Around the time of the 2006 Church of God General Assembly in Indianapolis, I began writing my last novel, The Ten Weeks. At the core of the plot is the story of one French Catholic high school senior, Madeleine des Cieux, who performs a series of miracles. This generates a number of reactions, but her church, for reasons related to secular politics, conducted a campaign to attempt to force her to recant those miracles. Her frustration with the Church came to a head when she blurted out the following to a Baptist friend:
As for myself, I don’t know what to do either. I know that Papa loves me, and Maman loves me. . .but I don’t know if my church loves me any more or not…Since the miracles, our bishop has put pressure on everyone he could—including my own father—to have me deny that the miracles took place when it is undeniable that they did…But I cannot understand why they have treated me in this way.
Now that’s a decidedly "girlie" way of putting it, as one would expect. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the years I’ve been in the Church of God, it’s that for many, under the complaints about money and governance, there runs a deep love in clergy and laity alike for the Church of God. One pastor (I think it was Travis Johnson) likened it to a father-son relationship.
Christianity is unique in many ways, but one that Protestants in particular overlook is that the whole story of God’s relationship with people is driven by his love for us, which reached its highest expression in the life, death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ. In turn Jesus Christ calls us to love God first and foremost. That love-driven aspect is one reason why men hate going to church, because in churches where women hold the majority that relationship is generally posited in a "lover-loved" paradigm, something that men have serious problems with. But our relationship with God transcends human analogy, which is why the Bible also describes it using parental and fraternal terms, something to keep in mind when connecting with men.
But I digress. Since our love relationship with God is a two-way street, it makes sense that the same would hold with our church. We can certainly love our church. But can an institution love anyone? The answer is no. Institutions of any kind are incapable of love. That’s one reason why I cannot accept the argument of the proponents of same sex civil marriage that it’s necessary for the institution of the state to affirm the love of two people. Any two or more people whose love for each other needs to be affirmed by the state are in serious trouble, no matter how you look at the issue.
The Church of God, however, has been depicted as an organic reality, not just an institution. That organic reality consists of two parts: the presence of God in our midst, and the people of the church itself. Both are eminently lovable. In return the love that needs to come back is from a leadership that loves the people of the church more than the people love it. That love by the leadership needs to be manifested at all levels: the local church, our regions and states, our nations and ultimately at the international level. That love has to transcend the every day problems that arise when you deal with people. After all, didn’t Christ die for us while we were yet sinners?
My challenge to my colleagues in the leadership of this church (I am on the Board of Church Ministries) is for us to have that love for our church and its people. I’ve been a part of the International Offices for over a decade and have seen that love in action in the past. I know it’s important to "get the job done;" our church is good at that. But our love for each other is an essential part of our mission. Without it, most of what makes us different from the world goes away, and these days in particular it takes a very compelling reason for people to be a part of a church.
Beyond that, if those in our midst get the idea that their love for this church is a one way street, they’ll get the same "empty pit" feeling that Madeleine showed in the quote above. They’ll start blurting things like that out to their Baptist friends. For Pentecostal and Catholic alike, that’s an act of desperation. On a more serious note, over the long run the life and work of the church will be damaged beyond repair, and we will end up leaving the mission God has for us to others.
May God bless and guide us as we meet in San Antonio!