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What Is Heresy? The Power Struggle.

From the dawn of time we came; moving silently down through the centuries, living many secret lives, struggling to reach the time of the Gathering; when the few who remain will battle to the last.

That’s a quote from Highlander (1986), a movie about a group of immortals destined (doomed) to fight and kill one another until only one is left. One by one, they all get killed off, many of them by Kurgan, the strongest of them all, who wants to bend the entire world to his evil desires. Eventually, the only two still standing are Kurgan and Connor MacLeod, the charming Scottish hero. And, of course, the movie ends with the titanic clash between them as they struggle to see who will be the One.

Because, in the end, there can be only one.

What does this have to do with heresy, you ask? Good question. There are actually two connections. First, after this movie, they made Highlander II, which was a heresy all by itself. But, second, and more pertinent for our purposes, many people understand the development of heresy in exactly the same way as Highlander.

The story goes like this. In the beginning there were many different kinds of Christianity. They weren’t better or worse, just different. And, in some other world, maybe they could have all gotten along. But not in this one.

In this world, there can be only one.

At least, that’s how one group viewed things. They simply couldn’t accept the fact that Christianity might come in different flavors. It was their way or nothing.

Unfortunately for the others, this group quickly grew in strength, numbers, and organization. They were the Borg of early Christianity, assimilating everything in sight. No one could stand against them. And, eventually, they were the only ones left. The others had fallen. And, they became the One.

But, even this wasn’t enough. They weren’t simply content with being the One. They wanted everyone to believe that they were destined to be the One all along. The others had been wrong even to try to stand against them. So, they re-told the story and re-wrote the books. And, in this new story, they were the Orthodox who held faithfully to the truth handed on from Jesus. All those who differed from or disagreed with them were the Heretics, who tried to dilute or distort the truth.

As they say, it’s the winners who write history. And, the Orthodox won.

This is a common way to view heresy today. Heresy isn’t really a thing-in-itself; it doesn’t have any essential characteristics that can help you identify it when it comes along. Heresy is simply a label that some dominant group applies to those it wants to dominate (or already has dominated). So, the statement, “You’re a heretic!”, isn’t really about things like truth or doctrine. It’s about power. Pure and simple.

Now, the first thing that we need to say about this approach is that there’s a lot of truth in it.

 1. The early church was diverse. Just look at the NT itself. The churches in Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, and Rome were very different. Peter, Paul, and John all spoke about Christianity in diverse ways. And, moving on from the NT, the diversity grows. Alexandria, Edessa, Ctesiphon, all developed ancient forms of Christianity that were noticeably different from what we associate with “orthodox” Christianity. So, however we tell the story, we can’t slip into a simplistic understanding of the early church, which assumes a single Christianity at the beginning, from which all other groups diverged. As with anything that involves humans, the truth is messier than that.

 2. The early church was far from perfect. God’s people are broken. We have been since the Garden. So, we should not be surprised that our story includes things we’d rather not see. And, the early church was no different. A close look shows the church involved in power struggles, personality clashes, manipulation, and maneuvering. In that way, they were just like us. (If you doubt, just think of some of the church business meetings you’ve attended.) So yes, the story of orthodoxy/heresy is also a story of power struggles.

 3. “Heresy” is often a power label. One of the concerns that people have with the label “heresy” today is that it often gets tossed around as a power play. Want to shut someone up? Call them a heretic. And, this is often the case. Labels have power. So, it’s easy to use them when we want to control (or end) a discussion/debate. It happens today, and I’m sure it happened then as well.

 So, there are some good things here we can learn from. But, ultimately I think this approach to defining heresy fails.

