Two weeks ago, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Houston megachurch pastor Joel Osteen brought on himself the kind of attention nobody wants. His church, Lakewood Bible Church, was slow to open its doors to offer its neighbors shelter. Osteen himself was a little clueless, if not insensitive, in his answers about why it took so long for one of the largest churches in the country to help out after such a bad storm. I can’t stand Osteen, and I think in general he does more harm than good, but I don’t bring up this unfortunate situation to beat up on him. I’m more interested in the reactions from people both inside and outside the church.
Almost everyone I heard said something like, “This is a church. Don’t they know how they’re supposed to act? Don’t they get it? How could they let something like this happen? Don’t they know that they’re a church?!” And on the one hand, I support that response. We Christians ought to hold ourselves to a high standard, and we shouldn’t be upset when others hold us to a high standard, too. But on the other, I think that attitude is dangerous. It makes the church an ideal, a fantasy society that gets everything right all the time. But the church, in this world, is not filled with ideal people. The church is a hospital for sinners, a place where we are healed from sin so that we can live according to the new life given in Jesus Christ. But a hospital is not a place where everyone is well. And the church is not a place where no one sins anymore. The “ideal” church is a lie. And when we believe the lie, or let others believe it, we set ourselves up for disillusionment and even for falling away from the church when things go wrong.
Billy Graham put it this way: “If you find the perfect church, don’t join. You’d only spoil it.” The problem, if it is a problem, is that every one of us has the potential to do something unChristian, to behave badly. It’s not just Joel Osteen and his megachurch. It’s each of us. Now some people take information like this and say, “See, the church is full of hypocrites. I’d never go there.” There may be truth in that, but there’s another truth that’s just as important: church is where we can get involved in the mess of each other’s lives. And if we skip out on church when fellow church members don’t live up to our ideal, then we also skip out on the chance to be a part of having the mess of our lives cleaned up by Jesus. Because as bad as the church may be, “there’s no other place to be a Christian” (Eugene Peterson).
Jesus gets that the church will be a mess sometimes. In Matthew’s gospel, he actually tackles the issue more than once. The first time is in the Sermon on the Mount, when he talks about being reconciled with a sister or brother in Christ before offering gifts in worship to God. The second time is here, when Jesus lays out a procedure for handling a problem when someone else does something wrong to you. You only put up emergency exit signs if you think there might be a fire one day in your building. You only give instructions on how to handle the mess of church if you think members of the church will get themselves into a mess from time to time.
You see, the real problem with being a hospital for sinners is not that we are all sick around here. The real problem is how we treat our fellow patients when their sickness starts to affect us. When someone does something wrong against us, our instinct is either to hurt them back or to complain about how we have been hurt. Often these two options fit together very nicely. Someone does something wrong against you, and you tell everyone how that so-and-so did such-and-such. And when you tell people, you get to complain about how badly you’ve been treated. You also get a little bit of revenge, because you poison the mind of each person you tell against the person who wronged you. So now the wrong, instead of being an issue between you and one other person, becomes something people know about, and when they see the wrongdoer, they know to judge him or her according to how she or he has treated you.
What’s funny, even sad, about this is that the more serious the offense, the less likely we are to tell other people about it. We complain bitterly about the person who has stepped on our toes or insulted us, probably without meaning to do anything. We gripe relentlessly about the way someone said something to us, or how someone rolled their eyes at something we said. But if we get really hurt, through betrayal or something more serious, we’re more likely to bottle it up and keep it to ourselves. It doesn’t feel so good to gossip about real pain.
Before he gives his instructions about how to handle when we are wronged in the church, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep. He compares our heavenly Father to a shepherd who goes after one lost sheep to bring it back safely to the flock. That’s the God who saves us. This God, the only true God, the Lord, goes all in just for one person. Everything God does is to restore, revive, bring back, heal those who have gotten themselves lost. We’re supposed to be like him. When someone else wrongs us, we’re supposed to seek after that person the way our Good Shepherd chases after us. And if it doesn’t work the first time, we’re supposed to go back and try again. And if it doesn’t work then, we’re supposed to keep pressing, trying yet again. And this is just over a single offense: one wrong, one sin.
Now, I want to be crystal clear about something: Jesus is not talking about how to handle situations you just don’t like, or how to fix things when people in the church aren’t doing what you want. Complaining, in general, and especially complaining about someone behind their back, is bad for the church, bad for any community. Not everything that doesn’t go your way is a wrong against you. If you don’t like a decision or a situation at church and you go around complaining about it under the radar, you are the problem. You are the one doing something wrong, and you need to seek forgiveness from the person or people you are complaining about.
Jesus’s instructions are for when you have actually been harmed by another person in the church. Maybe that person did insult you. Maybe that person lied to you, or said something false about you to others. Whatever it is, if you have genuinely been wronged, sinned against, Jesus offers you this straightforward procedure.
First, confront that person directly, when it’s just the two of you. Now there may be some situations where the wrong is serious enough that you can’t do that. But that’s the place to start. Next, if that doesn’t work, find one or two friends to help you talk to the person. And what are you saying in all this? Are you making accusations? Are you telling the person how bad she or he has been? No! You are saying, “I want to be at peace with you, but we can’t be at peace until we have resolved this thing.” Always you are seeking peace! Always you are hoping for healing! You are never looking to condemn or to cast someone else away.
And if that person still refuses to make peace with you, at that point you involve the whole church. And in our church, in The United Methodist Church, we handle that very specifically: you come to the pastor, who then represents the whole church in trying to bring about peace and wholeness. Even at this stage, like our Good Shepherd, we are looking to bring back the one who has been lost to us.
This is real church. It is getting mixed up with the mess of our lives and the lives of other people. It is tedious, sometimes. It takes time. It can be painful. It is what God the Father has done through Christ the Son for you and for me. It’s real church, and there’s no other way to be a Christian.