I’ve shared a few articles recently reflecting on the less pleasant side of church life. It should sadden us that the church (locally, nationally and internationally) often seems to fall short of what it should be as a haven of hope and safety. However, at the same time it should not surprise us. We are fallible human beings living in a fallen world and from the off, the church has constantly needed to be challenged, rebuked and corrected. Even the apostle Peter had to be challenged by Paul and the early church letters whether from Paul to the Galatians and Corinthians or John to the churches in Turkey often arose because of problems such as false teaching, pride, rivalry and sin. The Reformation happened 500 years ago because The Church had both embraced false teaching and become corrupt and abusive in its practices. The Reformers had a motto that we should always be reforming as Christ purifies and perfects his bride.
So here are some thoughts on areas where we need to see 20th Century reformation.
- We need a culture of grace not just a doctrine of grace
This is the big theme in Ray Ortlund’s little book “The gospel.” What we believe and teach should affect how we live. We believe and teach that we are saved by grace but does that flow into what we practice? A few years ago I did a series of talks for Rochester Baptist Church’s weekend away. The theme of the talks was the difference between being a guilt driven church and a grace driven church. I also preached some of the talks at Bearwood Chapel.
A grace driven church will be one where all of us, leaders and members, paid staff and volunteers, older Christians and new believers, rich and poor, those who have faced persecution and those who have enjoyed comfortable lives will know in our hearts that we are all here because of grace. We will remember that God has chosen to love us, have mercy on us and forgive us. This is completely undeserved. We will see that God has chosen to shower us with blessings and that he calls us to glorify him by enjoying him.
The result is that:
- We will not be compelled by guilt when making decisions about ministry, mission and giving. Nor will leaders resort to guilt trips in order to get people to do their bidding.
- Every member will be loved and valued equally.
- We will not resort to shaming in order to get people to change their lives.
- We will be quick to repent and quick to forgive. We will be slow to anger.
- We will give to others and help others freely expecting nothing in return. This will protect against cultures of co-dependency.
- We should be truth tellers
I read a comment recently about a church leader looking for outside support and claiming that their church was the only gospel witness in the area. Other Christians who knew that area stated that this was not the case.
I have heard of missionaries sending prayer letters home where they have piggy backed on the ministry of others chalking up the local church’s successes as their own personal achievements.
I have read testimonies of church plants that don’t quite fit the truth. This includes cases where a church split has been repackaged as a plant. It also again includes those situations where a planter is quick to talk about their contribution and their faith whilst failing to mention the part played by others.
I remember someone once telling me that if you wanted to achieve things you should be ready to let others take the credit for your ideas. I also discovered in secular work that there were plenty of people around ready to take the credit. We should not import that culture into the church.
I think there are two idols at the root of this problem, fame and money. We want to be recognised, we love to be the centre of attention. We need to be heroes and the church needs heroes. So people get put on pedestals. Further, the need for support and the ways in which mission support decisions are made encourage people to talk themselves up and talk others down.
Grace means that I know my identity and security is in Christ. I can trust him to provide and all I should desire is his “well done good and faithful servant.” This will help me to be faithful not needing to talk up or exaggerate my role and not needing to disparage others.
- “Sorry” and “I forgive” should be natural and frequent parts of our vocabulary
“Sorry seems to be the hardest word” sang Elton John (and later Blue). I’ve said before that this along with the accompanying “I forgive you” seem to be the hardest words in evangelical culture. Why? It’s about pride, shame, fear and control isn’t it?
I don’t want to admit that I get things wrong. I don’t want to lose face and look foolish. I’m scared that if I admit to failure then it will be the end of ministry and calling. So I don’t say sorry. Or I give half-hearted partial apologies “I’m sorry if ….” True repentance does not include the word “if..” If means “It is really about you “I’m sorry if you felt.” “I’m sorry if…” begs the response “No of course you didn’t..” It is tailored to ensure that we go away justified because we have kept things on the level of subjective feelings rather than objective truth. So we struggle to say sorry.
We struggle to say “I forgive you” for a number of reasons. The first reason is the genuine and deep problem that we have been badly hurt. We are still hurting and we are still angry. Relationships have been badly damaged. But we can also withhold forgiveness because giving it releases the repentant offender from their debt to us and takes away any control that we might have over them.
It is helpful therefore to see forgiveness as releasing others from debt. When we realise that we have great riches of grace, love, hope, joy, forgiveness in and from Christ then we can safely forgive the debt of others.
When we remember that we are already forgiven and restored in Christ then we can much more easily say “I’m sorry to others.” I am justified because I am forgiven not because I have found a way to excuse myself.
As I said at the start, it is no surprise that we need to be challenged again and again. The good news is that Christ is at work.
“Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”