To Hell With the Church?
The Personal Weblog of Edward W. Farrell   
To Hell With the Church? Friday, October 5, 2018
Very interesting post on the loss of faith in the Roman Catholic Church over at the Maverick Philosopher. The centerpiece is an article in the American Conservative by Rod Dreher on the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic church and how it led him to leave that church.

There are a whole host of issues here for the believer in Christ to chew on. Frankly as much faith as I have in Christ I have correspondingly as little faith in the institutional aspects of the church, and I'll admit this is a significant practical problem which can lead from church-hopping at one end to not attending church at all on the other end. These outcomes may in turn signal a lack of faith--to trust your own judgment as superior to that of the institution ordained by Christ for his people, which is what all church hopping and non-attendance eventually implies. Two basic questions emerge, one at each pole of this dilemma. 1) For the church hopper or non-attendee: Can one sustain faith in Christ without the institution of the church, and is this churchless path sufficient for the believer attempting to work out his salvation in Christ? And 2) for the one who remains in the church come what may: Can one in good faith remain in an institution whose corruption and hypocrisy are obvious to all, and are clearly at odds with the Biblical gospel? There are no "one size fits all" answers to these questions; they are rather intended to anchor one's conscience when church corruption seems to be the norm.

For the record I'll count myself among the church hoppers and non-attendees, a position I maintain with significant doubts and uneasiness. What follows are my personal thoughts and doubts.

All Christians would probably agree that the church in its most basic sense is the body of believers in Jesus Christ, whose criteria of membership is their faith. But this immediately leads to potentially divisive questions: Who is Jesus Christ? What is faith and why should one have faith in Christ? Is faith alone sufficient (and sufficient for what)? These and many other questions, from believers within and opponents without, drove the early church to formulate a body of doctrine and select from many available contemporary texts the few that would become the canon of scripture.  Such doctrine is necessary for understanding salvation, which comes directly from God and is not discoverable by any other means, and the church conceived of itself as its "keeper" to ensure that it is conveyed unaltered through time. In addition, in the traditional perspective (i.e., before the reforming doctrines of the Protestants) the church conceived of itself as the historical link to Jesus Christ through apostolic succession and through this succession thus served as the authorized agency of Christ's great commission: the transmission of the gospel to every living thing. The historical link is important because it reinforces that Christ, in addition to being God, was also a real man who entered history at a particular time and place and conveyed his revelation to other real men, the apostles, who knew him personally while he lived.  This historical rootedness further implied that no separation exists, nor can exist, between the human and divine elements of the church.

There is no shortage of critics who insist that the church has never lived up this vision of itself, and has even cravenly advanced this vision to whitewash a more distressing reality. Jacques Ellul's critique is particularly lucid:

How has it come about that the development of Christianity and the church has given birth to a society, a civilization, a culture that are completely opposite to what we read in the Bible, to what is indisputably the text of the law, the prophets, Jesus, and Paul? I say advisedly "completely opposite." There is not just contradiction on one point but on all points. On the one hand, Christianity has been accused of a whole list of faults, crimes, and deceptions that are nowhere to be found in the original text and inspiration. On the other hand, revelation has been progressively modeled and reinterpreted according to the practice of Christianity and the church. Critics have been unwilling to consider anything but this practice, this concrete reality, absolutely refusing to refer to the truth of what is said. There is not just deviation but radical and essential contradiction, or real subversion. (Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity, 1986)

So pronounced is this contradiction that it has often made me wonder if Christianity, seen as a religion, has primarily been an instrument of state, the purpose of which was to neuter Christ's gospel and render it harmless to states, since it is not of this world and if followed scrupulously would foster an anarchy utterly at odds with the power of states.

The basic contradiction between the word of Christ and the practice of the church in all its historical and current forms seems indisputable and persistent. The current scandal of sexual abuse is egregious only in degree. Christian doctrine asserts the universality of sin and the human part of the church outside of Christ is never free of its temptation. Nevertheless Christian doctrine also insists that the Christian is distinguished by the acts that follow from his belief in Christ, not by his beliefs alone. This burden of right action is placed on every individual believer, but how is the follower of Christ to understand which actions are right, given the waywardness of the church which is ostensibly his guide? There is no easy solution. In our time we can follow the example of the Protestants and rely on the Bible alone but there is the uneasy fact that the Bible as we know it did not exist before the church, and is in some sense a creation of the church. Furthermore, the believer in isolation is quite capable of twisting the meaning of the gospel to suit his own private vanities, and one of the roles of the church has been to correct such distortions in accordance with the traditional practice of believers. Church hopping is another alternative prevalent in our times. For the first thousand years there was only one universal church; for the next 500 there was only Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Over the last 500 years roughly 20,000 Protestant denominations have been added to the mix, which now provide plenty of minor variants for unhappy believers to jump among. But church hopping often seems less a desire for the purity and rigor of a milieu unadulterated by the corrupting traditions of men, and more like the vanity of a person who fears being made guilty by association with doings in which he has no personal involvement. In this case church hopping is little different from not attending church at all, since the believer has situated himself as the highest authority, and is only obedient to the church so long as the habits of its members meet his personal standards of morality.  

Christians always have to remember that the church is also a supernatural institution under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and our faith is contingent on Christ, not the inevitable sins of church members. Given this, possibly the best approach to dealing with a wayward church is to simply remain there and adopt the general attitude of the Jewish merchant in one of Boccacio's tales. This merchant had long been evangelized by his good friend, a Christian, and he finally decided to travel to Rome and make his decision to convert based on the doings of the believers at the center of Christendom. This made his Christian friend despair that he would see the corruption and hypocrisy there and certainly turn away from Christ. Yet he returned a convert and explained his decision as follows: far as I was able to carry my investigations, holiness, devotion, good works or exemplary living in any kind was nowhere to be found in any clerk; but only lewdness, avarice, gluttony, and the like, and worse, if worse may be, appeared to be held in such honour of all, that (to my thinking) the place is a centre of diabolical rather than of divine activities. To the best of my judgment, your Pastor, and by consequence all that are about him devote all their zeal and ingenuity and subtlety to devise how best and most speedily they may bring the Christian religion to nothing and banish it from the world. And because I see that what they so zealously endeavour does not come to pass, but that on the contrary your religion continually grows, and shines more and more clear, therein I seem to discern a very evident token that it, rather than any other, as being more true and holy than any other, has the Holy Spirit for its foundation and support. For which cause, whereas I met your exhortations in a harsh and obdurate temper, and would not become a Christian, now I frankly tell you that I would on no account omit to become such. (Giovanni Boccacio, The Decameron (Day 1, Tale 2), 1353)

It's an impossible road between faith and justice which is one reason God reserves justice for himself. And so we also have to consider this:

Christianity, or better, Christendom, from the time of its birth in St. Paul, has not been a doctrine, though it has expressed itself dialectically. It has been a way of life, of struggle, an agony. The doctrine has been the Gospel, the Glad Tidings. Christianity has been a preparation for death and resurrection, for eternal life. If Christ be not risen from the dead, then we are of all men most miserable, cried St. Paul. (Miguel de Unamuno, The Agony of Christianity, 1974)

Related Links
On the Loss of Faith in the Roman Catholic Church
Traitors in Their Midst
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