Here is a letter that I wrote to a friend today in response to his strong critique of what he considers exploitation from those within the church.
Thanks for the good visit yesterday and also for your kind hospitality. I always enjoy seeing your wife and children. You have been richly blessed. I also have always enjoyed our interchange about Christian theological matters and their impact on our lives. But recently I have sensed a different tone to your thinking about Christian spirituality. I am trying to understand and appreciate what I would characterize as a very strong critique of the church. While I can’t help but agree that there are many deficiencies and even abuses, I fear that your judgment is quite severe and doesn’t take into consideration the larger sense of what the church is all about. As your Christian brother and friend, I’m sure you would be blessed that I care about that for your sake and that of your family. So here, with all due respect, is my brief defence.
The bottom line of your concern, I believe, has to do with what is genuinely good, just, morally upright and holy among all people. We are rightfully sensitive and very conscious of what is morally right and good. This is something that we have in common with all of humanity. It is the very foundation of philosophy and religion, and there is no way we could live very long as a civilized society without that sense and regard. Thankfully, we live in a land where a great deal of attention has been given to moral justice. It is the very foundation of a free and just society. According to the Holy Scriptures, this sense of moral justice is intuitive, and thus common to all men (Romans 2:15). The Jewish nation, Paul points out in the same passage, had the advantage of having it spelled out for it, in a way that was unique — part of God’s special revelation to it and to the world.
Another axiomatic truth that the Bible comes back to again and again is that ALL of us have failed badly at being able to live by the moral code within us that has come to us from God. Romans 3 has one of the strongest expressions of this that anyone has ever written, ending with the familiar refrain — “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (3:23). If there is one thing that is evident in the human psyche and the human condition (the fact notwithstanding that we have been made in the image of God and reflect his likeness in many ways) it is that we all offend, transgress, and fall short in many ways (James 3:2).
Therefore, as Paul points out in Romans 2, none of us really has ‘a leg to stand on’ when it comes to judging others. Paul’s challenge to the Jews of his day who naturally prided themselves in having the Law, is that they can be accused of the very things of which they accuse the Gentiles. This is why the judgment of others is such a contradictory matter, for in the very thing that we judge others, we ourselves come under judgment. So Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount said, Judge not, lest you also be judged. And James writes about this as well in 4:11ff.
Therefore, since we all are judged by the law of God as being sinners, our best response is a plea for God’s great mercy, as was true of the publican in Jesus’ story (Luke 18:13). Thankfully, in the coming of Jesus and his great sacrifice for us on the cross, God has made abundant provision for our experience not only of his mercy but also of his grace. The Gospel of God is that we have been rescued from God’s judgment upon our lives of transgression because Jesus took the penalty we deserved upon himself when he willingly yielded up his life for us by his death on the cross (as described in Romans 3:25, etc.).
(I know you know all these things but I just wanted you to know how I’m coming at this in answer to your critique.)
We are justified before God, not on the basis of keeping the Law (which is impossible) but by faith in Jesus (Romans 5:1) which begins as belief in the heart and the honest confession of our lips (Romans 10:9, 10). Those who receive the message of the Gospel and believe are baptized into the body of Christ, his church (Acts 2:38, 1 Corinthians 12:12, 13). The church consists of all those who have been baptized into the body of Christ through faith in him. They are seen as perfect and justified before God by virtue of Jesus. But they are far from perfect in actual experience. They still sin. I know I’m far from perfect. As someone has said, the church is not a solarium for saints, but a hospital for sinners.
Local churches like the ones we know, though they present this Gospel as clearly and consistently as possible, still have people in them that aren’t perfect. That’s no excuse for them to be deliberately sinning but they do. We all do. The fact that the church is organized under appointed leadership doesn’t make it immune to sinful inclinations of many kinds. But still it is God’s best means of communicating the life of Jesus — “full of grace and truth.” It is true that I too, often have trouble with much in the church that seems far from what God had in mind, but then I have to remember that Jesus loves the church to the extent of giving his life for it (Ephesians 5:25, 26). And besides, I have to remember that I’m part of it — with all my foibles and actual sinning too.
When I think of it, most of the greatest blessing I have experienced in life have come to me by way of Christ’s church — assurance of eternal life in Christ, amazing friendships, growth in understanding and character, knowledge and wisdom about life (including how to have a good marriage and family, how to use the resources that God has given wisely), beautiful gifts of service in one kind or another, and on and on. So I’m inclined to do everything I can to defend the church and all those who are genuinely a part of it.
One of the mandates of the church is to proclaim the Gospel concerning Jesus Christ in word and deed. As you pointed out from James in your message to me last night, it is true that the test of true religion (or true faith, true Christianity) has to do with genuine love, charity, generosity, and true love for one’s neighbour in all the ways this is spoken of and illustrated in the Scriptures. I know there may be many exceptions, but in general, I believe it can be documented that Christians all over the world are the most charitable people. If the amount of money given to charities is any indication of this then there appears to be a correlation between Christianity or the existence of the church and what is done for Christ around the world. Just this morning, on the television program called, Context (directed by Lorna Dueck), the subject was all about the issue of charity in Canada. I learned that while Canada is not quite as strong in charitable giving as is true of the US, about 24% of taxpayers make a claim for charitable giving. The highest correlation between geographical location and charitable giving happens to be Abbotsford. It may be significant that Abbotsford also has one of the highest concentrations of churches.
I write all of this to say I commend to you the defence of Christ’s church of which you have been a part and from which you have benefited so much in the past. From what I know about it, Greek philosophy has been successful in establishing the universal principle of moral law, but it doesn’t show the means by which it can be achieved. From what I see in the Scriptures it is only the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ that has the power to transform our lives so that we can begin to live out the truth of God’s law, as in the Royal Law of love spoken of in James 2:8.
So it is, that I do hope and pray that you and your precious family will somehow become identified with Christ’s church in your community in a very practical way. You, your dear wife, and children, will ultimately have much to gain through that kind of association and connection, despite all of the difficulties. Join it to become a catalyst for good, from the inside out. You will be blessed and by that means be a blessing to many.
In thanksgiving for our friendship,