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What makes the church the church? What are its defining marks, the characteristics that set it apart?  In this series of articles, pastor Tim Breen explains that the body of Christ is a community that obeys the Spirit, extends grace, embodies witness, and faces suffering.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all.

Galatians 1:6-9

It was a misfitting charcoal filter pack that ended our family’s foray into aquarium management. It was a misfitting charcoal filter pack that finally killed our joy.

Fish plus gear

Our experiment as keepers of tropical fish began simply and sweetly enough. On the last day of his spring semester, our son’s kindergarten teacher placed the class’s pet fish up for adoption. Our six-year-old, eager for a summertime project, quickly volunteered his home as a foster residence for the tetras, goldfish, and miscellaneous other fish in the tank.

His mother and I were actually fine with this. I had an old aquarium somewhere my garage, and the fish really were beautiful to look at. Best of all, they were free.

Naturally, we would need some food for the fish. But how much could that really cost? Four, maybe five dollars? A small price to pay for the joy of fish-keeping. We zipped over to Walmart, grabbed a container of Wardley’s, and started for the checkout line.

But just as we were departing the pet aisle, my eye fell on the bags of neon-colored aquarium gravel on the bottom shelf. Hmm…that stuff would actually look pretty cool on the bottom of the tank. One bag? Alright, let’s do two.

And maybe a nice little plant for the fish to swim around. Might as well get a couple of them.

Six? Sure, six plants. Now, let’s go check out.

Although … that little ceramic castle would be fun for the little guys to swim through, too. And check this out! A treasure chest that opens and closes with cute little bubbles! Bubbles that come from…ah, there it is…some clear plastic tubing! Ten feet sounds about right.

But you can’t have tubing without an air pump. Top shelf. Right next to—what’s that?—a water filter? Yeah, I suppose if I’ve invested this much already, I may as well have a water filter, too.

Seventy-five bucks and half a shopping cart later, we checked out and headed home.

That’s when I discovered the fish also needed a heater to regulate the water temp.

The lady at Petco was really helpful with this. She also sold me some water conditioner, a bottle of slime coating stuff, an air stone, and a little green net to have on hand should any unfortunate fish friends be discovered floating upside down.

The Visa company put a stop on my purchases that week. But it was worth it, right? I mean, the fish were free!

For six weeks, our family tended to pH levels, strived for algae control, and penned numerous goldfish eulogies. And as the summer wore on, a project that had begun as so much fun devolved into grudge work. Glass had to be scrubbed. Water had to be changed. Neighborhood kids had to be bribed to feed the fish while we were on vacation.

The last straw came when, after failing to find the right charcoal filter cartridge at any of our nearby pet stores, the cartridge I purchased online failed to fit our filter. That was it for me. The Breen family was out of the aquarium industry.

(After that, most of the remaining fish died, thanks to an evidently predatory fish my son acquired from the pet store. The last few I was happy to give away.)

A “Grace Plus” gospel

I wonder how many people think about church like this. At the beginning, the community of God is all joy and gladness. Jesus has saved them through the wonders of his grace. There is freedom and forgiveness and deliverance. The journey of faith is liberating and hopeful.

The thing is, churches aren’t always good at keeping grace at the center.

What’s free (whether pet fish or the grace of God) isn’t often considered sufficient.

Ever so subtly, other congregational activities join—and supplant—mercy and reconciliation.  Projects get assigned. Rituals must be maintained. Behaviors should be modified.

The songs in the pews continue to extol grace greater than all our sin. But ministry increasingly functions around cultural assimilation and garden-variety moralism.

It was just this tendency—this drift toward a “Grace Plus” gospel—that infuriated Paul in Galatians 1. Having received undeserved mercy himself, Paul knew that grace was the signature Christian doctrine. And he would not tolerate a Gospel of Added Requirements in the church.

Grace transforms much while demanding nothing. Perhaps that’s why it’s so foreign-feeling to us. We live in a world of costs and benefits, of pay to play.

But grace functions entirely differently. Grace rescues brutal Ninevites. Grace forgives Issachar and Mephibosheth. Grace chooses Mary.

Living as communities identified by grace means that our churches practice patience with those battling temptation. It means that we consider no person a lost cause. And it means that we resist all urges to saddle the free gift of God’s love with burdensome accessories. Because any and all forms of “Grace Plus” are finally exercises in subtraction.

[This article is one in a series about the characteristics of the church. You can also read about the church being marked by motion.]