“The glory that you have given me I have given to them, … that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:22–23). On the last night before he died, Christ prayed for his disciples and those who would come after them.
Jesus’ prayer is the model of what he has created the church to be, and what the world is to conclude when viewing the church. In this article, I offer a few simple thoughts about what we can do to more closely approach our Savior’s desire for us as members of his body.
It is surely no accident that the apostle Paul, speaking as the inspired author of the Pastoral Epistles in the New Testament, spends considerable time discussing controversy within the church. There was plenty of it to discuss! In addition, all of the Gospels pointedly dwell on the infighting and rivalry among Jesus’ disciples. We modern Presbyterians may often despair at the discord within our circles, but Scripture makes it clear that this is not a uniquely modern problem.
As long as there has been a church composed of sinners saved by grace, there have been controversies and disagreements. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church was born amidst controversy and disagreement, and while God has blessed us with sufficient grace that we have endured, the journey has not always been peaceful, and even today the OPC is neither as peaceful as we should desire nor as marked by unity and love as our Savior intended.
Controversy within the church takes many forms, and it has many effects in the life of the church. Many of us are aware of the issues that have recently caused division within our denomination and other Reformed churches: women in office, the age of the earth, various eschatological views, and the relationship between justification, grace, works, and the law. Because these controversies involve frail people of flesh and blood, all of them have the potential to cause hurt within the body of Christ.
However, I have observed that more often it is disagreement about more personal issues at the congregational level that have the potential to hurt people in an intimate way, sometimes causing them distress for many years. While issues such as the age of the earth are important, it is issues such as how to school one’s children, how to shape the worship of the congregation, and how to care for our youth as they mature (the majority of them with the accompanying need and desire to marry) that have the greatest potential for deep personal hurt and subsequent estrangement within the body of Christ.
Christ in his prayer for us says that we are to be one. Any pastor who has been on the job for more than a few weeks can tell you how far short of that ideal we fall.
I have been a member of the OPC nearly all my life. I am the son of an elder who has served the church for almost sixty years. I have had the privilege to know several of our pastors personally for many years. I have seen much demonstration of God’s grace in the lives of his people during those many years, most of all in my own life, but I have also seen a great deal of personal damage wrought by division within the church.
Everyone’s experience is no doubt different, but it has been my observation that over the course of a lifetime, both the greatest joys and the greatest hurts enter our lives through the church. In some ways, this seems completely wrong, because within the church we are dealing with our fellow believers, and we are right to expect that our fellow Christians will have “no greater love” for us.
However, it is also true that the church is a very intimate association of sinners who take their faith very seriously, and who spend years in each other’s company. One of our most senior pastors fondly says, “The OPC is the best church in the world, if you can stand it.” That is a funny line, but there is truth in it. With great commitment comes great potential for many things, including controversy and resultant damage to people.
In God’s eternal and good providence, I have found myself several times in a position within Christ’s church that has been very painful for me and for my family. I am by no means unique in this regard; indeed, I am in good company. My point is not that I am a special case, but that difficult and hurtful things happen within the church.
When they happen, we naturally turn to God for guidance, whether by prayer, reading his word, partaking of the means of grace, or the support of our fellow Christians, particularly our elders. All of these means have been of great assistance to me, and I am grateful for the way that God has used all of them in my life, but I have still struggled.
Lately I have come to believe several parts of God’s Word more firmly, and they have been of great value to me in being able to lay to rest some of the hurt that I have carried with me for what seems too long. I would like to share those things with you.
First, God has reminded me that any higher moral ground that I may have occupied, relative to people who have hurt me, is so infinitely low, relative to my position in relation to God, that I have absolutely no room for pride—nor really any cause to dwell on the fact the I am “right.” While I may have more light in some areas of my life than my fellow believers (and no doubt less light in other areas), I fall so short of the glory of God that I should dwell on my own shortcomings, asking God to change me.
Put another way, the difference between the best and the worst of us is practically indiscernible, relative to the degree to which we all fall short of the standards in God’s Word, and it is upon that reality we should dwell. If one sincerely believes that all one’s righteousness is truly “like a polluted garment” (Isa. 64:6), then one cannot spend much time feeling righteously offended.
Note that this is not to say that offense does not occur, or that such things should be treated lightly. Offense is real and often very hurtful. However, offense is experienced very differently when one’s spiritual gaze is directed upward rather than at one’s fellow Christians.
Second, I have been helped by honest soul-searching about my own sin. I have asked myself how the worst things I have done, said, or thought compare to the painful things that my fellow Christians have done to me. Needless to say, I have been humbled and stricken by my gaze into the mirror. While my sins may not have hurt those who have hurt me, they have always hurt someone, and, more importantly, they have displeased God. The difference between our “smallest” and our “greatest” sins in the sight of God is negligible. Sin is “any want of conformity …,” and all of our sins deserve judgment. Both mine and yours.
I have often carried my hurts with me, trying to forget them, but failing. I have often prayed that those who have hurt me would perhaps repent, because that would help me forgive them, which I know I should do. God has gently reminded me of the endless times when I have been forgiven by him and by my fellow Christians, usually long before God has worked repentance in my heart. He has shown me that I have no grounds upon which I—who have, like all Christians, been forgiven a huge amount of evil—can withhold forgiveness from one of my brethren. That is not to say that it would not be a comfort to me if such repentance should occur, but I cannot make that a condition of forgiveness.
These are simple things, but they are central to the gospel, and they are hard things to hang on to. Perhaps by writing them down, I can more ably remember them! I fear that I will not keep the clarity that God has given me at this time, but I hope that I will remember a good deal of what God has shown to me. I also hope that my experience can help some of my readers to take the necessary steps to mend as much as possible the tears in what God intended to be a seamless and perfect garment of fellowship—which it will be one day by his grace.
The author is a member of First OPC in Portland, Ore. New Horizons, May 2016.