Sometimes I hear the oddest things when I listen to people talk about their love for the church. It is not that these people are insincere or dishonest. Yet at times their statements suggest a serious lack of understanding regarding the nature of the church and, for that matter, about the nature of godly love.
When a person is attached to the church for reasons that have little to do with the central purpose of the church, there is a pretty good chance that such love for the church will be misguided.
Not long ago a ministerial colleague shared a piece of his own early history which may help illustrate part of what I’m saying, As a little boy one of the first things he associated with the church was the distinctive odor he could smell in the church sanctuary.
For him it was part of the atmosphere of holiness and transcendence. To his mind the odor, somehow or another, indicated the presence of God. And so he loved that old sanctuary with its strange scent.
But the congregation eventually decided to construct a new building. When it was completed the boy was brought into it by his father. His father, himself obviously delighted, asked his son how he liked it. After all, the sanctuary was well constructed, larger than the old one, attractive, and altogether better suited to the congregation’s current needs.
The boy didn’t like it. Why? It didn’t smell right, so the young fellow concluded that God must not be present. He couldn’t possibly find the worship as meaningful or uplifting as it had been in the old edifice. Clearly his was a misdirected love.
We might be tempted to smile at the folly of the youngster, but it is not only little ones who display a good deal of confusion in their love for the church. The ways of confused love are legion. Some people love the church for providing an opportunity to escape from the turmoil and conflict of the world through worshiping God. Some love the church for being a stabilizing institution in society which undergirds social structures and conventional values.
Still others love the church for being a community of familiar, respectable, non-threatening people with whom they have pleasant interactions. For many people, love for the church is permeated with nostalgia, almost entirely congregationally oriented, and, in a very provincial way, human relations centered.
Hence, it is not unusual to hear people speak of their love for the church in a manner that almost entirely neglects the fact that the local church cannot be loved as it ought unless it is seen in relation to the broader church, which extends beyond the boundaries of our own creedal tradition, race, class, or nation. The church cannot be loved rightly unless it is loved globally as well as locally.
Furthermore, the church cannot be loved rightly if the head of the church, Jesus Christ, is not loved above all. Hence, to love the church in a way which is compatible with the church’s true nature our first concern must be to encourage the members of the church to hear and obey the Word of God.
It is simply insufficient to promote fond feelings and harmonious relations among the members of our own congregations all in the name of love. These are desirable, of course, but they can be misleading if we do not see that the quest for faithfulness to the teaching of Jesus and the apostles is at front and center in the life of the church.
It is by no means an easy task to hold love and truth together. Ministers with a strong prophetic thrust in their work have sometimes assumed that their colleagues who appear to be reluctant to offer a biblically-informed prespective on tough social issues are more concerned about preserving their positions than with proclaiming the Word of God. The silence in relation to sensitive peace and justice concerns is often viewed as evidence of cowardice.
There can be no doubt about the fact that a habit of arousing the ire of a congregation does little to foster one’s financial or professional security and rarely helps endear oneself to church members. In all fairness, it is not only a love of security and a desire to remain popular that dissuades some ministers from speaking disturbing truths.
Reinhold Niebuhr came to this realization fairly early in his career. As he wrote in his Leaves From The Notebook of a Tamed Cynic:
Critics of the church think we preachers are afraid to tell the truth because we are economically dependent upon the people of our church. There is something in that, but it does not quite get to the root of the matter. I certainly could easily enough get more money than I am securing now, and yet I catch myself weighing my words and gauging their possible effect upon this and that person.
I think the real clue to the tameness of a preacher is the difficulty one finds in telling unpleasant truths to people whom one has learned to love. To speak the truth in love is a difficult, and sometimes an almost impossible achievement…
It is certainly difficult to be human and honest at the same time. I’m not surprised that most budding prophets are tamed in time to become harmless parish priests. (p. 78)
I know from my own experience how warm and affectionate personal relationships with parishioners can have a powerful impact on the shape of a message.
Some years ago as I was writing a sermon entitled “Following the Prince of Peace,” it was not the anticipated criticism of the more “hawkish” members of the church which constrained me. Rather I was profoundly influenced by the fact that a dear 82-year-old woman whose only son was shot down over Germany during World War II would be sitting in one of the pews listening to what I had to say. I did not have it in me to be insensitive to her feelings.
Nevertheless, those of us who believe it is our responsibility to bring the divine Word to the church and the world must not allow our affection for our listeners to so determine our message that we fail to speak those vital truths which are likely to evoke pain, resentment, or anger.
