A few days ago bestselling author Anne Rice announced on her Facebook page that she is quitting Christianity. She started the ball rolling with this announcement:
For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being "Christian" or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to "belong" to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten ...years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.
She quickly added this explanation:
As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I'm out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of ...Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.
The next day brought a further clarification:
My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn't understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than C...hristianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become.
If you had time and energy you could read the hundreds and hundreds of comments on her Facebook page, most of them praising her for her "courage" in taking her stand against what we might call the visible Christian church. She apparently still wishes to follow Christ without being part of the Christian church or calling herself a Christian.
Very hip and contemporary, I'd say.
Very much in the spirit of this age.
Follow Jesus whom you can't see but reject his followers whom you can see. Doesn't quite sound right, does it?
I will grant this much credence to her complaints. Every church looks good from a distance, and the farther away you get, the better it looks. Christianity always sounds fine as a theory, but then you get to that messy part about living with this "quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group."
Yeah, that would be us, the Methodists, the Brethren, the Church of Christ, the Orthodox, the Baptists, the Mennonites, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Quakers, and the Catholics, and pretty much every other organized group that marches in the fractious, unruly parade called Christianity.
Now to be sure, she's pro-gay marriage, but if that's the main issue she could find liberal Christian groups that would welcome her with open arms. I'm going to set that aside for the moment and go to what seems to be the main point here.
What does it mean to love Jesus if you don't love his body? We who make up the visible church are indeed a messy bunch. I've been reading lately from Ephesians and have been struck by this fact. When Paul finishes his soaring doctrinal treatise that takes up Ephesians 1-3, the one that ends with the reminder that God is able to do far beyond anything we could ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20-21), when he launches into the so-called "practical" section in Chapter 4, what's the first thing he says? I mean, what's the very first thing out of his mouth? Check out Ephesians 4:2.
"Always be humble and gentle. Patiently put up with each other and love each other."
Did you get that? "Patiently put up with each other." The NASB says "showing tolerance for each other." Whoa! After all that high-sounding talk in Ephesians 1-3, his first reminder is, "You're going to have to put up with a lot of nonsense inside the church so you better get used to it." And I think he would say, "If you don't get used to it, you'll end up 'de-converting' on your Facebook page 2000 years down the road."
Several writers have listed the various things Anne Rice has suffered as apparent justification for her decision. But those things, sad as they are, are not unique to her. Job 5:7 reminds us that "man is born for trouble as surely as sparks fly upward." If you live long enough, you will see a full quota of sadness, suffering and loss. No one gets a free ride on planet earth. I could understand if she said, "I'm going to quit being a Catholic because I think I belong with the Presbyterians." Or if she said, "The church drives me nuts but I'm going to stay because of my obedience to Christ." Or if she said, "I've reverted back to being an atheist." In that case, simple honesty would require that she renounce Christianity.
Anne Rice wants Jesus without the messy addition of his church. That's like saying, "I love you but I can't stand to be around you so I will move away so I'll never have to see you or talk to you. But I'll always love you." Jesus said, "I will build my church" (Matthew 16:18). He loves the church so much that he gave himself for the church (Ephesians 5:25-27). To say "I love Jesus but I want nothing to do with his followers" is like saying, "I love you but I hate your bride. She repulses me."
I'm not going to defend the church because it needs no defense. Everyone knows the church is full of hypocrites and sinners because those are the people Jesus came to save. Hang around any group of Christians long enough and you are bound to be disappointed sooner or later. Your heart will probably be broken over and over again. But we believe that God is alive and at work in the midst of the messed-up people who make up the church. That's why we're here, in humility and gentleness working out our salvation, trying to live together, sometimes joyfully, sometimes with tears, and occasionally putting up with each other. Sometimes we really get fed up. If we went to another church, we would eventually find the same kind of quarrelsome people who evidently drove Anne Rice out of the church altogether.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the church is the place where our dreams are shattered—and that is a good thing. Everyone comes to church with a certain set of expectations. New believers often enter the church expecting to find a little bit of heaven on earth. We all think and hope and expect that our brothers and sisters in Christ will treat us better than the people of the world. And we all have certain ideas about music and worship and preaching and about what the church should do and how it should go forward. But sooner or later we discover that the saints are not always saintly, and the people of God are not always godly. Sometimes they can be cantankerous, mean-spirited, unkind, and sometimes downright cruel. The church—by that I mean the local church—routinely disappoints us. When that happens, our faith is shattered and sometimes our hope is destroyed. Once our false expectations are shattered on the hard rocks of reality, then (and only then) do we begin to experience the grace of God. It is only in the nitty-gritty of life together with all its disappointments and rude awakenings that we discover the Holy Spirit at work in us. In the church we are thrown together with some people with whom we'd never otherwise associate. And that's a good thing because God uses those "angular people" to shape us into the image of Christ.
I enjoyed reading Anne Rice's novel Out of Egypt and found it very powerful. I'm grateful that she is no longer an atheist. But I think life for her won't be better outside the church of Jesus. I can't work up any admiration for someone who chucks it all because she doesn't like the people she shares a pew with on Sunday morning (or the Christians she reads about in the newspapers or hears about on TV). It doesn't take much courage to quit the church. It takes a lot more courage to face those imperfect people, some of whom say and do outrageous things, and to be disappointed again and again by fallible priests and all-too-human pastors, and to believe deep in your soul that you should stay and be part of God's great movement called the church.
Those are my true heroes. Not the folks who leave but the folks who stay when sometimes it would easier for them to leave too.