The modern church is struggling in many ways. In today’s churches we see division, strife, disunity, and conflict. We see theological problems, hypocrisy, bad leadership, Christians who let us down, heinous sin, and lovelessness.
We also see many professing Christians abandoning the church in discouragement and frustration over these issues. People are frustrated because the church is so messy. In fact, it is not uncommon today to find people who say, “I love Jesus but not the Church.”
For those of us who love the Church, this is a difficult trend to witness and a difficult sentiment to hear. Naturally, we ponder ways we can “do church” better and create the kind of environment where people will be more likely to stay connected.
Recently I heard from a concerned Christian who, in response to the current trend of professing Christians abandoning the church, asked me to share on whether the church founded by Christ is truly reflected in the mainstream church today. Her request was followed by a thought that many of us, myself included, have had. She said, “Sometimes I wonder if today’s church really looked like the early church, if so many would be thinking this way or leaving the church.”
That’s a good thing to ponder. And I appreciated the opportunity to consider that. But, after such consideration, I concluded that if today’s church looked like the early church we would still have a problem. Let me explain.
It’s obvious to nearly all believers that all churches fall short in fully living up to God’s good design. So even the best and healthiest of churches will be a work in progress and will disappoint people.
We often talk about wanting to look like the early church. I know what we mean by that and there’s a good desire in that. There are many things about the early church that were admirable, not the least being that many of the early churches stood firm for Christ and the gospel in the midst of intense persecution. In addition, we see things like an explosion of gospel growth in the Jerusalem church, the concern for Gentile missions with the church of Antioch, and the extreme generosity of the churches of Macedonia, helping those in need though they themselves were poor.
With that said, many times we modern believers tend to romanticize the early church and make it seem more pure than it was. Actually, life within the early church was pretty challenging.
In the early churches you find lots of messes. Sexual immortality (1 Cor 5:1), lying (Acts 5:3), greedy people and drunkards (1 Cor 11:20-21), quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder (2 Cor 12:20), anti-gospel segregation (Gal 2:14), tension between church leaders (Phil 4:2), church division, (1 Cor 11:18), false teachers who cause church schisms (1 John 2:19), heretical teachers creeping in and leading people astray (1 Pe 2:1), cold lovelessness (Rev 2:4), legalism (Gal 3:2), toleration of false teaching (Rev 2:14-15), sharp disagreements between leaders (Acts 15:39), licentiousness, the occult (Rev 2:19-24), and much, much more.
Make no mistake, the early church was filled with these sort of things! In other words, the early church struggled just like the modern church. I’m pretty convinced we’d experience many of the same frustrations and challenges if we were members of the church in Corinth or Galatia or Ephesus as we would in a typical Bible believing church today. And yet we’d be just as challenged by God to remain in those churches in spite of the flaws. People leaving the church is not a modern problem. This was happening in the early church. That’s exactly why the author of Hebrews urges believers to not stop meeting together as some are in the habit of doing (Heb 10:25). As early as the 1st century, there were already people who were pulling back from the church.
Ultimately, we as believers need to remember that when we yoke ourselves to a local fellowship it will be hard because we are yoking ourselves to people just like us. Stubborn, proud, flawed, but growing people. The great calling that God puts upon us as believers is to remain connected to other people in the local congregation despite the fact that we struggle to love one another as we should. The world would tell us to give up and find easier people to hang out with, but that’s not the way of Christ. We are to bear with one another in our weaknesses (Rom 15:1), we are to carry one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2), we are to love one another when we let one another down (Eph 4:32), and we press on together as broken and flawed people, committed to one another, slowly growing over time, and demonstrating the truth of the gospel that His blood really has unified us and brought us together (Eph 2:13-16), sticking together even during the tough times because that’s how Jesus treats us (1 Cor 13:7).
In one of the most beautiful prayers in the whole Bible, Jesus prays for the unity of the Church. He prays that we Christians “… may all be one…so that the world may believe that you have sent me…and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:21-2)
Jesus is not naive. He prays this fully knowing and understanding that believers will still battle sin, have disagreements, and disappoint one another. Jesus, in His prayer, is demonstrating an expectation that in spite of these things, we would agree with Jesus’ prayer and seek to strive towards a loving unity anyway, while knowing that we won’t experience such oneness in it’s perfection until we ourselves go to heaven and are sinless.
The Spirit of Jesus, speaking later on through the Apostle Paul, says that we are to be eagerly striving to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:2-3).
Such eager striving among believers in the church is not just for our benefit, but for the benefit of an unbelieving world. Again, Jesus prays for our unity “…so that the world may believe that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
In the end, the solution to the struggles in our churches is not to look to the imperfect early church but to the perfect gospel. This is what the Apostle Paul did when Peter, out of fear of the Jewish Christians, segregated himself from the Gentile believers. Paul immediately responds to Peter in a “gospel-informed” way, recognizing that Peter’s conduct was “out of step with the gospel” (Gal 2:14). Paul’s point was that it is the gospel that should instruct us on how we should treat other believers.
As our churches begin to mature and grow in regards to how we treat one another, then it will become ever clearer to a watching world that God has loved us even as He has loved Jesus (Jn 17:23). Our love for one another is the evidence that we have really received God’s love. And God has ordained that it is through the mechanism of the local church that believers are to learn to love one another. But we will never learn love as God intends and we will never signal to the world the truth that God sent Jesus and that we have received His love if we all bail on the local church.
We will never get it 100% right this side of heaven. Lord knows I haven’t in my own life. I have made many mistakes and have acted “Un-Christian like” to believers over the years. I am learning and growing and sometimes failing myself. I am sure you could say the same about you. But regardless, one of God’s main means for sanctification happens in the context of Christian community in the local church. Indeed, one reason we aren’t to give up the habit of meeting together is for the purpose of stirring up love, good works, and mutual encouragement (Heb 10:24-25). God knows we won’t do this perfectly, but He tells us to do it anyway. He knows how best we should grow and glorify Him. While there are a handful of genuine reasons to withdraw from a local church (i.e., leaders denying the gospel or biblical authority, issues of conscience regarding certain teachings or practices, geographic distance is too great, moving away, etc), there is no reason for a believer to not seek out other brothers and sisters and join with them in the context of a local church. The New Testament knows nothing of a “church-less” Christian.
None of this means we should be content with real problems in our churches, but the worse thing Christians could do is withdraw from the church. Not only is such a move detrimental to our own spiritual growth, but it also cuts us off from ministering to a fellowship of local brothers and sisters, being an agent of the positive change we desperately want to see in the church.
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:23-25)
Grace and Peace,