Have you ever met the spouse of a friend and quickly discovered their spouse was not nearly as delightful as your friend? As you navigated that awkwardness, maybe you wondered how two very different people could have come together. Maybe you wondered if your friend was blind to some of their spouse’s personality traits–the same ones that grated on your nerves. Or maybe you wondered what your friend had discovered in that person: perhaps there was some precious quality or potential that made their spouse undeniably attractive to them. Maybe you even hoped that if you hung around them long enough, you would eventually see those same qualities as well.
I think many people face similar wonderings when it comes to God and church. All churches claim to know God in some sense, and they all claim to have a message from God. In fact, churches behave as if they are God’s representatives in the world, and so they speak and act as if God has directed them to do so. But if the church knows God and speaks for God, then why do churches mess up so often? Anyone who has experienced a church for very long knows that there are behaviors and attitudes inside the church that are definitely not God-like.
Examples unfortunately abound. Some churches emphasize some of God’s commands but minimize others. Some get the teaching mostly right, but their talk is strangely void of God’s compassion. Others have layer upon layer of traditions that have lost their meaning, obscure the message, and get in the way of helping people. Some churches have long lists of rules, written and unwritten, that they expect their members and attenders to follow. Some are hopelessly lost on internal minutia: debating obscure doctrines, maintaining outdated programs, arguing over what flooring or paint should be used in the church building. Others have leaders who are dictatorial, adversarial, territorial, or just plain lazy. Some church leaders turn a blind eye to practices right in their midst that they know are wrong yet they are afraid to confront. And sometimes even a church’s main teaching doesn’t line up with the good news of Jesus Christ.
The list of church grievances could go on much longer. So it’s understandable that some people have at some point gotten fed up with a church and subsequently walked away from all churches, figuring that they wanted nothing to do with the so-called people of God. Fair enough, but at some point the question must be asked: was the behavior in question something that God would have condoned?
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, instructing us to deny godlessness and worldly lusts and to live in a sensible, righteous, and godly way in the present age, while we wait for the blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people for his own possession, eager to do good works. (Titus 2:11-14 CSB)
God does love his Church (the Church being the people of every church who genuinely believe in Jesus). He loves them, calls them his own, and is very tender and patient with them. But God’s love of his Church does not mean he endorses all their churches’ actions, or that he ignores their unkind words, selfish attitudes, or misguided opinions. God actually has more passion than anyone to see his Church behaving in a loving, pure, and righteous way.
God loves his Church, but God is not the Church. A church leader or church member cannot unilaterally speak or act on God’s behalf. Their words and actions are only authoritative if they agree with the word of God. That’s why it’s so critical that churches constantly study the Bible together and urge their members to do so on their own. This doesn’t mean such churches will be perfect, but they will at least be looking into the word of God that can correct them. However, show me a church who rarely opens their Bibles, and I’ll show you a church that is far more likely to be missing the message of God’s good news and behaving in a manner that doesn’t agree with the heart of God.