I still remember when I first learned the church can be a messy place. I was in eighth grade and the congregation I grew up in got entangled in a controversy. Lines were drawn, sides were taken, friendships were severed, and spiritual wounds were inflicted. I wasn’t personally involved in the argument but, in some ways, I did become collateral damage. There were people on both sides I loved and respected, and in my naiveté I couldn’t quite come to terms with what I was experiencing. It left me confused, frustrated, and questioning: surely, this isn’t what the church is supposed to be!
Unfortunately, this is a very common experience. It’s tragic but it’s true. Almost everyone — from pulpit to pew; men to women; young to old — has a story to tell. That’s because the church can be a very messy place. The Gordian knot of discord is wound tight with strands of personality conflict and theological debate, backbiting and gossip, domineering leadership and manipulative membership, harsh criticism and insensitive disrespect, favoritism and partiality, lying and slander, arrogance and hypocrisy, and the list could go on and on. The church can be a very messy place because it's filled with sinners. In the words of Martin Luther: "The saints in being righteous are at the same time sinners."
This should be an obvious truth. But it’s a truth that often takes us by surprise as we learn about it through painful experiences. Those experiences can be unsettling and (I hope it's not simply pessimistic to write it) most aren’t equipped to deal with it in a biblically appropriate way. For some it fosters hostility and bitterness with a desire for revenge. For others, armed with anger and harboring hurt, it becomes fodder for division and hatred. Still, for others this jagged truth can become one of the sharpest rocks on which some have made shipwreck their faith. The imperfection of the church disillusions them to the gospel and excuses their own unbelief and rebellion toward God.
So, how can we respond when we see the church isn’t what it’s supposed to be? Let me suggest some ideas —:
Honesty: Even though the Bible speaks of the church in the highest terms — the Body and Bride of Christ — we need to be honest that we’re not yet what and where we should be. Have you ever noticed that almost every New Testament letter is written to address this fact? The Apostle Paul wrote that we’re being built up together “to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). That very language tells us there’s still immaturity, weakness, and deficiency present in the church. We need to admit that we’re shot through with inconsistencies, weaknesses, and sin. That’s not to glory in our shame, but it’s an honesty through which true gospel repentance comes.
Humility: We need to recognize that the imperfection of the church isn’t a me versus them issue, as though everyone else contributes to it except for me. Charles Spurgeon once said: “If I had never joined a church till I had found one that was perfect, I should have never joined one at all; and the moment I did join it, if I had found one, I should have spoiled it, for it would not have been a perfect church after I had become a member of it.” Humbly, every single one of us needs to admit that me, myself, and I contribute to the church’s imperfections — I contribute to the sin of the church.
Healing: I understand that the spiritual wounds inflicted within the church can be very deep and very bloody. In fact, the deeper and bloodier they are the more we need the healing that comes through the gospel of peace. The church needs to be a place where that healing can occur — where the guilty are held accountable, the unrepentant are removed, the hurting are ministered to, where forgiveness is sought and granted, and (where possible) animosities are reconciled. Too many think they can heal apart from the church, but that’s like amputating your arm and expecting it to recover and grow strong.
Help: The Apostle Peter wrote: "Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God" (1 Peter 2:12). But holy conduct doesn't get to be thrown off at the door to the church. If we're to live this way toward unbelievers, how much more to fellow believers to whom we owe all the "one anothers" of the Bible (Galatians 5:15, Colossians 3:13, James 4:11, etc). Each of us needs to live and serve in a way that helps the church press on to what we've been called to: a holy church. Living a life of gospel holiness is actually one of the best ways we can help our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.
Honor: Even when we experience the imperfection that mars the church we’re still called to honor God, to honor his Word, to honor our spiritual leaders, and to show honor to one another. Someone else's sin doesn’t give us an excuse to sin in return — maligning them, casually throwing out accusations, fault-finding, dragging them through the mud, running down reputations, chattering behind their back, unnecessarily drawing attention to their shortcomings, and failing to love them with that Christ-like love that knows what it is to suffer long (see 1 Corinthians 13:4).
Hope: Is the church imperfect? Yes. Is the church inconsistent? Yes. Is the church filled with sinners? Yes. Will it always be so? No! The Apostle Paul wrote that Jesus sanctifies his church “that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27). In that day our Savior will do what no man, no denomination, and no confession can. He will perfect us by his grace. Every present sin, inconsistency, and imperfection should cultivate in our hearts the hope of that day when we will stand blameless in the presence of his glory (Jude 1:24).