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I've been 'attending' an online conference in Poland this week for Christian leaders.
It's great, because it connects me with people from a lot of different cultures.
Yesterday I was 'with' leaders from Belarus, Egypt, Germany, Sweden, Ukraine, the Baltic states and even England!
It broadens your outlook on the world and you learn a lot of stuff that wouldn't normally be on your reading list.
But the evening plenary session was deeply disturbing for me.
The American therapist being interviewed had wide experience of helping people who had been abused. The session was all about the abuse of positions of leadership.
What the lady had to say was deeply troubling but absolutely needs to be heard. Don't worry ... I'm not going to traumatise you with the gory details of it all.
There were many insights that her modern counselling theory gave that are surely very helpful.
But there was one thing she came back to repeatedly that concerned me:
Pointing to the Church as a person's place of sanctuary
Our speaker last night was insistent that we must ensure our churches are places of sanctuary for broken and abused people.
Of course I wanted to say 'Yes!' to that.
You've GOT to vote for that ... it's like 'motherhood' and 'apple pie'.
But I've come to think there's really quite a problem with it ... a theological one, with the underlying philosophy of much counselling theory. (Please don't worry ... it's a simple one, it's not going to get complicated!)
Her talk left me wondering, pondering ... troubled ... about the practical limitations of this 'Church as Sanctuary' theory.
I wasn't pondering it because broken people eat time and resources and (let's face it) can be challenging.
I was left pondering it because the church is also made up of broken people in need of mecy and forgiveness and restoration themselves, and surely expectations need to be managed?
I think the focus is wrong, basically, and because of that we are in danger of creating false expectations and promising the impossible when we proclaim the Church as a place of sanctuary for people.
It's a great aspiration but an undeliverable promise.
You see, our Verse for the Day today says:
"The Lord is good,
a refuge in times of trouble.
He cares for those who trust in him"
Now, if you want to understand the background of awfulness, brokenness, harm and abuse against which Nahum makes this bold proclamation, have a look at last week's (17 minute) podcast HERE
But Nahum's bold proclamation is not holding out the hope of sanctuary from humans, the like of which constitute the Church ... do you see?
We need to be clear, honest and open about ...
What 'Church' can and can not do for you
In Scripture, the Church is the group of people that gathers when the Good News of the Kingdom of God is preached, and what brings them together is that they've all turned to trust and follow Jesus, the King of God's Kingdom.
So the Church is made up of people who respond to the message by turning from sin and trusting in Christ ... broken, damaged people who have been (in the words of the famous hymn) been 'ransomed from the Fall' but whilst currently ransomed are not yet fully restored to the state of sinless perfection in which humanity once was and into which the followers of Christ will one day be transformed ... but not yet.
And it is for that reason that whilst we aspire to Church being the sanctuary broken people need ... it can't be reliably that place.
Its members and its leaders are still broken people themselves ... ransomed, redeemed, forgiven, but NOT yet sufficiently restored to make the church itself a place of fail-safe sanctuary and security.
We need to be ...
Pointing to Christ not to Church
Now this really is VERY important.
The Church IS here to do Christ's work as His arms and legs on earth.
It is to help people know and walk with God better.
It is not here to point to itself as 'the answer', but to Him.
That's its calling.
And there are NO acceptable excuses for our failures as the Church, particularly in the area of abusing 'power' ... whether that's sexual abuse, emotional abuse, bullying ... whatever.
But it is GOING to happen because the material God's working with when HE leads His church is faulty goods.
The Church is a hospital ... full of sick people itself, and its leaders are just part of that same crew!
So the point we've GOT to grasp is that whilst serving as Church and being the best we can be, it is crucial to point away from the Church as the sanctuary to Christ.
The Church is no sanctuary, but its Jesus IS
In the words of the second verse of William Gadsby's GORGEOUS old hymn 'Immortal honours rest on Jesus' head', Gadsby writes:
"He is my refuge in each deep distress;The Lord my strength and glorious righteousness;
Through floods and flames He leads me safely on,
And daily makes His sovereign goodness known."
Now THAT's what I need in all my brokenness, emptiness, failure and oppression.
It's a short one, but I find that hymn really realistic and absolutely profound.
You can listen to it HERE.
The issue of the failings of the Church and its leadership needs to be addressed, each and every time these failings arise.
But in between times we need to be open about their possibility and their reality, alongside an openness about the reasons why this happens.
Of course, we need a clear pastoral understanding of how to challenge that sort of thing .... not one imposed by modern psychological theory, culture or practise but by the Word of God which itself makes provision for that.
The key Gospel point to be held out plain and clear is that ALL have sinned (past tense) and continue (not past tense at ALL!) to fall short short of the Glory of God, as Romans 3:23 makes clear.
THAT is what Church is like.
Furthermore, that is a central issue and in fact the starting point of any faithful Gospel proclamation, whereas the denial of it is where Pharisaism takes root ... and that is NOT a mistake the Christ's church can afford to make.
Pointing to the Church as our place of sanctuary when Scripture makes clear that the Church is there to teach about, to point to and to help people walk with the One Who is Himself our sanctuary, would be just about the gravest of errors.
Yes, Church should be there to do its best to provide safe place for broken people, of course, but it will do that as it points to Christ Himself, Who IS our peace and our reliable place of sanctuary.
We're safe when we're in Him ... NOT when we're in the earthly assembly of His people.
It never does any Gospel good to claim perfection in the Church when the only perfect human is Christ.
Yes, we want people to come to our church and we will want to commend it and encourage people warmly to come.
But let's be careful NOT to project our Church or attending it in itself as 'the answer' ... it's just the channel of the means of grace and salvation for all.
And let's live realistically expecting our brothers and sisters in Christ to be just exactly what they are, sinners saved by grace, while playing our part in our Church fully as co-workers inside the Church ... in the hospital for all our souls.
If this raises any issues for you or if you want to challenge me about any of it ('cos, yes, I muck up too!) please feel free to use the contact form below.