I Love the Church . . . Because There’s Work to Be Done

By Miriam Y. Perkins

There are reasons I ought to love the church.

The church refined the families who raised me. My connection to the Christian churches stretches back three generations to my great-grandparents Esther and Howard Dillon and grandparents Miriam LaRue and Hershel Dillon and Gladys and Carl Perkins. And this circle includes my mother, Linda Perkins, who has dedicated her life to family and the education of children, and my father, Gary Perkins, who was seminary-trained, ordained, and a career military chaplain.

If I love the church at all, it is because of this generational legacy.

Not Easy

But in truth, love for the church has not come to me easily. As a woman, I entered vocational ministry cautiously and hesitantly even while confidently serving and leading. Like my father, I am seminary-trained and was ordained in 1997 in the Christian church.

To this day, I remember my grandmother LaRue searching for my ordination picture and announcement in Christian Standard, as was then the custom for men who were ordained. I told her gently that even though women had been ordained in the Christian churches as early as 1888, a public announcement would close more doors than open. Her proud and profound sadness still runs in my veins.

It has been hard to love the church.

While working toward a PhD, I did extensive research on preaching during times of war, listening and transcribing sermons given in response to September 11. In the sermons of white Evangelical-leaning ministers, I found more calls for war than peace, more focus on nationalism than allegiance to God, and more concern for a so-called “Christian” America than Christian love for Muslim neighbors.

It has been hard to love the church.

I am now nine years into teaching theology as a professor at Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan, and nearly half of my students are women. Their numbers reflect significant and important shifts in scriptural understanding and church leadership. Nevertheless, the church still is largely governed by men, with men in the pulpit and men presiding and serving at the table.

Dr. Miriam Perkins (in the blue jacket) and the Emmanuel Christian Seminary students mentioned in the essay (from left): Kalvin Cummings, Jordan Gignilliat, Stephond Allmond, Perkins, Sarah Colson, and Trevor Wentt. (Photo by Trevor Wentt)
Dr. Miriam Perkins (in the blue jacket) and the Emmanuel Christian Seminary students mentioned in the essay (from left): Kalvin Cummings, Jordan Gignilliat, Stephond Allmond, Perkins, Sarah Colson, and Trevor Wentt. (Photo by Trevor Wentt)

So I anxiously wonder whether there will be churches who receive these strong and gracious women I am so privileged to teach. Churches who recognize their gifts. Churches who learn from their leadership.

It has been hard to love the church.

And while we need so many more, three of our current seminary students are smart, passionate, prophetic, and young African-American men. I will give everything I have to teach them (along with every female and male student) to be determined disciples, courageous prophets, and compassionate pastors.

Yet these young African-American men may not live into full adulthood because their vulnerable bodies are so often targets for violence. My own legacies of white privilege bear down on their young shoulders in ways I have not yet fully understood or been willing to see. They study and yearn even as they grieve each dead black body whose life should have mattered. And they do this while so many white churches and white Christians say nothing, do nothing, and smile at them blankly.

It has been hard to love the church.

Strong Conviction

And yet I do love the church. I love the church large, small, black, white, nearby, and around the globe. I love working for the church and working to love the church. And this love grows from a strong conviction at the core of my being: I love the church because I believe there is work to be done in the world that only the gospel can accomplish. Love. Mercy. Reconciliation. Grace. This work God alone can inspire, Jesus alone can guide, and the Spirit alone can enlarge.

When the church is in love with God, I know of no other community more invigorated by the image of God in every human creature and each person’s unique dignity and giftedness. I know of no other community whose vision demands more cooperation, fellowship, and mutual service across every fault line of human difference and indifference. I know of no other community whose compassion in the name of Jesus can unfold, unintimidated and undaunted, with grace stretching even into the far depths of darkness.

I love the church because of the many educators who taught me to love the Lord with all my heart, mind, and strength: Lee Magness, Robert Hull, Fred Norris, Patricia Magness, and Phil Kenneson.

I love the church because of brothers in ministry who made space for me as an equal: Rick Ruble, James Street, Rich Teske, Jeff Giesey, and Tim Ross.

I love the church because the photograph of Imogene Williams, ordained in 1947 and longtime missionary to Thailand, was added to the wall of “Timothys” where my father’s photograph has always hung at Broadway Christian Church, Lexington, Kentucky.

I love the church because I was invited to write this essay for Christian Standard in keeping with the spirit of my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.

And I love the church because shortly after September 11, on a college campus charged with bitterness, Tim Ross gave a sermon in which he said, “Victory by the cross comes not with force, but with service and love and submission.”

I love the church because when the African-American congregation at Greater Love International in Johnson City recently invited one of my Caucasian students, Sarah Colson, to preach, she spoke with passion about the power of the cross in overcoming racial violence and oppression.

And I love the church because last week, in a chapel service on lament, I heard Stephond Allmond read a poem by Maya Angelou, Jordan Gignilliat sing “Freddie Gray Blues,” Trevor Wentt perform spoken word, and Kalvin Cummings say, “Streets are our new open graves. . . . But I can still hear the singing, louder it gets as the list lengthens . . . ‘be alright . . . alright, alright, alright. . . .
Evrything’s gonna be alright.’” These men and women are the church of our future, and this future is unfolding in the hands of a joyous God.

Though many moments are hard, and though the tasks are labored, I love the church. I love the church because I am passionately in love with all that God can make possible, the love of Jesus ignite, and the Spirit set aflame.

And with all of this on the horizon, what is not to love?

Miriam Y. Perkins serves as associate professor of theology and society at Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan in Tennessee. She teaches courses in theology both in residence and online.

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1 Comment

  1. Doug Carter
    December 15, 2016 at 9:59 am

    Well written – with many good thoughts. When I served at Broadway I was blessed to have met your father, Imogene, and many other incredible Christians. Broadway, by the way, was one of those Christian churches in the early 1900s that had a woman on the staff / and her title was “minister.” I liked how you said Love the church despite its shortcomings or struggles – after all, it is where we came to know Christ – tens of thousands of us – if not hundreds of thousands – the church we look back upon was where we came to salvation and were trained and encouraged to serve.

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