The church is made up of imperfect people among imperfect people. That may sound like a strangely clumsy statement, but let me explain.
In my last two articles, I made the claim that ‘our churches today are crowded with Christianised people who have never been born again. Therefore they have no real relationship with God, no empowerment for life and ministry, and no evidence of ‘salvation’ beyond rule-keeping, rituals, good works, and some bible knowledge.’ I did not mean this either as a criticism or as a judgement, but simply as my observation of a real condition. People who are not born again are imperfect at a fundament level of their being, yet in many ways, many of them are less imperfect than some of those who are born again. Spiritual rebirth is the start of a process of growth into the perfection of Christ Jesus, but it is by no means the end. Spiritually, we can be born again in an instant, but our thinking, character, emotions, words and actions need a lifetime before they even approach anything less than imperfection.
Jesus told a story of weeds and wheat and it goes like this:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds , you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.'” Matthew 13:24-30
The Nature of the Local Church
Every local church is a microcosm of the Kingdom of God, and each one is full of both weeds and wheat, unregenerate and spiritually regenerate people; but all imperfect people. A local church is neither a building nor a formal organisation although it usually has both of these elements. Rather, a church is a collection of people seeking to live out some form of community life centred on the Lord Jesus Christ. Strange as it may seem, one of the ways such a disparate bunch of people maintain themselves as a group, is the realisation that they are all imperfect. A church, by its truest definition, is a part of the body of Christ and should as such only be composed of born again people. An alien cell does not belong in a human body and an unregenerate person does not belong in the body of Christ, yet the formal and visible ‘church’ is a mixture of regenerate and unregenerate ‘cells’, the wheat and the weeds. This is the reality that Jesus acknowledged and addressed in His story of the wheat and the weeds. But, what I want to stress is that in so many ways the wheat is as imperfect as the weeds, and that too is a reality.
Now, here is another reality – a vast number of born again believers have given up on the church because of the imperfections they encounter within it. In terms of Jesus’ story, they have not pulled the weeds out of the church, but instead, they have pulled themselves out. They are examples, millions of examples, of self-weeded wheat. Most times they blame others for their isolation from the church. Someone hurt their feelings, marginalised them, or was mean to them. Or, the pastor taught things that they believed to be wrong, self-serving, or nonsensical. Or perhaps the music was too loud, or too boring. Or the sermons just didn’t ‘do anything’ for them… and so on. And it is true, we do sometimes get hurt in our church life, and sometimes things are just not what we would like them to be.
However, one of the main reasons that folk choose to leave a local church is because they cannot or will not recognise that they themselves are imperfect people among imperfect people.
A Personal Confession
I have a confession to make. Since retiring from pastoral ministry, I have more than once seriously considered leaving the local church I led for three decades. And the main reason for the very real emotional pain and turmoil I suffered at those times is that I became overwhelmed by the imperfection of some of those around me and underwhelmed by my own imperfection. In the past, I sometimes said to the congregation; “Hey, you may not like what I am saying, but you had better get used to it because we are going to be together for eternity.” It is only in my more self-honest moments that I realise that what I said applies equally to me. If we are born again of the Spirit, then we will be with each other in heaven for eternity, whether we like it or not. So we had better learn, now, how to get along.
Two Questions to Ask and Answer
Sure, most church leaders need to do regular reality checks on what is preached, how they lead, the realness of its fellowship, and so on. But, we who make up the bulk of the local church also need to conduct regular legality checks. The two main questions we each need to ask and answer are:
- How am I seeking to become more like Jesus? and
- How am I helping others to become more like Jesus?
Helping Others to be More Like Jesus
Part of helping others to become more like Jesus is to gently and respectfully share the need to be born again with those in the church (and also those outside the church) who’s lives do not evidence any real difference to the lives of unbelievers. This does not include moralistic pronouncements, implied criticisms, self-righteous condescension, or bible-bashing. Our approach must be what Peter had in mind when he wrote; ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect .’ 1 Peter 3:15
It certainly does not help others to become more like Jesus if we live one way in the church fellowship and another way in business, private life, and so on. It also doesn’t help others to pretend that we are perfect or to share only our successes, achievements and ‘good deeds’.
Then we all need to read, and re-read Pauls inspired instructions to us:
‘As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all’. Ephesians 4:1-6
On a Lighter Note
After reading this article, I hope no one will be tempted to go off and start a new church called ‘The First Perfect Church’, for if I, or anyone else, joined it then it would immediately be even more imperfect than when it had just one member. 🙂