“The Church is a whore, but she is my mother.”
Several years ago while I was in college, I wrote those words on my Facebook page under the “Religious Views” section. The quote is often attributed to Augustine, but is rumored to have been said by Martin Luther and a host of other church fathers. I was a frustrated young millennial, seeing the overwhelming hypocrisy of the body that nurtured me and raised me into the man I was. I saw political jargon shouted from pulpits, taken as Gospel by racists and adulterers, one and all. I saw small huddles of men in the parking lots, filling their bodies with smoke and decrying those who spent their weekends at the bar, claiming that the world was going to hell in a handbasket and there was nothing we could do about it but curse the filthy sinners that filled it. I heard the women gossiping in their Sunday School rooms about why so-and-so wasn’t here this week and did you hear that Pam was cheating on Jim with Ron Swanson?
I’d seen the faces of disgruntled youth, trying to fit into the world of religion like a kid’s piece into an adult’s special edition Thomas Kinkade puzzle, larger than life and filled with loud primary colors clashing with the tiny diminished hues of a portrait where they didn’t belong. Begrudgingly nodding, but not convinced that the Gospel could be summed up in these words: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?”
My understanding of the mercy and goodness of God was skewered by the inconsistencies I saw all around me, and I was pissed. So, when my mother called me in my dorm room and said we needed to talk, my heart momentarily stopped. Had someone died? Had I been caught in some elaborate lie? All of my sins were called up before my swirling head. What could it be?
“The preacher and one of the deacons showed up at our house today to talk about you.”
Oh, God. This is it. I’m going to be excommunicated. Can Baptists even excommunicate people?
Apparently, someone had seen that section of my Facebook. They went so far as to print it out and hand deliver it to the pastor with feigned concern. The concern, you ask? That i’d used the word whore.
Not that they wondered if I was losing my faith.
Not that I came across as angry or missed the point.
That I had used a word.
I saw red.
My blood boiled at the thought of all that work done to expose me as a pottymouth. Forget context, forget the state of the thing I loved with all of my heart. But I said a dirty word.
And far be it from them, adults, to come to me, an adult, to talk about this indiscretion. They brought it to my parents, because obviously I wasn’t old enough to answer their fears or questions. Maybe my mind had been polluted by the big, bad Christian university I was attending.
For the first time in my life, whether real or perceived, I felt like an apostate.
I sat across from a room full of students, all of them looking to me for answers. What did I know? I was just a volunteer chaperone at summer camp.
The church gives us no respect, they don’t see us as people.
How can we carry on the work of the church when we are adults if we’re never allowed to have a say now? Where do we fit in?
Why do they treat us like we’re little kids?
I listened to their fears and their desire to be part of the Body, to really take part and contribute. To some, it would no doubt sound like blind idealism of youth. But as they spoke, I felt that weight pressing on me as well. The adults may have many excuses: they are too broken, too sinful, too young, they don’t understand doctrine or the Baptist Faith and Message. They don’t get it.
But did they themselves even understand the particulars?
Do I? Do any of us really have what it takes to live beyond reproach and advance the Gospel? (How glorious a gift God gave us, entrusting us with a task for which he makes us able to carry out!)
I encouraged those students. I prayed with them. I cried with them. And I held out hope that someday, things would change. Someday, they would feel valued. And maybe so would I.
The word rang in my ears. As the quiet hum grew deafening, I pondered the implications. What would happen if I just left it all behind? Is it worth it? If there is no place for me in the community in which I was raised, is there any place for me at all?
I spoke to my pastor later that day over the phone. It was a strange conversation, full of awkward silences and unruly dissonance. I tried to explain to him the manner in which I used the quote, tried to outline my frustrations, but overall hope that I held. The church is a whore in every sense of the word. She has sold herself to politicians and to the world. She has shouted in outrage at the sins of a broken world while waiting for night to fall, so she can join the debauchery. She has traded gossip for prayer, and has been the Pharisee, blind to the log bursting from her eye while trying to excise the splinter from another’s.
But she is my mother. She birthed me, raised me, loved me, taught me who Jesus is and baptized me in his name. I am grateful for her witness, stained though it may be. I love her with all of my heart though she vexes me so.
The conversation stalled, but picked back up as he continually brought up that word. I had committed what seemed to be an unpardonable sin. These were the dregs of legalism if I’d ever saw them. To dismiss the words of a church father because you don’t understand them? In my soul, my frustration raged. I tried to remain calm, but as a college freshman, I was full of knowledge but wisdom and a healthy temperament had yet to show up on my course list.
We ended our conversation, still on opposing sides. This man was my pastor. I felt bad because I felt I owed him respect, but didn’t feel like the best way to show it was to give in and apologize. At that point in my life, I didn’t understand the value in picking your battles and if my time in the religion department had taught me anything, it’s that any topic could be a hill to die on.
In hindsight, I forgave those who didn’t understand and learned to be a little more discerning in the words I choose to say. I realized that in choosing love over bitterness, the quote I had been so adamant about was playing itself out in my life.
Sometimes the Church will choose legalism, even if you know better.
Sometimes the Church will misunderstand, even if you have the best intentions.
Sometimes she will harbor secret (or not so secret) sins and run after idols that vie for her affections, even as you call for her to repent.
But we do not exist as islands, we are not some distant relative of the beaten and beraggled Bride of Christ. We are her. We exist as one Church to proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness and into his marvelous light. We exist as deeply flawed, inexcusable sinners who do so much damage to the name of Jesus with our various failures and broken intentions.
But we choose to forgive the inexcusable in others because Christ forgave the inexcusable in us, as Lewis says.
Because though the Bride sometimes feels like she is barely hanging on, torn apart and stitched together again and again, she is loved by a Groom who will do anything, who paid everything to buy her back from the idols that have wrapped their tendrils around her heart. And as she gasps for breath amid the broken reality she chose, she finally sighs in freedom because her lover has rescued her and made her whole.
I love the Church, I am the Church.
And if you claim the name and mission of Jesus, so are you.