There was a second-grade teacher with a reputation for strictness. First-graders heard horror stories and dreaded the day they became hers.
What it meant, of course, was that she was doing her job and running an orderly class. Her students excelled and moved on with the tools they needed. The third-grade teachers adored her.
Someone else did, too, because eventually she got engaged. She was very happy.
Good thing, because that year she’d gotten one of those second-graders. You know the type. Disruptive, rude, fiendishly intelligent, yet never quiiite stepping over the line. How do eight-year-olds learn to play such games? It was a constant battle of wits keeping this student on-task.
Months later, her bag of tricks was exhausted. The student was insufferable. The parents never answered her calls. Counselors were of no help; reluctantly involving the principal did nothing. The boy thrived on the attention.
One day, he downed a soda before school and arrived twice as hyper as usual. The teacher was struggling financially, falling behind on lessons, and had barely slept. She was at her wits’ end.
As the boy distracted a friend, this teacher turned from her smartboard, drew herself up and, for the first time in her career, bellowed with months of pent-up frustration a phrase she would forever regret.
You could have heard a pin drop. The class stared in horror, then, abandoning any thoughts of inactivity, tuckered down to work.
But not the troublemaker. After a moment of shock, an evil grin crept across his face, like a red sunrise.
Sure enough, the teacher was summoned to the principal’s office that evening. The parents had materialized. With the student beside them smirking, they laid into her, and she could only hang her head in apology. She was also accused of hitting the child (which she never did, despite the fresh bruise on his arm), assigning excessive homework, and sundry charges. She was shocked, but could only say so much.
Eventually, other parents spoke up in defense of this teacher, assured by their kids that no hitting occurred. In light of her reputation, the school board allowed her to keep teaching, after a filed reprimand.
But the damage was done. Too many folks will believe anything they hear, and eventually this family vilified the teacher to the entire town. A few parents transferred their children. Others started nosing into her every move. She found it hard to discipline anymore. The harried principal helped as he could, but little could be done about scuttlebutt outside school boundaries. It became the teacher’s worst year.
One day her fiance, a tall, distinguished man in a business suit, dropped by the school to visit her and spotted the troublemaker, waiting for the bus home, regaling a crowd of classmates with tales of this teacher pushing students and claiming to hate children.
The fiance was incensed. He called the student over and, gifted with one of those voices that gets you listening quickly, said,
“Son, I am your teacher’s fiance, and I have had enough. I will not allow you to speak of her this way anymore. She has made mistakes, and I’m sorry. But you do not know her the way I do. You are also not being honest yourself. It’s time for you to stop.”
For a moment, the boy was frozen, his mouth slightly agape. Then, defiance returning to his eyes, he fairly shouted, “Whatever! She’s the reason this school is failing. Who the hell are you and what do you think you’re gonna do to me?”
“Son,” replied the man quietly, “I’m the mayor.”
Criticizing the church is as easy as stepping over a crack in the sidewalk. She has made mistakes. Some over the centuries have been horrifying, driving multitudes away from God.
I used to be quite the free-wheeling critic myself. It’s not like God doesn’t have words for her. (In the case of sexual scandals, for example, God no doubt has thunderous consequences in store. May they come swiftly.)
In smaller and more uncertain matters, though, it’s become apparent over the years that I’m way too quick to point fingers.
I started seeing that those who left the church and criticized it as judgmental were not always living holy lives themselves. That the church had actually been quite decent and gentle in pointing out their errors. That some hobby-critics tend to regard “the church” as an abstract object and their critiques don’t apply to any Christians they themselves know.
And it’s easy to forget who the church belongs to.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:25-27)
Few of us have attended a wedding that was objected to. It would be an awkward, weighty development. Everyone’s thoughts towards the objector would instantly snap to You’d better have a good reason for this. Marriage is a sober, holy, precious thing, to be entered into reverently and with deliberation, and to be defended and cherished at great cost.
How then should I object to the bride of Christ? He knows her faults better than I, yet fights for her, washes her, sacrificed for her, and chose her to carry the only message that can save. He loves her.
That includes people who have earned your ire – even legitimately. I’ll let you fill in the blanks.
I’m not saying the church must never be criticized. Sometimes she must, and quickly and ringingly, or God’s reputation and other people’s souls will be damaged.
I’m saying there’s a reverence that’s deserved here. Are we criticizing with full awareness of our own sin? Do we have the full story? Can we separate the world’s basis for correction from God’s?
It feels good to critique the church – and that might be a problem. In light of what she means to God, if we must go after her as an institution, perhaps we ought to do so reverently, and correctly.