In his inimitable, colorful way, Jesus famously pointed out the problem of everyone’s basic hypocrisy: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matt 7:3-5). We are all much quicker to spot problems with others than we are to perceive problems in ourselves. This has a particularly virulent acute phase in the young (and in “cage-stage” Calvinists), but rest assured, it is a chronic condition.
One place this is seen is in criticisms of the church. We often encounter criticisms borne of personal grievance, such as “the church is full of hypocrites” (I’ll stipulate that in light of the preceding paragraph), or Rob Bell’s comment that churches can be “toxic, black holes of despair.” Often these are given as reasons the critic has left the church, along with an element of rhetorical bluster designed to convey disgust and warn the listener that the critic isn’t really open to discussing the issue. While I think it is important for Christians to listen to these criticisms, I also think it is important to recognize that such criticisms often involve a high level of plank-ignoring, speck-searching tendencies.
But even without the rancor, many people express dissatisfaction with the church. Everyone seems to be looking for the perfect “New Testament church.” A constant temptation in reform movements is to seek to “recover” or “restore” a supposed pristine church for our time, and the legacy of such movements is the persistent cultural ideal of the model church. But that’s the problem–it is only an ideal. It has never existed. I often ask people what New Testament church they want to be like: the church at Corinth? at Galatia? at Laodicea? (Yes, I’m being cheeky!) But when people insist that they want to be like the first church in Jerusalem, in Acts 2, I point out that even that church only lasted two chapters. By chapter 5 (mere weeks after Pentecost) we have deceitful worship in the church (Ananias and Sapphira), and in chapter 6 there is evidence of ethnic pride and prejudice, since the Hellenistic widows were being overlooked by the Palestinian Jewish Christians. And no sooner is the first missionary journey undertaken by Paul and Barnabas than even more serious ethnic pride issues arise that challenge the very core of the gospel, as some Jewish believers sought to make law-keeping essential to Christian faith (Acts 15).
Where you have people, you have problems. Where you have imperfect people, you have many problems. The perfect church is not an historical achievement. It will come when the people of God are all glorified and conformed to the image of Christ. Until then, we all will fall short of the glory of God, and so will the church. There is a charming story told of G. K. Chesterton that makes the point well. The Times of London asked several prominent authors to comment on the question, “what’s wrong with the world?” Chesterton is supposed to have written back,
G. K. Chesterton
We should all likewise answer the question of what’s wrong with the church, “I am.” I am a flawed, imperfect, selfish person, whose own fallen tendencies are only reinforced by an individualistic and consumeristic culture to seek a church that gives me what I want and panders to my desires and proclivities. Assuming for a moment that there exists a church full of perfect people and led by perfect leaders, when I find and join that church I will destroy it. It’s not their specks, it’s my plank (or planks). And when we realize that we all have our own planks, we quickly come to see that the ideal church does not and cannot exist.
That’s why the epistles (which were written to churches) are full of exhortations to forgive one another, bear with one another, love one another. Paul says to put aside malice and anger and slander (Col 3:5-17)–which implies that these are present realities. Christians are to be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:3), which means that it requires maintenance. We are to strive toward the holiness to which we are called, but it doesn’t become a permanent reality until the eternal state when sin is no more.
But this is not cause for despair. It is a serious mistake to think that an imperfect church means that God’s grace is not present there. Grace and redemption are for imperfect people, and as we are all very imperfect, we should not be surprised that the grace of God is still needed to transform many of us. Because of our pietistic and restorationist heritage, evangelicalism has trouble with living in the tension of being “at the same time justified and sinners,” to use Luther’s phrase. This can lead to much disillusionment. It also blinds us to our own need for grace. The church is not a place with a perfect environment, nor it is filled with perfect people, but it is a place in which we, plank-bearers all, celebrate the grace we have received in Christ. And as those who have received forgiveness, we need to be forgiving, and maybe focus a bit more on removing our own planks than on complaining about others’ specks. And even when we don’t do so well at that, there’s grace for that, too.