The Church, The Church, and The Church (And Why It's Totally OK To Criticize All Three Of 'Em)


As we speak with other people, ironically it’s so often our words that derail us.

The more religious conversations I have with people through social media, and the more I witness other Christians debating matters of faith, the more aware I become of one of the most problematic words we use: Church.

There are two common themes regarding this critical, weighty, loaded word, that so many Christians bring to the table, especially when they feel unfair criticism is being leveled against The Church:

1) The Church, (they say) is people, not a building. (This is often delivered as correction to someone else, as a teacher would scold a mistaken student).
2) Christians should never attack The Church, because they’re really attacking God’s people, and bringing unhealthy division. (This sentiment usually comes up, whenever the particular criticism they are responding to cuts too close to home; when it feels personal).

Regarding the first point, about The Church not being a building, but people; Christians who say this are right, but they’re also mistaken.

Yes, the Church as described in the New Testament, is actually the people of faith; those who follow Jesus. We are called the “Body of Christ”; living, breathing churches, who carry the presence of God within us, and who give physical representation of the love and character of God in the world.

As a Biblical, spiritual concept, this is absolutely true: We are the Church. However it would be naive, reckless, and flat-out irresponsible to believe that this is the way most of the world (especially non-Christians) understands or encounters the Church.

The Church, to most people is actually three distinct forms; a trinity, if you will:

1) The Church as the People of God, yes. They personally know Christians, who to one degree or another, have reflected badly on Jesus, simply because they are imperfect.

2) The Church as a Building; a fixed, physical place they may have spent time in as a child, or attended for years later in life, or entered as recently as four days ago. That building, in that specific community, is where they may have experienced coldness, or rude treatment, or bad teaching, or judgment, or hatred, or any number of damaging things that have negatively colored their view of Christians.

3) The Church as an Institution; the larger symbol of the people of God they have experienced through denominational rules, or national issues, or political policies, or social movements. That institution has been responsible for systematic oppression, and for ugly cultural battles that have become indelible, distorted images of Christianity in the minds of those who have been repeatedly hurt by them.

All three of these in a very real way, are The Church that people are talking about, reacting to, and pushing against out there. For we who follow Jesus to dismiss that, in some kind of rigid Biblical elitism, reflects really poorly on us, and is a surefire conversation-stopper with people outside of Christianity.

Spiritual semantics should never be a substitute for compassionate conversation.

So if we can agree that practically speaking, there are three distinct Churches that people talk about, then the question to answer is: Is it OK for Christians to criticize any of them?

Yes, yes, and absolutely yes.

One of the most dangerous ideas perpetuated by Christians, is that followers of Jesus shouldn’t speak negatively about the Church. The argument goes, that when we do this, we are causing division, disrupting harmony, and giving Jesus a bad name to outsiders.

Not only is this not Biblical, it’s also not accurate either.

Of course we don’t want people to see Christians as a bunch of argumentative, petty combatants who can’t show the love for one another that we’re trying to preach to the world, but people outside of Christianity aren’t stupid either. They are complex, and intelligent, and worldly, and they can smell religious B.S. a mile away. They know the difference between true, costly community and phony togetherness to save face.

The world wants to see, not only if Christians can be loving, but if they can address the unloving things in their midst.

When we bring true, honest, accountability to the Church, (regardless of the kind we or they may be speaking of), we are representing the blessed balance of love and discipline that Jesus lived out so beautifully.

The Church is people; people who are flawed and hurtful and hateful. It’s critically necessary to challenge those individual people to better reflect Christ, in the words they speak and the relationships they engage in, and the lives they live.

The Church is a building. It’s important to continually hold a mirror up to those individual, local faith communities; to challenge poor leadership, or harmful tendencies, or specific ways they may not be reflecting the love of God for those who walk through their doors every Sunday.

The Church is an institution. As believers who are part of the Global community, we should never fail to speak into that larger place of power and influence that Christians have, especially when it perpetuates or champions oppression, or bias, or hatred of any kind.

Christian, as you engage the world, your Biblical understanding of the Church as people, should be what guides you to bring challenge and change and correction to it.

Your love and compassion, and your heart for the intrinsic value of all people, should drive you to demand that the Church live into the fullest expression of the character of Jesus that there is in the word, in all its forms.

As you live and move and breathe, love all three Churches enough to speak hard truth to them.

0 thoughts on “The Church, The Church, and The Church (And Why It's Totally OK To Criticize All Three Of 'Em)

  1. “especially when it perpetuates or champions oppression, or bias, or hatred of any kind.”

