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What is Wrong With the Church?



There is little doubt in my mind that even the most fervent Protestant believers would argue that much of what Jesus teaches is at best impractical and at worst immoral. How, indeed, could one live in capitalistic America without any property? What would happen to the Church if it gave away whatever anyone asked of it? How could there be any justice in society if the police could not use violence and judges and juries were absolutely forgiving? Could America exist in the real world of international politics and conflict without jet fighters and smart bombs? How long could an individual survive in New York or Dallas or New Orleans always giving what is asked and turning the other cheek when assaulted? What would happen to our society if families became as alienated and disrupted as Jesus seems to desire?

By Jay Williams
Walcott D. Bartlett Professor of Religious Studies
Hamilton College
October, 2008


"Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is fit neither for the land nor for the dunghill; men throw it away" (Luke 14:34-35).

In this essay, I have no plans to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. I shall leave to others the development of a catchier hymnody and more "relevant" forms of contemporary worship. I will not even consider here new and impressive ways to involve the Church in outreach and social action or to figure out how to interest other ethnic communities in the Protestant tradition. Rather, I intend to address a contradiction that lies at the heart of the Church that needs to be confronted with head up and eyes open. It concerns obedience to Jesus Christ.

It is difficult to attend Protestant or any other form of Christian worship without hearing repeatedly about the lordship of Jesus Christ and the need to obey him in our lives. Less regular, however, are the opportunities to learn exactly what it is Jesus requires. Instead, Paul, or ever more frequently some modern ethical stance, subtly replaces Jesus as the teacher of the "Christian Way." It is significant, I think, that Luther and Calvin wrote many commentaries on the epistles of Paul but neither did the same for Matthew and Luke. As we shall see, there may be good reason for this omission.

In any event, if Jesus is Lord, one would think that he should be obeyed, not haphazardly and in part, but wholly and completely, to the best of our ability. Therefore, we must ask with honesty and without flinching, what is it Jesus, as he appears in the Gospels, teaches and what is required by him of the Christian? The answer that the Gospels give us is, to my way of thinking, both clear and very troubling.

I should first remark, however, that the four canonical Gospels (which are all of equal authority for the Church) do not always agree about Jesus' teachings. Both Mark and John tend to mute some of the more stringent demands found in Matthew and Luke. In fact, it appears to me obvious that the process of softening, if not hiding, what Jesus really taught was already occurring in Paul's letters. The fact that Mark omits some of Jesus' hardest sayings, particularly about non-violence, and slightly softens others suggests to me that it may not be the earliest Gospel after all but may, like John, represent a somewhat later attempt to present a Jesus with whom householders could live.

Such an observation, however, is hardly crucial for our discussion, for a Christian is not at liberty to pick and choose among the four Gospels anyway. Matthew and Luke are fully canonical and present a Jesus with whom the Church has had to wrestle ever since the first century. Clearly, the teachings of Jesus were troublesome for the early Church, particularly as it became established and accepted around the Roman Empire. In order to make his words palatable, many early writers referred to his sayings piecemeal, without ever asking about the primary focus of his thought. His teaching was excerpted as isolated proof-texts but not often examined as a whole. This way of understanding Jesus, in fact, dominated the Middle Ages too, though there were always some, like Francis of Assisi, who tried to look at the Gospels with eyes open.

Jesus' sayings were particularly difficult for the 16th-century burghers who formed the backbone of the Protestant revolt and who wanted a form of the Gospels that could counter and replace the crumbling spirituality of the medieval period. Merchants of that era were not interested in becoming hermits or monks. The reformers, for better or worse, relied primarily on Paul as they sought to develop a theology for a post-feudal age. The emphasis was upon Jesus as savior rather than as teacher.

Today not much has changed in that respect. We still read the words of the Sermon on the Mount; we speak of their profundity and grandeur, but, it seems, we do not pay much attention to what it is Jesus demands. Perhaps this is because Jesus says things we simply do not wish to hear. We would, in fact, rather listen to the voice of our own creation.

