I walked warily toward the front doors of our old church. It was the last day of May, and I was steaming up my sport coat as I took my wife’s hand and trudged forward. The parking lot was full, the lawn a week overdue for a trim. At the door, I leaned in to hug Keith, searching for words of condolence more poignant than I’m sorry. After a long decline, his father was now at rest.
It had been four years since my family last passed through these doors. We weren’t the first to leave, nor were we the last. Now, as we moved into the sunlit sanctuary for Mac’s memorial service, we saw smiles on familiar faces, and everywhere there were arms outstretched as the church was brought together again.
When I remember what we were, and ache over what we became, I see that it wasn’t the scandal that tore us apart, but its aftermath. Every church must contend with sin, yet we have the Spirit of the Lord, the love of Christ, and the wisdom of the Father to purify and unite us. And yet how easily we’re destroyed when the flesh rules over our hearts.
The first-century Corinthian church knew something about division. From the start of his letter, Paul addresses the quarrels that broke out among the congregation—disagreements over which teacher the members preferred. They set up little camps of Team Paul, Team Apollos, Team Cephas, even Team Christ. So Paul counseled them to “be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). He wanted them to say and think like-mindedly, to preach Christ crucified and boast only in the Lord.
My local church had also ruptured from division. Our pastor was arrested, launching a slew of speculation. For a season, we were united, waiting on an outcome. But when the pastor resigned with many questions still unanswered, we found ourselves forming into little camps of our own. Certain opinions grew, as did countering opinions. The groups divided and multiplied exponentially.
When I remember what we were, and ache over what we became, I see that it wasn’t the scandal that tore us apart, but its aftermath.
And yet, with the revelation of the Lord, Paul set the standard for the look and shape of Christ’s body. Regardless of our circumstances, he tells us, the church maintains a certain identity. Within Paul’s opening lines to the Corinthians, he writes, “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:2-3). This address introduces several principles that Paul develops throughout his letter.
First of all, as members of the church, we belong to God. Paul is strikingly clear that people are not worthy to be followed to a fault. It is right and good for us to seek godly counsel and form opinions, but these perspectives should never supersede our identity in Christ.
Paul also identifies the church as the sanctified in Christ. Throughout Scripture, God refers to the sanctified as a person or thing set apart for a holy purpose—like the seventh day in creation, His name, the priests and the firstborn of Israel, and Christ Himself. So what a holy calling it is, then, for us to be likewise identified. Surely our whole ambition should be bent toward pleasing God, not one another. And so we should live, enjoying the Lord’s favor, rather than currying favor with others.
Not that our struggles aren’t important, but in their midst, we ought to reflect back to something bigger than our broken factions.
Then Paul unites the localized church with the church around the world, reminding us that we are joined by all who call on the name of Jesus. This gives an incredibly large picture of God’s terrestrial family—and tends to render our particular controversies and grumblings as small and, at times, even silly. Not that our struggles aren’t important, but in their midst, we ought to reflect back to something bigger than our broken factions. Since God unifies us in His Son’s name on such a large scale, He’s certainly able to unify us on a far smaller one. And this should give us great hope, even as it sets our crooked noses straight.
So what does this recipe for identity, purity, and unity teach me about the troubles of my last church? Well, for one thing, it’s as hard to tame the waves of opinion as to contain the sea. I was an elected officer in that congregation, an insider who bent more ears toward my perspective than toward prayer or unity. The hard truth is that the look and shape of Christ’s body begins with me. I must be reticent about my calling, honored to be considered a saint, humbled that God has consecrated me, and eager to work for unity. My face, like everyone else’s, should have been set on the Son of Man. From there, we could have moved forward, patiently, with wisdom from God above.
My wife and I had our reasons for leaving, just as those who preceded our departure and those that followed us did. Mainly, we left for the spiritual health of our children, so that they could grow in their love for the church and not be soured by their experience. But how good it felt to be back in that sanctuary on the last day of May, drawn together from the four winds, to celebrate the life of our brother Mac. For the first time in many years, it felt again as if this little group was the church that from ages past belongs to God—sanctified and unified in Christ.
Illustration by Dan Page