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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Whatever Became of Church? (Part One)

Editor’s Note: This is the first of three blogs on the demise of a robust understanding of “church” in modern evangelical life.

Near the beginning of my rather short tenure as a seminary president, I sat in the boardroom of a prominent Christian business leader to try and pitch a vision for contributing to theological education, specifically student scholarships.  Instead of listening to the opportunity, or asking pertinent questions as to the value of such an investment, he was determined to boast of his company’s identity as a Christian enterprise. 

He told of the mission trips he had taken with his employees, the investments the company had made from its profits in select boutique parachurch ventures, and the Bible study offered on-campus for employees.  Throughout his self-congratulatory spiel, he took more than his fair share of shots at local churches and pastors who were not as “alive” as he and his company were in their faith

Forgive me, but he was insufferably full of his own spiritual self-importance and virtue, as if he had drunk a bit too deeply from the fawning of countless pilgrims who had come to his corporate offices to laud his beneficence and ask for his generosity.

Like me.

At the time, as a new seminary president facing an inherited budgetary shortfall of over one million dollars, I was willing to endure almost anything – or anyone – for aid.  I smiled and nodded, affirming his many self-ascribed accolades. 

Then, in the midst of one of his personal asides about the sorry state of the church, as compared to the pristine missional nature of his business, he maintained that it was for this reason that he wasn’t involved in a local church.  They were, he intimated, beneath his own theological vision.  “And after all,” he added, “we’re the church, too.”

And then everything within me wanted to leap from my seat, shout “Enough!”, and say, “No, you are NOT!”  A company is not the body of Christ instituted as the hope of the world by Jesus Himself, chronicled breathtakingly by Luke through the book of Acts, and shaped in thinking and practice by the apostle Paul through letter after letter now captured in the New Testament.  A marketplace venture which offers itself on the New York Stock Exchange is not the entity which is so expansive with energy that not even the gates of hell can withstand its onslaught.  An assembly of employees in cubicles working for end-of-year stock options and bonuses is not the gathering of saints bristling with the power of spiritual gifts as they mobilize to provide justice for the oppressed, service to the widow and the orphan, and compassion for the poor.

But it is not surprising that an evangelical, Bible-believing follower of Christ would think that it is.  The research of D. Michael Lindsay on the leaders of evangelical Christianity found that – among Christian Presidents and CEO’s, senior business executives and Hollywood icons, celebrated artists and world-class athletes – more than half had low levels of commitment to their congregations.  Some were members in name only; others had actively disengaged from church life. 

With jaw-dropping vigor, ignorance, and at times unblushing gall, increasing sectors of the evangelical world are abandoning two thousand years of ecclesiology; as if the church was some malleable human construct that can be shaped, altered, redefined or even disposed of as desired.  This, coupled with a radical revisionism in terms of biblical interpretation and ecclesial history that would seem more in line with The Da Vinci Code than Christian theology, the doctrine of the church is being reformulated apart from biblical moorings, or simply dismissed as if not a part of biblical orthodoxy at all.

For example, it is more than disturbing that a recent survey of American Christians found that the majority deemed each of the following to be “a complete and biblically valid” way for someone who does not participate in a conventional church to experience and express their faith in God in place of the church:

*engaging in faith activities at home
*watching a religious television program
*listening to a religious radio broadcast
*attending a special ministry event, such as a concert or community service activity
*participating in a marketplace ministry

This from a movement that had one of its early fathers, Cyprian, maintain that "You cannot have God as your father unless you have the church for your mother."

So what happened?  In many ways, the answer is that the Reformation happened.  As a Protestant, I obviously believe much within the Reformation was both needed and good.  But there was much that flowed from the Reformation that was neither.  Specifically, a loss of historical sense, and a robust ecclesiology. 

Too often, Protestant Christians seems to think that the Reformation was the beginning of the Christian faith instead of a turning point within its history.  Church history did not begin with Luther posting his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg church on October 31, 1517.  If we believe it did, we divorce ourselves from a rich heritage which would, among many other things, speak to a strong ecclesiology. 

