One of the challenges many critics of the church have used to write it off is the fact that we have some skeletons in our closet. There have been several times in the last 2,000 years when the church got its mission not just wrong, but devastatingly so. Still, are things really as bad as our critics allege? A sharper look at history suggests perhaps not. In this fourth part of our series, Reasons to Believe, we take a look at the church’s supposed dark past and discover that there may be a good deal more light there than most folks might think. Read on for more.
A Fount of Injustice?
There is a story about the interactions between a powerful institution and a particular scientist from the 17th century that has come to define much about how many people view the church today. The institution was the Roman Catholic Church. The scientist was a man named Galileo Galilei. Galileo, as the story usually goes, by carefully following the scientific method, discovered that the sun does not revolve around the earth as was widely believed in his day. Instead, the truth is the exact reverse: the earth revolves around the sun. For espousing this scientific fact which violated not only their false explanations of how the universe worked, but also the theological explanations undergirding them, the Church set out on a campaign to persecute this courageous scientist into silence. When this didn’t work, Galileo was excommunicated—a social death sentence in that day—and placed under arrest. He spent the remaining years of his life in prison where he died a martyr for the cause of science.
Just out of curiosity: How many of you have ever encountered this story told even somewhat along these lines? Versions of this appear in popular nonfiction books, grade school textbooks, high school textbooks, college textbooks, and the list goes on. This version of the story of how the church stood in the way of scientific progress has so colored the minds of our culture that many people still view the church as merely an impediment to real scientific progress today. After all, just look at how the church has stood in the way of potential breakthroughs like embryonic stem cell research and all the potential good it could do! The church, we are taught to think, is the enemy of culture. It is the enemy of progress. And when it has been in a position of power in the past, it has always used this power to silence noble critics of all stripes resulting in some of the greatest periods of injustice in human history. Just consider a partial list for a moment: the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the various witch trials both here and in Europe, the various religious wars in Europe in the centuries following the Protestant Reformation, and of course, the church’s opposition to good science (as opposed, naturally, to the bad kind). Why would a modern person with a good moral compass apart from the church want anything to do with this chronically unjust institution? If a relationship with God is even wanted, this can be pursued apart from the church. But, why even get involved with a God whose flagship program for introducing Himself to the world is so corrupt?
As we draw near the end of our series, Reasons to Believe, this week finds us taking a look at an objection that’s a bit different from the others. So far we’ve been dealing with issues that are largely internal to the faith or at least theology generally. Questions of truth, while debated among philosophers for centuries, aren’t something we deal with all that frequently in our daily lives. Now, it’s still important that we understand what truth is and how we can know it, but the reality is that it’s not on our radar very often. The subsequent two issues—the trustworthiness of the Bible and the problem of Hell—are primarily internal, theological debates. They may make the public square from time to time and critics might use them as reasons to reject the church, but they are largely concerned with what the church believes.
This morning, we are going to focus on another powerful objection, but this one is more focused on what the church does, how the church as an institution behaves. Why would someone want to get involved with an institution that promised rich young men that if they went to Jerusalem in order to kill all the Muslims they could find their sins would be forgiven? Who wants to bother investing much of herself in a group of people whose leaders have long stood in the way of the great scientific progress that has rolled along since the Enlightenment and made our lives so much better? What business does an organization which once persecuted young girls just because they were a little different have in telling anyone how they should act? We don’t really want to have anything to do with a people who once set a group of trained torturers on all the people they could find who didn’t believe like them in order to convince them somehow to get more serious about their faith or else be executed, do we? Any group of people who spends more time killing each other and whatever innocent bystanders happen to be in the way over differences of belief isn’t worth our time, right?
Perhaps you’ve found yourself wrestling with one or two or all of these questions in the past. The supposed injustices of the church in history have very likely kept quite a few sensitive souls away from it. Put a bit more directly, the objection reads like this: Why waste our time with the Christian church when it is guilty of so much injustice? The reality is that if you spend much time talking to folks who are wary of accepting the claims of the Gospel, you will probably encounter some version of this objection. So how do we deal with it?
