Sadly, the answer is that we can and have. Ironically we who have received the greatest extent of forgiveness- Christ took the judgment for our sins and we receive His righteousness- can be the most unforgiving and vindictive.
Numerous stories can be told of legitimate abuses in a local church. But let me pause here to qualify that these are legitimate cases. In other words the people abused have biblical grounds for making the case that a local church is being unforgiving, vindictive or whatever the specific issues are. These are not cases where someone attends a church and is offended that the church would preach sound doctrine ( Titus 1:9-2:1, 1 Tim. 6:1-5, 2 Tim. 2:1-7, 4:1-5; which offends many), rightly implements church discipline when needed (1 Cor. 5:1-5, 6:1-8, 1 Tim. 5:20) and rightly implements that the elders of the church are invested by God with authority (Heb. 13:17, 1 Pet. 5:1-5, 1 Tim. 3:1-7, 1 Tim. 5:17). These are not the people who are not offended by the church not centered around them and their individual felt needs and feelings. These people are not offended that the church is centered upon Christ and His authoritative Word and that corporate worship is not about the people receiving but giving our Triune God His praise and worship.
These people have been abused by the church have genuinely been sinned against by either the leaders or the congregation as a whole. I recall an instance when a pastor was caught in an immoral act and publicly repented and resigned as a result. His repentance was genuine. He asked the congregation to forgive him and desired to remain in fellowship with that local body as a member, and in no position of authority. However, many in the church couldn’t forgive him for his sins and demanded he leave and if he didn’t they would. The elders and the majority of the body handled that situation biblically and restored such a brother. But no doubt he was hurt by the stinging and biting vindictiveness of some in the body. This is a legitimate example of one who was hurt by some Christians. He, along with many others hurt by fellow Christians, could have griped and complained about how “unloving” and “unforgiving” and “abusive” Christians can be. He didn’t.
Local churches are marred and imperfect. Elders will sin, fail and hurt people. Likewise, so will the congregation. But the church is still the bride of Christ and He loves her. He doesn’t cast her away because she isn’t yet perfected. The Lord gave His life for her knowing she would not be perfect this side of eternity:
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (Eph 5:25–27).
If this is the case, and it most certainly is, where do so- called Christians get the notion that they are free to insist that the church overall and most Christians “eat their own?” Why do they seek to minimize the local church and convey the idea that because she is imperfect and very bad, very, very bad and to be avoided? By what authority do they make such assertions both explicitly and implicitly?
Therein lies the hear of the matter- authority. Many of these people, when you strip their arguments and objections from their emotional and sentimental clothing, will find that it really boils down to a rejection of divine authority. Specifically, divine authority coming through leaders in a local church, whether preached or practiced. Couple that with much confusion and ignorance on biblical concepts like love, forgiveness, grace and so forth, and you will find that many of these accusations and assertions are subjective and personal preferences- influenced by liberalism and how the world defines such concepts- of how they think a church should be and function. In fact, many of these accusers would not even know how to identify the marks of a true local church. They would struggle with how the Belgic Confession of Faith explains the marks of a true church and that a a false church:
Article 29: The Marks of the True Church
- We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully, by the Word of God, what is the true church– for all sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of “the church.”
- We are not speaking here of the company of hypocrites who are mixed among the good in the church and who nonetheless are not part of it, even though they are physically there. But we are speaking of distinguishing the body and fellowship of the true church from all sects that call themselves “the church.”
- The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it.
- As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ. They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works.
- Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him.
- As for the false church, it assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God; it does not want to subject itself to the yoke of Christ; it does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word; it rather adds to them or subtracts from them as it pleases; it bases itself on men, more than on Jesus Christ; it persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry.
- These two churches are easy to recognize and thus to distinguish from each other.
For the ones that yell “Christians judge too much!” (implying the church) the Belgic Confession of Faith’s marks of a true church is too restrictive. It is too narrow, authoritative and too exclusive; thereby it is too “judgmental.”
A major problem is that many Christians have this false notion that Christians are not to “judge.” They are quick to shout “judge not!” in reference to Matthew 7:1; without understanding what the text means. They are not so quick to quote the words of our Lord in John 7:24- “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” They also neglect the words of Paul, who actually pronounced a judgment an a sexually immoral man and demanded the congregation at Corinth implement it, “For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord (1 Co 5:3–5).
To be sure his point was to restore the sinning brother. He goes on to exhort the congregation to forgive when repentance is demonstrated and restoration sought. He writes in 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, “Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.”
That is the divine mandate, and thus the biblical model, for how unrepentant and open sin is to be handled in the Lord’s church. But to even implement such discipline in a church would be to invite the accusations of “unloving,” “mean,” “unforgiving,” and “judgmental.” After all, it is claimed, “we need to love them back.” Which really means that we need to ignore the sin and hope that the person repents as a result of our “loving acceptance” of them. But to ignore sin in Christians’s lives is to despise the holiness and glory of the God you claim to know.
Yes I am aware that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. Even though that is a slightly different issue (evangelism), He still called such people to repentance from sins and faith in Him-
27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.
29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance (Lk 5:27–32).
Not only do so -called Christians reject the authority of God’s written Word; as preached by His under-shepherds and submitted to by all His people. They also seem to think and believe that God’s greatest concern is people and their feelings. When in fact God’s greatest concern is for His own glory ( Ps. 106: 7-8, Is. 43-6-7, Ez. 20:14; 48:9-11, Eph. 1:3-14, Ro. 9:14-23).
When it comes to the local church many people are more concerned with how one “feels” in a church rather than God’s glory in a local church.
I have my own problems with how much in bad shape the church is at the moment, but for very different reasons and of which these accusers demonstrate. But I have no right, nor authority to abandon her, nor to encourage fellow Christians to avoid a local church in favor of being a “member” of the universal church.
Tragically the church does “eat her own” at times. That needs to be repented of. Yet, one will never find a perfect local church, just like one will never find a perfect family; no one is in favor of rejecting or minimizing or doing away with the concept of family because of the flaws within families.
“19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 10:19–31).”