That voice in your head that keeps rehearsing the disappointments and flaws of your church is not from the Lord. It is the accuser, helping you get to the “I have no need of you” forbidden in 1 Corinthians 12:21. We may have legitimate concerns about our church’s maturity, its repentance, its effectiveness, or its “personality,” and there is certainly a place for sharing concerns and criticisms, a biblical call to honest appraisal, and plenty of space for exhortation and rebuke, but many claiming to do these things have shifted to a legal measuring none of us really has the authority for. Here is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in Life Together about looking at our churches through the lens of scrutiny:
If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.
This applies in a special way to the complaints often heard from pastors and zealous members about their congregations. A pastor should not complain about his congregations, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men. When a person becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him into this predicament.
But if not, let him nevertheless guard against ever becoming an accuser of the congregation before God. Let him rather accuse himself for his unbelief. Let him pray to God for understanding of his own failure and his particular sin, and pray that he may not wrong his brethren. Let him, in the consciousness of his own guilt, make intercession for his brethren. Let him do what he is committed to do, and thank God . . .
What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God. Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.
What is this “wish-dream” Bonhoeffer’s talking about? It is the vision we have for the church we want. In one sense, a good thing. We should all want our church to be moving forward, growing, changing — more into conformity with the image of Christ. But we shouldn’t let that image get in the way of loving our church where it is.
In 1 Peter 5:2, Peter exhorts pastors to shepherd the flock that is among them. I think we could apply this fairly reasonably to non-pastors as well. Love the church that is actually “among you,” not the one you wish was there. God in his wisdom has not placed you there to be a busybody or malcontent. Ask yourself these questions:
1. Am I disappointed my church isn’t more like Jesus, or that it isn’t more like me?
In the diversity of the body is a diversity of callings and passions. It is not fair, nor gracious, to expect the other members of a body to carry the same individual callings or passions as others. If the problem is disobedience to a clear biblical command, that is one thing. If the problem is disinterest in your interest, that is another.
2. Is the problem a matter for church discipline? Is it an issue of gospel-denial?
Rebukes are for sin, not for disappointment. If your church affirms the gospel but denies emphasis on your area of concern, don’t make a federal case out of it.
3. Can you rehearse the blessings and benefits of your local body as easily as their flaws and failings?
If you are constantly unhappy there and cannot shake envy for the wish-dream, it is better for you to leave in peace than to stay and grumble.
4. Do you see others’ faults more readily than your own?
The answer to this question, for nearly all of us, is yes. So it is with great caution and great desire for grace that we ought to make the faults of others our business. Your church has a long, long way to go, no doubt. Every church does. But so do you.
Let’s not be our church’s accuser. Someone has already taken that position. And let’s not keep constantly taking our church’s temperature. Let’s love and serve and submit and, yes, exhort and rebuke, and then let’s love and serve and submit more and more, believing that the Spirit is at work many times in ways we are blind to. God will be faithful to finish the good work he’s begun in us, and he doesn’t need you walking around with your hall monitor sash, handing out demerits.
In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
— Ephesians 2:22