I’ve been afraid to post this one and put it off for a couple of days, changing it a bit and trying to make it more palatable. I even considered deleting it because I want to talk about Scripture, not this stuff. I have to, though. It’s pressing on me too much, and I think the church should hear from newer believers like me and be confronted with how this behavior and this atmosphere frightens and alienates those of us who are just starting to find our footing with God and his church. Take what makes sense and discard the rest. And pray for the church in America. They’re not feeding us to lions; they don’t have to because we’re doing it for them.
I Love God and I Love His People
On Monday, I wrote a thing about the people who helped me find Jesus. They are people who either helped me as a child, as a non-believing adult, or as a new Christian seeking confidence. Every person on that list makes me smile with just a thought of them. There is joy for me in each of those relationships, whether they’re ongoing or from my past.
My faith is a delight to me, and maybe that’s because it took me so long to find it. Knowing God brings me comfort and counsel and correction, but it also brings me joy. I have a measure of internal peace and comfort most of the time. I have wonder–real awe–at the complexity and perfection of Creation, of the Bible, and of the God who made it all. It’s the promise of bottomless discovery. God knew just how to make me happy.
My local church has been a family and a home. I love the people there; I really do. We worship together and pray together and study together. We also eat together and share our lives with each other outside of the church. It’s really lovely, and I never knew church could actually look like that.
We are a military family, and someday in the not-so-distant future, we’ll be moved somewhere new. We’ll eventually have to leave this church and find a new one in a new place.
I’ve started to think that my current church must be a unicorn or something, because if the public discourse is any indicator, a lot of American churches are an absolute nightmare.
The Situation As I Am Seeing It Presented
The Christian community in my country is a smoking tire fire right now. The tone of Christian-to-Christian discourse in the U.S. is characterized by contempt, biting sarcasm, and condemnation.
There are heavy, core-shattering scandals involving greed, narcissistic pastors, reports of pervasive hierarchical racism, and an ever-rising mountain of sexual abuse claims. Hysterical rants branding somebody a heretic or false teacher are as numerous on YouTube and Christian blogs as mosquitos on a hot day in the swamp.
Racial reconciliation and unity within America’s “most segregated hour of the week” is, as one might have predicted, not going at all smoothly. The Southern Baptists, who make up a decided majority of U.S. Protestants, are clawing one another’s eyes out again over precisely which words women are allowed to speak in church. Episcopalians haven’t been able to pick up the pieces after a series of schisms that utterly shattered the Anglican tradition in America. The Methodists are splitting up, as well, and it’s heartbreaking. Roman Catholics are still reviled as “not even Christian” by sanctimonious Protestants who have little understanding and no regard for the wall they’ve put up against Roman and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters all over North America. The Catholics are too busy fighting amongst themselves over whether the current Pope is an angel or an antichrist to participate or respond. The Pentecostal tradition and its many charismatic offshoots are struggling to get some control over theology that is widely perceived as unhinged and unbiblical out of megachurches like Bethel and Hillsong.
And the internet is absolutely writhing with the fallout from all of this discord. I’m finally starting to understand why Jesus took one look at the state of his Father’s house and started smashing furniture. What are we doing? Who is served by all of this? Who comes out on top at the end of it? Where is the motivation for all of this rancor and contempt? Who’s stirring all of this?
My Concerns at the Local Level
I am thanking God for my local church, but I am also experiencing real and dreadful fear as I watch the larger body of Christ in my country devolve before my eyes into a miserable, bitter, and quarrelsome place. Someday, whether I like it or not, the government will give my husband new orders. We will have to leave our current church family and find a new congregation to call home. Instead of resting in the opportunity for new work and new relationships that should present for us, we will have to ask questions like these:
- Has a member of this church or its staff sexually assaulted, molested, or raped anybody? If so, do they still attend here/work here? How did leadership treat the victim(s)? Did they report it or did they cover it up?
- If a man beats his wife or terrorizes her into a state of untenable instability, will this church help her and protect her, or will they ask her what she did to cause it and send her back into the abuse?
