Has the Church Done More Harm Than Good?

But is it good?” That was a question I overheard my friend Kaley ask. The person to whom the question was asked had just offered a powerful defense of Jesus’ resurrection and the Christian faith. Like many young people I work with, Kaley’s in the process of questioning the faith she used to have in Jesus. Despite her skepticism, she didn’t disagree with any of the evidences she’d just heard about Jesus. Her question wasn’t whether or not my friend was right about the best explanation for life, it was about whether or not my friend offered the best way to live. “Haven’t Christians done a lot of bad in the world? What about the crusades?” Her unanswered questions hung over the conversation like a still fog.

In my experience, Kaley’s quires aren’t atypical. Perhaps thirty years ago—when the Christian ethic was assumed in the West—proving the truthfulness of the faith was the task at hand. Today, at a time when the Christian view of the good is being undermined at every turn, it’s incumbent upon those of us with faith to be able to show the coherence of our values, not only the correctness of our doctrines.

In his new documentary For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined, Australian theologian John Dickson enlists the help of the likes of David Bentley Hart, Rodney Stark, and Miroslav Volf in answering the questions of my friend Kaley. The documentary doesn’t engage the question of whether or not the faith is true, it asks if it’s good.

While It would’ve been easy for the writers of the film to either (1) completely defend the bad that’s been done in the name of Jesus or (2) completely deny the good that’s been done in the name of Jesus, the genius of the documentary is its balance. The movie follows a rhythm of confession and celebration, acknowledging the faults of Christians even as it gestures toward the church’s fidelity. The movie can help those of us concerned with providing a credible defense of the faith think through how to answer the questions of my friend Kaley.

Complete Defense

I’m sympathetic to those whose instinct when confronted with an attack on the Christian way of life is to offer a total defense. Often, the criticisms being leveled against the church is unfair. Yet, if we only offer knee-jerk defense of the church without acknowledging the ways in which we’ve failed, our argument will land on deaf ears.

The British evangelist Michael Ots has a rule when doing question and answer sessions on college campuses: dig the hole deeper before answering. Whatever quandary is being proposed by the questioner, he always tries to show that the issue is even more difficult than the questioner realizes. So, if someone asks about God sending nice people to hell, he’ll dig the hole deeper before answer the question by bringing up the fact that God will send people who’ve been quite mean to heaven. Why does he do this? He wants the people asking the question to know he’s aware of the gravity of the question—perhaps more aware than they themselves are.

For the Love of God uses this same technique by pointing out the ways in which the church has failed to live out Christ’s ethic of love. From Christians in the Antebellum South that justified slavery using Scripture, to pastors in Australia that advocated for the displacement and eradication of indigenous peoples, the documentary assures the viewer that they’ve felt the gravity and weight of the church’s failures.

Complete Denial

There are two ways to fall off a horse. Not only would it be wrong to totally defend the church, it’d be equally wrong to totally deny the good that the church has done. From hospitals, to orphanages, to civil rights causes, the church has shaped the West’s understanding of justice. In acknowledging the church’s failures, we must not deny the good that’s been done in the name of Jesus.

For example, the documentary makes the case that our view of human dignity is anything but “self-evident.” Christianity emerged in a culture that would leave “defective” babies in fields to die. Humans are equal if, and only if, they’re made in the image of God. None of us are “equal” in intellect, appearance, talent, etc. The Christians would save the children left to die not because of what the babies could do, but because of who the babies were—image bearers. So, after acknowledging the wrong that’s been done by the church, we must move toward showing the good that’s come from Christ followers.

Conclusion

One may play a beautiful piece of music in an unskilled, brutish way, the documentary points out. That doesn’t make the music bad, it makes the musician bad. The point of the illustration is obvious: Christ gave us a beautiful song to play. By acknowledging the ways in which His song has been played out of tune, we aren’t besmirching the music. To the contrary, we’re defending the composition and the Composer! We’re saying that the music Christ left us—His ethic—remains beautiful and compelling, even as it’s played by faulty musicians. I sent Kaley a link to the movie with an invitation to get coffee and discuss its themes further. I hope she finds it worthwhile—I certainly did.

 

[Editor’s Note: If you would like to hear more about providing a critical defense of the church in history, consider attending the Colson Center’s Wilberforce Weekend next month in Washington, D. C. The theme this year is “Is Christianity Still Good for the World?” For more information about this great conference, check out the website here.]

Dustin Messer is Worldview and Cultural Engagement Coordinator at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, TX and author of, Secular Sacraments: Finding Grace in the World and Sin in the Church.


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