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Friday, February 11, 2005

Sinner? Try church.

Tim Stafford, a senior writer at Christianity Today, writes that "There is no healthy relationship with Jesus without a relationship to the church" in this excellent article. A sharp response written by John O'Keefe, blogger at Ginkworld and emerging church hub The Ooze, voices the postmodern Christian's incredulity with organized church:
... how can [the church] be "the biblical body of church" the "bride of Christ" and then "a human institution?" How can we ignore the call to li[v]e a life not based in human tradition, but in a life transformed by the spirit? If we say, it is a "both/and" thing - th[en] it can. And, if we can have a "both/and" then not going to church is a valid movement of God in his people.
O'Keefe goes on to list all the great things the non-church going Christian misses out on:
... gossip and backstabbing, ignoring needs, closed minds, malice, unrighteous spirits and the non-teaching of the love, grace and forgiveness of Christ.
O'Keefe's generation -- my generation -- thinks it has plenty of reasons to reject church as a "human institution." The message "Good Christians never sin" thunders each week from our pulpits, yet we Christians consistently excel at sinning.

We're as good at sinning as the ancient nation of Israel ever was, and we stomped the Pharisee's record long ago. We may have even racked up a higher sin score than the Roman Catholic church in its darkest days. When it comes to sinners the church has no shortage of backstabbers, philanderers, liars, murderers, and whores.

I guess you could say it's in our blood. After all, charter church member Apostle Paul claims to be unmatched as a sinner:
15Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners?of whom I am the worst. 16But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.
- 1 Timothy, Chapter One
Frankly, I'd bet my copy of Forty Days of Purpose that I could give Paul a run for his money in the sin department.

O'Keefe's solution is to get out of church. Any place packed with that much nastiness has got to be bad for the soul. In order to remain Christians, we'd better hit the road. But to whom shall we go?

Stafford isn't making it up when he writes:
The church is the body of Christ, the tangible representation of Jesus' life on earth. As the apostle Paul wrote to the quarreling Corinthians (1 Cor. 12:21), "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don't need you!'" You could sum up his message this way: "If you miss connecting to the body of Christ, you miss Christ."
O'Keefe's misunderstanding begins with his definition of sin, and leads to a missing the point about church. He writes:
We are called by the very Scripture [Stafford] seems to be ignoring to live above human desires, to live in the light of Christ and express the love we MUST have for each other. But Stafford, like many in the Evangelical community, us[es] the "fall of man," as a copout to treat people poorly and to abuse others and get away with it.
Saying "the fall of man is a copout" for sinning is like saying "being short is a copout for not reaching the top shelf," or "being dead is a copout for not breathing."

O'Keefe lists numerous scriptural admonitions to turn from sin. The thing he forgets is that all of them are being delivered to Christians -- people who keep sinning no matter how many times they're told not to.

Follow O'Keefe's line of thinking, and the church becomes only a place for good people to get together and do good stuff. An admirable goal, but the church Jesus talks about is a little more than a Kiwanis club:
18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.?
The church Jesus left behind -- and no, I don't mean the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod or any other specific denomination -- holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and those keys are the turned in the Gospel of Christ preached to repentant sinners, the bread and wine offered to those who need it most.

Stafford's article isn't about getting people into a specific denomination. He doesn't claim to have found the "perfect church." He only reminds us that Christ gave the Word and sacraments to the church, and the church is wherever Christ is preached and sacraments administered.

We all know the church has made mistakes. The Bible lists them from beginning to end. But there is no other context for receiving the gospel than in community with other believers. Who has heard unless someone has preached to them?

Even O'Keefe's faith was planted by the Word of Christ, preached to him by Christ's church.