Thursday, April 13, 2017

Adventures In Assuming The Church With Aaron!

"By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you regularly attend religious events. And if you don't buy in without question you clearly are stupid and hate Me"

(John 13:35, Institutional Church Version)

I don't spend much time these days making the case for a less ritualized, less institutionalized form of church. I have said about all I can say and we really haven't found many people, especially not locally, who are interested in a serious revamping of the institutional model. It is sort of like Reformed theology, I still subscribe to "Calvinism" without hesitation but trying to convince people who are already predisposed to reject Reformed theology is often a waste of time and just gets people upset. You have to read the Bible and find the doctrines of grace there for yourself, you aren't likely to get there by reading my blog. So while I still write about the church, I do so more for my own reasons and to work out things I am thinking about in public. I would love to interact with people who are sincerely looking for what the Bible teaches about the church but I assume most people who read my blog on those questions already are largely in agreement with me in principle, if not in practice. 

Having said that...

It is common to see posts from the usual suspects telling us that loving Jesus means "loving the church", "church" in this conversation exclusively defined as our traditional institutional model that is clergy-centric, event-focused, ritualistic and largely a spectator sport for most "lay" Christians. Places like The Gospel Coalition (which seems to have taken a rather abrupt turn toward "social justice" of late) and 9 Marks have been running with the "How can you say you love Jesus but not the church?" narrative for a while but today I ran across an article that goes from that narrative to the "If you don't love traditional religious practices you are stupid and despise the church!". No, really. The impetus for the article is the recent Barna Group report on people who profess to be Christians while not attending "Christian" religious services. It is an interesting report as long as you recognize the inherent limitations in a survey like that. As you can imagine, for a lot of people dependent on the institutional church model in professional clerical positions and at seminaries training those religious professionals, the idea of people living out the Christian life while not "going to church" is dangerous and subversive. 

Enter into the fray Aaron Denlinger, writing at reformation21. I don't really know anything about Aaron other than his post linked to by Tim Challies, My Jesus, I Love You; Your Bride I Despise!. From this post I can't say I am terribly impressed. Aaron spends most of his post insulting people who don't show up to church sufficiently as stupid liberals who "never" read the Bible. Those are not my words, they are actually what  he says. As is often the case with rants against people who are not on board the institutional church train, Aaron generally assumes the church. By "assuming the church" I mean generally taking for granted what our Western traditions have taught about the church. This is especially ironic given that we are in the year of the 500th anniversary of Luther's 95 Theses and that Aaron is writing for a webpage called "reformation21". If Luther had assumed the church as we are supposed to do so today, he wouldn't have questioned things like the papacy and indulgences. "How can you say you love Jesus but don't recognize His Vicar?!" would scream the blogs in 1517 if there were blogs back then.

Aaron lumps together two distinct groups. There are cultural "Christians" in America who click the "Christian" box on surveys to indicate their religious affiliation even though they don't particularly care about Christianity. Ironically an awful lot of "churches"that Aaron conflates with "The Church" are full of these people. On the other hand there are a lot of actual regenerate, born-again, Scripture-reading, Jesus-loving Christians who don't attend weekly religious services. For Aaron, that is tantamount to despising the Church:
Last week the Barna Group informed us that a whopping ten percent of America's population "love Jesus but not the church." Lack of "love" for the church, for Barna's purposes, is essentially measured by lack of attendance at religious services. Few of those self-identifying with this group would profess contempt for the church. Some, to be sure, do have an admitted bone to pick with the church, but most, it seems, simply can't be bothered with her. But on the principle that neglect is really a rather potent form of contempt, I think we might define these individuals collectively as professed Jesus-lovers but church-despisers.
Aaron doesn't actually know these people and makes no attempt to interact with their arguments but nevertheless feels qualified to declare that they are unconsciously "church-despisers". Granted, Barna's survey and the results are a pretty broad brush but if you can't distinguish between questioning traditional church practices that look an awful lot like modifications of Roman ceremonies and an unconscious despising of the church, you probably shouldn't comment.
The really remarkable thing about this segment of our population is that, at least according to Barna's editor-in-chief Roxanne Stone, they "still believe in Scripture." To be sure, the numbers reveal they rarely read Scripture. I'm not sure how convincing or compelling one's "belief" in Scripture can actually be labeled if the one in question never reads the Bible. Presumably the conviction that Scripture is, say, God-breathed and profitable for doctrine and praxis would inspire one (no pun intended) to pick it up occasionally. Still, we're told that these individuals "believe in Scripture," and yet feel no apparent compulsion to follow the rather obvious biblical injunctions to assemble and participate in those rituals that Jesus ordered his assembled followers to perform. 
Again, using a survey of around 1200 people asking pretty broad questions to formulate a narrative of despising the church is inherently problematic. The survey does show that of those who were surveyed that "Love Jesus But Not The Church", a category from Barna that is inherently flawed because of the imprecise definition of "The Church", Scripture reading is not high on their list. Only 26% of those survey report that Scripture reading is a priority. On the other hand I have met a ton of every-Sunday-attending Christians who would affirm that Scripture reading is a priority that are woefully ignorant of what those Scriptures actually teach and really, what self-professing Evangelical is going to admit that they don't read the Scriptures very often? What is really interesting is his last sentence in this paragraph (emphasis added): "Still, we're told that these individuals "believe in Scripture," and yet feel no apparent compulsion to follow the rather obvious biblical injunctions to assemble and participate in those rituals that Jesus ordered his assembled followers to perform." Which "rituals" are those? Well we don't know because Aaron doesn't bother to tell us. I assume he means things like breaking bread and prayer and teaching and fellowship, the "Big Four" of Acts 2:42. What is obvious is that Aaron either hasn't considered how this could happen outside of a scheduled Sunday morning service or he has and rejected the idea in spite of the lack of any evidence that the apostolic church had meetings that resemble a traditional church service. Let me state clearly that you can have the four elements of the gathered church in a traditional, institutional setting although I don't think it is the best or most biblically faithful model but I would affirm just as strongly that you can have those elements outside of a traditional church setting as well and often in a more faithful manner. Then there is this:
Forgive my bluntness, but claiming to love Jesus while wanting nothing to do with the church is just stupid.
Well that is intellectually about one step removed from "people who don't participate in culturally determined religious services are just poopheads". Bluntness I can forgive, willful misrepresentation I cannot. His following sentences I have no issue with on their face:
If the "Jesus" we're talking about is the God-man whose life, death, resurrection, and ascension is described and defined for us by the inspired writings of those he commissioned to disciple the nations, then the "church" we're talking about must be the entity described and defined for us by those same writings. The "church," according to those writings, is Christ's bride, whom he loves, whom he nourishes, whom he died for (see Eph. 5:25-32). As the hymnist puts it: "From Heaven he came and sought her, to be his holy bride. With his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died."
To that I say a hearty "Amen!". However yet again we see him assuming that "The Church" must and may only mean "Institutional religious services officiated by a properly ordained member of the clergy". I have no issue with Jesus and the Church as described and defined in the Scriptures, in fact I go out of my way to affirm what the Scriptures actually teach about Jesus and about the church. I would suspect that if Aaron and I were having coffee and talking about things like the hypostatic union and justification by faith and soteriology, we would get along swimmingly but if the conversation strayed to ecclesiology, specifically in practice, someone might spill their coffee. I have observed this weird inconsistency among Reformed types before. They are so careful and faithful when it comes to predestination and adoption and perseverance of the saints but when it comes to how the church gathers there seem to be some sort of ecclesiastical blinders that get worn. Compare the faithful and rigorous exegesis of passages on questions of Reformed theology proper (i.e. the Five Points) to ecclesiastical practice and the clumsy and often defensive way that church practices are assumed and it seems like you are talking to two different theologians.

