Remember the song “Lean on me”? When you’re not strong? I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on.
That’s what Christian community is supposed to be like.
We weren’t made to go through life by ourselves, to bear all our burdens by ourselves, to figure things out by ourselves. We were made for relationship, and to be in community so that we can help, and so that we can be helped.
I’m talking about boundaries a lot this December, as we gear up for Christmas and often deal with family drama and other people’s expectations–and even our own. How do you figure out what’s your responsibility, and what’s really someone else’s?
On this blog I give a lot of advice on how to think through problems, and how to address issues in your marriage that are damaging to the relationship and to the person.
However, that hard work can’t be done in isolation.
That’s why often my main piece of advice, when it all comes down to it, is to get a group of people around you to support you, mentor you, and help you.
If your husband is watching porn, for instance, and won’t admit how bad it is or won’t get filters on the computer or accountability, you need other men you can trust to come alongside him and say, “no more”. If your husband won’t get a job, and plays video games all day, you need a group of people around you to come alongside him and say, “If you don’t start working, we’re going to support a separation, because the family needs to be financially stable.”
But maybe it’s not even a crisis. Maybe it’s just regular life and getting adjusted to marriage. That’s where you need people in healthy marriages hanging out with you, encouraging you, and giving a positive model of what marriage is supposed to be.
The struggle I have as a marriage blogger is that I know that this one piece of pivotal advice–get a group of people around you to help you–actually won’t work for many of you, because you aren’t in Christian community.
I have heard from so many who have gone to pastors to talk about their husband’s porn use, only to be told that they just need to have sex more. I have heard women who are emotionally abused go to pastors, only to be told that they need to understand their husband’s love language, or work at romancing him more. And so on and so on.
This week, I was so saddened by the report that was published about sexual abuse in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Churches. A scandal of proportions similar to the Catholic sexual abuse scandal, the report originally published in the Forth Worth Star Telegram found 400 allegations of abuse across 200 different institutions.
It’s a hard way to end the year, especially as it began with the Andy Savage scandal, where a Tennessee megapastor was revealed to have abused his position as youth pastor 20 years ago to coerce oral sex from a 17-year-old. And then the stories just kept happening. Sexual abuse scandals in the Southern Baptist Convention. The leader of a large network of churches suing bloggers (and their wives!) for reporting on financial and spiritual abuse within the church network. And it keeps happening.
This is depressing. Many churches are indeed unsafe places and do not build good marriages. But if you’re in a church like that, please, please know that not all churches are like that.
Healthy churches exist.
I wrote earlier this year about being in a legalistic church, and having a legalistic view of marriage, and how both of these things often work against marriage health. I want to expand a bit on what church health looks like today, because I think that when you’re in the middle of an unhealthy church situation, you often don’t feel like you have a choice. And we’re told that because we’re in community, we can’t just leave. We have to push through and make it better.
Sometimes that’s true. But I don’t think it is always true. Just because a church says that it preaches the gospel does not mean that that church is actually the body of Christ. We tend to believe that if someone can recite all the right verses and believe the right doctrine that they are Christian, and therefore they are part of the body of Christ. Jesus never said that. Instead, Jesus said things like this:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23)
He also said:
“If you love me, keep my commands. (John 14:15)
And then there’s this:
Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:49-50)
You see, it’s not about what you believe. It’s about actually following what God wants. It’s even more explicit here:
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless[d]?
If you are in a church that believes all the “right” things about salvation, but does not practice love and does not work to bear each other’s burdens, then you’re not really in Christian community.
I think we have this tendency to believe that all churches are good, and we just need to stick it out. But Jesus was so clear that yes, the church would grow–but within that church would be evil elements. Here’s the parable of the wheat and the weeds:
Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
“‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
He told other parables about how the kingdom of God was like a mustard seed, that grew into a really tall tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches. We know that in other parables (like the parable of the sower) birds represented the devil, or those who work to destroy the work of God. So in the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus is really saying that the church is going to grow, but those who want to destroy it will dig right in there, too.
