When Church Hurts

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Help When Your Church Fails You

Grantley Morris


Churches hurt people. My failure to be without sin disqualifies me from throwing stones but I dare not whitewash the horrific extent of this tragedy. Without even being a victim, it breaks my heart to face this – to say nothing of what it does to God’s heart.

The thrilling but disturbing truth is that every church is made up of imperfect people. It’s thrilling because it means there is hope for you and me, but disturbing because, even with the best intentions, when imperfect people come together, hurt happens. The havoc can be appalling. Astonishingly, even this is polished with gold, but we will leave this mystery until later.

If you have been a victim of some form of church misconduct, my heart – and God’s heart – goes out to you. I recoil from in any way downgrading my evaluation of the devastation and injustice you have suffered. Indeed, I ache to bring you comfort and I mourn the inadequacies of my efforts. I will, however, attempt to provide a realistic, highly biblical risk assessment of how likely it is that churches will hurt good members. I do this not to bash churches, and certainly not to inflame anyone’s fear of them, but to help victims of church callousness realize they are not misfits or inadequate or failures in heaven’s eyes.

Starry-eyed couples thinking that marriage will be heaven on earth are hurtling to a rude shock. Likewise, church is not heaven. And it sometimes turns out close to the exact opposite.

Applying to church what we know about marriage can be insightful because at the heart of both are relationships between fallible humans.

Like marriage, church is God’s idea, and yet sin – acting the opposite of God – is so despicable that it perverts the most precious, beautiful gifts into such ugly monstrosities as to disgust all in heaven and earth. At fault is neither the gift, nor the gracious Giver, but the heinous acts that corrupt priceless treasures until they bear no similarity to the heart of God, no matter how many Scriptures the offenders mangle, trying to pound them into prohibited weapons in a brutal attempt to defend their indefensible conduct. Marriage should be a beautiful, fulfilling, uplifting gift of God. So should church. And yet both can turn sour, even if the innocent partner were perfect. This tragedy of life turns some people off both institutions.

Although keeping one’s distance can seem like protecting oneself, it is actually robbing oneself. Like all investments, love is about risks and rewards. We all want the rewards but they come only to those who embrace the risks.

The good Lord insists that husbands must love their wives as sacrificially as our crucified Savior, who laid down his life for us (Ephesians 5:25). Horrific marital disasters still happen, however. Likewise church members are divinely obligated to lay down their lives for each other (1 John 3:16) but the gap between God’s will and our execution of it has broken millions of hearts.

Not even the most loving people on this planet are immune to being atrociously treated, spurned and rejected by their marriage partners. And callous fools often add to the victims’ torment by pointing the accusing finger at the innocent.

If you doubt that anyone perfect could end up in a failed relationship, look at the only perfect Person. Over and over, God describes in his Word his relationship with his people as being like marriage. Our Lord is perfect in love, patience, wisdom and everything else we could hope for, and yet every day appalling numbers of people turn on him and divorce themselves from him.

And with so many people criticizing innocent victims of marital breakdown, some innocent parties in failed marriages end up worrying that God himself is mad at them. God hates divorce, declares Scripture (Malachi 2:16). To imagine this means he hates the innocent victims is ludicrous. On the contrary, he hates divorce because of what it does to the victims. He is the righteous defender of those who have been betrayed.

Likewise, people mistreated by a church are on the side of Jesus who, as we will see, was atrociously mistreated by devout Bible-believers.

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People who end up shocked at the dreadful way a church treats them have my deepest sympathy. No church should ever have acted that way. It is totally contrary to God. Perhaps that entire church has now been banished from God’s presence, as the Ephesian church was threatened with (Revelation 2:1,5). An element of shock is unavoidable. Nevertheless, I look up from the Bible at those who thought they could never be burnt by a church and find myself having to say with Scripture:

    1 Peter 4:12 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.

I draw your attention to “do not be surprised” in the above quote. In addition, as seems particularly appropriate when burned by a church, a more literal translation of the verse speaks of “fiery” trials. The above translation, however, rightly rams home the reality that trials are painful. They hurt.

So that we won’t be unduly surprised and falsely condemn ourselves, God, in his Word, abundantly provides us with valuable, though sobering, guidance as to what to expect.

Over and over, Jesus told people to follow him. As explorers wanting the glory of achievement must endure the dangerous and arduous journey, so it is with us. Following someone ensures you end up where he does. Since Christ rules the entire universe from Heaven’s Throne, that’s an astounding destination. To follow, however, also means that to reach that destination we will travel through the same territory that he did. Devout Bible-believers not only turned against him and mocked and opposed him but became the most bitter enemies anyone could ever have. That’s the route his journey took, and the one he expects us to take.

While in the very act of doing good, respected religious leaders maliciously accused the one we are called to follow of the sin of breaking God’s law regarding the Sabbath. Over and over (Matthew 10:25; 12:24; Mark 3: 30; John 7:20; 8:48,52; 10:20) he was pronounced demon possessed. Bible scholars used God’s Word in unrelenting attempts to condemn him and to incite other believers to shun him. And, of course, he was judged guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to death by the nation’s most revered spiritual leaders.

