As a pastor, I’ve had countless conversations with people hurt by religious authority. One would hope that words like coercive, corrupt, and manipulative would never be used to describe church leadership, but sadly that’s not the case. If you’re one of the wounded and you have turned your back on Christianity due to the experience, I want to plead with you to reconsider your response for three reasons:
1. Jesus is still with the church.
A few years ago, I got into a conversation with a man whom I met at a café. When I told him I was a pastor, he was eager to enumerate all of the problems he had seen in churches. They don’t care for the poor like they should; so many pastors only talk about money; churches are filled with hypocrites; and so forth. After a few more critical comments, he ended, “None of the churches today look to me like Jesus did in the Bible. That’s why I don’t go to church.” I smiled and told him I agreed with much of his assessment. I suspect he thought I too might leave the church after having heard his grievances! Instead, I replied, “You see all the church’s problems, and you use that as a justification to leave her. Do you know what’s so beautiful about Jesus? (I got a blank stare at this point!) Jesus sees how messed up the church is, and he still has not abandoned her!”
Jesus promised he would build his church (Matt. 16:18) and see the project through (Matt. 28:20). Individual Christian churches can become corrupt and fall away (Rev. 2:5), but Jesus will one day present the whole church to himself as a pure, beautifully adorned bride (Eph. 5:27). If the leadership of a particular church has abused you, please don’t let that keep you from experiencing the beauty of true Christian community.
When Christians gather to hear Christ’s Word and worship the way he intended them to, he is present among them. Yes, we’re imperfect, but imagine how much Jesus must love his people to continue to meet with them despite their blemishes. It’s that same love that Jesus offers you, wounds and all. If Jesus, who knows the church far better than you ever could, has not turned his back on her, then neither should you.
2. Jesus understands your struggle like no one else.
Did you know that no one can relate to your horrible experience like Jesus can? When Jesus was on earth, religious authorities constantly mistreated him. They mocked his mother, suggesting that she slept around (John 8:41); accused him of performing his miracles by the power of Satan (Matt. 12:24); ridiculed the company he kept (Matt. 11:19); lied about him (Mark 14:57–58); and condemned him (Mark 14:64). When Jesus was at his most vulnerable point, shamefully crucified, the religious leaders continued mocking him. “He saved others; he cannot save himself!” (Mark 15:31). No person has endured more violent abuse at the hands of “church leaders” than Jesus did, and because of that he can comfort you like no one else can. Other people may be unaware of what you’ve had to endure, but Jesus isn’t. He has wounds too (Rev. 5:6) and promises that through his suffering you can find healing (Isa. 53:5).
3. Jesus uses faithful church leaders to strengthen you.
This may be especially difficult for you to believe, since in the past the church has only hurt you. But consider the reason for which the apostle Paul said Jesus gave us church leaders:
And he [Jesus] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds, and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ. (Eph. 4:11–12; italics added)
Christ gave us pastors and teachers to build us up in the faith, not to exploit us! Another apostle, Peter, touched on this when he encouraged the elders of one particular church:
Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; and not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Pet. 5:2–3; italics added)
Jesus Christ is the Chief Shepherd who laid down his life for you. Having given his all so that you would live forever with him in glory, he also gives you pastors who will submit to his leadership and care for your spiritual well-being. Seek a faithful church with a pastor who isn’t concerned with his gain but rather your growth, and who will continually point you to Jesus and his Word to facilitate that growth.