Tuesday, December 09, 2008

King David, meet Thomas Jefferson

A friend used to say, “Whenever you see a church named ‘New Hope,’ there is an old hope out there somewhere. I was reminded of that truism recently when I noticed that we have a new congregation in town, a shaky little fellowship called “Solid Rock Baptist Church.” As I understand it, there was a power struggle at another, larger fellowship nearby and the losers, along with the larger congregation’s now “former” pastor, constituted themselves as a new people, determined to build their worship and practice on the Bible alone, just like Jesus said (and not, you know, like some other folk).

Solid Rock is meeting in a storefront recently abandoned by a group of Pentecostals: the World Evangelism and Outreach Center. In fairness, the church does broadcast its services across the planet via short wave radio. The congregation had outgrown their small strip mall headquarters and Day Care Center/Christian Academy; there were about 80 who began worshiping in a small brick-front metal building constructed in part by their pastor, a second-career fire-baptized holiness preacher who, before his conversion, was a contractor.

Nice man. Intense, though. He has the Bible nearly memorized. His Post-Millenial interpretation of Revelation about got him kicked out of the Assemblies on a heresy charge. He resigned his credentials shortly before the trial was to convene and began his own work. Some like-minded men, members of his former congregation, ordained him, but two of them left WEOC along with their families during the recent construction. There was serious disagreement as to the slope of the parking lot and whether it would properly drain.

Meanwhile, near the “old church” where here my wife serves (planted on a then-all-but-trafficless, now bustling state highway way back in the seventies), no less than three new and exciting fellowships are promised to passersby on big signs here and there along the corridor. Already fifteen denominational and post-denominational congregations flank the road, all of them trying to “reach” and “minister to” the huge and relatively long-lived influx of what used to be called yuppies. With the collapse of the economy, however, as many are moving away, and more, as not so long ago were moving in. The disposable income which was to kindle all this new spiritual fire has mostly disappeared.

“Coming Soon!” signs may soon be replaced by “For Sale” signs, and what does such come and go come and go say of Christ’s Body, the church, or testify regarding the given and abiding Word?

All of this ecclesiastical busyness seems deviantly “sacramental”—which is to say, an outward and visible sign of an inward and unspiritual malady. Frederica Mathewes-Green has summarized the dysfunction in The Illumined Heart. Reflecting on the aftermath of the Reformation she says,

“…the once universal idea that there existed a common deposit of faith had been lost.
The hope of returning to a simple, Bible-based faith was now complicated by the need for
someone to explain what that faith was. Soon many gifted leaders were offering differing
interpretations, and followers aligned with one or another as they found them most

If that dynamic was also true in, say, Corinth, the full consequences were not. She continues,

“The next step was that, if each person can decide for himself whom to follow, each person
can decide for himself what the faith is. The splintering was complete. And since the
current generation is always the one making these decisions, it seemed that the most
innovative, up-to-date ideas were the correct ones…”

The positive side of this reality is that intractable institutions really are intractable and “exodus” may be the only way of freeing its slaves. Additionally, growing up Protestant, and Baptist, in fact, the rending and forming (or reforming!) of congregations never seemed strange to me. At the denominational seminary I attended, students used to say that every congregation we knew or served either had split, was splitting, or dividing up sides and getting ready to. Still, we spun that reality positively: splits aided evangelism, opened doors in otherwise closed situations. Even preachers getting fired, their belongings left on the front lawn and parsonage locks changed, had an upside: persecutions of all sorts had always advanced the kingdom. Blood of the martyrs and all that.

Still, there is something nefarious at work here, I believe. A rejection of tradition, and especially in favor of novelty, may not be an issue of mere “style,” but more nearly of “substance”… a form of idolatry as addictive as any narcotic. Eugene Peterson has noted that when the human heart’s proclivity to idol-making (ala Calvin) is combined with North American consumerism, the sad result is the very kind of soul-numbing market-based smorgasbord that impels people to jump from paten to paten, as it were, that compels religious leaders to do their best and most serious study in terms of what “works” in attracting new folk.

I have noticed another disturbing aspect of the same tendency—this time in my own United Methodist Hymnal. I have long been annoyed that our Psalter is incomplete. There are whole Psalms and sections of Psalms left out (Thomas Jefferson, meet King David. King David, meet President Jefferson). Since most of what has been excised are imprecatories, curses and the like, I assumed some beatnik editor or pacifist professor had demanded the cuts in light of our more "evolved" sensibilities, which are unwittingly literalist and unforgiving of metaphor--forgetting, for example, that in the hymn, "Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war," the most important word in that verse is as. And so I was surprised to learn that the evisceration of these hymns of their (sometimes most interesting) parts were a result of John Wesley's own sense that "certain of the Psalms and large portions of others are unfit for Christian lips."

Oh, really?

They were okay for Jesus to say, but not for us? So much for the “whole counsel of God.” So much for the “faith once delivered to the saints.”

Of course, Wesley who also left “descended into hell” out of the creed because he did not personally think there was sufficient scriptural warrant to justify its inclusion. Wonder if he would have had an opinion about the paving at that church?

Hey! I am just kidding! Really! Sort of.

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