Church. What does the word even mean anymore? Many people use the word as a designation for the local Christian assembly they are members of and the building they meet for worship and edification. Others use the word in such a general sense that all it means is a distinction between the saved and the lost (the churched and the unchurched). In a culture that is becoming increasingly hostile to Christianity the “church” is seen by many as a puritanical and primitive holdout against enlightened progressivism. Because of that, there is a growing number of “enlightened” leaders in the church trying desperately to help Christians “evolve” with the culture in order that the “church” might maintain some measure of cultural relevancy. They don’t seem to understand that the progressivism which is driving culture has no interest in a culturally relevant church. For progressives, the only good church is a dead church.
So, again, I ask…what does “church” even mean anymore?
Interestingly, Jesus only used the word “church” twice, both times in the Gospel of Matthew (16:18 and 18:17). In the former, the church is His creation whose existence was to be a bane to evil (“the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”). In the latter, the church is to be the Supreme Court (final say) on adjudicating behavior as it relates to the Word and will of God. Thus, in neither case is there the remotest sense of Christ’s church aligning with anything but God. Certainly not culture!
I was recently shown an article titled ‘Be careful using the Bible.’ The author (a retired United Methodist pastor) laments using the Bible to determine modern moral standards. In his words, “moral standards do evolve.” How do we know this? “Because the writers of the Bible did not know about germs. That’s why some thought when a person became sick, they were possessed by demons. Today, almost all people of faith understand germs and infections, and they treat such conditions with antibiotics such as penicillin.” It’s a shame the author wasn’t around to enlighten Jesus when He cast out demons from those who were possessed. But I digress.
It shouldn’t be too hard to guess that the article is a promotion of homosexuality. Times change and with them comes illumination (hence the title of the article). The author is clearly saying that biblical admonitions against homosexuality were “timely.” That is, there was a time when homosexuality was deemed sinful “by a majority of people at one time in history” but has been “updated in another generation because of new understandings” (i.e. the whole spiel about germs and antibiotics). There are so many false premises and presumptions with the article that an adequate refutation would require a separate blog. What I find truly enlightening about it is the author’s assertion concerning what is at the heart and soul of Christianity.
I certainly agree with his statement that “All the Bible is about how we are to be in a right relationship with God…” But when it comes to God’s expectations to how we are to live in relation to each other he writes, “what is moral in a timeless sense is whatever is helpful to human beings, and what is immoral is whatever is hurtful to human beings.” So, he uses the Bible to tell you what God generally wants but then dumps it aside when it gets to particulars.
His two sentence conclusion is what prompted me to write this blog:
“To ‘love your neighbor’ is to do the helpful thing and to avoid doing the hurtful thing, even when cultural conditioning makes that uncomfortable. Helping, not hurting, looks and sounds like Jesus to me.” And I might say, to a lot of others. Ironically, those two sentences prove that he’s doing exactly what he’s warning others about when it comes to using the Bible as a source for moral standards!
This whole notion that Christ’s church is built on the bedrock of kindness and accommodation makes for great prose and winsome rhetoric, but that’s all it is. And a great many people have bought into it. Is that really what God intends for the church to be? A community where “love your neighbor” means doing what your neighbor perceives to be helpful? That’s Christianity? Helpfulness? It’s the same old tired axiom that when you ‘go along to get along,’ happiness ensues. You don’t really need “truth” in that church, do you?
Let’s return to the two occasions Jesus used the word “church.” In the first (Matthew 16:18) the church is that which will not only not succumb to the gates of hell, but that which shall prevail over them. At the very least, that kind of imagery implies spiritual conflict. The reality, as almost anyone knows, is that there is no painless (hurtless) way to set the captives free. Coming out from bondage is never painless.
When the Allies began to liberate German concentration camps they had to be very careful about feeding the starving prisoners. They found this out the hard way when many starving prisoners died within hours of gorging themselves on the food their liberators fed them. Can you imagine how hurtful it seemed to be starving and then denied a full belly when the means were right there?
The notion that “whatever is hurtful to human beings” is “immoral” doesn’t fly in the real world. If loving your neighbor is to avoid doing the hurtful thing then rehab and detoxification programs are hurtful/hateful because coming out of the bondage to anything that enslaves body, mind, or both is never without hurt. Whether we’re talking about the physical agony of detoxifying the body from years of addiction to alcohol or drugs or the emotional and even spiritual pain of being weaned off of an abusive co-dependent relationship…it cannot happen painlessly.
Truth makes people free (John 8:32) and truth often hurts. That’s why I said that the idea that loving your neighbor means not hurting him/her can only be legitimate if the truth is nowhere in the mix. Even getting your neighbor to acknowledge his/her bondage can be deemed hurtful. I know people who were furious that their doctor had the nerve to tell them that the root cause of their many ailments was their obesity. Lose some weight and save your life. Are doctors immoral for revealing the truth even though it may be “hurtful?” Is it the loving thing to let them remain blissfully unaware? Those who are caught in the web of any kind of bondage will never break free without a lot of hurt. The notion that immorality is anything that another person deems hurtful may sound good but it is completely devoid of truth.
In the second instance that Christ used the word “church” (Matthew 18:17), it is again used in the imagery of confrontation (and hurtful at that). A brother (neighbor) sins against you. According to Jesus, you are to confront the person about it. If he listens and repents, that is the end of it. If not, you are to repeat the confrontation, this time with one or two witnesses. If there is still no acknowledgment of sin “tell it to the church.” If there is still no movement towards repentance and reconciliation “Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Wow. How…hurtful. That’s three times of telling someone something they will probably deem as hurtful. But the lesson is that the truly immoral thing would be to remain silent.
So what is the church? It is the community of love and faith created by Jesus Christ that holds itself, and most importantly, the world accountable to the truth. And if you don’t know what the truth is, see John 14:6. A relationship with God is established upon truth, not feelings. It is ludicrous, unbiblical, and ignorant to say that loving your neighbor means saying and doing only those things your neighbor deems to be “helpful.”
By the author’s own standards Jesus would be seen as immoral. He once referred to Peter as “Satan” (Matthew 16:23). I don’t think one has to stretch the imagination to believe Peter was probably hurt by that comment. On another occasion, He implied that a Canaanite woman was a dog and didn’t deserve His help (Matthew 15:21-28). How about that for hurtfulness? Then there was the time His own mother and siblings were outside a home He was teaching in and sent word inside that they were outside needing to see Him. His response? “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:19-21). How do you think Mary, James, and the others felt about that statement in their hearing?
Today’s church is going down because it is pandering to a lost world that’s more concerned with people being offended than being awakened by the truth. If we’re going to define morality in terms of helpfulness and hurtfulness, then we are essentially abandoning our commitment to the truth. If we continue down this path, it won’t be the church prevailing against the gates of hell…it will be hell storming into our churches. Or whatever they’ll be called by then.