There are certain parts of Christianity where I find it difficult to bring my head and heart into agreement. There are some things that I know I should believe with my head, but I struggle because I don’t experience them in my heart. What I am trying to describe is the gap that exists sometimes between my theology and my experience.
If I am honest, the biggest gap that exists for me between my head and heart, theology and experience, relates to the church. I was taken to church from when I was a few weeks old and apart from a couple of teenage years have attended all my life and attended lots of churches of different “flavors” – Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Baptist and Wesleyan. I have served in the Church of the Nazarene as a lay leader, a pastor and denominational leader for 24 years. (I ain’t no bunny Christian, who hops from church to church.) My experience of church has been wide and deep. For academic work I have read widely and thought deeply about the church.
The result is that I am convinced now more than ever about the importance of the church, of Christian community and its aberration: privatized and individualized Christianity (which is in fact no Christianity). The scriptures are clear: God exists in a communal way; the Trinity is a loving “commune.” When God created humanity in his image, it was created in and for community. In biblical terms, to be human is to be connected to others in authentic loving relationships that echo the Trinity.
The stories of Abraham, Moses, David and the others are not stories about individual heroes of the faith but the story of God’s love, grace and power in creating a community, a people through which he could restore his intention for creation. Jesus came to create a new people, a Kingdom people; he died not so much for individuals as for “all.” Pentecost wasn’t about people having individual spiritual experience, it was God keeping his promise to pour out his Spirit on all people. It was a community that was baptized with the Spirit and it was a community that was commissioned and empowered as a result. The whole point of Jesus’ statement about there being “many mansions” in his Father’s house has been totally misunderstood. It should be translated “rooms.” The point is not that in heaven we all live the life of the rich and famous, but that there is enough room for everyone; heaven – the Kingdom of God – is a communal experience. The New Testament ends on the note that Jesus is coming back for his people.
I really believe in the importance of the church. I am convinced that there can be no spiritual maturity out with it. I believe the church is indispensable to every believer and every believer is indispensable to the church. I believe that the church is a God-created, God-directed and God-empowered revolution of love before which the gates of hell cannot stand. I believe that the church has the power to change and transform us so that collectively we grow to be more like Christ. I believe that as we look at the problems of the world – violence, poverty, hunger, injustice and meaninglessness – that the Church in the power of the Spirit could help change the world.
I believe all of that. My problem is that I so rarely experience it. My experience of church has all too often been one of pettiness and politics. Pettiness can be found in making small issues hugely important and what should be big issues unimportant. I have encountered people in church leadership with strong opinions about architecture, about singing from hymn books, about whether you wear a tie at worship, about sitting in pews rather than seats. The point is that the Bible is absolutely silent on all of those matters. Yet all too often those selfsame people were not involved in any sort of authentic fellowship, ministry or mission and were rarely if ever seen praying, things which seem fairly important to God. In all honesty I was involved in a church where changing the color of the carpet in the ladies’ loo stirred up more passion than God’s call for the church to change the world. I hate the pettiness of the Church; why can’t we make what is important to God important to the Church?
And the politics, the power plays, and even the bullying. I know personally of a church where a woman with dementia who was house-bound was brought to the annual general meeting of the church to make sure that her vote was made to ensure the family’s seat on the church board remained in their hands. Why does the Church have to be more like a human-controlled political institution than like a God-inspired radical revolution so much of the time?
I really understand why people leave the church but still believe in Jesus. I have experienced the same temptation. But I have always resisted the temptation to abandon the church as a hopeless cause for a couple of reasons.
I know that Scripture says that Jesus loved the church and gave himself for her. If Jesus can accept the pain of the cross because of his love for the church, I think I can work on liking it a bit more and enduring the times of frustration.
I have read enough of the New Testament and church history to know that there was no real golden era when the church was consistently all it should be and could be. The Corinthians were immoral and cliquish, the Galatians were legalistic, the Ephesians were devoid of passion, and the Laodicians were so spiritually apathetic and ineffectual they made God nauseous. Augustine’s church had other believers persecuted, the Catholics thought up the Spanish Inquisition, Luther encouraged anti-Semitism in his part of the church and Calvin, far from loving his enemies, had one burnt alive for disagreeing with the theology of his church. I could go on and on. We are worse than some eras in church history and not as bad as others. But if believers in those eras could stick with the church, then so can I. I sometimes feel like someone holding on to a cliff by the tips of my fingers, but if others could hold, so can I.
I also stay with the church because I have had glimpses of what the church can be. Glimpses of what God intends it to be. I have seen glimpses in church history, as the early church spread around the Roman Empire by the power of love. I have seen glimpses in the Methodists as they transformed a nation on the brink of violent revolution. I have seen glimpses in Anglicans who fought the vested interests of the rich and powerful and so killed Atlantic slavery. I have seen glimpses in the German confessing church that refused to bow to Hitler when everyone else did, even when it cost them everything. I have seen glimpses in contemporary churches in my country and around the world which are being transformed by the love of God and helping bring the Kingdom of God in here and now. I can’t give up on the Church because I have had glimpses.
Lastly, I can’t give up on the Church because I looked in the mirror this morning and saw that I am not perfect either, yet despite all my imperfections (of which there are many), my parents, wife, children, friends, and my church haven’t given up on me.
What about you?
Have you given up on the church?
Have you had “glimpses” of what the church can be?
What were they?
Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash