I often talk to people who have low views of the church. Some of the most common:
- the consumer view – the church just isn’t meeting my needs
- the voluntary association view – I’ll participate in the church as I would a club, as often as I can given my existing commitments
- the critical view – I have no time for the church
- the anti-establishment view – the church isn’t organic enough and therefore I will bail out until it gets its act together
There really are two underlying problems. On one hand is a form of self-centeredness, in which we make church subordinate to our needs. William Willimon asks, “When, in Seeker Services, do we pull out the cross? When, as we’re touting all the benefits of Jesus, do we also say to them, ‘By the way, Jesus said that anyone who bought into his message would also suffer and die.'” Good questions.
The other underlying problem is pride. Our critical attitudes sometimes betray our belief that we are better than the church. It’s much healthier to see ourselves as part of the problem: when we criticize the church, we are criticizing ourselves.
I need constant reminders of what the Bible says about the church, because I’m tempted to miss what’s right in front of me. Paul says that the church – not the perfect church that doesn’t exist, but the real messy church all around us – reveals the multifaceted wisdom of God to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 3:10). Try thinking about that the next time you don’t think much of the church.
C.S. Lewis confronted low views of church in his day:
The New Testament does not envisage solitary religion: some kind of regular assembly for worship and instruction is everywhere taken for granted in the Epistles. So we must be regular practicing members of the Church. (The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3)
No Christian and, indeed, no historian could accept the epigram which defines religion as “what a man does with his solitude.”…Christianity is already institutional in the earliest of its documents. The Church is the Bride of Christ. We are members of one another. (The Weight of Glory)
Lewis also spoke of how the church confronted his own pride:
I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit. (God in the Dock)
If you want something stronger than Lewis, then these words from John Calvin should do it: “The abandonment of the church is always fatal.” (Institutes)
We need a rich theology of the church. We need to remember what she will one day be – a church of splendor, without any spot or wrinkle or blemish (Ephesians 5:27). We need to challenge consumer views, and we need to challenge critiques from the outside. Humble critiques from the inside are much better.
Maybe Augustine (if the quote truly came from him) got the tension right: “The church is a whore, but she’s my mother.”