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.