What is the Church?

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Sorry it has been awhile since I have posted but this will also probably be the last time I post for awhile. My family will be moving overseas this summer and I just don’t have time to write and get everything else done before our move. My inspiration for what follows comes from here.

Let’s call her Rachel. She a girl from the midwest, in her 20’s, just barely, and has a hard time keeping from crying. She seems hesitant to share very much, but after a few minutes, she seems pretty comfortable talking with me. Her problem, as she says it, is that she can’t stop crying. She does not know why she can’t stop, but nevertheless, this is her problem.

As Rachel gets into her story, I come to find out that her boyfriend, with whom she is living, is addicted to pornography and is trying to get her to always do new and different things in bed. He does not realize he is addicted and she does not seem to think he is, but he can’t stop it and rationalizes to her why he needs to use pornography when she is not around.

She starts to go into her family background and lets me know that she is from a broken home where her parents divorced, she bounced back and forth between homes, and both stepparents didn’t like her, in fact one even hated her. She got into trouble at school, sold and used drugs as a teenager in high school and at one point almost died from a drug overdose. Her close grandparent has recently passed away and her boyfriend treats her like an object instead of like a person. Aside from his addiction to pornography, he is never happy with Rachel and is frequently yelling at her for even things such as cleaning the house. When she organizes, you see, he can’t find anything, so it’s her fault.

Neglected as a child, treated as an object by her boyfriend, and the loss of a close relative, no wonder she can’t stop crying. Sadly, except for a few minor details, her story is not unique. Rachel does not know what a normal, healthy family looks like. She doesn’t know what a healthy male-female relationship looks like. She doesn’t know what acceptance looks like. She knows a lot about condemnation, never being good enough, never anyone to care about what happens to her. One of her biggest needs is to be accepted and loved as a person, to have someone listen to her and try to understand how she’s feeling. She needs to be treated like a human being, as someone worthwhile. Where will she find this? In what kind of church would Rachel feel welcomed? Is there any such church? What would it look like?

It would be a place where people are vulnerable. A place where people admit that they don’t have everything right. Where people know that they are sinners and share their struggles openly. It would be a place where people accept and love, not judge and criticize. It would be a place where Rachel could be herself, with all of her problems, and not be expected to be perfect before she could belong. It would be a place where people would realize that they have not cornered the market on truth, even though they always strive for truth. It would be a place of forgiveness.

Sadly, I don’t think there is a church that meets this description. No, I’m not looking for a perfect church. That’s impossible among imperfect humans. But here’s what is possible: We can be a place of forgiveness instead of judgment. When we slip up and judge someone or treat him or her in an unloving way, we can say we’re sorry and reconcile with the one we’ve wronged. We can always strive to understand the word and strive for the most excellent theology, while admitting we have not arrived. Even Paul was able to admit that. Why can’t we?

I think a part of the problem is that we are afraid. We are afraid of being genuine and honest with others. We are afraid of taking off our masks and sharing our true selves with others. We’re afraid of what people might think. We are afraid they would judge us. We’re afraid that we are the only ones who struggle with the particular sins that tempt us, that no one else can understand. We are afraid they would use our vulnerability to hurt us even more. We are afraid to be human. How ironic. We sit on a pew hiding our problems from the very people who would be the best ones to help us with those problems.

What is the church anyway?

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21 Responses to “What is the Church?”

  1. Al Sturgeon Says:

    I’m reminded of how refreshing it is to – every once in a while – have someone think & write what you wish you would have written. Thanks, Duane.

    I wonder if the Winkler tragedy in Tennessee could shed some more light in this direction. It has been discussed on national talk shows (the problem, that is). Maybe we could begin to really care about pursuing its solution.

    As to your move, I wish you the best. I may jump over to Sundays and write on those days until you get settled. It’s yours when you’re ready for it again.

  2. Sandi Says:

    Duane, I really appreciated this essay. As someone who left the church a long time ago, but who grew up in it for 18 years, I have to say that from my own personal experience and witnessing others’, judgment absolutely drives people away. It seems like there are compassionate folks to be found in most churches I have visited, but the element of the judgmental ones is there too. And most of them, if confronted, would defend their judgments as scriptural!

