Weird, Out-of-Touch, Merciless … and Absolutely Essential

The church is dead. Long live the church?

Todd Brewer / 5.17.23

In the final moments before vanishing from sight, Jesus gave his disciples one final instruction for what to do next. They were to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them all that Jesus had commanded. According to Matthew’s Gospel, what Jesus had given to his disciples was to be passed down to new disciples, who would then pass down what they had been given, a process that would repeat itself innumerable times until the close of the age. New disciples become teachers of new disciples who become teachers of new disciples.

Alongside several other motifs, Matthew’s Gospel depicts Jesus in terms that recall the life of Moses, whether it be the circumstance of Jesus’ birth, his teaching on top of a mountain, or Matthew’s collection of five blocks of teaching loosely akin to the five books of the Torah. But unlike Moses, Jesus didn’t write anything down. If Moses left behind a written text before disappearing on his own mountain top, Jesus left to the world a church that bears his word.

Along these lines, when Luke begins his Gospel, he mentions with not-so false modesty the texts and people he depended upon, the “eye witnesses and servants of the word” whose testimony he has received that will confirm what his patron, Theophilus, has already been told (1:1-4). John’s Gospel seems to have been written as a compilation of the beloved disciple’s testimony (21:24). And when Mark’s Gospel was first circulating, it was said to have been written on the basis of Peter’s preaching.

Beginning with Jesus’ ascension, the disciples are mere witnesses who pass along what they have received. Traditions mediated by time, memory, and utility. This is, admittedly, a thorny process, in which veracity and communal fidelity strangely intertwine. By contrast, in several non-canonical texts their authors appear as dictating scribes (cf. Gos. Thomas, Saying 1) — words spoken from the lips of Jesus straight to a pen on parchment. Clean, simple, and direct, perhaps, but the same rhetorical strategy used by Islam and Latter-Day Saints. The four canonical gospels might have some claim to apostolic origin, but they do so indirectly through a process of communal inheritance of Jesus’s life and teaching.

The one exception to this stepwise handing down of tradition seems to be early Christianity’s most significant convert: Paul of Tarsus. Jesus appeared to him directly, without the aid of earthly succession. At more than one point in his letters, Paul explicitly stresses that his gospel did not derive from other apostles, but Jesus Christ himself (Gal 1:11-12). Likewise, the events of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples were given to him directly from the Lord (1 Cor 11:23). But even Paul is the exception that proves the rule. His apostleship circumvented the disciples — necessarily so! — but he subsequently falls into the same discipleship pattern, handing down his teaching as a parent bequeaths wisdom to their children (1 Cor 4:15, 15:3-9). How are they to believe in him if they have not heard?

Still … Jesus’ strategy probably seems like foolishness in retrospect. If you’re going to go to all the trouble of descending to earth, growing up, and suffering an excruciating death to save the world, it might behoove you to have a backup copy of your life’s work stored in the cloud somewhere for safe keeping. Instead, Jesus entrusted his message to disciples who never seemed to understand it in the first place, routinely squabbled amongst themselves, weren’t all that educated, and abandoned Jesus at the first sign of trouble. Many shortcomings, I might add, that have also been handed down to subsequent generations alongside Jesus’ teachings.

For both better and worse, Christianity has always been a messy, mediated religion.[1] As one theologian put it, “there is no faith in Christ which would not also be faith in the church as the bearer of the gospel, that is, using the terminology of dogmatics, faith in the Holy Spirit.”[2]

Through defective messengers, God’s word is carried through the generations, through preaching and Bible studies, prophetic witness, and conversion. But any close study of church history should at least marvel that Christianity still exists at all. Distressed by scandal, judgmentalism, abuse, exploitation, heresy, and sheer idiocy, the church has always been its own worst enemy. It’s no wonder so many find the idea of the institutional church to be so repulsive, preferring to go it their own way with a customized spirituality. God is bigger than the church, it is said, so why bother with the dross of used car salesman turned prophets, incense-swinging prelates, or inane preachers seemingly intent to bore the hearer to death? Why bother with bible-thumpers, wierdos, or merciless self-righteousness? Jesus is great, but he’s got the worst PR.

But this muddled chain of witnesses simultaneously insures the vitality of its message. Because with every succession of handing, every repetition of that old story, the word carried by the church gains new significance. Its message of love, judgement, liberation, and service finds new meaning like a diamond that sparkles when turned (cf. Jn 14:26). Through the refractions of time and the frailty of its ambassadors, the once for all message of the gospel radiates more brightly, a treasure held by jars of clay across a multitude of generations, languages, and cultures. It might just be foolishness, but it’s precisely what Jesus intended.

When Jesus ascended into the clouds, one might be tempted to think he left us to figure it out on our own. The lease is signed and the landlord leaves, not to be heard from until the property inspection. His final words, however, weren’t “I’ll be back to see what you’ve done with the place.” Though the disciples will bear his word, the authority held by the risen Jesus over heaven and earth has not been handed over to the disciples. Jesus instead promises his enduring presence to the church through all the fluctuations of history, “Behold, I am with you always until the close of the age” (Mt 28:20). As broken as the church may become — as infuriating and disheartening it is — Jesus nonetheless faithfully remains.

Article image via Vox.

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6 responses to “Weird, Out-of-Touch, Merciless … and Absolutely Essential”

  1. R. Cruz says:

    I have a question: Wasn’t the Protestantent Church a spin off from the Catholic Church?

  2. Jim Munroe says:

    Todd, this is just a brilliant description of the Christian church and the veracity of the Good news. Thanks, kind sir – I’m going to share this with EVERYone!

  3. Todd Brewer says:

    R. Good point! The caveat I’d make here (that is more implicit in the article) is that the church become the church proper when it passes on what has been given it, namely the proclamation of the gospel. Now, that’s a very Protestant definition, but one that, for my purposes here, also transcends denominational divides.

  4. Pierre says:

    @R. Cruz

    It is a spin off to the same extent that the Catholic Church is a spin off of the Orthodox Church.

  5. Colleen Lace says:

    Simply and beautifully written.

  6. […] Sometimes it’s necessary to sit in the uncomfortable. To sit in the baffling story of a Middle Eastern man who claimed to be God incarnate, who promised forgiveness for our external and internal brokenness, by means of a physical bodily resurrection two thousand years ago. A story told to us through oral and written traditions of antiquity. (Todd Brewer outlines our absurd tradition here.) […]

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