Confession is tricky thing. This is a personal contention that I don’t have any quantifiable evidence to back up so you will have to decide whether your experience matches up with mine: the modern evangelical Church stinks at confession. We just hate admitting that Christians have been wrong and we really need to get over ourselves and actively move towards an attitude of confession. We need to be a confessing Church.
While the statement applies to both common uses of the word confession (1. Declaration of adherence to a religious doctrine and 2. Admission of guilt) today I am mainly concerned with the second use. Admission of guilt.
There is a wave of thinking within evangelicalism that reads through history ardently believing in an underground First Baptist Church that never did anything wrong and gloriously rose to the surface 500 years ago at the first sound Luther’s hammer striking the Church door in Wittenberg . . . Or with the Oxford Martyrs . . . Or with the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony . . . Or with the First Great Awakening . . . Or with Billy Graham . . . Or perhaps they are still underground holding their annual Bilderberg-esque meetings. Who knows.
Not only is this thinking intellectually and historically dishonest but it is theologically troubling.
When we refuse to acknowledge that “actual” Christians in the past have made serious mistakes we tacitly suggest that to be an “actual” Christian today we must fall in rank and file to the perfect Church of history’s past.
What results from Christians’ inability to admit that the Church, and I mean the actual Church not some caricature that you can write off as different than you because your denomination doesn’t agree with point 287 of the aggressor’s doctrinal statement, has failed historically is an inability for the Church to admit a need for Christ. Ironically placing the modern Church outside of its own parameters for what it means to be in the body of Christ.
This line of thinking also displays a shocking inability to understand human depravity and the effects of sin. Bonhoeffer said it very succinctly, “There is nothing that I despise in another that is inherently absent from myself.” Christians are just as capable of making horrific decisions as people who are not Christians. The major monumental difference is belief that Christ has covered those failures with his sacrifice, not that the sacrifice is not needed.
There have been many historical instances of Christians, and subsequently the Church, failing morally. Even a cursory sweep through the history books brings a quick list of:
the massacre at Thessaloniki (390)
the Crusades (1096-1204 or 1272 depending on which Crusades you count)
the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834)
European/Transatlantic Slave trade (15th-19th cent.)
the Peasants War (1524-1525)
the 30 Years War (1618-1648)
Salem Witch Trials (1692)
Continued Institutional Racism (hard to pick dates but in terms of legality Plessy v. Ferguson was in 1896 and Brown v. Board of Education ended legal segregation in 1954)
An honest reading of history leaves the Church with much to confess and these are only famous examples.
It is always difficult to draw direct lines of morality upon history and I don’t want to present a myopic view of good guys and bad guys. The Crusades are a good example of this type of lazy thinking; any serious study of the events surrounding the Crusades will tell you it is exponentially more complex situation than it is usually described in modern discourse; HOWEVER that does not mean the moments previously listed are not chalk full of moral failings at the hands of Christians.
We must confess that people of our faith made these mistakes, even big painful ones. Christians in the past failed and I cannot simply toss them into a historical trash heap of “not real Christians” when they act in a way that is not helpful to my current image.
It is worth mentioning that these historical failures do not place Christianity in a unique place of moral lapse, which happens to be consistent with the Christian idea of depravity. Often times atheistic opponents of the Christian faith will point to bloodshed and moral failure within Christianity to argue for its inadequacy while propping up atheism as the one peaceful ideology on the globe. This position makes very similar moves that I am attempting to condemn in Christian thinking by conveniently placing the 40-70 million people killed under Mao, the estimated 20 million people killed under Stalin, and the 1-3 million people killed under Pol Pot and claiming they weren’t “actual” atheists.
There is no doubt that ideological enemies delight in associating the most ridiculous versions of their opponent as the mainstream examples of their opponent. I would like to offer every political election ever as proof. We are not guilty of past Church failures but that does not mean we cannot admit there were failures and that we may be guilty of our own shortcomings.
It’s a fairly straightforward idea, like realizing that in most fonts a “w” should be called a double-v. It was always there but most people are either unaware or unwilling to admit it. The Church needs to confess. Past and present.
So perhaps we could begin our confession with admitting to our historical dishonesty and move to next steps once we begin to be willing to admit that the Church has and will continue to be morally imperfect.