... just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God's word. He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without fault (Ephesians 5:25-27 NIV).
One of the great strengths of the Christian faith has been its ability to endure, accommodate, and use the cultural shifts across the centuries without losing its essence. Even in its most misguided forms, the Christian religion has continued to pass around its central message about Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-7).
People in the most abysmal of churches in the most corrupt of cultures still have been counted among the redeemed. They are people in a church Jesus can pronounce "dead" and still promise them their names are in the Book of Life (Revelation 3:1-6). They have been granted divine favor on account of God's great love and in spite of church inadequacies or personal failures.
Some who have been kicked out of churches became more vitally engaged in the Kingdom of God for their sufferings — whether Luther or Tyndale or myriad individuals and groups whose names are unknown to us but precious to Christ.
Over the past 500 years, a type of institutional church has functioned variously as a club, nation-state, forensic society, and irrelevance — all too frequently obscuring the presence and activity of God in the world. It taught the gospel as laws and steps as well as creedal statements and confessions. There was little tolerance for leaving anything unexplained and even less tolerance for persons who did not hail the explanation offered — contrived as it might have been — as conclusive. The Christian faith was termed a "system" and one's place within that system was determined by an all-or-nothing attitude toward it.
When agreement on some fine point of doctrine was not forthcoming, individuals and groups felt free to break off and further fragment the body for the sake of maintaining doctrinal purity. Thus came the formation of literally hundreds of denominations and non-denominations, with each group believing there could be unity only when others renounced their error and embraced its interpretation.
That is another good feature of the Good News. Christianity hasn't killed what Jesus started. If we can cut through the forms and failings of church history and look past our own bungling, Jesus is still visible. And faith can still survive.
Rubel's latest book I Knew Jesus before He Was a Christian ... and I Liked Him Better (http://hlt.me/jb0VyW), exploring this and related topics in more detail.