1. It sometimes relies on bad history. Most commonly, people associate the power of the orthodox party with the rise of the church in Rome and its consolidation under Constantine. (Thank you Walter Bauer.) The problem with this is that orthodoxy was well-established long before Constantine. Let’s be clear: Constantine did not create orthodoxy. He played an important role in the development of orthodoxy. But, he comes too late in the story to explain orthodoxy’s “victory.” Another common argument claims that in certain areas, “heretical” forms of Christianity developed first. They were the original forms of Christianity in those areas, with orthodoxy coming along later to squash these indigenous movements. Unfortunately for this view, there is relatively little evidence that this is true. With few exceptions, the existing evidence supports the idea that such “heretical” ideas came only after more orthodox approaches had already developed. Of course, people often argue that this is exactly what we should expect given that “the winners write the histories.” But, that’s simply to dismiss the existing evidence in favor of the story that you prefer. When lack of evidence becomes evidence, you’ve got a creative argument. But not a convincing one.

2. It overemphasizes diversity. Although we should embrace the existence of diversity in the early church, we can’t go overboard. Early Christian churches were not isolated communities that developed idiosyncratic forms of Christianity with little or no input from other churches. Instead, they all shared a common identity as “Christians,” and worked together to grow in their understanding of what that meant and how they should go about living as Christians in the world. Recent studies have demonstrated how extensively early Christians communicated, partnered, and networked with one another. That doesn’t eliminate diversity, but it does put it in context. It was diversity within a shared identity. And consequently, it was diversity with limits. Those limits were not well understood at first. But, everyone seemed to agree that you could go too far. And, they communicated constantly as they struggled to understand the implications of that idea.

3. It overemphasizes power. This probably fits under #1 as well, since it reflects a historical misunderstanding. The idea that any Christian group in the first few centuries had enough authority and power to oppress some other Christian community is anachronistic. That certainly became true later, but not in the beginning. We need to remember that early Christian groups were small, oppressed minorities within a larger Roman power-structure. They simply didn’t have the wherewithal to oppress others overtly.

4. It makes “heretics” the innocent victims. For this argument to work, the heretics have to be the poor victims crushed by the mean orthodox party. So, people often go out of their way to emphasize the good qualities of the heretical groups (i.e. they were egalitarian, open-minded, creative, etc.). But, the sad reality is that the heretics were no better (though probably no worse). They could be just as hierarchical, closed-minded, and oppressive as anyone else. If they eventually “lost,” it wasn’t because they were too nice to win.

So, wherever the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy came from, they aren’t simply labels that we apply to the winners and losers of some ecclesial power struggle. We should recognize the diversity and acknowledge the power struggles. But, there’s more to the story than this.

[This post is part of our series on “What is ‘Heresy’ and Who Is a ‘Heretic’?”]

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Slave owners, sex addicts, and anti-semites: how do you talk about flawed heroes?

Jonathan Edwards? Yeah, I know him. He’s the guy who owned slaves, right?

Flawed Heroes (Will Smith from "Hancock")

I can’t tell you how many times I received a comment like this while I was teaching my Edwards seminar this summer. They came in through the blog, Facebook, Twitter, and email. Despite the fact that Edwards was one of America’s greatest theological minds, apparently the one fact that many Americans have retained about him is the fact that he owned slaves.

Oh yeah, and he talked about hell a lot.

Then I thought about it a bit more, and I realized that Edwards’ isn’t alone. Many people remember some of the great figures in church history primarily by a few of their less attractive qualities.

For example, here’s how many people remember…

  • Jonathan Edwards: slave owner who preached scary sermons about hell
  • John Calvin: intolerant control freak who burned Servetus at the stake
  • Martin Luther: anti-semite who drank too much and insulted people
  • Augustine: woman hater and/or sex-addict who was obsessed with sin

I could probably go on if I got creative. (If you have suggestions for people from church history known primarily by some negative attribute(s), let me know in the comments.) It seems that if you’re a key figure in church history you’re doomed to one of two fates: either most people won’t even know who you are or a lot of people will remember you but think you were a jerk.

I think what bothers me the most is that these comments usually come from Christians. I could understand it if a non-Christian wanted to paint a particularly negative portrait of some Christian leader. But, why are we Christians so obsessed with doing it? Can’t we recognize that our heroes were flawed without focusing exclusively on the negative and caricaturing our own people?

