Jesus had a plan for the church that nearly everyone hates. No, not evangelism. Nope: It’s not social justice, either. Nu-huh. It’s not even about reaching the poor. Of course these three are important. You could add to the list and be correct every time, but there’s one thing it seems we universally hate: Jesus left his church—his precious blood-bought bride—in the hands of sinful people.
I know. I don’t like it, either. And anyone who says they do are quite likely off their rockers (and definitely unfit for leadership in the church). It’s a heckuva way to run a railroad, but I can’t find any way around it: Jesus poured himself into a dozen men for about three years and then he split. By the time Jesus left, the dozen had atrophied to 11 because one guy betrayed Jesus and then killed himself. Another one of them was given the nickname “Doubting.” Another cursed and swore he had nothing to do with Jesus on the very night the Lord was betrayed. Everyone ran away when Jesus was in need except for a timid teenager who followed from a distance.
Then the resurrected Jesus dropped by for a bit of last-minute training and left after 40 days. “It’s all yours, guys.” Jesus had a plan to put the church—and the spiritual health of all who would come into her—into the hands of radically flawed people. Listen: I don’t like this any better than you do, but to reject human influence (or yes, even authority) within the church is to avoid the model put in place by the Lord himself.
North American Christians seem to be of two minds about this thing: If we are in authority, or part privileged people within a church, we embrace human authority in the church because it usually stabilizes our well-ordered lives. If we are young, female, people of color or part of any marginalized group, we see human authority structures as the work of mere men. We are both wrong. Jesus set up this arrangement and, sneaky guy that he is, he had his reasons. I intend to ask him about it sometime during eternity. But for now I can speculate (keeping in mind these speculations are the work of a child in the courts of the King):
- Human relationships are built into the fabric of life. Everything of lasting value comes wrapped in flesh: marriage, child rearing, love, friendship, humility, kindness or even the visitation of God himself. Part of the beauty (and danger) of marriage and family is the hard work of living among sinful people. Jesus established something called a “church” and it, too, is mediated through people. Nations, wealth, philosophies and ideologies will all pass away. The permanent things come packaged in weakness and frailty.
- Jesus had no illusions about perfect leadership. Peter, Paul and even Barnabas (the “son of encouragement”) all quarreled among themselves. Somehow the work of God progressed. Somehow Jesus expected they would figure it out. To expect perfect leadership is to reject the “system” set in place by the Master.
- Human leadership in the church is deadly serious. Acts 5:1-11 terrifies me. Yet we should pause to note that as frightening as those events were, they did not disqualify men from leadership. Those events established leadership. (I don’t like this any more than you do. I’m willing to listen: Do you have a better reading of the passage?)
- Human leadership in the church is a dreadful burden on the leaders. I once posted this question on Facebook: “Do you think anyone else is responsible for your spiritual health?” Everyone who responded said no. One comment called the question itself “laughable.” Apparently my Facebook friends had never read Hebrews 13:17. Or this: When Paul described the hardships of his life (2 Corinthians 11) he adds to the list of shipwrecks, beatings and bandits this unexpected phrase: “I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.” At least for this Apostle, leadership was a visceral burden.
And one more speculation: What if communion is about you and me as well as being about Jesus? He said his body and blood were true bread and true drink. The elements of the Eucharist have always represented something beyond themselves. Why should we be surprised if they represent more than we can imagine? Like children at a make-believe tea party, we share bread and wine unaware that fellowship is our true food: fellowship with him, and fellowship among us—who carry the Spirit within.
All this excuses nothing: Sin by church leaders is still sin. Foolishness in the name of God does not represent God. Terrible things have been done in the name of God, but the Father seems to think it’s worth the risk. If he can endure such ugliness (without excusing it), there must be a treasure in there somewhere. I am willing to buy the field in order to find the treasure. Indeed, there seems to be no other way.