When religion in general and Christianity in particular catch flak from the culture, everyone other than hardcore atheists generally make exceptions for personal spirituality. The problem, we hear, is really organized religion–the institutional church–not religion or church as such. Many Christians, particularly the young and hip emergent types, embrace this criticism. Creeds, doctrines, teachings… these are all “Churchianity” and should generally be avoided due to their divisive nature. Authentic, unorganized, and non-institutional Christianity allegedly eschews doctrine and focuses on personal experience. People can argue about facts, but not about about a personal relationship with Jesus.
The big problem here is that this doesn’t really describe any personal relationship I’ve ever had. If somebody asks me questions about my wife, for example, I generally answer with specifics. If somebody asks me her name, I don’t say, “Well, I personally call her Rachel, but I’m not going to limit her by saying she has a name.” If somebody asks me what she does for a living, I don’t begin by saying, “Well… let me tell you what she does for me, but I’m not going to put her in a box by telling you any facts.” If I did talk about my wife that way, people would be liable to think she was just a figment of my imagination; that’s not the kind of relationship we have with real people. Those with mental faculties cannot have a personal relationship that dispenses with those faculties. Those who can know relate to someone real in a way that depends on knowing. If Christ really exists, then we must relate to him in the same way.
Thankfully, we can know that he does because he really did take on flesh 2,000 years ago and actually taught us about himself–teachings that were written down by his disciples. The corollary of this is that all Christians have a personal relationship with the same person–one who is himself rather than no one in particular. That means we have something in common, including facts described in the Church’s creeds, doctrines, & teachings, and relate to each other on this basis. True, these include things that some Christians disagree about, but the authentic way of handling such disagreements is by arguing. If somebody tells me my wife’s name is Susan, I’m going to tell him he’s wrong and, if necessary, point to the evidence. If he persists in being wrong, I may dismiss him as crazy, but I’m certainly not going to dismiss the idea that she has a real name for the sake of peace. Likewise, we should by no means dismiss what Christ has really taught us no matter how uncomfortable it is to argue with those who are in error. And if it is we who are in error, we’ll only find out if someone takes the trouble to argue with us. Peace is not so valuable that it causes us to reject truth.
Surely, a Christianity that consists merely of believing a set of facts is not the real thing. In avoiding this, however, we must not imagine that a Christianity that avoids facts is any more real. When Peter declared that Jesus was Christ, the Son of God, that same Jesus really told him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 16:17-19). The Church is institutional because Christ quite literally instituted it. It is real. Any non-institutional church one belongs to is not the Church, and any unorganized religion one adheres to is not Christianity.