There’s an age-old question that is yet to be answered: which came first, the chicken or the egg? The same type of question can also be asked of hurting pastors and churches. Which came first? Did the pastor hurt the church, causing it to be hurtful in return? Or was it the other way around? I don’t think we can ever know. Let’s face it. The delicate balance between godly leadership and a healthy membership is fragile. There’s a ugly reality about all of us that we just can’t get around: we are all sinners! Redeemed sinners, we may be; but sinners, nonetheless. It doesn’t matter how sincere our motives may be, how deep our devotion may be, or our strong our convictions may be. At our best, we are all finite, tainted, and still growing (hopefully). Consequently, our thoughts, words, actions, motives, and reactions will inevitably fall short of the perfect standard of Christlikeness many times.
Now, don’t get me wrong. These rambling thoughts about church life are not meant to excuse sinful attitudes or behavior in the church. I’m just asserting an important fact: the church is made up of people. The church is not a physical building. It’s not the religious rituals that take place in that building. And it’s not the organizational functions that facilitate the missional work of the church. The church is people! We are redeemed people who are exist to bring glory to our Redeemer as we are in the process of becoming more like him. And, oddly enough, this growing process involves all kinds of sinful things that do not bring glory to the Redeemer. It’s a seemingly contradictory reality. It’s been well said that the church of Jesus Christ is much like Noah’s ark: if it were not for the destruction on the outside, you would be able to stand the stench on the inside. That’s the bottom line. Church stinks sometimes.
I have to admit here that this post is kind of taking on a life of its own. I had a clear point to make when I started, I think. But it seems to have gotten lost somewhere along the way (I’ll put it on a milk carton later. And maybe someone will find my lost point for me.). There are so many thoughts going through my mind right now. And they’re all fighting for my attention. Honestly, I do not and cannot write about the ways pastors and churches hurt one another dispassionately. I think abnd talk about this subject from personal experience, not just from theoretical speculation. I’ve been on both sidelines, worn both uniforms, and have played for both teams. And my “expert testimony” is that there are really two things that overcome the sinful things that happen in churches between leaders and members, or among members themselves. The first is very simple, biblical, and effective: forgiveness. In Luke 6:37-38, Jesus instructs, “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”
Churches can be strong, healthy, and growing – in spite of the individual sins of the members and leaders or the collective sins of the congregation – if the church would major in Christ-centered forgiveness. Forgiveness obeys the Lord’s charge to the church, leads to personal growth, strengthens the bonds of unity, gets the attention of this cut-throat world, and brings honor to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. But when forgiveness doesn’t truly take place (“from your heart,” as Jesus would say in Matthew 18:35), growth is stunted, unity is broken, and Christ is dishonored. We can dress it up any way we want to. But the naked truth is that this is why so many church members pout, fight, and/or leave. And it’s why so many pastors, who really ought to know better, join the members in pouting, fighting, or leaving. Or, as happens in most instances, they get put out! There are the only two options for the sinful realities of church life: forgive or fight. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which came first, hurt(ing) pastors or hurt(ing) churches. The issue is not which came first; it’s what should come next. May the Lord help more of us choose forgiveness.