Winston Churchill once described Russia as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma". Our current religious scene is no less puzzling. Christianity is far from a dead issue on college campuses; we have witnessed a revival of interest in the formal study of theology. Each semester students by the hundreds enroll in courses about "Jesus - His Life and Teaching". And no end is in immediate view.
Paradoxically, at the same time there has been a pronounced rejection of the church in terms of organized religion. The mood and temper of many young collegians (their feeling is not wholly foreign to the more mature, either is summed up in these comments: "I admire Christ, but I have no use for the church"; "Christianity is great, but the church is a racket"; "I don't in you can organize the spiritual". What we have on our hands, then, are sincere expressions of religious faith coupled with a vigorous dislike for structured institutions.
Is such a position valid? Can the "Jesus, Yes! Church, No!" syndrome be justified? To be sure, all sorts of things may be wrong with religious institutions. On occasion churches have been smug, complacent, selfrighteous, impersonal, unfeeling, dated and stuffy. More than once God's people with God's message have forgotten God's purpose for them in the world. Such confession is good for the corporate soul.
Still, after we have rehearsed the sometimes failings of today's church, a strong case can be made for the defense. More to the point, anyone who takes Christ seriously will take the church seriously. Why? For at least three reasons.
First, the church fulfills a functional requirement; it supplies organization. This is crucial for any enterprise, the religious as well as the economical, educational, or political. While organization involves potential dangers, no movement can hope to survive without it. Christians are generally agreed that the heart of the gospel - "Jesus is Lord!" - is a central truth which begs for proclamation, both far and near, in word and deed. And this can never be effectively accomplished without structure. Free lance, unorganized disciples are no match for highly organized and deeply entrenched evil.
Second, a rich spiritual bond unites Christ and his followers. The New Testament is filled with illuminating suggestions. For example, the Lord "purchased" the church with his blood (Acts 20:28). Again, "Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it . . . " (Ephesians 5:25). Whatever else one wishes to make of these words, the relationship between Jesus and his church, his people, is ultimate, loving, sacrificial. That which was so important to him cannot be meaningless to me.
Third, religion is communal as well as personal. Remember, according to Paul, Jews and Gentiles alike are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise..... (Ephesians 3:6). The church - and I am thinking now of the local church - is where we learn together, grow together, worship together, rejoice together, sorrow together.
To the question, "The church, who needs it?", comes the answer, "We all do". Jesus or the church? To these add a third alternative: Jesus and the church. To God "be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end" (Ephesians 3:21).
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