Like all divorces this one is going to be messy.
You’re the judge, so try sorting this out: The complainant files papers saying she’s trapped in a loveless marriage. There’s neglect and even some abuse. The complainant wants full custody of the kid and certain rights and privileges to the house and the bank accounts — none of which would exist if the plaintiff hadn’t built them in the first place. This is roughly where we sit as people try to divorce Jesus from religion.
The complainant is the solitary Christian, burned out and disenchanted with religion, which the Christian accuses of abandonment. This Christian wants total custody of Jesus, no strings attached, and rights to handle marital assets like doctrine, Scripture, and the sacraments any way desired.
But this is where it gets messy. Divorcing Jesus from religion is harder than it looks.
Jesus established (or depending on your perspective, reformed) religion. It’s hard to see him as an enemy of (or even disinterested in) religion when he taught doctrines, interpreted Scripture, instructed his disciples to pray, appointed leaders within his movement, instituted ritual sacraments like communion and baptism, allowed his followers to call him rabbi (“teacher”), and said things his followers wrote down and revered as Scripture. Sounds pretty religious to me.
Alright, what if we only go that far? What if we allow that Jesus embodied and taught something we might begrudgingly call religion. Shouldn’t we be able to separate that from “institutional” religion? Maybe we need to amend the complaint and divorce Jesus from the church.
I’m afraid that’s just as messy.
After Jesus’s death and resurrection, his apostles assumed control of . . . what? The New Testament writings assume an institutional church. The apostles clearly exercise authority. Look the courtroom-like setting of the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Or look at Jesus’ own brother, James. James was appointed bishop over Jerusalem by the apostles and exercised authority with and over a body of believers. They gathered and passed binding resolutions. The Orthodox church, by the way, still considers the ruling of the Acts 15 council authoritative and binding.
Paul and Peter and the other apostles carried this very model wherever they established the church — appointing bishops, empowering elders (presbyters), writing that Christians in their community should submit themselves to their authority: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. . . . Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls” (Heb 13.7, 17). We get some pictures of this in action: If the body at Corinth had no institutional authority, for one example, Paul’s direction to excommunicate one of its members (and later direction to restore him) would make no sense.
You cannot divorce Jesus from the church and keep the New Testament because the New Testament becomes a mess of self-contradcition if it doesn’t pertain to a religion that has an institutional expression.
None of this is to say that religion cannot be distorted or that its leaders cannot abuse adherents. In the face of distorted and abusive expressions of religion, it’s tempting to think that we can divorce Jesus from that mess and have him alone. But it doesn’t and in fact cannot work that way.
Christ is the incarnate Word, God made man. The church reflects this same incarnational reality. It’s divine and human. Unlike Christ, its humanity is not perfect; we are all being trained in obedience, growing in holiness and sanctity as we become more like Jesus, the primary occupation of the believer. But the reality of our sinfulness doesn’t preclude obedience and submission as we grow; it’s part of our growth.
We’re all imperfect and submit imperfectly. Welcome to the human race. But Jesus and the church require it regardless. To divorce one from the other is to tear the whole thing apart. No one will walk out of the courtroom the winner.