Well, for the last several issues, we’ve started answering this question by taking a look at exactly what we believe. But, as I said a minute ago, this isn’t so much an issue with what we believe, but rather what we are doing about what we believe. So then, it seems that it would be more helpful if there were a passage of Scripture that laid out what we should be doing in order that we can assess a bit more easily when we have gotten off track with that and when we haven’t. As a matter of fact, there is. When Jesus was offering His disciples the last round of advice before He left them to face the cross, He gave them a command which should be the driving force behind everything we do. If we get this right, much of the rest of our practice of the faith will fall nicely into place. These words are recorded for us in John’s Gospel. Find John 13:34 and we’ll take a look at His words.
Jesus said to the disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” Alright, so here Jesus is on the last night of His life, speaking some of His final words to His followers before His death, and He lays this on the disciples. Now, when He says “new commandment” there it could mean one of two things. It could be that Jesus was adding one more command to the 613 that were already on the books in the Law of Moses. This would have been one more thing for the disciples to try and keep in order to live up to the righteousness of God. Or, it could be that Jesus meant “new” in the sense of replacing all of that; not in the sense of doing away with it—He has already made clear before that He wasn’t—but in the sense of summarizing it. If you do this, the rest of that will be covered.
And so what’s the command? To love one another. That’s it? Yep. Just one? Do you want another? No thanks, I’m good. But it’s not simply: love one another. It’s: love one another just as I have loved you. Well, think contextually for a minute. What had Jesus just done to show His love for them? He had washed their feet. He, their master, the Christ, the Son of God, the Lord of all creation in human flesh, had done the very lowest duty possible in that culture…because He loved them. In this act, all the restrictions that had perhaps been in place of how far you had to stoop to show love were removed completely. There was no longer any bottom limit. Anything was on the table in order to move someone intentionally in the direction of falling more in line with their God-designed self.
Even this isn’t all, though. There’s more? Just a bit. Look at the next thing Jesus says. What does obeying this command reveal? “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This is the only time Jesus says anything like this. He doesn’t talk about anything else as indicating who His followers are and who they aren’t. This is it. If you want to be known as a follower of Christ, this is how you do it. This has some pretty powerful implications for us. If we want to be known as followers of Christ, there’s only one way to do it. We love others. We figure out what kinds of things would demonstrate His love to the world and then we pursue those things with faithful abandon. The converse of this, by the way, is equally (and often devastatingly) true: if we don’t love others, no one is going to know we are followers of Christ. Or, as is unfortunately more often the case, if they do know us as followers of Jesus they are going to get all confused about what following Jesus actually means to the point that they may not want to do it. The point, though, is this: when we are working at our best we model the love of Christ. The church at its best models the love of Christ.
Okay, fine, but how does this fit in with all these apparently hard places in church history where the church seems to have clearly not shown the love of Christ? What do we do with the criticism that the church has been a fount of injustice in the world rather than just the opposite as it apparently should have been if it was concerned with getting Jesus’ words here right? Well, I think there are two approaches to countering this criticism. Let’s take a quick look at these and then we’ll round things out by seeing how this might apply in our current culture.
The first approach to countering the objection that the church has more often been a source of injustice than anything positive, that the church has been a great stain on the history of the world as some critics have alleged, is to make sure that people have their history right. Many of the objections that fit in this category rely on looking back in history and finding abuses committed by the church. Now, there have been some of these. No argument there. The church is filled with sinners and from time to time we have lived like it while still under the banner of the church. But, we don’t need any help in soiling our record and we need to make sure we don’t get stuck with blame where it’s not due. For example, let’s look at the history behind one of these objections. The story of Galileo as mentioned earlier may be the most common version, particularly in public schools, but as far as historical reliability goes is almost totally false. In the story of Galileo, what often goes unreported is that on the whole, the church at the time was very much supportive of him. He was a brilliant physicist in his day and everybody knew it. In fact, the Pope himself was one of Galileo’s chief supporters. He supported Galileo’s work only urging caution where it seemed he didn’t have enough evidence to support his claims (as a good scientist would presumably want to do).
