Responding to a Nearly Right Take on Jesus, Part 4

Today we conclude our little series of assertions and replies centering around an admirer of Jesus who is rightly scandalized by Christian sins.

He writes:

Should Jesus reappear, he would be a most dangerous threat to the institution of the Church originally established in his name.

The Church was not “established in his name”. It was established by Jesus. And it is only because of that Church that the critic has the faintest idea what he taught and did–including promise to reappear and judge the living and the dead. That judgment will most certainly include the members of the Church and Jesus was very clear that those to whom much is given, much will be required. So the critic has every right to warn that hypocritical and sinful Christians had best beware lest that day close on them like a trap. But it makes no sense urge this warning while suggesting that the Church is utterly without foundation in teaching that Jesus is the founder of the Church. The only reason we know at all what Jesus will say to phony disciples who betray him is because the Church carefully preserved his warnings. As Tom Holland points out, the Church has done such a good job bearing witness to Jesus and kneaded his teaching into our culture so completely that even the critics of the Church depend on Christian presuppositions in order to critique the sins of Christians. Whatever that is, it is not evidence of the abject failure of the Church to bear witness to Jesus’ teaching. Yes, sin abides to the Last Day and must be fought–especially in the Church. But, well, get real. The Church is crammed with people doing all sorts of good things in a conscious struggle to obey him and this must be acknowledged as well.

What are now called “essential doctrines” of the Christian religion, Jesus does not even mention.

If by that, he means “Jesus did not recite the Creed”, then sure, that’s true. If he means that the basic body of belief summarized by the Apostle’s or Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds is utterly foreign to the preaching of Jesus and the disciples he trained, then I have to conclude that the person writing this simply has no grasp of the New Testament at all.

I consider the life, teachings, and wisdom of Jesus to be universally relevant, regardless of one’s religious, spiritual, or philosophical point of view.

Relevant, sure. And respect for Jesus is a great place to begin a conversation. I had rather talk to a non-Christian who admires and wants to imitate Jesus than to a MAGA pagan with a taste for Christian aesthetics who wants to use Jesus as a human shield for his own nihilist lust for power. And I think, at the end of the day, that this writer cares more about obeying Jesus than about getting theological abstractions right. My only point is that one man’s abstractions are another man’s critical truths about who Jesus is and why he matters.

Christianity does not hold unique and absolute claim to Jesus.

No. But Jesus, being God, holds unique and absolute claim to the Church, going so far as to tell Saul, “why are you persecuting me?” not “why are you persecuting these dummies who invented a Church I never asked for.” That does not alleviate the Christian’s responsibility for giving scandalous witness. But it does call into grave question the easy-peasy notion that the Church is nothing but a man-made corruption of Jesus “original” message: a message that always conveniently coincides precisely with whatever the critic thinks.

Just because you are a Christian doesn’t mean you truly get Jesus. In fact, it may be the reason why you don’t.”

I agree 100%. But here’s the thing: just because you are a post-modern critic filled with the effortless assumption that the Church is a mere human construct erected without the slightest connection to Jesus and almost entirely in opposition to his “real” purposes does not guarantee you “truly get Jesus” either. And given the choice between a post-modern fired almost entirely by the controversies and frustrations and ideas of the early Third Millennium and the people who shared Jesus’ intimate acquaintance for three years, my inclination is to think the latter will be better at knowing what Jesus really said and did.

So by all means, don’t let MAGA fake piety turn Jesus into a lap dog for greed, racism, or nihilist power grabs. But likewise don’t let it blind you to the genuinely supernatural dimension of the gospel: a dimension that inevitably confronts us with Jesus’ love for and union with Church of sinners he has called to be saints and chosen to stick with to the end.

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7 Responses

  1. I think, Mark, that you may be engaging in a little slight of hand here, by playing with two slightly different meanings of the word “church”. “Ecclesia” in Greek didn’t actually originally mean “church”, it meant “gathering”, “assembly” or “congregation”. The word has later come to be used to mean the organised heirachy and institution that came to lead and organise the various assemblies / congregations of Jesus’s followers, but that doesn’t mean you can read back into the earlier assemblies as if they were the same thing as the later organised church hierarchy. Jesus chose individual followers: he appointed no bishops, established no rules, set up no rulers or organisational systems or any kind of organised institution. Those things may have (arguably) later become necessary because those who followed Jesus needed an institional organisation to organise themselves, run congregations, provide for widows and orphans, each the teachers, guard against false notions and preserve Jesus’s ideas etc, but it was not this later-created institution which “ecclesia” originally meant.

    1. Linguistically correct – but, of course, ‘ecclesia’ is Greek. Jesus is presumed to have spoken Aramaic. When he spoke of building “my Church” on Peter, the Rock, he was surely referring to the Hebrew concept of qahal – which was normally used for the people of the Law. It seems pretty clear that, whatever word he used – it meant that he was building a new qahal – which, after all, is just … church!

  2. Iain – “…what is being referred to is the people, not the institution.”

    It seems to me you are changing the ground here. You distinguish ‘the people’ from ‘the institution’? The people comprise the institution.

    1. The original “admirer of Jesus” expressly referred to the “institution of the Church” as not being intended by Jesus, to which Mark responded by pointing to where Jesus talked about the “ecclesia” – which refers either to a particular group of Jesus’s followers or Jesus’s followers as a group – as if that refuted the point being made.
      The people do not comprise the institution: the Catholic church is not congregationalist, its priests and leaders are appointed over congregations by the church heirachy, and they own (in various ways depending on country) all the buildings and assets and decide who is or is not a member and they are accountable to themselves, not their congregations. This may be a good idea or a bad idea but it does mean that the person Mark is talking about is perfectly correct that there is an institutional “Church” quite separate organisationally and legally from its worshippers as a group.

      1. Thanks, Iain. Understood – and I started this by my linguistic discussion 🙂 I suppose, regarding the question of ‘institution’, it just means the organisation – as a man is a more than a collection of cells; it is how those cells are organised. So I would suppose that I would partly agree with you, that the institution is more than simply the people – but, it seems to me, not less. The institution of the Church is – surely? – coterminous with its members; it is simply an institution by the way those members are organised.

        I myself am an ordinary Catholic, member of the parish – but I would say that precisely in that I have a place in the Church – as a parish member – that I am a part of that ‘institution.’

        But I thank you for pointing out that the original ‘admirer’ referred to the ‘institution’ – and that the question, as you – correctly – say, is not whether Jesus intended the people, but whether he intended the institution – and, I think one must assume, the ‘admirer’, by ‘institution,’ means the actual institution as it exists, not just some inchoate unspecified institution – or, indeed, merely the intellectual construct of ‘the set of persons, known to God (alone), that Jesus had in mind’.

        Or something like that 🙂

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