When Does church Stop Being Church? (the Bride of Christ, Part 2)

Are there times when church ceases to be Church?
When the local body becomes so corrupt
and misguided
and self-centered
that it simply ceases being a part of the Body of Christ?

Should these diseased cells riddled with infection
simply be removed before the contagion of sin metastasizes?
At what point do we cut our brothers and sisters off—
divorcing them from the family for their waywardness?
Surely, anyone who has ever attended a self-serving church
or walked past Christians holding up hateful picket signs
or watched in frustration as pastors made questionable political endorsements
has wondered this.
How can we be Church when we behave this way?

In the book of Hosea, God has the titular prophet marry a notoriously wayward woman,
and together, they have three children:
named for a famous massacre where Israel courted God’s wrath,
a foreboding prediction of the departure of God’s love from God’s people
and Lo-Ammi,
a crisis of covenant: God declaring you are not My people.
Befitting her reputation, Hosea’s wife again commits adultery,
yet God commands Hosea to pursue her,
to reunite with her,
to love her all the more.
This is God’s relationship with Israel,
but it is also God’s relationship with the Church and with all the rest of humanity:
though we may wander,
though we may disobey,
though we may flee to the temporary comforts of sin and selfishness,
God pursues and loves.
His compassion is roused,
and the fierce anger we deserve is set aside.
We are forgiven.

So it is with the church.
Though it may be self-centered and disobedient and harmful,
it is part of Something greater,
and She is the Bride of Christ,
tarnished and adulterous,
but a Bride nonetheless,
and when She at last beholds her Bridegroom there at the Altar at the end of all things,
that love will be fully realized,
those old desires wiped away and replaced with something beautiful.

Until then, we live in the in-between,
where humanity’s fallenness infects even the church,
but the Church will always be in God’s heart,
and that is a Love that cannot be broken by our waywardness.

So no, a church never ceases to be part of The Church,
for the Family of God cannot be broken even by sin and death.
Rather, we are always called back
to the One who is always faithful.

A quick housekeeping matter:
This week’s Theology Thursday continues the theme from last week, and I’ve committed to reflecting on the concept of “The Bride of Christ” for a few more weeks still. Like everyone else on social media, I have many thoughts on the election, but they’re still finding their wording. Those posts will come in the next few weeks too.
Regarding last week’s post on the Bride of Christ, commenter Matt S. on Facebook made an outstanding point that the word “betrothed” would be a better description than “fiancee” because the former carries a deeper meaning of covenant. Betrothal is a deeper level of commitment with larger ramifications than modern engagement. We agreed that betrothed has a more archaic feel to it though, so to sidestep this issue, I’ve reverted back to the more familiar “Bride of Christ” terminology. Thanks, Matt!

Q Commons

I really thought I was going to spend today just doing hospital-related writing.
Then Q Commons happened and got a bunch of ideas swirling, so here we go…

unnamedIf you’re not familiar with Q Ideas, definitely check out their website and YouTube channel. Gabe Lyons started this annual conference in the vein of TED Talks, and where TED focuses on innovation, Q is all about making space for Christian dialogue. After all, Christians are all over the political and cultural map, so there needs to be a peaceful meeting ground somewhere. The annual Q Ideas conference is a weekend-long event, but Q Commons involves local speakers mixed in with simulcasts from the main Q auditorium in Nashville. Basically, if Q Ideas is TED, then Q Commons is TEDx. Urban Soul hosted the Jacksonville Q Commons, so in true Urban Soul fashion, the speakers represented a wide range of spirituality and offered deep thoughts to prompt later conversation and reflection. Derrick Scott (who directs Urban Soul and several other outstanding ministries in Jacksonville) emceed the evening, which consisted of six presentations, three coming to us from Nashville:

– Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias spoke on the problem of systematic meaninglessness in our culture and called for a shift in focus to eternity, morality, accountability, and charity. His talk involved some suspicion of science and the university system, so I had a hard time fully agreeing with him, but he sowed seeds for some good further conversation. The phrase “systematic meaninglessness” is definitely one I want to explore further.

– Political commentators Kirsten Powers and Ross Douthat discussed what it means to be a Christian in this particular election cycle. Extremists like Trump rise to power when people feel like they’re not being listened to, so how should Christians respond? Even though Powers and Douthat have different political allegiances, they agreed that Trump presents himself openly as a monster, so what does it do to the reputation of Christianity when Christians in the public eye openly advocate for him?

Lecrae was the final speaker out of Nashville, sharing his perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement. He talked about the difference between “keeping the peace” and “making peace,” and he addressed issues of bias and privilege by pointing out “We are all confined to our experience and our education.” He then discussed the idea of righteous anger, which can be used for constructive means rather than vengeance.

These ideas were interesting and thought-provoking and merit further conversation, and if there’s one big flaw with Q’s approach, it’s that we had to move so quickly through them. Knowing Derrick’s passion for open dialogue, future Urban Soul gatherings will likely allow us more time in listening to one another.

The local speakers were what really drew my interest:

Nyah Vanterpool of OneJax spoke on the difficulties of truly meeting each other where we are when our words so often flow from places of judgment rather than love. Nyah evoked the all too real presences of Westboro Baptist and the KKK and drew a contrast with reconciling congregations like Chicago’s Broadway UMC. His full presentation is available online, and I highly recommend it.

