On Church, Part 1: At Arm’s Length


I’d like to begin a brief series on what our relationship should be with our local church. Like any culture, our culture—early 21st-century American conservative evangelicalism—has its strengths and its weaknesses, its sore spots and its blind spots. I think there are some elements in our church culture that have greatly improved on the way things used to be done—improved in the sense of becoming more in line with biblical teaching—but I think there are also some important elements that we tend to de-emphasize.

So a few posts on some of those.

To begin with, I’d like to talk about the importance of church membership.

There are those who do emphasize it, but I’ve noticed that a lot of believers—and they are believers—seem to want to attend church but not join. And there are others who make much of being “spiritual” but distrustful of “institutional Christianity.”

Let’s start with the obvious. People are busted, badly so, by their congenital and pervasive sinfulness (Rom 3.9-18). That means that all associations of people—governments, businesses, Facebook, and, yes, churches—are busted as well. They don’t work perfectly, or even almost perfectly, and it’s a constant struggle to keep them out of the ditches on both sides of their obsessive rush toward complete collapse.

Whatever church you associate with is going to disappoint you, for actual reasons. Busted organizations do that.

But we don’t give up on our family and friends when they disappoint us, and we shouldn’t give up on our churches when they disappoint us. There’s a reason churches exist, and those reasons don’t disappear when their fallenness shows up.

Why might some people want to hang around them but still hold them at arm’s length?

  • Maybe an earlier hurtful experience—a real one, not to be minimized or dismissed.
  • A fear of commitment, a fear that if we get involved too intimately, we’ll be asked to do stuff, some of which we might not enjoy and all of which will crowd our already busy schedules.
  • A fear of accountability. We don’t want people poking around in our business. We’re up to something that we like a lot, but we’re afraid that we might be found out, and who knows what would happen then? I have a family; I have a career. I have to think about these things.
  • I ride alone, cowboy.

So let’s think about those reasons.

  • Sometimes people do get hurt by others, maybe others who are really trying to help them, but are just clumsy or ignorant, or maybe others who are not trying to help them, but seek to exploit them for some personal benefit, whether money or power or sexual satisfaction or something else. Those things are wrong—deeply, ungodly wrong. But they don’t change the fact that the victim arrived looking for help, and he still needs that help. There’s still a reason to seek a church that isn’t pathological. But they’re all pathological. My experience, and the experience of hundreds of others, proves it. Oh, my friend, now you’re another kind of victim. You’ve fallen victim to the logical fallacy called “hasty generalization,” or “insufficient data sample.” There are good churches, and there are good people, in the sense of people who are redeemed and well intentioned and competent. So as brutalizing and painful and real as the hurt is, it doesn’t constitute a reason to keep all churches at a distance.
  • It’s true that committing to a church will call for some of your time. (More on that later in the series.) But here’s the thing. You’re going to be spending your time on something—you can’t save it up—so why not spend it on something that benefits both you and others? Why not make a difference? Why not change the world, one image of God at a time? Isn’t that more important than Netflix, or basketball, or radio-controlled airplanes? And who said you’d have to give those things up anyway?
  • It’s also true that a good church will add a level of accountability to your life. (More on that, too, later.) But why fear cleaning up areas of your life that are distancing you from God, family, and friends? Why fear joy? If cleaning out a physical closet can spark joy, why not clean out the closets of your heart? And why not accept help from people who love you and are committed to your eternal good?

Living in fear isn’t anybody’s goal, and it isn’t a pattern for a delightful life. Why not walk away from all that?

Next time, the benefits of getting involved.

Dan Olinger Bio

Dr. Dan Olinger has taught at Bob Jones University since 2000, following 19 years as a writer, editor, and supervisor at BJU Press. He teaches courses in theology, New Testament, and Old Testament, with special interests in ecclesiology and the Pauline Epistles.