‘The End of the Church’ – How it applies to the PC(USA)

Ephraim Radner has written an interesting book. An Episcopalian priest, Radner argues that the present divisions within the church are themselves a sign of "pneumatic deprivation," that is, the abandonment of the church by the Holy Spirit. That is the message that the title of his book is meant to convey: The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West (Eerdmans, 1998).

bookRadner is not interested in explaining the malaise of mainline Protestantism or in discovering why our congregations are not growing. Rather, he thinks our illness is of a deep-seated and longstanding nature going back at least as far as the Reformation split that created a Protestant church (or rather, churches) alongside the Roman Catholic Church. His concern is with the legitimacy of that split, and even more, with our easy acceptance of it. With all the splits and separations since then, he thinks the church’s situation has become rather like that of divided Israel, the glory of God having departed from his people even as their divisions have multiplied and hardened.

What sets Radner’s book apart from mere complaints about the present situation, or worse, from romantic longings for a past that never was, is his conviction that God is at work in all of this. Indeed, if the Holy Spirit has departed from a much-divided church, it can only be because this is God’s doing. This may be the very way God draws us into the suffering and brokenness of Christ’s own body. If so, to want to be exempt from this brokenness, perhaps in the hope of gaining some healthier, more spiritual body above the wreck that is our own, is to want some other Lord than Jesus Christ.

One might think that Radner’s picture of the church and its divisions is a trifle bleak. But the point he is making is full of hope. The wrath of God is but a form of God’s love, and its purpose is to shape us into Christ’s image, to teach us how to love. Our problem is thinking that such formation can be had without cost. But God takes away his word to make us hungry for it. And he takes away his Spirit so that we may long for its fruits. A church starving for such fruits, even a church sensing that God has abandoned it, is not that far from the image of the Crucified, who knew something also of what it felt like to be abandoned.

Whether or not Radner is correct in his understanding of the church’s plight, his prescription for dealing with the church’s own brokenness bears the marks of what Bonhoeffer called “costly grace,” and for that reason alone he deserves our attention. If, for example, the glory of the Lord has gone up from the midst of the city (Ezekiel 11:23), it is nevertheless true, as the Psalmist insists, that “your servants hold its stones dear and have pity on its dust” (Psalms102:14). The way of the cross is to love the church in all its brokenness, not to split away from it for the sake of some truth that forgets Christ’s own submissive suffering in the face of sinful authorities.

Radner notes that Christ heals our brokenness not by arguing about “pure doctrine,” or by appealing to ancient tradition, but by submitting himself to the hands of sinners, refusing to seek exemption from their authority. Thereby he confirms that authority in all its rubble-like disfigurement, as the authority of God’s people, witnessing to its true basis even as he reveals its terrible perversion. The point is that Jesus’ solidarity with sinners establishes, among other things, the true authority of the church. The church, as the body of Christ, becomes the place where “pure doctrine” is preached through the undertaking of the body to suffer in its life together. Any church that thinks that it can speak the truth in such a way as to be exempt from such suffering has not reckoned with the cross or the depth of Christ’s love for the church.

What does all this mean? Within the limited context of our own sadly fragmented denomination, I think it means at least the following:

1. There is no truth worth listening to on either side of the debates currently raging in our denomination that is not committed to the future of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as a church of Jesus Christ. This is why both the solutions of “local option” and “separation” are not possible. Our calling is to live together. It is not just to live with those with whom we disagree. To be sure, that is difficult enough. But it is to live and worship with those with whom we disagree even when they have “won” and we have “lost.”

2. There is no truth worth listening to on either side of the debates currently raging in our denomination that is not rooted in and expressive of Christ-like love for our “enemies.” This is not a call for us to be “nice.” That is often the way our debates are construed, as if the task were to deal with these complicated and vexing issues without losing our temper or saying things we might regret. But as difficult as all that might be, that is not our task. Our task is to love our “enemies,” even to be the church with them, even if it means “suffering them.” That is why it is a mistake of the first order to think that the debates before us are about human sexuality or even the proper ordering of our sexual relations. The issue before us is not whether to be “nice” or to leave, but whether in this debate as well as in others, we can be the church of Jesus Christ. The cross is not “nice” but it is our only hope of true unity. That is always the issue before us.

3. There should be no debate on these matters that takes place in some other context than worship and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as the place where enemies are reconciled.

4. It is a betrayal of our calling as Christians to raise money for organized groups within the church that encourage the sinful illusion that the primary division before Christian people is “liberal” or “conservative,” “them and “us.” This is an illusion that ignores the reality of Jesus Christ, in whom we are all judged as sinners and by whom we all are redeemed.

5. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is riven by these internal divisions in part because we have ourselves acceded to a state of affairs that is no longer scandalized by the divisions that separate us from other Christians, and particularly, from the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. The notion that separation from the church is a faithful response to ecclesiastical corruption (i.e., “come out from them”) is part of the regrettable legacy of the Reformation. The notion that a faithfully opposed but nevertheless real “submission” to the church’s authority as the church of Jesus Christ would perhaps strike both sides of this debate as too “Catholic.” Yet such submission, far more than separation, would imitate Christ, especially in its willingness to suffer for the truth.


Thomas W. Currie III is pastor, First church, Kerrville, Texas.