    And I guess we should be precise when using the word judgment … everyone makes judgments all the time, but the kind of judgment I mean is like how I felt when I was in law school. I felt that every word that came out of my mouth and everything about my background was mentally added to a permanent score sheet that my classmates used to measure my worth relative to theirs. I think that pretty much translates to the church context, too.

  3. Whitney Says:

    Duane,
    Joe and I are very fortunate to be part of a loving, accepting congregation. People here often discuss their problems with one another. Do people hide them? Of course–some feel compelled to for the reasons you discussed and from history. But, until now, I’ve never been part of a church family where we were really allowed to be fallible.

    Don’t get me wrong–we don’t say: Go out and give in to temptation. Be we understand that it happens.

    Now, here is a question I have for you: do you believe we are given any absolute truths? I believe we are.

    Do we have a perfect theology? No, because like you said, we’re human. But don’t you think that God did give us some truths that we can cling to without question? Baptism is just one that comes to mind. Sometimes I feel that your take on our religious beliefs is that they are very fluid and nothing is absolute. I could definitely be misreading you!! 🙂

    And Al, I was thinking about how this applied to the Winklers before you mentioned it. I think the quotes of their elders in the news stories show their desire to be open and forgiving. And that’s a great thing.

  4. Duane McCrory Says:

    Al,

    Thanks for your kind words. I think you taking Sundays for now would be best.

  5. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Whitney, I agree that their open desire to forgive is both encouraging and somewhat refreshing. I have been proud of the way they have responded.

    But there remains a hint of something horribly wrong (i.e. that someone would feel no better option to their struggles than murder). Somebody to talk to, somebody to turn to – which speaks so much to what Duane wrote I think.

    Our ignorance in the Winkler tragedy is maintained, however. She may have, to call on my vast repertoire of psychological terms, just gone “nuts” and shot him.

    But if (and it’s a pretty strong “if” right now) she didn’t feel she could turn to anyone at church with her problems, then she isn’t the only one who faces indictment.

    If this is the case, then I’d say “church” failed, too.

    And I’d gauge every church I’ve been a part of as being just as susceptible. I know the one I’m a part of now is susceptible. Probably the most accepting church I’ve been a part of, but we’ve got such a long ways to go.

  6. Duane McCrory Says:

    Sandi,

    I think that is exactly the type of attitude I see in too many churchgoers. Not all of them, of course, but many. It does turn people away and makes them feel unwelcomed.

    Aside from the fear that I mentioned, I also think there’s a sense of power and control over others. After all, if I have everything right and you have everything wrong, I have power over you because you need me to instruct you in the right way. I can’t let you know my flaws because then we might have to be on equal levels and I would lose my authority over you. (This is the generic “you” and “I” by the way.)

    Our Scriptures speak of this attitude in this way, after two of Jesus’ 12 disciples ask for positions of power in Jesus’ kingdom he responds by saying, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44)

  7. Duane McCrory Says:

    Whitney,

    I really think it is wonderful that your church is a place where you can openly share your struggles! There are people in our church here with whom I can share struggles as well. It is not the entire church where there is a problem, but if someone like a Rachel comes into morning worship, she is pretty likely to run into a judgmental attitude. We have small groups where I think with effort and time, we can have genuine sharing and openness where someone like Rachel would feel more welcome. We’re not there yet, but it seems to me to be the best atmosphere for such connectedness and honesty.

    I find it hard to answer your question about absolute truths without saying something that might sound offensive even though I don’t intend it that way. I find it hard to understand how baptism by itself can fall into a category of absolute truth. What about it is absolute? It is a practice, not a belief, in my understanding.

    I think of absolute truth in these terms:

    God is love. God is just. God is merciful and compassionate. God is …

    Jesus is the only way to the Father. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is …

    How we understand these truths is fallible. What does it mean to say that God is love? We wrestle with that. Your definition and my definition are likely different in some aspects, but neither of us would deny this truth.

    Baptism is a different sort of question. I think we can know with certainty that baptism was practiced by the early church as the means of entrance into the church, that associated with this was the symbol of death and resurrection of Christ in which we participate by going through the act of baptism, that in this “washing” was a sense of forgiveness of sins and the giving of the gift of the Holy Spirit, associated closely with the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism. We can know all of this. Can we know with certainty that the disciples thought that this was the only way forgiveness of sins was offered? Jesus did not baptize people but did forgive their sins. What if there was not enough water in a location where the gospel was preached? What then? What about the times in Acts where people received the spirit apart from baptism? Did this signify forgiveness of sins? When Peter suggested that they should receive baptism since God had given them the Spirit, what was his understanding of such baptism? We don’t have those answers.

