March 2, 2015

Can I Call It "My" Church?

“I love my church.” Frequently, those are the first words out of my mouth as I buckle my seat-belt in the car after Lord’s Day worship. Whether it was the hearty singing, or the powerful preaching, or the sweet fellowship—whether it was a hug from a little girl or a smile from an elderly one—I am regularly overwhelmed by the privilege of being a part of this little colony of heaven. I really love my church.

But, this week, I had two different conversations which thoughtfully challenged the use of my in front of church. Our language expresses our theology, and this tiny pronoun is worth some reflection. When I meet people at the next conference or denominational meeting who ask me “How’s your church?” what can I say?

Can I—should I—call it my church?

Let me offer two important clarifications, and then three arguments in favor of saying my:

(1) Not my church: Ownership.

I do not own the church. It’s not my personality or my priorities or my vision that drive it. It’s not my zeal or energies that keep it alive. It’s not my presence that makes it what it is. It is “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28), “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

If I mean to say that I somehow own the bride of Christ, then, no, it’s not my church.

(2) Not my church: Isolation.

In C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, the dwarves of Narnia become disillusioned with Aslan and his followers. They (wrongly) suspect that their interests are not being protected, and so they refuse to assist the common cause, separating from the Narnian army while chanting, “The dwarves are for the dwarves! The dwarves are for the dwarves!” Sometimes a declaration about my church can carry the same wrong-headed isolationism.

But I am joined to the church universal—the true church in all ages and places. “All the churches of Christ” (Rom. 1:16) greet one another, “all the churches” (1 Cor. 7:17, 14:33) have a common practice under God’s Word, and “all the churches” (Rom. 16:4) find common reasons for giving thanks.

If I mean to say that my church is the only church--or the only church that matters--or if I mean to say that my connection to the local church annexes me from the wider church, then, no, it’s not my church.

But with that understanding, I still think there are three good reasons to keep calling the local body my church:

(1) My church: Loyalty.

Three times in his Epistles, the Apostle Paul calls the good news of Christ “my gospel” (Rom. 2:16; 16:25; 2 Tim. 2:8).  My gospel?!?!

Paul is not appropriating the gospel under a false sense of ownership. He is not staking a false claim to it as his exclusively. He is declaring his allegiance to it. “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!” (2 Tim. 2:8-9) The gospel of Christ was Paul’s work, his delight, his life’s cause. And owning this gospel as “mine” had practical ramifications for Paul: because of it, he was suffering and bound in chains as a criminal.

Similarly, I don’t belong to an abstract idea of church. I belong to a local and living body that sometimes demands real sacrifice from me. By saying my church, I declare my loyalty to it: my willingness to be associated with it and even, if necessary, to suffer for it.

(2) My church: Love.

The church is not a physical building; it is the gathered people of God. They are united to Christ, and belong to him as his children (Heb. 2:13). And, because I also am united to Christ, we belong to each other—as members of a body (1 Cor. 12:12), stones in a building (1 Cor. 3:9), and branches on a vine (John 15:5). And I love them.

Regularly, with great tenderness,  the Apostle Paul and the Apostle John called the members of the church “my children” (1 Cor. 4:14-15, Gal. 4:19, I John 2:1, 3 John 1:4). This doesn't deny that those Christians are the Lord's children, but expresses the love the apostles had for them.

The people of this church are so precious to me, so intimately connected to me, that like the lover in Song of Solomon—“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (6:3)—I convey affection by getting in the car on Sunday afternoon and calling the church mine.

(3) My church: Service.

I serve the church because I am closely united to Christ and moved by Christ’s interests. His concerns for the church become my concerns, his desires are my desires, his cause is my cause. And, in that sense, his church is really and truly mine.