– Leah Donelan of the Nonprofit Center spoke on reviving the spirit of giving and service in our society, and she offered concrete ways to do so. Leah’s organization is all about connecting North Florida organizations and people, and if you have just a few hours to give to your community and to the causes you care about, check out thenonprofitlink.org to find organizations that could use volunteers, donations, and even board members. There are 1,022 charitable organizations in the five counties around Jacksonville, so the opportunity is endless.

Church planter Nathan Hamm (who has the distinct honor/curse of being one of my pastors) closed out the night. Jessi and I are part of Nathan’s launch team for StoryHouse, a community geared to people who aren’t fully comfortable in church. StoryHouse will eventually add in regular worship gatherings, but right now, our focus has been on monthly parties. These are low-pressure environments for people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and faith backgrounds to share their stories and walk together through the questions that shape us. (And we have some outstanding cocktails too.) In his Q talk, Nathan addressed the question Is the Church Dying?, and his talk took the shape of a long-form poem as he spoke of the continual death and resurrection of Church. Nathan pointed out that so many of our efforts now are on resuscitating churches rather than allowing their resurrection. Nathan described a resurrected church where there is room for conversation and discussion and debate, but never room for hate. It was the perfect way to wrap up the night.

Recordings of the Q talks will become available online over the next few weeks, but if there was one takeaway from the night, it’s that we need to have these conversations in person in our own communities. Sure, the national talks were interesting, but Leah, Nyah, and Nathan are all doing concrete things right here in Jacksonville to create a climate of service and conversation. I hope you’ll take some time to check out what they’re doing and get involved as well.

The Bride of Christ

These days, there are more articles than ever by Millennials and Gen Xers pointing out problems with church. They’re a dime a dozen. They’re everywhere. And they clog up my Facebook and Twitter feeds the way selfies and pictures of food clog up my Instagram. Recently though, I’ve noticed another pattern among my more traditionalist friends— rebuttal articles that put these young upstarts in their place, and these articles usually follow this line of reasoning:

The church is the Bride of Christ.
You wouldn’t insult your friend’s wife, would you?
Then why are you insulting Jesus’s wife?

While it certainly stems from a charitable place, there are three major flaws in this argument. The first two may be a little nit-picky, but stay tuned because #3 is a doozy.

1. The church is not the Bride of Christ; The Church is the Bride of Christ. Individual churches are small imperfect bodies of loving but sinful people. Typically they invest more in their buildings than their people, and there’s a lot of selfishness and politicking because that’s just what happens when you put people under one roof. The Church, on the other hand, is the universal Body of Believers of which any who profess faith in Christ are members. Criticizing church is not the same as criticizing Church. But even then, there’s merit to criticizing the Church; more on that in the much anticipated point #3.

2. Okay, this may be super technical, but bear with me. While “bride” and “wife” are certainly related terms, they’re not quite the same thing. A bride is someone in that liminal space of becoming a wife; she’s not really a wife until the preacher, notary, or cruise ship captain says “I now pronounce you…” In the case of the Church, this particular wedding isn’t going to take place for a very long time (or maybe next Tuesday if you believe the End Times predictors). “Bride” can’t be equated to “wife” in this case, so from this point on, I’m going to substitute the word “fiancee.” I look forward to the day when we’ll all be united with Jesus forever, but we’re not technically there yet.

3. And this is the big one. These young authors aren’t insulting Jesus’s wife. They’re pointing out that his fiancee has been cheating on him. Would I insult my friend’s wife? Probably not, but then again, I can be kind of a jerk sometimes, so maybe I’m not the best case study. Would I tell my friend that his fiancee is cheating on him? Hell yes, I would. I’d go to him immediately and say exactly what I heard, saw, or walked in on. We’d talk through his options, and if he wanted me to be there when he confronted her, I absolutely would. I’d walk with him through the whole thing because that’s what a good friend does. Would I want him to leave her? Yeah, probably, but my Friend is far more merciful and has taken her back time and again already, so knowing that Jesus will always call the Church back to him, I’m choosing instead to focus my attention on the Church herself. Jesus is perfection; there’s no work to be done there. But when it comes to the Church, who repeatedly prostitutes herself for every politician and continues to focus on her own needs rather than being the balm to the world we were called to be, we’ve got a lot of work to do.

So would it be wrong to insult Jesus’s wife?
I guess so. Maybe. I don’t know.

Would it be wrong to tell him that his fiancee is cheating on him?
No. Absolutely not. Go tell him right now. RIGHT NOW.
And what kind of terrible friend even has to ask that?

But here’s where things get really dicey.
In this analogy, I’m not only the friend.
I’m also the fiancee.
I’m the cheating, wayward future spouse.
And yet, Jesus calls me back again and again.

The problem facing the Bride of Christ is this:
On this side of eternity, we will always go astray,
but he will always call us back to him.

Do we deserve it?
Of course not.

Should we work on becoming better?

Will we actually achieve that?
I’m not completely ruling it out,
but looking at the big arc of history,
the answer is almost certainly no,
and that’s okay.
The good news is that we’re not dependent on our own merit;
Jesus carries us over the threshold that we can’t cross on our own.

In the meantime,
on this side of eternity,
taking a good honest look at ourselves
and the ways we’ve been unfaithful
is a crucial step toward Christ.
The Church doesn’t need you to defend her.
She needs your honesty
because she— no,
because we need to change.

This topic hits very close to home for me, and I’ll be writing more on The Church and the culture of criticism throughout the month of November.