“Why not leave the church?” In the wake of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy, that is the question being asked about Barack Obama by journalists, pundits, and the public. I suppose the question is a natural one. If Sen. Obama disagrees with some of Rev. Wright’s positions and statements – as he has unequivocally stated he does – why not leave Trinity United Church of Christ? But what strikes me every time this question is asked is not Obama’s decision to remain a member of his church, but the profound misunderstanding on the part of the askers about the nature of the church. Yes, the Rev. Wright controversy speaks to issues of race, patriotism, and division in the country, but it has also touched upon the theological doctrine of ecclesiology – that is to say, it has touched upon the very nature of the church and its role in the world.
To be clear, when I speak of the church, I am not only referring to Trinity United Church of Christ. I am speaking of the brick building on downtown Main St, the stadium-sized mega church, and the store front worship center; I am speaking of the whole body of believers that confess Jesus Christ. What is the nature of that church and how does it relate to Sen. Obama’s membership at Trinity?
Whenever scandals erupt around clergy and congregations, I am always disturbed by the often unstated accusation that the church should in some way be less susceptible to misconduct than other institutions. While I sympathize with that sentiment, I also see how dangerous and ultimately theologically flawed it is. The church may be the body of Christ on earth, but it is made up of sinful human beings. It may speak of the holiness of God, but it does so with impure lips. The church should not claim to be the source of morality and truth – and when it does it exhibits the sin of hubris – but to profess the One who is. When, in his recent speech, I heard Sen. Obama speak of his church as being “full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America” I heard him express not only the state of black churches in America, but of the church universal.
An enduring result of the Protestant Reformation is the understanding that the church is an imperfect institution because it is made up of the broken and the fallen. But that is not all the church is. For every instance of injustice, there is another where the body of Christ welcomed the stranger, housed the homeless, fed the hungry, and, in short, was a medium of Christ’s love to the world. The church is where we see the goodness of God, even if only through a mirror darkly. Like ancient Israel, it is the recipient of God’s unwavering faithfulness, the place God has promised to never leave. That is not to say that injustice should not be condemned when it occurs beneath stained glass. But, just as Sen. Obama rebuked Rev. Wright for allowing his vision of what is wrong with America to overshadow what is good, we are equally guilty when we allow the corruptibility of the human messenger to taint the incorruptible truth of the Word of God.
Too much is at stake if we ignore this fact. If we expect the church to be sinless, we not only set ourselves up for disillusionment, but blind ourselves to the good works the church is capable of. If we make the standard for being a part of a congregation that we must agree with everything its minister says, the result will be millions of churches with a membership of one. If we insist that our politicians attend flawless congregations, then we must be prepared to no longer see their faces in worship.
Sen. Obama has explained his membership at Trinity United Church of Christ by saying that it is there he experienced the love of Christ, and, while it may have its flaws, it is there he continues to see the work of God done. Isn’t that the true nature of the church, and of the God that it confesses?
The church is the place where we encounter God. And the God we encounter is one who routinely
uses the fallen, the broken, and the imperfect as instruments for God’s redemptive work in the world.