Which church will survive?

I came across a provocative article, A Church for Exiles, by Carl Trueman in the August issue of First Things, a periodical of conservative Christian thought. The author of this article sees Christianity overwhelmed by secularism and entering a period of “exile” in the United States. He asks the question as to which church (or Christian tradition) is best equipped to survive in this age of exile. He briefly surveys the situation for Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism (he doesn’t even bother with mainstream Protestantism and he shows no awareness of the Orthodox Church), and then presents the case for his own Reformed tradition. This is the type of Protestantism that originated with Calvin and other Protestant Reformers in the 16th century. This is the type of Christianity practiced by the Pilgrims who established the first colonies in what is today the United States.

According to Trueman, the Reformed Church “cultivates a practical simplicity: Church life centers on the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, prayer, and corporate praise.” I like the idea of “simplicity”; but I find his summary of what is most important to be severely limited. And what exactly does “administration of the sacraments” mean for a church where baptism has been intellectualized and watered down from its original rich cosmic mysticism, and where communion is just the sharing of ordinary bread and grape juice? That’s the answer this author has for the challenge facing Christianity in the 21st century? I find it pretty bland.

The author’s thought becomes even more alienating as he goes on to describe Reformed faith and worship. He offers the following thoughts in response to the question, What about Liturgy?

The Gospel according to the Reformed faith is straightforward: We are dead in sin and need to be united to Christ, the God-man, who lived and died and rose again for us and for our salvation. United with him, we look beyond the ephemera of this world to the eternity beyond.

Reformed worship places the Word at the center because the declaration of the truth of the Gospel is central. Ideally, this truth shapes the liturgical actions of the Reformed community. For example, in the church service, the minister reads the Decalogue and brings words of judgment down on God’s people, reminding them of their death in Adam. He leads them in a corporate confession of sin and then reads words from Scripture, pointing toward the promise in Christ of comfort, forgiveness, and the final ­resurrection to come. Fall, death, forgiveness, resurrection: The basic elements of the Christian message find concise and precise expression in Reformed liturgical practice.

The congregation, reminded of who they are—sinners who stand before God condemned for their ­unrighteousness and uncleanness—receive the promise in Christ that, grasped by faith, seals forgiveness upon their hearts and moves them to praise and thanksgiving.

This singular focus—the drama of sin and redemption inwardly known—is a great boon in times of exile. To retain an identity in the face of a hostile culture, one must belong to a vibrant community of people who know who they are. This is the New Testament pattern of Christianity. When we hear, in clear and unequivocal words, who we are declared to us in the sermon each week and when we participate in liturgical action embodying that identity, we are well prepared for the hostile liturgies and gospels of the world we encounter from Monday to Saturday.

This is the Reformed formula for surviving in this age of exile, to remind people at every service that they are sinners, condemned for all eternity? Isn’t this precisely the reason why so many people reject Christianity? Because of this constant emphasis on sin and sinners? Even the Orthodox Church is not immune to this obsession with sin. The most common way we refer to ourselves in Orthodox services is “us sinners,” “me a sinner,” “I a sinner,” etc. We sing the same Memorial service, with the same prayers for forgiveness of sins, even after the departed has been dead for 50 or 100, or 1,000 years! Don’t you think that at some point we should stop reminding the dead and the living that they are sinners?

Despite this weakness, however, the Orthodox Church does not present the same bleak view of humanity as the Reformed tradition, but instead unfolds a broader vision of Christian essence. Our Liturgy is much richer than what Trueman describes here. The Sermon is not the center of the Liturgy; it’s important, but it’s not the reason for the gathering on a Sunday or feast-day. The Eucharist is the center, the remembrance of Christ’s global significance, his offering of his body and blood not just for my salvation, which is the Reformed preoccupation, but for the salvation of the world! Trueman quotes the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the main summaries of Reformed faith:

What is your only comfort in life and death? That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour ­Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yes, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

It’s me, me, me all the way. Christ died for me. Nothing about the world, nothing about sanctification and transfiguration of the world. What about my neighbor? The Reformed person would answer, he can be saved too, if he accepts the same faith that I have. I find this to be extremely limited and narrow thinking. The Orthodox tradition has a healthier, fuller vision of the world – a world that is not just fallen, but also capable of transfiguration by the sanctifying and deifying presence of Christ and his people. Of course, this Orthodox understanding is often a well-kept secret in our churches, as we become more and more conformed to our own brand of American commercial Christianity. And this brings me to one troubling aspect of Orthodox history.

