The institution of the church has always held within it scoundrels, egomaniacs, dishonest leaders and people who didn’t give a rip about real needs. That was true in the first century and will be true until Jesus returns. People aren’t called to be in the church because they are together, good or obedient…but because they aren’t. The church is a place where needy people gather. As a friend of mine says about Noah, “He could hardly stand the smell on the inside if it weren’t for the horrible storm on the outside.”

We’re Family

As frustrated as I am with the institution of the church, it doesn’t even come close to the frustration I have with myself. I can tell you horrible stories about the church…but I can tell you some stories about me that, in the telling of them, would make me blush. I’m in the church not because it isn’t sinful…but because I am.

My biological family is messed up too. My father was a drunk, my mother was shaming and nobody knew who my grandfather was. In fact, I can hardly think of anybody (at least of the males) in my family who weren’t alcoholics.

Yet I learned unconditional love from my father, the Bible (and how to cuss) from my mother and, when life blew me away, my aunts (all married to alcoholics) took me in. When I was on the Jim and Tammy Show (right before the scandal), my elderly aunt wrote me a note in a very shaky hand (perhaps the last note she wrote before she died) and said, “Stephen, thank you for your stand for Jesus.” My messed-up biological family didn’t know how to pray…but they prayed for me. They didn’t know how to be good…but they wanted me to be good. They weren’t big on compassion…but their compassion and love for me was a wonderful and profound influence on my life.

They’re crazy, drunk, sinful and screwed-up…but they’re my family.

Same with the church.

If I weren’t committed to screwed-up people, bad organization, hostility, lack of communication and people who majored in minors, I would not be committed to the church. But just as I’m a part of my biological family, I’m a part of my spiritual one.

They’re crazy, drunk, sinful and screwed-up…but they’re my family.

God has only one family and its only physical manifestation in the world is the church. It’s my family. And it’s your family too. Sometimes they aren’t so proud of me and sometimes I’m not so proud of them…but it’s a family kind of thing.

(By the way, as for the stuff about the invisible and visible church, nobody sings in an invisible choir or teaches an invisible Sunday school class or serves in an invisible outreach to others. The only “church” we have is the one that manifests itself in a real world as a real institution.)

That family institution has built more hospitals and schools, fed more hungry people, reached out to more prisoners and cared for more broken people than any other organization in the history of the world. In fact, nobody even comes close. The history of my family is filled with bad stuff…but an incredible and awesome amount of good stuff too. The church birthed modern science, the arts of Western civilization, the emancipation of slaves, women’s rights, literacy, etc….and even AA. If it weren’t for the institutional church (even with our failure in that area) there would never have been AA because there never would have been a Sam Shoemaker who was the spiritual giant behind it.

A Matter of Truth

And then I’m for the church because it is a matter of truth. As an institution, the church—with significant failures and stumbles along the way—has passed down the truth of the Bible to each succeeding generation. If it weren’t for the institutional church, I never would have known Christ, never would have discovered grace and freedom, and never would have survived growing up in an alcoholic family. When I screwed-up, the institutional church told me that God still loved me. When I had a hunger for truth, the church pointed to the Bible and Jesus. When I wanted an anchor, I always found it reading the history of my church…the same one for which Christ died and the one he loves.

I have a pastor friend who is always complaining to Jesus about the church. Whenever he does that, Jesus always says, “Be careful, son, that’s my wife.”

That’s enough to give you some idea why I say with Augustine that the church “is a prostitute, but she’s my mother.”

The Side I’m On

There is one other reason I am a member of the institutional church, teach in a seminary that prepares people for ministry in the institutional church, and actively preach and teach in churches. It is because—in a world where conviction is at a premium and commitment lasts only as long as the morning dew—I want to be different and deeper.

In short, in a world where the watchword is the uncaring “whatever,” I want everybody to know whose side I’m on.

I hope and trust that the same can be said of you. Now we’ve both been reminded.