To leave us in no doubt that we could expect similar, our Lord more than once specifically preceded “follow me” with “take up your cross.” The cross, of course, was the means God-fearing people used to kill him.

For confirmation that Jesus was not using some vague metaphor, but really meant we can expect to be atrociously treated by people renowned for their devotion to the God of the Bible, consider this:

    Matthew 10:17 Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues [in Jesus’ day, synagogues were the closest thing to churches].

Jesus also warned:

    Matthew 24:10,12 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other . . . the love of most will grow cold

    Matthew 7:15 Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves

Likewise, Paul warned:

    Acts 20:29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.

And don’t think we can follow our Lord and not be hurt by those nearest and dearest to us:

    Matthew 10:21-22,35-36 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. . . . For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

Nor should we imagine that our Role Model was hurt only by those who were not Jesus’ greatest followers.

They criticized him, of course:

    Matthew 15:12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”

    Matthew 15:23  . . . his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

    Matthew 16:22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

But they did far worse.

He was spiritually attacked so severely by Peter that Jesus had to tell him, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me . . .” (Matthew 16:23). Despite his love for Jesus, Peter was not only doing the devil’s work but he was being a stumbling block – someone with the potential to trip Jesus up and make him fall.

Our Leader was betrayed by Judas, one of his hand-picked, prayerfully selected disciples. In the Garden he was let down not merely by the twelve, but by the most inner circle of disciples – James, Peter and John. Despite pleading with them to stay awake, they failed to give him emotional support during the most critical time of his life. And then they fled. And then, as we know full well, Peter emphatically and repeatedly denied ever knowing him.

For further confirmation that not even the best of Jesus’ followers is exempt from similar treatment, consider how the great apostles Peter and Paul were treated by fellow Christians:

    Peter

      Galatians 2:11,14 When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. . . . When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all . . .

    Yes, it was Paul himself who did this, which would have made it hurt Peter even more, since Paul was such an important figure in the early church.

    Paul

    When Mark deserted Paul, it seems to have hurt Paul greatly and it busted up a great friendship and ministry team (Acts 15:38-39). What brings tears to my eyes, however, is how, in his moment of dire need, Paul was treated by large numbers of Christians for whom he had not only sacrificed immensely but they owed their spiritual lives to him:

      2 Timothy 1:15-16 You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me . . . At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them.

    This cut Paul so deeply that he mentioned it two more times in this letter (2 Timothy 4:10,16).

    It seems even genuine preachers of the Gospel reveled in Paul’s imprisonment; seeing it as an opportunity to further their own ministries:

      Philippians 1:15-17 It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry . . . out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.

    He gallantly adds:

      Philippians 1:18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. . . .

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Remember Peter, Paul and Jesus the next time you are tempted to feel rejected or put down by the way Christians treat you. If not even that is enough, however, remember that the pattern had been established over and over for centuries before, in the lives of the Old Testament prophets and other people of God. It was so inevitable that, even before they started, God told some of them to expect to be treated atrociously by their own people. For more, see The Pattern.

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Even in its heyday, the early church in Jerusalem – the one so often revered and hailed as the perfect pattern – was marred by in-fighting that threatened to rip it apart. Things were painfully far from perfect in the church where “All the believers were together and had everything in common. . . . They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people,” (Acts 2:44-47). In Ananias and Sapphira there was an attempt to deceive church members (Acts 5:1-11). Then came a financial dispute that divided church members along ethnic lines. Some were apparently shown favoritism over others who seem to be treated as second class (Acts 6:1). Next, Paul’s past almost got him ostracized from this church (Acts 9:27). Later came a doctrinal division over circumcision (Acts 15:1-5). Then, though not in this church, the great apostles Paul and Barnabas “had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company,” (Acts 15:39).

Portions of Paul’s letters make him seem like an embarrassing turn-off because of the way he felt compelled to tie himself in knots to contend with divisions and opposition in the churches he so passionately sought to serve. Even to this very day, appalling numbers of Christians misunderstand, or even despise, Paul because the churches he poured out his life to build up were continually teetering on spiritual disaster by turning their back on his divinely inspired preaching; thus forcing him to reassert his spiritual authority in ways that, to the less discerning reader, seem foolish, arrogant and/or harsh. For example:

    2 Corinthians 11:23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.

    2 Corinthians 12:11 I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it.

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Consider these regrettable examples of problems within churches – problems that arose, not by the passage of many decades or centuries allowing churches to drift from the apostle’s doctrine and passion, but even early on:

    Romans 16:17-18 I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. . . . For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. . . .

    1 Corinthians 1:11-13  . . . there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? . . .

    1 Corinthians 3:3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly?

    1 Corinthians 5:1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans . . .

    1 Corinthians 6:6-8  . . . one brother goes to law against another – and this in front of unbelievers! The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. . . . Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers.

    1 Corinthians 8:12 When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.

    1 Corinthians 11:18-21  . . . when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you . . . When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. . . . Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? . . .

