Just last week I wrote about Christians who reject the church, and while I wrote I purposefully chose to make no mention of those circumstances when Christians have been so wounded by the Church that they feel they have to leave. My intentional omission was, and remains, grounded in the conviction that the prideful rejection of the Church—the refusal to submit—is an attitude which warrants a ruthless manner of redress. I did not wish to mitigate my argument against the prideful even by mention of the wounded because there is no room for such an attitude among people who claim to follow Christ.
And yet the prideful are not necessarily the only ones who walk away from the gathered community, because there are also many who explain their own withdrawal from regular Christian fellowship on the grounds of wounds received within the Church. I was vividly reminded of this while I sat with an old friend this past week. Several years had elapsed since we’d seen one another, and while we caught up he shared with me that due to a series of extreme and difficult circumstances, married to a consequent wounding by the Church, he had ceased to attend fellowship for a time. So, what should be said to Christians who have been wounded by the Church?
But let’s imagine now that you have self-examined and pride is not at the root of your experience of wounding. What now? There are a few things to consider. First, have I been wounded because the Church is composed of imperfect people, or because this particular congregation is systematically broken? This distinction is terribly important. All people are broken, and while the Church is an agent of healing for brokenness, it remains composed of people on the way towards new life. If the Church is doing its job of evangelism, then it is continually bringing in new broken people who augment its overall brokenness with their own individual eccentricities. Have I been wounded, then, because the people around me are still undergoing a transformation under grace? Am I wounded because the people around me are not equipped to deal with my particular brokenness, and I am simply impatient with their rate of growth in care? However painful the wounding might be, it is the wounding of humanity and of family. To escape this kind of wounding will require retreat from all human contact. What is more, if you were to find a Church which could guarantee no wounding in this capacity, your own personal brokenness would disqualify you from membership. We must remember that grace in community is not a one-way street, for in the same manner that you wish for a kind of grace from the people of God (to meet your wounds), you must yourself extend grace to the gathered people of God (who are broken as well).
But the above condition assumes that the gathered community is striving to live faithfully the reality of God’s kingdom here on earth. What about those communities where there is a system of brokenness? For example, when leadership ensconces itself in protective policies, ensuring that power is preserved at all costs, or when churches cover brokenness to save face, wounding the people of God to save the “institution” (and forgetting that the institution has no life apart from the people that constitute it), or when gross ineptitude on the part of leadership is never addressed by the laity, or when gross ineptitude on the part of laity is never addressed by the leadership. I submit to you that in these circumstances of systemic brokenness such Churches are in the process of violating their very purpose. All Churches will wound, of course—sometimes intentionally in accord with the mission, sometimes unintentionally because of our broken humanity. But these Churches wound in order to self-preserve; they fleece and eat their own sheep in violation of the Lord’s command to feed and care for the sheep. They have exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worship at the altar of their own image, rather than the image of the Lord who gave his life for the Church. This is a Church that is in the process of becoming not-a-Church, a branch which is severing itself from the lifegiving vine. Its doom, if there is no repentance and change, is certain.
But there remains a further difficulty. What of those situations where wolves masquerade as sheep within the people of God, whether as leadership or laity? What do we make of the wounds brought about by faithless, manipulative, deceptive people walking among faithful and earnest Christians? Sadly, this is a reality that is promised in Scripture—in other words, we knew this could happen. So our response as members wounded by wolves hangs on the Church’s response to the wolf-in-sheep’s clothing. If the false leadership/membership is not addressed, then it points to a systematic issue—the Church is now protecting its own image by refusing to deal properly with the deception, and is in the process of violating its mission. (This, I should note, is often reflected in the bitter and ongoing situation with sexual abuse in the Church.) However, if the Church does seek to address the problem, however falteringly, then it is part and parcel of the way the kingdom operates in this broken world.
What does all this mean for the wounded Christian? In the first place, it means that if your wounds fall under the first category—those wounds which are an unfortunate but unchanging part of the brokenness of the world—then you have little ground for leaving the Church. You might need a break, depending on the nature of your wound (I think here of grief in particular). But you should remember that your wound is as much a vital part of the life of the Church as anything else—it is the vivid reminder of our need to love and care for the body in community. But in the second place, if you discern that you are part of a deeply broken Church, a Church on its way to becoming not-a-Church, then you still have further discernment to make, and two options from which to choose. 1) Am I called to stay in this broken fellowship, although wounded, and strive through faithfulness to effect Christlike change? This is a difficult, self-denying decision, and it must be particularly shielded against the influence of pride. Pride would claim, “I am the one to change this church, and I’ll do it if it kills me.” Humility is a necessary component for all such engagement, and if you are called to this, you are called to suffer for the sake of change. The second option is this: 2) Has Jesus given me permission to remove myself from this fellowship and to engage with a new one? Again, the decision to leave must be discerned through prayer. The question, put another way, might be this, “Lord, are my wounds calling me to fellowship with a different group of your followers?” Once again, pride lurks in the background—the pride of imagining yourself better or more enlightened than the people you have left behind. So, whether you stay or leave, you are called to stay or leave in humility of heart.
A few concluding thoughts. First, the astute reader will note that throughout this I have made no room for a solitary Christian. It is assumed that, having faith in Christ, you will commit to finding a place to live out your life in fellowship. Second, you will also note the repeated and emphasized role of discernment in this process. Life in the Church requires a great deal of self-examination, searching out pride and the motives of our hearts. Third and finally, we should mark the persistent role of humility throughout this process—humility of leaders and laity alike, of wounded and broken people, of all within the Church. After the presence of Christ, humility is the most important characteristic of any functioning Church, and the certain ground of any solution to wounds within the Church.