In response to a query by The Times to a handful of thinkers and writers of the day to the question, “What’s wrong with the world?,” G. K. Chesterton replied with an answer that was as stunning as it was succinct:
G. K. Chesterton
Any man can tell you what’s wrong with society. That’s what political pundits do for a living. Of course, no two talking heads will agree on every particular; but on this they all agree: the problems are outside them.
This is what made Chesterton’s reply so stunning. He knew what was in a man, especially in the man Chesterton. And despite the myriad of problems swirling around him, he was chiefly concerned about the sin that dwelt within him.
Now imagine if the question was altered slightly, so that it asked, “What’s wrong with the church?” Most of us would hardly know where to start. “What isn’t wrong?” we might retort. And many of our answers would be good and accurate.
But I have an eerie suspicion that few of us (myself included) would answer this question the way Chesterton did his.
Even more pointed, what if the question changed again, this time asking, “What’s wrong with our conservative Reformed churches?” Then what would we say?
In the next series of articles, my intention is to identify and clarify seven of our most glaring weaknesses as Reformed churches, not so that we can beat ourselves up for the sake of getting beaten down, but with the hopes of confessing our sins so that we can move upward and outward in the power of the gospel. Those subtle yet harmful -isms are legalism, behaviorism, formalism, elitism, conservatism, dogmatism, and exclusivism.
In the remainder of this article, I want to set the table for this series by exploring Jesus’ penetrating words in His beloved Sermon on the Mount: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:3–5, ESV).
We in the Reformed community love to talk about God’s sovereign and undeserved grace, yet are often quick to speak, slow to hear, and eager to grow angry. We are masters at pointing out the theological weaknesses and ethical inconsistencies of others, yet amateurs at identifying and admitting the giant logs in our own eyes. We thrive at nitpicking and criticizing those not like us, yet fail at effectively wooing outsiders to us.
But why? Why is it so hard for us to love the truth and our neighbor? Why are we known more for who we aren’t than who we are? What is it that makes us better at winning arguments than winning souls? Why do we have such a difficult time seeing the logs in our own eye? Let me suggest three possibilities.
We Don’t Think We Have Weaknesses
To be sure, we have scores of biblical and theological categories, including a doctrine of sin that locates the problem within us because of the rebellious act of the one man, Adam.
Yet sometimes there is a giant gap between our categories and reality. The reason we often fail to see the log in our own eyes is because we don’t think such a log exists. Simply put, it’s just not there.
We might have some specks that need rinsing every once and a while, but on the whole, the problems with the church are problems found somewhere else. This was the same attitude of arrogance displayed so pathetically in the Pharisees and scribes in Jesus’ day. They “grumbled at his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ And Jesus answered them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance’” (Luke 5:30–32).
Could it be that we too often think we are well? That we are healthy and strong and beyond the need for Jesus’ daily grace? That we’ve figured everything out? That grace got us in but our traditions and theological acumen will get us home?
If we are honest, don’t we think that our churches would be much better places if everybody just listened to us?
We are more like the disciples than unlike them, particularly as we find them arguing with one another about which of them was the greatest, just moments after Jesus announced His imminent suffering.
In the final analysis, as we look at our churches, some among us just plain and simply don’t see any logs.
We Know We Have Weaknesses, but They Aren’t as Bad as Their Weaknesses
It is hard to notice the logs in our eyes when we are so focused on the specks in others. Of course, from our vantage point, those specks are more like sequoias. The bigger their problems appear, the smaller ours become.
This is why we shine at criticizing people, especially behind their backs. The worse they are, the better are we.
We are masters at comparing ourselves horizontally. It doesn’t take long to find someone who is worse off than we are. Jesus called this self-righteousness. In one of His famous parables He told the following story “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9–14).
The reason we excel at pointing out other people’s problems is not primarily to make them look bad. It’s so that we look good. Truth be told, we know we have plenty of issues. But rather than repenting, we’d rather make ourselves look shinier next to those dirty people over there.
Churches outside our circles do have problems. But Satan’s goal is to get us to ignore ours because we focus entirely on theirs. We are not unlike Adam and Eve, our first parents, who shifted the spotlight from themselves by throwing someone else under the bus.
We Know We Have Weaknesses, but We Aren’t Sure What They Are
Not every member of a Reformed church is a self-righteous, obnoxious Pharisee. Many of us are keenly aware of our own shortcomings and sins.
Yet I’m convinced that we don’t do a very good job at identifying these things specifically and practically. We confess our corporate and personal sins every Sunday, but they often remain general and safe. “We have sinned against you,” instead of “Forgive us for thinking we are better than that church next door.”
We are quick to affirm total depravity as a doctrine, yet slow to see how it affects the way we think, feel, and act in everyday life.
The saying is true, “The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.” But an alcoholic will not be helped until he admits that his actual problem is with alcohol, and not something else.
When is the last time our churches preached a series on repentance? When is the last conservative conference you’ve attended that focused more on our weaknesses than the on weaknesses of other movements? Not as individual Christians but as conservative and confessional churches? Of course, conference organizers know that such self-deprecating topics might fail to draw attendees. Who wants to spend a weekend getting beat up when it’s so much easier (and enjoyable) beating up others?
I’m not suggesting that we need to create problems that aren’t really there. By the grace of God, many of our churches are healthy in important regards. But we make progress best when we take inventory, and taking inventory means being honest about strengths and weaknesses.
We must go deeper than the familiar adage, “We are sinners, saved by grace.” Indeed, we are. But in what ways does that sin manifest itself in our churches? Where and when and how does our total depravity show up as a conservative community? When we acknowledge our ongoing sin and our particular tendencies, what sins and what tendencies are we talking about?
We as a conservative Reformed community must come to grips with the actual sins that most easily entangle us. And we must learn to grieve them.
James writes, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:7–10).
Wonderful things happen when we humble ourselves. Though painful at the time, getting the log out of our corporate eyes will only better our vision of Jesus and our brothers and sisters around us.
Life in Him and conformity to Him is our great goal. Repentance of sin without the grace of the gospel still leaves us gazing downward and inward rather than looking upward and outward. For this reason, after walking through the seven -isms that tend to accompany conservative Reformed churches, we’ll explore how the gospel of Jesus is their ultimate antidote and our supreme hope.
But before we hear how the gospel’s good news addresses our weaknesses, we must identify and clarify what those weaknesses are.
Peter writes, “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God” (1 Pet. 4:17a).
May God give us the grace of humility.
Rev. Michael J. Schout is the pastor of Grace URC in Alto, MI. He welcomes your feedback at: firstname.lastname@example.org