    How do you do that when the world defines love as oppression, bias, and hatred?

    We live in a post-Christian era where even the slightest correction to anybody is viewed as bigotry and hatred; where morality is out of style and individual liberty threatens to become a dictatorship of its own.

    Even this post, innocent as it seems, could be viewed as biased hatred.

    So how do we work around that? Because until we do- Church will stay a loaded word.

  2. Good morning my lovely man do hope life in all it’s weirdness is Treating you well 😉 love to you & your amazing tribe Cheers 😉

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Thank you for this explanation. I recently ended a relationship over church (not by my choice). As I questioned the Eagle Brook Church and their methods of money collection – to the tune of 33M for a new building – they put up a spreadsheet on a screen for everyone to find their category of financial commitment to this new facility. 12 people should be able to commit to 1M, 21 people to commit 500K, all the way down to $1 per week. There was no other options for the struggling family that could possibly paint or carry boxes… As I expressed my concern over this huge material item, I was criticized by my fiance for my way of thinking which is simply “Jesus didn’t even have shoes – he walked and talked and the people followed and spread the word they believed”. My next encounter with this Eagle Brook Church – I was seeking some sort of assistance for a single mother in their physical area…she needed some help (like a gift card for groceries and/or gas) and was going through a very hard time. I was told thier resources were for MEMBERS only. I thought the church was for the good of the community – welcoming to everyone. To say I was disapointed would be a huge understatement. I am now floating through this world, praying alone, no partner to pray with…afraid to get back into the “church” because I have been let down so bad. I was blessed to have found your blog from a friend and I read everything current and I am working on the past as well.

  4. this is beautifully written. the problem I have with myself is, I feel like I’m judging when I demand things of others or feel they aren’t as good as me(self righteousness maybe?) if that makes sense.

  5. The church (however conceived) is the bride of Christ. We men know all about brides. They may be intelligent. They may be beautiful. They may be sexy. After spending enough time with them (post vows), we often discover to our horror that they have a “personality” ugliness that goes all the way to the bone.

    So what do you do with the church bride when she has bad toenail fungus, does not take baths, wears no deodorant, has a bad drinking problem, beats her children, gets into huge fights with people, and lays around on her butt doing nothing. In short, she is the poster child for dysfunction. Good question?

    Jesus says that He loves her anyway. Talk about love, patience, and balls. He gotta be duh man!!!

  6. Thank you for this thoughtful and gently pointed post…well done, exemplifying an old saw used to persecute people like me…speaking the truth in love!

    You did it, Brother, and many thanks! 🙂

  7. John. The following are several blogs that I recommend to lift up your Christian spirit and expand your horizons in highly positive ways. I know Christian blogs are a dime a dozen these days, but these four are rare—very rare—gems.

    They are also recommended for everyone else who visits here at John’s blog, except for Sylvia, Rick, and like-minded people. If you guys show up with an attitude at these blogs, you are likely to get your private parts cut off and mailed back to you in a dirty burlap sack. Just a fair warning for how they deal with people like you. The blogs are as follows:

    Life of a Female Bible Warrior (Adrienne):

    Revolutionary Faith – Taking Back Christianity (April):

    The Upside Down World (Rebecca):

    Defeating the Dragons (Samantha):

  8. I appreciate your gift but it is difficult. In some ways, prophets are difficult and Thanks for the last line, about loving the church. I don’t love it like I should, but am growing in that. My experiences and my own involvement is as an imperfect but believing lover of Christ and his people. I hope you have seen the good that I have, all around the globe, yet, none of those churches is perfect or even close. We need grace and mercy, and absolutely, truth. And truth is there if you look, and it isn’t all bad, not by a long shot.
    That said, church is family, it is God’s temple, it is an army, it is a movement, it is the Body of Jesus. The first century churches evidently faced the same kinds of issues that churches today do, and they struggle with the same problems too. Jesus’ letters to the 7 churches shows that.
    Thanks for writing brother. I don’t always agree with you, but your writing is helpful.

  9. Well said, John. Sometimes, I worry ‘the church’ is used to do more harm than good, and that’s soooo missing the point of Christianity. We’re supposed to be spreading the good news, not being scorekeepers of everything people are doing wrong.

