Why bother joining a church filled with sinners who need to repent?
I regularly hear people say, in effect, “Jesus is just alright with me,” to quote the Doobie Brothers. Very few, on the other hand say the same thing about the church. As far as they are concerned, the church is corrupt. “Christ? Yes! Church? No!” They like their Jesus neat.
Now I understand this attitude quite well. In fact, I sympathize with it. Ever since the televangelist scandals of the late 1980s, I have been sensitive to the ways in which church leaders abuse their positions of power for personal gain. The recent scandals in the Roman Catholic priesthood drive home the same point with fresh relevance.
And yet, I do not see how a church’s all-too-obvious sins obviate our need to join one. After all, everyone one of us—clergy and laity, churched and unchurched—is a sinner who needs to repent. Groucho Marx once quipped that he would never join a country club that would accept him as a member. When people highlight the church’s faults as a reason not to join it, they are saying the same thing: “I would never join a congregation that would have a sinner like me as a member.” We often criticize the church’s hypocrisy. How quickly do we attack our own?
In his letters to the seven churches, Jesus Christ never argues for the importance of joining a church. He assumes its importance. So, permit me to make the argument for him. Why join a church filled with sinners who need to repent? Two reasons:
First, Jesus Christ came to earth to establish the church. Notice that each of the seven letters is addressed to “the angel [singular] of the church in Ephesus,” etc. (Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). The recipient is singular, but the instructions are for all the church’s members. Jesus evidently thinks of those members as a collective entity. That is also why John refers to each church as a singular “lampstand” (1:13, 20) and the universal church as a singular “bride” (19:7; 21:2; 22:9, 17). Jesus’ intention was not merely to save souls one by one, but to make them all “a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (1:5–6).
Second, we are responsible for one another. Cain asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9). His answer was no. God’s answer is always yes. Thus, for example, the church in Pergamum was responsible to correct its false teachers (2:14–16) and the church in Thyatira to guide its sexually immoral members to repentance (2:20–25). You see, as I already stated, we all are sinners who need to repent, and misery loves company. Being a sinner is a heavy burden, the weight of which can be borne if shared among friends. “Bear one another’s burdens,” Paul writes, “and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).
So, why join a less-than-perfect church? Jesus wants us to. And we need to.