Why does God allow sick churches to continue?
If you visit our church website, you’ll get the guided tour—small group info, mission and vision statement, beliefs, photos—all of it positive, ideal, bright and skippy. Catch us on our shadow side moments though, and you’ll wonder if the website oversells just a wee bit. Our church is friendly and warm. Except when we’re distracted and pressured. We love the truth of scripture. Except when we find it difficult. We strive to be on mission with God. But not when we’re busy with errands.
Like every church on the planet, we want to do better, and we’re also glad the Lord doesn’t respond to our mediocre moments with impatience.
Last week on this blog, we looked at leprosy (probably some sort of mold) in a house, affecting an actual family, but the Bible also refers to the church as “the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). Leprosy in a church? Yes. From this picture in Leviticus it is possible for a congregation to get morally and spiritually sick.
Nor should this come as a surprise. We certainly see sin breaking out in congregations at various times throughout the New Testament. The Corinthians syncretized with surrounding Greek culture, with its laissez faire attitude toward sexual ethics, pride of wisdom, and rights-borne selfishness, as well as other things. The Galatian churches fell into mosaic legalism, the Colossians into pre-gnostic asceticism. We also can see in rapid fire treatment, a number of local assemblies in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, dealing with loss of their first love, fear, integration with the world, heretical teachings, spiritual deadness, and pride. All of these represent questionable stains, if not outright congregational leprosy.
And yet today it’s not uncommon to hear people disparaging the church as though it had been sold to them as a utopia, only for it to prove thoroughly dystopian. Anyone who feels he’s been gypped because the church isn’t a perfect place, hasn’t been paying attention to the Bible.
Yeah? Well, somethin’ still oughta be done about it!
The Bible agrees. But this is where things often get dicey. In seeking to deal with church problems, it’s not uncommon for human beings to leap into action, “setting things straight,” righting wrongs, dealing with personalities that need to be leveled, etc. This is not to say we should pretend every behavior and belief is admissible. That attitude would be irresponsible, even traitorous to our mission of upholding the life and truth of the gospel.
No, the problem I am addressing in this post is our habit of leaping into the fray like ill-advised children who have recently discovered fire.
And, as in our previous post, the first thing we ought to do is make sure we speak to someone eminently more qualified to deal with spiritual conundrums: the priest, Jesus Christ. This is an important point, because too many presumptive ministerial figures—pastors, deacons, elders, committee leaders, small group leaders, team leaders, etc.—approach a situation trusting that they have the boundless supply of managerial expertise needed to fix things.
A mere blemish of dirt on a door receives the crashing blow of a sledge hammer. A cobweb is scoured off the wall down to the very frame of the house. A mere shadow receives an acid bath. Well, those certainly are ways to vanquish a problem. At a considerable price.
This is how we act when mistaking the church as our personal domain.
We want to approach the saints carefully, not because we’re afraid they’ll leave and take their tithes and offerings elsewhere, but because they belong to someone else. Peter wrote this instruction to church leaders: “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Pet. 5:3-4).
A number of times I’ve had a hunch about something developing in the church that I felt I needed to make noise about before it grew into a full blown cancer.
I asked the chief shepherd, the master of the house first.
Wait was the response. Put away the wrecking ball.
Turns out the problem was not the leprosy I thought, just shower mold that dried up on its own, or that came off with a light scrubbing.
Though Paul certainly wasn’t afraid to suit up and declare situations in churches as a hazmat area, he was clear about the basic use of his apostolic authority “which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you” (2 Cor. 10:8).
We find this very patience and willingness to suspend action during the priestly observation periods prescribed in Leviticus (c.f. 14:38). It seems the great High Priest and Chief Shepherd is Himself careful with His house, understanding better than anyone else that these assemblies are places where fragile faith has gathered to bear His testimony. He therefore always applies a precise, surgical touch at the right moment, in the right way. Indeed, Leviticus demonstrates this gradually escalating treatment, as the priest removes stones, and scrapes the affected plaster (c.f. 14:40-41).
His way, however, doesn’t always appear to make sense to us. In a rare case, the Lord warned the Ephesian church, a model of Christian work and discernment, that if they didn’t repent of their misplaced love He would take their lampstand away from them. Surprisingly though, He relented to allow the worst of the churches, Thyatira, to remain!
Granted, sometimes the life cycle of a congregation has simply been exhausted, and it disappears because its effective age of witness has passed. In other cases, an assembly disbands due to practical unraveling, such as members moving away.
However, the Lord’s priority is to preserve even the barest witness to the glory of God in a church in order to grow it, even if in the meantime, His way of doing it defies our understanding.
And so, in many places He waits for His command unto repentance to take effect through certain overcoming believers there in attendance.
Only as a last resort does the house finally get torn down (c.f. Lev. 14:45).
Given our impulsive proclivities, that would have been our first step.
But then again, He loves the church more than we do.