    Another question I would ask is, does the Bible speak of baptism as the only method of salvation? When Peter speaks in Acts 4, he does not say, “there is no other method by which people must be saved.” He says about Jesus, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among humans by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12). Scripture does not focus on the method; it focuses on the person of Jesus as savior.

    Finally, I would ask whether Scripture instructs us that we must follow all of the practices of the early church as closely as we are able. Is there such a command? I do not know of one. Are we wrong for doing this? I don’t think so at all. I think we are certainly justified in trying to follow what early disciples did. I love that we practice baptism and I think we have a mostly correct understanding of it. I think our celebration of Lord’s Supper once a week is great! I would not change it. But I also know that weekly observance is not commanded and that there are other instances in which daily observance of it seems likely (Acts 2:46).

    I think we can pursue such practices with zeal and know that we are trying to follow God to the best of our understanding. What we should not do is think that our best understanding is the best understanding to the exclusion of all other interpretations. This is where we become judgmental. We start assuming that people who are genuinely searching are not sincere because they do not come to the same conclusions as us. How arrogant we can become in such a case! How are we to know that person’s heart? There is only one who knows the hearts of people and that is not us.

    I hope all of this makes sense, but ask me questions if it does not and I will try to clarify.

  8. Whitney Says:

    We start assuming that people who are genuinely searching are not sincere because they do not come to the same conclusions as us.

    I don’t think that is true at all. But, I do believe you can be sincere and mistaken. As we have definitely been and probably still are in many ways.

    So far as baptism goes, I think it’s pretty clear how important it is. I don’t think you have to be some sort of Bible scholar to see that. Is God sovereign? Absolutely. Can God bring someone into salvation who has not been baptized? Absolutely, because of all the reasons you stated about God knowing the heart. Should we test Him on it knowing that we have to die with Christ to live with him? Should we go out teaching that baptism is unimportant because it is based on our interpretation vice God’s desire? Would you? Could you with a peaceful heart tell someone that baptism isn’t necessary?

    I don’t believe we’ll be condemned for emphasizing the importance of such practices, but we may well be for sweeping them under the rug.

    All of these are why I think there is a very fine line between some of our beliefs and our practices. I don’t think you can put them in a taxonomy quite so easily as you make it sound.

    And you didn’t offend me. No worry. I hope I haven’t offended you; no intention to do so. Just talking.

  9. Duane McCrory Says:

    Whitney,

    I’m not offended and I’m happy that you are not either. My statement that you quote I have seen instances of it first hand. I know that it is true in many churches I’ve attended. If it is not true in yours, then I think that is unique and a good thing.

    What you state in your second paragraph is, I think, exactly my point. We have been and probably still are in some ways mistaken. But many times we don’t admit this and our attitude seems to indicate we don’t think we are or can be mistaken.

    Am I going to teach/preach that baptism is unimportant? Absolutely not! But if after spending time talking with someone about it and explaining our views/interpretations to him or her and that person still disagrees, with our particular view, what do we do then? Do we allow them to sincerely believe their view is okay or do we write them off as being eternally condemned? (There are many options in between, though I’ve typically seen the latter option taken.)

    Perhaps you disagree with my taxonomy on absolute truths, but that is where I stand and how I currently see things. Am I mistaken? Maybe. But I separate practice from absolute truth. You do not seem to do this. That’s okay too. This would be a great example of my point. You are sincere in your understanding as I am in mine. Which of us is wrong? Neither? Both? Who is to decide?

    A final thing I would mention is that when it comes to my understanding of God, when our starting point is trying to escape God’s judgment and wrath, when we are deeply worried about being condemned, we have a fundmental misunderstanding of the nature of God. Our starting point should involve desiring a relationship with him.

    I guess that’s all I’ll say for now.

  10. Whitney Says:

    So, I was just watching Nancy Grace (don’t ask why–it was just on) and she was discussing the Mary Winkler case. They had a Baptist minister on who described the church of Christ in the worst light I’ve ever heard. Who says we aren’t persecuted?

