Category Archives: ecclesiology

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.

What is the Church? Building, People, Event or What?

“The church is not the building, and the church is not an idea. The church is not merely the clergy. The church is the people!” Perhaps you have heard words to this effect. True, the church is not the building. Employing the word “church” to refer to a house of worship makes sense only because the church meets there; it’s not the primary meaning of the word. The church is not merely an idea but an actual thing. But is the church merely the people?

No, it cannot be merely the people because in that case any gathering of people would be the church. To be the church, the gathered group must at least be people of Christian faith and be gathering for the purpose for which the church meets: praying, hearing Scripture read and expounded and, most centrally, participating in the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. Well then, does the church exist only when Christians gather to participate in the Eucharist? No, for then the church would be merely a periodic event the people engage in rather than a reality that encompasses their whole persons all the time. Surely the church exists even when it is not gathered and visible.

How can the church be a reality even when it is not gathered and visible? And why is this important? Most references to the church in the New Testament refer to the Christians in a particular locality whether gathered or not. But the letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians refer to the church as the “body” of Christ (Ephesians 5:23, 30 and Colossians 1:24). Paul speaks of how Christ “feeds and cares” for his body the church like we feed and care for our bodies (Ephesians 5:29). The relationship between Christ and the church is a “profound mystery” (Ephesians 5:32).

Paul speaks of individual Christians as having been “baptized into Christ” (Romans 6:3 and Galatians 3:26). Christians are “in Christ” (Romans 8:1; and many other places) and “have the spirit of Christ” (Romans 8:9). Christ is “in you” (Romans 8:10) and you are “in Christ” (Romans 8:34). Just as a physical body has many parts but is one, “in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:5). We are “united” with Christ (Philippians 2:1-2). In the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, we “participate in the body and blood of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:16).

What, then, is the basis of the existence and the unity of the church even when it is scattered over a city or the whole world or meets under different denominational names? Of course, the answer is Jesus Christ with and in and through the Spirit of God. Everyone who has been baptized into Christ has been united to him. And in him all are united to each other as the church. The church, then, is the people of God gathered together in Christ through the Spirit. They are always together in Christ, but they long for the visible gathering where they can express their faith in Christ and love for each other.

Though the church is always one, holy, catholic and apostolic in Christ, and it exists in full actuality in him, the spirit of Christ drives us together so that we can experience that reality with our eyes and ears and hands. Just as Christ became incarnate in a physical body in Jesus of Nazareth to help us in our weakness, he draws us together to participate in the Eucharist, in prayer and in hymns so that we can touch, taste, and hear him in our time and space. The church is his body, and in it he speaks in audible voice and comforts with physical touch.

So it does not matter how small a church you attend or in what corner of the planet you gather. Christ is there, and where he is, there is also the whole church–the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. And I too am there with you, my brothers and sisters.

The Church is Our Mother

What is the church? The New Testament calls the church by many names: “the assembly (or church) of God,” “body of Christ,” “the bride of Christ,” “the people of God,” “the family of God,” “the temple of God,” and “the pillar and foundation of the truth.” Each of these designations points to a certain quality of the thing that came into being as a result of the resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. None of these names captures the entire being of this thing we most often call “church.” Not even all of them together can create perfect insight into the nature, life and end of church. And simply thinking or saying the names apart from real participation and empathetic involvement in the life of the church cannot impart an adequate understanding the living reality of church.

In today’s post I want to consider another designation for the church, “the Mother of the faithful.” This name for the church is not found in the New Testament. For some, this absence alone makes the term questionable. And Protestants may shy away from a name that is used prominently by the Roman Catholic Church. But neither of these reasons can bear scrutiny. Paul calls himself “the father” of the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:15). And he speaks of the Galatians as his children “for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19). And for those who think the term “mother” is exclusively a Roman Catholic designation for the church, listen to a theologian whose Protestant credentials are impeccable, John Calvin:

“But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels (Mt 22:30). For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1.4).

In the paragraphs that follow, Calvin enlarges and details the ways in which the church mothers her children. It is through her voice that we hear the gospel. Whether we read the words of the apostles in the New Testament or hear it in the persons of our parents, traveling evangelists or the ordinary ministry, the church gives birth to us in the faith. She evangelizes, teaches, nurtures, guides and disciplines us until, as Calvin so aptly puts it, we are “divested of mortal flesh.”

