Character versus Image in the Church

Character vs. ImageThere is the potential for a huge divide between what we are on the inside and what others perceive us to be.

How others perceive me is my image, who I really am is shaped by my character. You may have heard it said that character is determined by “what I do when no one is looking.” Image is determined by what I do when I know others are looking.

Most of Christendom would agree that we are to build character and be less concerned about image, but my experience of church through the years belies this.

By its very nature, legalism is all about image and not about character. For me to be legalistic, I have to ignore all the ways I fall short of the demands that I am willing to place on others. In other words, I will have to maintain a mask of conformity while internally I know that I’m not living up to what I preach. Legalism, by its very nature is deceptive.

On the other hand, if I am living out the Gospel, I know that I don’t measure up.  As a result, I should not be concerned about others knowing that fact. A focus on the Gospel will allow me to function out of my character and allow others to do so. We don’t have to pretend, we don’t have to build an image to hide our failings.

In thinking through the life of Jesus, he broke many of the social conventions of the day so that he could live out the good news of the redemption that he brings. He was accused of regularly hanging out with disreputable people. He dined at tax collectors’ houses. He spoke with a Samaritan woman and drank from her cup. He let a known “sinner” kiss his feet and wash them with her tears. He did all sorts of things that damaged his image among the religious leaders of the day. He got the religious leaders mad enough to cause them to have Jesus killed.

Fast forward to the 21st Century. We have Christians who go out of their way to make sure that they denounce any sin or evil that they encounter. There are entire websites that are dedicated to “discernment ministry” which identifies leaders who are in error or who are associating with the wrong people. If only they could see how ironic it is that they are imitating the very behavior of the Pharisees when Jesus walked the earth.

This type of “ministry” causes people to liken the church to a castle which is build to keep enemies out. In such ministries, it is like they build a moat, put bars on all the windows, pull up the drawbridge and then wonder why they are having little impact on the surrounding community.

Rather than portraying the image of a castle, we should rather be portraying the image of a hospital or health spa where those who are in need can come to get healing. Those of us who claim to be Christians are in need of that healing and should desire that others experience it also.

When people encounter a community that is living in grace and communicating the gospel through word and action, it is very attractive and draws people in. In such a community, it is no longer necessary to worry about image.

What is interesting is that once the desire to cultivate an image goes away, it is then that true character can develop. My failings do not get addressed when I hide them, they get addressed when I allow myself and others to see them and help each other to get them addressed.