    Here’s the part of the transcript:
    PASTOR TOM RUKALA, BAPTIST PASTOR: Well, the Church of Christ is a relatively new church. It was started about 150 years ago by Alexander Campbell (ph). And it`s, unfortunately, a very legalistic sect, and they tend to use methods of intimidation and pressure tactics. They claim that they are the only ones going to heaven, and all other people are condemned to hell. So in case…

    GRACE: Uh-oh, I`m in trouble. But I already knew that.

    (LAUGHTER)

    GRACE: Now, wait a minute. What more can you tell me?

    RUKALA: Well, they claim that if you`re not baptized by one of their ministers, that you`re doomed to hell, even if you`re a believer in Jesus Christ, which, of course, breaks completely from the traditional Christian view that all those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved because we`re saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose again. For the Church of Christ folks, that`s not enough. You have to be a member of their narrow sect. It`s a very exclusive group. And if you`re not a member of their sect, you`re condemned.

    GRACE: You know, Pastor, you keep saying “sect.” “Sect.” You make it sound like a cult.

    RUKALA: It kind of is a borderline cult, unfortunately. I don`t want to make it out to be some kind of Hare Krishna group, but it has cult-like characteristics and…

    GRACE: In what sense?

    RUKALA: Well, in the sense of the exclusivism, the attitude that they are the only ones who know the truth. The tactics that they use are sometimes just — not only un-biblical but unethical, and they can be very ungracious, unfortunately.

    This bothered me a lot. Is this really how people see us? And I was shocked to hear this coming from a Baptist “pastor.” What say you?

  11. Duane McCrory Says:

    Whitney,

    That is very unfortunate that it is coming from a Baptist pastor. Sadly, that is how many people see us. My first thought was to defend us and attack him. After all, I’ve seen much that is ungracious, many so-called “pressure tactics” used by the Baptist church and also a sense of exclusivism on their part as well. I guess it is not so easy to see our flaws from the inside. It is also too easy to pick on others from the outside without getting to know them. He illustrates my point from before. He is just as convinced of his beliefs, i.e. that his brand of Christianity is the only way (see his comment, “the traditional Christian view that all those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved “). What is behind this is the “sinner’s prayer” belief that really is not the traditional Christian view. It might be the traditional evangelical view, but certainly not the traditional Christian view. Ask a few Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, etc. It illustrates how blind we can be to our own peculiarities so that what we believe is seen to be the norm and what everyone else believes is outside the norm and is aberrant.

    There are points where we agree with Baptists, but instead of sharing those, he paints us in a completely negative light. Now that seems unChristian to me. I’d like to hear what others think.

  12. Al Sturgeon Says:

    I agree with Duane’s response.

    I’d add to the mix that, although this may just be semantics, I don’t count this as being “persecuted.” To me, that insults Simon Peter (who reportedly had to watch his wife be murdered before his execution) and others who faced beatings and prison cells. Being made fun of on Nancy Grace is a bit too tame for me to use the term persecution.

    I’d say we were “insulted.” Throwing around words like “cult” and “intimidation” is intentionally inflammatory.

    But even so, we’ve collectively earned most of what he said.

    #1: We’ve made a big deal out of being 2000 years old when the truth of the matter is that churches that “look like us” began a couple hundred years ago. When those we’ve yelled at about this get a microphone, their telling the truth – well, we had that coming.

    #2: We have collectively emphasized the idea of our being the only ones that have it right (for example, bring up Max Lucado’s name in most CofC’s today and see where that gets you). Once again, this is earned.

    #3: We have been “very” uncomfortable with baptisms outside the walls of a CofC and have typically been exclusive in this matter. Another criticism earned.

    A fellow preacher on the Coast was told recently that he had “left the faith” because of the Christian Church folks that have been allowed to work and pray here in hurricane relief. Stuff like this makes the Nancy Grace interview seem not so far off the mark, though I’d still say that the inflammatory terms are unnecessarily insulting.

    (As an aside, I happened to catch part of a Nancy Grace show the other night when the Church of Christ came up, too. She made a little remark about our stance on the role of women. It was a smart aleck response, but once again, one we’ve earned.)

