And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
The church, the bride of Christ, is one of the most important parts of a healthy spiritual life. The bible likens our participation with others in the church as body parts functioning as members of the same body. We are integral to one another’s well-being, and when one is missing, the whole suffers. This picture demonstrates the Creator’s pure relationship of interdependence that He experiences in the Trinity. And because His own union is a perfect delight of fellowship and shared responsibility, it is fitting that He bestowed a picture of it onto mankind.
The difficulty, of course, lies in the fact that we are fallen, broken human beings and not the perfect triune Godhead. But that didn’t stop Christ from teaching on the importance of this relationship. He even underscored it by making it a central point during the last supper. When you know you have but a few final hours to spend with those that are closest to you, what do you speak of? The things that really matter! The placement of this key text surely points to its priority within the heart of Jesus.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one amother.
-John 13:34-35 A
Paul picks up the crusade for discipling new believers in the ways of genuine fellowship.
Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.
He speaks directly to the need of believers to engage in honest, loving relationships with one another in every single one of his epistles. There is even an entire book devoted to relational reconciliation (Philemon). With this much ink spent on detailing the function and purpose of relationships with other believers, it would certainly not be an understatement to say God intends us to participate in authentic, nurturing intimacy in the context of church.
Unfortunately, the ugly truth is that far too many of us view church as a place where clean, healthy people gather to engage in clean, healthy interactions with other clean, healthy people. This perspective is only possible where sin can never be present – heaven. Oh, how I long for that day and this wonderful reality in my life. Until then, the purpose of the church is not to create a perverse, pseudo-heaven by whitewashing all of its members to look like they live where sin is not possible. Nowhere does the bible even hint at this kind of behavior. Rather, the church is to help us expose darkness to the purifying light of Christ’s grace, so that we might engage in healing the brokenness caused by the very real presence of sin. In fact, the church ought to be viewed as a place where hurting, sinful people may come experience the clean, healthy love of Mercy while connecting with other healing-in-the-process people who can encourage and guide us on this path.
So what happens when it doesn’t work that way? Because, let’s be honest, it often doesn’t. In the moments and hours after we first addressed Asher’s abuse with the leadership of our church, the pain we experienced most acutely had nothing to do with Asher, or Georgia, or Olivia, or Nathan, or any number of the other agony-inducing realities we faced. No. The greatest punch was the reaction, and decided action, brought about by members within our very own church. People who knew us and loved us and wanted only the best for us – and yet who were also caught up in the fear of a scandal and the possibility of liability to the church and honestly, some just dumb, knee-jerk decisions.*
In the world’s eyes, there were some things done that absolutely warranted a decision to leave.
I’m going to be very clear in the next several sentences. My family and I are continuing, with great intentionality, to pursue relational vulnerability with people inside our local faith community. We are staying invested in the congregation where we started this journey. That is not because we have been perfectly supported, encouraged, cared for, or understood so as to lighten the burden of this catastrophe in our life. Actually, the exact opposite is the case in a number of unsettling, heartbreaking realities. It is because we, just as those in our church, are called to love one another, not neglect meeting together, and outdo one another in showing honor.
I am going to be hurt. And even more realistic but unsettling is the truth that I’m going to be hurt by people who should know better. It seems like inevitably, their raw edges are the very ones that cut me the deepest. It’s hard! It’s not fair, and at times, I struggle to understand God’s plan of bringing imperfect people into close spaces making their elbows bump. But the longer I bear up under crushed expectations and deep wounds the greater my understanding has become that my hope and salvation is not found in man. My satisfaction is not the responsibility of my church. And I am far too imperfect to cast any stone.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
*Disclaimer: My leadership did not walk in gross sin, which would disqualify them from their biblical office. Also, not once did our church act to keep us from reporting Asher to the authorities or create an environment where we felt we could not protect our younger children through the removal of Asher from our home. There was no effort made to minimize or discount the extent of Asher’s abuse of his siblings. This is important to me to mention because of the ongoing accusations and disclosures made throughout Christendom about sexual abuse charges and cases being mishandled by local church leadership.