Have you ever found yourself dreading Sunday mornings when you know you should feel joy? Or have you felt that the church fellowship hall has been laced with land mines? Perhaps the nastiness or neglect of fellow Christians has made you feel like Christ has forgotten you.
If so, you’re familiar with church pain.
Not “If,” but “When”
One guarantee of committing to any local church is that, sooner or later, it will hurt. Whether it involves low-level disappointments, fallout from scandal, or the ravages of civil war, the local church will always leave us aching for something better.
“One guarantee of committing to any local church is that, sooner or later, it will hurt.”
Relatively minor church hurts can leave us with a burned-out feeling during service, while the more serious wounds can leave us soul-scarred and physically sick at the thought of walking in the church doors. Far from being innocuous, the pain can open us up to various temptations: sitting in judgment over the church and its struggles, refusing to participate in any church ministries that are not up to par, tearing the church down with our words, or even withdrawing from the church altogether.
If we want to battle these temptations instead of growing disillusioned, we need to remember the truth about the church’s members, the church’s enemy, and the church’s King.
Remember the Church’s Members
Scripture contains beautiful metaphors of the church: a stately building (1 Peter 2:5), a radiant bride (Revelation 19:7–8), a human body (1 Corinthians 12:12), a house for God’s Spirit (Ephesians 2:19–22). Why do we often feel such a stark contrast between these images and our experience in an actual church body?
Bear with me while I state the obvious: the church is made of people. Although Scripture describes many ways in which human beings echo the image of God back to creation, there are at least three ways in which we do not: we sin, we are finite, and we change. Each of these can take a toll on our life together.
Sinful people hurt each other. Put a group of people of diverse ages, backgrounds, convictions, personalities, ethnicities, and sin struggles in relationship together, and life’s going to get messy quickly. And none of us is above it. When it comes to minor church hurts especially, sometimes adjusting our expectations can be helpful. Since we are all capable of doing damage, it is unreasonable to expect the church environment to be pain-free. Furthermore, Jesus foretold the ominous reality that wolves can enter the flock, wreaking havoc, scattering sheep, and leaving behind collateral damage (Matthew 7:15). God will hold these people accountable, but he may not do it right away.
“Jesus has an enemy, and it’s not the person in the next pew.”
People are also finite. Only God is limitless in his knowledge, love, power, and wisdom. Rather than expecting of others what only God can perfectly provide, we need to trust God to be God and let each other be human. On the other side of the spectrum, it is helpful to remember that every believer, regardless of deficiencies, is essential to the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:21–25). This can help us have grace for our church leaders and each other, and remind us of the necessity of our own contribution to the local church body.
Finally, because people change over time, churches are dynamic, not static. Even the best churches will eventually disappoint. Although we rightfully long to be part of healthy church bodies, our ultimate hope is not in how strong our local church is, but in the Head of the church himself. God’s purposes will prevail as he builds his church in his way.
Remember the Church’s Enemy
Jesus has an enemy, and it’s not the person in the next pew.
Satan has hated God from the beginning, and he wants to destroy, or at least diminish, the church because it is God’s chosen instrument to grow his kingdom. Satan wants to tear down the church as fast as Jesus can build it. He is not above shameful tactics or shock-and-awe moves, either. His many notorious titles in Scripture include liar (John 8:44), thief (John 10:10), accuser (Revelation 12:10), adversary (1 Peter 5:8), and murderer (John 8:44).
When it comes to the deep wounds the church can inflict, remember who the real enemy is. Behind the raging conflict or the oppressive leader is a crafty strategist whose ruthless plan involves consuming God’s people, or at least rendering their faith inactive. If you are wondering whether to stay in a church or leave, remember either way that Satan is actively seeking people to devour (1 Peter 5:8). And cling to Jesus, whose death and resurrection tolled the initial death knell for Satan.
“Our commitment to the bride is a statement about the worth of the Bridegroom.”
The gates of hell cannot prevail against the church (Matthew 16:18). We know that Satan was defeated at the cross, when Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:15). Satan will ultimately hold no power over God’s people because, when Christ returns, he will hand over the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every enemy of God, including all demonic powers that rage against God (1 Corinthians 15:24–25), and even death itself (1 Corinthians 15:26). Christ the Victor will conquer all, and God’s people will enjoy him forever in the absence of sin, death, and Satan.
Remember the Church’s King
In very difficult church situations, staying (in faith) or going (in humility and love) may both be valid options. When possible, seeing a tough church situation through can be the strongest statement a believer can make — not about the church, but about Jesus. Our commitment to the bride is a statement about the worth of the Bridegroom. Jesus died for his bride to make her spotless and splendid forever (Ephesians 5:25–27). Jesus believed the beauty of the church was worth his life, so he laid it down to purify her. She reflects back to him not her own intrinsic worth, but the worth of the One who created, called, and redeemed her.
“We need to trust God to be God, and let each other be human.”
Jesus’s bride sometimes reflects more of sin’s stains than her Savior’s splendor. We are in the process of being sanctified until Jesus returns. But we know that one day we will be glorified, perfected as sin’s presence is removed. Then, even the most cantankerous believer will be radiant in Christ’s righteous robes, and we will worship together in harmony. Until then, God’s people can continue to declare his worth by committing themselves to his warty and, at times, vicious bride, trusting that he will make her lovely in time.
The Bridegroom will return and conquer the church’s enemies, including sin, death, and Satan. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!