The living community of Christians, the faithful people of God, is the means by which each new generation and each person hears the gospel and sees it embodied in real life. Whether we are born to Christian parents or are converted as adults directly from the ignorance of paganism, we depend on the living community of faith, which exists in unbroken, living continuity with Jesus Christ and his apostles. And as John Calvin emphasizes, our relationship to our mother is lifelong. To quote him again, “For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars.” No one is strong enough to live as a Christian apart from the church. The passions of the flesh are too strong, the voices of the world are too alluring and the winds of teaching are too deceptive. We are too forgetful, too lazy, and too distractible. We need to hear the word preached. We need to participate in the sacraments, confess our sins, voice our faith and receive the church’s discipline. We can’t see ourselves objectively and we easily find excuses for our faults.

The 3rd century bishop and martyr Cyprian of Carthage famously said, “Outside the Church there is no salvation” and “you cannot have God for your father unless you have the church for your mother.” In one sense these sayings are self-evident. If the church is the people of God, the mother of the faithful, the family of God and the elect, then outside there is no salvation and no sonship. Put another way, outside the birthing, nurturing, caring, teaching, guiding and correcting embrace of our mother there is no safety and no certainty. There is only danger, abandonment and loneliness. Apart from our mother, we wander as orphaned children in a cold world.

There’s Nothing Mere About “Mere Christianity”

Last week I announced the theme for the coming year: “A Catechism of Mere Christianity for a Post-Denominational Church Living in a Post-Christian Culture.” I explained the rise of the post-denominational church and its negative effect on contemporary churchgoers’ understanding of the Christian faith. Today I want to explain what I mean by “mere Christianity” and why the church’s teaching must take into account the general post-Christian Culture.

I am sure that the term “mere Christianity” reminds many of you of the book by C.S. Lewis. In his preface, Lewis cites the Puritan pastor and theologian Richard Baxter (1615-91) as his source for the term “mere” Christianity. In Baxter’s Elizabethan English, “mere” meant pure, unadulterated or unmixed, whereas in modern English it has acquired the connotation of minimal or bare. In Mere Christianity, Lewis attempts to present the central teaching common to almost all denominations, Protestant and Roman Catholic. According to Lewis, nonbelievers ought to be given an opportunity to hear the basic Christian message rather than having to sift through all the fine points of denomination-specific teachings.

Perhaps Lewis wishes for his age what St. Vincent of Lérins (early 5th century), advocated for his, that is, that Christians ought to give special honor to “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” Lewis discovered that it is not easy to articulate “mere” Christianity in a way satisfactory to everyone any more than the Vincentian rule can generate a list of teachings acceptable to everyone. Lewis’s first readers found matters with which to quibble and some later readers cite omissions and offenses. But Lewis’s work has stood the test of time. Seventy-years later it is the number one selling book in the category of theology and is read approvingly by Protestants of all denominations and Roman Catholics.

In this series, however, I will not attempt to imitate C.S. Lewis. His book was aimed at outsiders and was written before the post-denominational church gained the prominence it holds today. This series aims at insiders and takes our post-denominational consciousness into account. This is why I am referring to it as a catechism. Seventy-five years ago, during the Second World War, when Lewis first presented the material contained in Mere Christianity to a British radio audience, it would have been inaccurate to refer to England as a “post-Christian” culture. Not so today, for Great Britain or the United States. Lewis could presume that regular churchgoers have been taught the basics of the faith by their denominations. We can no longer make this presumption. Hence my title “a catechism of mere Christianity.”

Like Lewis and St. Vincent, I am convinced that there is a set of basic beliefs that defines the boundaries of Christianity and that the historic traditions (Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant) share this core. Perhaps the exact boundaries are fuzzy, and it would be difficult and perhaps impossible for these traditions to agree on a particular text articulating these basic beliefs. Nevertheless when I read the Seven Ecumenical Councils (or at least the Nicene Creed), the Protestant confessions of faith and catechisms, the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the Roman Catholic Catechism, I am amazed at the consensus on these core beliefs. And I am also amazed at how extensive the list of consensus beliefs and practices is. There is nothing minimal about this “mere Christianity”!

Though the post-denominational culture in its evangelical form does not deny those historic beliefs and practices, it neglects to teach them in their fullness and focuses instead on experience. The language of worship includes references to God, Jesus and the Spirit. It directs worshipers to praise the grace of God, the love of Jesus and the joy of the Holy Spirit. Sermons inspire and encourage individuals. But as far as I can tell, there is little instruction in doctrine. Such neglect fails on two counts. (1) It assumes either that Christians don’t need instruction in the material covered in the historic catechisms or that they already know it. My experience is that they do not know this material, and my conviction is that they really need to know it. (2) It assumes that churchgoers understand the few beliefs that are mentioned in worship and sermons. I do not believe this is true. Familiar religious language has a way of losing its cognitive content and becoming opaque unless it is explained continually. When this happens, Christian words or professions of faith cease to direct the mind and become mere expressions of religious emotions.

