The Church – a Hospital for Sinners?

“The church is not a museum for saints, it is a hospital for sinners.”

– Saint Augustine

This quote makes it around the internet, usually attributed to Saint Augustine, but sometimes to other sources like Dear Abby, Abigail Van Buren, and George Craig Stewart. No one, that I can find, was able to place this quote or a similar quote in an original source for St. Augustine, so we will just place the quote in the place of “general wisdom” that the following quote also belongs to:

“Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”

— A. Lincoln

Seriously though, this is one of those non-Biblical truths that resonates with people across the ages. If you were to post this quote on social media, you would get many “likes” including from people who are not a part of a local church. This is because the sides of the quote represent 2 sides of modern church life, one that is despised and the other longed for. First, let’s take a picture of the ugly side of the church, the one that shouldn’t exist, but does in place to place.

The Church as a Museum for Saints

The picture of a Museum is one that highlights things that are significant or important in some notable ways. For the most part, the things you find in museums are dead. They are exemplary models of both common and uncommon forms. When we go to a museum, we go to see what is not often encountered in real life. If the church is a museum for saints than we have a real problem, because for most of us that would put the ideal Christian life not as something to be strived for and obtained, but to be admired from a distance. It stinks of a works-based theology that is designed to leave the majority of us feeling like we aren’t good enough. This might be seen as the kind of church that the Pharisees would try to create. For many of them, even the law of Moses wasn’t enough, they had to add on many additional laws to raise the bar on entering into the status of “right with God”. Jesus described this behavior in the following ways:

46 “Beware of the scribes, who want to go around in long robes and who love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the places of honor at banquets. 47 They devour widows’ houses and say long prayers just for show. These will receive harsher judgment.”

Luke 20:46-47 (CSB)

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of impurity. 28 In the same way, on the outside you seem righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

Matthew 23:27-28 (CSB)

The first passage is a warning to the people, who shouldn’t admire the scribes just because of their appearance of having a right relationship with God. The second passage is Jesus’ direct condemnation of their behavior. This is a part of a longer passage that includes many different accusations, which can be summed up in these 2 verses. You can find the entire passage in Matthew 23:1-36. Time and distance from 1st century culture may cloud our ability to see our own corrupted heart attitudes in the “impure, hypocritical, and lawless” attitudes of the Pharisees, but if we look closely we might recognize the following in our own lives:

  • Treating people differently based on their income or socio-economic status
  • Keeping a separate life between our “church-life” and “normal-life”
  • Harshly judging and gossiping about someone else’s sins
  • Hypocritical – do as I do and not as I say – behavior
  • Putting on a show that everything is “fine” the moment we step into the church or encounter a Christian friend
  • Worrying more about what other people think than what is right according to Scripture
  • Making big, showy public proclamations of faith and commitment that don’t match your personal life
  • Only being generous when it can be done in public or in a way that benefits you

All this behavior is designed to move towards the “being honored saints in a museum” model. When we focus on this path, it is a path to human acclaim, more than right relationship with God. This doesn’t just damage the people who fall into this trap, but is discouraging to everyone and rather than drawing people towards God, turns people away from the church in distaste. One negative impact was described by John this way: 42 Nevertheless, many did believe in him even among the rulers, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, so that they would not be banned from the synagogue. 43 For they loved human praise more than praise from God. (John 12:42-43:CSB) The root of this problem, is this love of human praise above a love for God. This leads to a church where it is more about performance than heart attitudes. May that never be our church.

The Church as a Hospital for Sinners

If there is a church that our soul longs for, even if we sometimes don’t want to admit it, it is this picture of the church as a hospital for sinners. Everyone, in their heart of hearts knows “the dark night of the soul”. Even the most positive person struggles with personal sin, darkness and depression sometimes. We are all sinners and we all struggle with that sin. The Bible is clear about this: Romans 3:23. So, if God is honest about this, why can’t we be honest as well? Jesus addressed this when He was confronted with hanging out with the wrong crowd:

29 Then Levi hosted a grand banquet for him at his house. Now there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others who were reclining at the table with them. 30 But the Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus replied to them, “It is not those who are healthy who need a doctor, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Luke 5:29-32 (CSB)

The Bible tells the story of the human race and it doesn’t pull any punches. We are all sinners. It also doesn’t hide the imperfections of those who followed God in the Bible. The men and women that God used for His glory in the Old Testament could make up a list of “every kind of impurity”. In the New Testament, we see the followers of Jesus losing their temper, arguing with one another, being jealous of one another, and in general demonstrating all of the human frailties that we find in our local church. When we expand it to the NT letters, we see a complete list of sins and problems that Paul and others dealt with as they attempted to lead people to follow Jesus. They don’t hide these problems, they address them openly and as is seen over and over again, the church was a part of the solution for helping the people.

If sin is the problem (sickness) and the church is a part of the solution (hospital) then why is there such a stigma about talking about personal sin in our local churches? Almost all churches that teach the Bible talk about sin generally. We love the story of the repentant sinner whose sins are all behind them, but that isn’t the picture we find in the Bible. In the Bible, people are in the church and they are still sinning. That isn’t to say that the sin is accepted and dismissed, but the place for Christians to deal with sin is in the church where we are called to:

6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. 8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:6-9 (NIV)

13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

James 5:13-16

This is the picture of the church hospital. It is a place where people come together to care for one another. We don’t hide our sin or sinful nature, but instead we support each other and pray for one another. Sin is not celebrated, but it is treated. We hold up the Biblical ideals and standards and we admit that none of us are able to meet them on our own. We acknowledge our need for God’s grace in its various forms and when one of us messes up, our fellow believers/church members are the first ones to come alongside and help us to get back headed in the right direction. The church is a place of community and humility where no one considers himself better than any other. This is the model of grace and truth that Jesus was the perfect balance of.

Truth is coming right to the chase and acknowledging sin and the damage that it brings about to both that person and sometimes to many others in their lives. Grace is the love to desire nothing else than what Jesus desires, repentance and a better path. It is the celebration of the Prodigal who has returned home. It is the love of Christ that is our only hope as sinners and that is the hope that we share with all who come into our churches, seeking a respite from the harshness, hatred and weariness of the world.

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