I read a troubling newspaper article on the internet today. It was one of the “most read” items and it spoke of a Christian writer who recently announced her departure from the church. The report included a summary of what disturbed her and what, for many of us, is tragically obvious:
“But judging by the behavior of most Christians, they’ve become secularists. And the sea of hypocrisy between Christian beliefs and actions is driving Americans away from the institutional church in record numbers.”
The bottom line of the article is that too many professing Christians today—despite Christ’s prayer in John 17—are both “in the world” and “of the world.” The distinction between followers of Christ and those who don’t know Christ is blurred to the point of being lost.
Let me take up one element of this tragedy: the relationship between Christ and the church. The church, we must remember, is not a self-defined social club, or a branded set of religious consumers (like “Mac users” are among computer aficionados), or a group of theological devotees who mainly guard a creedal gospel.
The church is, instead, the extended life of Christ: his body. Christ is alive in us and among us as those who have union with him—those who are “in Christ” and who have Christ in us as the proof of present life and future glory. This union is accomplished by the Spirit who joins our spirits so we are “members of Christ” and “joined to the Lord” in a marital unity—made to be “one spirit with him” as “temples of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God” (citing elements of 1 Corinthians 6:12-20). With that unity comes a devotion to the Truth Christ offers us and a confidence to call God “Daddy”.
1 Corinthians 6 was Paul’s warning against a corrupt spirituality. This was a problem then and it’s also a problem today. An ancient impulse to corruption was captured in the mantra being expressed by the immature believers in Corinth: “All things are lawful for me” (6:12) which meant, in effect, that Christ’s gracious work on the cross covers all our sins, so we’re now free to sin with impunity.
As Paul would say, “God forbid!” All of us who really have the life and love of Christ poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit will be increasingly like Christ and, with our new affective DNA, will turn from our former ways of life. A new love produces new values and new behaviors. Which explains why, in nearly the same locale (in 5:13), Paul—a great promoter of free grace—still set out a stark moral demand: “Purge the evil person from among you!”
Yet we often find the profound warning by Jesus against spiritual bullies to be misapplied as if it dismisses Paul’s point: “Don’t judge lest you be judged”. It then has been turned into a mantra that allows churches to avoid confronting sin. But in biblical terms they then become anti-Christ. That is, the church, by ignoring her own immorality no longer reveals Christ as he really is. And with that we find two opposed versions of faith: one devoted to pleasing Christ, and another “gracious” church that winks at widespread promiscuity, accepts multiplied divorces and remarriages, enjoys debased entertainments, silently accepts abortions-for-convenience, freely pursues selfish materialism, replaces compassionate relations with clannish individualism—and more—in ways no different than we find among those who either ignore or despise Christ. In fact, as the cited news article rightly points out, non-believers often display values more refined than are seen in many churches.
It’s time, then, to join Paul and say “God forbid!” Let the church shrink as needed when she confronts unrepentant sin; until she once again resembles Christ who says both “you are forgiven” and “go and sin no more”. Then his beauty in the church will attract the poor, the shamed, the debased; and sinners will be supported as they enter into a new life of love and purity as a bride washed in the water of the Word. As we grow in his love let’s also grow in his image.