The Church is a Whore: Confessions of an Ecclesial Bastard Child

“The church is a whore; but she is our mother.”

This phrase is unofficially credited to St. Augustine but it is widely debated as to whether he would have said such a thing or not. Whatever the case may be, it has been a saying that has framed my internal theological dialogue for many years now. How much credit does the church get? Is the church even “the point?” If she (the church) is a “whore,” how much credibility can a “whore” honestly have in prudence toward the Christian life? But if she is simultaneously my mother, how is it that I may have the audacity to call her a “whore?” After all, who is Augustine (or any one person) to invoke language reminiscent of “slut-shaming” upon the church (“slut-shaming” my liberal friends are quick to point out Jesus found quite uninteresting as per John 8:1-11).

In the same way the disagreement between Catholics and Protestants frames how we employ the theological brilliance of one of the church’s most essential theologians, it is this same historical manifesto that frames whether the juxtapositional phrase used here can be useful– in both a historical and theological sense– for how Christians might think about what is means to be “the church.”

As a Calvinist (and a Christian anarchist), this deviant quote certainly appeals to me. If for no other reason it is because I believe Reformed theology is a theologically prudent variety of Augustinianism. Thus, I certainly find myself preferring to agree with the sort of theological rhetoric the preponderant John Calvin understood Augustinian theology to affirm. Thus, if the Reformed understanding of Augustine is indeed a cogent one, it should not surprise a Calvinist that Augustine would say this. After all, if Reformed theologians are useful for anything as far as stirring the pot of our theological imagination is concerned, it is our stubborn insistence that the church and its traditions should never be a major locus of our theology (this due largely to our rather extensive theology of sin and election). Thus, perhaps a strictly ad hoc use of the strong (albeit offensive) word “whore” could be appropriate; but only if “whore” is used in juxtaposition to “mother.” In doing so, we might find that stubborn demand of all Calvinists calling us to reform how we understand “the church” in our theological order so that we guard against giving the gathering of poor sinners who worship Jesus more credit in the soteriological economy than should be theologically tenable.

However, in more ecclesiocentric traditions (everyone from Catholics to Anabaptists to Methodists) such a phrase will not only be construed as anti-Augustinian (because, as we are well aware, Augustine was a Roman Catholic theologian) but as heterodoxy because such a phrase bears little priority for the “free will” of the sinner to choose the church or not. Clearly, salvation is a matter of baptism. For as Augustine has also said, “No man can find salvation except in the Catholic Church. Outside the Catholic church one can have everything but salvation” (Sermon to the People of Caesaria).

Given that I clearly do not agree with the predominately ecclesiocentric characterizations of Augustine (an issue I cannot explore here with any more depth), it might be easy to assume that what you are about to read here is another self-loathing piece on the church in America. However, if you assumed this, you would be dead wrong (stick around to the end).

Nevertheless, it would be dishonest of me to construe that the church and I have had less than a complicated relationship. Much in the same way most abused children would behave given the reoccurring stimuli of an abusive, self-glorifying mother, I must admit, therefore, that I have some fairly chronic attachment issues when it comes to our mother church. The church and I– if she is to be called my mother and I to be called part of the family she birthed– have gone through many rounds of relational disdain for one another. There have been periods where I even wished her dead; but, all the more, her self-importance never seemed to care that I felt this way in the first place. Thus, if the church is my mother, my most natal memories of her are ones of pretension, abuse, and the obligation of serving the sheer impotency of her self-importance. Thus, there have been days in the not-so-distant past where a phrase like “The Church is a whore; but she is my mother” emphasized the word “whore” in a way that comforted me during a very arduous season of dealing with a broken mother-child relationship that often left me feeling like a bastard child time and time again. In another way, this admission has been a way of affirming the sort of truthful confessional practices required of all good (Reformed) Catholics by admitting that the unfaithfulness of her sin is oftentimes too much to bear. She has pledged loyalty to Christ but her libido (desire, lust) has often demonstrated otherwise. After all, as I have found out, the church’s history of recurrent self-importance can be enough for some to sign the bottom of the divorce agreement and never look back.

This almost happened to me. 

But this bastard child has found renewed theological hope apart from the chronic anxiety caused by theology that founds its doctrine of “church” primarily in the “works” of God (per accidens) and the church’s meritorious articulations of striving to live up to such standards through analogical reasoning; what is called the theologia entis or “natural theology.” In the theologia entis, we construct our theology of the church deduced from our doctrine of God constructed with similar analogical reasoning from the effects and predicates (that is, “us”) to their ultimate causes and subjects (that is, God).

