“The Church is a whore, but she’s our mother.” ~ St. Augustine of Hippo
If you have even heard that Christianity exists, you can probably name at least a dozen friends or acquaintances off the top of your head who have been severely hurt by the Church. If you have been a Christian for any length of time, chances are good that you yourself have been deeply wounded by fellow Christians. And if you’re the child of a pastor, well… you get your own special scale to evaluate Church experience.
I am descended from a long line of Christians who were deeply wounded by other Christians. I don’t want to get into details, because I love my relatives, but I will summarize by saying that if you go down a list of the top twenty most common mental illnesses, you can spot most of them in my extended family without looking too hard – and most of that crazy sprang directly from messed-up relationships between Christians.
Christianity is blamed for all sorts of evils. The Inquisition and the Crusades are the two most popular blotches on our record, and goodness knows we have plenty of things to be rather ashamed of. So it is any wonder that, in our age of recovering spirituality, so many who are open to faith run away as soon as “the Church” comes up… because faith is wonderful, right up until it becomes an institution. Right?
Yet, here I am, in seminary, training with my husband to serve in that church for the rest of our lives, in a relatively “institutional” denomination, no less. Would you like to know why?
Two qualifiers before I get into it.
First, I do not want to invalidate anyone’s pain. I have been there, my family members have been there, and some of my dear friends are there right now. If you are hurt, for goodness sake, be hurt. If you’re freshly hurt, maybe this isn’t the right time to be reading this. But if you’re looking for healing, I hope your hurt doesn’t drive you away from Jesus, who established the community through which He wants to be met.
Second, I do want to address the whole Inquisition/Crusades thing. It is an interesting fact that while some serious atrocities have been attributed to Christian governments, atheistic governments have killed far more people, as discussed in this interesting paper (the link downloads a pdf). The issue is way more complex than a numbers game of “who’s worse” and the book I recommend below approaches these issues with far more depth. The point of this paragraph is not to shut anyone down, but to table a topic that is often overblown to keep us from getting to the real issues, which are personal. (If you are from Palestine, the Crusades are likely highly personal, but for the sake of this essay we’ll call that an exception.)
All right, we’re ready for the argument. Let’s start by talking about what we mean when we talk about “the Church,” especially in the context of a statement like “the Church hurt me.” People hurt people, and Christians hurt Christians. Sometimes this is because those who call themselves Christians aren’t really Christians, but inherited practices without faith; but I daresay it’s more often because we Christians still find ourselves in that “already/not-yet” place I talked about on Sunday. Being rescued from the eternal effects of sin does not mean that we have yet been cured of all wrongdoing in our lives, and that means that we do wrong, make mistakes, and hurt others the process.
Yet sometimes, when someone talks about being hurt by “the Church,” they mean not only that they were hurt by some Christians, but that the social institution of which these Christians are a part enabled concerted social damage of one person or group by another group. thus the condemnation of institutions. Still, to be fair, usually when one is hurt by “the Church,” what they mean is that they were hurt by “a Church,” meaning the actions of a particular congregation (or multiple congregations, or denominational leadership, etc.). So it’s probably not quite fair to say that the entirety of the Christian church is to blame for your particular hurt. We’re hurt by people, or by groups, usually because they weren’t acting how Jesus would have wanted.
It is true that, when you get a group of people together, it is more than the sum of its constituent members. This is true in a book club or a Fortune 500 business. Humans are social, so when you get us together, you get some kind of new organized body. This is one basic definition of the word “institution,” though to avoid putting you off, I will just use the word “group.” These groups, once formed, take on a mind of their own, have their own sort of being or character. Add or subtract members, and that character changes. Add someone wildly contrary to the established character, and the group will be unsettled until it adjusts to or rejects the new person. This is how clubs are formed, and this is how some anthropologists can talk in general terms about the “personality” of a particular culture, even though people vary wildly within every culture. This is why you might notice that different groups have a different “feel,” why you feel more or less comfortable in a group, and why you can describe different groups as “accepting” (able to change) or “intolerant” (rigid and unaccepting of change). I am not trying to reduce human culture to a chemistry experiment; I’m trying to state a general truth.
