Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University
March 21, 2017
Back in August, 2012, I received an email from “Cheryl,” a prospective student at Seattle Pacific Seminary, who felt a call to pastoral ministry. She asked my advice on which of two denominations she should join. I replied:
In my view, joining a denomination is like having an impacted wisdom tooth removed. The only thing worse than doing it is not doing it. Lots of the time the denominational apparatus is little more than a nuisance, and sometimes it’s truly a damned nuisance in the strict theological sense of the word. But…and this is important…what denominations do that non-denominational churches don’t do is to provide (a) grounding in a tradition of theological discourse, and (b) pastoral and legal oversight for both clergy and congregations. Pastors can do a lot of damage to people, as you rightly observe; but pastors who are not accountable to a theological tradition or a denominational network can do worse damage, of more kinds, to more people, over a longer period of time, and with greater impunity, than pastors who aren’t subject to such accountability.
Whether the XXX Church is the right place for you is another question. But remember Steele’s Law of Ecclesiastical Disgruntlement: “The grass is brown everywhere.” But remember the corollary, too: “There are patches of green everywhere, and it’s your job to bring the watering can.” I think it’s perfectly legitimate for a person who is called to ministry to find a denomination which, all things considered, seems to be the most doctrinally sound, pastorally sensitive and mission-driven. And you go with that, intending to contribute as much as you can to its life. What you shouldn’t do is to imagine that some ecclesiastical Promised Land is out there somewhere, such that after you cross over whatever Jordan Rivers happen to lie between, you will be able to take your ease in Zion. That just doesn’t happen. Our choice is never between the moral perfection that is found somewhere, and the moral imperfection that is found everywhere else. The choice is always between various morally imperfect options. The real question is where we can be the least injured by the moral imperfections that are already there, and where we can be most effective in reducing such moral imperfections as there are. But don’t ever suppose that you won’t find some pre-existing messes, or that you yourself will never create any new ones. In a fallen world like this one, it’s one mess after another, all the way down. Thank-fully, it’s divine grace all the way down, too—and a whole lot deeper down. In this business, you learn to live by a grace you don’t deserve and can’t earn—or you go nuts.
Some months after this email exchange, I got a note from a former colleague, who had recently bumped into “Joan,” a young woman, whom my friend and I had taught many years earlier. She had begun their conversation by angrily declaring, “I hate the church!” She was not expressing the smug dismissiveness of a “post-Christian,” but rather the agony and frustration of someone who sincerely wanted to join a congregation that would encourage her growth as a disciple of Jesus, stimulate her intellect, challenge her conscience, and put her spiritual gifts to good use in ministry and mission. But after visiting a number of churches of various doctrinal positions, demographic configurations and liturgical styles, Joan was close to concluding that “the church” was a fraud and a failure. She didn’t want to believe this. And the fact that she was still heartbroken over the possibility that it was true meant that at least she hadn’t yet lapsed into dull resignation or complete indifference toward “organized religion.”
In my reply to my friend’s report of his conversation with Joan, I shared my “law of ecclesiastical disgruntlement” and its corollary. He shot back that although the law might be valid, the corollary was not. “Joan found that the grass really was brown everywhere,” he remarked. “But where were the patches of green? And it’s not as if she didn’t try to bring her watering can. It’s that she did try, but was repeatedly told that her lawn care efforts weren’t wanted. The reason Joan has begun to hate the church is not just that the grass is brown, but that church people seem deathly afraid of newcomers with ideas for better irrigation.”
I see his point, but I’m not yet willing to concede defeat. After all, my own vocation might be described—if I may push my analogy one step further—as preparing people for careers in ecclesiastical landscaping. But I do sympathize with demoralized Joan, who has all but given up on the church, and puzzled Cheryl, who is trying to choose among equally unpalatable options. I certainly have no intention of denying the facts, all too plain and all too depressing as they are, or of chiding people for facing them. Indeed, if church renewal is possible at all, it will only come through the labors of people who are fearlessly honest about the direness of the situation. A brown lawn isn’t greened by pretending that the sprinkling system isn’t broken. What I would tell Joan and Cheryl is something like this….
The church is both an organism and an organization. Insofar as it is the living body of Christ, it is, as the historic creeds affirm, one, holy, catholic and apostolic. It is “one,” because Christ unites all those who follow him with himself, and therefore with each other. It is “holy,” because Christ is the incarnate Son of God, and those who are united in him through faith have a share in his holiness. It is “catholic,” because it transcends all the barriers that divide human beings from each other—barriers of race, age, gender, nationality, native language, sexual orientation, or what have you. And it is “apostolic” because it acknowledges the permanent validity of the witness of those whom Christ sent into the world to make disciples for himself. These creedal marks consti-tute the theological reality of the church—and to see the church rightly is precisely to see its theological reality.
But insofar as the church is a human organization (or dis-organization), it is divided, sinful, insular and idiosyncratic. There is no point in denying that a “united” people squabble endlessly, often over trifles; or that “holy” people bring reproach on the themselves and raise doubts about the truth of their message by their sins and stupidities; or that “catholic” people often run their congregations like country clubs or gated communities; or that “apostolic” people often profess as divine truth, not what was bequeathed to them by their ancestors, but what legitimizes their interests or reflects the Zeitgeist. Whatever its theological reality may be, the political, social and cultural evidence seems distressingly different—and to see the church rightly is to see its sociological reality, too.
Which account of the church is true? Both of them! The truth of the theological account is apprehended by faith, through meditation on the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded in Scripture, and through reflection on the lives and ministries of the apostles, martyrs, doctors and saints of the church. The truth of the sociological account is painfully apparent to anyone who visits any congregation on earth on any given Sunday morning and simply looks around and starts asking nosey questions. Spiritual maturity consists in seeing the church “stereoscopically,” from both angles of vision at once. We must allow the sociological facts to keep us from the pious naiveté that eventually collapses and turns into cynical disillusionment or ministerial career-ism. But we must also allow the theological reality to provide the stable norms by which the sociological facts can be critiqued and the spiritual insights by which they can be corrected.
So bust out your watering can! You wouldn’t be disgruntled by the sorry state of the church if you didn’t already believe that what it essentially is better than what it actually is, and if you didn’t believe that God can and will use broken vessels like you to help it become itself.