It’s easy to see why problems with the Church turn people off the Christian faith. The evangelical wing of the church is currently in the spotlight due to the Ravi Zacharias and Jonathan Fletcher scandals, but no part of the church is immune.
These three examples are all high profile. But across the world local communities are affected by the appalling behaviour of less-well known pastors, priests and other leaders.
It is one reason why many feel disillusioned with the church. As Eugene Peterson wrote:
‘Many Christians find church to be the most difficult aspect of being a Christian.’
These problems illustrate the fractured and fragile reality of being human. The church is made up of ordinary, imperfect people. Everyone is chipped and cracked, irrespective of gifting, seniority or reputation.
But people’s vulnerability to wrong-doing increases when they allow themselves to put on pedestals and perceived as spiritual superheroes.
Profile inflates ego. Pride corrodes character. And power corrupts.
And the issues go well beyond the realm of the individual. Corrupted egos shape institutions and cultures which conceal poor behaviour and maintain power.
The church is at its best when it is honest, humble and self-aware about these realities. Too often, it shows the opposite characteristics.
The Church included
On the Great Dome of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, right at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church, this verse from Matthew 16:18 is inscribed in huge letters:
‘…you are Peter and on this rock, I will build my church’
Its a key basis for the ‘apostolic authority’ of the Papacy which Catholics believe runs directly from Peter through to the current-day Pope.
But Matthew’s gospel makes clear, whilst Peter is the first person to confess Jesus as Christ, he is also the first to reject the way that Christ must go – the way of the cross. After giving Peter such authority, a few verses later, Jesus rebukes him:
‘Get behind me Satan.’
As Lesslie Newbigin puts it:
‘Would that Michelangelo’s great dome at St Peter’s had been designed to make room for both of those texts, for one without the other can only deceive!’
The church is established and commissioned by Jesus. But as the Bible makes clear, and church history bears out, it is also a broken and sinful community.
But this brokenness points to the church’s greatest strength. Because the validity of the church lies in one thing: how it shares the liberation, wholeness and forgiveness offered by Jesus.
The church messes up, get things wrong, and is weak and inconsistent. But we point to one who isn’t. We are not the ones who can save people but we believe in One who can.
Holy Week is the best time of year to reflect on this because the events which lead to Jesus’ death vividly show the contrast between Jesus and his disciples:
- Jesus teaches what he must do; his disciples consistently misunderstand.
- His disciples squabble about status; Jesus washes their feet.
- Jesus prays and commits himself; his disciples fall asleep.
- Jesus shares his sorrow; his disciples are full of bravado.
- His disciples lash out in retaliation; Jesus heals and forgives.
- Jesus stands firm in the face of death; his disciples run away in fear.
In contrast to the 12 disciples, it is the women who remain with Jesus when he crucified. Later these women are the first witnesses of the resurrection, and share the news with disbelieving disciples.
It is remarkable how consistently the Bible reveals the weaknesses of the main characters who would go on to build the church.
Divine and dusty
The Church has a unique job that no one else can do: to share the life and message of Jesus. But it is made up of broken and sinful people. It will always a mix of the divine and the dusty.
This is why, as a community, we gather around the meal that Jesus gave us. We need to confess the things we do wrong, to receive his forgiveness and re-commit ourselves to the way of Jesus. We bring our dusty and damaged selves to Jesus and he renews and restores us.
Jesus is the very opposite of coercive, manipulative or abusive. His self-sacrificial love shows us all the path to new life and true hope. The divine can transform the dusty.