What then, after all, does the great master, considered lord and savior by the Church, really teach? I cannot claim complete objectivity--- for humans such is impossible--- but I will try to describe what seems obvious to me. Certainly, I am not the first to draw these conclusions. One thinks, for example, of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy as two who came to much the same opinion.

First of all, Jesus demands complete, voluntary poverty. Not only does he tell us that it is blessed to be poor, but he also commands his hearers to give away all their property. We are not to "lay up treasures on earth where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal" (Matt. 6:19). Even after we have divested ourselves of our goods, he tells us to give away even our clothing if someone should ask it of us (Matt. 5:40). To enter the kingdom of God one must be free from, must renounce, all earthly goods. That is the reason why it will be more difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle (Matt. 19:23-24).

While the Second Helvetic Confession (Ch. XXIX) tells us that there is nothing wrong with being rich as long as the rich are "godly," Jesus himself radically disagrees. "You cannot serve both God and mammon" (Matt.6:24) implies for Jesus absolute renunciation of mammon. His followers are told to live like the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. They are required not to plan ahead or worry about where their next meal will come from. God, says Jesus, will provide (Matt. 6:25-33).

Second, Jesus requires his followers to renounce all family ties, indeed, even to hate father and mother and wife and brother and sister. This actually follows logically from the first renunciation, for if one has no money, one cannot easily engage in family life without letting others (e.g., mom and dad) pay the bills---which is hardly renunciation at all. Jesus recognizes that some people are already married and ought not to break that relationship with divorce, but it would appear that following Jesus "distances" one from one's spouse. One is reminded of Gandhi's vows of brahmacharya, i.e., sexual renunciation within marriage. Peter certainly was married, for we hear of his mother-in-law, but we hear nothing of his wife throughout the Gospels.

Jesus says that some are born eunuchs, some have it thrust upon them, and some make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 19:12). That is, Jesus is not even opposed to self-castration for the sake of the kingdom. All this suggests that Jesus does not teach much that is positive about family values. He says he comes with a sword to divide, not unite families (Matt. 10: 34-36). In fact, he would not even speak to his own mother or his blood brothers when they came to see him, regarding only those who do the will of God as his "family"(Mark 3:31-35).

Third, Jesus demands a life of absolute non-violence. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other one. If someone makes you carry his load, carry it a second mile (Matt.5: 38-41). You are to love all enemies and to do good to all who "despitefully use you." Jesus knows that wars will continue to be waged, but he stands opposed to all forms of violence. Even anger toward your brother he considers very, very dangerous (Matt. 5:21-22). His followers should render no person evil for evil but should respond to evil with good. Retaliation is anathema; forgiveness is absolute. Although the Second Helvetic Confession (XXX) encourages Christians to fight in defense of the state and offers no support for conscientious objection, it is difficult to imagine that Jesus would agree.

Fourth, Jesus demands complete emotional control. Anger is as damning as murder, lust in the heart, as adultery. One must avoid judging others and must forgive all apparent wrongs 70 x 7 times. "Be ye perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). Complete trust is to be placed in Jesus and through Jesus in God alone. Although Luther and Calvin, standing the Augustinian tradition, argue that because of sinful human nature such control and perfection are impossible, Jesus offers no such "escape hatch." Jesus assumes throughout that what he requires is not only possible to achieve but essential for entering the kingdom of God. Unlike many theologians, he is not adverse to speaking of punishments and rewards, and commends working to enter the kingdom. Like the jewel merchant, the follower must give up everything else to obtain the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:45-46).

Fifth, although Jesus sometimes attends public religious ceremonies, such involvement regularly results in conflict. When he speaks in the synagogue in Nazareth, he is thrown out and nearly killed (Luke 4:16-30). His visits to the Temple lead to his overturning of the tables of the money changers and to conflict with the "authorities." In fact, Jesus seems to have little use for "organized religion." He tells his listeners not to pray in public but to go into their closet and close the door when they wish to communicate with God (Matt. 6:6). When he prays, he usually goes, not to the Temple or synagogue, but away into the hills. Fasting, he says, should also be done secretly and without outward show so that no one else is aware of what you are doing. Alms are to be given so that even your own left hand does not know what your right hand does. His relation with God is personal and private and that attitude hardly supports corporate religion in any usual sense of the word.

