Why We Hate to Love the Church
Rick Barry is managing editor of The Body Politic. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and currently oversees communications for the Grace DC church network in Washington, DC.
One of the central messages of this website is that the gospel does not conform to the political templates offered to us—even the political templates offered to us by other Christians. Any political project you undertake or any candidate you could support with your vote is both good and fallen at the same time, and a contemporary political goal should not be treated as representing uncomplicated gospel virtue.
If you’ve been reading for any length of time, chances are that you agree with the above statements, or at least are open to them—which means you need to be careful.
We are prone to concocting lists of moral criteria by which we can safely consider ourselves “good” and as many people or groups of people as possible as “bad.” You see this in every culture, subculture and religious tradition in the world: The people who stay with their families are good, while the people who move away in search of adventure are bad. The people who are able to indulge in unfettered self-expression are good, while the people who repress a desire for any reason are bad. The people who have amassed wealth are respectable and good, while the people who lost it are unwelcomed and bad. The people who seem to be able to follow the tenets of our belief system are good, while the people who seem to struggle with it are bad.
Christianity, of course, subverts this dichotomy: It doesn’t teach that Christians are good and non-Christians are bad, but that Jesus alone is good and everyone else needs him. The problem is, even when we acknowledge that we need Jesus, our hearts are still prone to look for validation by setting up criteria it can use to compare ourselves favorably to other people. And for Christians, this often takes the form of “dissing the church.”
Church-bashing has become increasingly common in many corners of Christianity in the United States. Many people of sincere faith try to set themselves apart from the church (“I follow Jesus, but I don’t want to be called ‘Christian.’”). Others try to claim a level of enlightenment for themselves by conspicuously lamenting that the rest of the church doesn’t share it (“It bugs me that the church just doesn’t get it, so I don’t really do the church thing.”). But whatever form it takes, it still offers our hearts a sense of validation based on our own goodness over and against others’ badness, rather than based on God’s image redeemed by Jesus’ sacrifice.
As the election season heats up, candidates are going to try to galvanize the support of religious voters. Some of them will try to trade on our faith to make us angry, others will try to make us afraid, others indignant, and still others hopeful. We are going to see large numbers of our brothers and sisters in Christ loudly and repeatedly declare their support for their chosen candidate. We’ll see large faith-based organizations issue persuasively written press releases about why they are endorsing specific candidates. And we’ll even see pastors invite candidates to speak at churches across the country.
And we are going to be tempted to say in our hearts, “The people who do these things are bad, but thank goodness that I’m part of the small, faithful remnant of Christians carrying the gospel faithfully into the public sphere. I’m so glad that I’m not like them.”
That attitude is sinful. It not only looks to our own performance for validation instead of to Christ’s cross, but it also denigrates the church—the people Christ loves so much that he went to the cross for them.
It is extremely difficult to follow Christ while looking down on his people. The Bible refers to the people who have been saved by grace as the joy that sent Jesus to the cross, as Jesus’ bride and as his very body in this world. To follow Jesus is not to lord your moral authority over the church but to pour yourself out for its revival and restoration.
Honestly, I’m not always very good at conducting my conversations properly in light of this. I like being right, and I get an unfortunate, self-righteous pleasure from circumstances where I get to be right in front of people. But the project of critiquing the church needs to come from a place of love, from a desire to see the church reflect Christ more clearly in the world around us.
The next time another Christian you kind of know posts something on Facebook about their politics that sets your blood boiling, it would probably be easy to leave a comment chastising them and then turn off your notifications. You’ll get to feel like you had the last word, you’ll never have to deal with the frustration of seeing the way anyone responded to you, and you’ll get to feel like you were right. You separated yourself from the pack and gave yourself a clear moral standing: You’re a good Christian and that other person is not. But you’ll have done nothing to prepare Christ’s bride—the church—for the great wedding day.
Loving the church during an election season is hard, but Christians are the only people who can do it.
Photo by Forsaken Fotos, via Creative Commons 2.0.