And so I have a confession to make. I have hurt the church – past and present tense. More than once. But before I get into that, I want to be specific about what I’m talking about when I mention ‘the church’. In my usage the term has a dual purpose. Firstly God’s institution: the structure and all that goes with it. Despite my sometimes disdain for institution, I completely understand that once you hit a couple million ‘participants’ some organisation is needed. Secondly, I’m talking about God’s people: His rather diverse family made up of individuals (hopefully) trying their best to follow Him. The individuals ultimately make up the family, and so I refer to both of these when I say ‘church’. Its been important for me to remember this, as sometimes it’s easier to pin our frustrations on a more abstract ‘church’ than acknowledge it wasn’t the entirety of the family, but some of it’s members.
Those familiar words…
In my many years of both pastoring and being part of the church, I have countless times heard and read the phrase ‘I have been hurt by the church’ – you probably have also heard these words, and maybe even said them yourself. Yes, I have been hurt by the church (both God’s institution and God’s people). I could give examples – emails that have been said, words spoken, actions taken – that have left me angry, aggrieved and heart broken, and wanting to leave at the first available chance. This is never an easy process, and I’ll be the first to acknowledge that. So in saying I’ve been hurt by the church, I’ve actually been hurt by people – God’s people. Whilst it’s never excusable, the reality is people are people and make mistakes – and no matter which church family we join this will be the case.
However, I could probably count on one hand the number of times that I have ever heard someone admit that they have hurt the church. Perhaps as humans we find it easier to put blame on others, but struggle with taking ownership of our actions. Especially actions that result in hurt. I know I do.
The other day…
I recently said something to someone in my community – something difficult which I felt needed to be said, but completely did it in the wrong way. Understandably the person was upset, and I heard examples of ‘being hurt by the church’ as described above. A couple days later we were able to meet and talk through what had happened. After discussing the issue at hand, I apologized. For causing hurt in how I had addressed the idea, I had to admit I had hurt the church (which is God’s people). The individual was able to also apologize and express similar. Taking ownership of the hurt we cause takes guts, and being willing to let go of the hubris that can stubbornly hold us in place.
Of course this example tells the tale of an experience with just one person, but often our actions can have a much larger effect in a community. After a short discourse on discipline, the writer of Hebrews continues by saying:
Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. (12:14-15).
Let’s be honest when it is needed and be willing to confess when we have hurt the church (God’s institution and God’s people), and that her feelings are just as real as ours – because she is us and we are her. Let’s strive to remove bitterness and point people towards grace, as we (desperately need to) receive it ourselves. I’ll be the first to admit, sorry, I’ve hurt the church.
Disclaimer: I’m in no way refuting the fact that sometimes the ‘institution’ does hurt people. I’m not referring to that above, but rather the hurt from comes from people to people.