A word to those who have been “hurt by the church”
And one will say to him, ‘What are these wounds in thine hands?’ Then he will say, ‘Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends (Zechariah 13:6).
Wounded in the house of “those who love me” is the literal interpretation of the Hebrew there, according to the footnote in my Bible.
It’s called friendly fire in military lingo.
Recently, after my article “Why a lot of professing Christians never attend church,” the responses poured in, positive and negative. The latest note, however, prompts what follows.
A reader wrote, “What about those who have been hurt by the church? Your article doesn’t address that (as a reason for believers dropping out of church).”
He listed several instances of people wounded by the church….
–Abused by a church member
–Conned out of their money.
–Given a false gospel that turned God into a divine butler or cruel taskmaster.
–Treated as if their sins are the worst and cannot be forgiven.
–Turned away based on their outward appearance.
I’ve been a member of the Lord’s family for some 67 years (beginning at the age of 11) and one of His messengers for 56 of those years. So, this is not a subject with which I am unacquainted. Truth be known, I carry a few scars myself from interactions with some of the Lord’s people. And, I could add a few grievances to the above list…
–The church leadership lied to the new pastor and when he tried to hold them to the agreement, fired him. With no severance. He’s still unemployed. Other churches are suspicious of a flockless shepherd. As one search committee said, “We didn’t turn up any reasons for his dismissal. But where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
–One church I know has run off four pastors in a row. They are brutal.
–A man in the church decided he wanted the pastor gone, so he began a smear campaign against him. He placed phone calls and when he discovered anything questionable in the preacher’s past, he started a gossip campaign. The congregation did not know the member’s underhanded methods, so believed him and sent the pastor on his way.
–And, lest someone think I’m unaware of pastors’ failings, I’ve seen preachers brutalize their churches with their my-way-or-the-highway tactics, lazy preachers who never left the church office and stole sermons from the internet, and carnal pastors who told dirty jokes, drank liquor, and gambled.
So, what do we say to people who have quit going to church because they were brutalized by the pastor, a staffer, the leadership, or the membership?
Here is my quick analysis concerning this problem…..
- The church has never hurt anyone.
- The Lord will not let me turn away from His church because of the failings of some people.
- From the first, our Lord Jesus worked to prepare His people for this.
- The epistles likewise address this subject.
One. The church does not and never has hurt anyone. True, a lot of people acting in Jesus’ name certainly have. No question about that. I’m confident the Lord is displeased with them and has them on His appointment calendar. As I told one little group that was dedicated to getting me out of the church, “You will stand before God and answer for what you are doing to the man He has sent here. I would not be in your shoes for anything in the world.”
What we must not do is blame God. “Well, He knew they would do this,” someone says, “and He sent us here.” Granted, He knew. The Lord also knew I would get cancer, my wife would die, and a church would oust me–and He did nothing to stop any of it. He has His reasons, says Scripture, and we’re not always taken into His plans. “Our God is in the Heavens,” says Psalm 115:3. “He does whatever He pleases.” But not necessarily what would please us.
We either trust Him or we don’t.
The question becomes whether we are willing to follow One who leads us in difficult paths and allows bad things to happen to His (ahem) good people (meaning you and me, two of His best! Smiley face here). Check out Paul’s bio in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 and stand in awe. How in the world could he endure such treatment and still come up rejoicing? True, none of this harsh treatment came from His brethren in Christ, as far as we know. But if you’ll read all of his letters in the New Testament, you’ll quickly see some of the so-called Christians were pretty harsh also. Their assaults were more in the nature of verbal putdowns and spiritual attacks, rather than physical. But one is often as deadly as the other.
Two. Even if I wanted to leave the church, the Lord will not let me. As Polycarp (second-century bishop of Smyrna, burned at the stake) said when ordered to renounce his faith in Jesus, “Eighty-six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”
So, I’ll stay with Him.
I’m well aware that many will respond, “I’m not leaving Jesus, just the church.” I can only say, “To me personally, it doesn’t work that way. If the church is the body of Christ and also His bride–as Scripture says–then to love Him is to love His church.” That does not mean every person in the church is holy or represents Christ, of course. But the church is divine (Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 5:25), and all of those “one another” verses that fill the New Testament are speaking of the obligation of believers toward other believers.
When I received Christ at the age of 11, that very night I found myself loving the people of God around me. Over the years I’ve noticed that when I am close to Him I love them, but when I drift away and my heart grows cold, I’m critical of the Lord’s people and negative about His ministers. That principle is true for me to this day, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is a universal truth.
