Thursday, February 26, 2015

Civil Conversation on Civil Unions & Gay Marriage, Or, Before the Shooting Begins (with apologies to James Hunter Davidson)

Is it too late? Is it possible, this far into the conflict, to disarm the mutual animostiy and misunderstanding that's fueling our escalating war?

Maybe we could start something of a ceasefire with two simple concessions - from both sides of the debate (or rather, as it has devolved into, the on-going cyber shaming and shouting match)?

First, though it can hardly be denied that aggressivepowerful and sometimes ruthless special interest groups are pushing, through a variety of media, a so-called "gay agenda," we can agree that not all advocates of gay marriage are intolerant militants of some vast, social and political conspiracy.  (And, yes, I know some will take issue with the ideological etymology of "gay agenda," as others will take similar issue with the term "homophobia.") 

Secondly, though there sadly continues to be distorted misrepresentations of homosexuality among conservatives, cartoonish hate groups, and very real violence against homosexuals/transgendered individuals in our nation, can we agree that not every opponent to gay marriage is either a pigheaded and hateful bigot, or themselves a sexually repressed individual acting out of some neurotic fear? 

In short, it is high time we move past the paranoia, straw men and ad hominem arguments that keep us from hearing one another and preaching only to our own choirs.  

Moreover, with all civility, we must be able to speak openly and forthrightly with one another without dismissing each other's viewpoints with the epitaphs of "hate speech" or manipulative "propaganda."  Unless, of course, such labels are truly deserved.  And to be sure, sometimes they are.  There are, and always have been, those for whom no argument is above scorn.

Nevertheless, it is possible to construct a reasoned argument against homosexual marriage that isn't finally tantamount to dogmatism or bigotry - just as it is possible to construct a rationally consistent argument in support of it - is it not?  Could a cogent case against the rational and psychological coherence of transgenderism, for instance, be made - just as an intelligent defense of it could be built from the plasticity and socially constructed dimensions of "gender"?  Yes, we might finally disagree with such arguments, finding that they ultimately fail to compel by a logical misstep or deeper, foundational problems within their presuppositions.  But we must be able to evaluate the arguments fairly and without a prejudice that condemns before the case is even heard.   

This will require two things that, now, appear hard to come by in our current "culture war."  First, we must think carefully and critically (including self-critically).  Otherwise we will find ourselves not only unwilling but unable to evaluate the cogency of the best arguments from either side.  This is difficult in an age of increasing technology and decreasing intelligence.  Ray Williams, in a Psychology Today article on “the growing anti-intellectual dumbing down of our culture," writes:
The new elite are the angry social media posters, those who can shout loudest and more often, a clique of bullies and malcontents baying together like dogs cornering a fox. Too often it’s a combined elite of the anti-intellectuals and the conspiracy followers – not those who can voice the most cogent, most coherent response. Together they forment a rabid culture of anti-rationalism where every fact is suspect; every shadow holds a secret conspiracy. Rational thought is the enemy. Critical thinking is the devil’s tool. 
And despite pretensions to the contrary, neither the left nor the right has the monopoly on this kind of stupid.   
Secondly, and most importantly, we must learn to listen to each other.  We must be able to engage one another face to face as equals, each deserving dignity and respect.  This is key if we are to be a truly tolerant society.  And it likely means going off-line with most of our conversations.  

As a Christian, I believe that everyone is created in the image of God.  This means that no matter how much I disagree with them, no matter how "far off" I think their beliefs (about themselves and the world) may be, no matter how distorted their sexuality seems to me, I must still confess that they bear the divine image.  In fact, if I listen with ears attuned to this, I will undoubtedly learn something from them and find myself changed - this is, after all, the implication of the Christian doctrine of common grace.  Moreover, as a fellow human being, I will find that we have far more in common than different.  The queer isn't quite so queer after all.  And the so-called "heteronormative" isn't quite so normative, measured against the divine norm.  On this common ground - the reality of a common nature reflecting our common Maker- I believe an uncommon love can move us forward into grace and truth.

We can begin by talking to each other - minus the dismissive name-calling and bitter mistrust - in order to actually hear one another. Surely this is still possible!   How can we start that conversation?  

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Liturgy and the Etymological Fallacy Part II: The End of Liturgy?

