The Bible’s got a pretty high view of the Church. It’s called the “bride of Christ”(see Ephesians 5:25-27), “a pillar and buttress of truth”(1 Timothy 3:15), and has Jesus at its head. Yet we so often see that this just isn’t true – the Church is made up of people, and frankly, people are prats sometimes: me included. Throughout its history, the Church hasn’t always lived up to the first bit, and definitely has lived up to the second bit – that’s clear from the New Testament as much as it is from a cursory glance in any book on Church history.
So how do we go about talking about other churches? Chances are, if we’re in a church, we’re there for a reason, i.e. we feel called there, it’s where our families and/or friends are, or we think it’s the best one around in terms of style/worship/doctrine/theology/practices, etc. And around us will be other churches with differing styles/doctrines/practices. This can sometimes lead to clashes, and it’s hard to talk well when they just seem wrong.
I’ve spent the last couple of years learning a little bit more about the Bible and one of my modules this year was on the earliest churches and how they functioned. In it we spent some time looking at the issue of food offered to idols to the early Christians, the biblical texts being 1 Corinthians 8 and 10. The issue was difficult – there were some Christians who knew (correctly) that ‘an idol doesn’t really exist’ (1 Corinthians 8:4) because God is the only God. Therefore eating the food was fine because it was just part of a big ceremony to a figment of the idol-worshippers imagination. Simple, right? Well no, because some of the early Christians used to be those idol-worshippers. When they ate the food, they ran the risk of committing idolatry (or as Paul says, being ‘destroyed’) because they still saw a significance in it (8:7-11).
Paul then says something massive: ‘”If my eating food makes my brother stumble (Bible language for ‘mess up’), I will never eat meat again, so that I will not make my brother stumble”(8:13).
Paul is prepared to completely give up something that he knows he’s right about for the sake of his brother or sister. He’s prepared to say ‘I place more value on you, and your relationship with God, than my rightness’. Are we prepared to follow his example? Are we prepared to look at another church, who we may disagree with over an issue like charismatic stuff, and say ‘although this disagreement is important to both of us, what is of the greatest importance is you’.
I’m not suggesting we constantly sweep things under the carpet and pretend we don’t have our disagreements or grievances – it’s vital that we talk, forgive and receive forgiveness but the thing of most importance is our brother or sister; not our being right or wrong. I’d argue that this is a better way to talk about churches: place all value on the people, not our correctness.