“and this is why so many people reject the church . . .”
How often have you read this in the last year? In the last month? In the last week? It’s a premise for a wide variety of ideas about the Church, a repeated refrain that has almost become a cliche. It goes something like this. The church has a bad public image because it is too narrow-minded, too political, too legalistic, too patriarcal, and too a lot of bad things. And there seems to be research to bolster these arguments. Seems every day, some organization is releasing a poll that shows the Church is out of touch and must change. It can be dizzying, actually because if you actually followed every new conflicting prescription, you’d be spinning in circles. Sometimes I imagine how the apostles managed without all that research to help them out.
Now, don’t get me wrong. We need to be wary of our standing before people (Colossians 4:5), we must adorn the gospel well (Titus 2:10; 1Peter 3:3-4), we must strive, as Paul to be “all things to all men.(1 Corinthians 9:19-23)” (Though, let’s be honest, this has been stretched to defend some pretty crazy church ideas.). It’s important that we conduct ourselves in a way that demonstrates the attractiveness of our faith.
However, I think the Church is a little obsessed with its image. I think it’s convenient for us to beat up on ourselves. It’s fashionable to put out a passive-aggressive tweet or Facebook post that hates on some hypocrisy in the larger Church.
The truth is that while the church is often clumsy, sinful, and sometimes irrelevant, we are God’s called-out body. We are His Bride. Furthermore, we have to reconcile ourselves to the idea that the radical discipleship Jesus calls us to is against the ethos of the world. In fact, we are told many, many times in the New Testament that if we follow Jesus, we will not be liked by the world.
Consider these words spoken by Jesus himself:
and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. Matthew 10:22 (ESV)
A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household. Matthew 10:24-25 (ESV)
How’s that for branding? Jesus said that if we truly lived out calling as disciples, it wouldn’t result in the world liking us more, but in them hating us more. In fact, the Scriptures tell us if the world likes us too much, it should call into question our Christian commitment:
You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. James 4:4 (ESV)
This is why I question our obsession over our reputation or opinion in the larger culture. The Bible says that the more try to be liked, the farther we move from friendship with God. Now to be sure, sometimes Christians are disliked, not for their Christian witness, but because they are jerks. They don’t radiate with the love of Christ. But quite often, Christians are disliked . . . because they are Christians. So we can change our church styles, we can do more works in the community, we can even call ourselves “Christ followers” (all good things to do), and yet, still, the world will hate us. Why? Because as Romans 8:7 says, the unredeemed mind is “hostile to God.” 1 Corinthians 2:14 says that the carnal or fleshly mind “cannot discern” the things of God.
This explains media bias against Christians. This explains why your neighbor thinks you are plum crazy for going to church. This explains why our belief that Jesus is the only way really hacks people off.
So how should this inform our faith? First, we shouldn’t begin our ministry with the premise of “how can I get them to like me more?” Yes, we should build bridges and relationships for gospel advance. Yes, we should love our enemies. Yes, we should get our hands and feet dirty in service of the needy.
But not so people like us. Let’s do this because our Lord calls us to. Otherwise, beginning with the premise of “I have to repair the Christian brand,” leads us down a slippery slope of doctrinal impurity. We are tempted to jettison hard truths about God, especially those that are unpalatable in this age. In a sense, we have made the unredeemed person, at enmity with God, head of our theology department, chair of our worship team, and architect of our ministry model.
Secondly, we should disabuse ourselves of the mythical “early church” model. I think the book of Acts gives important and powerful lessons for today’s church. I believe we’d do well to “go back” to some of the fervent prayer and radical discipleship these people practiced. However, let’s remember that these folks were not well-loved by the larger culture. They were not liked by the world. We have this notion that in the early church, there was no infighting, no agendas, no power plays and that these people were so selfless and broadminded that the world just loved them. After all, we say, they met in houses and just loved on each other. Right?
Well, no. First of all, if you read the epistles, you’ll find that the early church suffered with the same issues our churches endure today. And secondly, let’s remember that most of the early church were rounded up, arrested, and killed for their faith.
How’s that for branding? Their brand was terrible. But their discipleship was radical.
Christians should be concerned somewhat about their perception in the world. No doubt. We are the representatives of Christ in the world. But let’s not be so obsessed with how the world views us. Because persecution is not a sign of unfaithfulness, but of faithfulness.
I have a feeling that American Christians are going to have to come to terms with this idea or else risk losing their faith all together.