The Church’s historic use of the word “liturgy” is unknown to the New Testament, representing a new, specialized usage of the Greek term, leitourgeo/leitourgia.  

It began as a technical term to describe specific public services (often rendered by wealthier citizens) for the reputed benefit of the commonwealth or local community.  Over time, however, the term broadened to entail all kinds of civil service, and then, eventually, became generalized to indiscriminately denote any and all “services” rendered, whether public or private.  One particular strand of application would develop within the religious domain, describing the official administration of cultic rites.  In this vein evolved a new, specialized meaning of the term in reference to the formal services rendered to the deity.  It is this particular usage that the Greek translations of the OT – that is, the LXX – overwhelmingly employed.  According to The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, “The reference is nearly always to the worship of God by the priests and Levites in the tent or Temple…The noun [form] too, becomes a technical term for priestly ministry.”  This usage, as noted earlier, is also reflected in the New Testament (e.g., Luke 1:23; Hebrews 10:11).

However, there also developed a “spiritualizing trend” within Jewish writings (e.g., Sirach 4:14).  The rabbis, for instance, could use the word to refer not only to the ritual service of the Temple by the Priests and Levites, but also to “the ministry of the word and of prayer.”  We see this “spiritualized” usage in the New Testament, when, for instance, Luke refers to the praying of Christians in Antioch as leitourgeo (Acts 13:2).  Paul’s usage, earlier noted, also reflects this spiritualizing and figurative sense.  

The point here is more than a mere linguistic observation.  There is a significant, theological reason for the New Testament’s “spiritual” and figurative use of this word.  In a critical sense, the gospel declared the end of leitourgia:

The cultus had reached its end with the self-offering of Christ, as the Book of Hebrews impressively shows. The messengers of Christ and leaders of individual congregations do not have to fulfill a λειτουργία for the community. Their task is to proclaim in the word of the crucifixion of Christ the λειτουργία which has been fulfilled once and for all. In this circle of ideas it was certainly possible to explain with the help of figures taken from the OT priestly ministry the significance of self-sacrifice in the service of Christ, or of the faithful life of Christians, or of the gathering of the congregation for prayer. But the cultic terms could not be applied specifically to Christian offices as such. The new community had no priests, for it consisted of priests. “We can be bold to enter into the holiest through the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:19). We may thus conclude, both from the paucity of use and especially from the complete lack of any parallels in the Christian application, that the Christian message is something new and revolutionary.[1]

It was the natural, Christian reflex to employ the Old Testament “cultus” (i.e., the priesthood, Temple/Tabernacle institution, festival calendar, and various ceremonial and sacrificial rites) as an analogy to various spiritual and ethical principles of the Christian ministry and manner of life together (e.g., 1Clement 40-44).  Over time, however, this analogy would be more and more pressed, until finally it collapsed into a direct correspondence.  It was through this avenue that the Christian Church developed its unique sense of leitourgia:

The modern ecclesiastical use of the word liturgy is quite different from the original meaning of λειτουργέω, λειτουργία… the only way to understand the change in meaning is by way of the LXX and its almost uniform cultic and priestly use of the words. The ecclesiastical use is the result of a transfer to the Christian cultus of OT concepts in Greek garb. This may be seen very clearly in the literature of the 4th century.[2]

Does this mean that we should throw out the term “liturgy,” because it is either not in keeping with the original meaning of the word, or because it represents a confusion of the nature of the new covenant – that is, mapping Israel’s sacerdotal hierarchy and ritualism onto the church?  Not necessarily.  This would be a classic case of the etymological fallacy. 

According to its most basic, modern sense, “liturgy” simply means the form of public worship or the particular arrangement of service (e.g., an “order of worship”).   In this sense, every church is a liturgical church.  Though they didn’t yet use the term in this way, the early church was thoroughly liturgical, following the general pattern of corporate worship found in the synagogue (cf. Justin Martyr’s First Apology, 67).  This continues today within all Christian traditions, even among those who vehemently eschew the label “liturgical.”  The traditional Southern Baptist church, for example, is extremely liturgical: a formal call to worship, the singing of two to three hymns, an occasional responsive reading, with Scripture readings and a sermon, closing with one or two hymns and/or the celebration of communion.  Finally, crowning the entire service, stands the sacred, “Altar Call” (note: I have been accused of “not taking evangelism seriously” because of our frequent lack of this element)!  