Our theological heroes were flawed and broken human beings just like the rest of us. But, let’s cut them some slack. I wouldn’t want to be known by my least attractive attributes. (Please don’t point out my least attractive attributes in the comments. I’m feeling fragile today, and that would be bad for my self-esteem.) And, I’m sure you wouldn’t either.

So, let’s try this. Extend the same grace to believers from the past that you would extend to the believer sitting next to you in church. The people next to you are flawed too, but you probably don’t point that out every time you talk about them. At least, I hope you don’t.

The lure of heresy

“Never has there been such interest in the idea of heresy. Ancient heresies, seen by earlier generations as obscure and dangerous ideas, have now been sprinkled with stardust. The lure of the religious forbidden never seems to have been so strong. As Geoffrey Chaucer shrewdly observed back in the fourteenth century: ‘Forbid us something, and that thing we desire’. For many religious alienated individuals, heresies are now to be seen as bold and brave statements of spiritual freedom, to be valued rather than avoided. Heresies are the plucky losers in past battles for orthodoxy, defeated by the brute power of the religious establishment. And since history is written by the winners, heresies have unfairly lost out, their spiritual and intellectual virtues stifled by their enemies. The rehabilitation of heretical ideas is now sees as a necessary correction of past injustices, allowing the rebirth of suppressed versions of Christianity more attuned to contemporary culture than traditional orthodoxy. Heresy has become fashionable.”

Alister McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth (HarperOne, 2009), p. 1

Church history from the rest of the world

Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom.

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I teach a church history survey class every year. It’s one of my favorite classes. But, every year I have the same frustration. There’s just not enough time to do much with the history of the church around the world. With just one semester to cover 2,000 years of church history, my goal is to make sure the students understand the narrative that leads to where they are today. And, that means telling a story of church history that is almost exclusively focused on the western church,  leaving out the rest of the world in the process.

To address this weakness, I require the students to do some reading/writing on the history of the church in the rest of the world. And, Clouds of Witnesses would be an outstanding book to use for this purpose. In a series of 17 short essays, the book introduces to key leaders in Africa, India, Korea, and China from the 1880s to the 1980s. The essays are well-written, interesting, and short enough that they don’t bury the casual reader under too many historical details.

I have to admit that I knew almost nothing about William Wade Harris and the influence that he still has on Christianity in West Africa. And, although I’d read more on the East African Revival, the two chapters are Simeon Nsibambi and Janani Luwum were still fascinating. Some other favorite chapters were the ones on Sundar Singh (India), Sun Chu Kil (Korea), and Yao-Tsung Wu (China), all people about whom I knew (and still know) too little.

Unquestionably, the greatest benefit from reading a book like this is the opportunity to see and be challenged by how different experiences in different parts of the world have shaped and colored Christianity. From a political activist in South Africa wrestling with the injustices of apartheid, to a Hindu convert striving to live faithfully in a hostile environment, and a Chinese Christian struggling to reconcile the Gospel and communism, they’re all struggling with what it means to be Christian in their cultural context. So, at every step, the thoughtful reader faces several important questions: (1) How I can learn and be mentored by what Christians have learned from different cultural contexts?, (2) How do you recognize when culture is having a negative impact on the Gospel? and (2) In what ways has my own cultural context shaped, positively and negatively, my experience of Christianity and the Gospel? The opportunity to reflect on those questions alone is worth the price of the book.

Clouds of Witnesses does have a few weaknesses, but they are ones that stem entirely from the nature of the book. First, to keep the book from getting too long, the authors had to restrict themselves to just a few key areas of global history. Sadly, then, there are no chapters on Christian leaders in South America, the middle east, eastern Europe, or the Pacific Islands, all of which lie outside the narrative that most western Christians know. Second, since the chapters are introductory and short, they never provide enough information and they feel somewhat “superficial” in places, just skimming over the relevant information. It’s hard to see how the authors could have done otherwise in a book like this, but it’s worth noting. And finally, the focus of the book is on providing the details of the various stories, not on discussing or evaluating them. So, although the book provides ample opportunity for serious reflection on the relationship between history, culture, and the Gospel, it does not try to provide any direction for that discussion. Again, that’s not the book’s purpose, so this isn’t really a fault. But, if you’re hoping to use the book for that purpose, you’ll need to do some work on your own.