Consider this wonderful illustration from C.H. Spurgeon:
In the days when servants used to be servants and were attached to their masters, one of our nobility had with him an old butler who had lived with his father, and was getting grey. The nobleman was often much amused with the way in which the good old man considered everything that was his master’s to be his own. I was not only pleased with the story but it touched my heart when I heard it. His lordship once said to him, ‘John, whose waggon is that which has just come up loaded with goods?’ ‘Oh!’ said he ‘that is ours. Those are goods from our town house.’ His lordship smiled, and as a carriage came up the drive, he said, ‘John, whose coach is that coming into the park?’ ‘Oh!’ said he, that is our carriage.’ ‘But,’ said the master, ‘there are some children in it, John; are they our children?’ ‘Yes, my lord, they are our children, bless them, I will run, and bring them in.’ My Lord Jesus, how dare I have the impertinence to claim anything which is Thine? And yet, when I gaze upon Thy Church, I am so completely Thy servant, and so wholly absorbed in Thee, that I look upon it as mine as well as Thine, and I go to wait upon Thy beloved ones.[1]

Is that my church? Why, yes, it is.

[1] C.H. Spurgeon, “Individuality and Its Opposite” in An All-Round Ministry, 59-88, Repr., 1900 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), 88.

February 23, 2015

Please Don't Let Me be Misunderstood

I bought a print of a unique painting that I appreciate. It is abstract and hard to describe, visualize and understand unless you know something about the behind-the-scenes work. The artistry is not perfect, due to limitations. But, when I visited the place where the artist creates the original paintings, talked with his assistant and learned more about the group that benefits from the artwork projects, I wanted that print.

I can see why people might not "get" that painting. In the same way, I observe that some might misunderstand their pastor and his wife. People don't always see what goes on as a pastor follows his calling. The way he does his work and how he spends his time appear abstract compared to what is familiar. When people expect certain things to happen in a certain way, and the pastor disappoints them with the end product, they might misunderstand him. But, the pastor's wife knows some of the backstory. Although she is aware of his shortcomings, she sees the daily sacrifice her husband makes for the church and how he is motivated to benefit the congregation. When her husband is misunderstood, the pastor's wife is affected, too.

Some advice for the times when you feel misunderstood
1) Most of the time, most of the church members are quite supportive of the pastor's ministry. It is helpful to keep reminders of that. Someone told me that she keeps a "blue file." It is a blue file folder filled with letters of encouragement and keepsakes of special events. When she is feeling "blue," she takes the file out, reminds herself of God's blessings and thanks Him.

2) Disagreements will happen in a fallen world. Realize that even God's people can be inconsiderate and thoughtless toward you. You have hurt others, as well. When I feel the sting of being misunderstood, I think of past times when I quickly judged others without knowing the whole picture. Seeing my own sin of misunderstanding can motivate me to repentance and awareness of how I should treat others.

3) A sinless Jesus was criticized and misunderstood many times (e.g., Matthew 12:1-13). Taking your hurt to God in prayer is helpful. Ask Him for love toward those who you think are mistreating you. Pray that the Holy Spirit will show you if your sin has contributed to this problem. Ask for strength and willingness to change, as needed.

4) Sometimes, people just need more information to foster understanding. I have a theory that if you don't know much about someone's life, you fill in the gaps with speculation. Communication can counteract that. In my church, the leaders call a meeting to explain any weighty actions they take, such as church discipline, and are willing to answer tough questions. My husband writes a blog and church newsletter column to tell people what he is thinking about the Christian life. Occasionally, he mentions a struggle he is facing. Both of us attend church social events, have people in our home, stay around after services for fellowship, share prayer requests, pitch in on church work days and try to show that we are putting on the new "man," just like everyone else.

As much as I get indignant about people making assumptions about me, you would think I wouldn't assume anything. But I do, especially with strangers. For example, I once saw a woman sitting by herself in a large, city church I was visiting. I thought she looked poorer than those sitting around her. Perhaps she was shunned by them. I felt sorry for her, thinking that because her husband was probably not a Christian, she came alone to the service. Later, I found out that she was the wife of a well-known pastor on the staff, and he was preaching that night! Maybe I should stick to interpreting paintings.

A note from Patsy: Legally, I can't reproduce the artwork I wrote about. But you can see it and read about it on this webpage. I think you will be surprised.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...