Church: a hospital for sinners?

What is your experience of church?  Is it a place where you feel like you can be your sinful self?  Or rather a place where you have to keep up appearances like Mr and Mrs Jones in the pews next door?  A former seminary friend of mine (name dropping alert), Rev. Leon Brown, recently wrote this piece about his experiences at various churches during his Christian sojourn so far:

On numerous occasions I have been told that the church is like a hospital for the sick. The illness is sin; the remedy is Christ. We, therefore, attend church to receive our diagnosis and to gladly hear and embrace its remedy. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). Over the years, however, through numerous conversations and limited pastoral experience, I have come to realize that the church – the gathered assembly on the Lord’s Day – sometimes appears like a place for those in perfect health. Illness (i.e., sin) is not allowed.

Theologically we know that is inaccurate. That is why in many Presbyterian and Reformed churches we corporately confess our sins. We acknowledge our offense against a holy and righteous God. We know that our lives do not reflect the perfection that God demands. We, therefore, readily admit our brokenness, or do we really?

As a pastor, I have the privilege to interact with people, both inside my church and outside, about some of the harsh realities of how sin affects us. Lust, coveting, broken marriages, hatred, and dishonesty are all the result of acting on the desires of our sinful hearts. To some degree we all suffer from some of these things, but you can hardly tell that on Sunday mornings. Between 10:30am and noon, some people manage to put on the Christian veneer. The outside looks pearly white while the inside is suffering from a cancerous illness – sin.

Is that acceptable? Asked differently, should we put a smile on our faces for a hour and a half on Sunday mornings when things are truly chaotic in the home? No sooner than we depart the church building, we are met by disobedient children and dueling spouses. Our pornography addiction resurfaces; our anger meets us again; we are back in reality.

I wonder if in some of our churches there is no place for grieving, mourning, lamenting, suffering, and acknowledging sin in more places than the corporate confession? While I have not conducted an analysis of every Reformed and Presbyterian Church in the US, I know this to be true from my personal experience and in my conversations with other pastors. Sunday mornings are the time to be on your best behavior. You cannot show weakness; you cannot fail. Lest the corporate confession of sin, there is no place for brokenness. There is an imaginary sign above the entrance of the church that says, “This is the place for those in perfect health.”

It troubles me to know this reality exists. This observation caused me to ask a question: “Why?” Why are things like this? I began to pursue my inquiry. Overwhelmingly, and this is not limited to my congregation, when I asked people why their actions depict their lives are in perfect order when I know things are a bit chaotic, the response I received was, “I don’t want to be judged.” They believed there was no room for reasonable transparency in the church. It was expected that one’s children be in perfect order, spouses on the same page, and singles portrayed as if they struggle very little with contentment.

Though I do not believe this is the cause, I wonder how much Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites contribute to this sad reality (i.e., in all things we must be relatively perfect). Most Facebook posts and Twitter feeds that I have read are largely positive. People gladly boast of their witnessing opportunities, the books they are reading, vacations taken, and family reunions. Most people confess very little of the difficulties through which they are going. I see the same thing in many churches.

This is not to suggest that we must air our dirty laundry to everyone in the church, and the world for that matter on Facebook and Twitter, but a certain level of transparency seems healthy. Rosaria Butterfield, in her book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith, put it this way,

“I think that churches would be places of greater intimacy and growth in Christ if people stopped lying about what we need, what we fear, where we fail, and how we sin” (25).

I could not agree more. I often tell my congregation that is okay to hurt; it is okay to fail; and while it is not okay to sin, it is okay to be transparent about where you sin because there is forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

If there is any merit in my observations, I also wonder how this affects the church’s witness. One of the constant accusations I hear from unbelievers is that the church is full of hypocrites. However we handle that accusation, I wonder if the point behind it is that sometimes people in the church present themselves as perfect. As soon as the Christian veneer is shattered, unbelievers’ image of how Christianity affects one’s life is ruined. They were under the impression that Christianity makes one perfect (not positionally perfect (i.e., righteous) but presently perfect in thought, word, and deed). Therefore, once they realize the untruth to that manifestation of Christianity and that Christians, too, often face the same problems they do, Christians are labeled as hypocrites. In unbelievers’ minds, the mask was removed.

Is there a solution? I am a rookie pastor. I do not have all the answers. I do not think I will have all the answers in the future either. However, I wonder if we need to more fully embrace the doctrine of sanctification? Unlike our justification – a once for all completed act – our sanctification is a process. Sometimes our sanctification may seem to be moving more slowly in our lives, or the lives of others, than we would like; nevertheless, God is at work. He guaranteed it! If we more fully embrace this, perhaps we will more readily understand that the church is like a hospital for the sick. Our illness is sin; Christ is our remedy. We, therefore, do not need to put on the Christian veneer.

We all suffer from the effects of sin. I pray that we, as the body of Christ, can more openly acknowledge our sins, mistakes, and express our sorrow without fear of judgment, without fear of a ruined reputation, without fear of our perfect family image being shattered. It will take time, prayer, a better understanding of grace, forgiveness, and sanctification, and the Spirit’s work. It is possible. I will pray to that end. Will you join me?

Posted February 10, 2014 @ 2:27 PM by Leon Brown

It is our hope and prayer that RCSS be a hospital for wretched sinners, where Christ crucified is truly that balm of everlasting comfort.  So come boldly to God’s throne of grace with us this coming Lord’s Day: come filthy; come failing; come depressed; come anxious; come angry; come hurt; come broken; come doubting; come addicts; come obsessed; come compulsive; come adulterers; come prostitutes; come tax collectors; come diseased; come introverted; come lonely; come divorced; come perverts; come thieves; come gossips; come liars… Come, repent and believe in Jesus – again, or for the first time – and be assured through the ministry of the Word that you stand forgiven and righteous before our heavenly Father.

Forsake lust (Matt. 5)

In Matthew 5:27-30 Jesus calls his disciples to forsake lust for purity as the way of the kingdom of heaven.

““You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

As the One greater than Moses heralding a heavenly kingdom that surpasses the types and shadows of Israel in earthly Canaan, Jesus commands obedience from those who are no longer spiritually impotent under the curse of law.  Rather, Jesus calls forth the new life of chastity from those who are already in a state of blessing and purity by God’s grace alone (Matthew 5:2-12).  Christians pursue righteousness in the power of the Spirit.  Through the Holy Spirit we live out our new identity in Christ as those who have “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24).   Like our justification, our sanctification, our mortification of the flesh is also by faith in Christ alone:

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your* life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.  Put to death therefore what is earthly in you:* sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”
(Colossians 3:1-5 ESV)

For the sermon, click here.