  10. Thank you for this timely post. I’ve just finished writing a book that God asked me to write in 1992, started in 1994. It’s my story. I became very ill in 1988 and did what the culture has taught me to do; I turned to my church and the ordained way of mainstream medicine. I saw 11 doctors in 18 months and got worse under their care so I picked up the phone and canceled all pending tests/appts and began a purely spiritual pursuit for answers. I had an amazing spiritual experience six months later and something/someone/Holy Spirit/ Angels/Higher Self, I don’t know, but some unseen presence came and began teaching me how to get well. What is of the greatest concern to me is that not one thing I needed to get well from an autoimmune disease (and more) was found in mainstream ideas. Not one thing I needed to get well/stay well was paid for by health insurance. On this path I was told that I didn’t have enough faith and my Christian peers were not the least bit interested in hearing about what God was doing in my personal life. They didn’t want to hear the scriptures that emphasize that our body is a temple and we are it’s stewards and that we shouldn’t be eating junk food and destroying our health. I was also given a gift in healing but told not to tell anyone. Several people had profound healing experiences and one woman likely threw up a tumor but flushed it. 😐 Bottom line, God showed me that Christians who make up 73 to 88% of the nation are themselves creating this crappy culture. Scripture says often that we are to differentiate ourselves and our lifestyle from “those who know nothing of God.” We are supposed to be different. TESTIMONY: I’M WELL AND I HAVEN’T BEEN TO A MAINSTREAM MEDICAL DOCTOR FOR ILLNESS SINCE 1989 because I eat, live and medicate the way God taught me to. I’m free.

    This story shines a bright light into the failure of the Church, the carnality of the church, the immaturity of the Church, and shows them clearly how their ways have created this crappy culture we now live in. They act as thought “the heathens” have created this world but when 73 to 88% of Americans identify themselves as Christians then I’d say that demographic has a tremendous impact on anything it gets behind.

    Food, health, and related knowledge have given me a non-threatening way to talk to people about God because He crafted this story. I have seen an “unapologetic atheist” come to believe in God simply by having this story to tell. It’s a story that shows the power that the TRUE CHURCH should have.

    James 4 “You have become like unfaithful wives having an illicit affair with the world.”

    “Revival is a gift, not a goal. We need to become worthy.” Eddie Smith of International House of Prayer.

    I had just been mulling over the potential backlash of this book release but it has to be done. Your blog helps me have a sense of true community for people who believe the Church could be so much more.

    The hostile attitudes I endured. The rebellious spirits. The lack of discernment and lack of humility were horrific and one of the reasons I walked out. I was raised in church. Today’s church is lacking in so many ways. It’s very sad.

    Good news. This book is going to shake some stuff up. I would appreciate your prayers.

    Next book is what God taught me to reverse chronic pain.

    God Bless,


  11. Jude 3-4. I think this encompasses fairly well that we should not get too wrapped up in theological questions but never forget the grace of our Lord and that apart from Him we have nothing. I try to ask myself everyday, “where am I with God?” “do I accept and actively seek his judgment and power?” the questions of where the community is at with the Lord tend to take care of themselves. I’m not saying don’t try to disciple, but one can only do so much.

  12. Thank you for your intelligent and thoughtful reflections. You cause me to think, hard, about my faith; about why it is often difficult to live it and speak it; and encourage me to keep working at it, especially when it is the most difficult.

  13. Thank you very much for this explanation as to what we mean by “Church”. When we talk about its shortcomings, how can we “speak the truth in love” without sounding self-righteous or superior? I have said before how the “Church” has hurt me as a gay man because in many cases it has condemned me for being gay or for my gay “lifestyle”. Frankly I do not want to dwell on my feelings of pain and hurt. Jesus said that we should love our enemies. After all, those who crucified him were his enemies for whom he died, bearing their sins on the cross. In fact, we were all his enemies, estranged from him, and through his sacrifice he has brought us home to himself. So whenever the “Church” uses language to hurt others, then it is acting as though it was no longer in relationship with God. It has ignored the sacrifice of the cross. It has brought dishonour to the name of Jesus. Our response to that should be one of profound sorrow – not judgement!

  14. You are very mistaken and completely off base. The church is never expressed, viewed, or conducted as a “building” or “institution”. Also, there is nothing to criticize about the Church because it’s holy,

  15. I am not sure about the necessity for listing the Church as the building and I think of the Church as an institution as the organization and leadership of the Church. I do think that correctly criticizing the Church is not only appropriate and necessary, it is Biblical. We see this in the OT when the prophets spoke against Israel and Judah. We see the NT writers criticize individual churches. But most of all, we are to preach repentance where we see sin.

    One of the best lines in this post says:

    “The world wants to see, not only if Christians can be loving, but if they can address the unloving things in their midst.”

