Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Perilous Church

A church is sometimes the most dangerous place for a Christian to be. I’m not thinking of sexual harassment or child abuse, or any of the other aberrations that have blighted the church’s reputation in recent years. Those are horrific sins for which the church must be held accountable. But in reality those sins are only a reflection of the broader society. We read daily reports of the same behaviors in every arena of our society.

No, the dangers I’m thinking of are more lethal than those venial sins that make the headlines and, unless committed against children, are readily forgiven, especially if the perpetrator is a person of “value” in our eyes. Years ago it was thought that a Christian in a bar, or bowling alley, or dance hall was in mortal jeopardy. The only safe place to be was in church, at least three times a week – Sunday mornings and evenings and a mid-week Bible study/prayer meeting – and during special meetings, every evening of the week.

If the picture the Gospels give us of Jesus and his disciples is indicative of their usual habits they were faithful in attendance at synagogue each week, and they made an annual pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. But they nearly always got into some sort of trouble every time they went to one of those “safe houses”. There was nearly always someone there who challenged Jesus or his disciples about the things they were doing or the things they believed.

It was in the “dives” – the bar and bowling alley and dance hall – of that society where Jesus met with the most approval and the least resistance. It was among prostitutes and tax collectors, in other words, the worst of the worst, that Jesus found the faith and acceptance he was looking for. And out of those kinds of people he shaped a following of apostles and disciples who would, in less than 100 years, sweep through the known world with the news that life everlasting was available to those who would put their trust in Jesus Christ.

Sadly, many of the churches of our day have become like the Jewish institutions that opposed Jesus in the first century of the Christian era. They have become encrusted with doctrines, traditions, creeds, and theologies that baffle and repel rather than attract sinners to Jesus. They have become, in our nation, and our time, a tool of the political establishment. Liberals and Conservatives alike invoke the church’s aura through Biblical quotations – often taken  ridiculously out of context – and “code words” meant to say, without saying, I’m your Christian candidate, wink, wink.

So the church – the places of Christian gathering, and the people who gather there – have become a hazard to one’s spiritual wellbeing. Scratch the average evangelical church and it is most likely going to bleed red. Association with an evangelical Christian coffee klatch, men’s or women’s fellowship group, Bible study or prayer group can be downright corrosive as one listens to the political ideas endorsed or excoriated. The very people with whom Jesus spent so much of his time – the poor, the sinners, the sick, the despised – are seen by the majority of modern evangelicals as the moochers and n’er do wells whom Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News “analysts” tell us are the root cause of America’s decline. Attendance at many evangelical churches is more a celebration of conservative Americanism than of Christ; is more a political rally than a gathering of believers of like Christian faith.

But scratch a liberal Christian church and it will likely bleed blue. Attendance at a service or social gathering of a liberal church leaves one gasping for air. Nearly every semblance of Christian faith has been removed, replaced with a bland and vacuous belief in the ultimate goodness of man; that government sponsored programs can fill the moral and spiritual vacuum that their empty “faith” is incapable of filling. They have remembered the first part of Jesus’ words, “Neither do I condemn thee,” but forgotten the last part, “go and sin no more.” Indeed, what is sin? They no longer believe in sin.

So where does a believer go for the comfort, instruction, and spiritual nutrition that the church was (and is) supposed to supply? Even more to the point, where does the sinner (the non-believer) turn to find the un-condemning acceptance that Jesus offered to the sinners of his day?

Fortunately there are some congregations (mere gatherings of hands-full of believers within congregations in some instances) that have kept their clothes unstained by the theological, philosophical, political and cultural contaminants that have rendered much of American Christendom incapable of speaking as ambassadors of Christ. These conclaves of faith are the hope of Christianity, the secret “seed bank” from which, in past and future generations, a new crop of evangelism can emerge.

So while the rotting structures that now claim to be the church, but are not, continue their charade, slowly morphing into the political institutions of which they already are mirror images,  the church will go forth victoriously, peasant led and sinner populated, to fill the world with the good news that God is not dead and his Son still offers eternal life to all who put their trust in him.

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