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Thinking Out Loud

On Loving the Church

by Michael Jinkins | May 26, 2015

The President's Charge to the 2015 Graduating Class of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
May 17, 2015


On Loving the ChurchI once knew a dean who, in the midst of searching for a new faculty member, had a question about one of the candidates under consideration. This candidate had all the credentials. But the dean had a nagging doubt about him because he had written some pretty scathing, very negative criticisms of the church. So the dean called a pastor who knew the candidate well. And he asked the pastor: "Is this person someone who loves the church enough to criticize it? Or does he really just have contempt for the church? What is the source of his criticism? If he loves the church enough to critique the church, we need him and want him on our faculty. But if he does not love the church, if he only has contempt for the church, I think we should look elsewhere."

This dean told me that he sat there, with the phone receiver in hand, waiting a long time for the answer. After a very long pause, the pastor, who knew the candidate well and liked him very much, said, "I think you should keep looking."

This conversation reminds me of a very funny chapter in a very funny book by Daniel Zeluff. The book, which came out while I was in seminary, is titled, There’s Algae in the Baptismal "Fount" (Nashville: Abingdon, 1978). Zeluff could be quite a critic of the church himself. The chapter I have in mind is titled, "I must be a prophet, else why are they stoning me?" The point of the chapter is not a denunciation of the role of actual prophets, though there's a good deal of suspicion in the chapter about self-proclaimed prophets; instead, the chapter lifts up the role of the pastor who is willing to love his or her people into righteousness rather than merely judging them for weaknesses and failures that are common to all people to one degree or another.

Barbara Brown Taylor, a couple of years ago, from this very pulpit, reminded us that, as pastors and church leaders, some of our best teachers are the folks in our churches who will never agree with us. That's true. And it is a sign of God's good grace that God will bring us folks who never agree with us, folks who will never even like us, in every congregation. But in a larger sense, the church herself often plays this role, the role of gadfly teacher.

The Holy Spirit speaks and works through the people of God. Often unevenly, sometimes at a maddeningly slow pace, but the Spirit of God is at work in and among these people. And usually I have found that the Spirit of God works through the people of God far more reliably and truly than through me as an individual.

Often we, as your teachers, want you to fall in love with our disciplines. I'm a theologian, so it is only natural that I want you to fall in love with theology. Someone else may want you to fall in love with New Testament or Old Testament, or Christian ethics, or pastoral counseling. Today, I want to encourage you to fall in love with the church, though I truly cannot charge you to do so. No one can charge another person to love. But I do ask you, and I do encourage you to love the church. Unfaithful though the church sometimes is, inconsistent in its service to God, even unreliable in its quest for justice, the church is still the Body of Christ. And that's not just a metaphor, that’s a theological fact.

In recent days, I have been reminded of what it means to love the church by the example of our friend Dr. David Hester. David was a fine scholar, a great teacher and a theological leader. David was also a pastor. David was dedicated to justice. And David loved the church through which Jesus Christ continues to offer himself on behalf of this broken world that God loves.

So this is my encouragement, if not my charge, to you: Love the church. Learn the humility that will make it possible to love the church. Love the church enough to respect the wisdom and grace of the people who make up the church. Love the church not for what it could be, but for who it is. For God's sake love God's people.

And now receive the benediction: May the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you always. Amen.

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