Clouds of Witnesses is a fascinating book that is well-worth reading. Designed to be a companion volume to Noll’s The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global FaithClouds of Witnesses can still be enjoyed on its own. And, although I think it could be used as a supplemental textbook in a church history class, those who have little or no background in church history will still be able to profit from this book. If you need more exposure to the story of Christianity around the world, particularly in the last couple of centuries with the explosive growth of Christianity worldwide, Clouds of Witnesses is a great resource.

[Many thinks to IVP for providing me with a review copy of Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia.]

The best Augustine websites

We’re still celebrating Augustine week around here, so here are some links to the best Augustine websites around the internet. These should be your starting point if you’re looking for Augustine’s works online, lists of good books and articles about Augustine, or links to other resources. I couldn’t find any good lists of  lectures, which is why I compiled my own list of free audio resources yesterday.

Here are what I have found to be the best and most helpful Augustine websites on the internet (ranked by how useful they’ve been for me):

1. Augnet: an excellent resource that should be your starting point; particularly good for its biographical information on Augustine and introductions/summaries of many of his works.

2. Patristics Bibliobraphy #7: your one stop shopping center for bibliographic information on works about Augustine in 15 categories.

3. James O’Donnel: one of the best resources out there, but make sure you use this link since many of the others on the web point to an older (and unused) website.

4. Sant’ Agostino: the “works” link on this site offers a great list of works available online in English.

5. Ad Limina Apostolorum: a great (and easy to use) list of Augustine resources, though many of the links are dated.

6. Dave Armstrong: this link will take you to an archived version of the website (all I could find) with a nice list of online articles.

And, of course, you can’t neglect other websites devoted to patristics or church history in general. The following are among the better of those:

If you know of a really good website devoted to Augustine that you think is at least as good as the six I listed above, please let me know so I can check it out.

Jonathan Edwards: Distinguished Marker of Works (Spiritual and otherwise)

[This is a guest post by Pat Roach. Pat is a Th.M. student at Western Seminary and pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church in Portland, OR. Pat is participating in this summer’sTh.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.]

We are just on the other side of the of the annual posting of college commencement speeches, but if you find yourself still needing to scratch that itch, then friends I give to you Jonathan Edwards.  In particular, his commencement address at Yale College in 1741 entitled The Distinguishing Marks of the Work of the Spirit of God (hereafter TDM). And in case you were wondering, the graduation speaker at Yale in the year of our Lord 2011 was Tom Hanks. Moving on…

In TDM, Edwards sets out to give a rational and Biblical defense of the revivals that had recently occurred throughout New England. He begins with an explanation of nine things that can not necessarily disqualify (or qualify for that matter) an event as a work of God’s Spirit. For example, he writes, “What we have been used to, or what the church of God has been used to, is not a rule by which we are to judge whether a work be the work of God, because there may be new and extraordinary works of God.”  Edwards is saying that it is not enough to point out “we’ve never done it like that before,” and then consider the issue closed.  God is free and not always “traditional” in the way He operates. Likewise, and these follow from his first point, just because a congregation gets emotionally worked up, has “great impressions on their imagination,” and copy one another’s behavior, doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit is not working.  He might very well be producing those exact effects.  You have to explore deeper to discern Spiritual substance.  I have to say this portion of the address was a pleasure to read, if for no other reason than seeing Edwards mind work on paper through the issues and counterarguments he anticipates. Edwards’ writing weaves together pastoral wisdom, Scriptural reasoning, and starchy Puritan tendentiousness.

