We are an imperfect people. We believe God is perfect, and that He is perfecting us, conforming us to Christ’s image, who is perfect. But until we are perfected, we are sinners. We live in a world with limited privacy, and as such many of our mistakes are in public view. We profess there is a standard by which men should live, and yet sometimes we fail miserably to live by that very standard. Often, those who aren’t Christians are watching our lives, scrutinizing us, to see whether what we profess is true. When we stumble, we’re called out, and many times by people who aren’t Christians. They know hypocrisy when they see it – they are created in the image of God, after all.
As a result, many people who profess faith in Jesus will look at “the church” and want to distance themselves from it. They avoid local churches. Who wants to be associated with hypocrites? These misguided Christians cite the words of Jesus against the Pharisees – who were Judaizers; not Christians – in the New Testament to justify not submitting themselves to the eldership of a local church body, a command given in Hebrews 10:25, and demonstrated in Acts. Without realizing it, they join the chorus of men who revile God and defame his bride. But by avoiding the popular caricatures of legalistic, selfish Christianity they develop a friendship with God’s enemies that is very dangerous. Not only that, but since the non-Christians’ righteousness is definitionally a “self-righteousness” (in accordance with their rebellion against God and exalting of their autonomy), when a Christian joins with them he is inadvertently adopting their standard, and becoming precisely what he is speaking against, from a different angle. He develops a sort of Stockholm Syndrome – a psychological phenomenon describing the tendency of kidnap victims to ally themselves with their captors. In this case, the misguided Christian allies himself with the Church’s accusers, to earn their favor, and this to the detriment of himself, his non-Christian allies, and the church.
Granted, many local churches are filled with people who are Christians solely out of self-interest. They are content to live well among their friends inside their church bubble, using the Bible as a platform from which they hurl lightning bolts of graceless accusation at anyone they deem inferior. They are not a light in their community, but hide under a bushel (or to keep with the metaphor, in their bubble). Rather than this, Christians are supposed to be active in their communities, making friends with their neighbors, and reaching out to the poor and unfortunate. In this, the church’s accusers are correct, but not for their own reasons.
The atheists, agnostics, etc. are simply incorrect in saying that no churches ever do these things. “Christians” who come to hate the church have bought into the alternate reality unbelievers have created in their minds, that places themselves on the dais in self-righteous judgment of other Christians. But in fighting against rampant legalism, they have introduced a legalism of another color.
The church is filled with sinners, period. Christians above all should be willing to extend grace to other Christians, since we’re all in the same boat. Indeed, we’re all on the Ark. And it does no good to jump off the Ark into the raging torrent because you can’t tolerate the relatively minor bickering of the people on board. The unbelievers on their little islands, jeering at the Ark, have not yet been swallowed up by the swell of the tide, and while they make good points every once in a while, this is entirely incidental to their grounding. Since we’re all sinners, we reach out to unbelievers, not with a prideful offer of something better, but with a humble offer of the only possible good thing. Don’t fail to show them their plight, and don’t join them on their shrinking ground. Whenever possible in your apologetic encounters, extend the arm of the Gospel to them.