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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

03 March 2011

Dirty Secrets of the “Pure” Church

VacuumYou can’t vacuum the Church. No, I don’t mean that you won’t be able to clean the carpet, dust the corners, or otherwise tidy up your building. What I mean is that you cannot practice true Christianity apart from Christ, Christians, and the world that surrounds us. The Church isn’t a sterile lab with carefully controlled experiments. It’s filled with a dazzling array of variables, many of which make us uncomfortable.

Granted, Christianity is, by nature, pure as its Head, Jesus Christ. However, it’s also dirty, bloody, and often — at least in our own eyes — a total mess. Our surface views often show an entity crying out for order, cleanliness, and careful regulation. And as we look around, we discover many instances of people attempting to establish and maintain a “pure” Christian Church. Yet they always end up having neither Church nor purity.

Obviously, when we consider Christ, Christians, and the world, Jesus is the most important of these emphases — yet some people make serious efforts to get Him out of their “Christianity” as much as possible. Sometimes this is done by partial omission, when Jesus is accepted as a great teacher, an outstanding moralist, a good man, or even God in a limited sense.

Buddy JesusMany people, appalled by the bloody, messy Jesus of Calvary — and by crucifixes and other religious works of art emphasizing His atoning sacrifice — opt for Friend Jesus while ignoring what His friendship with fallen man cost Him. This, in turn, led to parodies of what is already a parody of true Christianity, such as the Buddy Christ of the film Dogma.

Playing His assets against each other is another means used to marginalize the Lord. When His holiness trumps His love, you get people who wage protests because they worship a God who hates sin so completely that they feel compelled to picket the funerals of soldiers who die defending a country that refuses to persecute those of a different moral code. Others are so blinded by their image of a loving God that they refuse to acknowledge Jesus’ claims that He will return in judgment and that unrepentant unbelievers will face everlasting punishment.

This sort of distortion continues with Environmentalist Jesus, Outsider Jesus, Republican Jesus, Democrat Jesus, and all the other false christs substituted for the genuine article.

Weimar AltarpieceSo if you want to be truly involved with the authentic Church, you need first to believe in an authentic Jesus Christ. This includes God and man, blood and dirt, absolute judgment and unlimited love — the whole incarnate package as revealed in the Scriptures and confessed in the Creeds. Until the end of time, the pure doctrine of our pure Savior is the only purity we can expect.

Next, you need to be in fellowship (Greek: κοινωνία; communion, as the King James translation says) with Christians. We’re not talking about a group of pumped-up do-gooders, moralists, or crusaders. I mean real Christians ... the blood-stained butcher, the flour-covered baker, the wax-spattered candlestick maker ... also the weak and the meek, the strong and the dynamic, the tolerable and those who make you glad you have caller ID.

Yep, you’re stuck with liars and cheats, with people of loose tempers, loose mouths, and (gasp!) loose morals — completely surrounded by born and bred sinners! And true Christianity doesn’t just mean acknowledging that they’re believers, just as you are. It means welcoming them to worship and supporting them in their daily lives. True Christians don’t separate fellow believers into black, white, or red Christians. The only black and white that matters is the black and white contrast of sin and grace, Law and Gospel, damnation or salvation and the only red worth anything is the blood that Jesus spilled for us.

Revelation 14:6Obviously, where we live makes a difference concerning with whom we worship but any congregation or larger corporate body that excludes others by race, wealth, language, or the like also excludes the Lord of the Church from its midst. More subtle discrimination is also wrong, whether it’s those who resent the racket of young children disturbing the tranquility of their worship or those whose contemporary practices push old-timers out the door.

Then there’s the matter of being “in the world (cf. John 17:11)” without joining ourselves to its sinful desires and practices. The Church remains on earth until the end of time as the means through which our Lord reaches out to sinners, inviting them to faith, forgiveness, and fellowship. If your church is barely distinguishable from the surrounding society, then it’s barely distinguishable as part of the body of Christ. Pandering to the world never grows the Church.

Likewise, if your church won’t reach out in love to those in need — whether spiritual, physical, or emotional — then it’s not acting in the manner modeled and prescribed by the Lord of the Church. Jesus calls us to get “down and dirty” with the citizens of this world without “wallowing in the mud” — just as He did during His years on earth.

Means of GracePure doctrine, rightly taught and correctly believed, practiced by forgiven sinners in fellowship with each other and in compassion for the world ... now we’re starting to think, look, and act like the Church for which Jesus prayed in John 17. And what if we fall short in accepting and embracing living as Christ’s people? Even if “anyone” — or any congregation or any church body — “does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. (1 John 2:1)”

May Christ grant each of us the courage — not of our convictions, but of His — to live lovingly and faithfully in His service, both for the benefit of our fellow believers and for the whole wide world around us. Instead of longing for a sanitized Church, may we pray for hearts cleansed and purified by the blood of the Lamb, that we may plainly speak and live holy lives in the world until we achieve our eternal, perfect home.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author of the book What Do Lutherans Believe, and writer of numerous published devotions, prayers, and sermons.

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