by R.C. Sproul
Your letter struck a raw nerve with me. I felt a sense of déjà vu. My mind snapped back to my own seminary days and subsequent early years of ministry.
The first memory it sparked was of occasions as a young man when I expressed my frustrations to older men who responded to me by saying, “You’re too young and idealistic to understand these things. Wait until you get more experience.”
That type of answer only fueled my frustration. I wanted cogent answers and sound arguments, not patronage from my elders.
My seminary experience was much like yours. I had professors who openly attacked the doctrine of Christ’s substitutionary atonement, the deity of Christ, and ridiculed anyone who believed the Bible was God’s word. I experienced shock, hurt, and anger. When I expressed these concerns to older people in the church, they added to my dismay by insisting that I must be mistaken and that I was being a troublemaker.
Day after day in seminary classes I was exposed to a rigorous skepticism toward everything I held sacred. Fortunately (I should say providentially), I had one professor who brilliantly defended the biblical faith and who supported me in my trials. I really don’t know what I would have done without Dr. Gerstner.
There were two simple passages from the Bible to which I clung tenaciously. The first was from Psalm 37:1: “Do not fret because of evil men.” That hit home with me because I was doing a lot of fretting and it wasn’t helping my spiritual life.
The second passage was from Jeremiah. When the prophet complained to God bitterly and threatened to quit because false prophets were undermining his ministry, God rebuked him and said, “Let the prophet who has a dream tell his dream, but let the one who has My word speak it faithfully” (Jeremiah 23:28).
The application of those words to my life was simple. I realized that God was not going to hold me accountable for what other ministers said or did. Rather, He was going to hold my feet to the fire for what I say and do. I had my marching orders, and so do you.
When I hear your anguish, I have two conflicting responses in my heart. On the one hand I want to rush to your side and offer you whatever encouragement I can. I want to weep with you as you weep. On the other hand, as a battle-scarred veteran, I want to kick you in the pants and give you a “Pattonesque” bop on the chin. I want to say, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” The ministry is no place for cowards. You know as well as I do that this all goes with the territory. When was it ever any different? We are called to serve a Master who was despised and rejected of men. We join a company of those whom the world hated and slew.
I know what you’re thinking. Yeah, its easy to put up with the hostility of the world. We expect it. It’s getting shot in the back from within the church that is hard to take. Even then we tend to rise to the occasion when the issues are big and important. It’s the pettiness that wears us down.
Again, mature faith requires that we be willing and able to absorb petty slights and insults. How does it go for you on Sunday mornings? You stand at the door to greet your flock and fifty people tell you that they appreciated your sermon. Then one person expresses a criticism. What do you remember for the rest of the day? Right … me too. You tell yourself that you’re supposed to be able to handle criticism, but it still wounds. Chances are, if the person knew how much they wounded you they would be horrified. Most of the petty hurts we endure are unintentional. Understanding that can go a long way to salving the wound.
But there is a bigger issue to be dealt with from your letter. It involves our understanding of the church itself. You need to understand that the church is the most corrupt institution on earth. It’s more corrupt than the government. It’s more corrupt than the cosa nostra.
Surely I exaggerate? By no means. I am rating corruption according to a standard of giftedness. God says that to whom much is given, much is required. No institution has been invested with more divine grace than the church. Here is where both grace and the means of grace are particularly concentrated. Again, no institution on earth has such a holy vocation. If the church is the most corrupt institution in the world, it is because it is the most important institution in the world. All things being equal it is nowhere near the actual corruption of government or of the mafia. But judged by its gifts and its sacred vocation, relatively speaking its corruption grows in proportion.
Because the church is so important, it is the central target of hell. The devil doesn’t have to work up a sweat to induce the mafia to evil. Junior-grade demons can plunge a government into decadence. But the church— the bride of Jesus, the family of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit—that institution invites the unbridled assault of hell at every point. This isn’t a simple problem of wrestling with flesh and blood. It is a struggle with principalities and powers.
We know that there have been periods in history when the church was more or less pure. But it has always been what St. Augustine described as a corpus per mixtum, a mixed body. Our Lord described the church as an institution that included both tares and wheat. Sometimes the tares gain the upper hand and lead the church into apostasy. Some churches have degenerated to such a low degree that they cease being churches at all. But no church in any age has been utterly pure. It was the clergy who gnashed their teeth in hatred of Jesus and plotted His death. It was the church that condemned Luther, banished Calvin from France, and dismissed Edwards from Northampton. It was during the century of the Great Awakening in our land that Gilbert Tennant wrote The Danger of an Unconverted Clergy. The sheep have always suffered at the hands of wolves cleverly disguised as sheep themselves. But will not God vindicate His elect who cry unto Him day and night?
You gotta love the church. You can’t love Christ and despise His body. You can’t reject His bride. He has promised to present His bride to the Father without spot or wrinkle. Right now we may be discouraged. Her wedding gown has been torn to shreds as if by a wolf. But the groom will surely take care of all that. He will remove every spot, mend every tear, and smooth every wrinkle. Remember, it is we who are the spots and the wrinkles. If we despise them we despise ourselves.
Now it is time to gird up yourself like a man. Stir up the gift that is within you and look to the Author and finisher of your faith to rekindle a fire in your bones. It’s worth it.
Love as always, R.C.