Many of us have been hurt by the Church. Some of us are disgusted by the hypocrisy that we see when we’re seated on Sunday morning in a pew. Bitterness grows and, unaddressed, festers. Soon we do not feel like attendance is necessary at all.
We throw out phrases like, the Church is people, not a place. Or, we emphasize that our relationship with Christ is ultimately personal. Of course, this forgets that the Church in its visible manifestation is a gathered people (which generally requires a place) and that our relationship with Christ ought to be mediated through his body, both eucharistically and through the Church herself.
Regardless of what our reasons might be, many (particularly young) Evangelicals find themselves in a place of disillusionment. The Church isn’t what they want it to be, so they give up, maybe starting their own “churches”, or just turning to an extreme form of (radically unhelpful) individualism.
To such individuals, the claim of the Apostles’ Creed sounds archaic and, frankly, bizarre. “I believe in the holy catholic Church.” Ignoring the issues of holy and catholic (we can save those for another day), notice the second word in that statement – believe.
Our view of the Church is not something that is dictated by our various experiences, whether good or bad. It is an article of faith, something we confess with the Church throughout the ages. This radically affects our understanding of the Church in a couple of ways.
Firstly, it means that the Church is inescapable. Unless you want to throw out the Apostles’ Creed (which I’d advise against), the Church is something the believer confesses. It is not a matter of preference, or desire, or even hatred of the institution as one has experienced it. Rather, it is something we have to believe. Inasmuch as we have faith in Christ, we must believe in his body and bride, the Church.
Secondly, it means that we must recognize that the Church is always, ultimately a gift from God. This may at times grate against our sensibilities, but it is our confession. Thus, the Church, as a gift, always has something to offer and teach us, guiding us as a body towards deeper union with Christ.
For those of us who have been hurt by the Church, these are uncomfortable truths. We may feel tempted to rationalize them away, turning to an idea of the invisible Church as just comprised of all believers without any of the structures. However, I’m convinced that such a view doesn’t hold true to the biblical picture.
Rather we must sit with the reality that regardless of what we feel, we believe in the holy catholic Church. It’s not always popular or comfortable but it’s true.
Note: These thoughts are heavily dependent upon comments made by my professor, Hans Boersma, in the Systematic Theology class I am currently undertaking. Most likely, the good here is his, the bad my own.