Indeed, his essential quarrel is invariably with the religious leaders, the priests, scribes, and Pharisees whom he describes as a brood of vipers (Matt. 23:33) and whitewashed tombs (Matt.23:27). As a consequence, he gives the Pharisees, in particular, a bad name. In fact, however, what he intends to do is to give religious functionaries a bad name. He tells his followers not to use terms like "Rabbi" and "Father" (Matt. 23:8-12) (or I suppose by extension "minister" or "pastor" or "the Rev.") because disciples are to be humble and not claim for themselves a status they do not really have. (Should any minister think of himself as reverend, i.e., revered?) He also predicts the destruction of the Temple, the center for worship for all Jews, without particular grief or sadness. His tears are for the sins of the people, not for the loss of a cultic center. In brief, it would appear that Jesus calls upon his followers to renounce public worship, public exercises of piety, hierarchical orders, the Temple--- that is, religion in any usual, corporate sense.

Jesus' words in Luke 14:28-33, it seems to me, sum up his basic teaching: For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, "This man began to build, and was not able to finish." Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace. So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

In other words, the cost of discipleship is exceedingly great and each person must decide whether he or she has the resources to build that tower and fight that war. It is better not to try to follow Jesus at all than to think you can follow him without complete renunciation. In Luke 14:25, he makes the matter crystal clear:

Now great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned and said to them, "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple."

The usual Protestant response to these radical teachings is to say that because humans have fallen into sin, such renunciation is "impossible." Jesus' teachings are given to convict us of our sin and to throw us back upon the undeserved mercy of God. The problem with this approach is, first of all, that it seems to have little foundation in Jesus' own words. He certainly implies that at least some people can and should do what he says. Jesus knows that his teachings are not meant for every one. He says clearly that "many are called, but few are chosen" (Matt. 22:14). He speaks of the narrowness of the gate that leads to salvation. If you cannot follow the way of renunciation, then, you are advised not to start building the tower. The kingdom of heaven is simply not for you and you should not pretend otherwise. As for forgiveness, he seems to limit it to the amount we are willing to forgive others.

Secondly, since many people do not regard the hating of wife and children as ideal, it is difficult to understand why such teachings would convict them of sin. Am I sinful because I do not hate my children and renounce my family? Am I sinful because I own property? refuse to give to every panhandler who begs of me? plan ahead in life?

Finally, we must also ask whether the way of renunciation is as impossible as the Protestant tradition has suggested. While Protestants try desperately to avoid the obvious, a Hindu would understand exactly what Jesus means by renunciation, for what he describes is the life of an Indian sannyasin, a person who divests himself of all worldly goods, undergoes a ceremony in which he literally dies to the world, and then spends his remaining years as a wanderer, seeking for God. Although not all such sannyasins are successful in fulfilling their vows, this pattern of life---the way of renunciation--- has been followed for centuries and hence is not impossible.

Another Asian way of renunciation is, of course, Buddhism that offers the sangha as an institution where the individual can practice a life of voluntary poverty and non-violence. Perfection, to be sure, is not something a monk should ever claim, but certainly the opportunity for a life similar to what Jesus suggests is by no means beyond the realm of possibility.

One might also consider the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi who was strongly influenced by the New Testament and who believed that the teachings of Jesus were key for his own understanding of Satyagraha (Truth-force). Gandhi, by his own admission, was far from perfect and surely did not entirely fulfill Jesus' commands, but he tried and was really quite successful in achieving a life of absolute poverty and nonviolence. His religious life was very personal and spiritual and hence he was able, to a large extent, to transcend the differences that exist among the world religions while keeping fervent faith in God. Like Tolstoy before him, Gandhi believed that the teachings of Jesus are clear and powerful and wondered why Christians did not take them seriously and try to follow them.

