Thursday, January 31, 2013

Confession: I Do Not Love the Church

Two weeks ago now I preached a message from Isaiah 62:1-5 about how God has not abandoned God's people - and thus we cannot abandon God's people. The importance of the Church for the redemption of the world has become a very important focus of my life and theology. It's an idea I really first encountered through a Derek Webb song ten years ago. I often use the phrase, "wherever we're going in this life, we're going to get there together or we're not going to get there at all." (I think I coined it, but my apologies if I subconsciously stole it from someone.) I really believe that God's essence is relational love and thus is the means through which we find purpose and meaning. I think it's essential.

Or do I?

After that service on the 20th, I got home and saw Twitter was all atwitter with some terrible thing Mark Driscoll said. I was about to join the fray and post a snarky comment, when that pesky conscience reminded me of the sermon I had preached that very morning. I had used the example of John Lewis reconciling with many of the racists who'd tried to kill him, as a means of illustrating that even our Christian brothers and sisters who are dead wrong don't deserve to be disowned. (I told you, the Church is a radical lady.) I just couldn't join the crowd and denounce Driscoll. I needed to think.

Luckily that week was my retreat, so it was another of many ponderings. I realized that I'd always defined "the Church" not as any institution or denomination, but as the people of God who lived faithfully in the way of Christ. I still think that's the correct definition. There's a lot of people who go to services who aren't part of the Church - and I suspect there's plenty of those who are a part of the Church without knowing it.

I've always said I love the Church. I think I mean(t) both the idea of God's faithful people and also those Christians with whom I have relationship. The people among whom I live and worship are far from perfect, but I know them and I'm committed to getting along with them. In those terms, I love the Church.

I can't say, however, I have a lot of love from people like Driscoll, who I believe is wrong in almost everything he says. I think he's been hurt somewhere along the line or his human faults have pushed him in the wrong direction. I think he's often missed the point. He isn't alone, of course, but he tends to be the poster child for such persons - and he doesn't seem to mind it.

However, in the course of my ponderings I realized that there's just no sense to my perspective on this. In choosing to define Church by faithfulness instead of attendance or self-identification, I ended up being the arbiter of who was living faithfully in the way of Christ and who wasn't.

The Church is imperfect. That's not the issue. The issue was how difficult some of those imperfections are to live with. Honestly, I imagine Mark Driscoll could say the same thing about me. I'm far from perfect, but I gladly cling to God's grace in those instances. I suppose I need to extend that same grace to other imperfect brothers and sisters (even the ones who claim to represent absolute truth).

But that doesn't make me feel any better, really. I mean, where do we draw the line? Does every person who claims faith in Jesus Christ get to be part of God's people? I think that's what scripture says, scary as that may be. Who is my brother? Is Mark Driscoll? What about Fred Phelps? Can someone spouting hateful filth, directly counter to the gospel (or my perception of the gospel) really be part of God's people?

Who gets to decide who's faithful?

I hope it's not Mark Driscoll or Fred Phelps - but God help us all if it's me.

Ultimately, though, it isn't about who's out and who's in. That's sort of the point I was making at the beginning of the post and in that sermon that messed me up so badly. We're all in - that's the beauty of grace. It doesn't mean we're all right and it can certainly mean some people are all wrong. I'm not going to sanitize the hurtful, hateful, or haphazard things people say in the name of Christ. When you look at it, we're all getting things wrong.

The real point is the way we treat one another. A wonderful old professor of mine explained the original definition of heresy as defined by the early Church - a heretic is someone who refuses to come to the table. A heretic is not someone who is kicked out of the Church, a heretic is someone who refuses to be part of the Church.

If I invalidate the faith claims of another, I am the heretic. I can't pile on Mark Driscoll with everyone else, I don't even know the guy. I can certainly critique and counter his ideas - and I'll continue to do so. But I also imagine there's a few things upon which we can agree. If we ever get the chance to talk, perhaps we'll better understand each other and, in the process, better understand this God whom we serve.

In the end, if we're not going to defend the Church from some of her inadequacies, there's really no reason to defend her from any of them. There's hope for our future - that's the claim we make and affirm; it's the reason we have faith. That doesn't mean we excuse the past or the present, but it means we can't completely condemn them either.



Jonathan Mills said...

Ryan, thanks for your thoughts. You're not alone. Also, thank you for the definition of "heretic". That certainly helped me!

Ryan said...

That's courtesy of the great Paul Bassett.