The Orthodox Church has had a very troubling tendency to accommodate itself to state power. We saw this in the Byzantine Empire, in Czarist Russia, and in all the national churches. In recent decades we’ve seen this in Greece and Serbia, and today we see the Russian Orthodox Church allying itself with the militaristic policies of the Putin government. The Moscow Patriarchate itself is practicing a dirty game of political maneuvering to become Number One in the Orthodox world. Does no one in Moscow ever read the words of Jesus in Luke 22:24-26?

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.

Quite frankly, does anyone in the Orthodox world think of these words when they jostle for rank and order and for proper titles? One would have expected that the Orthodox in America would resist the temptation of acquiescence to state power. After all, America has no tradition of a state church and there is a separation of church and state here – at least in theory and formal law. But here, too, Orthodox hanker for recognition from politicians and for a prominent place at all state functions. This has the effect of making Orthodoxy just another American religion instead of being the transformative message of God’s liberating power over all creation.

Trueman does have wonderful things to say about the Psalms. I can relate to this:

The Psalms’ many notes of lament, of longing for future rest, and of present discomfort and disillusion with the status quo… provides realistic horizons of expectation for this world—and for the next. It gives us a vocabulary with which to praise God in the midst of the contradictions of life… the very songs of David we sing speak of exile—and of hope for the better country we seek.

This recognition of exile and the hope we find in the Psalms… is not so obvious in other Christian traditions. For example, the worship of the American Evangelical Church of the last few decades has been marked by what one might call an aesthetic of power and triumph. Praise bands perform in churches often built to look more like concert venues than traditional places of worship. Rock riffs and power chords set the musical tone. Songs speak of tearing down enemy ­strongholds. Christianity does, of course, point to triumph, but it is the triumph of resurrection, and resurrection presupposes prior suffering and death. An emphasis on triumph, often to the exclusion of lament, will not prepare people for life this side of resurrection glory. It will not prepare us for a life of exile. I fear we are laying the foundations for disillusionment and despair.

These are good thoughts and they are not alien to me as an Orthodox Christian. The Psalms with their contrasting reactions to life in all its joys, sorrows and dangers, are a powerful means of living in this age of exile. One friend who is going through a major calamity in her life recently asked me to help her find expression for her feelings in the Psalms, especially number 119. And this is what the Psalms do: they heal by allowing us to voice even thoughts of hatred and revenge. They heal because they allow us to voice those negative thoughts in the presence of God. God does not consider any thought taboo, as long as it’s presented to God by an honest heart that is open to insight and transformation.

So what church will survive in this age of exile? Trueman thinks it’s his church, the Reformed Church. I don’t agree. Do I think it’s the Orthodox Church? I don’t worry about such things. The Orthodox Church will “survive” as long as God has use for it. In this country, we are small and still connected to the umbilical cords of our ethnic origins. But God can still use us for good, and it’s happening at many levels, if not always where it should be happening the most.

The problem with Trueman’s article is that it represents a remnant theology. Instead of casting his nets far and wide like Jesus did, Trueman wants to limit survival to one brand of currently existing Christianity. He sees no need for change in his Reformed Church; it will survive because it is what it is and it tells people who they are, namely sinners. Good luck with that. There are people like that in the Orthodox Church as well, who see the church as being perfect as it is, with no need to change anything. These people cannot separate the church from its Byzantine or Czarist past.

