Good Friday’s Answers to Wounded Church Members

[This article is also available in Turkish.]

I serve as a priest in an Anglican church in Dallas, and I have the privilege and responsibility of pastoring many people who have experienced pain at the hands of a church. Some in our congregation have been outright abused. Some have had their faith shaken by the fall of a leader. Some have been pushed out of congregations for asking legitimate questions.

And while church hurt may not always be the best term to name and collect all these different experiences, it is undeniable that many in my own congregation have suffered harm from the body of Christ. There is a distinction between a church hurting someone and the church hurting someone, especially in terms of the healing and reconciliation that must happen locally and person to person. But it is just as important to frame our experiences of pain within the church as a whole.

After all, Paul insists that Christ has one body, the church, being built up in love into the fullness of Christ our head (Eph. 4:4, 15–16). He also insists that when one member of the body suffers, all suffer (1 Cor. 12:26). A robust view of the church as Christ’s body must embrace both the integrity and health of that body and the pain that body experiences from its own members.

In hearing the stories of pain in our congregation, our church has felt the responsibility of caring for these people well. My wife, a licensed counselor, and I wanted to address these hurts in a setting where we could acknowledge their wounds and try to help them take a meaningful step toward healing. So we recently hosted a weekend seminar called “The Pain and Promise of Christian Community.”

We knew that we couldn’t deal with all the complexities of every story in our time together, but we could make a start. We discerned that naming the suffering was a place to begin. We sensed that for people to embrace again the promise of Christian community, they first needed to acknowledge and have others acknowledge their pain. In our time together, the image of the church as Christ’s wounded body held within it both the pain and the promise of Christian community.

Christ’s church suffers in many ways. Some of this pain, like the pain of want and persecution, comes from outside the church. Some of this pain, however, like corruption and schism, comes from within. Some wounds, in other words, are self-inflicted.

We must acknowledge the wounds that Christ’s body can inflict on itself and also acknowledge the way those wounds can fester and go unhealed. So too must we acknowledge that the pain of the wound is often compounded by denial and dismissal, and sometimes by the protection of those who inflicted the initial wound.

Denial can happen at the individual level, where we are reluctant to admit the hurt because that admission feels like it will cost too much. But to truly heal, people must specify who hurt them and what happened. As Michelle Van Loon writes, “It’s important to identify the source and scope of the hurt.”

Denial also happens at the institutional level. A more robust view of the church as Christ’s body can help us confront institutional problems and conflict as we better understand that Christ is building his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). In other words, a leader may fall or a congregation may dissolve—and these are no small things—but in the scope of history, Christ will build his church. He will restore his body.

Just as denial and dismissal of the wound compounds the initial wound, so too do easy explanations. In the face of pain experienced at the hands of the church, well-meaning congregants often trot out coffee cup verses and Sunday school platitudes. Though they may mean no harm, they end up becoming like Job’s friends, who cling to absolutes and easy explanations when Job is enduring incomprehensible suffering (Job 2:11).

Such careless comfort is often a mode of self-protection. After all, if Job’s friends are wrong about Job’s suffering, then they are wrong about their view of God and reality too. To acknowledge Job’s suffering in full would have been too costly for them, so they settle for their worn-out understandings of righteousness. In the end, the Lord confronts these false comforters, telling them that they “have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has” (42:7–9).

Acknowledging the wound, moving past denial and dismissal, and resisting easy explanations—none of this is easy. But a wound denied cannot be healed. When the pain comes from inside the body, in some sense, it hurts more and is harder to acknowledge.

How can we learn to name this pain? By turning our gaze to Christ’s own wounded body on the cross.

On Good Friday especially, we turn our gaze to the man of sorrows who bears our affliction. The paradox of our faith is that in his wounding is our healing, so as important as it is for the church to acknowledge our own wounds, it is even more crucial to look at the one who bears our wounds in his wounding.

Christ’s wounds hold not only the promise of our healing but also the mystery of the church’s origin. As the early church meditated on the Crucifixion, they turned their attention to a particular verse, John 19:34, which records that “one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.”

In meditating on this verse, many in the early church insisted that from the wounded side of Christ, the church was born. Origen (A.D. 185–254) captures this conviction in a potent phrase: “From the wound in Christ’s side has come forth the church, and he has made her his bride.”

The church was born from a wound. The early church saw the last Adam hanging heavy on the cross in the sleep of death, but from his side, his wound, a new Eve was brought forth—the church. Born as we are from that wound, the church journeys with Christ through Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. In his passion is our own path and our own healing.

The sequence of those days reminds us that the shape of Christ’s victory is a U. He begins his descent on the cross, and in death slides into the grave. In the darkness of death, his journey does not turn upward until the lowest point is reached. The trough of that U reminds us that his solidarity with us is absolute, extending even into the lowest reaches of death. But the plummet downward suddenly swings upward with the momentum of love. He bursts forth in victory, yet when he emerges, he still bears his wounds.

In learning to contemplate the wounds of the crucified Christ, we might also learn to gaze on the church’s own wounded body, not because our wounds will affect our healing but because the head of the church is the Man of Sorrows who has borne our pain and who has been raised up out of death. By his wounds we are healed (Is. 53:5). By his wound the church was born.

As my own love for Christ’s church has deepened, so too has my sadness at the harm it is capable of, especially to its own members. How can we learn to hold the brightness of this love next to the darkness of our collective pain? Many have helpfully highlighted the power of lament in the healing process. In lament, prayers that once seemed off-limits suddenly articulate our pain and isolation in the presence of God. But there is another kind of prayer that can aid in our healing—praying for the church as the church, praying as his body for his body.

Before he dies, Christ prays for all who would believe in him (John 17:20–21). In praying for his body, Christ models how we ought to pray as well. Those of us who have been joined to Christ’s church must also pray for his church. We never pray for the church in a detached or disinterested way. We pray for the church, as the church, within the church. Having been buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life, we pray as those who have been incorporated into his body.

But how do we pray in a way that acknowledges both the pain and the promise of this body? A prayer by William Laud, the 17th-century Archbishop of Canterbury and martyr, collected in The Book of Common Prayer captures well the two-sided nature of the body of Christ:

Gracious Father, we pray for your holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ your Son our Savior. Amen.

At our seminar, we ended our time by praying this prayer together, with one small change. We added the phrase “where it is wounded, heal it.” It was a way of acknowledging the reality of our pain, but also acknowledging the one who can heal that pain. In so doing, we turned our eyes from our own wounds to his.

To pray as the church, for the church, within the church means we pray as a body asking for its own healing, as a bride asking for the bridegroom to wash us with the water of the Word.

We pray as the church, for the church, in the church as an act of hope, knowing that the wound of our birth was also raised up through resurrection. Even now, it is a wound that Christ bears as a sign of victory over sin, shame, and death.

Christopher Myers (PhD, Durham) is the curate of St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church in Dallas. He blogs at The Road Between Here and There.

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