I have spent my adult life serving the Lord through the organized church. That’s why this post brings me grief. I am certainly not against the church as Jesus led in the beginning. In the beginning, the church was the community of grace. It was where people could come from all kinds of backgrounds and find their unity in Jesus. Slaves and masters, rich and poor, moral and immoral—all came because of Jesus. And all were accepted in the same way.
Whoa! Really? Well, maybe at first, the very first. By the time James wrote his letter to the church, the people were already segregating themselves according to social status. That was about AD 49, according to many scholars who believe that James is the earliest of the letters. Now, let’s see: if we say that Pentecost happened in AD 30 (that’s about the earliest date suggested), then it took just 19 years for the “community of grace” to become corrupted by fleshly perspectives.
But does that really surprise us? Wouldn’t we expect that the problems began much earlier than that? In fact, in Acts 6, just a couple of years after Pentecost at most, there is a division between the Hebrew-speaking Jews and the Greek-speaking Jews. Divisions between the people of God are nothing new.
It is in the nature of an organization to establish hierarchies, traditions, and standards. Who gets to lead? Who gets to participate? Who fits and who does not? These are questions organizations almost always ask. So the manipulations and values of the flesh often prevail. Grace is pushed aside.
When I suggest that the church is an enemy of grace, I don’t believe that it has to be that way. That’s just the way things seem to happen most of the time. Old battles have established boundaries of doctrine and style, perhaps even race or nationality. It is difficult to welcome those who don’t quite fit.
So when you come with your new joy and enthusiasm because of the message of grace, you shouldn’t be surprised that the church seems a little offended. After all, the church has been charged with telling the Good News and has decided what that “good news” entails. Baptism, church membership, service, attendance at worship, certain lifestyle values, tithing, receiving communion—these things may be added because of history and tradition; but the church still considers itself to have the Good News as the core of its message. When you suggest that these things mean little or nothing to the true message of God’s grace, the church can become defensive.
The trodden path where grace cannot take root is found in many organizations. The church, of course, but also the mission organization or the homeschool group or the men’s fellowship. Wherever the organization itself is of more importance than the One who is supposed to lead it, grace will not be very welcome.
Now, please understand. I continue to serve God through the church and I expect to do so until I die. Almost all of my friends have been church folks. We have been greatly loved in the church. I believe in associating with the people of the church. And I believe in calling the church back to the pure and simple message of grace.
Just don’t expect to find the grace message broadly embraced by the church or by any other organization. It is too personal, too radical; no matter how true it is.