What the Orthodox Church has to offer – once we cut the ethnic umbilical cord – is a broader vision than the one Trueman presents, but which nevertheless is not complete for today’s world, and we can learn from our brothers and sisters. We can learn from the Catholic commitment to social justice. We can learn from the Reformed and Evangelical encounter with Scripture – though serious encounter for us does not mean fundamentalist. The Orthodox Church has a rich tradition of creativity. The creative way Scripture has been interpreted in our iconography and hymnography is a shining example of how the words of Scripture can be made understandable in a post-Christian society. And this is the key, with all due respect to Mr. Trueman.

In Christ’s vision of life, no one can survive or be saved on their own. Why should it be any different for a church? No matter how beautiful, how all-encompassing our Liturgy, our theology, our iconography, we must be willing to practice what we preach: a willingness to be transformed, to be transfigured – and transfiguration requires change and movement, not standing still – especially when that standing still is in a past that no longer exists. And change does not mean going with the flow of what is popular in society. Change should come from within our rich experience of faith; but above all change can only come from taking Jesus Christ seriously. And sometimes that means that we have to change or abandon something that contradicts the plain words of Jesus.

I know I’ve written some challenging things here that will upset some, and perhaps this article has been too long for some people to read, but if you want to talk about survival, don’t think small and exclusive. Think big and inclusive. Quite frankly, I don’t care to answer Trueman’s question. I don’t think survival is what Christ preached. Thriving is what Christ is all about. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The only reason why some of us even have to worry about survival is that we have ventured far outside the vision of Christ. To talk about survival is to make Jesus a liar.

So let’s forget about exile and survival in a post-Christian world. Let’s stop seeing the world as the enemy. There is enough enemy talk all around us, we don’t need to contribute to it. Present to the world the message of life; live that message of life. That’s all that God asks of us.

But at night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out and said, “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people the whole message of this life” (Acts 5:19-20)

2 Replies to “Which church will survive?”

  1. Very insightful and thought provoking article… Enjoyed reading and thinking about these ideas…

    One thing I observed as someone who changed from Orthodoxy to Evangelical Protestant churches and went back to Orthodoxy, is that there is a language difference between the two…for example, the Orthodox refer to salvation..as deliverance…so when the scripture refers to the salvation of the world, we often are talking about an all-encompassing deliverance, from evil, from corruption, from oppression, etc….to the Protestant Evangelical, salvation means just one thing: deliverance from hell…. And it comes after death ( and only if you accept Christ here) …perfection comes also after death….so as one Protestant mid western preacher who had an appreciation for Entire Sanctification ( similar to Orthodox theosis) once preached given this Calvinistic theology’ he said that as soon as a convert came to ” know Jesus” the Christians should pray:” Lord Kill him now! ”

    Given what is going on in the Middle East, i find myself thinking more and more about theologies of life and theologies of death….I mean by that theologies whose focus is a life here and now centered around Christ, with the rewards centered around a Christ filled life now ( and forever) versus theologies of death that ask you to give up life happiness etc…here on earth in order to gain everything after death ( sounds similar to a term life insurance to me)…and I am growing more and more suspicious of theologies that push people to embrace death as the way to God…i think this also is what you were writing in your article…

    It might be that the best preach we give as local church is the parties we throw and by doing so share the life of Christ in us……the Greek festivals might be our salvation in more ways than one….

    1. Excellent distinction between deliverance and salvation. Your comments really add more depth to what I wrote. Thank you. And I like your conclusion. You know, Greek festivals are part of the ethnic umbilical cord that I wrote about, but I would hate to lose our Festival. When I write about cutting the ethnic umbilical cord I’m speaking more of the isolationism and exclusivism that comes with overt ethnic identity. When ethnicity becomes an obstacle to the church’s mission then it needs to end. But I would hate to lose my ethnic identity. I’m in Greece right now and I feel right at home. I feel right at home at our annual Greek Festival. And yes, our ability to party is in sharp contrast to the dour seriousness that prevails in Reformed churches. So let’s party, let’s enjoy our ethnic riches – but let’s not hang on to anything that turns the church into a relic rather than God’s agent for personal and global transformation.

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