In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul talks about the gifts of the Spirit. He says that all spiritual gifts are the work of the same Spirit. The Spirit distributes these gifts as he determines. Everyone is given a gift. We all have a role to play. And just as the body is one and has many parts, so it is with Christ.
A body is functional to the degree that all of it is integrated. My fingers do what my head says. My arms are connected to my torso, and my legs, and so on. This is how the body of Christ is. We are to be a people who manifest the will of God on earth as it is in heaven. We are to be Christ’s hands, his feet, his eyes—all of him. So the question is, if we are to be the body of Christ here on earth and reflect his character, love, and will, then why is it so often the case that we don’t? The body of Christ was to be the proof that Jesus Christ is real. In John 17, Jesus prayed that his disciples would be one, even as he and the Father are one. He prayed that our love would mirror the love of the triune God and that, because of this, the world would come to know that Jesus is for real, that he was sent by God. Unfortunately, the Church throughout history has done a pretty good job of keeping Jesus’ prayer from being answered.
My dad was an atheist who assumed evangelicals were all idiots. He was confused when I continued to be a Christian despite getting graduate degrees from Yale and Princeton. He and I began a conversation back in 1988, through letter correspondence. I wrote to him, “Dad, I know you are puzzled that I am still a Christian, and I’d like to tell you why. And I want to give you a chance to tell me all the reasons you are not.” He wrote back and his very first question was, “If Christianity is true, why has the Church done so much harm throughout history?” I think this is the single most powerful argument there is against Christianity.
Actually for the first three centuries, the Church was pretty good. It wasn’t perfect. It has never been perfect, because it is made up of people. But for the first three centuries, the Church was known for its generosity, its kindness, its equality, its self-sacrificial love. In his book The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark argues that the reason the Church grew so fast those first three hundred years, despite being persecuted, was that Christians were outrageously loving. When a plague would hit a town, everyone would flee—including the doctors. They would run for their lives and leave behind those already afflicted. But Christians would frequently stay behind and care for the sick, often giving their own lives in the process. This was their testimony and proof that their message was real. The early Christians welcomed slaves and women into their communities, and everyone served each other regardless of their background or gender. The Christians advocated for the people whom everyone else deemed as worthless. They were known as folks who would hang out by the bridges at night and rescue infants who were thrown over, because it was legal in ancient Rome for a father to have two weeks to decide whether their newborn babies would live or die. The Christians’ willingness to sacrifice for these unwanted babies was a testimony to others that Jesus was real. So the Church grew by leaps and bounds despite the fact that it was illegal to be a Christian. For the first three centuries, the Church, to a large degree, looked like the body of Christ.
But then the worst possible thing happened to the Church: it was given power. In the fourth century, Constantine supposedly became a Christian and began to give the Church governmental authority. We read in the Gospels that Jesus viewed the opportunity to acquire the authority of the world’s kingdoms to be a temptation of Satan. He didn’t want any of it. But when Constantine offered the fourth century Church this same authority, Church leaders like Eusebius and Saint Augustine said, “Look, God has given us all this authority! He must want us to rule the world! And why not? We are the righteous and the wise, so who better to rule people than us?” Tragically, once the Church accepted Constantine’s offer, it began to do some rather nasty things, and it continued to do so for centuries. Yes, the Church also did a lot of good. I do not mean to minimize that. But this is pretty typical of the world’s religions and governments: they do some good, and they do some evil. The evil done by the Christian Church was unique, however, in that it was done in Jesus’ name, which makes it super evil.
The irony is this: in the name of the one who taught us to turn the other cheek, the Church started cutting off people’s heads. In the name of the one who told us to spread the fire of God’s love, we started setting people on fire. In the name of the one who taught us to feed the hungry, we starved out cities when we thought they were heretics or when they were our enemies. In the name of the One who made us in his image and valued each of us enough to die for our sins, we began rejecting, oppressing, and abusing one another. And so the people whom Jesus prayed would be the greatest proof that Christianity is true became the greatest reason for people to think it is not.
Of course, today it is illegal to kill another human being in the name of Jesus, but as we all know, Christians still find plenty of other ways to hurt people. Many of you have experienced this first hand. The Church has dumped on you, leaving you with scars and maybe even fresh wounds. Some folks have come from churches that were hyper-controlling, where the pastor had to give his approval before you could do just about anything. Others have come from churches where you were ostracized because you dared to openly disagree with your pastor. And others have come from churches where, if you are a woman, you were not allowed to have a say in anything. You were not allowed to serve on a board or even vote as a member. You were not allowed to teach, at least not if an adult male was present in the audience. You were of course allowed to give your financial offering, but otherwise, there was not much of a spot for you. The question we need to ask is: How should we respond when the Church or other Christians dump on us? How can we begin to make sense of this? Let me offer three points.
