Dear Wandering Sheep,
You were baptized into the visible church. You were catechized. You made a profession of faith but, for one reason or another, you wandered away from the church. This letter is addressed to you.
Why People Wander: The Visible Church
People wander from the church for many reasons. Sometimes the visible church can be a hard or painful place to be. Some of the more cutting and thoughtless remarks I have ever heard have been within the confines of a church building. There is a reason for such things. All the people within the visible church are sinful and sometimes in church (or maybe it is especially in church) sin can be intensified. We might borrow from Paul (Rom 7:7) to say: “What then shall we say? That the church is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the church, I would not have known sin…”. Of course, where I substituted church the apostle Paul said law but when we substitute church, it seems to be true. Sometimes church brings out the worst in people.
Nevertheless, it is also and equally true that some of the kindest, most gentle, and gracious people I have ever known I have met in and through the visible church. In the church we call these people godly and we do so for good reason: they are like God, the reflect his mercy, tenderness, kindness, patience, and grace toward sinners.
When we read the biblical history of the church, e.g., the Exodus of the church out of Egypt, we are reminded that the struggles we have with people in the church are not new at all. Poor Moses, for all his sins, was beset by a mob of ungrateful, impatient, and sometimes downright mean people. The Old Covenant church, considered as a corporate entity would be one of those congregations about which ministers warn each other: “Oh, really, you should be very certain before you take that call. That is a hard congregation.” So, for all the advantages of being in the New Covenant, there are persisting realities in both covenants that do not change.
Why People Wander: Sin
Let us be frank with one another. It may well be that someone (or even multiple persons) in the church have hurt you in the past but there is also another reason people wander from the church: sin. I am not accusing you of being in gross sin (but you may be—are you?) but sin is seductive. The Scriptures use the word “entice” to describe the way that sin operates. Sometimes we are enticed by others (Deut 13:6; 2 Pet 2:14) Just as frequently we are enticed by our own hearts. E.g., Job denied that his heart had been enticed toward another woman (Job 31:9). James says, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14).
The reason that we give into the enticements offered by others is because our hearts are corrupt from the get go. You might have been told that you are, at bottom a good person. That is not true. By nature, after the fall, you and I are not good. Creation (of which we are a part) is essentially good, i.e., the material world is not evil per se but because of the fall, we are corrupted. All our desires are corrupt. You have heard people say, “follow your heart.” That is the worst advice ever. The prophet Jeremiah was telling the truth when said, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jer 17:9). It is. By nature all our thoughts, our desires, our affections are corrupted and bent. We are so corrupt and bent that we do not even reason how corrupt and bent we are. We are so easily enticed that we are halfway to hell before it even dawns on us that we are in trouble.
If you are justifying your walking away from your baptism, your profession of faith, and the church on the basis that you are hurt or angry that is a sin too. You are lying to yourself and to others about what is really going on.
I am not making excuses for whatever happened in church. If there was a genuine wrong (e.g., if you were abused) and someone sinned against you, that needs to be addressed. You should tell someone. If someone touched you inappropriately or tried to do, you must tell someone. You should probably start by telling the police. There are officers who understand what you have experienced and can help you. If you know of someone in a congregation who is hurting people this way, that person needs to be found out and removed from the church and punished by the civil authorities.
If someone hurt you emotionally or psychologically, that needs to be addressed too. There is no place in the Christ’s church for what some smart-Alecs call the “serrated edge.” Shepherds do not use knives on their lambs. I know of a case where a minister got hold of the diary of a 14-year old girl in his congregation. Years later, when the young woman was grown up and began to speak out about what had happened to her (she was raped by a member in the congregation) he tried to use the diary to silence her but she was courageous and did not back down. Sadly, she was so hurt by what happened that she renounced her faith and walked away from the church. If something like this happened to you, please contact someone so that this case can be addressed and you can get the help you need.
Christ Is Still The Shepherd
The reality is that for all the sin in the church and in your heart (and mine) Jesus is still raised from the dead. He established his visible church knowing full well that he was instituting sinful people as leaders and sinful people as members. The sins of the leaders and the members does not roll the stone back across the mouth of Jesus’ tomb. The stone was rolled away and Jesus walked out. He was with his disciples for a while and then he went to be with the Father.
Jesus has not changed. He still loves you. He will punish those who have hurt you and especially those in the church. He said:
Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea (Matthew 18:5-6; ESV).
The people who hurt you, especially any leader in the visible church who abused you, will give an accounting to the Lord of the church. As the writer to the Hebrews said, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31; ESV). It is indeed. That is true for me and it is true for you.
If, in your anger, you have renounced Christ, his gospel, and his church, you have placed yourself in great jeopardy. You are in danger of falling into the hands of the living God. You can tell yourself that you know better, that you are too mature or too enlightened to believe in Jesus any more but you and I know that nothing has changed about the truth. Jesus is still the Lord. He was on the cross. He died and was raised on the third day. He ascended and he is coming again. It is all still true and we both know it.
At the last day and your conscience tells you that there will be a last day, you and I shall have to stand before the all-holy, almighty Jesus. Either you will be clothed in his righteousness by grace alone, through faith alone or you will stand there naked before him, in all your sin and shame. “Yes, but” is a poor defense.
Maybe you are worried that you have sinned so grievously that Jesus could never forgive you. Bosh! Of course he can. He does it every day. He was brutalized and crucified and mocked as he died. He forgave them. Do you think he is shocked by what you have done? Why do you think he came in the first place? He obeyed and died for sinners. Run, do not walk, to Jesus and he will receive you with open arms.
I know that you carry some heavy burdens. Jesus understands. He is calling you right now: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:28-29; ESV).
You are a wandering sheep and that is no way to live but the Shepherd still loves you. He will hear your cry. It is not too late.
©R. Scott Clark
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Your closing paragraphs reminded me of this admonition:
“Therefore my faithful request and admonition is that you join our company and associate with us, who are real, great, and hard-boiled sinners. You must by no means make Christ to seem paltry and trifling to us, as though He could be our Helper only when we want to be rid from imaginary, nominal, and childish sins. No, no! That would not be good for us. He must rather be a Savior and Redeemer from real, great, grievous, and damnable transgressions and iniquities, yea, from the very greatest and most shocking sins; to be brief, from all sins added together in a grand total.”
– from Martin Luther’s letter to Spalatin