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Difficult incidents shouldn’t surprise us

Being the family of God—if we’re doing it right—is going to be messy

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Difficult incidents shouldn’t surprise us
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On a recent episode of actor Dax Shepard’s Armchair Anonymous podcast, he solicited calls about the craziest things folks had seen at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. A recovering addict himself, Shepard said these meetings are always good for drama. One woman told a story of a man taking up a collection for some kind of kickball league. After gathering the cash, he proceeded, in full view, to stuff it into his backpack. The group kicked him out.

Rather than sounding scandalized (“Look how toxic these meetings get!”), the woman telling this story seemed almost amused, like a mom shaking her head at her kids’ harmless mischief. These addicts and their hijinks, am I right?

My mind wandered. What if that had happened at church?

There are many similarities between church and AA, even beyond the not-so-subtle “Higher Power” stuff that only really makes sense in reference to the God of the Bible (although AA effectively “secularized” a few decades after its thoroughly Christian founding.) Like church, AA is also supposed to welcome everyone. People are supposed to share deep, uncomfortably intimate and unflattering details of their lives with a group of people they may have absolutely nothing in common with outside of their addiction. They hold meetings every day and everywhere because they know that bad habits thrive in isolation, and that people who are trying to withstand temptation need community, accountability, and radical honesty.

Church, like AA, is full of people, so it’s also often hard and personally complicated. In recent years, however—particularly in the aftermath of several dreadful, high-profile scandals in various churches—our general expectations of church life seem to have shifted. Rather than accepting a certain level of conflict as an inevitable (if lamentable) part of doing life together, we’re increasingly caught off guard by it. “Church hurt” has become its own category of pain, made worse because it bursts the lovely bubble we thought encompassed the Christian life.

On the one hand, hypocrisy carries a legitimately particular sting. Christians, while inescapably human, are indeed called to a higher standard of behavior. Paul describes the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, patience, and kindness) not as character traits we should cross our fingers and hope to find somewhere in our genetic code. We’re supposed to work toward them. That means that by the help of the Holy Spirit, those of us who enter the fold as liars should stop lying, those who were thieves should stop stealing, and those with a bad temper or a judgmental heart should be different.

That’s to say nothing of what we have a right to expect from our leaders, whom the Bible clearly teaches are held to an even higher standard of integrity.

We shouldn’t expect that just because the people inside our church say they follow Jesus that none of them will never annoy or mistreat us.

But imagine a man taking up a collection at church and then pocketing the cash. How would this story be told? Is this just more disappointing hijinks from a broken people, or a toxic sign of Big Problems festering in the Church?

As we increasingly live our lives publicly online, we’re vulnerable to a certain allure in “exposing” the hypocrisy we find inside the Church. The danger is the accompanying temptation to stretch the definition of hypocrisy or abuse or impropriety; or to build entire online media brands around exposing it, implying that the cause is much bigger than human nature. We’ll then look for the theology, or the Bible translation, or the denomination or the teacher or the Christian university or the Christian publishing house that’s really to blame.

To be clear, it’s reasonable (even loving) for a church to ask someone who steals money and is unrepentant to leave. Abuse and unrepentant sin should be dealt with decisively and seriously. The problem isn’t necessarily that we don’t deal well with sin inside the church; it’s that we act like something must be fundamentally wrong when we encounter it.

We shouldn’t expect that just because the people inside our church say they follow Jesus that none of them will never annoy or mistreat us. Church isn’t a place to find exclusively like-minded friends, though following Jesus often forges strong bonds. It’s supposed to be a place of intimacy among people who are honest about being broken. If the intimacy doesn’t come naturally, we should do what they do in AA: Force it. And that’s regardless of whether we’d be “relationally compatible” with these people outside the Body.

Most people who show up to an AA meeting don’t need to be convinced they have a sin problem. Christians should show up to church the same way, but with an even deeper hope. We don’t need to expect perfection or even social grace from all of our brothers and sisters all of the time. Humility says for every time we suffer “church hurt,” we may just as easily have inflicted it ourselves.

Paul told the Ephesians that all believers are members of the “household” of God (Ephesians 2:19). “Household” means family, which includes all the messy, lovely baggage that word carries.

Maria Baer

Maria Baer is a freelance reporter who lives in Columbus, Ohio. She contributes regularly to Christianity Today and other outlets and co-hosts the Breakpoint podcast with The Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

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