I could give a list of warnings on how to recognize a problem church with problem leadership. Instead, I would like to emphasize how to find a “healthy” church with “godly” leadership. I put those words in quotes, because I think the key to finding a healthy church is finding one who doesn’t advertise their health—instead they have a sober awareness of their failings and are a humble people who understand their daily need of gospel grace. And godly leadership, if we think someone like the Apostle Paul qualifies, is leadership that recognizes that they are the chief of sinners. Godly leadership is humble leadership that values accountability.
I have been privileged to sit under such leadership at such a church the past few years. I remember the first time we met our pastor face to face. He sat in our living room and told us of a hurtful experience he had after coming to Christ as an adult. He had been naively enthusiastic as a new Christian and then was slammed with classic church dysfunction early in his walk with Christ. He managed to drag himself to another group of believers full of wounded Christians that he said lay around kind of like the chickens at the boneless chicken ranch in the Farside comic. And he invited our family to freely lie like boneless chickens in his congregation as well. I remember my initial guilt over sitting on the back row, fearful of sucking up resources without pouring back in return. I had given much to other churches, but right now, I wasn’t ready to give to his, by no fault of his own. And his response floored me. He was almost angrily adamant – “Don’t worry about that!” He made it clear that it was NOT an issue for us to sit on the back row and soak in sermons on gospel grace as long as we needed. I had heard the word grace thrown around in Christian circles most of my life. But I didn’t understand it until I started walking with this group of believers. Then Scripture started to make sense – I do not earn righteousness by my good works. God endures with me though I’m unworthy. He calls His children to do the same. Love suffers long. If I give expecting something in return, it is not grace. And so forth. I had known the gospel from early childhood, but something clicked. A damp cloth cleaned the smeared lens through which I had viewed it all. Ahhhhh – so THAT’s gospel grace!
Both of the “healthy” churches I attended understood the doctrine of the Church. They knew she is precious to Christ and that He has pursued her from before time began. But they also knew she is like Hosea’s whoring wife. She is a prostitute by nature and will turn to it again and again. And yet God still pursues. As Hosea pursued his wife over multiple instances of infidelity, God does His Bride as well. We are her. We go to church with her. And while one day we will sit with Christ in a fully glorified state, wearing robes of righteousness, we are NOT there yet. So when Pastor A, Sunday School teacher B, or Average Attendee C struggle with real issues, we are not shocked or decimated. We have a gospel lens through which to view their struggle. The problem in churches is not that they struggle. The problem comes when the church expects them not to struggle and has no gospel hope to give them when they do. Then they hide until their sin becomes so ingrained and debilitating that it can’t be hidden anymore. The abscess bursts, and everyone is decimated.
I have posted the link to this sermon from Philippians once before, but here it is again. The pastor reminds us that, despite the wounds most of us have experienced by way of Christian leadership, God’s good undershepherds STILL exist. Furthermore, it is in our spiritual interest to open ourselves to their leadership when God presents them. The worst thing in the world we can do if we’ve experienced unaccountable Christian leadership gone wrong is write off leadership and accountability altogether. The fact is that you and I are sinners capable of wounding others the way we have been wounded, and we have bought Satan’s lie if we think otherwise. We TOO need accountability. We TOO need God’s good undershepherd speaking into our lives. God has not given up on sending us leaders like Paul, Timothy, or Epaphroditus. And we should not give up on the idea either.
There are churches that are healthy and godly. They are not perfect. In fact, their imperfections may be glaringly obvious. The litmus test is how they deal with their imperfections. Imperfections about which Scripture is not dogmatic are not issues in such churches. People just deal with it. Imperfections on which Scripture is dogmatic ARE issues, but issues covered with enduring gospel-centered grace. I can’t tell you specifics of exactly what that looks like, but I can say that when you sit under such a pastor and fellowship with that kind of community, the difference will be obvious. Grace is meaningless without truth, and gospel centered churches deal with the truth of sin head on. But truth will kill you without grace, and gospel centered churches understand and apply gospel grace in liberal amounts at every turn. Don’t settle for less.