August 10, 2020

Sundays with Michael Spencer: February 15, 2015

Landscape with a Church, van Gogh

Landscape with a Church, van Gogh

Note from CM: In 2015 we will mark five years since the death of Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk. Today, we continue our “Sundays with Michael” series with an excerpt from a post that was originally published in February 2008. The post was part one of a series Michael did, called, “The Church: Flawed and Finished.”

• • •

Because of my encounter with Roman Catholicism in the past year, I’ve spent a good deal of time asking questions about the church in the New Testament.

One of the key issues for me concerns the fallibility of the church in history and how this relates to the “perfected” images of the church used elsewhere in the New Testament.

The most basic image of the church in the New Testament is that of the disciples in relation to Jesus in the Gospels.

All Markan scholars agree that the Gospel of Mark keeps an intentional focus on the disciples, and that focus is almost always on the fallibility and immaturity of those disciples. The flaws and failures of the disciples are constantly on display.

The hearers of this Gospel would not have simply identified the disciples with the Apostles. They would have identified the disciples with themselves. Their calling by Jesus reflected the story of every believer. Their inability to understand the teachings of Jesus would relate to their own struggles. The failures of the disciples to be faithful to Jesus reminded them of their own confrontation with persecution and the temptation to compromise rather than suffer.

The confession of faith in Mark 8 and the resulting call to suffering discipleship is the path of the church itself. The Gospel of Mark invites all of those who hear the story of Jesus to become part of this community of disciples, the church. This community remains extremely fallible.

How does a fallible church hold on to the essentials of the Gospel? Apparently Jesus believes that fallible disciples can, despite their problems, confess and live the faith. The Gospels underline this again and again: Jesus is the true Word spoken by God to save the world. His church can know and follow Christ, even as it daily experiences its own historical imperfection and failure.

Jesus’ promise to “be with” his church in the power of the Spirit and unto the end of the age does not take away the fact that this church is full of flawed disciples, including its leadership . . .


  1. A very hearty, Amen!

    “Simul ustes et peccator”

    (pardon my poop Latin spelling)

  2. “Because of my encounter with Roman Catholicism in the past year, I’ve spent a good deal of time asking questions about the church in the New Testament.
    One of the key issues for me concerns the fallibility of the church in history and how this relates to the ‘perfected”’ images of the church used elsewhere in the New Testament.”

    Spencer’s encounter with Roman Catholicism yielded a meditation concerning the fallibility of the Church. Interesting.

    • I find it hard to imagine meditating on any church or denomination without recognizing the fallibility of all of them. 😉

    • The RCC has much more history to have been fallible in/with.

      American Protestantism suffers greatly from hubris of the young. I remember it well; the certainly I would never make those kinds of mistakes, I would never be so blind. And then life happened. The advantage modern churches have is that they can be spontaneously be reborn, move down the street, change the name on the sign, bask again in said hubris.

      • David Cornwell says

        Thank you Finn.

        “The advantage modern churches have is that they can be spontaneously be reborn, move down the street, change the name on the sign, bask again in said hubris.”

        In the words of Brad S Gregory:

        “The freedom of each American citizen to make doctrinal claims has always greatly exceeded that of any pope. … all Americans can say what they think God’s truth is, appeal to their individual consciences, express their unique opinions and make their voices heard, indeed start their very own churches.”

        Fruits of Reformation.

        • Also fruits of Renaissance and Enlightenment. Mechanical progress. The same Bible being distributed to thousands may cause hundreds of micro-cults, but it also spurs hundreds of scholars and philosophers and others to discuss that maybe the traditional view has been wrong for so long. Endless schism between their offspring.

          It’s a sadly amusing fact of history to see how often the church or traditional position has been wrong on something. We double down on ignorance, purposely bringing back that chaos that God worked against. All our actions ironically against the very spirit of God himself.

          • Agree, StuartB. I have no desire to go back, even if it were possible; it would be a huge mistake. I’ll gladly accept the freedom of each American citizen to make doctrinal claims, however erroneous, as long as they have no power to enforce their claims on others, as the Popes at one time did. This lack of any ability to enforce belief makes what the armchair American theologians do and what the Popes once did as different as night and day.

          • David Cornwell says

            Robert, thank you. I agree up to a point. Of course going back is an impossibility. We live in a different world. And I also I’m usually glad to be an American. We can believe whatever we like however erroneous it might be.

            This does nothing however, at least for me, to prove the wisdom of sola scriptura as it has worked itself out. Interpreting scripture became individual, subjective, and divisive very quickly. So it has never really been “by scripture alone.” Lutherans, Reformed Christians, and the Radical Protestants all had different interpretative pitches. Some became violent. Between 1525 and 1527 at least nine different reformers had published twenty-eight treatises against Luther’s view of the Lord’s Supper. These are just examples of what would transpire as time went on.

