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Disillusioned With Church

For Sunday January 16, 2005
Second Sunday After Epiphany

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Isaiah 49:1–7
           Psalm 40:1–11
           1 Corinthians 1:1–9
           Matthew 1:29–42

Galileo Galilei

Galileo Galilei

           Some time during my high school years my father stopped going to church. If nothing else, this was an act of bravery on his part, for at our tiny church in a small town in North Carolina he still dropped us off and picked us up every Sunday (my mother did not drive). I still remember how awkward that felt, seeing him waiting at the curb in his car, seeing and being seen by the neighbors he used to worship with. I suspect that my father was like many people today —he lost his faith in the church as an institution but not his faith in God or the Gospel.

           You can find good reasons to leave the church. Tops on most people's list is grotesque hypocrisy and intolerance. We know that in the name of God's love Christians have slaughtered Muslims (the Crusades), Jews (the Holocaust) and Native Americans (see The Conquest of America by Tzvetan Todorov). We have humiliated and exploited slaves, women and gays.

           These barbaric episodes are similar to the way Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians have treated each other. Reading Diarmaid MacCulloch's magisterial book The Reformation (2003) has reminded me of the fervent and sadistic cruelty Christians have unleashed against each other. From my own Presbyterian tradition, consider John Calvin (1509–1564) and his reforms in Geneva. When one Jacques Gruet posted a handbill opposing Calvin, he was arrested, tried and executed for blaspheming God and slandering the local authorities. Wrote Calvin, "With God and His Sacred Scriptures before our eyes we say, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen:...We condemn you, Jacques Gruet, to be taken to Champel and there have your body attached to a stake and burned to ashes and so you shall finish your days to give an example to others who would commit the like" (July 26, 1547). When Michael Servetus denied the doctrine of the Trinity, Calvin wrote to his colleague William Farel that if Servetus ever set foot in Geneva, "I shall never permit him to depart alive" (February 13, 1546). Servetus did return to Geneva; he was burned at the stake on October 27, 1553. Yes, indeed, this was a time and place of "rack and thumbscrew, ax and fire," when, writes Stephen Greenblatt, "claims made in the name of love [were] enforced by torture and execution."

The Spanish Inquisition
The Spanish Inquisition

           Others reject the church because they find it irrelevant, mediocre, boring or perfunctory. In her essay "An Expedition to the Pole," the Pultizer Prize winner Annie Dillard (b. 1945) describes her church experience: "Week after week I was moved by the pitiableness of the bare linoleum-floored sacristy which no flowers could cheer or soften, by the terrible singing I so loved, by the fatigued Bible readings, the lagging emptiness and dilution of the liturgy, the horrifying vacuity of the sermon, and by the fog of dreary senselessness pervading the whole, which existed alongside, and probably caused, the wonder of the fact that we came; we returned; we showed up; week after week, we went through it." A high school stage play, Dillard complained, looked better than lots of what passes in church.

           For still others, Christians are people who have hounded heretics, burned books, defended the dubious, and supported pseudo-science.

           One response to our checkered history is to long for the purity and holiness of the first Christians. But the epistle for this week from 1 Corinthians 1:1–9 disabuses us of that romantic fallacy. Paul preached and taught at Corinth for eighteen months (Acts 18:11), and he knew those people well. In his two letters to the believers at Corinth Paul addressed a series of ugly issues—sectarian divisions (each of which claimed to be more spiritual than everyone else), boasting about incest ("and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans," 1 Corinthians 5:1), lawsuits between fellow Christians, eating food that had been sacrificed to pagan idols, disarray in worship services, and predatory psuedo-preachers masquerading as super-apostles. I have often thought that it would be nice to be in a better church, but take me anywhere other than a place like Corinth. The churches of the first believers were uncomfortably similar to our own today.

           Despite our hypocrisy, mediocrity, and the futility of finding a "pure" church at any time or place, every Sunday you can find me back for more. Why bother with church if it is all that bad?

           First, the reign and realm of God's kingdom is not identical with the institutional church. At its best, the church mediates and points to God's kingdom, but at times God works beyond and in spite of the church. Jesus reminded us of this when he compared God's kingdom to a fish net that trawls through the ocean, catching both the good and the bad, or to wheat and tares currently entangled together. Even within the inner circle of Jesus's followers there were the traitor Judas and the betrayer Peter. If you are part of God's true kingdom, then you likely participate in the church; but not all of the people or activities that constitute church are part of the kingdom.

Edict to expel Jews from Spain in 1492
Edict to expel Jews from Spain in 1492
by the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella

           Further, whatever its shortcomings, when I go to church I experience much good—couples working to hold their marriages together, parents longing to be good citizens, generosity to the poor, hospital visitation for the sick, efforts at building community in an otherwise individualistic society, adoption of orphans, outreach to victims of HIV and AIDS, building schools and hospitals in places that would otherwise never have them, and so on. This list is as long as the one of atrocities. Focusing only on our faults distorts the true image of the church. For all of the barbarities of Spanish colonization, there is always a Bartolome de las Casas (1484–1566), a Dominican priest who defended Native Americans for fifty years. For every impulse of greed, there is the selfless compassion of a Mother Teresa, known or unknown, for every craven acquiescence to political power, a Thomas More (1478–1535) executed for speaking the truth.

           Since I believe that the church is God's ordained human institution where He has chosen to work, even though it swarms with many faults, I want to place myself there to receive what He has to give. More often than not, if I listen carefully, I am not disappointed. The writer Flannery O'Connor said that she sat at her writing desk every morning so that she would be ready if and when an idea came to her. Likewise, in her memoirs Ordinary Time Nancy Mairs writes that she moved beyond her lapsed Catholic faith and returned to church, even though she still had many questions, so that she could "prepare a space into which belief could flood."1 It might be that healthy faith results from rather than precedes fidelity to the church.

           Finally, I go to church out of a deep sense of my own need. Being a Christian is one of the few things in life that you cannot do alone. During the Protestant Reformation the ultimate Renaissance humanist, scholar and Christian, Erasmus (1466–1536), locked horns with Luther over their contrasting views of human nature. Erasmus simply could not endure Luther's pessimistic views of the human will or natural reason, and so he returned to the arms of the deeply troubled Catholic church. "Therefore I will put up with this Church until I see a better one," wrote Erasmus; "and it will have to put up with me, until I become better." I am thankful for a church, however imperfect, that has welcomed my imperfect self with my deeply imperfect faith.2 For all those agitated over church hypocrisy, I say, please join us, there is always room for one more.

           We should never turn a blind eye to church faults and failure. Rather, we should name them, own up to them, repent of them, and do what we can to correct them. Losing our illusions about church (dis-illusionment) is a necessary and good thing. Thus did Luther, overwhelmed with the troubles of Medieval Catholicism, offer a "spectacularly disloyal form of loyalty to the church" when he demanded radical reform.3 But even more, I pray that my loyality to the kingdom will prevail over the lapses of the church. I rather like the metaphor by the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister who refers to herself as "a loyal member of a dysfunctional family."

[1] For these last two examples see Philip Yancey, Church: Why Bother? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), p. 21.
[2] On Erasmus, see Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation (New York: Viking, 2004, p. 147).
[3] Diarmaid, p. 123.

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