An old professor of mine hated Paul the Apostle. If you read the Epistles, Paul is always correcting someone. It’s almost like listening in on a mother scolding her children. My professor liked the tranquil, albeit edgy and revolutionary, teaching of Jesus, but all this fighting and scolding in the epistles–he hated it.
In the gospels, everything is going pretty well, but that’s because God himself was walking with us. Jesus and his small band of disciples was the church. Jesus always knew what to say to his critics. He knew how to balance true teaching with genuine love, and he always did the right thing. He was the central figure of the church until he ascended. Of course, Jesus is still the central figure of the church–I just mean that he’s not physically here anymore. He doesn’t walk around and say “I agree with you, and I disagree with you.” He left us with the message we needed, and now we choose rightly by reading his Word and praying. The problem is that we don’t always come to the right conclusions.
After Jesus ascended into heaven, church got messy. By design, the church welcomes sinful, fallen people into its fold. It’s full of searching people, saved people, and probably a few sinister people. Of course, Christians still sin. When we die and are taken to heaven, God will perfect us. But for now, we’re still on earth, and now that Jesus is no longer physically incarnate in our church, what did you expect would happen?
This, I think, is why Paul is always scolding churches in his letters. Humans are fallible, and we do damaging things to each other. Paul was doing his best to maintain order, but this is battle. The church is doing battle against the ideas and the values of the world. Through the church, God is advancing his kingdom. Through the church, God is offering grace to the world. God’s love and grace are present, and God is changing people’s broken lives, but it shouldn’t surprise us that those same broken people sometimes make a terrible mess of things.
The crusades are the classic, heartbreaking example of this, and if you don’t think “the church” is messing up today, then visit Westboro Baptist Church’s www.godhatesfags.com (but prepare to be saddened and infuriated). God doesn’t hate anyone–he loves the world. Racism is another example of people in the church–the white church–messing something up. But listen to Dr. King’s sermons. When one church is doing something wrong, you can usually find another church doing something right.
Despite our brokenness, God is working good through the church. The unseemly things done by people in the church are from sinful, fallen men, not from God. I’ve given some extreme examples, but all of us are fallen. I’ve certainly done things that misrepresent God’s love and mercy, and I imagine that Paul might write a very stern epistle to the American church today.
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
“And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the prophets.'”