To get it right on the gay question, we’ve got to get the Bible right, but we’ve also got to get the church right. A huge amount of opposition to fully accepting gay people as Christians comes from misperceptions about what the church is and how it should function. In fact, even aside from the homosexuality question, there is probably nothing we need to re-visit today more than our understanding of the ecclesia.
The Big Mistake
The big mistake is to confuse the Gospel and the church – to think that the church is the Good News.
This is a serious error, but it is one that we commit all the time. We commit it whenever we begin to believe that the church plays an essential role in salvation – when the church itself becomes divine and the object of our belief and trust.
This mistake is one species of the prototypical Christian error: the identification of the Good News with anything other than the promise of the radically free gift of salvation, given to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Last post I talked about another of the most common, and destructive, versions of this error: to identify the Bible as the Good News. But there are many other such mis-identifications: with beauty, wisdom, morality. (We’ll no doubt get to these all eventually!)
To understand why confusing the Gospel and the church is such a problem, we need to ask a simple, but profound, question: what is the focus of my ultimate trust?
This is in fact an excellent way of testing what we really believe. Where do I finally rest all of my confidence and hope? What is that which I think will come through in the end, through thick or thin? What do I feel compelled to adhere to or defend to the very end? What can I not let go of, no matter what happens?
I would maintain that if our answer to this question has us involved, in even the slightest way, we are totally lost. However much such an answer may at first seem to flatter us, its end is total despair. Why? Because we always fail. We never escape sin. No one has lived and not sinned. To our dying breath we will fail ourselves, others, God. Scripture witnesses to this, history witnesses to this, our conscience witnesses to this, our experience witnesses to this. If our salvation depends on us, we have no hope. None. Our ultimate trust cannot lie in ourselves.
But the Good News of Christianity is exactly that our ultimate trust can lie in something else, in someone else: in God, and in God alone – in exactly not us. This is the core of the Gospel and, ultimately, why God’s message of salvation is actually Good News. Despite our truly and deeply sinful reality, despite the very real hopelessness of our situation, God still has total mercy upon us. His face towards us is inexplicably, miraculously, nothing but love. And this doesn’t depend upon us.
Unfortunately, ironically, this is a bitter pill. We humans find it constitutionally impossible to maintain this trust in God alone. It is in our very nature to undermine our own hope by endlessly re-injecting ourselves into the equation. Our constant temptation (and it really is constant) is to think, “It’s not really just about what Christ has done, about Christ’s work, about Christ’s cross. It’s also about me, what I do, what I think, about my cross. God’s gift is not really free – I have to earn it. I can only trust something that I also do.” We disguise this type of thinking with all sorts of nice theologies – with suggestions of a “positive” anthropology, that God wants us to be involved in our salvation, that God has “enabled” us to be important in our salvation, or that the Good News is actually that we can now play a role in our salvation. Perhaps we start to imagine that Jesus’ becoming human means that now my humanity can truly help effect my salvation. At the very least, we tell ourselves, we participate in salvation by “accepting” the Good News, right…? Anything else denies our dignity, right?
Nope. All of this is just the devil’s oldest whisperings, his most ancient trick: making us think we’re God. No. This is all false hope, and vanity.
I am not the Good News.
You are not the Good News.
We are not the Good News.
Come on, folks. We don’t save anyone. Can you imagine how the Gospel would sound if we did? “Let me tell you the Good News of Jesus Christ – and David Wagschal! God has given you Jesus crucified – and also David – so as to grant you the entire, free forgiveness of your sins, absolutely unconditional love, and life everlasting. You must only trust Jesus – and David – for salvation. We are the only needful things.” This is such appalling nonsense that it’s actually funny – but we do tend to believe this.
No, it is a very hard pill to swallow, but the sum of the spiritual life is exactly realizing that we cannot hope on ourselves – we must hope on something outside of ourselves. This is why my ultimate trust is not in my interpretation of a book, nor in my working together with God, nor in what we, as a group of people, might accomplish on this earth. All of these things will fail. No, my ultimate trust must be in the one piece of truly Good News, the only truth that endures, which is God’s promise of his completely free gift of salvation – i.e. precisely the promise that in our relationship with God the only thing that matters is what God does.
Which brings us back to the church. It is so easy to insinuate ourselves back onto God’s throne through the church. Most of us do know better than to posit our individual selves as somehow essential for salvation – for our own salvation, or certainly for anybody else’s. But it is nevertheless very easy to attribute to our collective human existence and experience a kind of divine or cosmic importance. We imagine that there is an abstract “church”, accessible in the form of an institution, that is holy, transfigured, divine, even while we all remain sinners. We think this collective is legitimately an object of our belief and veneration. We can even cultivate a piety of feeling penitential for our personal failings, while worshiping this collective humanity.
But human collectives and abstracts are as sinful as humans in the concrete – maybe more so. However much good they may do, they are always marred by the inevitable cruelties and failings of human beings when in groups: power struggles, patterns of social exclusion, enforced conformity, etc. This is an inescapable reality of human existence. But when we try to pass off these institutions as divine, the result is truly horrific. We strangle the Gospel by forcing people to endure the communal expressions of our sinful selves as “essential” for their relationship to God. Christians, with our realism about human sin, should, if anything, be more aware of this danger than others. But usually we’re not. The result is that we end up saying to people: “God’s good news, God himself, salvation itself, has nothing to do with you, unless you are part of our power structure (in which we just happen to be dominant) and our identity-construct (i.e., clique, which just happens to be where we are most comfortable and established, and probably grew up with), adhering to our aesthetic (which just happens to be our taste), on our terms”. This is truly perverse. God’s mercy and love are bound and gagged by absolutizing our social needs and social egos; God is held hostage to a community controlled by us. In the end, it’s just the old story: we think we’re God – but now in the abstract plural. And since it’s abstract, it’s so easy for each of us to avoid responsibility for what we collectively do.
This is so perverse that you have to wonder why anyone would ever believe any of this, unless they were simply inured to it, or somehow professionally or socially invested in it. But then, today, increasingly pretty much people don’t believe this, do they?
So how do we get church right? Can we get it right? Is church even important? It is possible to get church right, and it is extremely important that we do. How exactly? That’s the subject of part two of this post, coming soon!
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