Are the disasters surrounding the abuses of church clergy ringing the death knell for the ‘Church’?
The authority of church leaders no longer extends automatically into the public sphere. Many traditional churches have already been flagging for years, heading towards apparent death. That is not to say that new life in new forms is not popping up in unlikely places, nor is it to suggest that death is even something to fear—unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies…
But none of my non-church friends, especially those with children, are ever likely to look at a member of church clergy of any Christian denomination without some undercurrent of mistrust, betrayer and even anger. This whole class of usually hard-working, self-sacrificing people is now associated by the actions of a relative few. It is painful. It may be unjust. But the reality of the situation must be faced.
Furthermore, the vast majority of my non-churchy friends and neighborhood pals are utterly befuddled even by the most basic distinction between the Catholic and Protestant church (before even broaching Protestant denominational differences). Not being able to fathom many aspects of its expression, they are curious about religiosity. More than anything, these same friends often display deep compassion for those marginalised and victimised by people with stringent moral sensibilities. But if even the most historically-aware of my friends are confused by the basic distinctions within the church, what hope have we of evading the public disrepute associated with the church-at-large?
What does this all mean? What does it mean for the ‘priesthood’ in particular—that official class of shepherds called to minister to the variegated multitudes of Christ-followers (at least those who can still bring themselves to attend services)?
Our task is surely not to shout and stamp about the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Are not our own churches, including leadership, repositories of all kinds of cracked and bruised people? Our task is also not to simply try to reconstruct a ‘public image’ (as if we only needed really good PR people!). After all, we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and are justified freely by his grace; such confession throws public image to the wind!
It probably also does not mean we should just throw in the towel and give up now. It does not mean we should capitulate to the views imposed upon us because of the actions of a select few. History tells the stories of our forebears, who so often laid everything on the line in their authentic desire to see God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. These people call us back, remind us of our identity when voices are shouting otherwise in our ears. But in the face of a decimated public image, what do we do? How can we align ourselves with truth, mercy and justice, deeply grieving the pain we have caused? Can Jesus be extricated from the failings of the church?
Street cred is the fruit, not the aim, of being on the streets. We must just keep doing what we’re doing—quietly, often unnoticed, with intelligence, sensitivity and fluidity. Through faithful Christian witness, we must continue to give personal, embodied testimony in outpourings of generous and veracious compassion, birthed with the deep humility that suffering and failing produces.
Is church simply the fruit of seeking first the kingdom of God?
Can the church exist without being an end in itself? Should we move underground? What does a movement disinterested in public image and external markers of authority look like? Would it have to rely more deeply on the Gospel to arrest people by its generosity and veracity alone, rather than by any perceived institutional authority or other social modes of authority (e.g. certain leadership styles)? Can the church exist without institutional authority? What does leadership look like, beyond the ‘institution’? Any distinction between laity and clergy has, within Churches of Christ, been non-existent in theory and minimal in practice. The priesthood of all believers is a founding value of our movement. What does a church based on this value look like today?
We certainly face many challenges, especially those called to vocational ministry in the Christian community. But these challenges also bring us back to the crux of our testimony—to the generous restoration of our freedom before God, toward others and within ourselves. The church is not 'the Church'; we are the church. The church therefore exists wherever and whenever people are birthed by the Gospel into new life. Just how we organise ourselves next week, next year, next century, will unfold organically as we exhibit creativity and fidelity in response to the continual invitation to live life in Christ.
See also: Alexander Campbell, An Alexander Campbell Reader, ed. Lester G. McAllister (St. Louis, Missouri: CBP Press), 1988; Stephen Curkpatrick, Capillaries of compassion (reflection); Barton W. Stone et al., “Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery”.
Sarah is a graduate of Monash University (Arts) and the University of Divinity (Theology). She is currently a research student at Stirling Theological College and tutor within the discipline of Christian theology. Sarah has a long association with Frankston Church of Christ.