            Someone has to be in error, with so many conflicting truth claims. And so even if we believe the Roman Church to be in error, the Reformation has introduced error many times over.

            Going back in time is an impossibility. But it gives me a greater understanding of those who want to go back to SOMETHING.

            We have come to value our freedom to disagree above our desire to find agreement. Maybe this is the way it should be. Not sure.

          • And hence, we proudly go forward content in our self-assuredness, reconciled to our independence, allowing the depth of communion to be relegated to the second string.

            It’s as American as you can get – and as lonely.

            and a few parting words from Hilaire Belloc … “The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine — but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”

          • flatrocker, Loneliness is not solely the domain of Americans, or Protestants. My childhood and young adulthood in the RCC was lonely. Dorothy Day didn’t title her autobiography The Long Loneliness for nothing.

            Belloc’s statement is clever and witty, but it requires a belief in the continuity and stability of the Catholic Church that I do not share, i.e., I don’t believe that the RCC today is consistent in its teachings and practices with the Catholic Church down through the ages, nor do I believe that the Catholic Church of the 10th century was consistent the Church of the 5th, nor the Church of the 5th consistent with the Church of the 1st.

          • My own view is that the cause of the Reformation, which was as divisive as you say, was the medieval Church, David; the Church carried this divisiveness within itself. The Reformation was when that divisiveness became manifest, when what had been hidden and contained could no longer be hidden and contained.

          • David Cornwell says

            Robert, not to carry this forward too far, but, yes it did carry the divisiveness within itself. But if one looks closely enough, it also carried within itself remarkable Catholicity and unity that has managed to carry on to this day. A paradox. The tragedy is that the reforming influences that were at work within the Church never had a chance to work themselves out. A multiplicity of factors were at work, so perhaps it wasn’t possible. Anyway, the clock cannot be turned backward.

      • I remember it well; the certainly I would never make those kinds of mistakes, I would never be so blind. And then life happened.

        That’s where I’m at. Even looking back 5 years, I’m ashamed and embarrassed. But some of us have to go through it to develop the tough skin we need.

    • Yes, I think the prolonged encounter with any church denomination would yield the same, don’t you? The only thing that will evoke a sense of hope and peace is a continual gaze on Christ. I would just ditto Dan’s comment below. I’m Catholic and I think all you need is one average Sunday morning to see warts. Empty sermon. Self absorbed priest. Someone dozing and someone else talking away in the pew. Like shooting fish in a barrel to find the flaws without even getting into doctrine, etc. Anyone spending inordinate amounts of time defending their denomination is wasting breath. Nonetheless, your point is well taken. While Denise embraced Catholicism as I recall, Michael was anything but swept off his feet.

      • I can acknowledge the truth of your observations, ChrisS, and of those of the other commenters above, while at the same time suggesting that Spencer’s choice of the word “fallible” in the context of this post arising out of his encounter with the RCC was no accident, and was in fact quite pointed. I can also acknowledge that there is much of value in the RCC, as in many Christian traditions, while at the same time rejecting the idea that the RCC possesses any office of infallibility. From what I know of him, Spencer would have agreed with me.

      • It’s pretty clear to me that, as a Protestant, Spencer for a long time had believed that the RCC was no more perfect than, and just as fallible as, any other church. According to this meditation, nothing in his experience that year altered this belief. That doesn’t mean that he had not developed a more generous appreciation of the RCC than he’d had previously, nor that he hadn’t come to value much in RCC tradition. It does mean that he continued to be firmly Protestant, and that his encounter with the RCC confirmed him in his Protestantism.

      • Hi CHRIS S.
        Here’s something to think about when you are ‘unimpressed’ by a mass you are attending:

        for Catholics, ‘the mass’ is always at its heart, the same.
        So a mass said in the Vatican at Easter by the pope may have all the impressive trappings that the Church can bring to the celebration;
        whereas a mass said by an infirm bed-ridden priest in a Russian gulag might be celebrated with some crumbs of bread and no wine witnessed only by a few rats within his freezing cell;

        but the mystery is that the two masses really are believed by Catholics to be spiritually the ‘same’
        . . . both ‘making present’ the Last Supper of Our Lord Himself,

        What makes a celebration ‘the mass’ to Catholics is not connected to the material world only.
        It is also their spiritual communion with Our Lord, and through Him, with all those who have ever lived who are members of the Body of Christ.

