I was sharing some problems I see in the American Church with a group of people. Several people agreed. One definitely did not. He said “Why be so negative? Just take what you like and leave the rest.”
I’ve been mulling over that comment for some time. “Take what you like and leave the rest” is a popular slogan in addiction recovery programs. It gives a rationale for an individual to tailor the program to his or her needs. The advice is: use what is helpful for you and ignore the rest.
This may also seem appropriate advice about being part of a local church. You won’t like everything about any church, so take what you like and leave the rest. For example, you may love the worship music but not the church’s stance on social issues. Or you may appreciate the small group fellowship, but fall asleep during the preaching. Since it is next to impossible to find the perfect church, this person advises, find the one that is closest to what you like. I have heard that advice many times in my attempts to deal with the policies and power structures of churches. And it may be true that if we think of the Church primarily as the holder of traditions and a framework that protects a culture, we may have to make compromises.
However, although I’m a fan of and a participant in 12-step programs, I don’t think this particular slogan applies to the Church. The Church is the body of Christ. It exists because Jesus called it into existence and because his Spirit flows in and through it. Therefore I try to make my spiritual formation decisions by looking at the words and behavior of Jesus.
I’ve come to the decision that we don’t get to ignore any part of the Gospel’s revelation because it doesn’t fit our needs or stands in opposition to our fondly held mores. For example, it’s not Biblical to “believe” intellectually in Jesus, but ignore his instructions on how to live. Conversely, it is not Biblical to decide that a church’s social justice stances fit my view of life, but disagree that Jesus is Lord. Choosing what we like about the Gospel message and leaving the rest, can result, oddly enough, in feelings of white privilege and white supremacy and in anti-Semitic behavior, despite the fact that Jesus was not white and was a Jew.
Unfortunately we are seeing that taking what we like of the Christian message and leaving the rest allows some Christians to support and applaud the presidency of Donald Trump while conveniently overlooking his ugly demeaning of women and debasing of other races and religions. Some Christians excuse Trump’s vindictive twitter rants because that’s “just who he is.” Some Christians trade his compulsive lying and “it’s all about me” behavior for the right Supreme Court justice or a war against immigrants.
As for me, I’m afraid I’ll have to reject the advice to take what I like about the Church and leave the rest. Instead I’ll continue to advocate for a Church (and for individual churches) to take the entire Gospel seriously.