Updated: Dec 3, 2018
Article by Kathleen Shumate
When you’ve been burned, you need a balm. And when the fire comes from a supposedly friendly camp, it feels even more painful.
I used to be a bit impatient with the stories of people being burned by the church. Yes, people could be hurtful, but if we love Jesus, we love his body. We are meant to be part of a local body of believers; it’s commanded and it’s essential for our Christian walk. So after a painful experience we don’t scuttle out backward like a hermit crab in a shell; we keep engaging.
Now, that’s true. We are made for rich community with our brothers and sisters in Christ, where our love for God and one another grows and overflows in mutual accountability, service, and encouragement, and where servant leaders shepherd the willing flock (Phil 2:1-4; 1 Pet 5:1-5). We are not only individual new creations, but a new creation together as the people of God, and sanctification is designed to take place in community. If we forsake the fellowship of our spiritual family, we deprive ourselves and the entire church (Heb 10:24-25).
That picture of our need and calling isn’t wrong, it’s just lacking in the patience and compassion our God excels at (Psalm 34:18; 103:13-14). He knows that we are dust, weak and wounded, and his perfect, unwavering love binds up our injuries and keeps us in his truth.
There are churches that cherish and serve one another generously, deepening your practical understanding of Christian community and sanctification. We are a part of this kind of body and we are very thankful to God.
But sometimes church hurts. Perhaps, like me, you have tasted betrayal. Slander. Being forgotten. Being cast aside because you weren’t a hot item or a utilitarian yes-man. It can leave your spirit bruised and shying away from the next blow.
Christians should not continue in a church where the shepherds (or fellow sheep) eat the sheep and defame God’s holy name with abusive practices. But though these so-called churches exist, they are not the only or true representatives of the church universal, nor the heart of Christ’s body. And I know that many of us, despite our wounds, continue to yearn for Christ-saturated fellowship. There is balm for the pain and hope for the Church.
Jesus knows exactly what it is to be betrayed. His closest friends, whom he needs in his most terrible hour, flee from him, deny him, forsake him. Repeatedly in his public ministry, people who are supposed to be on his side are plotting to kill him, and he doesn’t entrust himself to them. He knows what is in man; he does not need anyone to bear witness about people (John 2:24-25).
Jesus tells us that the servant is not above his master, and what the world does to him, it will do to us (John 15:20). We cannot presume to equate our experience with Jesus’; he is sinless and we are not. But if he is hated and reviled, even by those who profess to love his Father, we cannot reasonably expect to avoid the same. Against any worldly expectations, this humiliation and suffering is the path to his—and our—greatest glory.
God takes hold of the sin of sinful people and makes it serve his purposes. Joseph the son of Jacob endures years of slavery, prison, and exile that lead to him keeping his entire family and all Egypt from starvation. In the end he says directly that what his brothers meant for evil, God meant for good, even the saving of all their lives (Gen 50:20). Thousands of years later, God still submits all things to himself and makes the evil we experience, even in the last place we should find it, work for good—even when it’s beyond my or your understanding.
Moreover, Jesus himself makes a distinction between those who merely claim Christ and those who actually belong to him (Matt 7:21-23; 25:31-46). Even when a particular person or group ignores God, there are many who fear him and serve him—imperfectly, but in truth. There are brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe who are ever fighting the good fight to subdue the old self and let the new self reign, and who love seeing the Spirit’s victory in their lives (Eph 4:22-24; Col 3:9-10). This is the body of Christ. This is the true church, and Jesus will, at the last day, present her to himself in splendor, holy and without blemish (Eph 5:25-27).
Vengeance belongs to God, not us. He will judge all wrong, not we. It’s a fearful thing, to come before the judgment of God, and a reminder that we who are so easily tempted to sin cannot trust ourselves. We have each wronged others.
The mercy we receive through Jesus Christ is our only hope in life and death for the family of God as we seek to glorify him in this world. Jesus has built and is building his church, with himself as the cornerstone, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. We can build our community life on this hope, even amidst sorrow and pain, knowing that there will be great joy in it.