Let us look honestly at the condition of the church in our time. In the last twenty-five years, the membership in churches and synagogues has fallen from 73% to 65% of the population. At the same time, a poll in 1990 reported a record 74% of Americans said they had made a commitment to Jesus Christ and 95% of those who said they have made that commitment also claimed to be born again Christians. It is clear that there are an increasing number of people who claim Jesus as Savior outside the church. We have moved from a time in which the church was seen as the only means of salvation to a time in which, in the eyes of many, the church is not seen as even important to the process of salvation.
If you ask many of these Believers but not Belongers, they often speak of the failure of the church to exhibit its own faith in its life together. “You are supposed to love your enemy,” they say, “ and you can’t even love each other.” We who belong to mainline churches are well aware that most major denominations are struggling to avoid the splintering of their denomination, and many local churches seem to be caught in serious conflict as well. Currently the major disagreement is around sexuality; but in the past, it has been around the church’s involvement in civil rights, poverty, the Vietnam War, abortion, or the role of women. If the church is the Body of Christ and God’s instrument of salvation, what on earth is God doing?
People on all sides of the conflicts that divide us would be quick to say that it is not God’s fault but the fault of people. Yet, from the beginning, God has chosen to work through a very human community of people. The critical problem of Israel as the called people of God was their disobedience to the will of God. This problem was not resolved with the coming of Christ and the formation of the church among the new disciples. Reading the Gospels, one quickly recognizes all the common human characteristics of people in any community. All of the disciples argue about who is the greatest. James and John attempt to use the influence of their mother to secure positions of power. At times some of the disciples more clearly represent Satan than they do God. Greed seems to direct some of their decisions; betrayal exists within the community; some are ready to use violence to enforce conformity. They continually seem to misunderstand both Jesus and the message he proclaims, and at critical moments they lose all courage and run for cover. It would not take a great deal of effort to describe parallel incidents in the history of the church.
Beginning with the writings of Paul, the history of the church is replete with problems that challenge the faith it is meant to proclaim. The divisions and arguments described in the churches at Corinth, Philippi, and Colossae and the major division, which led to the Jerusalem conference between Paul and those who objected to the way he was conducting his mission to the Gentiles, are just a prologue to the history of the sinfulness of the church. One’s heart sickens as we read about the Crusades that justified bloodshed in the name of Christ or the equally violent results of the missionaries accompanying the imperialistic expansion of the European countries. In this country we are shocked at the church’s participation in the Salem Witch Trials, the justification of the massacres of Native Americans, the enslavement of African-Americans, and the oppression of women. The fact of, and the church’s response to, the Holocaust makes one cry out in disbelief. The German society, which was producing the elite of Christian scholarship, succumbed to the enticement of Nazism. In addition the majority of the universal church at best turned a blind eye to the killing of the people of God’s original covenant.
A similarly sad history follows the church’s response to the intellectual discoveries of humanity. The experience of Galileo and Darwin and their followers are just two prominent examples. And, sadly, locally we can easily lift up personal examples of how petty, self-serving, and narrow-minded the church can be. Mark quotes Jesus as saying, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;…’” It would appear that Jesus might as well have been speaking about the contemporary church.
So, are the church and the people of Israel God’s failed experiments in the salvation of the world, or is there another answer? When we begin to speak of the revelation of God’s Word, we are confronted with what has often been referred to as the scandal of particularity. We are too aware of the finite nature of any given experience to believe that it contains anything of the eternal. To speak of the church as literally being the Body of Christ, which includes the incarnation of God’s Word, immediately invites skepticism due to the human nature of the church.
The tension of seeing the divine in the human is understood better when you remember that this same problem faced those who were relating to Jesus. Many who were physically close to Jesus, part of his village when he grew up, had difficulty in recognizing him as the Christ. “Is this not the son of Joseph the carpenter?” they asked. Yet we believe that God was revealed in the people of Israel with all of their human frailties and that their life was recapitulated in Jesus who was fully human but obedient.
The challenge for church leaders is not to split the church if it does not live up to our standards but to articulate how the Word incarnated in Jesus is now re-expressed in the people called by God through the church. This calls for a renewed humility in recognizing that in the same way that God spoke through the people of Israel, so God can continue to reveal the divine word through the church as it is today.
Bonhoeffer explored this possibility from the standpoint of Christology. When we meet Christ, we are meeting the humiliated God-man. That is, Christ chose to enter this world not in a way that it was obvious to people that he was the God-man but rather concealed in weakness. The temptation story suggests there was the temptation to break through this incognito form and confront people with his power, but he never did this. He entered the world of sin and death and was only recognized as the Christ by the believer who glimpsed in him the glory of God. For Bonhoeffer, Christ in the church continues incognito and continues to be revealed in weakness. From this perspective, we can confess the sinfulness of the church and work to reform it, but we do not await that reform before we encounter Christ in his Body. When we invite people to meet Christ in the Body of Christ, we recognize that the outside world will see only a religious organization. Yet we affirm that Christ meets us here in the Body, and we both invite others and come ourselves with that expectation.
God has chosen to enter time from eternity through the incarnation, and there is no place that we can meet God that does not take place in the lives of people who at the same time will demonstrate their capacity for sin. There is reason for the church to heed the advice of Philippians, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves…Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”
There are people outside the church who are of higher moral quality than some of us inside the church. The gift of Christ in the church is not something to be exploited in a manner that puts us above others but rather calls upon us to empty ourselves of such pretensions and recognize our full humanity. In the Body of Christ, we are addressed without denying the full extent of our guilt. Christ addresses us not for the purpose of exposing us as bad but for the purpose of offering forgiveness for our guilt. “And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside nailing it to the cross.” If we are to meet Christ in the church, we do so with honest confession and in continuing need of forgiveness.
