls and floors until we find again the foundational truths that are common to Christians everywhere and through time.
The problem with many reform efforts today is not that their proposals are too radical; it’s that they’re not radical enough. Radical means returning to the root, getting back to what the Christian faith is all about, the core of Christianity that helps us differentiate the rotting branches from the trunk of the tree.
Church renewal requires a more radical deconstruction. Renewal requires us to reject every worldly agenda that would use the church’s fiascos as an excuse for altering the church’s foundation. Renewal points us back to the source of truth so that we are shaped anew by Scripture. Renewal leads us through this contemporary moment, with roots that go deep, as people who see our faith not as an accessory to the life we’re already determined to live, but as a precious and profound treasure we’re determined to pass on.
I think this is exactly right. In fact, I think what Trevin gets at here is a fundamental but revolutionary truth: We have to think and talk about the church the same way that we think and talk about ourselves.
Here’s what I mean. The church is a sin-plagued institution precisely because it is filled with sin-plagued people: people like me. It’s people like me who cover up abuse for the “greater good.” It’s people like me who privately nurture deviant sin while shaming and alienating others to make myself look purer. It’s people like me who protect racism in the pews. It’s people like me who turn a blind eye toward hypocrisy.
The way to look at a blemished church is not to ignore her sins, just like the way to look at ourselves is not ignore our sins. And here’s where, I believe, the particular failures of many churches especially toward younger people have set us up for an ecclesiological crisis. I believe it is a fact that many evangelical churches have spent decades preaching a legalistic, shaming, just-try-harder vision of the Christian life to their people. As a result, nearly an entire generation of evangelicals are tired, afraid, ashamed, hurt, and not entirely sure if God really loves them. I wrote about this in my post about Gentle and Lowly, a book which has resonated with so many for exactly this reason.
This tired, ashamed, and burnt out generation of Christians were raised to think of their spiritual lives in terms of good performances vs. bad ones. And you know what’s happened? We now have a generation of Christians who are applying to the church this same standard they were taught to apply to themselves. They look at the church and her sins loom largest of anything, precisely because they’ve had years of practice in looking at themselves and seeing their sins loom largest of anything in them. I genuinely believe that this contemporary evangelical crisis where so many are losing their hope for the church is downstream from a silent evangelical crisis wherein many lost hope for themselves.
If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ll sense where I’m going with this. The Bible connects Jesus’ forgiveness with us with our forgiveness of others because “us” and “others” are, in the ultimate sense, the same. Jesus stares into the abyss of our personal idolatry, our adultery, our cruelty, our thievery, and our bigotry, and he offers his own body as a perfect sacrifice to absorb the holy wrath of God against our very real sin. He offers forgiveness for people as bad as us. Yes, we are wicked! Yes, we are compromised! Yes, we are loved. And that last identity, not the first two, is the one that controls our destiny.
This is how I want to view the church of Jesus: wicked and compromised, but loved, and purified, and destined for greatness. I think this should be reflected in everything we do for and inside the church: our stand for truth and justice, as well as our newsletters. For those who spend a lot of time looking at the church’s failures, look at them the way Jesus would look at your own. For those who spend time looking at the church’s glory, don’t forget the sin he died to save it from, that still so easily entangles.