How To Criticize The Church

How To Criticize The Church April 27, 2021

Backed up as I am on all the different kinds of reading, I was surprised to find myself yesterday collapse back and fly through Mike Duran’s memoir, disciple-ish: My Unconventional Pilgrimage through Faith, Art, and Evangelical Culture. I haven’t read a whole book in an afternoon for a long time. Mostly I am too distracted and so many people try to talk to me. But everyone, for whatever reason, had their own stuff going on, and so I read and read.

I’ve enjoyed Mike on Twitter and Facebook for a while now, and his kind and incisive commentary about the Christian writing world. True to form, disciple-ish is a great read. Mike recounts his spiritual journey from a Catholic childhood, to a Calvary Chapel church, to being a pastor, to not being a pastor, and finally to being a writer of novels. I particularly liked how he works in the major theological debates of the times and articulates the various kinds of thorny disputes so clearly. Most of all, though, it is his humility that makes it such a compelling narrative. Imagine being able to talk about yourself in the church, to be able to see both the sins of others and your own ones, and to be forgiving and gracious about both. There are a few people now who do this well–Megan Hill springs to mind, but the person Mike reminds me most of, rather oddly, is Adrian Plass in the hilarious Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass. Mike’s version isn’t funny, but there is such a great deal of warmth and love for the church, I felt like I was reading the non-fiction Californian Version of the same world.

Anyway, it was a brilliant contrast to the two books I have had to just read–Jesus and John Wayne and The Making of Biblical Womanhood. It covers the same period, essentially, and the same subcultures that du Mez and Barr deal with. It documents all the trends, all the troubles, all the sins of the period, but with one notable and crucial difference. Mike includes himself in the church. Rather than blaming the church for being the problem, Mike is able to see that the church is made up of sinful people whom Christ is redeeming and that it is a messy and crazy business.

While there is no conspiracy of the patriarchy, there are certainly toxic cultures that develop because sinful people have to get together in groups to serve God. This horribly toxic culture, for example, and I could go on cutting links in here all day. There are lots and lots of wicked things that have happened as wicked people have tried to serve God. And it is just and right to talk about them. But there is a way to talk about them that acknowledges and calls upon the very mercy that allows the church to exist in the first place.

Matt has been pointing out to me over and over again the vicious pattern of this current moment. It goes like this. Someone (like du Mez) makes a sweeping and scandalous accusation against the church that has some kernel of truth. Christians (like me), say, ‘hang on a minute,’ that’s a vast accumulation of stuff all jumbled together and there may be other stuff going on (like the things the people being demonized might be saying about themselves), and then the person (like me) who has said ‘hang on a minute’ is accused of being cruel in tone. So du Mez can use whatever tone she likes, but those who criticize her must just not do that. She evades criticism by then playing the victim. That’s how it works. You can see it all over Twitter and everywhere. It’s one of the ways you can know who really loves the church and who doesn’t.

Whereas, if you want to criticize the church from within the church, there is a way to do it that calls for mercy rather than justice. This also is crucial. The church is made up of sinners who would be bound to hell had not God come to rescue them. There is none righteous, no not one. Everyone’s mouth is an open grave. Everyone’s throat gapes and cries out for wickedness and sin. Had not God sent his son, there would be nothing good for any of us. The judgment of God would rightly sweep away the world–Jew and Greek, Male and Female, Slave and Free–without distinction. But God has had mercy. He has made a place for some of these sinners to come and be bound to him in love for eternity. He is the organizer of this work. He sets the parameters. He applies his blood and his grace. We listen to and obey him–Jew and Greek, Male and Female, Slave and Free.

So anyway, nobody is a victim–though we victimize each other. There is only one true, innocent person–Jesus. And he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but came into the mire to drag us out–one by one by one–and make us whole. As you struggle along in the church, check out disciple-ish as you go along your way.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

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