Could it be that Zack’s most important relationship problem isn’t with his guilt-tripping friends but with his girlfriend, Julie?
Zack had just confessed that the hardest thing about searching for a new church was leaving his old one.
“It usually is,” I remarked.
Julie was perplexed. “Wouldn’t it depend on why the person was leaving?”
“On that, and on a lot of other things.”
“I’d thought that the craziness of Zack’s denomination would make it easier for him to leave,” she said, “but he says it’s not like that.”
“It does and it doesn’t make it easier,” he said. “In one way, sure it does. That craziness is my whole reason for leaving. So far as I can tell, the leaders of my denomination don’t even believe in Jesus any more. I can show Christ’s love to people who deny Christ; I can be neighbors with them; I can work at the same job with them. But I can’t be in communion with them, can I? How can I be in Christ together with people who hate everything about Christ?”
“That’s what I thought,” said Julie.
Zack wasn’t finished. “But in other ways, the craziness actually makes it harder to leave. See, the denomination used to be a lot sounder than it is now. So today, when they take a minister who deserted his wife and children to live out his sexual fantasies, make him a bishop, and say what a wonderful example he is for everyone else, it’s almost unbelievable. I keep thinking ‘This can’t really be happening” or “It can’t go on.’ That’s one of the reasons I waited so long before leaving.”
“He’s been tied up in knots for two years,” she said. “It’s like a lifetime.”
“That’s not all,” said Zack. “Like I was saying before, the people in my own congregation are really great. They believe in Jesus. They try to live like He taught. They hold onto the Gospel hope. I’m not leaving because of them. When I was a new Christian, they taught me everything — how to pray, how to worship, how to lean on God’s strength.”
“I’m sure you’ll miss them,” I commented.
“I will — but that’s not what I was going to say. See, I owe them big time.”
“And here’s the thing — they make me feel it. I don’t mean they’ve turned mean. In fact, I know they love me. But in a dozen little ways, they make me feel guilty about leaving. As though I didn’t feel guilty enough already!”
“Are they trying to make you feel that way?” asked Julie.
“I don’t think so. At least not consciously. But you know, Julie, when someone takes you on a guilt trip, it feels pretty much the same whether he’s doing it on purpose or not.”
I asked, “What do they say that makes you feel so guilty?”
“Different people say different things. There are at least three groups.”
“Tell me about them.”
“Some of my friends at the old church know all about the problems in the denomination and feel just as awful as I do about them, but think that I’m deserting them in their hour of need.”
“I don’t exactly get that,” said Julie. “What hour of need? The denomination is finished, sunk, washed up, done for, kaput. Why don’t they all leave?”
“Because they don’t believe it is washed up. To me it seems like a sinking ship, but they think if they pray hard, have faith, and stick together, then eventually it will stop sining. That really made me lose a lot of sleep.”
“Why? Did you believe them?” Julie asked.
“Not exactly, but I wondered whether I should believe them. Didn’t Jesus promise that the gates of hell would not prevail? Could it be that I just haven’t had enough faith? Am I not being a steadfast enough witness? So I had to do some hard thinking.”
“What did you decide?” I asked.
He answered, “I realized that there’s a difference between ‘the Church’ and ‘a church.’ Jesus didn’t say that the gates of hell wouldn’t prevail against any denomination. In fact I’m not too sure what He’d think about ‘denominations.’ Especially when they show contempt for His teachings.”
“You said that different people in your church say different things,” I reminded him. “What do some of the others say?”
“Some of them actually agree with me that the denomination is a lost cause, but they just don’t care about that. They think it doesn’t affect them. It does, of course — they can hardly even recruit good ministers any more — but as long as the congregation seems okay, they’re happy.”
“Why do they make you feel guilty?”
“Because they think I’m deserting them too. To them — I don’t know how to explain it. In their way of thinking it’s as though this one local congregation were the whole Church. No, that’s not right —”
He struggled for words. “Of course they know that they aren’t the only Christians. But they don’t seem to see all Christians as connected. They view the Body of Christ as though it were a bunch of separated limbs — an arm over here, an leg over there, a hand outside on the porch — as though somehow the Body could live that way. Do you see what I’m trying to say?”
“There I can sort of see their point,” said Julie.
“How do you mean?” he asked.
“Well, we Christians are sort of separated, aren’t we? You and Professor Theo yourselves were saying a little while ago that not all churches believe the same. Eclipsitarians aren’t Pretzelterians. Pretzelterians aren’t Mentalists. Mentalists aren’t Tentacostals.”
