Lately I have had the dreadful behaviour of some church folk thrown in my face as a good reason to not believe in God at all. On one level even God allows this as a reason to lack faith, but on the other hand I suspect it can also be a good excuse to use to convince our unbelieving selves that if God's people are such a loveless disaster then God must be either non-existent or a complete loser.
I think that we as a church are partly responsible for the disillusionment of each other and of those who do not yet believe, because we have been so great at talking as though to become a Christian automatically gives people access to the most warm, accepting, embracing and inclusive community on the earth. In God's eyes that is supposed to be true...at least I believe that is his aim for his church....BUT there are some extenuating circumstances that even God understands.
Once wounded, we can also be tempted to tell the world what horrible people our fellow Christians are and drive away those who are seeking God. We can be responsible as well for not being loving and forgiving toward those brothers and sisters who have hurt us and make no bones to the rest of the world about the awfulness of our own hurts.
The church family is a motley crew! Each congregation, each group, each set of believers contains the full spectrum of spiritual maturity among its individual members. There are longer term Christians who have learned to exude grace and mercy and love and acceptance, there are brand new believers who are striving to that ideal with various degress of success, there are seekers who are not sure yet how they are supposed to behave toward others and there are simply church folk who never, even after years in the church, seem to understand God's message of how to truly walk in love toward each other. We are all in there, mixed up together and sending out messages to the rest of the world that often don't jive in practical outworking with our verbal assurances of love toward each other, or with the scriptural ideals we read about.
So, if God is so great and omniscient and omnipresent, why doesn't he step in and put a stop to all the behaviours that drive possible new believers away from his people and from himself? Why does he continue, century after century to permit unloving behaviour to emanate from his church toward its own members and toward the rest of the world, too often alienating those who are seeking?
I imagine there are quite a few well thought out, theologically advanced possibilities that could be listed and discussed here, but I am only going to offer two of the most obvious:
1. God never takes away our free will to think and act. While his Holy Spirit is always there to teach us how to properly love each other and the rest of the world, he never oversteps and forces us to behave properly, thereby negating his own desire for his creation to be able to choose fully to obey or disobey his commandment to love as he loves.
2. If God was willing to overstep our free will and create a church that always said and did the right things, how easy would it be for us and for newcomers, for outsiders, for anyone considering following Jesus, to come quickly to a dependence on the righteousness and rightness of the people in the church community instead of having to know and rely on God himself? If the growth of a Christian was complete upon acceptance of God's gift of salvation then what would be the point of walking by faith, of getting to know God, of spiritual growth? If becoming a Christian meant instant perfection, there would be no point of continuing to live our earthly life after the point of receiving.
What I am trying to say is that maybe we ought to stop verbally presenting the church as a perfect place, as place where we can rely on others instead of on a living God. On the other hand Christians who have themselves struggled to find their place within that church need to stop bashing it to the rest of the world. We need to stop the polarizing conversations and try to present the church in a more realistic way: it is simply a place where Christians all along the learning spectrum can come to learn more about Jesus and to learn better ways of sharing in the Christian life together. It can be a place of refuge and it should be, but we have to be made aware of the fact that Christians are still people with problems they are in the process of working out with God and each other. It is a place where jealousies over each others' ministries can happen. It is a place where people can get angry with each other and struggle to work out their differences. But it is also THE place where bad attitudes and other problems can be worked on, healing between hurting parties can take place in ways that are often more difficult without God as the mediator.
I find myself currently in an awkward space within the church, but am I freaking out and walking away from its people or from God? No. I have learned that none of us have achieved perfection, but all of us have God inspired tools available through instructions in the bible and through good church leadership. I know from experience that in time the issues will resolve themselves, people wil heal, people will forgive and forget as they rely on God instead of only on each other.
I love the Church. It is not the perfect community because it is filled with still imperfect human beings. Our lack of perfection though as God's children is not an excuse to step away from God. It is a reminder that we trust fully in him alone.