A Movement, Not a Religion
First, it is vitally important to remember that Jesus did not come to start a religion. We do not need another religion. In fact, far from being the expression of God’s work on earth, I believe religion is the major obstacle to God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus came to start a movement—an organic, Spirit-inspired movement—that he calls “the kingdom of God.” And you can always tell where that movement is being birthed and where it is growing because it always looks like Jesus. It always has people who are learning to love and serve like Jesus. It is free of arrogance and entitlement. It obeys the teachings of Jesus so that the people involved notice the log in their own eyes before looking for specks in others’ eyes (Matt. 7:1-3). There is nothing mysterious about noticing where the kingdom of God is present. You do not even need to ask a lot of theological questions. You just look. In fact, I would suggest to you that asking people what they believe or what they call themselves is pretty irrelevant. Instead, simply look at their lives. John teaches us that whoever claims to abide in Jesus must live as he lived (1 John 2:6). So if you have folks who are living as he lived, to that degree the kingdom is present. Conversely, if you find folks who are not loving their enemies, serving the poor, caring about the outcasts, entering into solidarity with those who are oppressed, and living with outrageous generosity, to that degree the kingdom of God is not present.
I used to try to defend the Church when critics would point out all the nasty stuff Christians have done and continue to do. I no longer feel the need to do this because the only tribe I identify with is the tribe that Jesus identified with — the tribe of those who aspire to submit to God’s reign, who have his Spirit running through their lives, and who are therefore starting to manifest his life. Everything else is religion! It can do good, it can do bad, but it is not the kingdom of God. So, I encourage you to not blame Jesus for what other people do, regardless of what they call themselves. In fact, if you are mad at some of the things the Church has done, Jesus is probably madder. In Revelation 2-3, Jesus reams out the churches when they fail to live up to the Lord that they profess. Jesus did not come to birth a religion, he came to found a movement.
Second, I want to encourage you: Don’t “throw the baby out with the bath water,” as the phrase goes. Do not fall into this trap of buying into generalizations. Maybe your pastor says something offensive, or someone in the congregation does something offensive, or maybe the whole congregation doesn’t do something and it is offensive. It finally brings you to a breaking point and you say, “I’m done. I’m done with the Church. I’m done with those Christians. I’m done with organized religion.” At that point I’d like you to ask yourself, Who actually hurt you? Was it the Church? Or was it a bunch of individuals in the Church? What often happens is that we empower a particular pastor, or a particular group of people, or a particular church to speak on behalf of all the Church, or all Christians, or all organized religion. Nothing good can come from this. It is simply a prejudice. It is like a person saying that all Americans are rude because the four Americans they have met have been rude. It is simply unhelpful to draw sweeping generalizations.
I believe the forces of evil are always at work when we embrace prejudice, whether it is about a church, or a country, or an ethnicity, or a gender. It is a diabolical trap because it is very hard to ever be freed from it. When you embrace a prejudice, it colors the way you look at the world. You look for what will confirm your prejudice, and you delete out whatever would count against it. So you are always finding confirmations of your prejudice. The truth is that generalizations didn’t hurt you. They are not even real! You cannot fight a generalization, forgive a generalization, or be forgiven by a generalization. When we get mad at generalizations, we’re simply stuck with a diabolical pollutant in our head.
So when you’re mad, please don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. If you are mad, get clear on who you are mad at—a particular group of people, a particular pastor, maybe a particular church. Be mad at them, but do not generalize it to everybody. And always remember that the purpose of being mad, if you are a follower of Jesus, is to get over it. Work to reach the point where you can let people go. Maybe you will never trust them again, and that is fine, but to let them go is what forgiveness is all about.
Q: My church does not support biblical equality. How do I decide whether to stay or find another place of worship?
A: You have to ask whether God is calling you to change this body that you are involved in or if God is calling you to leave. If he is calling you to stay, then he is calling you to be an agent of change. So you need to ask the question, “Do I have any authority, position, or influence to change?” If you are in a religious system where all the power is located in one, two, or three people upfront and there is nothing you can do about it, then I find it very unlikely that God is calling you to stay there if significant problems exist.
