It’s becoming popular today for people to be cynical about the Church. The Church is often made the scapegoat for all that is wrong with Christianity. Many have left the visible Church, not because they have abandoned the faith, but in order to preserve it.
Some have horror stories of spiritual abuse they suffered at the hands of leaders. Still others, are unable to deal with members’ hypocrisy.
For these reasons (and many more) they have found it necessary to live their Christianity apart from any commitment to the visible church. Many have opted for relationships within a community of friends, unconnected to any outward form of Church. For them, meeting in a bar with a couple of friends is as much a valid experience of the Church as gathering in a building on Sunday to hear the Word preached.
Let me say from the outset that, on one level, I sympathize with many of these sentiments. There is no doubt that, in many cases, instances of leader abuse are very real. Also, there is no getting away from the fact hypocrisy abounds in the local church. Since believers are not yet perfected, they do not live out their faith perfectly and therefore, more often than not, appear hypocritical.
These things being said, I still do not believe these are valid reasons for disconnecting from the local church. It seems to me the real reason many removed themselves from local church expressions is not that they gained greater discernment, but rather they became cynics. While claiming to have greater light than others, more often than not, they are cynical. There is a clear difference between discerning and cynicism. One may criticize but it is always for redemptive reasons, while the other is never redemptive but looks to tear down.
The Bible is Totally Transparent When It Describes the Church
Let me start by first saying that the Bible never attempts to sugar coat the problems of the local church but is totally transparent. Take, for example, the seven churches of Asia (Revelation 2-3). Except for two of them, five receive scathing denunciations from the Lord of glory. Jesus exposes each church’s failures by the sharp two-edged sword of his Word. These are real churches with real problems in the real world. And God instructed John to write each of the letters, exposing their true condition before Him.
I often refer to the seven churches in Asia whenever I meet someone who idealizes the early church. They talk about our need to become like those first believers. I always respond by asking which church they would like to be like. How about the church at Colosse where the believers have decided that Paul’s gospel was too bland, so they mixed it with some Gnostic thought and just for some added flavor, mixed in some Jewish law to boot. Or how about Corinth where a man is having sexual relations with his step-mother? Or else one of the five churches Jesus rebuked in Revelation either for sexual immorality or idolatry? My point is not to be sarcastic but to point out that these first believers were not without their problems. So often we look at that early church through a false lens of our own idealism.
The Actual and the Ideal
I once heard Bible teacher Derek Prince say the following:
“There are two things; the actual and the ideal. To see the ideal and live with the actual is maturity. To see the ideal and not be able to live with the actual is by definition, immaturity.”
I generally agree with that statement. There are many believers who are ruined by their idealism so they are not able to deal with the actual. This contributes to their becoming cynical about the Church. They only see what is wrong and cannot see the many good things the Church gets right.
We must be able to live in the reality of how Ephesians presents the Church and how it is presented in the book of 1 Corinthians as well. Ephesians presents the Church in its ideal; “that He might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27). She already, before God, is without spot or wrinkle. But in I Corinthians the Church is presented in its earthiness; how it really is in this world.
We must live in both of these realities if we are to live properly in the body of Christ. It is the only way to avoid becoming cynical. To quote again from Prince: “to see the ideal but live in the actual is maturity.” It is easy to become a cynic but takes maturity to live a life of love in the body of Christ. Those who do are well within their bounds to be critical of the Church. But they do so because of their love for the Church. Cynics, on the other hand, have no interest in criticizing the Church so as to help her improve, but distrust her motives. One responds out of love while the other despises her and doubts her integrity.
Summing It Up
Are you critical of the Church? If so, be careful that your motives are right and that you have not become a cynic. There is certainly a place to criticize her; Jesus himself does so in Revelation. But make sure that you have not subtly become cynical of the one the Lamb died to purchase. Many believers who have left the ranks of the Church cynical and feel justified to tear down the Church at any turn. But this is not the way the Lord treats the bride. Should it characterize how we treat her?