The Common Good
July 1994

Why I Stay In the Church

by Rosemary Radford Ruether | July 1994

Grace in the midst of failings

I am frequently asked, "How can you stay in the church?" Some who ask this are expressing amazement that anyone seemingly so intelligent could remain connected with such a benighted institution as the Christian church. They want to know why I don't leave, much as an impatient social worker might ask a battered woman why she can't bring herself to leave her abusive husband. Many other questioners desperately want to continue in relation to the Christian church, but are finding it hard to do so. They want to know if I have some clue that has escaped them on how to remain a Christian without being demoralized or depressed.

I am not sure I have a satisfactory answer to the question from either of these contexts. But I can unpack my own thinking on the problem, which I define as how to remain faithful to Christ in a sinful church.

Dismay at the public and private behavior of church leaders and their governance of the church is hardly new. Such criticism can be found in some form from the earliest days of Christianity. In our own time, revelations of sexual abuse of children and youth by clergy have dominated the news, probably less because this is a new occurrence in Christian circles than because it is now being prosecuted in secular courts. Such revelations are causing a significant crisis in the credibility of church leaders, both among lay people and in the society at large.

However, reformers have also been cognizant of other failings. At least since the late 18th century, secular critics, as well as Christian reformers, have called for transformations of society that would overcome gross injustices: the vast gaps between wealth for the few and grinding misery for the many; the denial of human and civil rights to those without property, to blacks and Indians, to women.

Christian liberalism, the social gospel, and liberation, black, and feminist theologies have been ways of reconceiving a prophetic vision that makes transformation toward social justice intrinsic to the promise of salvation. If one believes this vision, then the Christian church should be at the forefront of the movements for liberation and justice. But the majority of churches have functioned to sacralize the social status quo; church teachings have promoted and justified the very evils that they should be denouncing.

From New Testament times to the mid-19th century, the continuous teaching and practice of most of the Christian churches condoned slavery. Likewise, Christian churches in the United States and elsewhere into the 1960s acceded to and at times theologically justified racial segregation. Those church leaders earliest to denounce slavery and segregation usually came from outside the mainline churches—Quakers, Baptists, and Methodists.

Anti-Semitism also has its long and evil history in both church teaching and practice. Theological diatribes in the ante-Nicene church fathers became institutionalized in the Constantinian era as theologically justified discrimination and sometimes even violence against the Jewish communities. This continued through the Middle Ages into modern times, reaping its horrendous fruit in the Nazi Holocaust.

The Deutero-Pauline texts define women as second in creation and first in sin and call for silence and subordination as women's path to acceptability in the church. A continual line of theologians, from Tertullian and Augustine through medieval scholastics and 16th-century Reformers, backed by canon law, continue the exclusion of women from ordained ministry and public preaching.

Even 20th-century theologians, such as Karl Barth, opined that the subordination of women to men is intrinsic to the order of creation. Needless to say, women in seminaries and churches remain surrounded by conservative church leaders and members, men and women, for whom the continuity and weight of this tradition are definitive proof of its truth, even after church bodies have voted to admit women to ordained ministry.

Women seeking ministerial roles are caught between two equally daunting possibilities. Either this tradition is true precisely because it has been continuously taught, enforced, and re-enforced, and therefore aspiration to ministry and existence in the ministry is contrary to God's will and Christ's intention for the church. Or the church has been deeply apostate, denying to women—who have probably been in every age more than the majority of faithful Christians—full membership in the body of Christ and thus full recognition of that equal redemption won them by Christ.

IF THIS IS THE CASE, then the ancient "rule of faith"—that what has been continuously taught by the church, at least most of the time and in most places, is a trustworthy guide to true doctrine—is not so. Then the church can publicly err in its dominant and continuous teachings much more massively than even most non-infallibilist Protestants have cared to admit. Nor can one take refuge from an erring church in an inerrant Bible, since it is precisely here that we find the root of certain teachings of women's subordination, as well as those that condoned other evils, such as slavery.

One traditional way of dealing with revelations of sinful and scandalous behavior on the part of church leaders is to separate the private from the public, the personal from the institutional. Church leaders in their personal lives and morality may err, but this does not jeopardize the church institution's reliability in solemn and official teachings: The sustaining power of the Holy Spirit preserves it from corporate error.

But this kind of saving apologia does not suffice to deal with contemporary consciousness of the crisis of reliability of church authority. Even in cases of sexual abuse by clergy we are not just dealing with individual sin, but with corporate cover-ups of such sins by the clergy, legal hardball by ecclesiastical lawyers to silence complaints by the abused, refusals to deal directly and honestly with the problem, even efforts to get churches to raise the money to pay for the litigation. All of which compounds the sense that we are dealing here with corporate perversity and hardness of heart, not just individual weakness.

Yet even this disheartening revelation of institutional lies and power plays in self-defense stops short of actually teaching officially that clergy have a right to abuse women, youth, and children sexually. In effect, all parties agree that this is wrong.

However, in the case of the denial of women's full membership in the body of Christ, as well as earlier, now more or less discarded teachings justifying slavery, racism, and anti-Semitism, we have not only corporate institutional abuse of large groups of people, but official teaching justifying such abuse. It is claimed to be the will of God, to be in accord with the intentions of Christ.