Many times, critics at this point will lambaste the church of that day for thinking the earth was the center of the universe. They thought humans were so special—the crown of creation—so they put us at the center of things. It took brave men like Galileo to knock us off this false throne and reveal the truth: we’re just not that special. The problem with this criticism is that it gets the theology behind putting the earth at the center of the universe exactly backwards. The standard view of the universe then was that it consisted of a series of concentric circles. The further out from the center you went, the closer to divine perfection you got. God occupied the outermost ring, then the angels, then the heavens, and then the sky. By the time you got to the earth and its inhabitants, you were into a filthy, stinking cesspool of sin. Putting the earth at the center like this wasn’t a compliment to people, it was an insult. We were but a single step above Hell which was at the very center of things. In urging caution for Galileo on the theological ramifications of the scientific things he was proposing, the church wasn’t trying to preserve a too-high view of people, it was trying to prevent one. Its failure on this point and the subsequent rise of what became known as secular humanism has devastated modern culture. The philosophical idea that man is the measure of all things is the soil in whose roots partially lay ideas like Marx’s Communism and Hitler’s Nazism.
This wasn’t the only problem, though. As it turns out, Galileo’s science wasn’t totally right and he didn’t have enough evidence to make his demand for unquestioned support rational. In fact, he explicitly rejected some other scientific theories—namely that the moon causes tides, which it does—without giving them a fair shake. Furthermore, personally speaking, Galileo was terribly arrogant and had a bad habit of burning bridges and wasting good will totally unnecessarily. When he was finally arrested—and as a point of fact, he was never officially excommunicated—and made to publicly renounce Copernicanism—the scientific theory he had embraced—he spent the remainder of his life living in relative luxury. It’s true the Catholic Church went too far in demanding Galileo’s renouncement of Copernicanism, but it was hardly standing in the way of scientific advancement.
On the contrary, the church has done more in its history to advance the cause of science than any other single institution. And, the supposed divide between the church and science today is not between two monolithic institutions, but rather between two worldviews: The Christian worldview and worldview of Darwinian naturalism which demands a total rejection of theistic belief before it will acknowledge something as properly scientific. The problem, then it seems, lies not with the church at all, but instead with this rather narrow-minded insistence on a definition of what counts as science whose acceptance is far from unanimous even among the scientific community. There’s not time now to get into the real history of some of these other injustices (rest assured, as with this one, the traditionally told tales are mostly false), but advocating for accurate history is only part of the strategy to responding to this objection. Remember: the church at its best models the love of Christ. Before we can denounce the church as the single-most unjust institution in Western history, as many critics do, let’s examine the full weight of the evidence. Has the church ever been at its best?
As a matter of fact it has and on numerous occasions. Let’s take a quick look at some of the things we would consider improved in our culture over the past and where they came from. First, how many of you have had to make a trip to the hospital for treatment of any kind in the past year? The idea of taking care of the sick in a systematic, broad-ranging, equitable, dignified manner is an explicitly Christian idea. In around the third century, a Christian monk was wondering how to live out the love of Christ. He started thinking about lepers—social outcasts in that day to be sure. What if, he thought, we created a place where lepers could go and receive care at no cost to them, enabling them to face end of their lives with dignity and as much comfort as possible? Running with this, the monk created hospices for this very purpose and started putting them in monasteries. In fact, at one point, churches were required to have hospices like this as part of their buildings. This idea was eventually expanded to care for anyone who was sick and thus we have hospitals.
Or how about this: how many people went to grade school at some point in your life? Do you know where that came from? In the late 18th century a British Christian named Robert Raikes noticed that children who were not of an age to go to work in the factories were basically allowed to roam free, doing whatever they wanted. As you might expect, little good came out of this. Furthermore, for those who were of working age, on their one day off, Sunday, they were similarly allowed to shoot the moon. This wasn’t serving anybody well, least of all the children themselves who generally received no amount of formalized education (that was reserved for the rich). As a result, Raikes coordinated a group of churches to start offering literacy classes for the children on their day off. Their textbook, of course, was the Bible. Yet, as has most often been the case for Christian institutions dedicated to learning, the Bible wasn’t the only thing they taught and thus was established an elementary program of education both secular and spiritual. After a few years, after the program had exploded, the organizers started advocating for education to be made available for the children during the week too, removing them from the deplorable factory conditions (leading to the reform of child labor laws, by the way). Eventually this expanded into the modern public education system.
