We are the failed and authentic witness, all of us

John Halton posted an excellent passage on church history from philosopher Jacques Ellul today:

How can it be said, then, that freedom exists only in Christ and only for those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour? In spite of the experience of history, however, I do say this. Only in Christ and through Christians can authentic and undeviating freedom arise, take form, and spread in the world.

Nevertheless, the history of Christianity and the church is also marked by terrible failures. As I have often said, I do not like to accuse our forefathers in the faith of having been wrong, as though we were better and more enlightened than they. The church is a unity in time.

We cannot dissociate ourselves from the church in the middle ages, at the time of the Reformation, or in the nineteenth century. At these periods, too, the church was the church of Jesus Christ. It was his authentic witness. It carried the truth to men.

But in relation to its ethical task, and its function of representing the lordship of Jesus Christ on earth, we can only say that it has been a serious failure and indeed a veritable catastrophe for man in general. This enables us to measure the degree to which grace alone has made it the church of Jesus Christ and always sustained it as such.

-Jacques Ellul, Ethics of Freedom, p.90

He goes on to comment:

Wonderful stuff. Not many writers are able to make such high claims for the gospel and Christian faith (”freedom exists only in Christ and only for those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour”) while at the same time being so clear-eyed about the failure of the church (and Christians) to live up to their calling (”a serious failure and indeed a veritable catastrophe”), yet also avoiding the arrogance of blaming this on those ignorant hick Christians back then (”as though we were better and more enlightened than they”). Genius.

Just yesterday I finished reading Charles William’s church history (The Descent of the Dove), and had some of these same thoughts kicking around in my head. I was pleasantly surprised at how gracious Williams was with the various flawed leaders, Popes, reformers, etc. throughout the church’s life.

It’s such a contrast to what I learned in my homeschooling textbooks: (”the church was hosed until the Puritan’s came along”)

or heard preached on occasion: (”too bad Constantine ruined the church. We’ve been trying to get back there ever since…”)

and again in a church history class in college: (”all those losers back then were quenching the spirit, except for perhaps the Montanists, up until Azuza Street”).

How much more humbling (and truthful) to say, “Yes, mistakes were made. But it was MY OWN crew making them every time. And WE continue to make them. But we’re still the people of Jesus Christ. He’s not going to let us down.”