We left our church over a year ago, and we have a new church home we love, but I still often find myself heartbroken over the old one. I wanted to fix the church. I loved those people, I think they genuinely loved God and others, but we had to leave because they were missing three things—transparency, freedom, and grace. Without those, you can have a very nice religion, be pious and do good. But you will always have the danger of hypocrisy, legalism, and destruction, and you will never have the gospel of Christ.
A church has to be honest about who they are. If you’re legalistic, OK: be legalistic. If, bottom line, a church holds that there are a set of inviolable rules, and the ultimate expectation is that you will agree with their definition of the rules and follow all of their rules, then put the rules on your website.
We saw this over and over again when we were church shopping last year, and I think it comes from a sincere place. Everyone knows Christian faith is not supposed to be about introducing division over trivial matters, and so they really want to be their best selves and put the important tenants of the faith out there as who they are. The danger, though, is when it crosses over from “aspiring toward our best nature” into “appearing as something we’re not”, which is very near to the type of hypocrisy that Christ condemned in the most scathing possible terms.
Better to just own our prejudices and be forthcoming about the ways we know we’re missing the mark.
I’ve written before about Christian freedom, which means freedom from Hebrew law. Not just parts of Hebrew law, scripture doesn’t support that. It’s all or nothing. And yet, our modern American Church often preaches the need for certain people to obey certain parts of the law, while we ourselves enjoy Christian freedom from those other parts of Hebrew law that would have affected us. This, again, Christ unequivocally condemned.
Legalism and freedom are opposites. If we must live under some law, we must live under all of it. I think most of us would prefer freedom. And if we assert that obeying law is essential to pleasing God, then we throw in our lot with the Pharisees rather than with Christ.
And yet in all of this— important though transparency and freedom are— it is the factual absence of grace that is the death knell of a church. Oh, churches know the word “grace”. Thousands of them even name themselves after it. But in today’s Church, many of us have lost the real import of the word.
How often have we heard it preached that grace means second chances? The notion that no one is too far gone? That we always have room for the return of a sinner who repents? Certainly it’s easy to imagine the opposite world, in which a one-time sinner is never welcomed back, however much they amend their ways. So the principle of second chances is real and good and correct.
But it’s not the same as grace.
Because if grace is only second chances, then Christ didn’t accomplish anything and notion of a “Christian grace” is meaningless. See, they had second chances already. Even the Pharisees had them. Christ’s words: “You teachers of the law and Pharisees… you travel over land and sea to win a single convert…” Who were those converts going to be, if not people who weren’t Pharisees already? “Just clean up your act, make some changes, start living like us…” That is the Pharisee notion of second chances: acceptance because you deserve it now. What Christ sacrificed to buy us is something different: acceptance in the knowledge that none of us “deserves it”.
This kind of grace only has one restriction:
- Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?
- This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.
- Do not judge, or you too will be judged.
- With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
Simple as that. Grace means, a way is open to God in spite of all shortcomings—ours, theirs, anyone’s— if we will only offer that chance to others too, as if our lives depended on it. Cleaning up your act is great, but it has nothing to do with grace. In tying the two together, many of today’s churches set a bushel basket over the true light of God’s transforming redemption, tying up burdens and placing obstacles, in a way that destroys others and themselves.
If I had to choose just one way to fix the Church today, it would be that.