Not furtive sinners, but serious churchmen—in the full solemnity of their teaching office—proclaimed, taught, and re-enforced such views, not here or there in odd moments of particular crisis, but continuously, in some cases over most of the 1,900 years of Christian history. Since the mission of the church is to proclaim and promote salvation, the salvation made known in Christ, we are also talking about a fundamental apostasy to its vocation as the church of Christ. If such teachings are records of continuous apostasy, the teaching of error and moral evil, then what do we make of the reliability of church teaching authority, and the sustaining presence of the Holy Spirit in that teaching?

IN MY VIEW there are only two options: Either such teachings do represent normative Christianity, in which case this is a religion that sacralizes evil, and we should get out of it posthaste. Or else prophetic truth and justice is preserved in biblical and Christian history more in the minority communities and the critical edges of the Christian churches than in the mainstream. This does not mean that an idea is true simply because it is a minority opinion. But we must give up the long-held assumption that the majority tradition has a guaranteed likelihood to be right.

How can such apostasy be reckoned with and still talk about the church as body of Christ? In earlier eras, when reformers glimpsed such a deep hiatus between the vocation of the church as agent of salvation and its historic perversion as agent of evil, they called for deep corporate repentance. Failing to achieve such repentance, they dealt with it by schism.

This church, they said, is no longer the church of Christ, but the whore of Babylon, the seed of the anti-Christ. By shaking the dust of this fallen church off our feet, and regathering a remnant of those faithful to the true vision of the gospel, we will repristinate the true church risen from the ashes of the fallen one. That bad group is not the true church; we are the true church.

Although forming new church institutions has sometimes been necessary to articulate authentic visions that otherwise would have been silenced, dualizing schism as the separation of the true church from the false one itself falsifies the problem. Even worse, it creates a self-righteous triumphalism that repeats the same error: believing oneself preserved from error by virtue of possessing an organizational monopoly on God.

The real question is how to live by faith in the midst of error and sin—not the errors and sins of others with whom we do not identify ourselves, but the errors and sins to which we ourselves are prone. How do we hold on to a sense of God's grace at work in our lives, even in the midst of evidence not only of failings of individual Christians, but of institutionalized crime and deceit in high places?

This is possible only if we take much more profoundly and seriously that faith is trust in God rather than in ourselves. The good news that God loves us and is at work transforming our lives in Christ did not just enter the world once long ago. It enters a world 2,000 years later that continues to seize upon each new prophetic breakthrough of God's grace only to distort it into a way of justifying its apostasy. The majority of the church and its corporate tradition and practice is apostate, because most of the time individual and corporate humanity wishes to remain in distorted ways and justify them as God's will, rather than be open to real conversion.

The breakthroughs of authentic love, justice, mutuality, and reconciliation are constantly there also. And when they touch us we know that way of being as our true "natures," our authentic calling. But the gracious and redeeming presence of God is there at the point when we give up trying to possess it, institutionalize it, and guarantee it as something that we can deliver by the means that belong to us. This is another way of saying that it is, and remains, grace.

I SUSPECT THAT PART of our dismay at recognizing the fallibility of the church is our reluctance to grow up, and the way in which certain kinds of ecclesial "spirituality" operate as spiritual infantilization, rather than maturity in faith. We are shocked at clerical and corporate ecclesiastical evils a little the way children are shocked and demoralized to discover that their parents are fallible.

We can depart in sorrow looking for another impeccable father (or mother), perhaps in an all-wise guru or a preacher of an inerrant Bible. Or we can grow up and become responsible for the church of Christ as our beloved community, to which we must seek to give our best insights even as we recognize one another's fallibility, acknowledging that our assurance lies in being ever open to a grace that is both beyond and unfettered by any institutionalized guarantees.

To live by faith is also to live by repentance. God's redeeming presence is at the same time the power to face and shake off the way we cling to privilege and self-deception. We can look steadily and without any denial at the records of our corporate apostasy, not as the defeat of the gospel, but as the revelation of God's amazing power to deliver us from even our most monumental efforts to defeat God's grace.

We might recall that the hymn "Amazing Grace" ("how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me") was written, not by a punctilious Christian beating his or her breast over small peccadilloes, but a ship captain who once profited by ferrying slaves from Africa. He found in Christ the strength to repudiate this profitable but evil way of life and become instead a champion of the abolition of slavery.

Grace is the power to live by repentance. The church remains faithful not by being perfect, but by keeping that message central in a way that is concrete and ever truthfully applicable to our real personal and corporate lives.

The sin against the Holy Spirit is trying to evade that good news of God's gift of repentance by claiming that we have certainty and impeccability in our own hands—that we are Christ's church and so are preserved from serious error and corporate sin. This is where the church as institution circles its wagons against the threat of grace, the threat of the Holy Spirit, the threat of repentance. We build our fortifications ever higher, claiming that anything we have taught a long time cannot be wrong. We justify our sins by their longevity.

This is a big challenge to God, but from time to time the Holy Spirit manages to sneak through even the highest barriers the church builds against her, playing havoc with our certitudes, revealing the absurdity of our self-deceptions, the pathos of our power, but also breaking the death grip that seals us up against new life. She gives us the gift of tears, the grace to weep profoundly at the sight of our tragic errors and the sufferings they have caused so many. She also gives the gift of explosive laughter that dissolves pomposity and liberates us to be, not infantilized zombies, but living children of God.

Perhaps with the 19th-century sea captain converted from the slave trade, we too can sing "through many dangers, toils, and snares, we have already come; 'tis grace that brought us safe thus far and grace will lead us home."

Rosemary Radford Ruether was a Sojourners contributing editor and Georgia Harkness professor of applied theology at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, when this article appeared.

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