Does the Church Need to be Held Accountable for its Past?
In the last 2,000 years, Christianity has seen some stuff and done some stuff, and not all of it all it has been praiseworthy. Particularly cringeworthy examples from Christian history might include the Crusades, the various wars between Protestants and Catholics, and the abuse of the Bible and theology to justify African slavery in America. As modern Christians, we look on that history with regret but with an intention to learn from past mistakes and do better in the future.
There are some, however, who are not content to let the past remain in the past. According to them, it is not good enough for Christians simply to learn from the past. Instead, they must actively pay for the past. Moreover, that past’s enduring legacy calls into question the validity of anything good the Church tries to do in the present. Nothing Christians try to do is ever truly virtuous, because it is sullied by an irredeemably evil past, and the main thing Christians need to be doing today is apologizing to all the people groups they have offended in the last two millennia. You might think that it is only professed opponents of Christianity who make these sorts of arguments, but you would be wrong.
For example, a recent article on medium.com argues that Christians need to stop co-opting the “justice movement” for their own religious purposes. The author identifies as a Christian, and his main thesis – or the best possible spin on the most redeemable point of his main thesis – is that Christians should not use their good works as photo opportunities. That point is something I can wholeheartedly get behind. Absolutely. Do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing. What you do in secret will be rewarded openly. Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven and not on earth. Whatever we do out of our love for God and for humanity should never be considered part of a marketing strategy. God does not need your marketing strategy to build his Church.
Unfortunately, whatever good the article might have been able to communicate is absolutely ruined by awful theology. It is clear to me that while the author (who claims to be a seminarian and community organizer) cares very deeply about “justice” (whatever that tortured word means anymore) he has not thought very deeply about what biblical justice is or where it comes from. This lack in his theology is perhaps nowhere more evident that in his assertion that Christians can never forget the “bloody history we as Christians should be held accountable for.” The author declares this toward the end of the article as a take away point for those who are moved by his article and want to change their behavior accordingly, but it really forms an important part of the core of assumptions that fuel the entire article. Therefore, I want to focus in on just this idea that the Church needs to be held accountable for its past and ask some critical questions of it.
Who Should Hold the Church Accountable?
“The Church needs to be held accountable.” By whom? By the author? By the world? Are non-Christians somehow more innocent than Christians and therefore qualified to hold Christians accountable through impartial judgment? Do non-Christians somehow have insight into the principle of justice that Christians do not have? To the person saying, “The Church needs to be held accountable for its past”, Jesus says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
The author of the medium.com article and others who share his worldview seem to think that the Church has special crimes over and above our common human ones that require special judgment. But the fact is that whatever crimes the Church may be guilty of, they are crimes common to humanity. In other words, they are the crimes of humanity in all its guises and institutions, governmental and religious, theistic and atheistic. Christians do not merit special judgment simply because they identify as Christians. They merit the same judgment all humans do simply by virtue of being sinful humans.
In reality, those who say things like, “The Church must be held accountable for its past” place themselves in a position of judgment over the Church. They imply in such a statement that they have special insight into the concept of justice of which the Church has been, and still is, largely ignorant. The statement conceals a pretension to unusual personal righteousness.
Who are You to Judge the Servant of Another?
But the Bible is pretty clear that no one has the right to stand in judgment over any other human being on the authority of his or her own personal righteousness, let alone over the Church. Or in Paul’s words:
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. (Romans 2:1, NIV)
Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. (Romans 14:4, NIV)
I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. (1 Corinthians 4:3-4, NIV)
Or for those who hold the Apostle Paul in suspicion, what about the words of Jesus:
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (Matthew 7:1-3, NIV)
Judgmentalism in any of its forms is ever only an attempt to exalt oneself by debasing another. The unified message of the Bible and of Christian theology is this: you do not get to exempt yourself from judgment by standing in judgment over another human being. That is called hypocrisy and self-righteousness.
Perhaps those Christians who say such things consider themselves to be acting as prophets. Fair enough, but biblical prophetic oracles were ever only concerned with the supremacy of God and of Israel’s faithfulness to that supremacy. To say “the Church needs to be held accountable for its bloody past” in fact is concerned with neither of those things. Instead, I would argue that it actively challenges the supremacy of God by challenging God’s competence as a judge.
Who is the Only Judge?
Who is the judge who needs to hold the Church and everyone else accountable for their crimes? It is the one who sits on the throne of heaven: God himself, and the Lamb of God, Jesus the Christ. Does the person who says, “The Church needs to be held accountable or its past” not trust God to hold the Church accountable? Do they consider themselves so above the sins of humanity and of the Church that they have earned the right to sit alongside God on the throne of judgment? Or is there some principle of justice that transcends even God himself to which God and his Church must be held accountable and into which the author has miraculous insight? Does God have to apologize to someone?
Absolutely not! Me genoito. Let God be true and every man a liar. God is not unjust. He is the judge of all humanity, Christian and non-Christian. And he alone is the judge. He is perfectly competent to hold all humanity accountable for its sins, Christians included, and he does not need us to hold him accountable to his judging responsibilities.
Hasn’t the Church Already Been Held Accountable in Christ?
Not only does the charge that “The Church must be held accountable” challenge the supremacy of God (and therefore disqualify its speaker as a legitimate prophetic voice), but it also calls into question one of the most important defining doctrines of Christianity: the atonement. The idea that the Church needs to be held accountable for its past ignores the fact that the Church has already been held accountable in the cross of Christ. That, in fact, is the whole point of the cross of Christ.
The sinfulness of all humanity came together to crucify Jesus unjustly (the supreme example of injustice). Jesus voluntarily underwent his torture and execution as payment for the guilt of humanity, in other words acting as the sin sacrifice for anyone who would follow him and accept his righteousness. Whatever its bloody past, whatever crimes the Church may be guilty of were accounted for on Calvary and are no longer held to the Church’s account by the only judge, God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is Christianity 101. It does not get any more basic than this. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
That does not mean that the Church is perfect. By no means. But Jesus has already been held accountable for the Church’s imperfections and “bloody past” to the satisfaction of God, so no further accountability can possibly be demanded.
In denying the accountability of the cross and pretending to sit in judgment over the Church, the claim that “The Church needs to be held accountable for its past” empties the cross of its power and brings Jesus down from the throne of judgment. The pretension of moral high ground that it appears to be speaking from is nothing more than hypocritical human self-righteousness. What is truly shocking about this statement is how frequently I hear it coming from the mouths of those who profess to be Christians. It is hard to imagine a Christian saying something more un-Christan that this. Or should I say anti-Christian? Because despite the prophetic pretensions of some who proclaim the enduring guilt of the Church, the zeitgeist that denies the purifying power of the cross and the lordship of Jesus is not the Spirit of Christ but the spirit of antichrist.