I normally don’t write articles replying to other articles, but Philip Wagner’s article on Churchleadership.com, Can You Really Love Jesus Yet Hate The Church?, struck me as needing a reply, let me share why.
First, the author seems to have a rather caviler attitude about the concerns many have about the nature of the institutional church and how that institutional church is treating others, both inside and outside. Many people have been pushed aside by the institutional church and have a valid voice in offering criticism. To be honest with you, I would have expected nothing less. You see, the institutional church is in the throes of death, and in that place those who defend it must lash out at those who are questioning what it does and how it is doing it. It devalues any criticism as meaningless and tries to justify how it treats people. In those throes, it seeks to demonize those who dare to question institutional church, and what it is doing to many who are marginalized by it. I don’t believe God is moving in a new direction and ending the church, I believe God is calling us back to be a community of faith, not an institutional church; a place where God has always desires us as followers to be.
Second, and to be honest with you, I think he is pulling out some old cards and some not very used arguments that many have against the institutional church. Most people I know who question the institutional church question the institution and not so much the church. Yet, in his article this is a point he never brings to light.
Let me address each of his points.
His first point, “We have to recognize that Jesus loves the church”
On this, he is wrong. Jesus does not love “the church” Jesus loves his followers, even the collective of followers Jesus calls “those assembled.” To say that Jesus loves the institutional church is like saying Jesus loves prisons. What more, is that in this section Philip asks, “How do we find ourselves so free to criticize or minimize the significance of the church?” This question is echoed throughout history but the institutional church has used to try to detract people from ever questioning what the institutional church is doing. This is the same question the institutional church asked of Luther and those questioning the power and standing of the Roman Catholic Church. It seems funny to me that a leader would use the very argument against questioning the church that the institutional church used against the reformers. In this section Philip mentions…
“I believe if you love Jesus, you must love whom He loves. He loves the lost, He loves the hurting, He loves those who follow Him and He loves the church.”
While I would agree that we are to love those Jesus loved, I have personally seen and felt many in the institutional church (and their pastors) who have shown this to be something they do not do.
His second point, “The “local church” is the hope of the world.”
No, the church is not the hope of the world; Jesus is the hope of the world, and to confuse Jesus with the institutional church is to confuse hope with exclusion. His statement that “Jesus said, “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. Matthew 16:18 NIV” is misused. First, Jesus did not say “I will build the church, which I love….” Second, the truth that Jesus will build his collective of followers is not on the church, but on the truth that He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Philip’s argument is based on his writing…
“It carries no weight to say ‘I love the global church’ but have no commitment or dedication to a local church. It’s like someone saying they play professional basketball but they are just not part of any one particular team. It makes no sense.”
His argument is poorly stated. I stopped watching, or supporting, professional basketball during the strike. I have a hard time hearing Millionaire arguing with Billionaires over not making enough money. I can say I play basketball without being part of the institutional reality of being part of a professional team. I can get into a pick-up game at my local park, with friends who enjoy the game. I don’t need to be a professional player to play the game. To use the “professional” tag simply reinforces the ideas that are set in the institutional church, that they are “the only game in town.”
In this section he gives a “subsection” called “The challenge is this” where he strives to call others into the institutional church line.
“As believers, we have to be careful not to let our criticisms against churches add to the public dismissal of church’s significance or relevance.”
This may come as a shock, but I would agree with Philip on this point. But I wonder, would he have that respect for those of us who strive for marriage equality? Would he have the same reaction of one of the pastors in his area was openly gay? I think we are eating our own young when we speak against any community of faith or collection of followers who differ from us, even in doctrine. Is that what he meant? I don’t think it is.
“But what I do know is, that the churches I know and the pastors I associate with are heavily invested in giving to the poor, orphans and widows, HIV Aids victims, giving aid to the homeless and responding to world and community crisis.”
I would agree with this also, but as I look around my local community I see very little being done by the institutional church to address those issues with actions. Sure, the words may be there, but the action – the doing – is not evident in my community. Given that, should I not be allowed to call others into action? Do I not have the right to question churches that do nothing but meet on Sunday morning as a social club? If not, does Phillip also discount the Prophets of old, or John’s book of Revelations?
His third point, “The church is made up of people.”
