I don’t want to shame or brood. I’m no ex-evangelical, but I am an exhausted one.
I’ve spent the last few years watching many trade principles for partisanship. I’ve watched ministerial heroes of mine fall hard. I’ve watched people die on theological hills at the expense of church unity.
I’ve overheard gossip and been cut down by people I trusted. I’ve felt a lack of understanding—and an internal contentment to misunderstand what others are saying (which is even worse).
More so than any other time in my life, I look around and I feel like Christ’s church is little more than a big, fat mess.
Others have felt this tension before. They’ve proposed a few solutions.
I could go to a mainline congregation that cares about social justice and caring for the vulnerable, but to do so would require me to compromise the truths I confess.
I could bail on the institutionalized church altogether, but I’d be upending the biblical narrative to an even greater degree and be neglecting the bride of Christ—those whom God loves.
I could dissociate myself from people with whom I disagree on tribal theological points, but then I’m compromising church unity just like they do.
It’s taken me some time, but I’m beginning to understand that Christ’s church is a mess because Christ’s church has always been a mess. It’s supposed to be a mess.
And if the gospel is true, it won’t stop being a mess.
The gospel looks stupid on a hashtag
At its core, the gospel is a message of weakness-made-strong, of death-bringing-life, of division-rendering-unity. It is countercultural and unimpressive—a story of God choosing to save the world through an infant born to a scattered and unfaithful nation.
The gospel is “foolishness to those who are perishing…a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:18–23). The gospel is messy. It’s bloody.
Jared Wilson quipped that “the revolution will not be Instagrammed.” He’s right. The gospel looks stupid on a hashtag. “#forgiveness” or “#noforgivenesswithoutshedblood” aren’t exactly marketable.
And if you thought the gospel message wasn’t marketable, wait till you get a load of gospel people. They sin. They fall short. The gospel is a story that forms a set-apart group of people devoting themselves to Christ’s teaching, remembering the gospel in word and in deed (Acts 2:42–47).
The church has been given a second chance to keep the law of God, even when they fail:
“Brothers and sisters, if someone is overtaken in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual, restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so that you also won’t be tempted. Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone considers himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Let each person examine his own work, and then he can take pride in himself alone, and not compare himself with someone else.
Galatians 6:1–4 (CSB)
I could spend an eternity digesting the gist of this passage, but let’s get to it: if Galatians 6 is true, it means church unity is most biblical when it looks its ugliest. If the church doesn’t look like a mess, it could be doing a bad job at being a church. It might mean burden-bearing isn’t taking place.
Put another way, there can’t be patience if there is nothing to be impatient toward; there can’t be forbearance without disagreement or distinction. It is peacemaking in the midst of conflict that shows the true colors of our unity, not peaceableness at all times.
What it means to be unified has become an afterthought as American perfectionism continues to invade the church. We’ve placed an extra-biblical expectation on our vision of friendship. We’ve let our definition of unity be marked by peacemaking rather than burden-bearing. And though peacemaking certainly fits into the puzzle of unity, it’s not the whole of it.
Instead, the church is a living organism—an organism brought forth from a fallen world filled with fallen people. Immediate frustration with the lack of unity in your church ought not convince you to leave in a huff. It ought to convince you to pursue Christlikeness where you are.
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Your church is going to fail. Your theological heroes will lose their capes. Your friends will disappoint you—they’ll step on your toes and forget about you. But there’s no reason to get discouraged or bail on the church because of hard feelings. Because hard feelings are part of the church. The church is always becoming, and this means growing pains are inevitable.
And the better part is that it doesn’t stop here: God has built and is building a people, and He will call you home in perfect unity at the final day.