Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fighting trendiness with tradition

Carl Trueman has been taking on the ills of trendiness especially among the younger, newer converts to Reformed theology. In his most recent essay on the topic, The Problem with Trendiness (Part Two), Carl argues that we embrace trendiness at our peril and the reason it is so popular is because we have lost our sesne of churchly piety and misunderstand the church in general...

In subsequent columns I will flesh the concept out, but here I lay down the basic foundation: churchly piety is rooted in the church. That would seem to be an obvious point, but it is surprising how many people miss it. The mistake derives from a failure to understand what the church is.

First, I am not even sure that “churchly” is a real word although my spell check says it is. I would certainly agree that there is a problem of understanding what the church is (and what it is not) Needless to say, I disagree quite strongly with Carl’s definition because of where the focus is. Here is where the core of the problem starts:

Most Christians would certainly agree that the church is made up of all believers, and that is a fine definition. However, it is also more than that.

The preceding sentence is the point where alarm bells should start ringing. There certainly is a corporate aspect to the church but to then say…

The church is also an institution with office-bearers (elders and deacons) who have been ordained to specific tasks. These men hold ministerial authority and have responsibility to take care of the well being of the people of God, both spiritually and physically.

Well that is fine and dandy except…it is by and large not true. When you define the church by our institutional traditions and further restrict the church to require a traditional understanding of church “office-bearers”, you have gone waaaaaay beyond what Scripture teaches.

The idea that elders and deacons have been assigned specific and exclusive tasks is not found anywhere in Scripture. Deacons especially since there is nothing in the Word about what a deacon is called to do. The qualities to be desired absolutely but specific “this is deacons work” list of tasks are absent. Even though elders are called to certain “tasks” those tasks are not specific or exclusive to "office holders". Teaching is something an elder should be apt to do but not only elders are to teach. Preaching the Gospel is something all Christians are called to. Baptism and administering the supper are nowhere restricted to the supervision of elders.

Many brothers in the old school Reformed traditions are quite leery, to the point of being dismissive or outright hostile, to anything that seems new or different. Some of that is understandable in a day and age when a segment of the church is hell-bent on chucking anything that might offend or alienate the unregenerate, even to the point of altering the Gospel itself. But to respond to that by clinging ever more tightly to the traditional model of the church that is so strongly dependent on the oldest men in the darkest suits ruling and directing the church while the young whippersnappers sit in their pews and wait their turn to be heard is horribly misguided. We so need wisdom in the church and one of the best places to tap that is in the older, more mature men in the church. Some of those men have a title like “elder” associated with their name, many of them lack a title or office but function in that respect all the same.

When we let our practices define the church rather than letting the definition of the church drive our practices, we are on treacherous ground indeed. In other words, what defines ”the church” is our traditional understanding of the church based in large part on our historic practices supported by pretty shaky interpretation and application of Scripture. I am always amazed by the hold our traditions have on the church, on people who should know better. We cling to these man-made traditions with all of the pious stubbornness of a first century Jewish religious leader.

I agree with Carl that we should not be obsessed with pursuing what is hip or new or appeals to the young but likewise we shouldn’t cling stubbornly to our beloved traditions no matter how much they foster a sense of “churchly piety”. I am afraid our ideas of what church piety should look like don’t have a lot to do with Scripture. The world of weekly Sunday morning liturgical services, endless meetings where only a select few make decisions, starched shirts and hourlong sermons, self-sustaining institutions and harrumphing at the younger generations may appeal to our desire for churchly piety but it is not Scriptural and in many ways it actually hampers what the church is supposed to look and function like.

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