Over the years, I’ve heard many explanations for why the Church doesn’t often seem to be filled with more savory characters, with goodness and a sense of relational wholeness and health. In fact, in our Philosophy of Ministry Statement at Grace Chapel we write this: “We have a soft spot for those who are slowly ‘re-entering’ church life after a difficult experience in the church.”
I guess the question that is begged here is, why do we need to be a “unique” place for those burned by the Church in the first place? Shouldn’t most churches be places of relational health and wholeness in Christ?
Well, I’ve heard many explanations, perhaps the most common being that the church is “full of sinners” and that perhaps we shouldn’t expect more from “sinners” than anyone else in society. I like this explanation to an extent. I think it is true that the honest Christian will admit to being filled with his own struggles with lust, envy, jealousy, covetousness, greed and on down the line, that we are far from finished products. Nonetheless, there seems to be something God promises as His people are drawn together to form His Body, the Church. The Scriptures seem to expect that this New Community of Christ’s will have a viable and visible witness in the world, one that actually draws praise from outsiders, rather than scorn (Matt. 5:16).
In The God Who Is There, Francis Schaeffer says that while we do not expect to see “perfection” in the Church, we should expect to see “reality.” He calls Christ’s Church the “final apologetic” of the Gospel: also, he calls it the "circle of truth." As my friend and fellow Grace Chapel member Gary Swetland has been dying these last few days, I’ve watched the “final apologetic” working beautifully, whether from Craig Moore’s near daily visits to Lancaster Manor (LM) where Gary is being cared for, to the long-time friendship Dave and Joan Paulus have had with Gary, to Dave Robison, Mike Callen and Stefan Mast visiting Gary Sunday morning, to Ben Loos stopping by LM yesterday, to my wife Tanya eager to go with me to see Gary as well; I'm sure there are others unknown to me who also have visited to pray, sing and read Scripture with Gary. Gary had been drawn into the Community of Faith because of the visible love of Christ embodied there, began talking about his sense of inadequacy before God and then came to embrace the Gospel of Christ's grace as a result of the final apologetic. So I tell you, not only is what Schaeffer saying true but it works as well:
The world has a right to look upon us and make a judgment. We are told by Jesus that as we love one another the world will judge, not only whether we are His disciples, but whether the Father sent the Son. The final apologetic, along with the rational, logical defense and presentation, is what the world sees in the individual Christian and in our corporate relationships together. The command that we should love one another surely means something much richer than merely organizational relationship. Not that we should minimize proper organizational relationship, but one may look at those bound together in an organized group called a church and see nothing of a substantial healing of the division between people in the present life.
On the other hand, while there is “the invisible Church” (that is, everyone who is a Christian living anywhere in the world), yet the Church is not to be hidden away, in an unseen area, as though it does not matter what men see. What we are called to do, upon the basis of the finished work of Christ in the power of the Spirit through faith, is to exhibit a substantial healing, individual and then corporate, so that people may observe it. This too is a portion of the apologetic: a presentation which gives at least some demonstration that these things are not theoretical, but real; not perfect, yet substantial. If we only speak of and exhibit the individual effects of the gospel, the world, psychologically conditioned as it is today, will explain them away. What the world cannot explain away will be a substantial, corporate exhibition of the logical conclusions of the Christian presuppositions. It is not true that the New Testament presents an individualistic concept of salvation. Individual, yes- we must come one at a time; but it is not to be individualistic. First there must be the individual reality, and then the corporate. Neither will be perfect in this life, but they must be real. I have discovered that hard twentieth-century people do not expect Christians to be perfect. They do not throw it in our teeth when, individually or corporately, they find less than perfection in us. They do not expect perfection, but they do expect reality; and they have a right to expect reality, upon the authority of Jesus Christ.
There must be communion and community among the people of God: not a false community that is set up as though human community were an end in itself; but in the local church, in mission, in a school, wherever it might be, true fellowship must be evident as the outcome of original, individual salvation. This is the real Church of the Lord Jesus Christ- not merely organization, but a group of people, individually the people of God, drawn together by the Holy Spirit for a particular task either in a local situation or over a wider area. The Church of the Lord Jesus should be a group of those who are redeemed and bound together on the basis of true doctrine. But subsequently they should show together a substantial “social healing” of the breaches between men which have come about because of the results of man’s sin.
The Christian sociological position is that the sociological problems which exist, regardless of what they may be, are a result of the separation that has come between men because of sin. Now the world should be able to see in the Church external marks which exhibit that there is a substantial sociological healing possible in the present generation. We can never expect the testimony of a previous generation to be sufficient for our own time. We can point to the wonders of past achievements, but men have a right to say, “This is our moment, this is our history, what about today?” It is not enough for the Church to be engaged with the State in healing social ills, though this is important at times. But when the world can turn around and see a group of God’s people exhibiting substantial healing in the area of human relationships in their present life, then the world will take notice. Each group of Christians is, as it were, a pilot plant, showing that something can be done in the present situation, if only we begin in the right way.
Corporate living in the early Church was very strong at this point. It was not perfect, but it was strong. The testimony has come down to us that one of the things that shook the Roman Empire was that as they looked at these Christians- a cross section of the wide sociological spectrum in the Roman Empire from slaves to their masters, and including some of Caesar’s household- non-Christians were forced to say, “Behold, how they love each other.” And this was not in a vacuum, but loving each other in the circle of truth, pp. 165-67.