In this series I plan to remind you of what your church should be teaching all its members (catechism) about basic Christianity (mere Christianity). All along, we will keep in view Christian language’s loss of meaning for a post-Christian culture.

Most church catechisms follow the order of the creed or of that church’s confession of faith. That order corresponds also to the order of most systematic theologies: God, the Trinity, creation and providence, the fall and sin, Christ and salvation, the Church and the Spirit, the Christian life and eschatology. I shall begin at a different place, with the church. And next week I shall explain why I begin there.

Next Week: “Yes, The Church Really Is Our Mother.”

A Catechism of Mere Christianity for a Post-Denominational Church Living in a Post-Christian Culture

Happy New Year! Today marks the beginning of the third year of ifaqtheology! And my new theme is announced in the title of today’s post.

I suppose it’s always been a problem, but it seems to me that the average churchgoer in the United States (elsewhere too I am sure) is becoming less and less familiar with the full range of Christian teaching. I don’t intend to quote surveys and studies of this phenomenon. It’s just an impression, and I will work with that. Few observers would question the assertion that denominational loyalties and confessional identities have declined dramatically in recent years. And we see evidence every Sunday that contemporary churches place less emphasis on teaching, learning and remembering than on the “worship experience” in which one expects to feel joy in the presence of the transcendent. Experience has moved from being considered a by-product of the encounter with word and sacrament to the central goal of Christian gatherings. Has thirst for experience replaced desire for understanding or has loss of understanding leading to greater thirst for moving experiences? Is the loss of confessional and denominational loyalties the cause or the effect of the loss of teaching and learning? I suspect they are interrelated in ways too complicated to describe.

At least since the early 19th century, American Christianity has been expressed, lived, taught and learned in a denominational form. Denominational bodies competed for the minds and hearts of people by touting the strengths of their particular package of teaching and church life. (Undoubtedly, social location also has a huge impact on which denomination one chooses.) Denominations for the most part are confessional bodies and have an interest in teaching the full range of their doctrine to prospective converts, new converts and children. As long as denominational or confessional consciousness is strong the task of teaching doctrine will be high on the agenda of a church’s priorities. The disadvantages of denominationalism—as opposed to an established, territorial church—are the presence of multiple contradictory voices all claiming to represent Christianity and the animosity created by such division and competition. But one positive thing that derives from the denominational and confessional form of Christianity is that most members of such Christian bodies receive the full range of doctrinal instruction; doctrinal teaching is important to these bodies, if for no other reason than to reinforce denominational loyalty.

In the present environment, with denominational loyalties at historic lows and confessions of faith gathering dust on the pastors’ shelves, churches have lost a major incentive to teach the full range of doctrine. To the contrary, church leaders deemphasize doctrine to broaden their appeal to prospective members. Taking the most generous interpretation of this practice, the goal is more effective evangelism. A less generous interpreter might conclude that growing a big church has become an end in itself. The consequence of this development is disturbing: the people don’t get taught at all! Hence the appalling ignorance of churchgoers, lay church leaders and even clergy in contemporary churches. Surely ignorance cannot be a means to any good end! But many evils befall the untaught.

We need a catechism of mere Christianity for a post-denominational church living in a post-Christian culture. And my goal for this year is to work on developing this catechism. So, what is a catechism? It is a summary of a church’s teaching prepared for the instruction of children and new converts. The printed version of the Roman Catholic Catechism is 800 pages long and covers a huge range of topics. Perhaps the most famous Protestant catechisms are the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647). The word “catechism” derives from the Greek word katecheo, which is used in Acts 21:21; Gal 6:6; and 1 Cor 14:19. It means to teach, inform or instruct. In time, it came to mean specifically the process of instruction in the basics of the faith in preparation for baptism in the case of adult converts or instruction of children in case of those born to Christian parents and baptized as infants. Its goal is not preaching the gospel to prospective converts. It is not an exercise in theology seeking deeper meaning and connections within the Christian faith. Nor does it aim to provide evidence for the truth of the faith or to defend it from attack. It aims to teach the full range of the faith at a basic level.

What is mere Christianity? And what kind of catechism can serve the needs of a post-denominational church? And why do we need to take into account the post-Christian environment within which the church lives today? Next week we will address these questions.