I read that a Protestant acquaintance of mine was writing some articles for a magazine called Plain Truth. I looked them up. Plain Truth Ministries is an organization that promotes the teachings of Greg Albrect who propagates an sort of churchless Christianity. It’s a kind of church-is-invisible-and-institution-is-harmful message.
There was a time, many years ago, when I imagined a structureless Christianity. Certainly the abuses people experience in religious structures seem to suggest that Christ never intended such oppressing institutions to exist–at least not in His name. And for me, as a young person full of zeal, the stodginess of the few religious institutions and churches I had brief exposure to did nothing to belay the suspicion I had that institutional church was never Jesus’ plan.
I knew nothing of history in those days. I could easily read my romantic view of things back into the New Testament: The Apostle Paul traveling around preaching and exercising dynamic spiritual gifts, starting little home groups, and then blowing into the next town: just like the traveling evangelists I admired so much as a teenager.
However, sooner or later, you start to read the Bible a little more carefully. What were these bishops that Paul was establishing in every city? Bishops that were to be honoured and [no it can’t be!] obeyed? And sooner or later, the “blow in, blow up, and blow out” style of revivalist Christianity get’s wearing: you can only recommit your life to Christ so many times before you start to notice a pattern. How do you live an everyday Christian life? Who teaches this? Who helps you?
And then there are the abuses. NEWS FLASH! You don’t need a religious institution to abuse or be abused. Amazingly gifted people who heal the sick and seem to save thousands also embezzle funds, sexually assault vulnerable people, and punish those who oppose them in any way. Heck, even trusted friends with whom you have shared your very soul can secretly betray you:
It is not an enemy who taunts me—
then I could bear it;
it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me—
then I could hide from him.
But it is you, my equal,
my companion, my familiar friend.
We used to hold sweet converse together;
within God’s house we walked in fellowship.
(Psalm 55: 12-14)
All of the abuses that are popularly attributed to the Church are perpetrated and endured even without churches, even without religion. People are sick and weak and easily mislead. Jesus’ crucifixion was not unique, it was typical.
I’ve come a long way since the days of my imagined churchless Christianity. I became convinced of both the need and reality of the Church through reading and experience. As bad as abuses can be in the Church–and they can be very bad–my experience has shown me that they can be as bad and worse without the Church. However, the Church preserves something that churchless Christianity longs for and cannot find. The Church preserves a tradition of holiness, a tradition of healing, a tradition of everyday growth through good times and bad.
True, many in the Church do not live up to its teaching. And yes, every now and then outright deceivers in the leadership of the Church are exposed. But still, since I have been an Orthodox Christian, since I have been in the Church, I have found resources that have helped me live a daily life in Christ, I have found many examples of godliness who have inspired me, I have found holy men and women who have helped and guided me. All of this, and a few crackpots as well.
There are scandals everywhere you look–even in the Church. Yet you don’t see people pulling their children out of school or off of sports teams because every month or so another teacher or coach is exposed as a pedaphile. No, sick people are everywhere. We don’t stop going to doctors because some are shysters or quacks. Why? because most doctors heal, or try to heal–even though a hundred and fifty years ago it was thought that a good way to heal someone was to bleed them. We don’t judge today’s doctors on based on yesterday’s practices.
Similarly, it is foolish to judge the Church based on past mistakes and failures or the occasional bad apple today.