Monthly Archives: May 2017

Craving Obscurity in a Celebrity Obsessed Culture

Everyone wants to be known and loved, and no one wishes to live and die in obscurity. The “good morning” we receive from a passing hiker, a conversation with a good friend, or the most intimate expressions of love…we need acknowledgement, affirmation and love from others. How else could we feel confident in our own worth and sure of our significance and place in this world? Apart from a sense of belonging we lose our love of life and energy for work. Clearly, desire to know and be known is part of our created nature. But like all other aspects of our created nature this desire can be misdirected and abused.

Jesus warns of the dangers of seeking applause from the public:

Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Lk 6:26)

But I want to be well thought of, and I like it when everyone speaks well of me! It feels good. And it feels good because it makes me think well of myself. However, Jesus reminds us that other people are in no position and have no authority to pronounce us worthy of praise. Quite the opposite, the world rarely finds truth praiseworthy, but it loves beautiful lies.

Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ warns against inordinately seeking knowledge lest we look down on others for knowing less or become obsessed with seeking praise for our intellectual accomplishments. He advises seeking something else:

If you wish to learn and appreciate something worthwhile, then love to be unknown and considered as nothing (1.2).

In another translation the words “love to be unknown” are rendered “crave obscurity.” Those words cut me to the heart. I don’t “crave obscurity,” and I don’t “love to be unknown.” I fear it. Living in obscurity seems like not existing at all, and dying unknown and unremembered seems like being erased from existence or worse, never having existed. And yet the words “crave obscurity” haunt me because of the falsehood they expose and truth to which they bear witness. Thomas à Kempis is not urging us to “love to be unknown” in the absolute sense. Nor does Jesus allow us to dismiss all knowledge of ourselves that comes from outside ourselves. This is not possible. Instead, both urge us to learn to be satisfied with knowing and being known by God. To know God is to know truth, and to be known by God is to be known truly. If I know the One who knows me truly, I am in touch with truth about myself. And knowing the truth about myself frees me from the endless quest to make myself pleasing to others.

Now I want to apply the principle of “crave obscurity” to the church. Just as individuals need to learn to be satisfied with knowing and being known by God, so does the church. Just as desire for recognition, legitimation, acknowledgement, influence and honor blinds and corrupts individuals, so do such desires blind and corrupt churches. One could write a history of the church from the First Century to today by tracing the church’s efforts to become accepted, honored, respected, visible and influential in the political and social orders of the world.

As soon as a few believers begin meeting in homes or a local rented hall, they begin to dream of “greater” things: greater visibility, greater numbers, greater influence, a bigger staff, a bigger meeting venue, and a larger budget. Their obscurity to the world troubles them. They feel incomplete and insignificant. They crave the things that have come to be associated in the public mind with the legitimacy and permanency of institutions: legal incorporation, property ownership, wealth, visibility in public space and employees.

My question today is this: what would the church look like if it “loved to be unknown and considered as nothing”? What if it “craved obscurity”? What if it put all its energy into a quest to know and be known by God? What if it became invisible to the world? Would it lose anything essential to its existence? Or, would the truth set the church free, free to be the church in truth.

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The “Benedict Option” or Why the Church Must Not Serve “the Common Good”

 

“Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).

 “The Benedict Option”

In his recent book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (Sentinel: New York, 2017), Rod Dreher draws a parallel between the cultural situation faced by Benedict of Nursia in sixth-century Italy and our situation today in the western world. Benedict found his culture so morally corrupt and inhospitable to authentic Christian living that he withdrew from society and eventually founded the Benedictine order of monks. The social fabric of Benedict’s day was being ripped apart by barbarian tribes waging constant war to expand their domains. Our barbarians, says Dreher, don’t wear animal skins or overrun neighboring tribes. They wear designer suits and use smartphones, but they are just as dangerous to authentic Christian living as their sixth-century counterparts: “They are at work demolishing the faith, the family, gender, even what it means to be human” (p. 17), and they call such work “progress.”

We live in an increasingly secular culture, and the minute we step outside the church door we are faced with enormous pressure to conform to the progressive vision of human life or at least to remain silent in our dissent. It is becoming ever more difficult for Christians to engage in professions such as public school teaching, the professorate or medicine. And ever-expanding antidiscrimination laws make engaging in businesses such as the florist trade, catering and photography risky for serious Christians. The culture war is over, declares Dreher; Christians lost, the barbarians won. The public square has officially become secular space, hostile territory.

In response to this new situation Dreher urges serious Christians to distance themselves from the dominant culture to form Christian countercultures. Leave public schools and form classical Christian schools or homeschools, don’t idolize university education, consider learning a trade, at whatever cost make your churches real communities that support authentic Christian faith and life, turn off the television, wean yourself away from social media, and “turn your home into a domestic monastery” (p. 124). It’s a radical vision, I know, and many will dismiss it as apocalyptic. However those who long for social space to live an authentic Christian life with their families and likeminded Christians may find in Dreher’s vision of the “Benedict option” inspiration to take action.

The Church as a Social Institution

In friendlier times the church was considered by the broader culture a social institution deserving recognition because of its invaluable contribution to the common good. Forming god-fearing, church-going, family-establishing citizens was considered a service to the nation. Traditional marriage, self-discipline and work were considered social goods. But we no longer live in friendly times, and the definition of “the common good” has changed dramatically. It now includes the ideologies of pluralism and multiculturalism, sexual license, expanded definitions of the family, gender fluidity and abortion. In certain influential sectors of culture the church is viewed as a powerful and stubborn preserve of superstition and reactionary morality. Through a combination of enticement, intimidation, and persuasion, mainstream culture attempts to move the church into conformity with its own moral standards and social goals. And its tactics are meeting with stunning success.