Flawed people. People like you and me are in the church. I have made mistakes and you have made mistakes. This reality makes it possible for others (also flawed) to join us. As a pastor, I have made mistakes in trying to lead our church.
This is only partly true. You see, the institutional church is also made of rules, regulations and by-laws that govern how people are to behave and interact with each other. The idea that “because I have made mistakes in the past, I can continue to make mistakes in the future” seems to fly in the face of what Paul shares with us in Romans…
“So what do we do? Keep on sinning so God can keep on forgiving? I should hope not! If we’ve left the country where sin is sovereign, how can we still live in our old house there? Or didn’t you realize we packed up and left there for good? That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land!” (Romans 6:1-3 MSG)
But even more than that, are we not called to be changed people? If we are followers of Christ are we not changed, now I am not talking about what many churches see as “change” that is, becoming a member of the Republican Party. I think the question I would ask him is, “If we have moved to a new country in Christ, why are you still telling us to give out our old address of being a flawed human?”
I wonder, are there any scriptures that tell us that when we are in Christ we are new people? Let me see…
We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.
1 Corinthians 5:7
Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.
2 Corinthians 5:17
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.
The idea that the institutional church is an “organization of imperfect people” seems to fall short of what Jesus calls his collective of Followers to be and how we should interact with others. If we have been treated poorly, we have the responsibility to speak out against the injustice.
When Phillip writes, “The church is an organization of imperfect people who are accepting of other imperfect people who begin to understand they have a purpose, and together, try to make a difference in the world.” That is so not even close to the reality of many institutional churches. It seems to be saying, “It is alright to treat people like crap because we are imperfect people.” I am pretty sure I am not buying that excuse.
His fourth point, “People hurt people.”
In this section he says…
“It is not the entities or organizations that have hurt us – it’s the people in them. The people who work in restaurants have let me down. I’ve managed to find others places to eat.”
This is kind of a misleading metaphor. Restaurants are a business, the church should not be even thought of as a business. I am OK with people treating me poorly in other places, I understand poor customer service at some level I expect people outside to treat me poorly. But in a community of faith, in a collective of followers, I expect to be treated differently. I expect to be treated with love, grace, understanding and acceptance. If not, I will simply spend my Sundays at the local VFW, at least if I am treated like crap I can get a beer to go with it.
Another thing he shares in this section seems out of place given the thrust and language of the article…
If you have been hurt, violated or abused in a church – I want to say to you sincerely, “I am so sorry for your pain. I’m sorry you have experienced that.”
In reading over the original article I am not sure how sincere his apology is, and I am not sure it carries much weight.
His fifth point, “There is No “Perfect Church””
In this section he states that, “All churches need to have some accountability.” Yet, he is criticizing those who are doing just that, holding the institutional church accountable for the way they have been treating people. It seems disingenuous to say do not criticize the church and say that the church needs to be held accountable. How does one hold the church accountable if they are not to speak against it? In that same paragraph he adds, “We need to be confident enough to hear the criticisms and pull out what truths we can find to help us.” All experiences are truth, to discount any ones church experience as anything less than truth is, in and of itself, wrong. How I see my experience in any church is the truth I experienced. To say that we need to “pull out the truths” is saying that my experience is invalid. I will agree that there are always different sides to any experience, but to say that any experience is not truthful seems to me to be a position of power and control.
For me, his whole argument centers on these word…
“However, because you see a flaw in a church you don’t approve of – it is not necessary to add your voice to the growing sound of church bashing that is shaping a growing prejudice against the church of Jesus Christ as irrelevant, hypocritical or insignificant.”
This statement is wrong at so many levels. First, it says that if you are being treated poorly, or see others being treated poorly, just keep quiet and go along with it. This attitude is what got the institutional church in this bind to begin with. The institutional church, like all institutions, centers on keeping the institution alive and it does not care about the individuals involved.
In his closing he offers some suggestions of what we can do to go along with the institutional church. His solutions are , go, serve and give and I am not sure that are the solutions. We should question, we should ask why and what if. We should be seeking a community of faith, a collective of followers, who treat us with respect, love and grace. It does not matter the size of that collective or if that collective meets in a building or in the park.
While I disagree with almost everything he as to say, I will admit that I do agree with two of his conclusions, to pray for the church and to be an example.