Aaron continues on with the common analogy of someone who says they like him but don't care for spending time with his wife, an analogy that is just silly. Jesus is not my buddy that I like to watch football and drink beer with. He is my King and my Savior. His Bride is not a wet blanket killjoy that you don't want around because she nags him during the game, His Bride is all of the redeemed today, tomorrow and throughout the ages. Like so many analogies it falls apart on any serious examination.

His last paragraph deserves some examination, not because it raises any valid points but because it is so arrogant and totally lacking in self-awareness (emphasis mine):
It's difficult to know how seriously to take the claim that one might love Jesus but despise his bride and body. Part of me wants to merely role my eyes rather than seriously engage such a sentiment, much as I prefer to counter liberal efforts to strip Christianity of its supernatural elements with a pronounced yawn rather than serious argument. But the prevalence of those who believe they can have Jesus without his bride/body suggests, perhaps, the need for some more intelligent response. Maybe a first step in such might be recognizing the part that evangelical Protestantism itself has played in cultivating the naïve assumption that Christ can be had without his bride/body. Are we, dare I say it, largely to blame for such stupidity, by virtue (for instance) of the dismally weak ecclesiology and sacramentology we have championed in the history of American evangelicalism? Or perhaps by virtue of the tolerance we have shown to parachurch organizations that too often subvert rather than support the church by presuming to play the part the church is divinely appointed to play in the lives of believers? Who needs Christ's bride around when you can have his less obnoxious distant cousin?
See, what we need is more church! And get rid of those awful "parachurch" organizations!

Not to be petty but it is "roll" not "role" when it comes to your eyes and second it is ironic that he claims to "seriously engage" the topic when he mostly seems content to knock over strawmen and hurl insults. What is really amazing is that I think he really believes that his essay "seriously engages" the idea of people being faithful Christians while not "faithfully" attending "church". His essay is chock full of dismissive quips and outright insults but what you will look for in vain is any attempt by Aaron Denlinger to actually engage in the arguments, made from Scripture, by Christians who have looked with a critical eye at our traditional religious practices and searched the Scriptures to see if these things are true and realized that our religious subculture is not found in Scripture. Perhaps his intelligent response is forthcoming. 

You can disagree with critics of traditional religious practices, that is fine, but to call them stupid, label them "liberal" and suggest that anyone who questions institutional church practices doesn't read the Bible is what is truly ignorant. Go to the pages of the New Testament Reformation Fellowship and read their articles and then tell me that they are not engaged with Scripture. Read my far less eloquent writings. What you might find is that instead of assuming the church based centuries of traditions handed down by people with a vested interest in perpetuating those traditions, an actual search of the Scriptures will at the very least raise serious questions about our practices that cannot be dismissed by calling those questions stupid.

As I wrote on Facebook when first sharing this post, the whole "How can you love Jesus but hate His bride!?" narrative used to smear anyone who dares question institutionalized religious practices is the height of foolishness. It really epitomizes the way that discourse in the church mirrors the world where people substitute emotionalized rhetoric for meaningful interaction, a more genteel but just as anti-intellectual of a response to people questioning the dominant paradigm as that which we see on college campuses. I can respect people who defend traditional church practices from Scripture and even from a sense of pragmatism. What I cannot respect is someone who seems content to let misrepresentation and insults serve as a response to legitimate questions.

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