By Gary D. Robinson
While reading Eugene Peterson’s insightful commentary on David, I was struck by the part where he discusses the king’s return to Jerusalem after his son Absalom’s failed coup. Along the way, worn and weary David deals with a succession of people. Some he can trust. Others’ motives are ambiguous at best, self-serving at worst.
Among the latter group is Mephibosheth, a disabled grandson of King Saul. Mephibosheth’s steward, Ziba, had told David that Mephibosheth, whom David had fed at his own table, had turned traitor. In effect, Mephibosheth said, “Aw, no way, David! Ziba stole my ride. I’ve always been on your side!”
One of David’s commanders, Abishai (whose slogan was, “Off with their heads!”) sees another ripe for decapitation. Mephibosheth must have cringed before the king. What was David to do? Whom was he to believe?
I quote from Peterson:
Most readers side with Mephibosheth. But there is a deliberate withholding of a verdict by the narrator of this story, in order to give emphasis to David’s response. David believed Ziba’s accusation when he first heard it. As he now listens to Mephibosheth, he knows that both stories cannot be true. Here the narrative takes us into new territory: David doesn’t care who is telling the truth. There is no cross-examination, no calling in of witnesses. David accepts both men, Ziba and Mephibosheth, back into his city. His love is large enough, expansive enough, to handle faithlessness, fecklessness, lies, and hypocrisy. David does not insist on having a “pure church” (First and Second Samuel, Presbyterian Publishing, 2004).
Of course, Peterson might’ve added that the large, loving, randy, neglectful, lying, murdering David probably knew that he, the kettle, ought not to call the pot black! But it’s a small point.
When I read the last sentence in Peterson’s paragraph, I laughed. I wouldn’t say it was a revelation, exactly. Long ago I’d come to the conclusion there was no such thing as a pure or perfect church. I just wasn’t very happy with my conclusion. I had my facts straight. I’d found all the ingredients, whipped up the cake, and baked it. What came out of the oven was a piping hot theological truth: There is no pure church.
But for a long time, my cake sat without icing, without joy. It took this simple statement from a retired minister, clear and lucid as a cloudless moon, to spread on that joy.
For 30 years, I’ve been in search of the pure church. Everybody tells us it’s out there, somewhere—in a solid pulpit, in a body where each member exercises his spiritual gifts, in a “missional” (as opposed to “attractional”) model, in personal commitment, in contemporary music, in traditional hymns, in a nice building, in a private home, in personal piety, in charismatic renewal, mainlining, mega-churching, evangelizing, reforming, restoring. . . . Have I left out any model?
The problem with these models, of course, is that they all depend on people to work—weak and ailing, dumb and dumber, sick and sinful human beings.
Not that there aren’t plenty of solid, functioning, successful (however defined), loving churches out there. But the truth is, like a nice-looking human body, the nice-looking church is generally nicer-looking from a distance. The closer you get, the more flaws appear.
Now here’s the crazy thing. The more flawed she is, the more God’s power is displayed.
I was watching a video of an ex-porn star telling how she’d come to Christ. She met a minister’s son in a bar. They snorted meth together—while reading the Bible! You probably expect me to report that he witnessed to her while in bed with her, but that didn’t happen. Instead, he came over to, of all things, clean her dirty house and watch her child! After a lifetime of abuse, the love he showed her was too much for her to resist. They were married and, eventually, she became a minister to victims of porn.
The ex-xxx-er’s story reminded me of the one a recovering alcoholic had told me. At one time, she’d been a “high-functioning” drunk, which means she was able to hold down a job. Unfortunately, her job was serving drinks in a bar. But you find God in the strangest places. She met a minister, also an alcoholic, who stopped drinking long enough to share the gospel with her. Jenny listened to this man tell of a love more fiery, more potent than the whiskey she poured. She looked at her life—the degraded relationships, the view tinted by dark bottles—and she decided to accept the message she heard. I don’t know what happened to the sodden evangelist. I only know Jenny’s life was forever changed.
There’s no such thing as a perfect church. We pay lip service to the idea, but when it comes to embracing the porcupine, the thorny reality that is the local fellowship, we alter the statement to, “There’s gotta’ be a better church than this!”
What nonsense, really. On his way back to the city of God, the restored King David found pretty much the same as the rejected King Jesus found on his way out—something appealing, something appalling, lovers, liars, and clowns, a tragicomic procession of the critters we call people.
As the great theologian Linus Van Pelt, he of the security blanket and the belligerent sister, says, “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand!” But in the end, that’s all David and Jesus and Jesus’ Father had to work with: people. They’re all we’ve got too. People. The world is full of them. The church is crawling with them. People. The only creatures God loved enough to give up his only Son for. No, they’re not pure. Nor is any organization they operate, including the church. It’s always been this way and, until a brighter day dawns for creation, it always will be.
I’m not saying we should put up with any old behavior. I’m not saying we should let foxes in the henhouse. There must be rules, if only to show how bad we are at keeping them. Church discipline and the like have to be addressed. But that’s a discourse for another time. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a wry and truthful statement, one I dearly wish I’d thought of first. If you ever find the perfect church, don’t go there. You’ll ruin it.
Gary D. Robinson is a minister and freelance writer in Xenia, Ohio.
Thoughts on a Life of Faith
“To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side I learn who I am and what God’s grace means.”
―Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, (Doubleday Religious Publishing Group, 2005).
“Thunderously, inarguably, the Sermon on the Mount proves that before God we all stand on level ground: murderers and temper-throwers, adulterers and lusters, thieves and coveters. We are all desperate, and that is in fact the only state appropriate to a human being who wants to know God. Having fallen from the absolute Ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace.”
― Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, (Zondervan, 2002).
“What distinguished the first Christians from the world around them? It certainly wasn’t their buildings—they had none. It wasn’t their programs—they had none. It wasn’t their political power—they had none. . . .
“Christians were different in the way they behaved, in the way they lived. They were characterized by visible acts of love and generosity and joyous sacrifice for the good of others. . . .
“The grace they gave was an echo of the grace they received. As thunder follows lightning, our grace to others follows God’s grace to us.”
—Randy Alcorn (read more here)