The first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans (specifically Romans 1:18-32) are familiar to most Christians. This opening argument in Paul’s discourse is one that sticks out in our heads particularly because of the way it confronts our very idea of what it means to be a created being living under the rule of our holy Creator. Our most basic conceptions of authority, morality, the human condition and idolatry are all deeply challenged in these few verses. What makes this section of Paul’s letter especially biting is that the longer we meditate on it, the deeper it cuts to the heart of the problem: it is our very heart that is the problem.
The thrust of Paul’s argument in this opening section to his letter is simple: God is creator and he alone is worthy to be worshipped and praised, but we humans turn created things into objects to be worshipped. We all know better – for the entire cosmos cries out to the power and glory of our Creator – but we cannot help but go our own way and chase our own idols.
What idols are you chasing? Power? Money? An Instagram-perfect marriage? Reputation? The Romans 1 reality is that the longer we search ourselves, the more idols we will find. Often it is those we suspect less that have the deepest grips on our hearts.
I have come to the realization that for the last several years I have chased the idol of the ideal: the ideal income, the ideal house, the ideal work-life balance. My most selfishly and deviously disguised idol has been that of the ideal church; the place that would run exactly as I think it should, where everyone would believe exactly what I believe, and where everything would go exactly as I think it should.
Most Christians chase the idol of the ideal church to one extent or another. When we begin to feel unfulfilled by a church community, when conflicts begin to arise, or when we simply don’t like the music – we all feel that question arise from deep within us: “So I guess I should leave?”
However, I think this temptation might actually be more severe for those who have committed to a life in vocational ministry. I think the reason is pretty obvious. Many of us spend countless hours in classes and reading books on church leadership and government. We develop strong opinions about how things should go when we hear lessons from mentors we look up to. And so, as we chase our idols of the ideal, we mask it with “holy” words like polity or philosophy of ministry. We develop abstract arguments and tell ourselves that if a church’s elder meetings don’t look exactly like the Jerusalem Council, then it must not be a very good church. Oh, how we claim to be wise but instead reveal ourselves to be fools (Romans 1:22).
I know how to mask my idol of the ideal church well – in fact, I think I’ve become quite the expert at it. Having served in three churches now which all fall on a very wide spectrum, I’ve seen the strength’s and weaknesses of multiple approaches to ministry. With a critical eye I look at other churches and think, “Fools. If only they did it this way, all their problems would go away. If only they had a better system, nobody would have gotten hurt.”
As I’ve been on my perpetual chase for the idol of the ideal, I’ve pursued the perfect system. The system where everything in the church goes smoothly and perfectly. The place where nobody would be able to hurt or wound someone else because the system would protect them. The church where every sermon would be completely and perfectly doctrinally sound because the confessions and catechisms would make it so. In other words, the system where knowledge rids a church of its sin and weaknesses.
However, the truth is that knowledge is not our problem. Knowledge can no sooner rid someone of her sin as it can rid a church of sinners. Knowledge cannot produce change at the deepest fibers of someone’s being; knowledge cannot restore a broken heart; knowledge cannot bring dead people back to life.
Only love can do that.
So we find that our never-ending chase for our idol of the ideal only ends in death. Death to ourselves, and the death of Another who gave himself up in love.
I must confess that this idol runs far deeper than I yet know. But here is what I do know: systems won’t fix sinners, and systems won’t fix churches. Only love can do that; a kind of love which is only found in a Shepherd who gave up his life to serve the people whom he loves and restore their affections for their Creator (Mark 10:45).
What does that mean for me? It means it is time to forsake my chase for the ideal. It is time to pray for an increasing desire to serve a broken, messed up, and deeply flawed church; where I can seek to model Christ’s love for them as I come to understand better his love for a broken, messed up, and deeply flawed sinner like me.