Churches, by which I mean congregations, are social groups of this type. They are more than this kind of group, due to the presence of the Holy Spirit, but they not a totally different type of social group. Each member is, at best, an already/not-yet person; Luther called this “simil justus et peccator” or “righteous and sinful at the same time” (denominations quibble about the details of this statement, but most agree that something like this is true). Therefore, the collective character of the group, like any other, will include sin. Add to that the fact that similar people tend to congregate in any group, and you get groups of people blind to their common failings. Thus, even the best congregation, in which the Holy Spirit is moving and growing and transforming lives, cannot expect to make no mistakes and hurt no one.
So then, one might argue, why bother being a Christian in a group at all? Why not just believe in Jesus without going to a Church?
I completely understand this inclination (some members of my family still act on it – and I know how miserable post-burn church shopping can be), but there are a few major reasons that island Christianity is not the best idea. They all spring out of the basic truth that when Jesus lived on earth, he established a community, and intended the truth about Him to be passed on in the context of that community of fellowship (an ekklesia of koinonia, if you like Greek). When you detach yourself from this community, you detach yourself from 2000 years of the Holy Spirit’s work, and you’re likely to drift. (Not to mention the fact that the very idea that you can have religion at all without community is an invention of Western individualistic modernism and postmodernism, in which “spirituality” is, to be blunt, little more than glorified self-help.)
Did you notice that I started using a different word? That word is “community,” and it’s a very cool word right now. “Community is great,” you might say. “I’d love that. But the churches I’ve seen aren’t communities; they’re just institutions that sometimes have a veneer of community.”
I would like to address this dichotomy between “institution” and “community,” with the intent to redeem the first word a bit for you. In common parlance, both words are categories of the social groups I defined earlier. However, “community” is a word we more associate with love and friendship, spontineity and openness, and sharing of life; while on the other hand, “institution” is more associated with rules, paperwork, and traditions that are preserved for their own sake without concern for actual people.
It is true that some groups that were started as communities can lose their soul, becoming no more than husks of empty ritual. This can really happen; I’ve lived in it. (I’ve also lived in some beautiful communities which most would call “institutional” but which are full of the quiet love of the Spirit, so I’ve learned to be slow to judge this.) That’s just one way that sin can manifest in groups of real humans. However, even the most free-form, people-based community comes up with beloved rituals that it wishes to share with new members, and if it lasts long enough, pass on to another generation. How exactly would you recommend this happen if not through some organized means – whether oral or written? This is what tradition is. And no matter physical format, the best passing-down happens through relationships – Christians have fancy word for this called catechesis. (This word has fun derivations – catechetical, catechumens, catecumenate, catechized, catechism – do you recognize that last one?) If you were given the most important story humanity has ever been told – and if you’d personally known the God-Man hero of that story – wouldn’t you want to pass that on, especially if that’s exactly what He told you to do?
Real church has real community. Not perfect, but extant, and always including the real risk that comes with any human relationship. That community is marked by the work of the Holy Spirit in transformed lives, in mutual love (John 13:35), and in the ability to confess that Jesus is Lord (1 Corinthians 12:3). It is in that kind of church that we meet Jesus, whose saving work reconciles men and women to God, and humans to each other. But that gets into tomorrow’s subject: the unity of the Church.
For Further Reading: The book 6 Modern Myths about Christianity and Western Civilization comes highly recommended by the Dean President of my seminary. If you find yourself asking, or frequently having to answer, questions like “Didn’t the church burn thousands of innocent women by saying they were witches?” or “Didn’t the Church murder Galileo for using his brain?” then you may find this helpful and fun. It doesn’t try to make the Church appear perfect, as we have plenty of major issues in our past, but please give us flak for the things we actually did, not the things we didn’t do.