I wrote these words a year ago, and after thinking about it for a year, I have only one revision to make: After 41 years of walking with God I have met plenty of unhealthy Christians who belong to a church, but I have never met a healthy Christian who does not belong to a church.
It’s difficult to stand in defense of the church when the church is so screwed up. It’s a helluva a way to run a railroad, but apparently the Father thinks it’s worth the risks. We were designed for community, but also something beyond mere community, we were designed for the church.
Many will object, and I invite you all to tell me gruesome tales of hypocrites, self-righteous blowhards, and sexual predators. I get it. The North American church is desperately sick, and in many cases the church hinders the spiritual growth of believers. But before we all decide have coffee and croissants down the street with the cool kids and call it church, I’d like to suggest that God has given us a few clues about what He thinks makes up a church. The bottom line is: church is God’s idea, and we ignore it at our peril.
It’s a book-length discussion--a life-length discussion, actually--but here is one man’s list of at least six vital parts of a real church:
- The church meets together regularly: Sunday morning isn’t the only possibility. In fact, Acts 2:42-47 suggests they met together far more than North Americans might find comfortable. In a variety of settings, for a multitude of reasons, followers of Jesus meet together regularly and share their lives together. I don’t give a rip when or where, but regular, habitual gathering is a mark of the church.
- The church has a defined structure: Structure is built into God’s order of creation. Single-celled organisms reveal astonishing complexity of function; in the human body there is individualized function. Without the structure of a skeleton, the body cannot stand. These physical realities point toward spiritual truth. Amazingly, the scripture seems to endorse a variety of church structures, but every New Testament church had a recognizable structure. We can disagree on what that structure may look like, but it’s not possible to read Acts or the Epistles without recognizing it’s importance.
- The church provides authority: Authority! Just mention the word and people tense up. Abuses abound, guilt is common currency, and the church in North American differs little from any business down the street. Yet we all must personally come to terms with passages like, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.” (Hebrews 13:17) Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus could be considered all about authority! Nearly everyone has a horror-story about abuse of authority in the church. Here’s my take: authority without compassion and relationship makes a sham of God’s Kingdom, but compassion and relationship without authority misses God’s Kingdom entirely.
- The church is a proving ground for love and forgiveness. “Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3: 12-14) These words are impossible to live out in isolation. I believe the Father designed families and churches as the venues for love and forgiveness. How can we live out these words apart from our families, or the church--which is the family of God?
- The church equips God’s people. Christian maturity requires a nurturing family atmosphere. Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the development of Christian character thrive in a healthy community. Entertainment apart from equipping is antithetical to God’s plan for the church--there are plenty of churches that amount to nothing more than TV shows. But fellowship and community without equipping also falls short of the mark. If there's no equipping going on, it's not fully the church. Jesus is into lab, not lecture. And it's not recess, either.
- The church provides a unique corporate witness: There have been exceptional individuals throughout history. Saints and geniuses appear larger than life, and because they are are so exceptional, they are easily dismissed as individuals, even freaks. But who could dismiss an entire community of faith? “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” said Jesus in John 13: 34 “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The early church would either get you healed or care for you until you died. Widows, orphans and outcasts of the first century knew there was a refuge called “the church.”
Some things should change--and I believe the change begins with us as individuals. If you must leave your current church, then go. But where? If you can find a group of believers attempting to fulfill these six ideals you will land in a safe place. Leaving a sick church may be the best decision. Ignoring God’s plan for your personal growth as a disciple never is.