Why we can’t outgrow church: an ecclesiology of suffering

Donald Miller responded to his critics today, suggesting that he is one of many Christian leaders he knows who, according to him, do not attend church. What a fascinating morsel of gossip, casually tossed to the salivating watchdogs. Tell us more, Don!

Besides being a petty example of the “but all my friends are doing it, Mom” excuse, this reasoning does little except to suggest one more reason evangelicalism is in trouble.

In yesterday’s post, I gave Miller a lot of credit, because I sympathize with his disillusionment over what seems to be the contemporary evangelical status quo. An intellectual briar patch! An aesthetic wasteland! A sacramental void! But there are alternatives to that besides giving up on church entirely, as I tried to suggest.

Miller’s latest essay is less sympathetic. Like a child who reacts against his parents’ culture, he rejects the outward forms and practices of American evangelicalism while retaining its worst premises and assumptions.

He evades his critics’ arguments from scriptural authority by essentially arguing to another authority, the vague authority of a kind of impressionistic structural critique of church institutions. He claims that they have tended to follow the shape of power in successive epochs, although to be honest I mostly lose track of his argument here.

But so what? And not every church has done this. The Roman Catholic church might be an impossibly archaic relic of bygone days, but at least it hasn’t attempted to drape itself seductively across the non-Euclidean contours of modernity, and it’s still rather popular.

But no, Miller says, change is a good thing. It’s appealing to your customer base, the American way! Give the consumer what he wants, and if his tastes change, change the product.

This would be fine except that the Church is not a product. It’s a Body, visibly manifested in the world in the form of Christians meeting together in “churches.” And I think evangelicals need to start taking baby steps back toward the idea that our participation in those churches is not entirely by choice, nor is the way those churches are structured and administered entirely open to alteration.

Division in the Church is a scourge, probably allowed by God to punish us for our sins against one another and chasten us into being better followers of Christ. I think it hurts Jesus more than it hurts us. It’s one of the reasons he died–to bring us back together in him, to repair the effects of sin that divides us within ourselves and from each other.

I also think we need to suffer with Jesus. We need to be in imperfect churches, with people who hurt us, so that we can emulate the Apostle Paul when he said:

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church . . .” (Col. 1:24)

Paul knew churches that were doing it wrong–way wrong. He didn’t abandon those churches. Instead, he suffered so that they would repent and find unity. We need an ecclesiology of suffering.

What I see in Donald Miller’s essays, to speak crassly, is an ecclesiology of self-actualization. Church as a form of therapy. You can use it if it “works” for you, or not if it doesn’t.

It’s one thing for those who’ve been severely victimized by the church, or abusers in church disguise. You may need to find healing, embrace Jesus’s love for you, and learn to love yourself again before you can forgive and accept the church. On the other hand, the best place to find that healing may be within a healthy church.

But either way, the more spiritual, the more mature, the more like Jesus we are, the more willing and able we ought to be to suffer in and for the church. This is one primary way we connect with Jesus.

I don’t think I’ve yet tasted what it means to suffer in and for the church. But I believe that’s my calling as a baptized child of God, and I can’t escape it and stay in a relationship with Jesus. For me, Christianity is a dead letter without the church.

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THOMAS HOLGRAVE is a conservative but not necessarily a hipster. He is the publisher of The Hipster Conservative. He has never read a comic book he liked. He is an occasional theologian who has been known to become quite exercised over questions of Puritan doctrine and practice. Not much else is known about him.

5 thoughts on “Why we can’t outgrow church: an ecclesiology of suffering”

  1. The Burger King-seeker-friendly movement is part of why I became disillusioned with Evangelicalism. If Christianity becomes shallow and hollow, it ceases to be Christianity at all, and ceases to be anything but a pitiful, day-late, dollar-short, tagging-along answer to the dullest part of pop culture. That’s the last place people looking for truth or healing or righteousness would seek.
    The Christian worldview and the best of the alternative-culture view share exactly this, that not everything is a product, not everything is fungible, not everything is for sale, not everything is new and improved and shiny and plastic and waterproof and disposable and have-it-your-way. Some things are real. Good post.

  2. I think this is what I have been trying to figure out for myself. I have a problem with the pastor of my church, but I don’t want to leave. I figure I can’t like everyone, but this guy gets under my skin. He is quite “me” oriented, as in, I know this and I’ve done that but then tacks on the end of his two hour monologue, that none of it matters. I hate that. If it doesn’t matter, why did I have to hear you talk about it? He uses worship time to fulfill his dream of being a rock star. He can’t sing and he abuses that poor guitar. He uses the pulpit to deliver comedy improv. His jokes are stupid. He fake sobs. Ugh, I want to slap him. He does these dramatic interpretations. One is of Jesus dying, complete with gasping etc. Embarrassing to watch AND hear. And sometimes he blubbers into the microphone in such a way that no one can understand what he’s saying, which is often a blessing because he murders the Word of God. The whole thing has the same feel as other trials and tribulations I have endured during my 40 year walk with the Lord. Still every Sunday I look forward to going there. This has been a tough nut to crack for me, as to why I feel this way when I can’t stand the guy’s preaching or pretty much anything he does, so I appreciate your view on this since most would advise me to just find another church. You have a unique perspective.

    1. I might find another church, since church isn’t supposed to be primarily about anyone’s self-actualization, and certainly not about a pastor’s self-deception at the expense of his flock. There’s such a thing as spiritual abuse.

      1. It’s not that bad. I’m just old and jaded. I find most of the Protestant churches in my area are like this anyway. Some are worse. At least I know where this guy is coming from. Some are completely bland and ruled by four, five generations of one family, it’s like being the oddball at a reunion that never ends. But they do love one another in church at least, the rest of the week is for fightin’. I’m tired of looking for something better only to be disappointed. I’m more inclined to believe the problem is me, as I have become less and less tolerant of the trite nonsense I used to think was just the way spiritual people were in order to be different from the world. Now I wish people would just drop it and be real.

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