Remember where we are – we MUST tell the truth but we MUST do so in a way that “promotes the good name of the neighbor” about whom we are speaking.
But one way ahead is by abandoning all of the “lazy labels” evangelical Reformed Christians seem to love when talking about their neighbors whom they think are in serious theological error. Let’s just not call ANYONE homophobic or heretical or a “fire-breathing T.R.” (I came across this last label since posting my previous blog).
Another way ahead involves the Church, the Body of Christ, the Family of God.
This blog will make some general points about the church and then, in my next blog, I will suggest a few possible ways in which the church might be more involved than it usually is in this matter of our truth-telling.
Americans are notoriously freedom-living and individualistic in our mindsets. One of the best books ever written about the American Revolution is Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. It was so good that it was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize, an honor that has been repeated only 16 times in history. The book is 335 pages long and its longest chapter, Chapter Six, takes up 89 of those pages. Entitled “The Contagion of Liberty,” that chapter traces the various ways in which the notion of the absolute freedom of the individual came to pervade all of Colonial society in the years just before and just after the American Revolution.
Remember, I said “all of society.” In his analysis, Bailyn quotes as many sermons as he does any other type of source. And if one reads Bailyn’s book together with Mark Noll’s magnificent, Princeton and the Republic, 1768-1822: The Search for Christian Enlightenment in the Era of Samuel Stanhope Smith, one will get a very clear sense of how “the contagion of liberty” swept through the American church at the end of the 18th century. It is no surprise that Unitarianism flourished and that ecclesiastical disestablishment occurred during these years.
Now, more to the point at hand.
Contrary to the perspectives of some, I do not believe that everything “American” is “Christian.” Further, I believe that the attitude toward personal freedom which was built into the American psyche (and Constitution) by the events which Bailyn and Noll describe cannot be considered the equivalent of the understanding of freedom in Scripture. The former understanding is primarily a “freedom from” (ANYone’s telling me what to do) and the latter is primarily a “freedom to” (worship God as He deserves).
But few of us American theologians or semi-theologians have, in my opinion, taken seriously the degree to which our own view of the world and of the Christian faith has been radically shaped by that Colonial “contagion of liberty.” And one of the areas that has been most profoundly contagion-shaped is our understanding of the nature of the church, especially when it comes to the degree to which we recognize and submit to the authority of the church.
Let me mention here one set of consequences and then, in my next blog, I will focus on the relationship between this contagion and truth-telling.
As I look at the behavior of American evangelical and Reformed Christians, I think I see one result of “the contagion of liberty” in the way in which we regard church membership. We are so conditioned by the “freedom from” mentality that we regard church membership as little more binding on us than a country club membership would be. “I don’t like the music at my church, so I will switch churches. I have no more accountability to the officers of my church than I would to a country club board.” Does this sound familiar? I know I have heard it, or the equivalent, many times.
Occasionally, examples from church history are used to justify leaving a church. “Martin Luther did it and he’s a great hero of global Protestants.” Or, “J. Gresham Machen did it and he’s a great hero of American Presbyterians.” But even if these statements were true, they would not, in my judgment, be adequate defenses. No human beings should be cited as an example to us unless it can be clearly demonstrated that their actions were in line with biblical principles. In fact, however, neither Luther nor Machen left his church. Neither of them was thinking of freedom as “freedom from” ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Both of them stood for biblical principles and they were, for that reason, EXPELLED FROM their churches. If Luther and Machen are examples to be followed at all, they are examples of insisting on the “freedom to” worship God as He deserves, even if that costs me my church membership. But simply “walking away” from a church jurisdiction was not the way of either Luther or Machen.
To put it a simpler way, both Luther and Machen CONSIDERED THE CHURCH in taking the actions they did. And that’s what I think we should do – take very seriously the nature of the church and its authority over us in every part of our lives. I am more accountable, MUCH more accountable, to the officers of my church than I am to the officers of my country club. [Below, I have included some statements from Calvin, from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and from the Presbyterian Church in America to provide some sense of how and why we are more accountable to our church officers than we are to the officers of our country club.]
Does this mean that once I am a member of a church, I can never leave, under any circumstances? Historically, some have argued this way but it is not what I am suggesting. I am suggesting that any consideration of my leaving a church should first be brought by me to the officers of that church. In other words, those directly responsible for the operation of the church must be engaged in the discussion about my concerns regarding the church. [For what it is worth, this is exactly how both Luther and Machen proceeded.] One result of those discussions may be general agreement that it would be better for both me and the church if I moved my membership elsewhere. But in such a case, I would still be honoring my membership vows to “be in subjection to my brothers in the Lord.” If there is no such agreement, it is my judgment that only the most extreme situations would warrant my departing over the objection of the officers of the church.
And this is the same model that I want to suggest with the matter of “truth-telling.” CONSIDER THE CHURCH. Or, to keep faith with the title of this blog, one of the ways NOT to tell the truth is by IGNORING the church. Those of us who really want to tell the truth absolutely must “consider the church.” If the church is what most of us believe it is, then it MUST have a place in our conversation about other Christians, especially when we are disagreeing with those Christians about matters of faith or life.
What exactly should that place be?
As they say, “tune in next time.”
Sam Logan is a minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the International Director of the World Reformed Fellowship, though neither of these is responsible for the comments above. To hold accountable the one who IS responsible, write to firstname.lastname@example.org
Statements About the Nature of the Church:
From John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion:
Let no one, therefore, contumaciously despise the judgment of the Church – Institutes IV, 11, 2
Every one of us must maintain brotherly concord with all the children of God, give due authority to the Church, and, in short, conduct ourselves as sheep of the flock. – Institutes, IV, 1, 3
From the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church:
II, 1. Jesus Christ, being now exalted far above all principality and power, has erected in this world a kingdom, which is his church.
III, 5. Church government is a valid and authentic jurisdiction to which Christians are commanded to submit themselves. Therefore the decisions of church officers when properly rendered and if in accord with the Word of God “are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in his Word” (Confession of Faith, Chapter XXXI, Section 2).
From the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America
I., 1. Christ, as King, has given to His Church officers, oracles and ordinances; and especially has He ordained therein His system of doctrine, government, discipline and worship, all of which are either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary inference may be deduced therefrom; and to which things He commands that nothing be added, and that from them naught be taken away.
II. 3. Our blessed Saviour, for the edification of the visible Church, which is His body, has appointed officers not only to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments, but also to exercise discipline for the preservation both of truth and duty. It is incumbent upon these officers and upon the whole Church in whose name they act, to censure or cast out the erroneous and scandalous, observing in all cases the rules contained in the Word of God.