This theological move is precisely what most Christians have been conditioned to affirm. But this is precisely the sort of theological move I refuse to make any longer.

Why?

Because Thomas F. Torrance has assured me that I do not have to any longer. Torrance writes:

Our task in Christology is to yield to the obedience of our mind to what is given, which is God’s self-revelation in its objective reality, Jesus Christ. A primary and basic fact which we discover here is this: that the object of our knowledge gives itself to us to be apprehended. It does that within our mundane existence, within our worldly history and all its contingency, but it does that also beyond the limits of previous experience and ordinary thought, beyond the range of what is regarded by human standards as empirically possible. Thus when we encounter God in Jesus Christ, the truth comes to us in its own authority and self-sufficiency. It comes into our experience and into the midst of our knowledge as a novum, a new reality which we cannot incorporate into the series of other objects, or simply assimilate to what we already know (Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, 1, emphasis mine).

To those of us who have found ourselves run over by a mother church whose libido is chronically driven by her own self-importance, we learn that “whore,” as it is used in the debated quote, might not be the “slut-shaming” some might think it to be but, quite simply, a matter of owning up to the plain facts of our extensively depraved situation as poor sinners; that we cannot take the first step toward our salvation apart from how it is revealed (given) to us in union with Jesus Christ.

But let us not understate what Torrance has said here. Torrance has not fallen into another articulation of self-important doctrine of the church by giving us further commentary on the “imitation of Christ” given in the same trap of analogical reasoning the analogia entis requires.

The Outcast by Richard RedgraveWhat Torrance has inferred is good news for bastard children like me; that there is no earthly being (in either corporate or individual history) that is untouched by sin; thus any doctrine of the “church” cannot be due to some meritorious sense of “imitation” but only through the double grace of sanctification and justification given to us by the Father, of the Son, through the regeneration of the (his) Holy Spirit. Thus, no earthly body can be understood as representative of “church” apart from this double grace where the “whore” (us) meets the Lord that makes her his chaste bride. Such favor cannot be earned through our works; it can only be given. Thus, the acceptance of a gift can never be meritorious; it can only be accepted with humble gratitude.

Thus, the church can never understand its identity in any meritorious way relative to our own efforts; even if we then add on the often pious looking notions of “imitating Christ.” We can only understand the church’s identity as the whore who is made whole through the uniqueness of God’s person revealed to us in the Son made possible through the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. To gain an identity by any other means is to relate to God in a way that can only be externally related to God. Such a thing will only grant us the sort of self-important doctrine of the church that will inevitably leave us disappointed and feeling like bastard children.

This is usually the part where dissenters to Reformed theology say, “I know. The church is just a figment of our imagination, right? By your standards the church cannot be really real.” To these dissenters, I must admit that they have a point. Which is why I must confess that the church, contrary to the beliefs of many Calvinists, is not invisible but the all too visible assembly of sinners around the loaf and the cup praying that they may be made whole by the uniqueness of the Son’s relationship to the Father through the regeneration of his Spirit. Thus, the only thing that could ever be construed as “invisible” is that they are, by doing this, the people of God.

So to the Father may we sing the hymns of bastard children written on our hearts through the double grace of Christ that he (and only he) can grant us as he forms us into something that may be called “church.”

Oh!  And…

IMG_0891 (1)

The Solid Rock

My hope is built on nothing less

Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness

I dare not trust the sweetest frame,

But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ the solid Rock I stand,

All other ground is sinking sand;

All other ground is sinking sand.

This post is part of an ongoing series entitled, On Going to Church.


 


Bobby Ray HurdBobby Ray is a vocational underachiever living in Florissant, MO. Bobby Ray’s first two loves are his dearest Shawna Jackson and his son Braeden Ray Hurd. After these two, the rest is basically theology, heavy metal archives, a shameful knowledge of craft brew, and good cinema. Bobby Ray attended George Fox Evangelical Seminary for four years pursuing an MDiv but has decided to finish elsewhere. Bobby Ray currently works at a day program for people with disabilities where he fights the good fight against ableism. He has beautiful hair.

 

 

Header Image Credit: REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images

St. Augustine by Antonio Rodriguez Image: Credit to Wikimedia, Used under creative commons license

The Outcast by Richard Redgrave  Image: Credit to Wikimedia, Used under creative commons license

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Author: Bobby Ray Hurd

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