- Are my brothers and sisters of color welcome in this church? Will they be merely tolerated or will they be embraced as family when they come? If I join a church with more minority members than white ones, will I be trusted and embraced, or will the members’ own hurt and instinct for self-protection leave them unable to love me as a part of the spiritual family? My grief at the existence of these questions in 2020 is hard to fully articulate.
- Are the men of this church fixated on a proof-text version of complementarian doctrine? Do they despise women who are called to help lead bible study, teach canon history, and advocate for adult theology classes? Do they deny that God calls women in this way? Do they fear that women with such callings secretly desire to take over the pulpit and wrench leadership out from under men?
- Do the pastors here love Jesus or do they only love being in a position of power? Do they work for God and his people or do they seek a name only for themselves?
- Is this church full of love or is it full of politics and laws? Does it serve the community and project Jesus’ love for the lost and the needy or does it busy itself with condemnation and legalism?
- Is this church faithful to Scripture? Does it have a solid and biblical grasp of Christian theology? Or does it exploit emotion and entertainment to tick off a checklist for “growth” and “relevance” and fame and money?
According to the news and social media, this is what we’ll have to ask. This is what we’ll have to deal with. According to the news and social media, we’re so lucky to be in a church that never caused us to ask any of these ugly questions that the odds we’ll ever find another one are bleak. I cling to hope that’s just click-bait hyperbole, but what if it isn’t? Christian forums and magazines and blogs seem unified in this tale of perpetual hostility and grief in the church right now. Social media conversations I’ve seen only confirm it. And I don’t know what to do with that. I don’t know what the correct response is. This isn’t an accusation on my part. This is a lament.
My Concerns at the Kingdom Level
Beyond my concerns about finding a new church home in the future, I am also looking at the American body of Christ as a whole. I’m asking Kingdom questions here. I’m looking at dire warnings and serious questions from the Bible about this. We’re supposed to be Christ’s beacon on a lampstand. What will happen if we continue to fail in projecting that beacon? What will become of us if we don’t repent, if we don’t fix the problems? What if God removes our lampstand? What will happen to us then?
Am I being overwrought? Do I need to let this go? I’ll listen if you think so, but I’ve had this pressing on me for a while, and I’m trying to be brave and admit that in front of other Christians. I’m scared. I’m scared for the church, and that’s what this is.
What Christianity is Supposed to Look Like
The public face of American Christianity is volatile, mean, and bitter. It’s not a good look for the nonbelievers observing us, and the 21st century is not shaping up to be one of our finer moments in U.S. history. The infighting and the political idolatry are at a fevered pitch. We haven’t taken up burning one another as heretics again, yet, so it has been worse before, but I don’t think that’s the kind of bar we should be looking to set.
The fighting really shook me when I first became aware of it. I always pictured Christians as people who had this beautiful thing (faith) I wanted, and I idealized them with a sort of childlike naivety. I actually believed that most of them did their best to behave like Jesus every day, and I told myself that any rotten eggs were just isolated examples, few and far between. Now that I’ve been shown that isn’t true, I think it’s time to develop a realistic image of what Christians should look like. Fortunately, the Bible provides a very explicit and clear one for us.
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh along with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. –Galatians 5:22-26, ESV
A Christian should produce the fruit of the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us. He is with us all the time Our lives should reflect His presence by producing His “fruits.” I think the fruit language gets lost on a lot of people unless they’ve been in church for decades, so let’s put it another way.
A Christian should be a person who demonstrates love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control in his/her daily life. The people around us on a regular basis should be able to observe those qualities as defining characteristics in our lives.
I got really good at picking out Christians in my years as a non-believer. I could tell by talking to somebody for 5 minutes, at the checkout or on an airplane or whatever, whether that person was a Christian. There is an aura that comes off of faithful Christians (I don’t mean a mystical new-age aura, so calm down), and that aura is the light of the Holy Spirit. That’s Christ’s grace shining off of them. It is there. I know it is because I remember seeing it and looking for it and asking God to let me have it, too. It was the most powerful form of evangelism I ever received as a nonbeliever.
A Christian should not be conceited.
