The question posed by the title is one of the most important questions that any individual can entertain and it is one that you will answer with your life whether you realize it or not. No one can avoid answering it. We are all in the process of answering it right now. Let me explain.
Becoming a Christian means that we come into a saved relationship with God through Christ. Prior to that point, he is our Father by right of creation but when we are saved, he becomes our spiritual Father and we his spiritual child. At the same time, we become a part of his spiritual family, which the Bible describes with many different designations, but church is the most common one. Coming into that saved relationship with God means that we also come into a spiritual relationship with the rest of his children, and together we comprise the church. When we are baptized into Christ we are also baptized into his spiritual body, the church. They go together, as the following two verses show.
Galatians 3:27 (NASB)
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
1 Corinthians 12:13 (NASB)
For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Of course, the church is used in two basic senses, the universal church which includes all of those who are saved, and the local church. The local church is our local family of believers with whom we fellowship. Years ago, I remember a popular saying, “Up with Christ and down with the Church.” Those voicing this concept were basically saying that you could have a satisfying relationship with Christ without being a part of a local church fellowship. It sounded good – if you knew nothing about what the New Testament actually says. You cannot have Christ without the church. Satan works tirelessly to get you to believe that, but it is a Satanic lie. The multitudes of verses that speak of how we function together as family make it clear that we are a family, not a DIY project.
Family Equals Relationships
There are over 60 verses using the phrases “one another” and “each other,” and even more that speak to our close personal relationships with each other. If we understand what the term family means in a physical sense, we should be able to use that understanding to grasp some of the basics that also apply to our spiritual family. For starters, no family is perfect. No parent is perfect and no child in the family is perfect. That means that we had better figure out things like forgiveness, conflict resolution, teamwork, grace and the many other qualities necessary to enjoy happy family relationships. Did your physical family of origin have any dysfunctional aspects in it? Mine certainly did, enough in fact that I wrote a yet unpublished book about some of our dysfunction that I call “weird humor.” It was pretty weird, but we were still family and we still loved one another and we functioned reasonably well even in the midst of our dysfunction. You understand, right? You weren’t raised in a perfect family either, were you? If so, I would love to meet you and hear your story. You would be the first and only one on my list of perfect families.
But I Want a Perfect Church!
If you understand the basics of what I just said, then how could you expect the church to be perfect? Do you think the first century church was perfect? I know you can quote the last few verses of Acts 2 and say, “Yes, that was about as close to perfect as I can imagine.” But if you keep reading through Acts and the other writings describing the history of the early church, you are going to find out that the human element emerges. We wouldn’t have a New Testament if the early church had been perfect. Most of the epistles were written to correct wrong doctrines, wrong living and messed up relationships. Surprise, surprise – but what did you expect with human beings? My subheading for Romans 1-3 in my exposition of Romans is: “The Best of Us is a Mess!” And when you compare us to the standard of Jesus, only an idiot would argue with my wording. We are a mess.
So your church has problems that you would like to see fixed. I understand. I feel the same way. I imagine just about all of the members have a list mentally of what they would like to see done differently. But our lists don’t agree with each other on every point and maybe not even on most points. Through my ministry of over a half century, I’ve seen little groups with the same concerns, which could be called “gripes” if found in a not-too-spiritual group, but other little groups of folks have a different list. What bothers one doesn’t necessarily bother everyone else. But in our pride, we can come to think that we are zeroed in and if others are in the same ballpark of spiritual perspective we are, they will see it the same way. Are you starting to see the huge impact of our pride?
Perspectives Come From Focus
I am addressing much more than our perspectives here; I am addressing what gives us those perspectives in the first place. Our perspectives come from our focuses. Here’s my best illustration to make the point I am aiming at. I have been married for 56 years to Theresa. I am so much in love with her that I can’t keep from talking about her to others. One of my preacher buddies and his wife were once in the audience for one of my teaching days, and in one day, the wife counted how many times I mentioned Theresa. I think it was somewhere over 50 times. She then, with some edge to her voice, asked her husband why he didn’t mention her nearly as much in his preaching as I mentioned Theresa. I didn’t mean to get the dude in trouble. I just can’t help myself. I am married to a cutey pie, fun and funny little angel and I’m delightedly held captive by her. I can’t help it. I don’t want to help it. I wrote a whole book about our marriage, “Fairy Tales Do Come True” (and mine did). One of the last books I wrote was “The Power of Spiritual Relationships.” It’s no surprise that one chapter was just about her.
BUT – there have been many times when I was so mad at her that I couldn’t see any of what I just said. She had become a little demon to me and not an angel. Have we had our so-called “bumps” in our relationship? Oh yes, in fact we have had our “mountains.” My perspective has in those times been so different than it is most of the time. Why? Because perspective is determined by focus! I had started focusing on her very few faults and stopped focusing on her multitude of positive qualities. If you are stupid enough to do that long enough, you may well end up in the divorce court. I usually come to my senses and repent pretty quickly, for she keeps being like Jesus even when I am being the opposite. It’s so humbling when she does that!