    BTW, for good or bad, the Winkler case has made me watch the news for the first time in a long time. I’d never heard of Nancy Grace before 2-3 days ago. I can see how people get addicted to watching the news, but from what I’ve seen, I haven’t been missing much (including CNN, Fox, MSNBC, et al).

  13. Joe Longhorn Says:

    You know… I always liked the Baptists as a kid. Admittedly my reason was selfish. The preacher’s sermon was always limited because we had to get out of service in time to “beat the Baptists” to Wyatt’s Cafeteria for lunch. And I was all about shorter sermons as a kid.

    And Sweetie… why, why, WHY were you watching Nancy Grace? I think if she and Geraldo were ever put in the same room, it would cause a universal nexus of sensationalism that would rip the fabric of space and time, destroying us all.

  14. Sandi Says:

    My three cents: Nancy Grace is annoying as all get out. I flip the channel as quickly as possible whenever I land on that show.

    Second, even being as generous as possible to the church in which I was raised, Al is right that all of these criticisms are deserved.

    Comma, however — I don’t see that the Baptists are much different. In fact, whenever I try to explain the C of C to people with no familiarity, I tell them it’s “Baptist without a piano.” Then I explain the baptism distinction. But in terms of being exclusionary, self-righteous, and sexist, the Baptists are in a glass house and need not be casting any stones at the Church of Christ. The only thing that enables them to use the word “cult” is that their denomination is too large numerically to qualify for that label. Six of one, half dozen of the other as far as I’m concerned.

  15. Whitney Says:

    And Sweetie… why, why, WHY were you watching Nancy Grace? I think if she and Geraldo were ever put in the same room, it would cause a universal nexus of sensationalism that would rip the fabric of space and time, destroying us all.

    I know, I know, I KNOW!! She drives me crazy, too! Annoying as all get out, as Sandi put it, is exactly true. I shouldn’t have said I was watching it. Truth was, I was surfing the Net and had the TV on to CNN in the background (this just happens to be the channel our DVR automatically turns on to) and when I heard this guy start talking, I was like “Rewind, rewind..what have we here?”

    (Anyway, why didn’t you throw in a San Diego weather person if you really want to see some sensationalism?)

    OK, I had to explain myself, lest you all think I have a real problem! She’s a wacko.

    And Al, I didn’t mean persecuted in the sense of what the disciples in the New Testament Church experienced. It is unlikely we will ever experience such. But the literal definition of persecution does fit this situation. I agree wholeheartedly with you on watching the news. I don’t do it much.

    Duane, appreciate your comments.

  16. Whitney Says:

    WARNING**Completly Unrelated to Post Topic

    Did anyone notice that Joe’s picture isn’t that scary cow?
    Not that I like the new one any more, but it is less intimidating. 🙂

  17. Joe Longhorn Says:

    The lucky cow was staying up until the Longhorn’s run was over. I figured that if it worked for football season, it might carry over for hoops. Alas it was not to be. Thus, I retired the creepy cow.

    (I’ll find a better one for next season.)

  18. DeJon Redd Says:

    Joe, I’ve been so busy lately I missed what happened to Texas in the tournament.

    Do you mind filling me in? And please don’t leave out any details…

    Your breaux,
    -D-

  19. Joe Longhorn Says:

    Hey Breaux,

    Pick a school and go with it. Is it LSU, TT, or OU now?

    Well… we’re waiting.

    Just kidding of course. I was VERY impressed with LSU on Saturday, but if I have to listen to Dick Enberg tell me that Big Baby weighs 310 lbs one more time…

  20. Joeviking Says:

    We were encouraged at church last night to give Nancy Grace and CNN a piece of our mind…

    Now I wonder how Jesus would respond to being accused of something that was true in one sense, but totally missed the mark in another…

    I’m just disapointed that she didn’t interview a c of c guy for this. This preacher she interviewed was probably invited to some public debate by a local church of Christ guy at some point in his career and got to see the “dark side” of the force! We may believe we’ve got it all figured out, but we don’t have a history of being very humble or forgiving with those who disagree. We really need to be careful how we respond to this, because our track record is not very kind to us.

  21. Lichtman Says:

    I loved the way of writing the post. I will recommend the site to my friends!
    Thanks!

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