When Does the Church Cease to be the Church?: Duane W.H. Arnold
When Does the Church Cease to be the Church?
I ask this as a question to which I have no answer. Beginning my faith journey as an evangelical, I have often resorted to the passage, “Where ever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them…” as a definition of Church. The context, however, is that of witnesses confronting someone who has been accused of wrongdoing. Owing to my profession, I often turn to Church History. Yet even here I am often confronted with scenarios that often make the Church almost unrecognizable. What am I to make of the Inquisition, or the Crusades, or the wars of religion that swept across Europe for a hundred years or more? Yet, all of those eras seem safely in the past. They are distant enough to be dismissed or placed under the category of Christendom gone wrong.
There are, however, scenarios and events closer to our own time that are much more difficult to relegate to a distant past. What are we to make of the anti-Semitic radio broadcasts of Father Coughlin in the 1930s? What are we to think of the photos of both Protestant and Roman Catholic church leaders giving the Hitler salute in National Socialist Germany? Are we to give them the designation of “Church”? If so, what designation do we apply to Bonhoeffer in his prison cell awaiting execution? Surely, we must make some differentiation. Yet, what is the basis of that differentiation?
The question remains with us to the present day.
Most of us recoil in horror to the stories of sexual abuse that have taken place in the Church. At first, we could say that it mainly took place in the Roman Catholic Church and, therefore, it must have something to do with the requirements of priestly celibacy. Similar behavior, however, came to light in Protestant churches and, most recently, even in conservative evangelical churches and associations. The pattern in all cases is remarkably the same. A person in a position of trust used that position to abuse others. In many, if not most cases, there were others who knew of the abuse and either turned a blind eye or enabled the person to continue the pattern of abuse, often for decades. My question remains, when does the Church cease to be the Church?
In our present coronavirus crisis we may have to ask the same question. All of us have read the reports of some conservative evangelical churches and educational institutions refusing to put into practice social distancing. Some mega-churches are continuing to hold services as are smaller communities, somehow still convinced that the coronavirus is somehow a “hoax”. Some are involved in distributing disinformation, preferring to see the crisis purely in political terms. In fact, for many the political dimensions of the crisis seem more important than the issues of life and death in hospitals across the nation. When the political ideology of a church, or even of an individual believer, takes precedence over the well being of our neighbors or our community, something has gone terribly wrong. When economics takes precedence over love of God and neighbor, we have turned the gospel into something that is almost unrecognizable. In such cases we might ask, when does the Church cease to be the Church?
Thanks Duane. Much to reflect upon here. I thought of Augustine’s City of God, where the city of man and city of God are in simultaneous operation, sometimes moving in parallel planes, sometimes intertwined.
The ignorance and arrogance associated around power never ceases to amaze me. It is a fire that very few can handle well, whether it be the leader or those who hope to gain by the warmth of the flames.
I wonder how often in the church’s history that Jesus has been enough, and by that I mean the devotion, communion and spiritual disciplines that encourage knowing Him and knowing ourselves. It seems that if this was the pursuit of the church, that we would not get caught up in another’s self exaltation, and we would truly have the wisdom to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Well said… I keep thinking about the wheat and the tares. I sometimes wonder what happens when people no longer know the difference and mistake one for the other.
A post we need, Dr. Duane – thank you
Time moves slowly here on earth – from our perspective, mine at least, God is so slow… That said, mankind is, as God measures time, hurtling toward a brick wall called judgement My mind knows that. I wish my emotions could grasp it.
We need to be reminded, that judgement begins with the “household of God”. We’re so busy pointing our finger at those outside the faith, that we pay scant attention to what happens within…
Dr. Duane, point taken…. we (me 😌 ) forget that those outside the Church have only one thing standing between them and God, but the Church answers to God for our every act… and maybe more…
Did i get your point correct?
Praying all stay well… and focused. 🙆
(1). What do we do with the church in Japan in the 1500s, the subject of “Silence” (Scorsese’s recent film, which I both love and hate).
(2). Which churches are still meeting?
Will you name them? I don’t/didn’t know that.
(3). At SOME POINT, we have to endure the risks and being a church of live bodies. There’s too much in the New Testament that we’d have to excuse away…
I am NOT saying that is now.
1. “Silence” is one of the best films I have ever seen, and the most disturbing. It raised a number of questions without providing many answers…
2. Just Google “refuses to cancel church services” and look at the news stories.
3. No, we cannot be a “virtual Church” forever… but as you say, that’s not a change we can make now.
All in all, we will need to make reasonable decisions, now and in the future, based upon love for God AND love for our neighbor.
Thank you, Duane. This is a hard question that is not easily answered. But it’s a question that needs to be asked.
Regarding “refuses to cancel church services,”
When voices exemplified by the likes of Ken Ham have spent their lives denigrating science, it’s not hard to see why such Christians would reject scientific assessments and advice regarding the coronavirus. Add to this the prosperity reading of Scripture, and you have a recipe for disaster. I had a conservative Baptist adjunct professor tell me a couple weeks ago that if you believe the promise in Psalm 91, the plague will not come near you tent.
The wisest thing I heard this week was wen Speaker Pelosi said that science in the matter of the coronavirus will be the answer to prayer. I have no idea or patience who refuse to give thanks to God for the gift of scientific advancement that he has given mankind and how much good science has done to alleviate human suffering.
Kevin H and Jean
Brothers in Arms…