Church – a bird’s eye view?

This article began as a response to a comment from a reader, then evolved to something else (as rants are wont to do). =)

Many new Christians will get to a stage where the ‘honeymoon’ period of their conversion is over, and they begin to see the character flaws in what they had originally thought was a pretty pure and noble entity… that is, the Church. Once they start to reconcile their faith in Jesus with the many failings and flaws of ‘the Church’, many get so depressed or confused that they simply walk away from Christianity altogether. This happened to me (a few times actually) before I learnt some valuable lessons in humility and hope.

But before we begin any discussion on ‘the Church’ I think it’s important to clarify what we mean by those words. It is not, except perhaps in the hearts of its most noble members, a single unified entity, rolling on through history doing good here, bad there, and generating a love-hate relationship with billions of people. Historically speaking, there is no such thing as ‘the Church’, at least in any real or useful sense. Even the very first communities of Christians had their differences, and looked to different leaders or schools of thought for direction depending on their nationality (there were Roman, Greek, Jewish, and even Ethiopian Christians very early on). Of course, when Constantine made it the official religion of what was a powerful empire, he cemented one particular interpretation of Christianity as the most dominant. He also ‘married’ the Church to the State, giving it an the kind of power that made it so easily susceptible to corruption.

Since then of course, Christianity has been institutionalized in various other forms, most of them claiming to be either the ‘true church’ or at least a Church that followed the meaning of Jesus’ teachings more clearly than the rest. From these commmunities, movements and institutions have emerged people who have done many beautiful things – including many who, and still are, committed to peace and non-violence (Gandhi himself was deeply influenced by Leo Tolstoy’s beliefs on non-violence, derived from Jesus’ teachings). Mother Theresa, St Francis of Assisi, and Martin Luther King are notable examples.

But from these communities, movements and institutions have also emerged people who have done a great many evil things, and this is a great tragedy, albeit an understandable one… after all, Churches are not God.. they are communities of flawed human beings.

When we take a step back and look at all this from a birds-eye view, we see two things – a teacher and His message, and then the people who have tried throughout history to interpret and follow that message. The two things are very different indeed, and it is unfortunate that many people’s ideas of the first thing are negatively coloured by the second. It would be hoped that the bulk of the activities of the second would be an example that led people to investigate the first, and often this is the case…but as in all philosophies and worldviews, we find people who steadfastly try to follow them, and also those who pervert them for their own ends. Interestingly, Jesus hardly spoke of the Church at all (twice that I can find, and both times in Matthew). He seemed to spend a lot more time talking about life, peoples attitudes, and the ‘Kingdom of God’… that is, the presence of the divine that can dwell in all of us (Luke 17:21).

As someone who loves Jesus and tries to follow Him, I am not particularly proud or particularly disillusioned with the Church.. I think of myself more as a realist. The Church (or, more accurately, the Churches) consist of human beings, each of whom makes their choices deep in their heart as to what takes priority in their life. Most of the time these communities are a helpful and encouraging thing to be part of – there is strength to be found in sharing a lifestyle and worldview with others. But when these communities get too big for their boots, and imagine themselves more important then they are – that is, they decide it is their mission to go around removing specks from peoples eyes (especially those other Christians down the road who just don’t get it!) rather than focusing on the planks in their own – that people dismiss them as hypocritical and irrelevant. I have been guilty of this in the past as much as anyone. I hope we Christians both corporately and individually can look back on our past mistakes with due humility, and move forward. Until we do, no-one will take us as seriously as we might take ourselves. =)

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~ by humblemonkey on August 13, 2008.

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