It should also be noted that Roman Catholic Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy, though certainly not perfect or consistent, have, since earliest times, encouraged a life of renunciation. There have always been hermits and monks and secular clergy who have given up all worldly goods and family connections to serve God. I would suggest that early Celtic Christianity, with its de-emphasis of the hierarchy and its centering upon the monastic life came close to fulfilling the ideal. Unfortunately, however, this form of Christianity was taken over and absorbed by a European hierarchy that emphasized the Church of the laity and secular clergy.

The problem of the "secular " Church, of course, is that while individuals, monastics, and priests have traditionally renounced the world, the Church as an institution has hardly done so. The Roman Catholic Church does not give away its property for the asking nor does it refuse to judge others as Jesus required. There is a huge gap between the institution with its hierarchy and its rich holdings and the teachings of Jesus. Furthermore, most Catholics do not renounce as Jesus requires anyway, but follow an ordinary life in the world, substituting for complete renunciation regular attendance at mass and other acts of personal piety.

It should also be mentioned that at the time of the Reformation some Protestants, usually labeled Anabaptists, did, in one way or another, see the conflict at the heart of Protestant teaching and sought to resolve it, but were persecuted for their efforts by Roman Catholics and Protestants alike. I think, for instance, of the Hutterites who seriously attempted a life of communal renunciation and the Mennonites who emphasized non-violence, but there were many other groups as well.

Protestant Churches have been, in their own way, successful, attracting many by their "this worldly" form of piety which originally replaced the radical demands of Jesus with strict allegiance to theological confessions and obedience to the Ten Commandments including sometimes strict sabbatarianism, etc. Liberals have more recently substituted the rational values of the Enlightenment and secular society while modern conservatives have demanded an unwavering allegiance to certain unquestioned theological fundamentals. The contradiction, however, has remained at the very heart of the Church: Today we speak about obedience to Christ, but we really do not want to take any more seriously than our predecessors did what Jesus teaches and demands. Even the most fervent literalists hardly take Jesus' teachings literally.

Whether this difficulty is the reason for the decline of Protestantism in America is not at all easy to determine. Although interest in Buddhism, contemplative methods, and the spiritual life in general is very much on the rise in America, I doubt that most of those who have left the Church would say that the lack of renunciation is the reason for their departure. Probably the vast majority have never given thought to the matter. Nor do I expect that an attempt to follow what Jesus says would bring in many new converts. Quite the contrary, I would assume that if the Church were to attempt to follow the path of renunciation, most current members would leave the communion very quickly. I suspect that many people who belong to the Church would be appalled to know what Jesus really requires.

There is little doubt in my mind that even the most fervent Protestant believers would argue that much of what Jesus teaches is at best impractical and at worst immoral. How, indeed, could one live in capitalistic America without any property? What would happen to the Church if it gave away whatever anyone asked of it? How could there be any justice in society if the police could not use violence and judges and juries were absolutely forgiving? Could America exist in the real world of international politics and conflict without jet fighters and smart bombs? How long could an individual survive in New York or Dallas or New Orleans always giving what is asked and turning the other cheek when assaulted? What would happen to our society if families became as alienated and disrupted as Jesus seems to desire?

Doubtless, these and other questions are the reason why, over the centuries, Jesus' teachings have been pushed to the background and replaced by the Ten Commandments, a modified version of the teachings of Paul, the philosophy of Aristotle or Plato, the ethics of the media, etc. In fact, the history of the Church can be seen as a series of more or less successful attempts to sweep Jesus' words under the rug. So be it. Perhaps the teachings of Jesus do not form a very practical ethic for Christians.

But then we must ask how we can persistently call Jesus Lord and speak of obedience to him? What could such obedience really mean if it is not to follow the path of renunciation? The only Jesus we know is the Jesus of the Gospels. True, Jesus teaches us many other things beside renunciation. He speaks of angels and demons, of the coming age, and the resurrection from the dead, of the last judgment. We are certainly commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves and to preach the Gospel to all nations. I would suggest, however, that the theme of renunciation is always close at hand in Matthew and Luke and cannot be set aside for a more general love of neighbor.

