Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
From January 24, 2009
Note from CM: Back in Jan. 2009, Michael wrote a piece called, “Theology, Depression and the Unsolvable Problem of the Right Church.” Today, we present an excerpt from that post for Ecclesia Week. In this essay, the iMonk tries to temper our desire to find the perfect church, reminding us that no matter how pure our ideology, we will always still end up in a local congregation that is imperfect at best.
• • •
Now, I want to get down to this matter of the One True Church. If you judge that you are a person who believes there is only one true denomination, then I believe you should check out the candidates from the RCC to the EC to the LCMS to the local Church of Christ (if you are in west Kentucky) and reduce your choices to the actual candidates. You simply don’t need to mess around with denominations that don’t believe there’s only one true franchise or that believe we are all part of the broken, fragmented body of Christ. If you are in a typical Baptist church and you really believe that Jesus made the successor of Peter the living authority, then go to the RCC, please. Whatever the issues are that are keeping you from doing that aren’t very important.
Now, if you say “I just don’t know,” you should keep reading.
I am a critical and analytical person. Send me to ten churches, and I will find ten things to like and ten things not to like at each one. I do not believe that any congregation is an expression of the one true church so much that there aren’t problems. But this is my nature. It’s EASY for me to see the brokenness and hard for me to see anyone’s claim to being the one, divine “it.”
Now, if I am convinced that one Denomination is right, my problem is going to be this: I still have to belong to a congregation, and a congregation is the place where the “essentials” are worked out in real life, not just in my head. So if I believe that the RCC has it right, I won’t be hanging out with B16 or Scott Hahn. I’ll be at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, a fine congregation that doesn’t have a piano, that has congregational meetings that make me want to be Shinto and a priest who thinks a homily is practice for his missed career in stand-up. Oh yes, the Catechism is in the church library, but THIS is where I am a member, out here where no one knows what I’m even talking about.
If I believe the Southern Baptist Convention is the church Jesus started, then I’m clearly insane, but for the sake of the illustration…here’s this wonderful statement of faith, and a great missions network, and Al Mohler and those fine Calvinistic Ascol boys. But at my church, doctrine has been replaced with “How to be a great parent” sermons, the deacons have fired the last three pastors in less than 4 years, the music is a cross between an 80′s metal band made up of fat 45 year old men and the senior adult choir singing from the 1956 hymnal. We haven’t baptized a convert since 1993. Our current pastor looks like Ryan Seacrest and the youth minister looks like the Mindfreak guy.
That’s your church. Oh sure, you can drive elsewhere and you can improve. (I drive two hours each way.) You can work for improvement. You can do all that stuff. But here’s my point: You chose the one true denomination, you still have to deal with your local church. It is the place you do or don’t hear the Bible. It’s the place you do or don’t start churches and do evangelism. It’s the place you are or are not taught the faith you read about on that great web site.
The search for the one true denomination will drive some of you into depression, especially if you can’t admit that no such church exists and that you may never be happy if you find it. That every church is a compromise. That they all require you to live with some tension. You are convinced the LCMS has it right doctrinally? Great. Been to a local LCMS church lately? It’s a dice roll. That’s not an indictment. That’s the grown up world and it’s true across the board.
In his book Is the Reformation Over? Mark Noll makes this point very clearly. When you get Protestant converts to the RCC to answer researcher’s questions, they have a list of things they miss that’s not short or insignificant. Tears are shed. The broken body of Christ has the better sacramental thinking in one place and the better missional/evangelistic ministries in another. It’s the real thing. You want to be depressed? Go down the rabbit hole of endless despair? Just walk into ANY church saying “This is going to be great,” and forget how far short we all fall, how broken the body is, how much we all contribute to that brokenness.
There is no paradise in the SBC, the EO, the RCC, the megachurch, Redeemer Presbyterian, Mars Hill or the house church in Frank Viola’s living room. We’re all still working on this thing. We are all experiencing the brokenness and our part in it. We are all holding onto some part of the treasure, but none of us have it all. (Though as I said, if you believe someone does, then reduce your choices and go there.)
My friend Phillip Winn at the BHT is a good example. When I first met him on line, he was a member or a large Charismatic megachurch. Over time, he decided his family needed something more catholic and evangelical, so today he is a leader at a conservative ECUSA church working for renewal in that denomination. But Phillip is passionate about Jesus. He knows the flaws of his church. He knows the contributions his churches have made to the good and bad of the unity/disunity in the body of Christ. He loves his church, but his love for Jesus is what has transcended all the other aspects of his journey. If one church has nurtured that journey more than another, that doesn’t mean one is all right and the other all wrong.
Phillip is off the treadmill of looking for the perfect church. As a believer, he’s made a choice and he’s experiencing the ministry of Jesus in and through the church, imperfectly.
If you are depressed over this to the point of despair or atheism, I would advise you to step back; step back to the place you can see the goodness of God and the simplicity of faith. Move forward only as you are able to experience God along the way. If you believe God is playing a game with you, hiding the truth and holding out the carrot of really knowing Jesus if you choose the right door, please don’t go further down that road. God is good. Jesus love you. All that God has for you is there in Jesus, available to all who trust in Jesus alone by faith.