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.

2 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.

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