In Search of the "Pure Church"

[Fr. Ahab sets to the seas to find the illusive "pure church"]

I want to confess that I don't really get it. I don't get theological "conservatives", even though I am one. In the unfolding soap-opera of church politics we are in right now, there are many "conservatives" who believe in the same Jesus and who trust the same Bible that I do, who say things like "my conscience just won't let me bring anyone else into the Episcopal Church because it is so corrupt". They are (rightly) embarrassed by some of the crazy revisions that the National Church is trying to ram down everyone's throat. But they (wrongly) think that this is a reason to keep people out of this church body. They (rightly) want the Church to be holy and orthodox like our Lord, our Scriptures, and our Great Tradition implores us to be. Yet they (wrongly) think that there is some version of the Church- whether past or present- that is wholly holy and overwhelmingly orthodox.

On the basis of such unreflective assumptions about the nature of the "pure church" many have bought into the idea that they have to leave the Episcopal Church to be faithful to Christ. They have forgotten that the Church is inherently messy: a hospital to heal sinners. The 16th century Reformers, whom these separatists often appeal to, always stressed that Christians are "simul iustus et peccator" (simultaneously justified yet sinners).They also stressed that the Church is both a "communio sanctorum", yet also a "communio peccatorum" (a communion of saints and sinners). In short, life in the Church is messy. We constantly strive for the goal of Christlike perfection, only to fall into sin, and repent and return to the Lord. We're not "pure" either as individuals or as a community. Read our Baptismal Covenant or ask any of the saints of the Church, and they will tell you.

And, while we are on the topic, where is this "pure" Church that will not embarrass us, like the Episcopal Church is currently embarrassing us? Is it the supposed "pristine" Apostolic Church of the New Testament? Let's take a snapshot of this "pure" Church: They struggled with drunkenness (1Cor. 11), ethnic strife (Rom. 3.29), pride (Rev. 3.14-17), materialism (1Ti. 6), economic injustice (Jam. 2), sexual immorality (1Cor. 6), including people having sex with family members, and church members who apparently approved of it (1Cor. 5.1-2). They had problems with idolatry (Rev. 2.20), heresy (1Ti. 4.1-3), denying Christ's resurrection (1Co. 15.12), denying Christ's humanity (1Jo. 4.2-3), and new-age mystical pick-and-choose versions of Christianity (see 1-2 John). And to top it off, they had major leaders who showed favoritism and pandered to those in power (Gal. 2), who had public fights and break-ups (Acts 15.39), and who used Christ to make money (2Pe. 2.15; 1Ti. 6.5).

Now that is a pure church to be proud of! (Sarcasm intended)

Well, is the "pure" Church that will not shame us found in some specific era of the past? Is it the "glorious" Church of the pre-Nicene period (until 325 AD)? That Church was filled with more heresies than I can count: Docetism, Gnosticism, Adoptionism, Modalism, Montanism, and a few dozen other "isms" that we can barely pronounce. If you want to find out how messy the early Church was, take a crack at reading Eusebius' or Ireneaus' writings on the history and problems in the early Church. How about the Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils (up to 787 AD)? For most of a century (ca. 300-400 AD) most of the Church and the Empire followed the teaching of Arius, a priest that taught that Jesus was not fully God, but rather a created being separate from the Creator. During the rest of this time period the Church faced persistent heresies and political strife, which are the reason the Ecumenical Councils were called in the first place!

And then we look at the Church of the middle ages, infected by corruption, nepotism, simony, immorality, and political power-plays. Can we be proud of the schism of the Eastern and Western Church in 1054? How about the Crusades? How about the Reformation that led to a century of warfare in Europe as Christians killed each other in the name of Christ and their church sects? How about the persecution of Protestants by Catholics and Catholics by Protestants? How about widespread Church support for slavery and women's oppression through history? How about the forced spread of western culture and business interests by Christian missionaries? How about thousands of different bickering denominations, many of which do not even recognize other Christians as spiritual brothers and sisters? How about the doctrinal degradation and revision brought about by the persistent splitting and re-splitting of denominations?