If you are not called to change your church, then you should seriously think about leaving. The worst thing is to stay in a religious system where you do nothing but complain. I counseled a person several years ago who refused to tithe because he didn’t agree with what his church’s leadership was doing. My encouragement to him was to go out and find another ministry because it wasn’t good for him to be sitting in a system where he is under untrusted leadership. So find a church you can trust. You will never find one that is completely problem-free. But at least look for one with a core vision you agree on and with leaders whose character you trust. In the end, you just need to go to God and ask him for wisdom, and seek out feedback from others you share life with.
If you stay and try to change, remember 1 Corinthians 16:14: “Do everything in love.” You have to work for change in a loving way, and if you can’t, then don’t do it. Coming in with arrogance, self-righteousness, and divisiveness is not of God.
Get Connected, Stay Connected
Finally, I encourage you to not let your woundedness take you out of the game. I am so empathetic to those who have scars and have been dumped on by Christians or the Church. But here too forces of evil can be at work. Do not allow your pain to isolate you. Typically, the way this happens is that a pastor, or a group of Christians, or an entire congregation does something that hurts you, so you get mad and reject the Church or organized religion. And, if you are still a believer in Jesus, you have your little “me and Jesus” club. Or the “me and my family and Jesus” club. And once and awhile, you have your little worship time with your family, or maybe a Bible devotion time with your family, or maybe you go out and do some good deeds with your family. The convenient thing about this is that it involves no risk—no one is going to hurt you. You do not have to put up with all those terrible Christians in the Church. You do not have to drive to Church because it is right there whenever you want it. You do not have to give an offering. You can have whatever music you like, and if a sermon is a bit boring, then you can just turn it off. You can have everything exactly the way you like it!
Unfortunately, if you are a follower of Jesus, and if you believe in the New Testament at all, then this isolation is simply not an option for you. There may be times when you will go solo, such as when you are between churches, or if you move to an area where there are no churches. But as a permanent solution, this “lone ranger” Christianity is not an option. In the New Testament, to be a Christian is to belong to the body. Just as the body is one but has many parts, but all of its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. The analogy is saying that if you are isolated from the body, then you are dismembered. How long would my finger survive if I cut it off? Not long. So also if we are cut off from the body, the flow of life is not going to be coming into us.
Community is intrinsic to the kingdom: to believe in Jesus means you are part of the corporate bride of Christ. We are to come together to worship, to teach, to learn, to grow together, and to serve one another. In fact, there are fifty-seven “one another’s” in the New Testament, and every one of them presuppose that we belong to a believing community. The bottom line is that participation in the Church is not a recommendation in the Bible, it is a command. The author in Hebrews tells us to “consider how we ought to spur one another on toward love and good works.” The author then adds, “Do not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing” (Heb. 10:24-25). Even in the first century, people were skipping church! And they did not even have podcasts back then or television evangelism! But it’s as true today as it was back then: participating in church is a non-negotiable command in Scripture. To belong to Christ is to belong to his body. Going solo is not an option.
We need to be sharing life together, we need to be serving one another, we need to be caring for one another. I understand how challenging it can be to stay in community when you’ve been hurt. But I encourage you—for your sake as well as for the Church—to release your offenders and connect once again with the body of Christ.
Moving Forward with Your Church
Recommended resources from cbebookstore.org
Making Room for Leadership by MaryKate Morse
How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership, Alan F. Johnson, ed.
Reconsidering Gender, Myk Habets and Beulah Wood, eds.
“Reforming the Church,” Priscilla Papers vol. 17, issue 2
“Examining the Twelve Pillars of Male Hierarchy” recording by Philip B. Payne
“What is Biblical Equality? Communicating the Vision Concisely and Coherently” recording by Ronald W. Pierce
“Male/Female Shared Leadership: Casting a Vision for the Next Generation” recording by Dale Durie and Stephanie Williams
“And the Church in Her House: Women as Leaders in Early Churches and the Recipients of 2 John” recording by John R. Kohlenberger III
“Singleness and Community: Glorifying God in the Church Body” recording by Christine Colón and Bonnie E. Field
“The Economics of Body and Space: Creating Safe Places and Relationships” recording by MaryKate Morse
“Transformation of Relationships: The Biblical Subversion of the Nature and Exercise of Power” recording by Manfred T. Brauch
“Biblical Foundation for Mutual Submission and Shared Authority Between Men and Women in Church and Marriage” recording by Philip B. Payne
“Leaders Working Together Across the Gender Divide” recording by Jeanne Porter