Just as “no creed but Christ” is itself a creed, so a principled opposition to any formularies of prayer, confession, Scripture reading, or any other ordered element of worship is itself a kind of liturgy.  The issue isn’t whether a church has liturgy or not. The issue is how thoughtful and deliberate that liturgy is in the exaltation of Christ among the people within our particular context.

So the question we should ask isn’t whether our church is liturgical.  The question, rather, is this: Does our church’s liturgy draw us to the cross of Christ and raise us up with Him to the heavenly places?  Furthermore, does our liturgy lead us horizontally to love one another and fulfill our ministry to the nations?   

What does that look like and how can we faithfully and fruitfully practice such liturgies today?  

[1]  Vol. 4: Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (228). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
[2]  Ibid (215).  

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Liturgy and the Etymological Fallacy, Part I

It's often said that "liturgy" means "the work of the people," (laos, the people, and ergas, a work).  Despite this popular etymology, however, the truth is otherwise.  Rather, the Greek word typically spoke of "public service," as something performed for the benefit of the city or community.  It was a work for the people.  But the term has a very different meaning in the biblical documents.  The New Testament, reflecting the usage in the Greek translation(s) of the Old Testament, employs the term to speak of those religious rites performed by the priests in service to God (e.g., Hebrews 10:11; Luke 1:23) - without any reference to "the people."  By extension, it was applied to Christ's ministry as our high priest "in the true tabernacle" (e.g., Hebrews 8:2, 6), where it clearly takes on a significance transcending the typology of Old Testament liturgy.  In addition, Paul uses the term figuratively to refer to the ministry of the gospel.  Specifically, he uses it to describe the financial "sacrifices" of the churches for the gospel's advancement through his ministry (e.g., Romans 15:27; Philippians 2:30).  He uses this root to describe his own "service" as an apostle (e.g., Romans 15:16, where he speaks of his "priestly work" of evangelism and church-planting in the "offering of the Gentiles" to God).  He applies it similarly to other "servants" of the church (e.g., Philippians 2:25).  He even uses it, perhaps in keeping with the older, secular sense of the term - though also with a spiritualized nuance - to describe "servants" of the state, referring to them as "ministers of God" (Romans 13:6). 

However, through the "sacerdotalization" (to use Schillebeeckx's phrase) of the church's ministry over the next three centuries, the spiritual significance of "liturgy" was increasingly misunderstood and displaced by a non-figurative usage.  So, for instance, the early Christian language of "sacrifice" (e.g., Hebrews 13:15-16; cf. 1Clement 44:4; Didache 14) came to be read primarily in reference to a literal ritual rather than a metaphorical description of Christian ministry or manner of life together. 

But, as reading Heinrich Bitzer's devotional this morning - juxtaposing Romans 12:1 with Psalms 139:23-24 - reminded me, the true sacrifices we are called to present are far more demanding, whole-hearted, and self-emptying than any rite or ritual act can encapsulate:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual act of worship.
Let us do this liturgy continually and worship God in Spirit and truth.



Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Review: "So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore?"

A friend I love and respect recommended Jake Colson's So You Don't Want to Go to Church Anymore?  I personally found the read both encouraging and irritating.  In fact, I was so encouraged and irritated that I wrote a review.  

There is so much in this book that I find compelling.  In particular, I resonate with many of (the apostle?) John’s insights regarding our relationship with the Father through Jesus.  What we tend to complicate, to overlook, and to even run away from is in reality so simple, so basic, and so good.

For instance, John asks Jake:

“So you think God owes you better?”
“Doesn’t he? Why should I try so hard to follow him if he won’t watch out for me?”
“So that’s it,” John replied, leaning back on his chair. “You grew up with the idea that your goodness would actually control the way God treats you. If you do your part, he has to do his.”
“That’s not true?”
“Jake, God’s doing his part all the time."

"If we could control God, he’d turn out like us. Wouldn’t it be better to let him have his way with us so we become like him?”

Amen!  And similarly, I think he nails it when discussing how “doing church” can actually become a functional replacement of our relationship with God – an idol:

“Nothing we as believers can ever do together will make up for the lack of our own relationship with God. When we put the church in that place we make it an idol and others will always end up disappointing us.”