Three. Jesus taught that we should expect mistreatment by “good people.” He Himself was betrayed by one of His twelve.
Matthew 10:16-42 should have as its title: “What to expect while serving Jesus.” And no one can accuse Jesus of glossing over our assignment. God’s faithful should expect mistreatment, betrayal, harshness, persecution, and for some, even death. Throughout this lengthy passage, Jesus speaks of “men,” “they,” “all,” as those responsible for the persecution of His people without actually identifying them, other than to call them wolves. We recall that the Apostle Paul–as though picking up on this–said, “Savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29).
In this passage and a related text in Luke 10, the Lord Jesus tells His disciples who are going forth to preach that “whoever receives you, receives me; Whoever listens to you, is listening to me; And whoever rejects you is rejecting me” (Matthew 10:40 and Luke 10:16). This is more than comforting and also rather scary.
To me personally–and that’s all this piece is–those who consistently mistreat the Lord’s people are simply not His. They are not saved. I take this from John 15: 21, “All these things they will do to you because they do not know the One who sent Me.” They simply do not know the Lord.
They. Do. Not. Know. God.
Any Christian can err; all Christians will sin. But for some church people to constantly and regularly mistreat God’s little ones–a term meaning God’s humble servants as well as His children–well, the Lord Jesus has this for them: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin (or stumble), it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).
All of that is to say, the Lord does not take lightly the way His people are mistreated, whether by someone in the congregation or outside it. But vengeance is His. He pays His debts.
Let us trust Him and be faithful.
Four. The epistles also prepare us for mistreatment in the Lord’s house.
We referred to Acts 20:29 above. Next, after warning the elders of Ephesus that “savage wolves” would be coming, Paul adds: “Also from among your own selves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (vs. 30). The phrase “from among your own selves” means these wicked men will identify themselves as followers of Jesus.
Here are a few more references to Paul’s difficulties with church people. “Hymenaeus and Alexander I have delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme” (I Timothy 1:20). Likewise, two leaders of the church in Asia Minor, Phygellus and Hermogenes, turned against Paul (2 Timothy 1:15).
When Paul warns that “in the last days perilous times will come,” it is my strong belief that he was talking about people inside the church when he said, “men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power….” (2 Timothy 3:1-5). To those who say this is describing people of the world, we respond that the world has always acted this way. The world has always acted like unbelievers. What makes this prophecy ominous for the church is that this is how many in the church will behave in the last days.
Look around, friend. It’s happening as we speak.
Then, in the final chapter we have from the hand of Paul, we read: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers and they will turn their ears away from the truth and be turned aside to fables” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
What then is the wounded child of God to do?
First, you must not think of yourself as special, as though you were the first. You weren’t. See First Peter 4:12.
Second, read First Corinthians. One of the finest gifts the Lord gave us was allowing us to see the rottenness in the church at Corinth. In this epistle, believers are competing against each other, fighting, and dividing. They choose favorite preachers, they take one another to court and some even glory in their immorality. Those with certain spiritual gifts exalt themselves and put down the lesser-endowed believers. All of which is to say, you’ll have a hard time finding a problem in the contemporary church that was not present in the First Century. So, let no one say, “Whatever happened to the church? There are no New Testament churches!” There are, friend. They are all around us.
Third. Keep your eyes on Jesus and not on men. Your trust is in Him and Him alone. Since you know from Scripture that wicked teachers, selfish pastors, wayward church members, and dead churches will abound in the last times, you will be wary and be strong.
–You will stay in the Word because it gives you balance in your spiritual life. You will look around and find a church with a humble, godly pastor and worship there. In this, you will be slow, wise, and gentle (Matthew 10:16!) about trusting teachers, counselors, and pastors. You will keep your guard up and go carefully into relationships with others claiming to follow Jesus. You will not be judgmental but discerning, not suspicious but loving, not expecting perfection but humility and love.
–When a brother or sister falls or strays, you will not write them off but will pray for them and continue to love them. You will not criticize or judge. Furthermore, you will not stay home from church because someone you trusted betrayed that trust. If you do, the enemy has won a great victory.
–You will be wise. You surely know yourself well enough to know you are capable of sinning big time. Well, so are the other church members. So am I. And from time to time, people you trusted and believed in will demonstrate that very thing. So, let us show them the love and encouragement we wish someone had shown us.
But we will not stay home from church.