Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Borgias and The Way We See the Church

I love history and mostly enjoyed the Tudors while it played on Showtime.  The next incarnation of a gripping story of power, sex, and deception is the chronicle of the Borgias.  They are remembered for their corrupt rule when one of them was Pope. They have been accused of many different crimes, including adultery, simony, theft, rape, bribery, incest, and murder (especially murder by arsenic poisoning). Due to their search for power, they made enemies of other powerful families such as the Medici and the Sforza, as well as the influential Dominican friar Savonarola.  Alfons became Pope Callixtus III in 1455 and Rodrigo became Pope Alexander VI in 1492.  It is a wicked story that reached its culmination in bribery used to obtain the Papal Office and the children of the Pope running the Church with their Papa.  Alexander VI is often regarded as the worst of the popes.  I love the history.  I do not love the way so many view this history.

One of the ways that Protestants in America have viewed the Church of Jesus Christ is as a showplace for the holy and the humble.  From the Puritans down through the holiness churches even to the present day, Christian faith is seen most clearly and deeply in the realm of behavior.  Back in the day when Baptists actually eschewed liquor stores, dances, tobacco, card playing, and the like, piety was worn on the sleeve.  The method of the Methodists was written down in a regularly updated Book of Discipline.  Lutherans had their own dalliance with behavioral Christianity in the form of Pietism.  I have but skipped over the surface except to say that piety has typically been seen in terms of outward behavior and that those outside Rome seem to glory in stories like that of the Borgia family.  Nothing makes us feel so good about the minor sins in our own eyes as the huge failings of the most visible of church leaders.

We seem transfixed by the idea that the work of God can be done only by the most holy and pious of folk.  But where did we get such an idea?  It seems that many of the folks of the Old Testament were rather like scoundrels than saints and yet it seems God's work was not prevented by their lack of piety.  Moses was flawed enough so that the Promised Land was but glimpse in the distance.  Abraham was first class brute and was lucky that Sarah stuck with him.  The sons of Isaac were full of deception and trickery -- not in the least his own wife.  David was an adulterer and murderer.  Solomon was wise but not pure.  Well, the list could go on but I will spare the gory details.

The work of God and the Church of Jesus Christ does not rest upon the inherent holiness or pious heart of His people or those who lead His Church.  The testament to God's grace and favor is not that He seeks out and raises up the perfect (or pretty close) to do His bidding but that He works in, among, and through sinners.  Nowhere is that more true than His Church.  A strong moral compass is a good thing and we would wish it upon all those who lead God's people on every level of His Church, but it is not a requirement before God can and will do what His grace determines.

The world loves a scandal and a story with a lot of juicy details.  Rome has not failed to serve up many of them and some of them were absolutely saintly in their unholiness.  Evangelicalism has not failed to parade its fallen leaders and the shadow of disgrace is certainly not confined to a few.  Yet none of this has all that much to do with whether or not God is at work in His Church accomplishing His purpose and fulfilling His intention.

The Donatists were especially rigorous in this, holding that the true church must be a church of saints, not sinners, and that sacraments, such as baptism, administered by unholy or apostate clerics lacked validity and efficacy.  About a hundred years later (409 AD) the Church officially dispatched this view as heresy.  Apparently some in Protestantism have not gotten the message.  Too many non-Roman Christians snicker in the flaws and failings of those called the Vicar of Christ and take far too much delight in their sordid stories.  No one spoils a prideful moment more than the God whose grace redeems the sinner and then does His work through them -- in spite of their flaws and failings.  Such is the confidence that we have not in flesh and blood  but in the Word and Sacraments, the means of grace through which God works and in which God's effective and efficacious saving will does its bidding.  Even without help from the soiled and stained who administer it and who are its first beneficiaries.


Janis Williams said...

The next time an evangelical points a finger at Rome, or the church in the Middle Ages, remind him/her there are three fingers pointing back at him/her....

As a former evangelical, it's all too clear our foibles (read: sins) have found us (well, them, now) out. Search the archives of the major news media for protestantism's share of scandal. You won't be disappointed in the amount of juicy details.

Anonymous said...

The biggest scandal in the New
Testament is the background of the
Apostle Paul. He approved of
Stephen's execution, ravaged the
church and put men and women in jail,
breathed murderous threats against
the Lord's disciples. Yet this
persecutor of the church by God's
grace became a great preacher of the
gospel, missionary, and author of
13 books in the New Testament. God's
grace converts the most evil men.