Protesting from the back row

Throughout my life, I have had the opportunity to visit and attend a few dozen churches. In some of those churches I held membership, employment, or was speaking there, but most have been places I have visited while away from home or simply out of curiosity. I have always experienced a sense of anticipation when I would visit a new place of worship, wondering what the service would be like, if the people were friendly, if there was a sweet spirit about the place.

I remember visiting a small country church while on a mission trip several years ago where the group of students I had with me almost outnumbered the amount of people in the congregation. The people were friendly enough and it was obvious that the church followed a more "old school" style of worship. We sang some of the old hymns, sat through a few announcements, and then it was time for the pastor to deliver his sermon. Apparently this church was in a bit of a crisis because it wasn't long before the pastor was diving into a personal diatribe that he had against a fellow member who was also a deacon in the church. Before I knew it, he was asking for a show of hands from the congregation of who was willing to stand with him or who was going to side with this other fellow (who, lucky for him, was not in attendance). As I glanced around at the students who were with me, I saw looks of utter bewilderment and fear on their faces. Were we going to get out of here alive? The service closed with the announcement of a special meeting for that evening to "get to the bottom of all of this business." Then, in a strange twist of irony, the pastor turned to our little group huddled in our pews, told us how grateful they were that we were there, and invited us to come back and worship with them again. Thanks, but I think we'll pass.

What is it that gets into the hearts and minds of people in the church that can cause their own agendas and preferences to trump that of the gospel and the faithful declaration of God's word? In the New Testament, Jesus was in the process of establishing His earthly church on the foundation of the gospel, and so we don't have this neat and clean picture of what church should specifically look like. Over the centuries the church has evolved in its structure and functionality with many expressions of worship and methodology being adopted and adapted. While it might not be possible to say that all churches "get it right", it cannot be denied that there are many bodies of believers who are faithfully pursuing a Christ honoring gospel-centered ministry that seeks to fulfill the mission of Christ's church.

While Jesus was living and proclaiming His truth on earth, He regularly encountered religious leaders who called His teachings into question and insisted that His new ways were grievous insults to the traditions that had been established for years. In Luke 5:33-39 and 6:1-11, we find a few instances of Jesus confronting the Jewish leaders of the day in an effort to counter their narrow view of tradition and the role they believed it must play in their faith. The issue of fasting and praying as well as what can and should be done on the Sabbath were key areas of contention for these religious men. In a nutshell, the religious leaders were angry that Jesus was not walking in line with what they felt should be practiced according to their tradition. I can imagine how they looked, sitting on the back row with their arms crossed and their robes all in a wad. How dare He heal someone on the Sabbath!

Reading these accounts today, we see just how silly and ridiculous their claims against Jesus were. Their emphasis on tradition blinded them to truth. The lenses of their own personal preferences and desire for control blacked out any possibility of seeing just how off base their beliefs truly were.

Sounds familiar.

Lest we nod our heads in agreement or "Amen!" a little too loudly when a pastor points these truths out to us, we must first take a close look at our own churches that all to frequently fall in line with a Pharisaical method of operation. Space does not permit me to list all of the mundane and ludicrous points of contention that bog down many churches today, but I am sure that you are aware of at least a few.

Let me type this as clearly as I can: Churches do not divide when the gospel is central. They divide because of sinfulness. The fact that we have to even call churches to "get back to the gospel" should let us know how far away we have fallen from the church's primary mission. We can either sit on the back row on Sundays and grumble about what we don't like or we can get over ourselves and pursue a gospel ministry that is consumed with seeing the lost come to faith in Christ and believers being discipled and nurtured in our churches.

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