Calvary Church felt betrayed. Many were so dispirited that they considered leaving the church altogether. Their pastor of two years turned out to be an embezzler and had run off with their fifty thousand dollar building fund. The official board was in a vindictive mood as they met to consider what they could do to recover their losses. Talk was fast and furious of hiring private investigators to trace down their vanished pastor and lawyers to sue for recovery and to protect themselves. But then something happened. Someone said that he now knew how Jesus felt when Judas betrayed him. Another responded in puzzlement, “You know, that betrayal led to the cross by which I am saved. Do you suppose God could redeem this betrayal as well?” They began to ask themselves what Christ might say to them through this experience. “What if,” asked one, “Christ is speaking to us about the power of greed in our own lives and in the life of this church?” “I was going to say,” responded another, “that I have never stolen fifty thousand dollars from anyone but now that you speak of the power of greed, I have to admit that I have never tithed either. I guess if that ten percent belongs to God, you might say that I have stolen from God.” “Maybe we feel so betrayed,” said another, “because we depend too much on pastors to live our faith for us.” “Right,” said another. “Our pastor was wrong, but maybe because of his error, Christ might wake us up to being more responsible ourselves.” “What about our decision to hire a private investigator?” asked one. “I think we can find better things to do with God’s money,” said another. And they all agreed.
None of this is to suggest that the sins of the church or individuals within it are acceptable. What I am trying to suggest is that we may need a new perspective on how God works through a community that is reflective of the sinfulness of the world. If God can reveal how God works a saving grace through the church, then we have a powerful message to proclaim to the world that is filled with sin and betrayal. Perhaps a place to begin may be with the “new covenant” passage in Jeremiah 31:31 where Jeremiah looks on a failed community and proclaims that God is about to create something new. Is it possible that God can forgive a community into truth? That like an artist who can look at an ugly piece of wood and see within it a beautiful work of art which she can reveal, so God looks on the ugliness of humanity which is reflected in the church and sees within it the Kingdom of Heaven which God chooses to bring about through the artist’s tool of forgiveness. “He is head of the body, the church … for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things … by making peace through the blood of his cross.” What a delightful transformation if a church or a denomination would not approach the world trumpeting its accomplishments but rather confessing its sins. What an amazing witness this could be to what is necessary for corporations and nations to do if they, too, were to come to the fullness of their potential.
With the church as the Body of Christ, like with the disciples, there always will be times of obedience and disobedience, but in both times the Word of God can be revealed. Sometimes it will be revealed in the fruits of the flesh that become so obvious within a community that the people feel called to repentance.
Felicia, a new deacon in her church, was troubled by a series of recent incidents in her church. The board had recently cut in half the amount in the deacon’s fund to serve the needy while at the same time redecorating a beautiful parlor that was to be used only for official functions. Then, last Sunday a vagrant had approached one of the ushers asking for help in the middle of the worship service. The usher told him that the church only helped people on Tuesdays between nine and twelve and that he should come back then. She came to her board and asked what they thought Christ was saying through these and several other similar incidents that she could recount. There was a long embarrassed pause before one of the members hesitantly said, “I think Christ may be saying to us that we may have gotten too caught up in ourselves.”
Sometimes the Word of God will be revealed in a person or persons who demonstrate fruits of the Spirit in response to the disobedient behavior of the Body. Alexander was mentally slow and though he was tolerated around the church, he was largely ignored. Rarely did anyone speak to him in other than patronizing ways. Then one evening while there were several meetings going on in the church, a fire broke out in the building. In an unfortunate decision by the church, the nursery had been placed on an upper floor in the church, and several children were playing up there when the fire broke out. Despite the smoke and danger, people saw Alexander enter the building, head up to the nursery, and lead the children to safety. It was perhaps the first time that most people had ever looked at Alexander as anything other than a simpleton to be tolerated. When asked why he had risked his life to save the children, he responded, “Because Jesus loved the little children.”
And sometimes the Word of God will be revealed in the acts of obedience that surprise even those who participated in the decision. First Community Church was proud of its recent successes. They were confident that one of the reasons that most churches were not growing as they were was because other churches became involved in too many social issues. First Church had distanced themselves from their denomination as much as possible and focused all of their resources on creating programs for their own members. They had recently renovated their sanctuary and built a brand new family life center to better serve their own people. Then someone firebombed a Black church in their city and somehow that struck a chord in the official board. “No one has a right to burn a church,” said one elder. “It’s the most despicable thing that you can do,” agreed another. Soon, to their own surprise, they had voted to work with the firebombed church and to help organize and pay for its rebuilding. “I don’t even know who to call,” said the surprised pastor. “It’s about time we found out,” said one elder. “After all,” he said with some wonder in his voice, “we are all members of the same church.”
The question for members of the Christian community is not whether the history of the church and even that of the local church is filled with soiled spots of disobedience. The question is whether we believe that the Christ who meets us in a less than perfect church is capable of redeeming all of us in our sinfulness. If we believe in Christ’s redemption today, then we can invite Believers but Not Belongers and even nonbelievers to encounter Christ at church.
The early church spent almost 300 years debating whether Christ was human or divine, yet during that debate neither side abandoned their loyalty to Christ. We are currently involved in a passionate debate as to whether the church is a human organization or a divine Body of Christ. Like those Christians who finally concluded that Christ is both fully human and divine, perhaps we need to rediscover that same truth about the Body of Christ. What on earth is God doing in the church? Perhaps God is once again demonstrating to us that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.