Or again:

"The location isn’t the issue, but whether you are caught up in religious games or helping each other discover the incredible relationship God wants with us.”

In fact, I find much of what John mentions by way of criticism of our “organized religion” on point.  I am beginning to think ministry is where I hide from him.” That’s golden!  And this comment in particular, summarizing his overall project, expresses to my mind a noble endeavor:  

“I want to expose the system of religious obligation in whatever ways it holds people captive, but that’s not the same as being against the institution." 

Having said that, three questions occur (and keep reoccurring) to me as I read all of John’s comments regarding the church.  First, are all obligations (“shoulds”) that emerge from our corporate life bad?  Secondly, is the “institutional” form of church life bad?  And thirdly, is life in Christ apart from an “institution” even possible?

Regarding the first matter, John says:

“If there is anything I’d say we should do, it would be to stop ‘should’-ing on ourselves, and others.” Laughter flickered around the room and more than one person looked to their spouse asking what he had just said.  “Certainly there are things that are right and things that are wrong. But we’ll only truly know that in Jesus. Remember, he is the truth itself! You will never be able to follow his principles if you’re not following him first.”

John’s words hung in the air through an awkward silence. I could see the gears churning in minds all around the table. I knew what they were feeling.

Marsha finally spoke choking a bit through tears, “I think you’re right John. The reason I follow rules is because I don’t know how to follow Jesus like you’re talking about. I just try to do what’s right and I’m tired of being attacked by people who say we’re in rebellion if we’re not in one of those blasted buildings on Sunday morning.”

John leaned toward Marsha. “I know this isn’t easy. But just because people say something doesn’t make it so. Jesus is teaching you how to live free. Others will find that threatening, as you will yourself at times. The system must devour what it cannot control.”

Maybe he means here pressuring one another in wholly artificial and manipulative ways; but isn’t the New Testament replete with “shoulding” one another? We’re repeatedly told to “encourage one another,” “exhort one another,” “teach one another,” etc.:
23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
These are all imperatives – to believe, to trust, to obey, and even to love.  We should “should” each other.  Not, of course, manipulatively, through guilt or personal threat.  After all, we live by the gospel – and it isn’t a contractual arrangement.  We “should” each other as the gospel “shoulds” us: from the realities that are already ours in Christ (e.g., as dearly beloved children, love each other…as saints, holy in Christ, be holy…as justified men and women, offer your members to righteousness, etc.).

Regarding “the institution,” John seems quite pessimistic:

"The institution provides something more important than simply loving each other in the same way we’ve been loved. Once you build an institution together you have to protect it and its assets to be good stewards.  Even love gets redefined as that which protects the institution and unloving as that which does not. It will turn some of the nicest people in the world into raging maniacs and they never stop to think that all the name-calling and accusations are the opposite of love.”

“It’s love with a hook. If you do what we want, we reward you. If not we punish you. It doesn’t turn out to be about love at all. We give our affection only to those who serve our interests and withhold it from those who do not.”

“That’s why institutions can only reflect God’s love as long as those in it agree on what they’re doing. Every difference of opinion becomes a contest for power."

"Do you see how our definitions of love get twisted when institutional priorities take over?"

I wonder however if John has misdiagnosed it here. It seems, even in the context of the story, that the problem isn't the institution per se, but the people.  The institution functions in this case as the displaced object - the rationalization of our various sin.  In the quote above, for instance, it isn't the "institutional priorities" that's the problem.  That's the excuse, of course, but not the real issue. 

John actually acknowledges this when he says, 

“The problem with church as you know it, Jake, is that it has become nothing more than mutual accommodation of self-need. Everybody needs something out of it. Some need to lead. Some need to be led. Some want to teach, others are happy to be the audience. Rather than become an authentic demonstration of God’s life and love in the world, it ends up being a group of people who have to protect their turf. What you’re seeing is less of God’s life than people’s insecurities that cling to those things they think will best serve their needs.”

Later, he grants this distinction with Jake: "Always separate the failure of the system from the hearts of the people in it."