“True,” replied Zack, “but I can’t believe that’s how Jesus wanted it to be. At the Last Supper He prayed over His disciples, ‘Holy Father, protect them by the power of your Name — the Name you gave me — so that they may be one as we are one.'”
“I don’t remember that verse,” she said. “Where’s it from?”
“John something, isn’t it, Prof?”
“John 17. But go on with your story. You mentioned three different groups of church friends, and you’ve only told us about two. Tell about the third.”
“Right. These next ones make me feel worst. Prof, have I been giving you the impression that I used to go around at my old church saying ‘this denomination stinks, and so does everyone in it’?”
“Not at all.”
“Good. I don’t think I did that either. But they’d bring up the subject, you know? They’d ask, ‘Why are you so determined to leave?’ So then I’d have to explain about the problems. And then they’d be hurt. They’d hide it — they wouldn’t say it — but I knew what the were thinking.”
“They were thinking that I was being like a Pharisee — that I thought I was better than they were. One man there has been like an older brother in Christ to me. But he acted like the older brother in the parable.”
“Wait ’till you hear this,” said Julie.
“When I tried to explain to him why I was leaving, he looked wise and sad, and put his arm around my shoulder. A lot of other people were watching. He said, ‘Okay, Zack, you don’t have to explain. You feel you’ve outgrown the nest. We understand. Just don’t forget who taught you how to fly.'”
I winced. Zack was silent a few seconds. “I didn’t know whether to weep with gratitude or shout with pain. He really knew how to twist the knife.”
We sat together quietly. Zack hadn’t asked for my advice, and I didn’t think he needed it. Julie seemed to think differently. Abruptly she broke the silence.
“What do you think Zack should do?”
“Zack knows what to do, doesn’t he?”
Zack nodded. “I’m doing it.”
“I meant about his feelings,” she said.
“When we do what we know is right, our feelings usually take care of themselves.”
But what about his friends? They’re not doing what’s right, staying behind.”
“I wouldn’t care to pass judgment about that. Do you know the incident in John 21, after the Resurrection, when Jesus calls Peter apart from the others?”
“I think so. Peter points to John and says ‘What about this guy?’ Something like that.”
“Do you remember how Jesus answered?”
“Um — not exactly.”
“I do,” said Zack. “He said ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’”
Julie still wasn’t satisfied. “When Zack told me what Jonah had said, I was furious. I wanted to go tell him off, but Zack wouldn’t let me.”
Zack laughed wryly. “You were a little frustrated with me yourself, I remember.”
“Not frustrated. One part of me was all protective — Jonah was really cutting. But another part of me was baffled — I couldn’t understand why you let him get to you. You were so wrapped up in that church.”
I was beginning to realize that the real relationship issue here wasn’t between Zack and his friends, but between Zack and Julie – and it all went back to her old issues with church. Not that we could settle those all at once.
Gently I asked, “You’ve been to church, Julie, but you’ve never really had a church, have you? I mean a Christian community of your own.”
“No. Not like Zack.” Suddenly she grinned. “He says that’s a deficiency in my experience. But if that’s what church means, then I’m not really sure that I want it.”
“You know,” I said, “I’m not quite sure that’s true.”
“What — about not being sure that I want to?”
“No, about never having had a Christian community of your own.”
“What do you mean? I’m Julie, remember? Julie, the Church-hopper? Julie, who can’t go to the same church two weeks in a row? Isn’t that what Zack’s been trying to talk me out of?”
“It just came to me. That’s not what you are at all.”
“What came to you? What am I?”
“Slow down. Reflect for a moment. Can’t you think of one group you’d find it hard to leave?”
“My family. But I’ll always have my family.”
“I see where he’s going,” said Zack. “He means a faith community.”
“But I don’t have a steady church. All I have is the Student Christian Fellowship.”
“That’s the one I had in mind,” I told her.
She blinked. “Well — sure. My one great fear in life is that when I graduate next year, I’ll have to leave it. That’s no secret. I say it all the time. But that’s not a church.”
“Could we say that you’ve been treating the Fellowship as though it were your church?”
Long pause. “Maybe we could.”
“Could it also be that this is one of the reasons you find it so difficult to settle into real church? That you want church to be just like that?”
Longer pause. “I’ll have to think about this.” She turned to Zack. “Maybe I understand about your church better than I thought.”
He looked like that cat that swallowed the canary.
“What are you grinning about?” she demanded.
“Nothing much,” he answered, still smiling. “I always knew you’d come around.”
Copyright 2005 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Professor J. Budziszewski is the author of more than a dozen books, including How to Stay Christian in College, Ask Me Anything, Ask Me Anything 2, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, and The Line Through the Heart. He teaches government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.