But then comes the reply: you have missed the whole point, for you have forgotten that Jesus is primarily the savior of the world. He comes, not with a new law, but to save us from our sins. Believe in him and you will be saved! You cannot win your salvation through good works. We are justified by faith alone. Repent and believe the good news.

Fair enough, but if I believe in Jesus, ought I not to follow what he teaches? Can I follow, believe in, trust Jesus without taking with the utmost seriousness his call to absolute renunciation? Clearly, for Jesus the life of renunciation is very important for entering the kingdom of God. If we do not listen to him and try seriously to follow his words, are we not like those modern Indians who worship Gandhi as a god but have little interest in taking up a life of renunciation and non-violence? Jesus says, "You are my friends, if you do whatsoever I command you" (John 15:14). If we do not take his commandments seriously, are we his friends and can we hope for his salvation?

When Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell his goods, give his money to the poor and follow, the young man turned sadly away, unable to accept the way of renunciation as his path. I suspect that many modern people would do the same if the matter were presented to them forthrightly, not only because the way of renunciation is so demanding but also because the forsaking of goods and family seems to many of us quite irresponsible, even immoral. It is noteworthy that Jesus does not compromise with the rich man. He does not say, "Well, since you cannot renounce all, I will be satisfied with regular tithing and Church going." But the Church has been compromising ever since. Why? Because we are acquisitive; we want more members, a "stronger" Church, a religious society which will appeal to the multitudes. And we certainly do not want to give up what we have.

Jesus tells us that such a Church is not his Church at all. His disciples must renounce everything, including, I suppose, the comfortable pew, for the kingdom. That is what repentance really means: to turn from the path of acquisitiveness that we are on to the way of Jesus. The Gospel of the kingdom makes supreme demands that are not satisfied by attempts to live what the world regards as a good and ethical life. Acceptance of even the most elaborate theological confession or creed won't do either. Only giving up all for the pearl of great price is what matters.

Now I for one am not sure that I can or should enter such a life of renunciation myself. I am more like the rich young ruler than like Peter and Andrew. I give money to a Church and attend worship each week, but I have no intention of abandoning either my bank accounts or my pension fund or my family. But that does not mean that I should try to prove that Jesus does not require that of me. Perhaps I am one of the ones who has been building a tower for much of my life, only to discover that I do not have the resources to finish it. I suspect that may be true for many others as well.

In any event, this discovery has caused me to stop worrying about the fact that the Presbyterian Church now numbers only 2.5 million members and loses more adherents every year. In fact, it is clear to me that that Church, among many others, ought to be numbered as many, many, many, many fewer. If we take seriously what Jesus teaches perhaps we ought to ask whether there is, in reality, any Church at all. Is there someone, somewhere who intends to take what Jesus says seriously? Quite frankly, I do not see many such people either among the religious right or the liberal left.

Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems to me that the Church has quite regularly simply made up a Jesus to suit its own needs and desires. Once Jesus was the sustainer of holy empires, chivalry and the crusades, feudal lords and grand archbishops. Today, Jesus has become the bulwark of democracy, of capitalism, of family values, of anti-homosexuality (or of the gay life), of anti-feminism (or of feminism). But does this have anything to do with the Jesus of the Gospels? Does anyone listen to him?

I believe the time has come to make a choice. If Jesus is Lord, then we should follow him and create institutions (or perhaps anti-institutions) to make the life of renunciation a reality. We should renounce all for the sake of the kingdom. If we cannot or will not do that, if we really do not believe in or want the life of renunciation, then we should not fool ourselves by making up a Jesus to suit our own desires. Should not those who find Jesus' demands too difficult turn, like the rich young ruler, sadly away? Is there really any other legitimate option?

Now the boil that has bothered me for years has been lanced. The deep contradiction and its painfulness have been opened to the light of day. What is needed now is response and conversation. What do you think about this matter?


Jay G. Williams