By Karen Wingate
Remember when high school and college students plastered their walls with poster art? One particularly amusing poster depicted a cat with a wide-eyed, desperate stare hanging from a high bar by the tips of its claws. The caption read, “Hang in there, baby.” When I saw the poster I wanted to print beneath the caption, “Yeah, right.”
The first time I encountered a church in upheaval, I felt like that kitty, barely holding on to a bar covered with the slippery sins of people I trusted. I felt let down and betrayed. How could members of God’s church act this way? What happened to the biblical concepts of unity, forbearance, love, and forgiveness?
A Loss of Trust
I’ve seen churches lie wounded and defeated on the battlefield of God’s kingdom. I’ve known congregations that allowed sexual predators to assume positions of leadership. I’ve known church leaders whose lust for control rather than humble service caused the congregation to lose face in the community. I’ve known ministers who embezzled money and elders whose violent tempers erupted during Communion services.
Abigail Van Buren said, “A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” She was right. The church should dispense medicine to heal our sinful brokenness and offer salve for our souls. What a betrayal when the congregation instead oozes poison that infects its leaders and repels fragile believers. As one friend told me, “I have enough havoc at home; when I come to church, I expect it to be a haven and not another source of discord!”
When you see a congregation broken by immorality, dissention, or a power-hungry leadership, what should you do? Should you flee to safer pastures or abandon the organized church?
Jesus’ letters to seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 reassure us that we should not give up on the church because he knows what is happening, he will be the final judge, and he will reward those who “hang in there.”
The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent
Christ established the church to be the expression of his love to the world. Yet the church is still comprised of flawed individuals. The descriptions of the seven churches in Revelation show that problem-plagued churches have existed since the first century. Jesus knows and cares about every church. He knows about those who lead under false pretenses (Revelation 2:2), follow the ways of the world (vv. 6, 14, 15), infiltrate the church with false doctrine (vv. 20-22), and become arrogant in their self-sufficiency (3:17).
The painful truth is that the church is flawed and fallible. The world’s corruption seeps into a local congregation when an elder molests a teenage girl, a board meeting erupts into a shouting match, a contentious minority forces out a faithful minister, or vicious gossip ruins the reputation of a youth worker. The fallout leaves many feeling betrayed, confused, and ashamed that the church is capable of behaving so badly. How can we win the world to Jesus when we are not different from those we are trying to save?
Perhaps it’s difficult to accept upheaval because we expect the church to be perfect. Jesus knows evil will seep into the church. But he does not accept an “Oh well, no one’s perfect” attitude. Dissention, false doctrine, and immorality are serious issues. Jesus expects church leaders to deal forcefully with such problems. He assures us that if local leaders won’t deal with the immoral and the troublemaker, he will.
He told the church at Ephesus that unless they repented of forsaking their first love, he would allow the church to die by removing its witness (Revelation 2:5). He warned the Pergamum church he would personally fight against those who allowed sexual immorality (2:14-17). Jesus used strong imagery to tell the Laodiceans what he would do about their apathetic attitude toward matters of the kingdom, saying he would spit them out of his mouth like something vile (3:16). Jesus does not mince words when he says, “I am he who searches hearts and minds and I will repay each of you according to your deeds (2:23).”
Our ability to hold on to our own faith rests in the confidence that God will bring justice to those who have perverted his Word and victimized his children. In the meantime, the faithful remnant may have to watch their congregation collapse like a house of cards in slow motion. It is hard to remain faithful to an institution that has let you down; but it’s not impossible.
Enduring the Heartache
The temptation to quit is strong. I’ve heard people say, “I believe in Jesus but I don’t want to have anything to do with the church.” Jesus concludes his letters to the seven churches with words for the individual believer: Hold on to what you have. Don’t let go of your faith. Don’t give up on the church. If you hold on, you will be rewarded for your faithfulness.
No matter how your congregation acts, you are responsible for your faith. We can’t allow the wrongdoing of others to shipwreck our commitment to Jesus. As one lady told another who wanted to leave our church because of some small infraction, “God forbid that I should let anything come between me and my worship of him!” Jesus gives a good reason for perseverance through a dark period of congregational life: “so that no one will take away your crown (3:11).”
More often, believers struggle with whether to leave their dysfunctional congregation for another. After all, didn’t Jesus tell his disciples to wipe the dust off their feet when leaving a town that refused to accept them? Didn’t Paul and his companions leave cities to minister more effectively in others?
You may need to leave a congregation that has all but died spiritually. Before you do, consider whether you have done all you can to serve the Lord and his people in that location. First, look for the faithful remnant within your congregation. In each of the seven letters to the churches, Jesus spoke to the faithful. He pointed out the good that was happening in several of the churches. He commended the Thyatira church for their faith, love, service, and perseverance. Look at the good God is doing in your congregation and join him there.
My husband and I have seen church problems escalate because uninformed people kept phone lines busy. Paul told Timothy, “Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly (2 Timothy 2:16).” We need more Christians who will courageously tell other church members, “I don’t want to discuss this issue; it is not encouraging or beneficial to either of us.”
Finally, safeguard your faith and seek support from other believers. Just as a caregiver tending an aging parent or disabled child needs respite, you may need to find strength and support through another venue so you can remain strong for your congregation. Join a small group Bible study at another church, serve in a para-church organization, or partner with another church member to pray together—not discussing church problems, but building up each other’s faith.
As in any dark period, remember Jesus’ reassurance: “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). As you feel your hands losing their grip on the high bar of your faith, imagine Jesus wrapping his hands over yours, giving you the strength to hang on until he comes to take his purified bride to the reward he has prepared for her.
Hang in there!
Karen Wingate is a freelance writer in Roseville, Illinois.
Before you leave a troubled congregation, ask yourself:
Do I go to church to serve, or be served?
How have I been part of the problem?
How can I be part of the solution?
How can I love other church members
deeply from my heart (1 Peter 1:22)?
Who needs my prayer support?
Who do I need to forgive?
How can I promote healing and unity?
How can I encourage my church leadership?
How can I safeguard my faith so I don’t give up on the church?