During the summer, I had the opportunity to talk to my dad about why he no longer attends church, and the way he views Christianity and institutional religions. It was a difficult conversation to have, particularly for me stay quiet and simply to listen to what he had to say, but also because he misses the point of the Church entirely. I want to take some time to note two common but erroneous views of why the Church exists–and I use a capital C here to denote the universal church–and then make some quick remarks about why the Bible states that the Church exists. As a nod to one of my favorite podcasts, This American Life (though I don’t have time to listen to it much these days), today’s post will be in three acts focusing on the views of three different fathers.
Act I: Earthly fathers
The foremost reason my dad left the Church is the hypocrisy. Speaking about the church we attended previous to the one my mom still attends now, he recalled, “I was helping out with the youth group on Sunday when I heard a commotion coming from just outside. When I went to see what was happening, I found two deacons arguing with each other–and not just arguing, but yelling at each other, right outside a room full of children.” This kind of disunity and power struggle left him disillusioned with attendees of the church. On this point, I would be inclined to agree with him. Many of the leaders in church are not held to the biblical standard that they should be: 1 Timothy 3:3-4 clearly states that those who lead ought to be “self-controlled” and “not violent but gentle”; verses 8-11 call for deacons to be “dignified” and “sober-minded.” Church members are, in many modern churches, also not held to a biblical standard of repentance and sanctification. But we ought to be.
His other major criticism against the Church was its lack of desire to confront the problems of humanity. Church attendees are primarily concerned with their own well-being. “They don’t care enough about the fact that there are starving people in Africa with limited access to clean water, especially when the technology to help them exists and just needs to be funded.” He said that Christians, as a whole, are too concerned with their own comfort and not enough about the welfare of other people around the world. Is this true? Can it legitimately be said about the the bride of Christ that she does not care for the people that God has created? My dad’s point seemed to be that the church exists to help people; specifically, to help the poor in their suffering. Which takes us to another man’s view on the church and why it exists.
Act II: Papal father
Pope Francis has been in the news quite a bit during his tenure for his welcoming remarks toward gays and lesbians and cohabitators. In September 2013, he remarked that “the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards” if the church narrowly focuses on traditional issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Instead, he wanted to re-prioritize the Catholic church’s mission: “the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds” (NPR). Now, I am not an ecumenist. I do not believe that Protestants and Catholics share the same faith in the same God–not in the least. I’m simply sharing the view of a man who claims not only to represent, but to lead, the church of God.
Just a couple of days ago, on October 13, the Pope urged teachers in the church to recognize that there are “positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation”, that homosexual Catholics have “gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community”, and that homosexual couples can provide “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice” and “precious support in the life of the partners” (New York Times). What is evident from the language of Pope Francis is that this is a man who very much believes that the church should be welcoming and inclusive. Arguably, this extends to the point of downplaying what the Catholic church has historically viewed as sin. He wants his church to affirm the person and love the person, and it seems that this is his plan to, as he put it, “heal wounds.”
Act III: Heavenly Father
At this point, just addressing the errors in ecclesiology–that is, the doctrine of the church–in the two acts above, I could write a lengthy series of blog posts. But I won’t. (Not in small part because there are many pastors who, I’m sure, have done this very thing. Pastor John MacArthur, to name one. He’s preaching through the book of Acts during our evening services.) But I want to highlight what I think is the most important thing to remember in our ecclesiology: that the church of God exists for His glory.
13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped. (Revelation 5:13-14)
What we see in Revelation is that in the very end of time, the church exists to worship God, to bring Him glory. And sin, not poverty or a lack of affirmation of sinful people, is what diverts worship and attention that is rightfully His toward objects and desires (Rom. 1:18-32). So as much as the Church should care about the poor, and indeed is instructed to (James 1:27), its primary and great commission is to preach the gospel (Matt. 28:19-20). The gospel is the message of hope that leads to eternal salvation and deliverance! Water filtration and medication are helpful, but they do not address the core issue of sin.
Finally, the church will not “fall like a house of cards” if it continues to preach against sin. I understand the Pope’s intent, that he wants a more compassionate Catholic church that addresses a greater array of issues. But he completely misses the point. The Church will not crumble if it identifies and warns against sin. The Catholic church, with its heretical insistence of sacred acts as a component of salvation, might. But Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Church, promises us that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church; in fact, He will build His Church on the confession that He is the Christ (Matt. 16:17-18). The Church needs to continue its loving call to sinners to forsake their sin and put their faith in Jesus Christ and Him alone. This is the foremost mission of the church; this is how it will bring Him glory.