There’s a narrative about the history and even the present day circumstance of the Church. The history narrative goes something like this; in the beginning the Church was birthed in power at Pentecost, the disciples all lived together in love and unity, miracles abounded, the gifts of the Holy Spirit were common everyday occurrences and despite persecution, the Church grew, flourished and spread like wildfire. But somewhere along the way, (oftentimes this part of the story centers around when Constantine made Christianity a tolerated religion within the Roman Empire and later gave it favored status), the Church became compromised with earthly power, grew corrupt, formalized, hierarchical and lacked the power of the Holy Spirit. It replaced the work of the Spirit with rules, liturgical rites and official positions. Depending on who’s telling the story, things remained bad (with occasional flickers of hope) until either Martin Luther popped up with the real gospel of grace through faith, the Wesleyan revival reintroduced social justice back into the church or the Holy Spirit dramatically reappeared at Asuza Street. There are other ways the story is told, but the same basic arc is there every time. The original glory of the Church, the “fall” into sin, darkness and corruption and the recovery of the true gospel leading us into our present state. The bad guys in the narrative are sometimes particular people or institutions (Constantine, the Roman Catholic Church, or particular Popes or denominational leaders, depending on when and where the story is being told), sometimes it’s ideas or social realities that are the villains (patriarchy, colonialism, empire, racism, capitalism, anti-Semitism) that to use a phrase popularized by Martin Luther, led to the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church”. But always there’s the thought that if we can just recover the original state of the Church, before it was tamed, institutionalized, corrupted and co-opted, we will see revival and restoration. This same language is often used when describing the current landscape of the Church. There’s always a “them” and “us”. It’s either those darn liberals who’ve compromised the gospel with the world and stripped the gospel of it’s power or those pharisaical conservatives who value doctrine above people and turn non-believers off with their meanness. The way we talk about the Church, either in history or in the present, always divides the world into the good guys and the bad guys, those who get it and those who don’t. What if this is fundamentally wrong?
Let us start by taking a different look at history. The story of the early Church is truly amazing. Within a generation of the birth of the Church at Pentecost, the gospel had truly spread throughout much of the world. From Jerusalem, by the end of the first century there is credible evidence of the Christian faith throughout the Roman Empire, reaching even to present day Spain and Great Britain. Churches existed in North Africa, the Persian Empire (including present day Iran/Iraq and parts of Afghanistan) and even South India. Within a few centuries, the Church was in Russia, Eastern and Western Europe, Mongolia and the western parts of present day China. But it’s evident in even reading the New Testament that things weren’t always perfect. Within a few chapters in Acts, we find a married couple dropping dead in the presence of the apostles after trying to lie about money. Soon afterwards there is great controversy over the distribution of food to widows and how to deal with Gentiles and Jews in the same body. If you read the letters of Paul, it’s obvious that he was dealing with problems of immorality, division, false leadership, money and gender issues within decades of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. In the second and third chapters of the book of Revelation, there are harsh messages given to churches in particular locations for unfaithfulness, complacency and false teaching. It seems that from the very beginning, the Church struggled with very human problems. On the other hand, during times where the Church was supposedly corrupt, powerless and compromised, there are always stories of God’s amazing work. In “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” by the Venerable Bede, a work that covers much of the fifth, sixth, seventh centuries of the Church in England, miracle stories abound as various tribes and groups are evangelized by a variety of leaders. Historical literature of the Church in Western and Eastern Europe during this and later time periods also contain many of the same types of stories. Later stories of revivals under figures like Martin Luther, John Wesley and the leaders at Asuza Street also contain stories of great victories and agonizingly human failures. Perhaps the reality of the history of the Church is much more complicated than a simple broad narrative can contain. When we talk about the Church, maybe we should understand that the Church has always been amazing and human, victorious and corrupt, compromised and overcoming. The Church has always been diverse, multi-ethnic, global, structured and free. It’s always been amazing and it’s always been a mess.
It’s no different today. One doesn’t have to look to hard to find stories of amazing victory and miraculous love in the Church. Unfortunately, one doesn’t have to look any harder to find stories of abuse, unfaithfulness, power-grabbing and deception. But the way we tell these stories to ourselves and each other, just like the way we talk about history, is incredibly important. When we oversimplify these narratives and easily divide the story into good guys and bad guys, we do ourselves a disservice. There genuinely are heroes and villains in Church history and even today. But more often than not, the line between the heroes and villains, like Solzhenitsyen reminds us, runs within us, not out there somewhere. Those who prefer to tell the narrative in simple ways more often than not do so for self-serving reasons. They do so to point the finger and identify the villains “out there” or to identify themselves as the true heroes and reformers in the story (or both). But why do we talk about history in the first place? Is it not to learn? Is it not to allow the voices of the past to inform us so that we can learn from their examples (both the good and the bad)? When we celebrate the victories of the Church or agonize over it’s failures, is it not to allow God to change us to be more like Jesus?
How we talk to ourselves about the Church matters. The Church is a lot like each of us. A glorious, flawed mess that has within it the capacity to reflect the glory of God like no other. Let’s be honest with ourselves and each other when we talk about the Church. Let’s walk away from the simplistic narratives and take a hard look within. Let’s not use the past as a cudgel to bludgeon those who differ from us. But let’s spend time thinking about what God might want to say to us. God’s task for the Church isn’t to recover some imagined past when everything was perfect, but to allow Him to fill us today and serve our generation faithfully. Anything else beyond that is merely self-serving and virtue signaling.