We all fail at this from time to time, don’t we? I surely do. Maybe I’m just horrible, but I occasionally catch myself being too big for my britches, assuming I’m the smartest one in the room, or feeling morally superior to people around me. It doesn’t happen nearly as often since I met Jesus. I recognize what I’m doing and shut it down a lot faster, now, but I still fail, sometimes. Paul isn’t telling the Galatians (or us) that we have to be perfect in this all of the time. He’s saying that a lack of conceit–a habit of humility–should be a general and noticeable trait in the life and relationships of a Christian. Humility and gracious deference to others is visible. People notice it. Like the fruits of the spirit, a lack of conceit is visible and magnetic. It draws people to us, and it draws them to wonder where we got it from.
A Christian should not provoke people–especially other Christians.
I feel pretty safe in assuming that all of us fail at this, and on a shockingly frequent basis. I assume that because I’m a blogger and you’re online reading a blog. That means that you, like me, are a person who consumes media on the internet, and it implies a whole host of other habits. You probably use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or some other social media app that over-40’s like me don’t know about. You most likely use them every day, and you are also quite likely to discuss the following when you do: Politics, Doctrine & Theology, Current Events, or even (and this is a special recent addition) news of the British Royal Family.
If you’re anything at all like an average American, you probably provoke people–and you sometimes do it on purpose–over one or more of these things. You probably do it at least once per week, and many of you do it every, single day.
A Christian is a peacemaker, not an agitator. We don’t foment anger or fear or hatred. We foster peace, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. It doesn’t matter how right we are, provocation does not reflect Christ, and it doesn’t draw people nearer to him. Our witty zingers don’t make them rethink their positions, and our brilliant use of classical rhetoric doesn’t make them feel stupid. All we’re doing there is sowing hostility and defensive bitterness. Aggression of this sort damages both our own witness of Christ and the universal witness of the church. Nothing good ever comes from Christians indulging anger to provoke people and roll around in the dirt like animals.
A Plea From a Fresh Believer
Maybe none of this is new. Maybe it’s just that I’m new. Maybe things have always been this way because humans are sinners. Maybe I was just blissfully ignorant of all this “stuff” because church issues on a national scale simply were not on my radar. Maybe that’s all this is. I’m willing to hear that from people and re-evaluate the level of panic I am experiencing over it.
I’m not a baptized-last-week Christian, and I’m no longer walking around on a brand new Jesus high, but I’m still new at this. I am still optimistic because I believe God and what he says in the Bible. I believe Jesus is telling us the truth in the promises and warnings of Revelation. I believe that God will give us the eternal kingdom he promised. I’m not trying to be Chicken Little. I’m trying to cry out a lament. I suppose I’m just not very good at it, yet.
I don’t have 20 years of church under my belt, but I know that something is wrong, and I suspect the Enemy is having a field day with it. God’s people are eating each other in the United States, and they’re doing it over stuff that has nothing to do with salvation–with the main things. They’re doing it over things that have no bearing on the Gospel or soteriology. They’re not choosing the Doctrine of God or the Trinity as a hill to die on, either.
They’re eating each other over secular politics.
They’re eating each other over whether or not women can teach from the Bible or speak about God if men are in the room.
They’re eating each other over whether–and you can’t make this up–a church’s first priority should be a sex abuse victim or preserving the reputation of the church she got abused in.
They’re eating each other over whether or not non-white American preachers are allowed to feel marginalized by their denominational hierarchies.
They’re eating each other over a lot of petty doctrinal disputes, as well, and I’m not even familiar enough with all of them to explain it or understand them all. Each denomination seems consumed with its own crisis.
All of it looks like Satan. None of it looks like Christ. Sure, those in the fray will snap back with, “I’m just taking a stand for truth,” but I don’t think that’s what this is. If it were, it would look like someone standing for truth. But it doesn’t. At all. It looks like cursing others who were made in the image of God to elevate a set of preferences or opinions. That is what it looks like to a fresh believer. And it’s scary. It feels like the house that was built on sand, and the sand is starting to slide away.
We have to fix it. We need to pray for humility. We need to pray for ears to hear and eyes to see. We need to pray that we can see other people the way Jesus sees them. We need to pray for hearts of flesh to replace hearts of stone. We must be still and let God be our God. We need to ask him to reveal our sin to us. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to convict us in the places where we have been blind to our need for conviction.
And then we must repent.