Now I don’t think you are stupid. I think you can make the connection and understand just how this illustration correlates to your view of the church. Your focus determines your perspective. If you are mainly negative toward the church, your focus is the reason. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi and used the terms “rejoice” and “rejoicing” repeatedly. But who was rejoicing? Paul – not the church. Read Philippians and you will discover that the church had a number of problems which Paul was addressing. One of the ways that he was trying to help them was in using himself as an example. He was a prisoner in chains when he wrote the book and yet he was rejoicing. How in the world did he do that? Focus! Just listen to him.
Philippians 4:4-9 (NASB)
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! 5 Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. 6 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. 9 The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Did Paul know that the church had problems? Of course, that’s why he wrote the book, to help them start dealing with their problems and to make progress in being better children to God and better brothers and sisters to each other. Was he ready to give up on them and throw in the towel of being an apostle? Far from it. They were his family and he loved them. They were closer to him emotionally than his physical family members who were not in the church. Is that true with you? The answer you give is determined by your perspective and your perspective is determined by your focus.
How Can You Help With Change?
Thus far, I have addressed how we view and feel about the church. I can see a number of things about the church that I would like to see changed. I’ve never felt differently during my many decades in the church. I will never stop desiring to see every individual member, certainly including myself, become more and more like Christ. I will never stop desiring to see every church become more and more like Christ. After all, it is the church that is said to be the “fullness” of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23). As individuals, we need to be full of Christ as his image bearers, but it is the church that is said here to be the flesh and blood demonstration of Christ to the world – his fullness.
That said, what are we to do with an imperfect church? You might ask yourself first what God does with it. What do you do with imperfect children or other imperfect family members? Cannot you see the connection? Can you make the connection personally? Better yet, will you make the connection? I see at least two ways we can deal with our imperfect church and I’ve tried them both. Hopefully, my example can help you with your decision about how to proceed.
Be a Constructive Critic
You can either be a constructive critic or a destructive critic. The former tries to help from within as a friend. The latter type ends up outside throwing stones and doing absolutely nothing to help anyone, least of all themselves. I became a part of what we now call the ICOC family of churches back in the summer of 1985 when we moved to San Diego to become a part of what we then called the “Discipling Movement.” Those two and a half years were the most beautiful ministry years of my life. The church had less flaws and more outstanding qualities than any I have ever been a part of. Theresa and I used to say that we thought we had died and gone to heaven. To all of those brothers and sisters there, some of whom are watching from above now, I praise and thank God for you.
But then we moved to Boston. The church in Boston was growing very fast and the growing pains were obvious. I saw things that I didn’t like or think right, and since it was the biggest church in our movement at the time with the greatest influence, it gave a pretty accurate picture of what our movement as a whole was like. I was one of the older leaders, and an implanted one from another family of churches. Most others like me who tried to become a part didn’t last long. They saw the flaws, focused on them and became such destructive critics that they left on their own or were asked to leave. Some of them were my good friends.
It was decision time for me. I unloaded my critical attitudes on people like Wyndham Shaw time and time again. I was mature enough to realize that I had one of two options. I could do like some of my friends did and end up throwing my rocks and flaming arrows of criticism from the outside, doing no one any good, or I could become a real insider and offer constructive critiques that might have a chance to yield some good influence for change. Of course, you know already that I chose the latter option.
Yes, a Critic Still
Was I a critic? Yes. Am I a critic? Yes. Wyndham and I wrote a book almost 20 years ago, “Golden Rule Leadership,” that called a number of our movement leadership practices into question. We got enough criticism from leaders that my wife suggested that we just get tee shirts made with a target on the back of them. Haha – but not too funny at the time. But that book made a difference. I later wrote “Dynamic Leadership,” and Wyndham wrote the Foreword to that one. I think it has made a difference too. I have spoken and written many, many things about us that could accurately be called constructive criticism. Some, usually better-known leaders with the most influence, have not appreciated my efforts. I think God has.
Here is what you cannot afford to miss – I am a constructive critic, registering my concerns as a trusted “insider” and not as an outside flame thrower. Isn’t that what the early apostles were in all of their corrections of wrongs within the church? They were a part of the family. I am a part of the family. If you are focused so much on the negative that your perspective is mainly negative, and you don’t have a mind change sooner than later, you will likely end up leaving. Although I would hate to see you leave, without a mind change, your negativity (which will come out of the pores of your skin if not your mouth) is going to hurt others, and those others are my brothers and sisters too. They have enough to deal with in this crazy COVID messed up world right now. They don’t need your negativity. Please, just take responsibility and repent instead of playing the victim card and blaming the church.
