When The Church Wounds Her Own

By Paul Koch

You may not always see them; you may not be aware of how difficult it is for them to even sit in a church pew on a Sunday morning, but I guarantee you they are there. Every time I stand before the congregation to proclaim the Word as I look out and see the faces staring back at me, I find them sitting there looking for an excuse to leave. I see those who have in some profound way been wounded by the church. To be honest, it took me a long time to see them. To acknowledge them meant that I had to confess certain things about the church I loved, which I didn’t want to confess. To really see them meant things would get messy and uncomfortable.

Those who have been wounded by the church have stories from mild to horrible disregard for their personal struggles. Most will tell of times they were in need, hurting, or broken (or whatever description you feel most comfortable with), and the church simply failed to be there. The church, whether it was the members they sat next to, their parents who brought them, or the pastor who was called to serve them, either didn’t seem to care about them or actively deepened their wounds.

As I have come to understand it, most of the wounds the church causes come from a failure to properly distinguish Law and Gospel. A misuse or misapplication of the Word of God becomes the very tool that drives them out of them church.

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Walther highlights this problem beautifully in his Second Evening Lecture:

“As long as a person is at ease in his sins, as long as he is unwilling to quit some particular sin, so long only the Law, which cures and condemns him, is to be preached to him. However, the moment he becomes frightened at his condition, the Gospel is to be promptly administered to him; for from that moment on he no longer can be classified with secure sinners…

“Woe to the preacher who would continue to preach the Law to a famished sinner! On the contrary, to such a person the preacher must say: ‘Do but come! There is still room! No matter how great a sinner you are, there is still room for you. Even if you were a Judas or a Cain, there is still room. Oh, do, do come to Jesus!’” (C.F.W. Walther, The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel)

When Law and Gospel are then comingled, or the secure sinner is given the Gospel and the terrified conscience hammered with the Law, the church becomes either a joke and therapeutic support group or a brutal taskmaster giving no relief and no comfort. In the end, the individual believer is wounded by such words. For some, the church becomes a laughable place not worthy of their time or energy, but for many more it becomes a place that hurts them. And when a place that is supposed to be defined by love becomes a place marked only by the wounds it gives, they will be wounds that are not easily healed.

Think of the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. If Jesus is the Good Samaritan and we are the ones dying in the ditch on the side of the road, we are healed by his gifts and saved by his action alone. We are taken though to an inn. At this inn we are still cared for by what our Good Samaritan has provided as we await his return. The inn is the church; the inn is the place where the Gospel is to be preached and the sacraments administered in accordance with the promise and command of the Good Samaritan. But what if the inn is delinquent in this task? What if the wounded man is given new wounds or simply sent packing before he has regained his strength?

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This, I think, is what has happened to those wounded by the church. They find themselves back on the road susceptible to any attacking robbers and are afraid to set foot in an inn again. The church becomes a place of pain; it is a place to be feared.

What all this means is that the very place that is supposed to give the gifts of healing and hope is the very place such battered souls don’t want to set foot.

What, then, are we to do? How do we come to the aid of those wounded by the church?

The answer, I think, is the same source of the wounding – the living Word of God. If they will not come back to the inn, then we must go out on the road. The proclamation of Law and Gospel is not the specific realm of pastors and teachers but of all Christian brothers and sisters. We are called into the lives of one another to speak His Word, tear down the proud, and build up the brokenhearted. Along the way, things will get messy. We may have to confess things about the church we are not proud of, but we cannot pretend like we no longer see them.

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