It’s okay to call a spade a spade, and to recognize when a church may be working against the will of God
At the same time, there are very healthy churches out there. They just may look different from the things we often associate with a good church.
When we look for a “good” church, what do we normally look at? We want a large church that’s thriving. We want great preaching, amazing music, great youth groups. And that’s all good. But can I tell you about the best church experience my daughter Rebecca ever had?
In her first two years of university she attended a church plant in downtown Ottawa. It only had 40 people. They met in a community centre. The acoustics were awful, and the music was merely okay (largely because of the lousy acoustics). But what they had in spades was community. It was inter-generational, and the older people who were there came specifically to really care for the students and others who attended. When Rebecca started dating Connor, other men came alongside him to mentor him (he was a new Christian). When they got engaged, Rebecca’s mentor was Debbie, a woman my age who drove her to music practice, gave advice, and asked her how she was doing. Grandmotherly Lynne also was always there for her.
Right now my daughter Katie is attending a church in a backwater town up north in the middle of nowhere nearby the military base where my son-in-law David is posted. It’s not overly large; the music isn’t always great; the “extras” are almost non-existent. But they have great community. We were talking last night as to why that is, and we decided it hinged on two words: authenticity and humility. From the pastor on down, those are two of the big values of this church. People are authentic, and they are vulnerable, which means you can go to them with problems, you can talk to them if you think something may be a bit off base, you can ask for help. That’s what matters. That’s what makes community.
Often we judge what church to go to based on the quality of the sermons, and I think that’s a huge mistake.
If you want great teaching, there are so many podcasts out there now. Just pick a good one and listen in every week. What you can’t get on the internet is community.
Sometimes when you are in a very large church it can seem like that IS Christianity. You’re often taught that everything outside of the church is off base and wrong. So it can feel like if you leave the church, you’re leaving Jesus. The opposite may be true.
Sometimes when you leave that church, you find Jesus.
I see so many people leaving churches altogether after a bad experience, and that makes me so sad. If you had a bad experience at a church, chances are that church wasn’t really functioning as the body of Christ. So don’t reject Jesus because the church wasn’t good. Find a real expression of Jesus–one that’s about authenticity and humility, because trust me–it’s out there.
It’s not even about denomination necessarily, either. We had all our babies when we were living in downtown Toronto. We attended Little Trinity Anglican church there where almost no one had grown up Anglican. It was just an awesome church, and still likely my favourite church of any I’ve ever attended. As a family, we believe in adult baptism. So when our girls were born, we asked for them to be dedicated rather than baptized. And you know what? They did it, even though they practice infant baptism, because they cared about us. We were the focus.
Interestingly, when our son was in the hospital and it was clear he wouldn’t make it, we actually asked the minister to baptize him. He came to the hospital and he did, and it was a lovely service. But they just cared about us where we were at. When our son died, the church really was there for us. They had a “Stephen” ministry program, where people had been trained not to counsel others, but just to listen and pray and walk through difficult times. And I’ll always remember Pat, who sat with me and cried with me as I tried to process Christopher’s death.
Our minister, Duke Vipperman, came to the hospital at 3 in the morning the night that Christopher passed away, even though Toronto is a very big city and he lived in a different part of it. It was community.
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My biggest prayer for all of you who read this blog, beyond good marriages and good sex lives and all of the stuff I normally talk about, is a simple one: May you find true Christian community, and may you then be a part of growing it.
When we do that, a lot of these other things become so much easier.
When I saw that report on Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches, my heart sank. It’s been a hard year for churches. But let’s not end the year on that note. Let’s instead get back to the heart of God, and know that God is simply shaking the church right now so that abusive power structures are brought into the light so they can be disposed of. That’s messy, but it’s okay. As those things are dealt with, the real body of Christ will start to shine.
And I’d encourage all of you to search for it. To create it and be part of it. And then to help it to spread.
What do you think? Have you ever had to leave an unhealthy church? What happened? Let’s talk in the comments!
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