Especially after the American Civil War, many American denominations came to think of themselves as social institutions and touted their contributions to society. Some churches even made social utility their main if not sole reason to exist. Most churches relished and still relish such social privileges as tax exempt status and the right to own property. They value social approval and visibility. But the church’s unspoken agreement with society may turn out to have been a deal with the devil. For if a church presents itself to the public as a social institution valuable to society because of its contributions to the common good, can it complain when the public comes to expect it to behave like other social institutions?

But the most serious danger to the Christian identity of churches doesn’t come from outside the gates; homegrown “barbarians” are working from inside. Churches that sacrifice discipline and orthodoxy to pursue growth, popularity and social influence will find themselves mortgaged to the world. And mortgages eventually come due. Should we be surprised when church members and clergy who have marinated in progressive culture their whole lives press their churches to conform to that culture? Can the church retain its Christian identity while also clinging to its political privileges, social approval and community visibility? Pursuing something like “the Benedict option” may soon become the only way we can live an authentic Christian life in modern culture. Perhaps that time is already here.

Get Rid of Excess Baggage

Jesus Christ did not found the church to serve the society, and authentic Christianity cares little for secular definitions of the common good. It is not intrinsically wrong for the church to use what advantages a society may grant. But it should always keep clearly in mind that it does not need to own property, employ clergy and enjoy tax exempt status in order to exist in its fulness. It does not need political influence, social respectability or community visibility. It does not even need legal recognition. The church can get along quite well without these “privileges.” Indeed there may soon come a time when retaining its privileges at the cost of its Christian identity will become its greatest temptation. And it will fall unless it remembers that its one and only purpose is to serve its Lord whatever the cost.

Note: This essay is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Three Views on Women in Church Leadership: Should Bible-Believing (Evangelical) Churches Appoint Women Preachers, Pastors, Elders and Bishops?

Congregational Autonomy—Fact, Fiction and Myth

Churches of Christ and Independent Christian Churches (Stone-Campbell Movement), Baptists, Mennonites and other churches that govern themselves according to a congregational rather than a presbyterian or episcopal order often describe their model as “congregational autonomy.” These churches were born during the 16th and 17th centuries in resistance state churches and later in protest of centralized denominations that restricted the freedom of local bodies to control their internal affairs.

For this essay I will assume the basic soundness of the congregational model and deal with what I consider its abuses.  Even in episcopal-type churches local congregations and their ministers, priests or bishops are allowed some say-so in the way they administer their local congregations. But congregational churches insist on more control to the point that it can be called autonomy. What are scope and limits of local church autonomy?

Congregational autonomy cannot be unlimited. Every local church claims to be a manifestation of the universal church of Christ founded by the Lord and his apostles. A local body possesses the right to make this claim only if it binds itself to uphold the faith and essential qualities of the original and universal church. No local authority has the right to eliminate or change the essential characteristics of the universal church. Not even the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church claims this right! In fact, his main responsibility is to protect this faith. If a group makes these changes it forfeits its claim to manifest the universal Church. And other local congregations are under no sacred obligation to recognize it as a Christian church.

Most Protestant churches whether congregational, presbyterian or episcopal in organization make at least the implicit claim to adhere to the common faith held by the early post-apostolic and patristic church through at least the 5th century and embodied in the Rule of faith and Ecumenical Creeds, especially the Nicene Creed (381).  This common faith includes among others the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation and the extent and limits of the New Testament canon. No local authority—or for that matter no denominational body—has the right to change the New Testament cannon or any other ecumenical doctrine while at the same time claiming to represent the ecumenical church as defined by the Rule of faith and the ecumenical Creeds.

What about the limits of congregational autonomy within a denomination, a fellowship or a tradition, that is, some sort of collective of local bodies that claim a common identity? It should go without saying that a local body that presents itself as Baptist or Church of Christ or Menonite, implicitly binds itself to embody and teach the essential marks of those associations. If a local congregation of one of these fellowships decides to abandon those marks, it possesses the authority to do so only in the sense that there is no extra congregational legal authority to stop it. Since it has not bound itself legally to the association, the association cannot depose the local leaders or confiscate a congregation’s property. However, if a local congregation abandons the essential marks and teaching of the Baptist, Church of Christ or the Menonite fellowship, it should cease to present itself as a manifestation of those fellowships. Truthfulness demands it. Nor does a local church have the right to determine autonomously what it means to be Baptist, Church of Christ or Menonite. That question is for the whole fellowship to decide in whatever way it decides things. And other congregations of this fellowship are under no obligation to recognize a rogue congregation as one of their own simply because it claims “congregational autonomy.”

What, then, is the role of local leaders within congregationally organized churches? There are indeed internal matters that are best controlled locally, decisions about property, ministers, salaries, selection of teachers, administration of funds and others. However in matters of doctrine local leaders have the responsibility of discernment but not of legislation. They may act on doctrinal matters only in sincere consultation with the wider circles of the original and universal church as described in the New Testament, the ecumenical teaching on the central teachings about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the fellowship which they claim to represent.

Every local church should attempt to remain in communication and fellowship with the original church, the living ecumenical church and with the fellowship that gave it birth and gives it a specific identity. At every level it should endeavor to embody truly what it represents itself to be. And the local church’s “autonomy” consists in its right to give itself to these tasks.