Father Mapple, in Melville’s Moby Dick, issues a warning which all who love the church would do well to heed. In the course of drawing a lesson from the biblical story of Jonah, he says, “Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale.”
To speak gentle and inoffensive messages of comfort and consolation when the Word of God calls for repentance and tough obedience is to allow our desire to appear loving to overshadow the divinely disruptive truth. We dare not allow our sensitivity to our parishioners to take a form which would make us timid about proclaiming the unwelcomed message of God.
However disquieting it may be, it is necessary at times to call into question the vested interests, cherished convictions, and firmly held values which are common among the people of the church, but which, nevertheless, are inappropriate in light of the revelation of God in Christ.
No doubt there are times when controversy can and should be avoided. Yet I cannot help but be distressed when I hear of ministers who will not preach on vitally-important issues which are the subject of the public debate and discussion because they are afraid it will upset some members and lead to tension in the church.
Certainly extra sensitivity and tact are called for when dealing with certain topics. Arrogance and belligerence are always inappropriate. As much as possible, non-confrontational approaches should be used.
No doubt controversial issues are dealt with most productively and with the least disruption in the context of a relationship of trust which is built upon a warm, nurturing pastoral ministry. Yet if the harmony of a church can be maintained only at the price of leaving the status quo unchallenged, then the price is too high. Such harmony is not spiritual, and preserving it is not truthfully loving.
To love the church in truth is to work to encourage the church to fulfill its purpose as a community where the victory of Jesus Christ over the powers of darkness is lived as a present reality. For the church is to be a community where the barriers separating peoples are renounced, where justice is promoted, and all people are recognized as one people who are the creations of God and the objects of divine care.
A love which is concerned to maintain harmony within the church and the happiness of the members even at the price of ignoring the purpose of the church is, in fact, destructive. Too often in misguided efforts to “meet the needs of the people,” ministers have been far too much like the false prophets spoken of by Jeremiah who “have healed the wound of my people lightly saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14).
The quality of the life of a church is not to be measured by the degree of serenity among the members, the abundance of interesting programs, or the absence of all conflict, but by the church’s willingness to live as a Christ-centered community of reconciliation. Unfortunately, the sort of reconciliation the church is called by God to embody and promote may tend to alienate those who are most comfortable with a unity which is based on homogeneity.
If the life of the church is not such that the barriers and animosity which plague the world are challenged and transcended, then the church is a failure, no matter how happy the members might be with one another and with their church life. If members of the church get along because they have similar backgrounds, and because they are likable people with compatible interests, then the church is not fundamentally different from any other voluntary association of people. This should not be. The church is called to be a God-formed fellowship which bears witness that God in Christ has “broken down the dividing walls of hostility … making peace … in one body” Eph. 2:14-16).
In the life of the church we prove to the world it is not selfish economic interest, the color of one’s skin or the flag that flies over one’s land that are the most important factors in human affairs. It is faith which is most decisive. We are to demonstrate that aggression and violence are not the necessary response to those who are unlike us and whose interests differ from our own.
In its very existence the church is to provide the world with a God-inspired model of human affairs which confronts the world with the destructiveness and irrationality of such divisions between peoples. It is not enough for the church to announce the way of salvation with its works. The church must demonstrate the social consequences of salvation through its own internal life.
For this reason the apostle Paul proclaimed to the Colossian church, ‘Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all’ (3:11). The church is called to prove that, by the power of God, reconciliation is possible.
We must remember that the church speaks to the world, not only through its creeds, formal teaching and official declarations, but also through its approach to ecclesiastical leadership, its programming and priorities, and its rituals. It is crucial that every aspect of the church’s life encourages and proclaims, rather than detracts from or contradicts, God’s “plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in Christ” (Eph. 1:10).
In every period and in every place, there are cultural norms and values which the church must expunge from its life in order that the church might truly be an incarnate parable of the future which God is bringing. It is crucial for the church to reflect the divine vision of what the world can be by the loving power of God, thereby refusing to concede that “the way things are” is in fact the only or necessary reality.
This is no easy task. It is a constant temptation for the church to allow the dominant culture to determine the contours of its life. Yet in order to witness to the world as it ought, the church needs to be taught how to resist the world as it is.
The sort of witness which is required of the church was illustrated beautifully in the experience of the East African Masai people, as depicted by Catholic missionary Vincent Donovan in his Christianity Rediscovered.
