02.10.16

Realists, Romantics and Conversations about the Church

In my last post, I suggested that sometimes people who love the Church disagree about the state of the Church because they focus on different metrics. Some consider the peace of the Church the measure of its vitality. Others think of the underlying health as the main criteria.

But there are other reasons that well-intentioned Christians who all love the Church sometimes disagree in their assessment of the Church. Sometimes the differences have more to do with our “bents” or our basic outlooks on life. That outlook colors, shades and frames what we see.

A person’s basic outlook can make him or her a strange bedfellow with others. For example, it’s sometimes baffled me to see “conservative evangelical” Christians come to the defense of certain “prosperity/Word of faith” leaders while criticizing other “conservative evangelicals.” Or, I’ve scratched my head when people who share basic ecclesiology and ministry philosophy end up sharply disagreeing over the ministry faithfulness of someone who rejects their view of the church and ministry. How do you explain that?

I’ve come to think it’s partially explained by temperament. Our “bent” molds how we see the church. We tend to flock together with people who share our disposition.

Two Basic Outlooks

When I think about discussions of the Church, I think I notice two basic outlooks. Some people are romantics and others are realists.

Romantics are those who tend to only see or emphasize the Church’s positives. They can idealize the Church and cover the Church’s faults with quick references to her virtues or deflections to the problems of other churches. The romantic tends to believe that “love covers a multitude of sins” () and “keeps no record of wrongs” (, NIV). People with romantic outlooks prefer to think about “whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable” (). “After all,” the romantic might say, “the apostle Paul called the Corinthian church with all her problems ‘the seal of his apostleship in the Lord’” ().

Realists are those who tend to see or emphasize the Church’s negatives. They can become overly critical of the Church and sometimes dismiss the Church’s virtues by multiplying faults or refusing to give adequate credit where it’s due. The realist tends to believe that “Better is open rebuke than hidden love” () and love “does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices at the truth” (). After all, the apostle Paul rebukes Peter to his face and calls out Hymanaeus and company for their wrongdoing. The apostle John puts Diotrephes on blast in 3 John. When it comes to truth, the realist says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” ().

As you can see, both realists and romantics can appeal to the Bible for support of their perspective. Each group has its virtues. We tend to think of romantics as more loving or gracious; by contrast, we tend to think of realists as the “truth people.” But it’s not so much that realists and romantics are on different planets or are wildly different people. Perhaps it’s better to think of realists and romantics as accurately seeing different aspects of the same situation.

Blind Spots

Of course we all see through a glass darkly and we only “know in part” (). Our viewpoints are incomplete. No one sees the entire parade but God. So we have blind spots.

Moreover, we sometimes add to our blind spots our experiences and fears. For example, persons hurt by members of a local church may become more critical realists. Meanwhile, persons with good experiences may become more defensive romantics. In each case, experience drives us deeper into our “bent” and deeper into our blind spots.

Not only does experience play a part, but so also fear. Some romantics fear that open criticism of the church only enlivens critics from outside the community. They worry that the realist’s public concerns give fuel to people who don’t want to understand the church or already hold a prejudiced view. So they double-down in their insistence that no one “air their dirty laundry” in mixed public.

Realists have fears, too. They can fear the damage false teachers can do or fear the church’s negative witness when it’s unhealthy. So the realist gets more embattled, becomes more critical, and worry that those inside the church may misrepresent the Lord and His gospel.

In both cases, we may be suffering a lack of faith. That’s perhaps the biggest blind spot of all in these conversations. We may forget that the Lord promised to build His Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (). Since romantic and realist perspectives are far from the gates of hell, we need not fear each other.

Can’t We All Get Along?

In fact, we need each other. Healthy conversation actually requires a prayerful dose of both realism and romanticism. Realists keep us from putting makeup on blemishes. Romantics keep us from rejecting the bride’s beauty. Together we gather a sense of the whole—the praiseworthy and the lamentable.

Genuine love for the Church requires we tell the truth about both its strengths and its weaknesses. Genuine love also requires we honor the reputation of the Church even when we’re addressing her problems.

By learning to have a little romance and a touch of realism in our outlook, we also prevent the mistake of joining forces with those who may not actually share our love for the Bride. A Bible-believing evangelical shouldn’t defend the Church alongside a gospel-rejecting liberal simply because they’re both romantic about the Church. After all, the liberal’s romance is an altogether different thing than the evangelical’s. Likewise, the truth-loving apologist shouldn’t critique the Church alongside the church-rejecting skeptic simply because they’re both quick to spot deficiencies.

The believing, Church-protecting romantic has more in common with the believing, Church-critiquing realist than he does with anyone else. They both belong to the Church and so have common interest in her well-being.

A Simple Proposal

So, the next time you find yourself disagreeing with someone about the state of the Church, ask yourself, “Are we disagreeing because one of us is a romantic and the other a realist?” If that’s the case, go on to ask, “Which one am I and what do I need to see from the other?” If we can help each other see more in the Church and about the Church, we can then help each other better love the Church. In the end, the romantic is a gift from the Lord to the realist and the realist is the Lord’s gift to the romantic. The embrace of the two may prove to be the greatest blessing to the Church.

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. (ESV)

it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. (ESV)

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (ESV)

If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. (ESV)

Better is open rebuke
than hidden love. (ESV)

it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. (ESV)

Faithful are the wounds of a friend;
profuse are the kisses of an enemy. (ESV)

12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (ESV)

18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (ESV)

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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