In the case above, the fault lies in the hearts of people; the heart of the problem is not "the institution." For the lead "pastor," it's selfishness and sin - he's protecting himself, and not the mission (e.g., reaching out to troubled kids) or the flock (e.g., discipling them through their self-absorption).   Rather, honesty and a frank re-articulation of the purpose and character of God's people from God's Word is what would best serve the "institution" here. (And, in the case of this pastor, a resignation, as he has disqualified himself).   

Again the author seems to acknowledge this very point:

“It’s just a weak moment, I’m sure. He’s in trouble with some important people and is only trying to do what’s in the best interest of the church.”

“Is that what he told you, or did you come up with that whopper on your own?”

But if that is so – the notion that the best interest of the church, as an institution, is served by selfish ambition and self-protection is a "whopper" - then calling for the de-institutionalization of the church misses the point, doesn't it? Regarding church polity and organizational concerns, it’s been said that even if the worst structures are in place, a church that loves one another will still thrive; but a church with the best and wisest polity yet without love will always be a disaster. 

Along these lines, I think the real apostle John – the so-called “apostle of love” – incisively addressed the critical issue when he encouraged (should’ed) the churches: “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” 

On the one hand, John seems to grant that an “organized” fellowship – whatever form it takes, big or small - does no necessarily promote these “religious games”:

“That’s why I’m excited about our new house church. We can deal with real issues like this.”
I expected him to encourage me to go for it. Instead he just looked at me as if I hadn’t heard a word he’d said. It took me a moment to sort out why and then it dawned on me. “Is this that game, too?” “It doesn’t have to be,” John answered, “but it could be, the way you’re going about it.”

But on the other hand, it would appear John thinks that “organization” always poses a threat:

“Just keep in mind the simplest lesson that has been repeated countless times since Jesus was here: the more organization you bring to church life, the less life it will contain.”

Apparently, once a “church” becomes organized to the point of becoming an “institution” (wherever exactly that threshold is, I’m not clear), then problems multiply:

“Institutionalism breeds task-based friendships. As long as you’re on the same task together, you can be friends. When you’re not, people tend to treat you like damaged goods. Now you know what that’s like from the other side and one of the big things Jesus is doing in you now is to free you from the game, so that you can live deeply in him rather than worrying about what everyone else thinks about you.”

I do not doubt that whenever people “come together,” whatever the form and level of their organization, problems will arise.   The problem is us.  Hence, semper reformanda!  But I wonder whether it’s true that increased organization necessarily produces “task-based friendships,” anxiety “about what everyone else thinks,” where “every opinion is a contest of power,” where “love gets redefined” as protection of the institution’s assets, and where you “find yourself manipulating people to serve you rather than Father’s love moving you to serve them.”

“Structures are about gaining power and getting your own way. Those who are growing to know him don’t need them.”

Really?  Is it really the case that organized church - structure - corrupts an otherwise simple faith?  I wonder.  But perhaps the more basic question is this: Is “church-as-institution” even optional?

Perhaps it’s true that:

“Any human system will eventually dehumanize the very people it seeks to serve and those it dehumanizes the most are those who think they lead it. But not everyone in a system is given over to the priorities of that system.”

But is the church-as-organization a purely human system?

John says,

“Jesus didn’t leave us with a system; he left us with his Spirit— a guide instead of a map. Principles alone will not satisfy your hunger. That’s why systems always promise a future revival that never comes. They cannot produce community because they are designed to keep people apart.”

Depending on what he means by “system,” I might agree.  However, Jesus did leave us with leaders and instructions on “life-together,” if not a system, as well as His Spirit.  He gave us a guide, with many other guides beneath Him, and a map – or at least a blueprint.  He gave us instructions on how we live together, love each other, teach each other, and even discipline one another.  He gave us His Spirit to “remind [us] of these things,” and “guide [us] into all truth.”  And He gave us leaders.  In particular, He gave us apostles.  John of course was one of them. 

Jesus not only poured out the Spirit of God, He’s building Him a Temple (1Cor.3:16-17).  And through the ministry of the apostles, Jesus, like any good builder, began by laying a firm foundation (1Cor.3:9-11).  Upon this rock He’s building the temple of God (Eph.2:19-22; 1Pe.2:4-5; 2Cor.6:16) – a divine institution (1Tim.3:15), you might say.  And in continuing to build-up this household, Jesus gives, in addition to the apostles, other leaders to equip God’s people to serve (Ephesians 4:11).  In fact, it is only as the members of this body serve together that overall growth takes place (Eph.4:12-16).

