Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
Recently someone commented on “The Lonely Life of a Believer” addressing a problem I had conveniently glossed over when writing said post, but should be discussed. I shall do that now. The church is supposed to be a holy place. After all, it is referred to as the body of Christ, and things don’t get much holier than Jesus. And on paper, the church even seems like a pretty awesome concept. We’re given an example of what church should look like by the very first church in Acts 2:42-46,
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.
Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
It sounds awesome, and church should be awesome. However, this is often not the case. Most Christians have little trouble finding hypocrites, two-facers, backstabbers, back-talkers, fair weather friends and any other negative kind of person in their church. What causes this? What can we do about it? The Bible has some answers for us as to what a believer is to do when their church gets them down.
Before diving into how do deal with an unsatisfactory church environment, we should first look at what causes a church to not be as ideal as the Bible presents it. Remember who inhabits the church. Most members are either reforming sinners (that is to say, works in progress) or they are multigenerational Christians. Jesus was once questioned about his growing posse of reforming sinners, so we read in Mark 2:17, “On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” So just by nature, when you enter the doors of church, you’ll probably be meeting with a bunch of people who have baggage and bad habits that are being purified out over their remaining time on earth. The other group of people is multigenerational Christians who likely haven’t felt the amazing saving grace that their parents may have felt since they grew up in the church and have probably made fewer mistakes in life. Jesus says of the woman who washed his feet, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven- for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). As a generality, multi-generational Christians are a bit harder to get along with for a hardcore (usually 1st generation) Christian because they’re worldlier in the way they act. We all fall into one of these categories (no matter how zealous we may be). This is why the Bible tells us, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). Everyone at church is still in the process of being formed into Christ’s image; and from my experience, not a one person has yet to reach our Savior’s level yet. So we need to not be too judgmental of our brothers and sisters (even if they seem like terrible people), for Paul tells us,
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things (Romans 2:1)
Instead we need to be forgiving of our brothers and sisters, in all circumstances. Peter once asked Jesus about this exact problem (that of problematic brothers). We read,
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22).
That’s a whole lot of forgiveness. Unfortunately, as much as it kind of sucks, as Christians we’re called to forgive even bad Christians (who can actually hurt us more than the world can).
Now, forgiveness and understanding are all well and good, but what can a Christian who is dealing with not-so-good Christians do in order to enact change in their church so that this sort of stuff is no longer a problem? First of all, Jesus tells us, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over” (Matthew 18:15). If someone is causing you trouble, don’t just take it. Talk to them about it, but with a forgiving spirit. Also, when confronting someone who is sinning against you, don’t bring your emotions into it (hard, I know), but instead think before approaching him/her about what needs to be addressed and the most polite manner with which to do so (likely sprinkled with some Bible references to back up your claim). Just because they’re being a dick Christian is no reason for you to come off as a rude Christian. For Paul tells us,
Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful (2 Timothy 2:23-24).
Part of our growth as a Christian is learning to take our emotions out of the equation and letting the Holy Spirit take over. Recently I’ve had moments of being upset with a fellow Christian until I stepped back and realized that their vision was different from mine, so I just addressed the problem as opposed to the person’s character with great results. One of the awesome things about the fellowship of the church is that everyone has a common ground in Christ and the Word of God. So by grounding your arguments in Scripture, it should be easier for both sides to come to an agreement on an issue.
What if the whole atmosphere is not good? That is to say, what if you are up against a group of no-good Christians, or maybe just having trouble breaking into the cliques that form so easily? The first thing you might want to do is to check out another service. Most churches offer at least two (and usually with different formats), it could be that you might actually fit in better with one of the other service groups than your current one. However, if that doesn’t work, pray and seek out new friends. Acts 18:9-10 contains a great promise from God,
One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.”
Obviously, a Christian dealing with issues at church is a different situation from Paul’s; however, the idea is still true for everyone: “Don’t give up; I have many people in this city.” God has people everywhere, and sometimes it is just a matter of finding them. I’ll give you an example of this via a true story. There was an older couple in my church as a child who were very dear to me. Through varied means, their close friends had died, moved, left church, or become hard-hearted as they aged. And it came to pass that this older couple, despite being members of this church for somewhere around 40 or more years now did not have very many friends left. So, they prayed for some new friends to come to church (as they were growing sick of fair-weather friends and two-faced folk). Sure enough, one Sunday, during the break between services, they saw another old couple they’d never seen before looking around but not talking to anyone. The longtime member couple approached the new couple and started talking. Apparently they had been there for a couple Sundays and until that point, literally nobody had talked to them (not even an introduction or anything). The two couples became great friends, and the wife of the new couple turned out to be very outspoken and would confront some of the not-so-good members of the church which helped keep the stagnating people on their toes. The new couple also were amazing members of the church and did quite a bit of volunteer work as well. Between those two couples and a younger couple that had always been kind, they were able to change the whole atmosphere of the church back to where it should have been in the first place. So pray and keep your eyes peeled for a great chance to imprint kindness on someone else. You don’t have to be particularly social, just nice. God will provide for those who ask him.
If you’ve tried all of this stuff already and things still aren’t working, then thank God for the Bible, TV, and internet. While you’re waiting for God to provide you with some good people to fellowship with, use your time in isolation to grow closer to your best friend: Jesus. Read your Bible every day and get to know the people in there, I bet that there is a Biblical writer or character that you can closely identify with. It’s not weird to hang out with someone from the Bible from time to time (or is it?). I’d also recommend that you find a few televangelists (or preachers who are posting their sermons online) that you trust and watch sermons. I mean, your church likely doesn’t offer services every day, but the internet has a wealth of sermons ready any time. In fact, during a period of isolation, I discovered that if I prayed before a sermon on a situation that was weighing on my heart, more often than not, the sermon would address that very thing. It helped me to realize God’s total control of everything, even when I’d watch a sermon from ten years ago in order to match it up perfectly to my needs. Watching as God seemingly molded the sermons I watch to my mood and issues (which he still does) actually gave my faith and my relationship with the Lord a HUGE level up. Isolation can be a good thing, and the Lord may use it to grow his relationship with you. However, the Lord won’t keep a person alone indefinitely; people are not meant to be hermits. God made us social creatures and Jesus told us to take the Gospel to the whole world.
As a final word on this topic I’d like to say to you, brothers and sisters don’t give up. A church can get into pretty bad times and really that’s when you’re needed the most. Don’t let others ruin your experience at church or leave a bad taste in your mouth. If they’re wronging you, to heaven with them; just don’t associate with those people, but don’t take it out on the church itself. Instead,
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage- and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:23-25).
Rock on God!