02 July 2014

Real Church

Confess your sins to one another . . . that you may be healed. -James 5:16

There's a strange idea I’m unlearning these days. Actually if I'm honest, I'm not yet unlearning it at all. But I'd like to. I need to. 

The strange idea is: church is for displaying the best about us, not revealing the worst about us.

The result is: burdened, burned out, suffocating Christians and church leaders.

We’ve all heard the stats about how pastors are leaving the ministry in droves, and how all the rest would like to but don’t have a medical or law or business degree to fall back on. Is it because they feel unable to exhale the carbon dioxide of their failures and inhale the oxygen of grace? Are we letting our leaders be human beings?

And church members. How many actually enjoy small group? Honestly—how many go not out of a sense of duty?

Someone gets wonderfully converted and we all rejoice, then promptly saddle them with spiritual disciplines to help them "grow." They’re not Christians two weeks before they feel like worse failures than they ever did as an unbeliever. Maybe they were dealing crack before conversion, but at least they didn’t feel hypocritical about it.

What if we let a new convert breathe in some grace for a while? Until--I don't know--they die?

What if the leaders in a church stepped off the cliff of face-saving into the mile-long freefall of humiliating honesty and found themselves floating into the delicious clouds of actual, real, for-sinners, grace

What if church discipline was used not to scare sinners but to kick out those who make sinners feel alienated, from God and from others?

It is terrifying to confess sin. But so is going into surgery. Surely the life that follows surgery is better than the misery of living diseased?

It feels like death to take the mask off. Not just pain, not merely embarrassment. Death. We feel as if we are shutting down in a profound, existential way. But perhaps it is just here that the odd theme running all through the New Testament about life through death will suddenly move from mental assent to felt experience.

James tells us to confess our sins to one another that we may be healed. I can stuff my sins inside and let the sickness fester; or I can confess, and be healed. Those are my two options. That's the opposite of how reality feels. Stuffing it in feels healthy, feels like survival. One more reason we need the Bible to correct our natural intuitions about human health.

Maybe revival is just another name for corporate relaxing. Calming down. Letting our guard down. Taking off the clothes of pretense because we're clothed in Jesus' righteousness. If we say we rejoice in the gospel but cannot get honest about how we're really doing with other Christians (not everyone, but a trusted few), the diagnosis is not that we need to add something horizontal to our vertical belief. The diagnosis is that we don't have the vertical belief.

It will need to be wisely chosen friends and counselors. Even then, they may not respond in grace. They may forget their own sin, and withdraw. So this is a risk. But it is the only path of healing. And there is one Friend who will always respond in wisdom and grace, who will never withdraw.

Anyhow, something I'd like to move into more deeply in days ahead, as I consider my own disbelief and strange reluctance to calm down into honesty.


Anonymous said...

So here is the deal, I tried being open and transparent about my "sin and weakness" and was hammered! I even had one guy ( who told people I was his best friend) who has written me off. My sin was being exhausted after 30 years of ministry in the same church, and letting people know. That happened over a year ago, and I don't think I will recover from it. I am not sure this is a good idea.

Dane Ortlund said...

How very difficult. I am sure this is the experience of many. What a messy world this is.

Nathanael said...

Thanks for that - your right. It's extremely hard to do and I almost always fail at it, but I think that deep honesty and acceptance is what we're all longing for and what true fellowship looks like. I'm planning to write a post on this for my own blog - do you mind if I quote you?

My only question is how far is too far? Agreed 100% that we shouldn't just dump a high standard on new Christians, but at the same time we should be obeying God out of thankfulness and love - our fruits do prove our faith. But they certainly don't save us, and we do need to be honest ith one another.

Anonymous said...

I spent 10 years in a church like this. Our counseling center was filled with people who were too ashamed to be real in their small group. One couple thought their sin disqualified them from membership in the church. The "righteous" scorned those with "problems" like cutting or depression or anxiety as if self righteousness wasn't right up there with idolatry as the top sins in the Bible.

Thanks for writing. I pray that the Holy Spirit will direct it to many.

Chris Erwin said...


Your overall point surely is correct and helpful. But I have to say that some of this sounds, to be frank, somewhat bitter. The comments about "saddling" new converts with spiritual disciplines -- spiritual disciplines are important, and new converts have no familiarity with them. Yes, they can be recommended and taught in a legalistic manner, but surely not always. And the comments about no one (more or less) really enjoying small groups? If that's been your, or your church's experience, I'm saddened to hear that; it certainly isn't mine, or that of many believers I know. I love small group meetings -- in my experience, they are often the place where the very things you're calling for (transparency, etc.) happen most truly and freely.

Baby, bathwater... you know how that goes, right? :)

David Atkins said...

Dane, there is a small book entitled "Revival" by Richard Owen Roberts that addresses the confession of sin in the corporate setting. This topic is just a page or two out of a wealth of wisdom about how to pray for revival, recognizing what real revival is, and being prepared for "managing" revival (not a good term, but the best I can think of at the moment) should God graciously give it. I'm guessing you know Roberts, given both your job and place of residence. I think the book is out of print now. Perhaps this is a good time for you to do a reprint?

Jeff Cagwin said...

Amen. Thanks, Dane.

Brad said...

Would love to hear specifics of your sin and disbelief! I'm on mission and in community so I hear of the specifics of sin and unbelief. To be honest, it is pretty horrifying and discouraging. It's actually not that great to be living life with alcoholics, prostitutes, homosexuals,pornographers etc. I tend to think that people who read books about grace and talk about grace are not in touch with people who have actually destroyed their lives and are addicted to sin.