Who Gets the Blame?
Speaking of blaming the church for the things you don’t like, what does that even mean? You don’t blame the church; you blame the leaders. I know you do. They represent the church and are the ones guiding it and the only clear targets you have. Of course you blame the leaders. Leaders do carry much responsibility for the direction and condition of the church. That’s why they have qualifications and directions given to them in Scripture. I have personally fired or helped fire more leaders on staff than anyone I know. I have never subscribed to the “Old Boys Club” philosophy that staff members are untouchable. Quite the contrary. I have always quoted Spock from the old Star Trek series, when he said, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Translated in spiritual terms, “The needs of the membership outweighs the needs of any ministry staff person.”
That said, having served on staff for about 50 years, I know the challenges. I know the burdens and the feeling that you can’t please everyone, and often don’t feel like you are pleasing anyone. I will not support unspiritual staff or unspiritual leaders in any role and my track record shows that clearly. But I will also absolutely refuse to focus on the faults of any leader or group of leaders and not note, and be thankful for, their hearts and efforts to serve. I’ve been a part of a number of different church ministry staffs. I may have had my reservations about some of the leaders, but not about most. I believe that most of them loved God and loved the church and were doing the best they could with the gifts that they had. No leader has all of the gifts. All of us wish we had more than we have and could do a better job of leading than we do. I also wish I could be a better husband, father, friend, neighbor, etc. I wish I were more like Jesus. I’m trying very hard to become more like him and I will never stop trying.
We’ve been in Dallas for almost seven years. I was a part-time member of the ministry staff for the first year, but not since. I have been around many of our ministry staff members and I trust their hearts. I can’t speak with any certainty about what leaders in other places are all like. I suspect that the large majority of them are like the ones I know best. Their hearts are in the right places and they are trying to do their best for God. They are not ignorant of the fact that God expects more out of them than anyone else in the church. They know that they will one day stand in front of God to be judged. I trust that and I trust them. If I discover that they aren’t worthy of that trust, I will deal with it in the same way I always have and speak my mind. I will not be a gossip and slanderer and talk behind their backs. Doing that is the way to be the least like Jesus possible. He spoke up and he spoke out to the ones with whom he had issues. Are you imitating him or listening to Satan and being like Judas rather than Jesus?
The Most Important Focus of All
Let’s just assume that you are correct if you view the church of which you are a part as a really messed-up, broken church. What then, beyond what I’ve already addressed about focus and perspective? Christianity is much, much more about you and God than about you and the church, as important as the church is. Let me introduce you to a really messed-up, broken church – in fact one that God himself said was dead. Whoa? Yes, dead!
Revelation 3:1-5 (NASB)
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. 2 ‘Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. 3 ‘So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. 4 ‘But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. 5 ‘He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.
What did God do with this dead church? He called them to repent in no uncertain terms. But there were a few members who were worthy of the name of Jesus which they wore. What about them? What were they told to do? Start a new church, a small church and build it right? That sounds good, for if the good guys started it, it would be a perfect church or near perfect church, right? Our world is full of little church groups who have done exactly that – left their spiritual family, who certainly had their faults and probably plenty of them. But is that what God said to do?
What Jesus did say here is that one relationship is by far the biggest priority in Christianity – our relationship with him. All churches go through stages, ups and downs, better times and worse times. In the midst of that, I am responsible for my own personal relationship with God. The down times in churches and the down times in my own life have been historically the times when I have grown most in my personal relationship with God. On the Day of Judgment, God is not going to call us up by church group or by our physical family to give account. He is going to call us up one by one to give an account of how we have responded to him and his Son – and to the hard times in our lives.
Pulling out your victim card will not only do no good, it will make matters worse because you didn’t accept responsibility in how you handled this gift called life. There will be no one to blame besides yourself. We had better get a grip on these truths and respond accordingly. My religion and your religion are not about the church. They are bottom line about our relationship to God, but how you deal with your relationship to the church is going to be a fundamental part of how God views your relationship with him. The church is his family. It is called in Ephesians 5, “the bride of Christ.” I would suggest that you stop telling Jesus how ugly his wife is, and that begins with you ceasing to tell members who make up his collective wife the same. This is serious business. You and I are going to meet God, some of us much sooner than others.
How Did You Answer?
So how would you answer the question posed in the title of this article? Is your religion focused on Christ or the church? It had better be the former if you expect to please God and be right with him on the Day of Judgment. It is time to develop the right perspective by having the right focus. It is time to help the church change too, but through an approach that imitates Jesus. He came to minister to the sick, to effect change from within. Is your church in a bad place? Then why not be like Jesus and his apostles and try to help like they did (and still do)? Jesus was a critic for sure, but a constructive critic who identified with the sinners enough to become one of them and give his life for them. Does that describe you and me? It had better if we hope to spend eternity with him.