An article appeared a few days ago in the evangelical section of Patheos that really irked me. It has the rather nasty title: ‘I Love Jesus But Not the Church’ Just Means You Don’t Love Jesus. The article was written by a well-meaning evangelical student at Moody Bible Institute who does not fail to supply us with ample proof from Scripture to show that not loving the Church basically means you’re lost. Well, that hurts. And that is probably the intention too. Critics must be made to look like spiritual fools and theological renegades in order to shore up the defense of the Church. I want to make a few observations on how absurd the claim is that people who don’t love the Church don’t love Jesus.
First of all the title is dismissive of people who struggle with the Church. It doesn’t take their judgment of the Church seriously. It betrays a self-serving defensive posture that is not open to correction and simply assumes that because the Church is the body of Christ it automatically is impervious to criticism. That is sad because in the name of authoritarian religion so much harm has been done to people, so much abuse has been going on, so many people have been damaged precisely by the community that needed to provide shelter and comfort to those who struggled.
It is also mean. Apparently, “protecting” the Church is so important that it justifies brushing people off and making them look silly. Or, is the author serious about his own claim that those people who say they don’t love the Church anymore don’t, in actual fact, love Jesus? That’s even meaner and outrageously preposterous! Is the author able to look into these people’s hearts? Given the theological framework of the writer, he is basically suggesting that those who turn their back on the Church are on their way to hell. Way to go, brother!
Furthermore, saying that such people don’t love Jesus tramples on such people with the very same trampling that has led them to say they want Jesus but not the Church. Doesn’t it in fact, validate the criticism of the Church that these people issue? It betrays the lack of love you should not find in people who claim to be followers of Christ. It displays the very authoritarianism that is under criticism. The critique sticks!
The Last Thing We Need Here is Theology
Now, I could address this matter theologically and start talking about the unity between Christ and the Church that underlies the claim that if you hate the Church you hate Christ. Yes, true, the Church is described as the body of Christ and the deep mystical unity of which this speaks ought not to be ignored. Indeed, it was the underlying motif of Bonhoeffer’s Act and Being about which I wrote my dissertation. I mean, I know my shit!
Embedded in this unity, however, is a dialectic that is expressed in the ethical tension between Christ’s example and the Church’s following. The gaping discrepancy that is thus revealed thwarts any attempt at seeing unity in the real world. I’m sorry to be so unloving here. So what is the Moody Bible Institute student really complaining about? It is clear that more than priests we need prophets who denounce the Church for its abuse, hypocrisy, racism, and power grabbing. Now, I could write about that, but I’m not. I want to address those who say they love Christ but not the Church. The last thing we need here is theology.
My Own Story
I know a bit about these things because I was part of a fundamentalist authoritarian faith and I harmed people as a leader in my community. At one point, things started to change for me though. Little by little, I opened my eyes to the unhealthy atmosphere and spiritual abuse that goes on in doctrinally strict communities, you know the communities, that will sacrifice an individual for doctrinal purity and the institutional survival of the group. I started realizing that truth claims often mask a naked desire for domination. As I repented and changed, I myself became one of those people who say “I love Jesus but not the Church.”
And for many years now I’ve been struggling with the Church. I don’t hate the Church like some do, but I don’t fit in anymore. At first, I thought this was going to be some kind of temporary phase but I now realize it may well be a more persistent mode of existence. In the Church, I’m at the margin, barely in, usually almost out (more out than in, really). And yet, I have things to say to the Church and I care about its wellbeing, its potential.
But I also care about its victims. So I’m thinking, perhaps there is a positive assessment possible of the claim that “I love Jesus but not the Church.” Why, yes, of course, there is! A generous reading is entirely possible and necessary.
You’re On to Something
“I love Jesus but not the Church” means you’re able to differentiate between the teachings and life of Jesus on the one hand and the betrayal of both on the part of the Church. Any renewal of the Church begins with this realization, this dialectic of hating and loving both at the same time. It begins with anger and a fist on the table . . . out of concern. It then moves to the realization that you’re ultimately part of the problem yourself, not simply in the rejection of the Church but precisely in the betrayal of Christ’s life and teaching on your own part, a betrayal that no one can avoid. But you at least had the guts to get to this point and that is commendable. The Church needs people like you whether it admits this or not.
If you say “I love Jesus but not the Church” you care enough about Jesus to call the Church out on its hypocrisy and its failure to embody the self-giving love of Christ. I can easily hear a tone of regret in your voice that wishes it to be otherwise. In a way, the rejection of the Church implies a certain love for the Church in addition to the love for Christ. And if not that, then at least a passion for truth. What’s not to love about that?
If you say “I love Jesus but not the Church” you have the beginning of a prophetic voice. The criticism you utter automatically entails a reorientation vis a vis Jesus which gets inscribed into some form of sociality or community. In a sense, the Church cannot really be avoided. One simply is the Church the moment one takes Jesus seriously. And thus the critical attitude may well be the beginning of a new prophetic existence that continues in a dialectical dialogue with the Church from the margin or perhaps completely removed from any organized religion. So I welcome it.
But if you say “I love Jesus but not the Church” as your final farewell to that which you no longer can belong to, as I know many exvangelicals say who transform into agnostics or outright atheists, that is possible too. Is that any wonder when there are still people who callously conclude that turning your back on the Church is turning your back on Christ?
It is with good reason that Christ only warned believers of the dangers of hell. And of course, to return the favor, those same believers dragged him to Calvary. In fact, come to think of it, the tables are turned. It is the writer of the Patheos article who displays the lack of love for the Church (i.e. that part that hurts) which makes him, according to his own words, not love Jesus.
For the sake of the Church, I say, please welcome the prophets, listen to the critics, and care for those you have hurt instead of judging them for the sake of the Church’s honor. To the extent that you dismiss those who are hurting you are not embodying Christ and thus not the Church.
Photocredit: Jose Fransisco Morales on Unsplash.