        • Hi Christiane,
          Thank you for your thoughts. I do deeply appreciate the mass even with the various warts that may appear on any given Sunday. I was just making the point that we are all so terribly imperfect and there is no getting around that, regardless of denomination if you want to look at it from the outside. The Lord’s supper is the pinnacle of the mass for me and always tends to center me.

  3. Yay, Eeyore!

  4. Dan Crawford says

    I’ve spent a good part of my 71 years searching for the perfect church – what I have found over and over again are churches whose members are charlatans, non-believers, sinners – and saints. The saints are those who tell the truth and acknowledge the sinfulness of their church bodies – who don’t justify their denomination’s sins and evil, who don’t spend their time pointing out how righteous they are when compared with others, who don’t make stupid statements (I’ve heard them from those who see themselves as “saved”) like, “The young nun Maria Von Trapp is a Pelagian” or “Mother Theresa did nothing but send Hindus to hell” (apparently because she didn’t bash them with Bible before they died), and who acknowledge the grace and presence of God wherever he may be found. The saints in the church recognize the Jesus of the Scriptures and don’t worship and proclaim a god whom they have created from their denominations’ myths.

    I haven’t found the perfect church – I’ve found a hospital of seriously ill persons who have hope and peace because they have moved beyond “mere churchianity” to an encounter with Christ. Since I am one of those seriously ill persons, I take comfort from my fellow sinners who quietly pray, “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am a sinner.”

    • Thanks for those thoughts Dan.

    • I gave up the search in my late twenties. By my mid-thirties I gave up the idea it was a worth-while quest. I am much happier for having surrendered.

      The Church is an institution of men. Communities are peopled by … people. Shocking! I can be very dense; it took too long to figure that out.

    • This is a wonderful perspective, Dan. I think probably if I found the perfect church, I wouldn’t fit in at all!

    • I would settle for finding a church that honestly prays “have mercy upon me…”

      • StuartB, I would “settle” for such a church as well. I once had a well-meaning friend ask “if you died and found yourself at the gates of heaven, what would you say [to Jesus]?” I recalled telling him: “remember me”. But I like “have mercy on me” better.

  5. What I find so profound is that despite the flaws, the failures, the stupidity and the violence the church has stood the test of time. People are still finding God within and without it’s doors. People are finding love and community, forgiveness and faith in the midst of bumbling fallible leaders and lay. I must remind myself over and over again the God is so much bigger than ‘the church’ and it’s leaders, that His ‘church’ stretches far beyond our small boundaries and vision.

  6. I just wrapped up Tullian’s Surprised by Grace. 2 stars, did not like. It was published in 2010, so i’m hoping it’s a snapshot of that time in his life and thinking, because I’ve heard a lot more grace from him since then.

    I’m about to start Horton’s Christless Christianity. This has been on my wishlist and shelf since it was published (2008), but serves as an example of a book I was so eager to read back during that time. If it’s anything like the online reviewers make it to be, just a longwinded scree against the american church for being “lax” or rejecting “proper reformed” doctrine, oh woe is us, only us few still hold to true Christfilled christianity, blah blah…it won’t be a very good book. What book published by a Christianity that is primarily centered around attack and criticism ever is. Maybe a good alternative read would be Mere Churchianity.

    Michael’s words above, as always, are excellent. We strive, we fail, we strive. Compromises happen. There is no pure ideological strain or perfection attainable. We walk by faith.

  7. No church is perfect, nor is any Christian. All churches are fallible, and no Christian is ever infallible. The Bible is not perfect, nor is it infallible or without error. We do not need infallible or inerrant institutions or documents or people to be caught up in God’s grace and redeeming love. I’ve come to believe that, in reality, the idea that we need such institutions or documents or people is an impediment to receiving that grace and redemption, because it places the belief that we require correct knowledge to be redeemed between us and God.

    • maybe it’s having the humility to openly express the recognition of our human imperfections that brings God’s blessing on us . . . and yes, I’m thinking of the Pharisee and the Publican in the temple . . .

      perhaps our ancient prayer of ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us’ is one of the main ways we can begin again to reach out to Him after we have screwed-up our lives . . . something there is in that prayer that allows us to be open to God in a way that the Pharisee’s prayers could not be

    • No church is perfect, nor is any Christian. All churches are fallible, and no Christian is ever infallible.

      Agreed, but I’m so f’ing tired of hearing this as an excuse. “Oh people are sinners.” Great. Quit using that as an excuse to just double down on what has shown not to work. Imagine if Luther had said that.

      That’s my frustration at the moment. The definition of insanity at work.

  8. Luther did say that. In many different ways. Parroting Paul who says it about himself in Romans 7 quite clealy.

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