Imagine that you are the husband in the following scenario:
You, your wife, and your two small children have just moved to a new city. On the first Lord’s Day after you arrive, you set out to worship in a nearby church. You know that its founder was a well-known evangelist and preacher, so your expectations are high. The people seem pretty friendly, and you resolve to return.
The next week, things go fairly well, but your wife is of the opinion that something is not quite right at this church. She can’t articulate why, but she feels that there’s a peculiar vibe among the people that she can’t put her finger on. Some of them seem a bit odd to you, too; you have a conversation with a guy who has some strange ideas about the resurrection. You hope he’s just a visitor.
By the third week, you’re both observing some really weird stuff. The fellow sitting next to you in worship (who was previously introduced to you as a deacon) has alcohol on his breath, and his speech seems slurred. While at the market on Saturday, your wife heard that this same man is in the process of suing another church member. That just doesn’t seem right to either of you.
After you get home and put the kids down for naps, you and your wife discuss the church. She’s observed several cliques among the people there, and some of the members actually seem to deliberately avoid each other. You tell her that one point during the sermon, you noticed a woman a couple of rows in front of you – an elder’s wife – giving another woman across the aisle a look that could peel paint.
You’re both coming to the same conclusion – these people give you the creeps, and you don’t want your kids growing up in this church. You agree that you’ll have to find another church next week.
There’s just one problem: it’s 54 A.D., and your new home is called Corinth. There is no “other” church.
Your wife asks, “Could we walk five miles to Cenchreae every Lord’s Day?”
For years, when reading Paul’s epistles to the Corinthian church, I’ve tended to focus on the various exegetical puzzles they present. More recently, I’ve started to think about what it would have felt like to be a member of the congregation to whom Paul wrote.
My sense is that I would have been pretty miserable in Corinth. I can imagine showing up for Sabbath School every Lord’s Day morning hoping that the Apollos-party folks might actually be civil to the Cephas-party folks for a change, that the tongues-speakers won’t make me feel so inferior for once, and that the elders might finally do something about that guy who shows up every week fondling his mother-in-law. The drunkenness at the Lord’s Table, the tedious pettiness of supposed brethren in Christ, the immorality – who could bear it? Not only would I probably long to leave such a church, I’d feel pretty justified in doing so.
Yet as I read Paul’s letters, they present me with a problem: he gives no such counsel. He doesn’t advise the handful of people who haven’t been indulging in gross pride or sexual immorality to leave and organize a pure congregation. Oddly, he writes a letter addressing the church affectionately, calling them “saints.” He does insist that they start dealing with their sinful attitudes and behavior; he tells them what they must do to put things in order, and he warns that he is willing to come back and give them a good thrashing (1 Cor. 4:21) if they do not demonstrate a real change of heart. But one gets no sense that he regards Corinth as a “synagogue of Satan,” which is the phrase that might float into my mind if I found myself stranded in the midst of such a church.
So what does this imply about how bad things have to be before a person should leave a church? I don’t wish to press this to nonsensical extremes; I believe there can be circumstances under which one may have good reasons to leave a church. But reflecting on the Corinthian epistles does give me a feeling that we American evangelical and Reformed folk are often too ready to bolt for the door if we find something not to our liking at church.
When I was in college, I had a conversation with a fellow student who seemed to wander from one church to another, as evangelicals of my generation are wont to do. “What are you looking for?,” I asked. “Well,” he said, “I just want to find a real New Testament church.”
No one has said that to me in the years since, but if I were having that conversation today, I think I might be perverse enough to reply, “So, you’re holding out for one like Corinth or Galatia?”
Christians have a natural tendency to believe that if we could just find the “right” church, the challenges we experience in our own spiritual lives would melt away in the warm glow that we’d discover there. But given that every church on earth is filled with (at best) partially-sanctified people, in this life we can only expect to find churches that are “more or less pure.” The general thrust of the New Testament seems to be that we ought to spend much less energy in criticizing what we don’t like about church and a good deal more energy seeking to become the kind of people we think others ought to be.
While drafting this post, I discovered Michael Ives’ fascinating blog, The West Port Experiment, and found that a few months ago he quoted a passage from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters that seemed to offer a fitting close for where my own thoughts on this topic were going. As you may know, Lewis’ Screwtape is a senior demon whose letters provide advice to his nephew Wormwood on the most effective ways to tempt his human “patient:”