Is the Church of any era something to be proud of? Is there any sect that has been around more than a couple of generations that is really less messy than the Episcopal Church? Or, is every sect something that drives us to our knees in every generation to say "Lord have mercy! Christ have mercy! Lord have mercy!" Will more splitting and more schism make the problem any better, or make it worse? The Protestant experiment has reminded us of a number of things that need to be continually restored in the life of the Church, such as the centrality of Christ, grace, Scripture, and faith. But, as a whole, the Protestant experiment of reform by schism has failed miserably. Reform must happen from INSIDE the Church, not from OUTSIDE.

In fact, from the beginning of Scripture no one has practiced anything close to "pure" religion. Our first parents ate the fruit. Noah's first major act after the "cleansing" of the earth was to get drunk and naked. Abraham and Jacob were compulsive swindlers. Moses had serious "anger issues", and his brother was the first high priest to lead Israel back into idolatry with the Golden Calf. King David was a murderer and adulterer, and his son Solomon was a sex addict with more concubines than there are days in the year. And, their descendents were on the whole far worse than they were! The Temple itself was frequently corrupted by the worship of idols, the greed of money changers, and even temple prostitution. And the people of Israel apparently were so corrupt that they frequently were involved in severe economic injustice, sexual immorality, and even child sacrifice on occasion. Not much to be proud of there.

Yet, what was the reaction of the prophets, Jesus, and his Apostles? Did they leave Israel and try to start a new "pure" tribe that they would not feel "embarrassed" to be associated with? Nope. Jesus wept over unrepentant Israel. Paul wished that he would be "accursed apart from Christ" if that meant that his Jewish kinfolk could be saved (Rom. 9.3). When Jesus first sent out missionaries, he sent them to the very people who should have ALREADY believed he was the Messiah: the lost sheep of Israel. Both Jesus and Paul say the Gospel is for "the Jews first, and then the Gentiles".

From the beginning of the Jesus movement, the message has first been directed at the people who ought to know better. The Jesus movement did not start out as the Church. It started out as a renewal movement within the Jewish synagogue system. This follows every single Biblical prophet in their emphasis and ministry. Despite significant involvement with non-Jews (cf. Elijah and Elisha), and significant promises made about God's redeeming the whole world (cf. Isaiah 65), every prophet stayed within the Jewish religion. They never broke out, cleaved off, and started a new Judaism. God even offered Moses a chance to do away with the already apostate nation of grumbling-golden-cow-worshippers, and start anew with him (Exo. 32:9-14). Moses refused, God relented, prophets preached, Messiah was born, Apostles were sent, and we are now saved because of Moses' decision.

So, if this is the case, how did the Church ever separate from Judaism? The Apostles did not separate of their own choice, but stayed part of both the Temple and synagogue system as long as they could. They only broke with Judaism when they were physically compelled to by beatings, stonings, riots, and even murder. If I ever see "conservatives" physically tortured by "liberals" (or vice versa!) then I will finally say "now there is a good reason to leave the Church". Until then, at all costs, in every way we can, I think that we should actually follow the Biblical pattern of mission clearly laid out in the New Testament and try to reform the Church from INSIDE rather than yelling at her from OUTSIDE.

The Church may be an embarrassment, but she is the Family Christ has placed us in. In my own biological family, I have some weird relatives, and even some that can be downright mean. And as embarrassing as they are, I love them and I chose to bring my wife and my daughter into this family. And by God's grace, my family is coming to Christ one by one. We are messy, we are changing, and we are growing toward Christ by taking two steps forward and one step back all the time. We are like the Church: simul iustus et peccator. I want us to love the Family of God as much as we do our biological families.

So, you want to find a "pure" Church? Want to bring new converts into a Church you can be proud of? Well, it isn't "out there" on the other side of the fence where the grass is always greener. It is only when you go on the other side of the fence and see the lawn up close that you realize they have just as many weeds as your side of the fence did, only in different spots. You won't find the "pure" Church by fence hopping. You will only find the pure Church by BEING the pure Church, and staying in the church body that God has placed you in to be a force for renewal and reform from INSIDE the Church. Let's start a new reformation! Not one based on leaving and cleaving, but one based on staying and praying. Let's band together as orthodox believers and love others so deeply and so persistently and so loudly that they can't help but come to know, love, and follow the Risen Christ with us.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.