When Does the Church Cease to be the Church?: Duane W.H. Arnold
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?