We must not, because we are fully aware of the internal opposition between the Gospel and the Church, hold ourselves aloof from the Church or break up its solidarity; but rather, participating in its responsibility, and sharing the guilt of its inevitable failure, we should accept it and cling to it. — I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience bearing witness with me in the Holy Ghost, that I have great sorrow and unceasing pain in my heart. This is the attitude to the Church engendered by the Gospel. He who hears the gospel and proclaims it does not observe the Church from outside. He neither misunderstands it and rejects it, nor understands it and – sympathizes with it. He belongs personally within the Church. But he knows also that the Church means suffering and not triumph.
I know this temptation to separate the Gospel and the Church. To think that I can somehow fly above the “tainted” expression of the imperfect churches and believe the “pure” Gospel. In my twenties, after I came home from a discipleship school with a missions organization, I rejected the church for a season because they weren’t serious enough for me. They didn’t “get it” like I did, and I didn’t want to associate myself with a compromised church.
This impulse is rooted in the instinct to avoid suffering. In an effort distance ourselves from those who would taint our reputation as a certain kind of Christian (not one of “those”), we don’t fully identify with the Church. We try to maintain a level of “purity,” trying to be Christian without the Church.
But Barth is right – to receive the Gospel is to receive the Church, with all her imperfections. To believe the Gospel is to become part of the Church, and so we identify with her and participate in her life, for good or ill. It is a form of suffering to be part of the Church, with all its warts.
And the only way to be part of the Church is to participate in the life of a church. The only way to live out the Gospel is to involve ourselves in the life of a local church community. And it’s like family: you can’t opt out just because you disagree with something Uncle Fred said about immigrants.
Even in a church plant like ours, where we have a strong “front-end filter” that weeds out a lot of the people I’d be embarrassed to claim, we’ve had people say explicitly racist things to first-time visitors, and we have a lot of relational dysfunction we are constantly helping people wade through. There is a suffering inherent in claiming all of these people as my brothers and sisters in Christ (just as I’m sure there’s a suffering inherent in them claiming me).
Of course, this embracing of suffering is rooted in the Incarnation. In Christ, God identifies fully with his sinful and broken people, enduring the suffering of being associated with creatures who are in every way “beneath” him. And this is the only reason we are saved from the devastating consequences of our sinful choices. Thanks be to God!