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Charlie was an active 11-year-old with autism. His parents had been thinking about attending church. They decided it was time to try to find a congregation that would love them, and love their son. About halfway through Sunday school one morning, Charlie's parents were summoned. The volunteers couldn't handle him. They were asked to find another church, because this church "just couldn't meet his needs." Other churches conveyed the same sentiment. The family finally gave up and decided that attending church was too hard.
We all know people who have been hurt by the church. People who have been so offended, wounded, or even abused that they have given up on it. Perhaps you've had this experience yourself.
Church is sometimes dysfunctional, uncomfortable, cross-purposed, and painful. We have pastors who fail God, themselves, and their congregations. We endure grumpy, self-righteous criticism reminiscent of the Pharisees. We fight each other, sometimes to the point of parting ways for good. Some observers say we are in danger of losing a whole generation of embittered souls who believe the church has lost its relevance and neglected their needs.
And yet we continue to call the church holy. According to the Nicene Creed, the church has four classical marks: It is "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic." We confess that the church is formed through the Holy Spirit and participates in God's own holiness. Sometimes we call it the "spotted bride" of Christ. At other times we proclaim, in the words of a 19th-century hymn, "'Tis a glorious Church, without spot or wrinkle." How, then, do we explain the seeming contradiction between what we believe about the church and what we experience in the church? Is it wishful thinking to proclaim the church holy? Are pain and heartache just inevitable?
If there were ever a dysfunctional church, it was the church at Corinth. Paul's first letter ...