Doing church

A pastor once told me that if you gave a man who had never seen a church a Bible, told him to go away, read it, and report back later, he would describe a church unlike what any of us have known. First of all, my pastor friend knows a purely biblical church is a concept open to some interpretation, and any interpretation will have its variations and flaws.

This pastor also understands that there is no ideal church. Some things they do in his particular congregation he might do differently if it were only up to him, but as he says, “It’s not all about me.” He continues to be a pastor in this denomination because he feels nothing they are doing is unbiblical per se, and there are many opportunities to serve God and others there. I must admit that I admire his selflessness, steadfastness, and contentment.

On the other hand, I am not such a good man and question why we need buildings with rooms that get used maybe once a week and cost a lot of money, and I have an aversion to committees, boards, many things labeled as “programs,” and  other trappings of institutional churches.

Regardless, even the churches I have committed myself to that were non-denominational and didn’t own buildings were institutions in the making. It seems we’re always trying to engineer some kind of organization out of an organism born of the Spirit and too often strip it of authentic vitality.

Some people may wonder why I even bother with church at all if I feel this way. I could disavow “church” and claim to embrace Christ, as some people do, but I am part of a congregation because it is utterly unbiblical to do otherwise.

The Body of Christ is the universal church, and He places the members in various places within local gatherings. My duty is not to sit in judgment, but to humbly allow the Spirit of Christ within to lead me to a congregation where I can worship, enjoy the company of good Christian folks, serve others, and be served myself.

I’ve given up on finding a perfect church, because all churches are made up of people, and being one myself, I know we tend to be fairly screwed-up creatures. When I was younger, I used to see the church as a city on the hill, a place radiant with the perfection and character of Christ. Yeah, it should be that way, I suppose, but now I see it more as the place where I learn to forgive others.

Paul exhorted the Ephesians, “Forgive each other as Christ has forgiven you” (4:32). If we all could wrap ourselves around that idea and start living it out, a whole lot of problems in churches would simply work themselves out. This is especially true if we could be like my pastor friend who says, “It’s not about me.”

He is an example to me in the way he lives out the truth of Philippians 2:4: “Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” Most of our church problems begin and end with our own individual arrogance and self-centeredness, which distorts our perceptions of our brothers and sisters in Christ and keeps us from truly loving and serving them and our Lord. It doesn’t have to be that way.



If Jesus forgives, why not sin?

I used to carpool with a good churchgoing man, and he told me his wife asked a question in Sunday school that floored the teacher. She asked if all this was true about Jesus making us righteous, then why bother doing right things at all?

This woman only asked what many think, and what many actually live. A better question might have been, “Why do so many claim to be Christians, but their lives don’t seem much different from anyone else’s?”

Even though our deeds may not give us right standing with God, our justification with Him ought to produce righteous lives. The Apostle James wrote, “Faith without works is dead” (2:17).

If we truly have faith in Christ, we should want to do the things that please Him. Real faith must produce a new life. We cannot truly encounter one like Jesus and simply continue on our way unchanged.

The Apostle John wrote that those who are born of God “practice righteousness” and are unable to practice sin (I John 3:9), or that’s how the New American Standard translates the verse. Some English versions simply read that “no one who is born of God sins,” but that doesn’t seem to make as much sense because everyone sins, and we can come to the same conclusion as my carpool buddy’s wife: What’s the difference whether we sin or not?

The difference is that no one who has truly come to know Christ can be a good sinner anymore. We cannot abide in Christ and sin (I John 3:6), and knowing Jesus simply ruins us for wickedness. It gets harder and harder for us to deliberately pursue what we know to be sin.

That’s not to say we don’t lapse and fall short, for even James the hardnosed apostle admitted, “We all stumble in many ways” (3:2). But we Christians are always falling face down, Christ-ward, asking forgiveness, brushing ourselves off, and moving on in God’s will.

Sinners are running their own show, and while sin eventually catches up with them, they are often the last to admit they’ve done anything wrong.

Faith and sin are like the two sides of an American coin. On one side is the motto “In God We Trust.” We’ll call that faith. On the other side is a Latin motto, and, nothing against Latin, but we’ll call that sin. One side or another is going to be up; it’s never both at the same time.

Paul wrote that “whatever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23), and this is sin’s biggest danger: it replaces faith, and only those who walk in faith can know God and please Him.