The Embarrassment of the Church

Somewhere along the way, you may have heard the objection. The gist goes something like this: “You tell me that I should follow your Jesus. You say that he’s the very definition of what ‘good’ is. And you even claim that he turns lives around. But if that’s all true, how do explain all the terrible things his followers have done?”

It’s a good question. The history of the church is, after all, a decidedly mixed bag. One can read about all sorts of shameful episodes: unjust wars waged “in the name of Christ,” a startling variety of racism, both the energetic defense and tacit endorsement of slavery, tone-deaf responses to a range of human tragedy, the uncritical confusion of country and the Kingdom, an Inquistion and witch trials, etc. These are just the more spectacular examples. To these situations, we could all the mundane hypocrisy and ugliness that constantly percolates within the community of Christ (and, more fundamentally, in our own hearts). It’s enough to make one embarrassed of the church.

So how are we to respond?

One obvious (but limited, see below) point to make is that not all those who have committed such acts were/are genuine Christians. As church historian John Woodbridge has noted, “There are many true Christians in visible churches, but just because a person is a part of a church doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is a follower of Jesus. Some people are cultural Christians but not authentic Christians.” (quoted in Strobel, The Case for Faith, 200).

This is not simply a modern rationalization. The idea that a distinction is to be made between authentic Christians and those who falsely identify themselves with the faith is both ancient and biblical. Consider the following passages:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. (Mat. 7:15)

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2 Tim. 4:3-4)

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow in their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. (2 Pet. 2:1-4)

These passages and others support the notion that there will always be some who are in various ways identified or associated with the Christian faith despite an absence of a genuine adherence to the gospel of Jesus Christ. This being the case, one may legitimately ask how many of the evils associated with the Christian church were actually perpetrated by those who were not true followers of Christ.

Perhaps a more important point to make, however, is that inauthentic faith can by no means account for every failure associated with the church. Simply stated, we must admit that Christians—genuine Christians—have been guilty of many reprehensible acts throughout the history of the church.

This, no doubt, would not come as a surprise to the biblical writers. They are clear on two facts: (1) while Christians have genuinely been made new and are no longer slaves to sin (e.g., Rom. 6:4-7), (2) they still battle sin and often fall short (e.g., Rom. 7:21-25, Gal. 5:17, 1 John 1:8, James 3:2). One instructive example of this can be found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. There, he speaks of the need to confront his fellow apostle (!) Peter for acting in a way that seriously contradicted the heart of the gospel (see Gal. 2:11-16).

In short, the Bible itself, is extremely realistic about our inevitable failure to represent Christ faithfully. It is important to note, however, that this recognition is not accompanied by an endorsement or minimalization of such sin. Rather, the expectation is that fellow believers, as in the example of Paul, will confront the error when necessary, and the offending party will humbly acknowledge and repent of the sin.

So what should we expect to find in the church? Saints? Yes, but not spotless saints. Rather saints that make progress, but remain in continual need of God’s grace. Until Christ returns, the church must be, as the Protestant Reformers memorably put it, semper reformanda, always reforming.

A final thought is helpful when considering the historical failings of Christians: the proverbial other side of the coin. Amidst the truly reprehensible acts, the great good accomplished by those who have been inspired by Christ has often been relegated to the background in the discussion of Christianity’s merit. And yet Woodbridge notes that reflection upon Christianity’s contribution to civilization would reveal

vast humanitarian impulses that have been inspired by Christ’s life and teaching. Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants—all have been deeply involved in helping the poor, the disadvantaged, the disenfranchised. They’ve been willing to work against their own personal interests to serve others. Losing all of that—all the missionary work, all the hospitals, all the homeless shelters, all the rehabilitation programs, all the orphanages, all the relief organizations, all the selfless feeding of the hungry and clothing of the poor and encouraging of the sick—would be a devastating blow to the world.…Christians have given their minds to God, and their literary, musical, architectural, scientific, and artistic contributions, if taken away, would render the world more dull and shallow. Think of all the great educational institutions that Christians built, including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, which were originally conceived and constructed to advance the gospel (Strobel, Case for Faith, 218).

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