From these basic truths, we see two realities.  First, there is clearly organization in the community of God’s people.  Secondly, spiritual growth does come through the body, as well as to the body of Christ. 

Regarding the first, it is clear that Jesus established His “church” or “synagogue” (note their basic synonymy in Aramaic) with an authority structure.  This authority was first delegated to the apostles, Peter being foremost among them (Matthew 16:16-19).  And this authority extended among all the apostles (Matthew 18:15-20, note the plural “you” in vv.18-20) and into the organized fellowships they established (e.g., 1Cor.5:1-13; 2Cor.2:5-6).  This authority, though diffused throughout whole body, was delegated to ‘representatives’ the Holy Spirit raised up within the congregations (Acts 20:28-31; 1Pet.5:1-4).  These “overseers” or “elders” were initially raised up and appointed by the apostles and their assistants (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5).

In addition to elders, it would appear that “deacons” were also typical among the apostolic churches (Phil.1:1; 1Timothy 3).  Whether or not Acts 6 narrates the emergence of this “office,” it is a clear example where more organization brought more life, not less (see 6:1-7).   Or consider the organization required to care for the widows in 1Timothy 5:3-16.  Apparently even among the apostles there was paperwork!  At any rate, the two-fold “office” we see on the pages of the New Testament demonstrates that the apostolic pattern of authority was established among the churches in a consistent, organizational structure. 

Order was not only found among those with leadership gifts.  Every member served the entire congregation with the “various forms of God’s grace,” as wisely distributed by Jesus for the church’s edification (1Cor.12:4-31).   These were to be thoughtfully administered by all (1Pe.4:10-11) in an orderly and constructive fashion (1Cor.14:26-33). 

The organization of Jesus’ church is not an enemy to its organic character, but critical to it.  Few things are more organized than a living organism. 

If the churches enjoyed a basic, internal order, they were also marked by boundaries.  Not only were the members of the community answerable to those leaders entrusted with their care (1Thess.5:12-13; Hebrews 13:17), such that they identified with a particular community led by particular individuals they both knew and submitted to, but the leaders themselves had a sense of “who’s in” and “who’s out” – of who was within their charge.   Moreover, the very act of “ex-communication,” in which the church removes an individual from fellowship, presupposes a boundary - a line demarcating who was part of the community and who wasn’t (Matt.18:17), who was inside and who was outside (1Cor.5:12).

All of this to say, the church Jesus builds through the apostles, far from being a loose network of ever-fluid, ill-defined relationships, is expressed in local congregations organized around Jesus, ordered with a qualified and commissioned body of leaders, and some semblance, at least, of a recognized membership.  

Secondly, life comes to us not only through the word of the apostles by the Spirit (John 15:26-16:22; 1John 1:3), and not only through our prayer and intimacy with the Father directly with the Son (John 15:1-8), but also through our fellowship with one another.  I make this basic point because the apparent apostle John in the book appears to flatly contradict it:

"I’ve found that when people are discovering what it means to live in Father, they won’t need commitment to keep them linked. He will be enough to do that. “But don’t we learn how to trust him through the body?”
“Actually, it works the other way around. Trust doesn’t flow out of body life, it flows into it!”

But surely it flows both ways!   After all, the whole body grows “as each one does its work,” and so “builds itself up in love” (Eph.4:16; e.g., 1Pe.4:10; Eph.4:29)
And again:

“Scripture doesn’t use the language of need when talking about the vital connection God establishes between believers. Our dependency is in Jesus alone! He’s the one we need. He’s the one we follow. He’s the one God wants us to trust and rely on for everything. When we put the body of Christ in that place, we make an idol of it, and you end up wrapped up in knots over the situation you’re in.

It is true that we need Christ alone.  But as such, Christ supplies us with all other things we need, including the fellowship of the saints - in service to which we serve the Lord Himself (e.g., Matt 25:31-46), and through which the Lord serves us (e.g., 2Cor.9:12-15).  If I can make the mistake of putting the body of Christ in the place of Christ (as we’re often guilty of doing in the West, as displayed in Catholic sacerdotalism and Protestant pulpiteerism), I can make the opposite mistake of dismissing the means of grace by which God blesses the world.   After all, the fullness of Christ in all the world is found, remarkably, in the church, the body of Christ (Eph.1:23).

