Tom Ehrich, frequent columnist for Religion News Service (RNS), recently penned an editorial titled “Church shouldn’t be this hard.”
The piece is provocative and serves as a critique of the status quo Christian church, presumably in America. I say “presumably” because Ehrich doesn’t make a move toward defining where this church is (theologically, geographically, etc.). Like a Rorschach ink blot, we are left to our own imaginations to provide the specific object of his ecclesial scorn.
“An assembly that exists to help people shouldn’t be so willing to hurt people – by declaring them worthless, unacceptable, undesirable or strangers at the gate.”
Who is doing this? Who is “so willing to hurt people”? Who declares people “worthless” and “unacceptable”?
I suspect that if Ehrich was going after the fringes, he would simply say so and call a few of them out by name.
Here is another line:
“An assembly that should relax into serenity of God’s unconditional love shouldn’t be so filled with hatred and fear.”
Again, who is he talking about? You might ask why I care that Ehrich lacks specificity. But these pieces get a lot of eyeballs — I printed this one off the The Washington Post site. This is not an internal conversation — Christian to Christian. No, these kind of editorials are critiques of the entire Church (the universal Church with a capital C).
I prefer a more direct approach. When Jesus had a beef with the Church, He told the church directly about their wayward manner of doctrine and practice (i.e. most of the New Testament past the Gospels). Therein we find fairly clear indictments against lost love, licentiousness and loose doctrine – and we hear the call from Christ to repent.
But with Ehrich, we get:
“An assembly that follows an itinerant rabbi shouldn’t be chasing permanence, stability and property.”
So, following Christ will bring the fruit of ecclesial impermanence, instability and … no deeds to physical property?
Eventually Ehrich’s main focus of critique becomes clear: the institutional church is the problem.
“The millions who are fleeing institutional Christianity in America aren’t escaping bad doctrine, shoddy performance values or inconvenient calls to mission. They are escaping the institution itself.”
Where’s the sociological data for that claim? Is he referring to recent Pew Research? Maybe, but who knows? On the other hand, maybe he is writing about the mass exodus of people out of mainline denominations and into theologically-conservative bodies and denominations. I doubt that is his intention, for he clearly states that Christians aren’t “escaping bad doctrine.”
So, what forms of institutional Christianity might Ehrich be pointing out? At the risk of hearing Ehrich belt out some Carly Simon (“You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you”), I do believe he is talking about conservative, evangelical churches.
Church should be a safe place — safe to be oneself, safe to make one’s confession, safe to love whoever one feels called to love, safe to imagine more, safe to fail. Instead, church often is a dangerous place, where people feel guarded, self-protective, hemmed in by tradition and expectation, required to obey rules.
Where would you go to feel “safe to love whoever one feels called to love”? That’s code language (without subtlety) for same-sex relationships. Would you head to your local conservative, evangelical church to get such a feeling?
Is critique important? Certainly. But from what authority?
I contend that the critique of the Church comes rightly from an authoritative word, the Word of God. No matter the issue, the Bible is our source for all things pertaining to life and practice.
God did not leave the bride of His Son without counsel nor without directives. Which is actually why a congregation faithful to God’s Word will not proclaim itself to be a “safe place to love anyone you want.”
The Church is an inherently dangerous place
I take issue with the statement that the “church should be a safe place” because a church is an inherently dangerous place. The Church is in the world as a light bearing truth to the powers that be. The Church is a counter-cultural declaration that humanity is in need of redemption and that Christ alone is the Way to salvation.
Church is not a safe place because Jesus is “not a tame lion” — to quote C.S. Lewis.
Church is a safe place to be dead to oneself. Safe to make a confession in Christ alone. Safe to love God with all your heart, mind and body. Safe to lead a life unconstrained by rules but fully conformed in obedience to the will of God.