The Church today presents a fairly complex panorama. Many different organizations each claim in their own way to be the true Church. But there are various flavors of culture and to some degree flavors of doctrine. Consequently, it is important to help young people figure out how to navigate the Church landscape today. There is a chasm between what the Church is and what it’s supposed to look like. It’s difficult for all of us. But it is especially problematic for young people who are sensitive to hypocrisy and prone to questioning authority.
Groups of teens and young adults are aware and they’re judging. They are insightful. They are intelligent and they are thinking through what they are looking at in the Church. It’s a challenging dichotomy for them and it can be faith breaking. That is not a new problem, but it is particularly easy in this paradigm to become cynical. Cynicism leads us away very quickly from the Church, from truth, and from God altogether.
How does one exist in the Church landscape without cynicism? The key is not to let the failings of people sideline you. When evaluating the Church, it’s very important that you keep yourself in the frame. Rather than just looking externally, include yourself in the evaluation that you’re making and stay open-minded.
Keep your eyes firmly on Christ. Don’t let anything else become an idol in your life. If you are going to look at the current view of the Church, start with yourself. Are we all not hypocrites? A hypocrite is a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings. Are your beliefs and actions perfectly synchronized? Probably not. Paul, himself, acknowledged his own inherent hypocrisy:
“For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.” (Romans 7:18-19).
That is a profound statement from one of the authors of the Bible. A spirit-led mind is aware of its own hypocrisy which is a prerequisite for true change. If you are not aware of your hypocrisy, if you do not understand what Paul is writing, ask God to show you.
If you find yourselves getting “judgy” about any Church, it usually germinates from a failure of self-perception, from a willingness to take ourselves out of frame and cast judgment on others. Condemning somebody else or something else is a very cheap and easy way to feel better about ourself.
“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5).
This is an especially important attitude and frame of reference to use when trying to navigate the Church. If you’re confronted by the shortcomings of the Church or the people in it, make sure you’re considering your own faults first. Then you can take that and expand it out a little bit and think about your own physical family. That family is an organization. It can take various shapes. Families have structure. They have roles, they have responsibilities. If that family is in the Church, it’s an extension of the government of God.
Is your family perfect? If it’s human, no it’s not. Don’t expect families to be perfect. Sometimes there are serious issues that require serious action. But in general, we give our families a little bit of slack. We give them room to be human. We don’t quickly abandon our family when we see fault with them. Take that and expand it even further to the Church. The Church is a family, comprised of faulty, physical people. The Church is not a monolithic corporation that has a copywrite on truth. The Church is also not a vague, ethereal, unknowable, spiritualized concept.
The word “church” comes from a Greek term ekklesia. It means assembly, congregation, or meeting. A similar term is used in the Old Testament referring to the day of the assembly, the Lord’s congregation, or meeting before the Lord. The Church is just us. We are the ekklesia: “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Romans 8:14).
It doesn’t say those that are perfect because of the Spirit of God. It says those that are led by the Spirit. In so far as the Spirit of God is working with us, we are Christ’s Body physically manifested. And we are a physical body. However, the Church is a spiritual organism made up of physical people; a flawed family trying to follow Christ. There are going to be problems.
How does one cope with the dichotomy of the Church; what it claims to be versus what we can observe it really is? Examining yourself first will force you to take a softened judgement of those that you are looking negatively upon. It will ask you to extend grace to your physical family and your Church family. Again, there will be serious problems, and sometimes serious responses are required. But we need to be realistic about what we’re dealing with.
The other concept to keep in mind is, don’t commingle God with the Church. Those are clearly very closely related, but they’re not the same thing. The failings of the Church are not God’s failings. They’re our failings because we are physical people. The Church is a hierarchical structure and it’s reinforced with titles and organization charts. That’s the same kind of hierarchical structure within families. But the Church has a reinforced element of authority that is infused with religious power. And fallible authority is always difficult to cope with.
All deal with fallible authority in all aspects of their lives; at work, at school, at whatever we’re doing. There’s going to be authority and there’s going to be problems with it. However, it is God that appoints all those who are in authority: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Romans 13:1).
That reads well in a theoretical setting. But that’s a pretty difficult thing to deal with when the rubber meets the road. It’s a very tricky concept to apply. The trick is maintaining a clear perspective of to whom one is actually submitting when one submits to authority. This scripture says that we are to be subject because God appoints all authority. That’s the perspective shift we need to take. Our submission is not to the physical authority. Our submission is in fact to God.
A poignant moment to look at is the time when David came across Saul in a cave. It was an enclosed environment with nobody to defend Saul and David had the opportunity to kill him. By most people’s account, he had the right to kill him, even perhaps the responsibility to do so because David was the anointed king. However David said: “… The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, to stretch out my hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the Lord. So David restrained his servants with these words, and did not allow them to rise against Saul …” (1 Samuel 24:6-7).
How did David cope with Saul’s hypocrisy? He was very clear in his own mind to whom He was submitted. David’s king was not Saul. It was God, the Eternal, the Word, Christ. David’s focus kept him on course. He didn’t get enraged, exasperated, and take it upon himself. He stayed submitted to God.
That focus is always a challenge for us today as it was in the nation of Israel long ago. Israel shifted its focus off God onto a man. And so has the Church. Humans want a “king”. They have a tendency to want a physical champion, a visible icon that they can follow, someone or something that they can see to place trust in.
That’s been a perennial problem for God’s people because human minds are not subject to God. They often refuse to put their faith in the correct thing, and instead demand a physical thing to rely upon. Faith in anything or anyone other than God, especially physical symbols of God, is idolatry and we are to have no other gods before Him (Exodus 20:3). No likeness is to be in His place. God is jealous of your trust. He knows everything else you might put your trust in will fail you. Because of Israel’s idolatry, they were ultimately put to flight and scattered.
Similarly, if anyone worships a church, they will be put to flight and scattered. Nevertheless, God’s people need the Church. We need ministers to counsel us. We need fellowship to keep us close, to exhort us, to help each other. Devoid of all other considerations, just doing what God asks us is challenging enough in this world. We can’t do what we need to do unless we have our family with us to support us. But in so far as we rely on any physical substitute for God, we will stumble. And by looking around at the condition of the Church today, many have done that.
Paul told Timothy that there is one mediator between God and men, and that is Jesus Christ (I Timothy 2:5). There’s nothing that stands between us and our Creator. The fact that there’s nothing standing between you and God means you’re responsible for your actions. And you have no opportunity to blame others.
Paul, who is probably the model Church Pastor, was very careful not to position himself as the Church’s Champion, lest “their faith should be in the wisdom of men instead of the power of God” (I Corinthians 2:1). He also said, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (I Corinthians 11:1). He was careful not to claim to be in Christ’s seat. He did not want anyone losing their way because they attached themselves to the wrong figure. He was only there to point them all to Christ, to point them to the Way. And we can’t let any person, place, or thing become an object of our faith.
The landscape of the Church of God is messy. We must acknowledge that. It’s hard to square what we are supposed to be and what we say we are, with what we really look like. It’s a little bit of a dichotomy. The challenge of reconciling that situation is not just a problem for the young people. It’s a problem for all of us. God’s way is hard enough. Criticizing the Church can be a very easy way to excuse ourselves from the responsibility that we know we have. The perspective we bring to that consideration is particularly important:
“Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one examine his own work, and then he will have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. For each one shall bear his own load” (Galatians 6:1-5).
A realistic self-image is key. That’s called repentance. And that’s how a Church can be healthy. If we have that repentant mindset then we can look up at Christ. One day soon, all the tribes of the earth will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (Matthew 24:30).