The church: “a veritable catastrophe for man in general”

One thing I love about Jacques Ellul is that you can open one of his books at random and almost always find something profound and illuminating. (This also makes his books quite hard to read: there’s so much in there that I can only read him in short bursts before being overwhelmed by the density of the material.)

For example, I opened his Ethics of Freedom (which I’ve yet to read) at random the other day and found the following (p.90):

How can it be said, then, that freedom exists only in Christ and only for those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour? In spite of the experience of history, however, I do say this. Only in Christ and through Christians can authentic and undeviating freedom arise, take form, and spread in the world.

Nevertheless, the history of Christianity and the church is also marked by terrible failures. As I have often said, I do not like to accuse our forefathers in the faith of having been wrong, as though we were better and more enlightened than they. The church is a unity in time.

We cannot dissociate ourselves from the church in the middle ages, at the time of the Reformation, or in the nineteenth century. At these periods, too, the church was the church of Jesus Christ. It was his authentic witness. It carried the truth to men.

But in relation to its ethical task, and its function of representing the lordship of Jesus Christ on earth, we can only say that it has been a serious failure and indeed a veritable catastrophe for man in general. This enables us to measure the degree to which grace alone has made it the church of Jesus Christ and always sustained it as such.

Wonderful stuff. Not many writers are able to make such high claims for the gospel and Christian faith (“freedom exists only in Christ and only for those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour”) while at the same time being so clear-eyed about the failure of the church (and Christians) to live up to their calling (“a serious failure and indeed a veritable catastrophe”), yet also avoiding the arrogance of blaming this on those ignorant hick Christians back then (“as though we were better and more enlightened than they”). Genius.

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5 Responses to The church: “a veritable catastrophe for man in general”

  1. Haydn says:

    Amen, brother. This is very true, and as contemporary people we need to avoid the trap of rubbishing those who went before us because we think that we have all the goods on truth.

    But while I agree with the comment that “This enables us to measure the degree to which grace alone has made it the church of Jesus Christ and always sustained it as such”, I would also warn Christians not to use that as an excuse or a licence to go around sinning and wilfully disobeying God. SO many times I’ve heard Christians use this line to defend the sloth and abdication of responsibilities and it’s disgusting when it’s done. Yes, we’re saved by grace, but we’re called to walk in love, sin no more, and be a light to this world that attracts non-believers to the truth.

  2. John H says:

    Haydn: true. A problem ever since Paul wrote Romans 6. Though equally it is a good test of how faithfully one is preaching the gospel: if no-one could respond to your preaching by saying, “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?”, then you’re doing it wrong. (See this great quote from Martyn Lloyd-Jones.)

  3. Matt J. says:

    That passage from Ellul is excellent. Thanks.

    I just finished reading Charles William’s church history (The Descent of the Dove), and I was pleasantly surprised at how gracious he was with the various flawed leaders, Popes, reformers, etc. throughout the church’s life.

    It’s such a contrast to what I learned in my homeschooling textbooks: (“the church was hosed until the Puritan’s came along”)

    or heard preached on occasion: (“too bad Constantine ruined the church. We’ve been trying to get back there ever since…”)

    and again in a church history class in college: (“all those losers back then were quenching the spirit, except for perhaps the Montanists, up until Azuza street”).

    How much more humbling (and truthful) to say, “Yes, mistakes were made. But it was my own crew making them every time. And we continue to make them. But we’re still the people of Jesus Christ. He’s not going to let us down.”

  4. Pingback: Carpe Cakem! » We are the failed and authentic witness, all of us

  5. Rick Ritchie says:

    I think that grace allows people a more clear-eyed view of where they are or have been. In moralistic systems, in order to have any hope, you have to be able to frame your own case in a good light. Forgiveness does away with that need. At least before God.

    I ordered Ellul’s book after reading this post.

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