Robert Webber, known for championing the Patristic era, used to tell of a colleague at Wheaton College who said, “Webber, you act like there never was a Reformation.”  To which Bob replied, “You act like there never was an ancient church.”  Failing to recognize this long and rich history “is to be stripped of our story, heritage, and even identity,” writes Kenneth Collins, who then added: “Stripped and naked is no way in which to enter the twenty-first century.”

Among evangelicals, this truncated view of history has been a double-edged sword.  For most, it has led to a trivialization of the church; for a growing minority, it has led to a hunger for a deeper sense of church than they found in their evangelical upbringing.  This hunger, coupled with the lost sense of history, has led many to feel the need to leave evangelical Christianity in order to tap into the rich narrative of ancient and medieval faith, putting many evangelicals on the Canterbury trail toward Anglicanism, or even leading them to “cross the Tiber” into Catholicism. 

It is not that one cannot be an evangelical Anglican, or an evangelical Catholic.  The point is that many are driven to this, often at the expense of true theological conviction, due to the desire for something of the biblical vision for the church – or any vision for the church.

Adding to the ecclesial wasteland was the approach taken by many of the Reformers toward the purification of the church from its perceived medieval excesses.  My seminary patristics professor used to quip that Calvin reduced the church to “four walls and a Bible.”  It wasn’t that strong of an exaggeration.  Evidence of the ferocious assault on all things “Rome” can be found throughout Europe. 

I recall walking through Holyrood Palace at the foot of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland, which was founded as a monastery in 1128, and seeing rows of empty alcoves, once filled with precious art, that had been destroyed by the Scottish Protestant leader John Knox’s inspiration of a “rascal multitude” in 1567 that then went on a destructive tear.  Or more recently walking through the Prague Castle in the Czech Republic – and specifically St. George’s Basilica which rests within its walls – which was decimated by radical Calvinists who felt they had to destroy priceless art in order to make the church suitable for Protestant worship.  A wood relief exists to this day in the church chronicling the debasement.

The point is that if one tries to look to the Reformation alone for a vision of the church, it is often depleted by the excesses of Reformation frenzy. 

But the Reformation didn’t just spawn a rejection of medieval ecclesiology; as it wrenched itself from the monolithic nature of the “catholic” church, it spawned the birth of free-market spiritual entrepreneurialism, which in turn weakened ecclesiology even more – particularly as it later washed upon the shores of the American continent. 

If there is a dominant force shaping the contours of American Christianity, it is, without a doubt, democratization.  As historian Nathan Hatch has written, the democratic spirit deeply affected popular religious movements – and especially evangelicalism – in three respects: 

First, there was the denial of the age-old distinction that set the clergy apart as a separate order of men.  Anyone could “minister.”  They did not need to work through a church or ecclesiastical body. 

Second, ordinary people were empowered to take their deepest spiritual impulses at face value rather than subjecting them to the scrutiny of orthodox doctrine, or it may have been upheld by an ecclesial body.  Further, those who chose to minister did not have to be subject to oversight.  The democratization of American Christianity is the story of “how ordinary folk came to...defend the right of common people to shape their own faith and submit to leaders of their own choosing.”  So not only were leaders turned loose, but so were the followers. 

Third, there was little if any sense of limitations.  There was a dream that a new age of religious and social harmony could flow from their efforts. 

And democratization took hold.  To be sure, as Hatch also notes, the free-market mindset helped to ensure the vitality of American faith.  But apart from a clear and ongoing understanding of, and commitment to, the biblical and historical idea of the church, it soon gave rise to a collection of parachurch ministries and freelance ministries that separated the practice of ministry from a theology of the church.  Or more to the point, from church in general. 

And it is the worst of the parachurch movement that in many ways continues to undermine a robust view of the role and ministry of the church.

James Emery White

Sources

“A gated community in the evangelical world,” D. Michael Lindsay, USA Today, Monday, February 11, 2008, 13A.

“Americans Embrace Various Alternatives to a Conventional Church Experience as Being Fully Biblical,” The Barna Update, February 18, 2008 (see www.barna.org).

“Together in the Jesus Story,” David Neff, Christianity Today, September, 2006, p. 54.

Kenneth Collins, The Evangelical Moment: The Promise of An American Religion.

Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon.  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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