    The Church’s failure to address these sinful things is because as a people we have become too much a part of our world and as an institution it has become aligned with power and wealth. This failure has hurt both people and the reputation of the Gospel.

    But perhaps the Church should also do one other thing. That is to listen when it hears criticism from the world because some of that criticism is going to be valid. After all, wasn’t one of God’s spokesman in the OT a donkey?

  16. Thank you so much for posting this! I have been severely injured by the church, the church, and the church over the years. Churches should not be places where women are called sluts just for talking with guys, or places where people are given flak and excluded for having hearing loss, or told that they will go to hell for not voting Republican, and yet I’ve experienced all of these, and many many other scenarios, sadly.

    I have had several well-intentioned yet misguided friends ask me when I’m going to join a church again, and they don’t really understand why I might never go back. I have been drawn to a Messianic congregation with my husband because that style of worship service has no negative memories for me. As weird as this sounds, when people tell me to come back to church, it feels like they’re telling me to go back to an abusive spouse, if that even makes any sense.

    • What makes it even worse is when the name of God is invoked to back up their unloving and prejudiced attitude. I should have known better, and not allowed myself to be drawn into going, but for the last three or four Sundays I tried an evangelical charismatic church, but yesterday I was told by the caretaker pastor not to hug the young men because they would “spiritually discern” I was gay and therefore feel threatened! As if I would molest them! And as for my private life, did I know that having sex had a “spiritual dimension” to it!!!!!! And that gay sex was classed as extra-marital sex. Who do these people think they are? As though “having sex” was the be all and end of all of everything. Surely we can have a close loving monogamous (hope that is the right term!!) relationship with a member of the same sex (which includes lovemaking – not “having sex”, as they pejoratively describe it), just in the same way as heterosexual couples can have. I want nothing to do with their kind of God, and if I realize that I have been hoodwinked all this time into being a “Christian”, then I will ditch the whole thing as being one huge cruel joke. I sometimes wish I could be an atheist and be done with it. It would be so easy not to be bothered with trying to figure out if God was a God of love or not, and just ignore him or her or it. Sorry about the rant, but I am angry and pissed off (excuse the “French”). I am currently in the Philippines and will probably have to wait until I get back to the UK before I find a church (if I still am looking by then and have not given up!!).

      • Congratulations, you to can be a clergy abuser. This is exactly what I’ve heard from every homosexual Catholic Priest I’ve ever known after they were accused.

  17. John,

    You said:
    “One of the most dangerous ideas perpetuated by Christians, is that followers of Jesus shouldn’t speak negatively about the Church. The argument goes, that when we do this, we are causing division, disrupting harmony, and giving Jesus a bad name to outsiders.

    Not only is this not Biblical, it’s also not accurate either.”

    Not looking for a debate, just clarity. Can you show in scripture how the argument isn’t biblical?


    • Hey Shawn.

      Whether it was an OT prophet confronting the Israelites, Jesus calling out the Kingdom community, or Paul laying into the Galatian Church, honest accountability has been at the heart of God’s people.

      And while some may quote Matthew 18, or contend that these above references were examples of people internally addressing closed communities, the spirit of those examples are ones that can and should be carried through to this new technological age, and the openness of the global community.

      We certainly can’t expect one individual to be able to personally and confidentially confront or question a superstar celebrity pastor, or a massive multi-site megachurch, nor to address the wider church in any other way than the same public forums used by them to spread their theology and popularity.

      If we can’t and don’t want to do this, we’re being irresponsible stewards of the modern church.

      That’s where I’m coming from.

  18. Pingback: This Week’s Links « Timothy Siburg

    • Jesus never held back on His assessment of His 7 churches in Asia Minor. The difference between us in the body and He as the head is, Jesus is the official and only inspector of His church. We really should refrain from openly voicing willy-nilly every little and big deal outside of the body of Christ. The Lord set up His church with elders to have an avenue to vent, talk over and pray on an individual basis our concerns etc within our midst. Gossip and bad mouthing your congregation really does a serious disservice and I suppose at times, real harm for the devil to get a foothold in the body of Christ.

      Let’s let Jesus and His word have the only say in how His church is to conduct, serve and love itself as He intended, and requires. He’s the King, not us.

      A lesson on Jesus Christ – The Church Inspector:

      Blessings to all, Eric

      • I am always amazed at the Biblical Ignorance of Bible Believing Christians.

        I believe if you study, you’ll find it was St. Paul writing to the seven churches of Asia Minor, not Christ.

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