Or how about the scientific revolution? Guess when that started? Well, as a hint, it wasn’t until after Guttenberg began printing and widely distributing the Bible in the language of the people. Literacy is always the first step to education and cultural revolution. In fact, one of the tools of dictatorships of all kinds has been to either prohibit education entirely or to tightly control what is learned. When people learn to read they learn to think and when they learn to think anything can happen. In this vein, most languages in the world today that have a written alphabet such that native speakers can learn to read were first written down by Christian missionaries in order to put the Bible in their language. No secular institutions have ever strived for such a thing on a broad, systematic basis. Or how about orphanages, modern universities, social welfare programs, international relief efforts, women’s rights, the elevation of children to person status, modern genetics, freedom, equality, classical tolerance, the most concerted and successful efforts to end the human slave trade, and the like? None of these things existed prior to the church. The philosophical foundations for thinking in these directions came directly out of followers of Jesus working out what it means to be known as His followers. If you like anything about the way our culture works today, the church is probably to blame. The church at its best models the love of Christ.
So now for perhaps a hard question: what does this look like today? What does it look like to model the love of Christ in our culture? How can we be at our best today? How can we make sure that we are well-known as followers of Christ? Well, for starters, we can make sure we are advocating for the least, last, and lost around us. Doing this is exactly where all the positive social institutions I’ve mentioned and many others have come from. We ask the question: who around us qualifies as “the least of these”? When we figure out the answer, we do everything in our power to advance their place in society and make sure they are equipped with the tools necessary to become fully who God designed them to be. For example, how about single parents? Some of you know those challenges all too well. In a culture in which now half of babies born to women in their 20s and with no dad present in the picture—a fact nearly all social science work shows sets them up for a much harder road of life and greatly increases the likelihood that they will fall prey to any number of social and personal problems—how can we stand in the gap to support and mentor and disciple not only the kids, but the moms too?
Or how about those who are disabled in some way? In the early days of the church, rescuing unwanted babies was a vital part of its ministry. In those days, if someone didn’t want their baby—a fact especially true if she was a girl—they simply left the child out to die of exposure. Well today—and, folks, this is personal for us—close to 90% of babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome (or anything else that might make life more difficult than most people experience) are aborted. All because our culture doesn’t really understand what it means to sacrifice ourselves for someone else anymore. All because our understanding of what a quality life means is so broken. How can we stand in the gap and proclaim the truth that physical or mental impairment of any kind is no barrier to a joy-filled, Christ-redeemed, kingdom-glorifying life? What if in our culture there were no babies aborted, not because it was illegal, but because it was unthinkable; because everyone had such a profound understanding of the value of every single life—a person’s a person no matter how small as a wise elephant named Horton once put it—and the church was leading the way in making it possible for all those lives to be adequately cared for? What if there was no systemic poverty, not because the government finally solved the problem—newsflash: it’s never going to—but because the church took such good care of its neighbors that there wasn’t any lasting need? What if no one felt like a social outcast—particularly those who feel irresistibly drawn to any one of a number of alternative lifestyles—not because we finally all agreed that however you want to live is fine, but because we so followed Christ’s example of pouring out condition-less love on everyone that our subsequent calls to emulate His righteousness as laid out in the word were gladly received? The church at its best models the love of Christ.
Read the stories, folks. The pages of the Gospels are filled with examples of Jesus’ love. The people He received and the places He went should leave us embarrassed in our lack of following, and yet driven to find ways to reproduce them in culturally relevant forms. When the church has been at its best in the last 2,000 years, this has happened over and over again and our world is infinitely better for it. So what do we do with this objection? We treat it honestly: “You’re right. The church hasn’t always been at its best. But you don’t have all your stories right, and the good the church has accomplished both in direct action and in philosophical foundation far outstrips the few times when we have erred, even grievously so.” The church at its best models the love of Christ. Jesus didn’t merely start a movement or an institution 2,000 years ago; He started a social, cultural, political, theological, philosophical, scientific, literary, personal revolution. We’re the beneficiaries of this. We’re the heirs of this. And when we model Christ’s love in our community and around the world, we are participators in this. Folks, the church is the hope of the world because the love of Christ is the hope of the world and at its best, the church models the love of Christ. This is why the world needs the church; why you need the church.