It was the practice among these people for the men never to eat in the presence of the women. It was believed that the status and condition of women was such that their very presence at a meal would pollute the food.
When many of these people became Christians a dilemma was thrust upon them. How could they partake of the Lord’s Suppper? To import the radical division between the sexes into the eucharistic celebration would be a corruption of this sacred meal and a contradiction of this sign of unity. For the Masai Christians to conform at this particular point to the norms that they had previously taken for granted would be a denial of the gospel.
Father Donovan had — throughout his seventeen years of ministry with the Masai — endeavored to avoid any form of cultural imperialism which could take place through conveying Western norms along with the Christian message. He attempted to offer an “uninterpreted” gospel so that a truly indigenous church might develop. Yet when it came to this practice of sexual segregation during meals he could not side-step the need to challenge the people to turn from their tradition.
To be faithful to the gospel the Masai could not avoid repudiating their long-held vision of reality which portrayed men as superior, more fully human than women. It was not without some agony that the Masai ate the Lord’s Supper as one people, thereby proclaiming the conviction that “in Christ there is neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28).
Of course it is easy for us Westerners to see where Masai norms are incompatible with a Christian vision of the world. Unfortunately we are not equally perceptive when it comes to recognizing the obstacles to faithfulness which are pervasive within American life. There has been an all too selective application of the insights of faith to our own situation. Hence we may be concerned about reconciliation among “our own kind,” but too often we have viewed reconciliation as an unnecessary luxury, if not a dubious venture, in relation to outsiders and strangers.
It is a dangerous mistake to imagine the loving action never causes pain. There are occasions in which neglecting to perform an act which will be disturbing and painful for someone else is the most unloving thing we can do. I recall hearing of a mother who couldn’t bear to have her infant cry. Hence she didn’t bring the baby to the doctor for the standard innoculations. Subsequently, the baby contracted polio. I have no desire to question the sincerity of this mother’s love, but her love was not guided by truth.
Love without truth can be destructive. Love that is not guided by truth is prone to degenerate into sentimentalism. As one biblical author has pointed out, we have a need to purify our souls by obedience to the truth as we attempt to “love one another earnestly from the heart” (1 Pet. 1:22).
It is simply not the right kind of love which would lead us to bind up the scrapes and bruises of the church — addressing matters like building upkeep, the congregation’s “image” in the broader community, organizational efficiency, etc. — while we ignore the cancer of cultural accommodation which continues to gnaw at the church’s vital organs, but of which numerous church members seem oblivious.
Anyone who dares to engage in this work can expect to be met with the protest, “I don’t come to church to hear about politics, and the problems of the world.” They come to encounter the mysteries of the divine. They come to church to be uplifted and encouraged. That is as it should be, but we cannot with integrity provide them with what they seek without also leading the people to look at all aspects of the world in light of the mystery of God, and encourage them to allow the experience of divine love to take concrete expression in the life of the church.
It is not enough to help people see the holy mysteries. We must lead them to see all things through these mysteries and help them live in light of them.
This being the case, when the church is called upon to live “against the world, for the world,” to redemptively resist rather than reinforce the prevailing norms, those who are satisfied with the church’s conformity to the world are bound to be disturbed, if not outraged. Yet there is no virtue in easing the minds and calming the souls of those who need to be troubled before they can find true rest.
It is far more loving to breed a discontent which is anxious to obey God than to maintain a contentment which is based on being well-adjusted to social standards which are functionally atheistic. Where the church is unbothered by militarism, gross economic inequality, racism, the devaluation of human life, and the glorification of pleasure, there is no more noble way to love the church than to destabilize its culture-bound confidence so that the church might regain its footing on the Word of God.
It is not easy to love as we ought. The church cannot be loved in truth without struggle and pain. The words we speak and ministry in which we engage will occasionally be open to misunderstanding. No matter how much we agonize over the messages we bring, still there will be those who will object that we are being insensitive to their feelings.
This will be inevitable if we refuse to restrict our proclamation and discussion to topics where there is already a consensus of opinion among members of the church and if we dare to venture into areas of ministry which all will not support. If we do not challenge the church in word and deed, we will be reduced to fostering a sentimentalism which is more concerned with pleasant feelings than with faithfulness to the church’s divinely-given purpose.
Certainly we should seek to promote good feelings. Yet if we love the church in truth, the good feelings we will encourage will be those that arise as a result of the church growing into a community which sees the world and acts in it in light of the saving words and deeds of God.

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