It’s hard to disconnect our experience of God from our experience of the church — and that’s how it’s supposed to be.
That’s why God hates the abuse of power in the church, which says, “God is an abuser” (Psalm 94:16). That’s why God hates the neglect of the powerless, which says, “God neglects the powerless” (Isaiah 1:17). That’s why God hates the worship of one gift over another, which says, “God plays favorites.” The power that the church has to sear impressions of God onto peoples’ souls is awesome and awful.
For those who find their faith mangled in a head-on collision with the church, like a totaled car on the highway, what is the way forward? In between “I guess I’ll just wait things out” and “I’m leaving for good” are five realities that frame our wounds, bring them into a better light, and help us take the next steps.
Every Community Wounds Itself
It has become increasingly popular to tear the church apart for bearing characteristics that are simply common of all people, Christian and non-Christian alike.
- People don’t always know what we need.
- People sometimes ignore and neglect us.
- People don’t always say the right thing.
- People can only have so many friends.
- People aren’t our personal butlers or waiters.
- People sometimes hurt us.
- People are self-interested by nature.
- People are awkward.
No need to make it about Christians. These things are true of the people sitting in your local Starbucks. We might be more forgiving there, but less understanding when we walk into our church. “Christians are so [blank].” No. People are so [blank]. And the church is composed of people — God’s people. Some better than average, and some still worse for now.
Sometimes, the wounds we receive from the church are the result of unacceptable and negligent attitudes or behavior in the church. Often, they are the result of unrealistic and unbiblical expectations we enforce on our brothers and sisters in Christ.
A Church Without Wounds
A church without wounds is an easy sell in a world where words are cheap: “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 8:11). In the last days, many are deceived because of the devil’s power to heal wounds: “its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast” (Revelation 13:3). The world will be tempted to worship the healing of temporary wounds over the Savior from sin and Healer of souls? We’re tempted to do that now.
Wounds from God’s people bear a distinct irony. On the one hand, yes, the church should be a place of love and healing for the weak — a hospital, not a museum. And yet, the church should also lovingly wound. The sword and the scalpel are indistinguishable to the unrepentant heart. When we experience wounds, even if we have been wronged, we are obligated to ask ourselves and a friend, “Do I have an unrepentant heart?” Is this wound necessary? Is God doing what only God can do for me (1 Corinthians 11:31–32)?
God’s call upon the church is urgent in its protection of the weak, vigilant against the cancer of sin, and tender toward the contrite.
Not All Pain Leads to Death
When we’ve performed honest self-examination, we can approach the question with integrity: What do I do when I’ve been hurt by the church, and feel betrayed by God? We are with Job, who despairs, “My wound is incurable, though I am without transgression” (Job 34:6). Why not just walk away from it all, start a “religious trauma” support group, and decry the abuses of the church? Why not?
Because to do that would be to admit that our faith in God was about the benefits of the church from the beginning: the love, the friends, the food. It was more than that, wasn’t it? Religious trauma hurts more because it is about more than being on the inside of a spiritual social club. We belong in a church because we were born to live forever, either in heaven or in hell.
God, save the church from such a hollow intimacy. Save our faith from such shallow motivations. Wound us if that’s what it takes to take off the blindfold of physical community in order to remember why we showed up at church to begin with: to glorify you by receiving your love, and sharing your love with one another.
The wound in our faith — even a wound from the church — can be the occasion to harbor festering cynicism, or to cut off the dead flesh of hollow piety and reconnect with the God who is there. The decision is up to us. “Church hurt” can be the occasion either for death or for rebirth; either for regression or renewal.
That’s not to say it doesn’t hurt. That’s not to say it isn’t devastating. But let’s not operate under the myth that church hurt requires one path of retreat and isolation. There is another way, if we want it: “that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:5).
The Faithful Will Understand — Because God Does
Some who have been in the church for a long time, and have been hurt by it, sadly hold their hurt over the heads of the next generation: “I’ve served for forty years, and I’m still here. You can endure some pain, too.” Not: “Yes, I know what you mean. Here’s my story of hurt. What’s yours?”
The church’s wounding is not a given. It’s not something to be written off as simply human imperfection. It’s not okay. It’s not tolerable. The prophets and apostles never stop critiquing God’s people for their failure to love the way he loves; to be holy as he is holy.
God himself has plenty of reasons to leave the church; he doesn’t hide his frustration with our sinful rebellion, even as he reinforces his commitment to stay: “I will not execute my burning anger” (Hosea 11:9). “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender” (Hosea 11:8). God is torn, but he has made a covenant to stay. He is angry and names the wrong done against him, but chooses to love; he is compelled to love.
The faithful in the church will know what it’s like to want to leave the church, and will have compassion for others in the same boat, because even God knows what that feels like to be provoked to leave, and yet steadfastly stay.
The Church Needs You
Martin Luther King, Jr. writes, “I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion” (Why We Can’t Wait, 103). Consequently, “Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust” (105).
It’s understandable why those whose faith has been damaged by the church would want to leave it. Many victims of abusive church cultures feel that the church actually robbed them of faith. That experience is tragic, and perhaps to some degree true. God becomes too painful for them; his face and words have been merged with the harmful faces and words of flawed and harmful people.
God’s response is be a better face. Be the better word. Paul, a good and trustworthy guide, speaks to a group of believers who are skeptical that he is taking advantage of them:
Do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God. (2 Corinthians 3:1–3)
God requires of his church “a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). You are God’s fulfilled promise to the church — written, not in abuse, but in holy care. Not in church politics, but in humble piety. Not in Christian status symbols, but in love and service.
“The Church’s ideal state supplies to her the standard of her duty, and to approach nearer to it ought to be her constant effort” (Milligan, Ascension, 233). For the times it doesn’t, O God, graciously lead us in a state of mind that allows us to frame the wound rightly; to take into account the realities which ought to keep us from spinning into a cycle of bitterness that can be as destructive as the abuse itself. Keep us safe, but vulnerable; keep us wise, but humble; keep our anger righteous, and our hearts tenderhearted toward your people.