I’m not a great repairman. In fact, my first strategy when faced with something broken is to click the order button on Amazon Prime. Out with the old, in with the new.
Unfortunately, we’re tempted to apply the same strategy to the church. Tired of your pastor? Find a new one. Insulted by a church member? Go somewhere else. Hear about a church with more seats, better music, and bigger programs? Jump ship and enjoy the upgrade.
I’m speaking flippantly, but the problem is real. What if your pastor plunges into sexual sin? What if a fellow member bludgeons your heart after you finally open up about an ongoing struggle? What if the congregation begins to teeter in its commitment to the Word of God or finds itself lost in a civil war over a building project?
As someone who grew up in the church and now pastors one, I’ve seen it go both ways: churches hurting Christians and Christians hurting the church. How do we deal with these disappointing realities?
I’ve found great encouragement in an ancient story about failure in 1 Samuel 31. In an avalanche of disaster, the Israelites’ leader, King Saul, brings about devastation for all of Israel. And yet, God didn’t abandon his people. This Old Testament story speaks to our contemporary temptations to bail on the church.
THE TEMPTATION TO BAIL WHEN LEADERS FAIL
King Saul found himself in a desperate situation as the Philistines attacked: “The battle pressed hard against Saul. . . . Therefore Saul took his own sword and fell upon it” (31:3-4). How did the leader of God’s people end up here? Though Saul looked the part, he made a habit of disobeying God and failing to repent. God warned that judgment was coming. And then, tragically, Saul fulfilled this judgment by killing himself.
Leaders in the church still fail today. And it’s not just the well-known pastors of big churches. I spent my childhood learning to love the Word of God under the preaching of a regular pastor who was eventually arrested for sexual misconduct. How’s a kid supposed to reconcile these things? It was shockingly confusing then, and now as a pastor, it’s a humbling warning that comes to mind often.
But sometimes a leader’s failure is not his fault. Before Saul’s death, the Philistines killed his son, Jonathan. As the heir to the throne, Jonathan had given the kingdom over to David and served God faithfully at great cost to himself.
It’s one thing to see a leader fall because of his own sin, but it’s another to see him fall because of tragedy. How could God let this happen? I ask that question when I hear of seminary classmates tragically dying in their forties or getting run out of a church simply because they preached the gospel.
The losses of Jonathan and Saul serve as reminders that Israel needed more than a man to hope in. In the same way, we can’t ultimately put our hope in human leaders, no matter how faithful they are. In fact, even on their best days, pastors can’t help but disappoint the flocks they love.
Therefore, we need to see that while not all leaders end up disgraced in their sin, all fail to live with perfect righteousness, and all fail to bring about the “victory” we need. Christ is our only hope.
THE TEMPTATION TO BAIL WHEN PEERS FAIL
But what if someone closer than a leader fails? In 1 Samuel 31, the nation of Israel is defeated. The battle is brutal, and there is no rescue. Then it gets worse. The land which God created for Israel was lost. “The men of Israel . . . abandoned their cities and fled. And the Philistines came and lived in them” (31:7).
The church knows this feeling all too well. We often fail to love the nations and our neighbors. We’ve been silent when we should have spoken, and we’ve spoken when we should have been silent. We’ve seen denominations fall into apostasy by abandoning the gospel while their individual churches dwindle until the last few members put a for-sale sign in the yard.
What’s the church to do? For one, we need to be honest about our failures, both personal and corporate. The church is broken because we are broken. This must lead us back to Christ and his Word with repentance.
Ultimately though, we need to see ourselves as Christ does. He’s not surprised by our sin. He’s pursued us in it, forgiven us, washed us, and is working tenderly to heal us. He’s proved this by dying for us. There is hope for this broken body. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
As the pastor of a local church, I get a front-row seat to all the bruises and blemishes of Christ’s body. However, these only make Christ’s transforming love all the more incredible as he works wonders through ordinary, faithful, and growing believers. He heals marriages, converts sinners, and deepens our desire for his Word. What more could we ask for?
We’re a mess of course, but we’re his mess, and we’re becoming something beautiful.
THE TEMPTATION TO BAIL WHEN THE WORLD REJOICES AT THE CHURCH’S FAILURES
As the battle ends, the Philistines rejoice by decapitating Saul and sending messengers to spread the “good” news. But it wasn’t just the people of God who were being shamed. By desecrating the body of God’s anointed leader, the Philistines were declaring that God had lost and that their gods, Dagon and Ashtaroth, had won.
How do you respond when the world rejoices over the church’s failures? If your concern is your own reputation and pride, then you’ll either become hateful or defect.
But if your concern is the Lord, then you’ll stay steadfast and, as scholar Dale Ralph Davis says, you will do what you can in your grief. “All the valiant men arose . . . and took the [bodies] from the wall. . . . And they took their bones and buried them . . . and fasted seven days” (31:12-13).
These valiant men knew Saul and Israel had failed, and they felt righteous anger that God’s name was being shamed. So they quietly pressed on, at the risk of their lives, to honor God through small thankless acts of obedience.
Faithfully serving an imperfect local church in a hostile world often resembles this. It’s not glamorous. It won’t make the news. But it matters. And it’s beautiful.
ONE BIG REASON NOT TO BAIL ON THE CHURCH
This story wraps up the book of 1 Samuel and shows the people of God in a bleak place. Israel was without a king, a prophet, and most of their priests and the heirs to the throne. Today’s church is often in a similar place, with failed leaders, a struggling body, and proud enemies.
The church was also here on a Spring day over 2,000 years ago when her perfect leader was brutally killed, lesser leaders failed, and the body scattered as enemies rejoiced. But God’s people found a reason not to bail.
Out of the darkness, a light emerged. The tomb was empty. Christ was risen. And hope was alive!
Yes, the church had failed, but God did not. And yes, the church will fail again, but God will never fail his church. This truth gives us the freedom to honestly mourn the brokenness of the church. We’re allowed to humbly challenge the church when she falters. At times, we have permission to leave a church that’s left Christ.
But we must not forsake the big “C” church unless we wish to abandon him who died for her. There’s no other way forward. There’s no other hope.
So take courage and remain faithful. Either we belong to Christ’s bride or we don’t. And what a day it will be when we see her (ourselves included) fully washed, redeemed, and glorious as a bride beaming before her husband on her wedding day.
Stephen R. Morefield (M.Div., Covenant Theological Seminary) pastors Christ Covenant Church in the wonderful small town of Leoti, KS. Stephen and his wife, Morgan, have three children. He is the author of Fierce Grace: 30 Days with King David and the co-author of Enduring Grace: 21 Days with the Apostle Peter.