John says again:

“We share body life together, not because we have to, but because we get to. Anyone who belongs to God will embrace the life he wants his children to share together. And that life isn’t fighting over control of the institution, but simply helping each other learn to live deeply in him. Whenever we let other factors get in the way of that we only use love to get our hooks into people.”

True, but sometimes “body life” causes us to grumble and grieve (1Pe.4:9; Eph.4:26-32).  We need encouragement and exhortation.  John also assumes that the organizational factors of the church “get in the way” of our living “deeply in him.”  Or, at best, they are useless to produce deep growth (see p.158).  In fact, our lives organized together in various ways (e.g., 1Cor.14:23-33; 1Tim.4:11-16; Acts 2:42) are all part and parcel of our living more “deeply in him,” (e.g., 1Jn.1:7; Col.3:15-4:1; Eph.5:17-6:9; Phil.1:27; 2:1-13).

It is true that John told the churches, “the anointing you received remains in you and you do not need anyone to teach you,” (1John 2:27) – if we have the Spirit of Jesus, what else could we need?   And yet John teaches them anyway (2:20-21).  Why?  Because the Spirit continues to sustain and remain in them through the word of the apostles, and by extension, through the ministry of the church as she faithfully administers the gospel of grace.   

Lastly, every gathering of believers has some organization, some structure, whether it is acknowledged or not.  Life together demands deliberateness, intentionality and planning.  Like any family, we need structure - leadership, boundaries, rhythms, and even a budget!  Life together will be fraught with tension, offense, and ruptures, but love covers a multitude of sins, and where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The End of Protestantism?

In his provocatively titled article, “The End of Protestantism,” published nearly a year ago in First Things, the brilliant and controversial PCA minister, Peter Leithart, argues that we dump “Protestantism” and become “Reformational Catholics”:
Protestantism has had a good run. It remade Europe and made America. It inspired global missions, soup kitchens, church plants, and colleges in the four corners of the earth. But the world and the Church have changed, and Protestantism isn’t what the Church, including Protestants themselves, needs today. It’s time to turn the protest against Protestantism and to envision a new way of being heirs of the Reformation, a new way that happens to conform to the original Catholic vision of the Reformers.
Leithart’s case for Protestantism’s demise, however, is less impressive than his title. One wonders if the clever cleric is being satirical.  “A Protestant,” he points out for us, “wears a jacket and tie, or a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, to lead worship; a Reformational Catholic is vested in cassock and stole.”  
The problem begins with Leithart’s thin-air definition of a Protestant: “a not-Catholic…Whatever Catholics say or do, the Protestant does and says as close to the opposite as he can.” Delightful stereotype!  Narrow and unhistorical.  But what could be more stereotypically Protestant than defining this movement of the Church in a totally idiosyncratic way.  In that same “Protestant” spirit, I choose to define a “Reformational Catholic” as a rainbow-colored unicorn - a wonderful animal that only exists if you don't look (or think) too hard.    
But I’m getting ahead of myself.  What is Protestantism, really?  It is more commonly defined as a branch (branches?) of Christianity emerging from the cataclysmic, 16th century reform movement in which clergy and laity alike protested the various moral and doctrinal corruptions of Rome.  Regarding the sad state of affairs during this period, the former Pope, Joseph Ratzinger, writes: 
... the Church was split into two or three obediences that excommunicated one another, so that every Catholic lived under excommunication by one pope or another, and, in the last analysis, no one could say with certainty which of the contenders had right on his side. The Church no longer offered certainty of salvation; she had become questionable in her whole objective form--the true Church, the true pledge of salvation, had to be sought outside the institution. It is against this background of a profoundly shaken ecclesial consciousness that we are to understand that Luther, in the conflict between his search for salvation and the tradition of the Church, ultimately came to experience the Church, not as the guarantor, but as the adversary of salvation.
The church was ripe for radical change.  When Martin Luther posted his fateful 95 theses on October 31st, 1517, it was like setting a match to a pile of dry leaves.  
However, our proud heritage of ecclesiastical reform didn’t begin with the pestering priest of Wittenberg.  Neither was it launched by such “proto-Protestants” as Huss or Wycliffe - the so-called “morning star of the Reformation.”  Rather, it is a reflex of the church as old as St. Paul (Galatians 2:11-14). Whether instigated by controversial figures like Peter Waldo and the various Fraticelli brotherhoods, or by transcendent saints like Francis of Assissi, the reform reflex has always been a vital part of the Church. 

