The Problem of the Imperfect Church
Based on a recent discussion, I have been contemplating the problem of fellowship in the church, given that we don’t all agree on doctrinal or behavioral issues. There is a tacit tendency to fellowship those whom we agree with on important doctrinal or behavioral issues, but this raises the issue – what is important?
Practically speaking, most mainstream protestant churches appear to fellowship other mainstream protestant churches, at least in terms of recognizing each other’s communions as valid, and accepting “transfers” from each other without viewing it as a “conversion” process.
This has not always been true. Social and doctrinal divisions among denominations used to be approximately as sharp as the division today between protestants and catholics, or the separation between Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and everyone else.
Another approximate truth is that more conservative churches tend to be less accepting of more liberal churches, although this is not always totally reciprocal, i.e. more liberal churches will generally be more accepting of the conservative churches and their members.
I should probably tag those observation above , but it’s not really my main point. What interests me more is the individual fellowship between believers when we meet in the “hallway” that C.S. Lewis spoke of in Mere Christianity.
There are two extremes we can describe at first. I think relatively few Christians are at these extremes, but it might be helpful to identify the limits. Extreme number 1:
Everyone’s wrong except me and you. And I’m not sure about you.
This position ignores the idea of grace, as seen in Ephesians 2:8-10:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.(NASB)
as well as the passage from the Sermon on the Mount in Mt. 7:1-5:
Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.(NASB)
and lastly on this section – Romans 14:4:
Who are you to judge the servant of another?
I think the mistake in this position, then, is two-fold: we ignore the role of grace in the salvation of others (which by implication means we’re ignoring the role of grace in our own salvation), and we ignore the command not to judge others.
But the other extreme also has its issues:
I’m OK; you’re OK, and it’s all just, like, just your opinion, man.
This position (which I will admit is closer to the one I’m naturally comfortable with) also has issues, in that it ignores objective reality and smacks of subjectivism, that oh-so-modern disease plaguing modern thought. It’s difficult for me to discuss intelligently, because it is such shifting sand. I preached recently on “The Righteousness of Man,” and as we embrace (or don’t) a very relativist president of the United States, even as we encourage (or don’t) victims of sexual sins to come forward and out their accusers, I’m ever more reminded of how this kind of relativism meets itself coming and going.
I am even coming to believe that this point of view can be very judgmental, and even more willing to banish people to hell (or the secular equivalent, which seems to be ‘banishment without mercy’) for wrongdoing.
OK, but what about the imperfect church?
I don’t really have an answer (maybe that’s why the blog’s called Ask Gary another…). I am personally disposed to erring on the side of fellowship. That seems to be what Christ did, eating with the tax collectors and sinners. I think that direction is less dangerous vis-a-vis pride. But I’m also very supportive of the right of groups, including churches, to choose whom they would associate with (fellowship, in religious terms).