There are over 1,500 Christian congregations in Harris County, and this is a good thing. In fact, Sojourn Houston hopes to add many more! But this creates a tension for Christians in Houston, and we'll need to learn to navigate this tension if we really hope to mature in Christ as the New Testament prescribes.
When a New Testament Ephesian was baptized, he/she was baptized into THE local church. Unless you planned to uproot your family and move to Philippi or Corinth, you were stuck with the believers in Ephesus. This forced the church and its leaders to hash out whatever problems arose. There was nowhere to run. But that's not the case for the modern Houstonian. Because we have a wide range of doctrines, denominations, communication styles, musical preferences, missional emphases, and communal models to choose from, we can easily get away with running from our problems. And make no mistake, this stunts our spiritual growth by enabling us to sidestep the Spirit's primary means of sanctification, our community.
Free to Fail
In marriage, the unending covenant to love no matter the circumstances ("for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health") creates an environment whereby the spousal relationship can truly thrive. In the "Meaning of Marriage," Dr. Timothy Keller writes: "When dating or living together, you have to prove your value daily by impressing and enticing. You have to show that the chemistry is there and the relationship is fun and fulfilling or it will be over. We are still basically in a consumer relationship, and that means constant promotion and marketing. The legal bond of marriage, however, creates a space of security where we can open up and reveal our true selves. We can be vulnerable, no longer having to keep up facades. We don't have to keep selling ourselves."
Married couples need the freedom to mess up. Although their actions still have consequences, they know the joy and security of resting in a mutual resolution to love one another. Churches are very similar. The New Testament assumes that we'll be sinning. For instance, the command to forgive one another (Colossians 3:13) assumes that we've offended one another. So it's not only unfair, it's unbiblical to expect perfection from your church as an organization. It ignores reality. It destroys vulnerability. And it places an unreasonable burden on the leadership, tempting them to believe there's no room for failure, repentance, and growth.
So what will bind us together? Well, our unity has already been established in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:1-6). But much like marriage, many churches have instituted some form of covenant membership. In essence, Sojourn's Covenant Members have resolved to love one another for better or for worse. Our Neighborhood Parishes, and even our church at large, should feel free to expect a long-suffering commitment from our brothers and sisters in covenant. This is a very difficult, but very beautiful thing!
Living with the Weeds
The Parable of the Weeds is frustrating for most people (Matthew 13:24-30). Take some time to read it. Although we may sow perfectly good seed, there will always be weeds in the midst of our wheat. And because we live in a fallen world, we understand why. But the parable doesn't stop there! The Master actually orders his servants to leave the weeds alone, "lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them" (Matthew 13:29). Jesus commands us to "let both [the wheat and the weeds] grow together until the harvest," and from there He promises to sort things out (Matthew 13:30).
Our churches will eventually let us down. Let's go ahead and accept this, trusting that God is more concerned with perfection than we are, and move forward with building His Kingdom in the here and now. In the meantime, as the church continues to grow corporately, we have plenty of reasons to repent individually!
In a commentary on this parable, John Calvin wrote: "Under the pretense of zeal, many are more [contorted] than they need be if everything is not settled according to their wishes (for nowhere is an absolute purity seen) and they go mad and leave the Church or upset and ruin everything with their harsh strictness. Hence, to my mind, the intention of the parable is simple. So long as the Church is on pilgrimage in this world, the good and the sincere will be mixed in it with the bad and the hypocrites. So the children of God must arm themselves with patience and maintain an unbroken constancy of faith among all the offenses which can trouble them."
In marriage, adultery is the only Biblical grounds for the divorce of two Christians (Matthew 5:32). But even under these circumstances, God still hates divorce (Malachi 2:13-16). So I'd like to propose a similar standard when considering whether or not to leave your current church. Unless your current church begins preaching an adulterated pseudo-gospel, I challenge you to stick around. Trust that God will one day sort out all this chaos and resolve to live faithfully today.