Though I am not as impressed with Philip Schaff's Protestant Principle as Leithart appears to be, here I agree with the great historian:
Protestantism consequently, in the true sense, belongs indispensably to the life of the Church; being the reaction simply of her proper vitality, depressed by not destroyed, in opposition to the workings of disease in her system.  Protestantism runs through the entire history of the Church...
And this is manifestly so because protest is a necessary function of orthodoxy.  Negatively, this "protestant impulse" entails a vigilant and critical examination of the doctrines and practices of the Church against the apostolic tradition as principally embodied in sacred scripture and interpreted according to the gospel of Christ.  Positively, it entails a constant protest (prōtestārī) or public proclamation of the same, apostolic message.
Accordingly, the early fathers were eager to maintain and demonstrate the Church’s doctrine and practice as sanctioned by the apostolic tradition enshrined in Scripture (see J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 1978, pp.29-51). And this meant that not all traditions of the Church were equal.  As Cyprian of Carthage quipped in response to Pope Stephen’s appeal to Roman tradition: “custom without truth is the antiquity of error.”  Throughout the ages theologians have critically engaged the varied traditions of the church in light of their understanding of Scripture.  So Tertullian questioned the (increasing) practice of infant baptism in the 3rd century. So Ratramnus in the 9th century and then Berengar of Tours in the 12th century ably disputed the developing consensus regarding the corporeal transformation of the Eucharistic elements.  So many through all eras of the Church have rejected the widespread use of religious images and icons, such that in the 4th century Synod of Elvira, and again in the 8th century Council of Hiera, employing images in the Church was expressly prohibited (even while the Second Council of Nicea overturned the decision 20 years later).  And on and on it goes.    

However, this does not imply that all who received the traditions reverently and critically were theologically aligned with the 16th century movement known as Protestantism.  To suggest such would be to commit the same error Leithart does in his article.  As Mike Braun observes,
…with his parade of Romanized saints Leithart swallows whole camels of medieval nonsense by forcing Ignatius and the Cappadocians to line up with Dante and Teresa of Avila.  Leaping from the Patristic Age to the Dark Ages, Leithart moves with equal agility from guilt by association to an apparent sanctification by association.
By grouping all these under one rubric, he obscures real differences.  His family tree is impressive for its breadth of shade, but one wonders whether all the branches are rooted in the same plant.  Such a broad ecumenical vision is, in the end, more phantasmal than real (or does Leithart reveal here his own Hegelian read of church history ala Schaff?).  
But Leithart speaks truly when he asserts, “all tradition must be judged by Scripture, the Spirit’s voice in the conversation that is the Church.” Isn’t this precisely what the Nicene theologians did in response to the Arians' claims that their Homoiousian Christology represented the tradition of the fathers?  Isn’t this precisely what the Reformers did in response to Trent’s claims that their works-based soteriology was “the true and sound doctrine, which “the Catholic Church, the Holy Ghost reminding her thereof, has always retained”? And isn’t this precisely what we ought to continue to do in response to those who point to their caps, as Luther would say, and presume to speak for “the one, holy, catholic church”? 
Indeed, Leithart is right: protestantism needs protesting today.  This is embarrassingly obvious, isn't it?  As I scan the best-selling titles on the shelves of Christian bookstores or grimace at the saccharine smiles on so-called Christian television, I'm reminded of David Wells' observation in The Courage to Be Protestant: we cannot even mock American Christianity anymore.  All our disparaging caricatures turn out to be hyper-realistic portraits.  Even Leithart's stereotype finds a real target. But then again, Protestantism has always needed protesting.  And this it has always admitted: Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei.  And, as Dr. Wells persuasively argues in his book, this it must continue to do if it is to survive.

For the glory of Christ and His Church, then, viva la revolucion!