    2 Corinthians 12:20 For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder.

    Galatians 1:6-7 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all.

    Galatians 2:4  . . . some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks . . .

    Galatians 3:1,3 You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?  . . . After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?

    Galatians 5:15 If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

    Philippians 2:21 For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.

    James 4:1 What causes fights and quarrels among you?

    2 Peter 2:1-3 But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. . . . Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you . . .

    2 Peter 2:13-15,20  . . . They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. [This, and definitely Jude 12, suggests they were in the church.] With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed – an accursed brood! They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Beor, who loved the wages of wickedness. . . . If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ [again implying these were in the church] and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning.

    3 John 1:9-10 I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

    Jude 1:4 For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.

In the book of Revelation the Lord Jesus sent messages to seven churches and exposed deficiencies in all but one or perhaps two of them – depending on whether “you have little strength” (Revelation 3:8) is a criticism.

Despite our Lord approving of none of the bad things happening in New Testament churches, he tolerated all of it, as explained in Jesus’ parable of the tares/weeds that the wise farmer allowed to grow with the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30).

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God is not stone. If you know the heart of God, you know that God is hurt every second of every day by literally millions of people. Yet he lets it happen. I’m not quite such a hypocrite as to not be exceedingly grateful for this. I’m part of humanity, each member of which has broken not only God’s laws but his heart. By the way we have treated him and the people he loves (which is everyone), you and I have pained him more times than we can count. Every time he has tolerated our behavior he was – at great cost to himself – mercifully giving us yet another chance.

No matter how much fellow believers would end up failing Jesus, he never failed them. We know that long before it happened, Christ knew that among his nearest and dearest was one who would betray him (John 6:64,70; 13:18), turning him over to his killers, and that the rest would abandon him (Mark 14:27; John 16:32) and one would point blank deny him not once but three times (Luke 22:34). But he never let their failings drag him down to their level. On the contrary, he kept on loving them until his love eventually raised most of them to his level.

At the Last Supper, just before he washed the feet of Judas and all the others who were soon to abandon him, Scripture comments that Jesus loved them “to the end” (John 13:1) or, as some translations put it, “to the very end.” The forgiving Lord kept on loving.

A fish might forget how to swim and we might forget to breathe but Jesus will never forget to love. To keep on loving is simply who he is. He was a man of a thousand options, and every one of them is love. His love is relentless; unstoppable; a freight train with no brakes careering down immovable rails. In the extremity of the moment, as they pounded nails through his hands, they pieced his heart, and all the pent up emotion gushed out: “Father, forgive them . . .”

And he who has promised to fill us with himself, calls us to follow him. To keep on loving as Jesus did, demands dying to self. So it is not surprising that Jesus linked denying oneself with following him (Mark 8:34).

To follow Christ is to take love to extremes that are as outrageous as they are courageous.

Righteousness without love is as absurd as gold ingots without gold:

    Matthew 22:40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments [To love God and love one’s neighbor.].”

    Romans 13:9 The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Love is everything.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

1 Corinthians 8:1  . . . Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

Galatians 5:6  . . . The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

1 Peter 4:8 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.

1 John 4:8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

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We have mentioned “fiery trials’ and how painful they are. Despite such trials usually being instigated by the devil himself and causing immense distress, however, the God of love turns these attacks on their head. When the Almighty turns these scoundrels on their heads, so many blessings drop out of their pockets that Scripture says we have genuine reason to rejoice whenever a trial sends us reeling (James 1:2). Expounding this here, in the context of love, is appropriate because turning everything into a source of good is a divine promise to those who love God (Romans 8:28). This is yet another way in which love is at the heart of a victorious Christian life.

Only now dare I elaborate on the mysterious gold hinted at in the beginning of this webpage. I am not insensitive to the reality that appreciating its worth can be beyond us when we find ourselves pushed to extremes by blinding pain and/or anger. I raise the matter now because the enigma becomes more intelligible upon discovering that we have a divine fellow sufferer, and when examined in the context of the critical importance of love and following Christ’s example. Even so, perhaps we should both take a deep breath before proceeding.

What makes flaws in churches so devastating and yet so valuable is that relating to people who hurt us is essential for us to grow in Christlikeness. Our Lord’s staggering achievement in managing to wring good from disasters in no way lessens the severity of the offences. Jesus’ words still echo:

    Luke 17:2 It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.

Nevertheless, the greater the atrocities we suffer, the greater our opportunities for eternal honor.

Even in eras when the likelihood of dying in childbirth was terrifyingly high, and prior to pain relief, even if it soared to intolerable levels, literally millions of normal women willingly endured it all to have children. I cannot do less but regard every one of them as a hero. I owe so many of them literally everything because if it were not for countless generations of such heroes, I would not exist.

Embracing pain and enormous risks is what life is all about. To shrink from them is to shrivel up inside and cease to truly live. If, on the other hand, we suffer with Christ we will reign with him (2 Timothy 2:12).

    Romans 8:18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

    2 Corinthians 4:17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

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