There are a lot of people in America who are angry at the church today. And why not? It has at times supported a variety of awful things: slavery, the destroying of Native American communities, unjust laws that favor the wealthy over the poor, discrimination against women and homosexuals, etc. Does it really make sense to try and affiliate with a church when not one mainline denomination has consistently (over the last several hundred years) met God’s standards to love others?
And yet, the author of Hebrews begs us . . .
“ . . . consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” (Heb 10:24-25 NRS)
St. Francis was not immune to the hurt and harm the church could bring about. Though he and his companions attended mass, they did not associate their community with the church at first. What made St. Francis go to the church and ask that they accept his community as one of their own is a matter of debate. Some say he was too trusting, others say he was duped. Either way, he went to Rome and asked to be included as a holy order. At first the church ignored him, but later as he gained more and more popularity the church decided to commandeer St. Francis’s community.
This was a nightmare for St. Francis. Associating with the church caused his order to degenerate into a clerical institution. St. Francis was soon to discover that loving Christ was easy, but loving Christianity was not. He began to understand the clergy of the church as a group in need of conversion. In his opinion, they had lost the way of Jesus. Then the worst happened. The church took the order from St. Francis and gave it to Peter of Catana who changed the most basic rules of life on which St. Francis and the other brothers had taken their vows. St. Francis did not leave the church over this, but spoke into it. Even on his deathbed, he was still writing and talking to anyone who would listen about the grave errors the church was making — not only in the order he founded, but in the church as a whole.
We need to get over the notion that we can be the church (the hands and feet of Jesus) all by ourselves. Individually, we might be able to be a thumb or a big toe, but we need the whole community of Christ to be the hands and feet and to accomplish the work of Jesus.
What if instead of disassociating with the church, those disgusted with it stay and speak up? Would that not make the church a better place? Would it not, perhaps, save the church for future generations who are leaving it in droves?
My advice is to find the best church you can – one that accepts and loves you – one that is tolerant of differing views – one that is continuing Jesus’ ministry to those in need. Find this church and realize, it will still have problems – sometimes BIG problems. But don’t leave. Stay, and speak into it.
April is a Red Letter Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs.