There’s a good chance that many of us who call ourselves Christians have at times struggled with attending church on a regular basis. I certainly have, anyway. There could be many reasons…the job or travel requirements, competing obligations, or even not feeling comfortable or familiar enough with local churches, just to name a few. Maybe for some reason going to church just didn’t make the top of the priority list for a while. Now, none of these (especially the last one) are good reasons to avoid church. As one pastor that I frequently listen to on the internet has said “If you don’t have enough faith to go to church once a week, do you think you have enough to get to Heaven?” But there is one reason that I would like to address here, because it not only is barring believers from entering into the concrete and wood buildings that house the congregations, but it is also likely barring them from the Church in the true sense of the word…from the body of Christ. And that reason is the desire to avoid “guilt.”
Let’s set the stage for this discussion by describing a generic, but altogether real, situation for a hypothetical young couple. This couple is interested in getting married one day, and both have your standard goals and aspirations for starting a family and advancing in their chosen careers. And both are warm to the idea of being your typical church going family. But the two, as many do today, decide that they will live together before getting married, in order to better prepare themselves for their eventual nuptials.
Assuming that this couple, and the countless real world couples that they represent, attend (or had planned to attend) any kind of “traditional” church, the problem soon becomes evident. The tone of the sermons will almost certainly start to chaff, and the young couple soon becomes uncomfortable. It’s even possible that a church member, possibly even the pastor, may counsel them about their living situation. Soon, enough becomes enough, and rather than be “judged”, the young couple simply stops attending church. After all, it’s none of the church’s business, is it?
So these professed Christians, who for reasons of their own have decided to accept something that they know is considered “sin” by their faith, have decided to separate themselves from the congregation. There’s a good chance that the protected sin has been encased in a very reasonable sounding rationalization. And the best way to make sure that this casing isn’t breached is to keep people from poking at it.
“I don’t want to go to a church that is going to make me feel bad.” The tragedy of this kind of statement is that often the emotion that we call “guilt”, brandished by critics and foes of Christianity as evidence of the medieval nature of our faith, is so often the call of God’s Spirit pleading with us to abandon that cherished sin. And in response to the prodding of, say, the pastor, the indignant person decides that they either need to find another church home (where they aren’t so “judgmental”), or they might stop going altogether.
But in defense of the “judgmental” pastor or priest, they are only reminding you of what you have already accepted as truth. To paraphrase Paul in his letter to the Galatians, has your pastor now become your enemy because he speaks the truth? (See Gal 4:16). Paul was explaining some very difficult to hear truth to the Galatian churches, who were finding it hard to reconcile their views of salvation with the truth of the Gospel.
The Bible is filled with examples of God’s people wandering from His truth, whether out of ignorance or as an act of willful rebellion against His Law. Israel did it. The early churches did it. And we do it today. Constantly we feel the lure and draw of this world as it entices us to abandon God’s way, or to compromise His Truth. That is why God works today to call His Children back to Him when they stray. It is the duty of the church, despite being filled with the sinners and hypocrites that it is, to identify actions that imperil you. Should you trust them? You should if the standard that they are using to correct you comes from the Scriptures. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” (2Ti 3:16, emphasis added). Notice that the Scriptures are to be used for reproof and correction. So if your conscious is being seared, and you see that the reason for this is that you have chosen to live outside of God’s Law, then you have some serious choices to make.
Ok, now let’s say that this hypothetical sin is making your attendance at church difficult. What to do? That of course is up to you. But take encouragement from the Scriptures that God knows your struggle. The Book of Job tells us “happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty” (Job 5:17). And why should you be happy? After all, it feels like the church congregation is judging you, right? The reason for being happy is simple: “For whom the LORD loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth.” (Pro 3:12). This verse is cited by the author of Hebrews as well.
I believe that it’s in our sinful nature to turn the blind eye to our own sins. That’s why Jesus warned us, when pointing out the shortcomings of our brethren, to consider our own sins (the “beam in our own eyes, “see Mat 7:3-5). But the consequences of rationalizing or justifying our sins is dangerous. “There is a way which seems right to a man, but the end of it is the ways of death.” (Pro 14:12).
As we wrap up this discussion, I’d like to make a comment on those who would seek a “less judgmental” church, one that doesn’t seek to point out sins but rather only preaches messages of encouragement. Some of today’s Megachurches are founded on the idea that it is better to get people into the pews, than to scare them off with messages that might drive them away because they happen to be living a life outside of the standards detailed in the Bible. Very simply, very plainly, I would say: don’t seek the churches that only tell you what a good person you are, and how God wants you to achieve your dreams and goals. God wants you to be reconciled to Him. Alone and of your own efforts, your righteousness is like filthy rags (Isa 64:6). And although the Lord can and does bless His children with prosperity, everything He does is meant to prepare you for His Kingdom to come. Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him (1Jn 2:15). Any church that keeps your eye on this world is not likely to be preparing you for the next.
I suppose the bottom line is this: if based of Scriptural Truth any “guilt” you may feel from your church is very likely the conviction of the Holy Spirit. The reason God allows this guilt isn’t to keep a believer in misery. It’s to get the believer to change behavior that threatens to separate him from God. Remove the sin, and the guilt goes away. God has promised to wash it away forever, but it is up to you to let it go first.