He then goes on to outline positive markers of the Spirit’s work in reviving His people.  The people’s esteem of Jesus is raised, they experience revulsion against personal sin, give greater attention to Scriptural teaching, and they have deeper love for others.  On this last positive marker of love, Edwards addresses a false kind of affinity that is possible in revivals, and he perceptively writes, “There is commonly in the wildest enthusiasms a kind of union and affection that appears in them one towards another, arising from self-love, occasioned by their agreeing with one another in those things wherein they greatly differ from all others, and for which they are the objects of the ridicule of all the rest of mankind; which naturally will cause them so much the more to prize the esteem they observe in each other, …”  This kind of love, he concludes, is not Christian love and “no true benevolence, any more than the union and friendship which may be among a company of pirates that are at war with all the rest of the world.”  Edwards has not mindlessly drunk the Kool-Aid. He recognizes the abuses and false signifiers of spiritual renewal that can emerge, and wants to uproot them and cast them off.

Yet, one thing does he lack…a sense of mystery about history.  In TDM Edwards categorizes the New England revivals as redemptive-historical works, and as precursors to Christ’s Second Advent. Describing the unusual features of the recent revivals, he says, “we have reason from Scripture prophecy to suppose, that at the commencement of that last and great outpouring of the Spirit of God…the manner of the work will be very extraordinary.” In short, “Our revivals have weird stuff. Weird stuff will be happening at the end of the age. This must be the end of the age.” From there, he goes on to warn those who oppose revivals that in so doing they hinder the work of the Spirit.  He compares them to the first-century Jews who opposed Christ, and finally warns dissenters that they are in danger of being guilty of the unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit. He is that sure that the revivals are heaven sent.

And this is where Edwards’ overreaches. Or, he should at least be willing for the revivals to be measured by the same stick as the redemptive-historical events of the 1st century, to which he links them. Did the revivals produce long-term righteousness in the lives of the participants? Edwards himself despaired of this, as time wore on.  Did the Spirit cobble together thriving (renewed) ecclesial communities as a result of the revivals, as at Pentecost? Sadly, Unitarianism soon weakened the churches in New England. Did Edwards Himself attribute to the Holy Spirit works that were not His?  That would be claiming too much.  That would be too Edwardsean.

In TDM Edwards apparently had no reservations about seeing in the current events of history – and his congregation’s collective life – the immediate, and discernible activities of a very busy, and present God. Yet today, for the most part, similar claims by Christians would be viewed with no small amount of suspicion. Are we are too conditioned to understanding history, and our the events daily lives, materially? Or is this reluctance to “interpret” actually a function of faith, not presuming to give definitive readings of the Spirit’s sovereign moving? What do you think?

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

What is “true” religion?

[This is a guest post by Felicia Wetzel. Felicia is an M.A. student at Western Seminary and is participating in this summer’sTh.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.] 

Remember the context in which Edwards writes. In the wake of the revivalism of the Great Awakening, Edwards felt compelled to articulate the distinction between true and false religion in a much more thorough and pointed way than he had done in his previous works, such as in The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. In his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, Edwards outlines twelve signs that indicate genuine religious affections, those signs that indicate genuine conversion. Not only do they serve as tests or standards of genuine piety, but they are themselves the very substance of the religious life. Affections serve as a kind of sign post indicating the direction of one’s soul, whether it is toward God in love or away from God toward the world. These are as follows.

First, affections that are truly spiritual and gracious, do arise from those influences and operations on the heart, which are spiritual, supernatural and divine. Second, the objective ground of gracious affections, is the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things, as they are in themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self, or self-interest. Third, those affections that are truly holy, are primarily founded on the loveliness of the moral excellency of divine things. Or (to express it otherwise), a love to divine things for the beauty and sweetness of their moral excellency, is the first beginning and spring of all holy affections. Fourth, gracious affections do arise from the mind’s being enlightened, rightly and spiritually to understand or apprehend divine things. Fifth, truly gracious affections are attended with a reasonable and spiritual conviction of the judgment, of the reality and certainty of divine things. Sixth, gracious affections are attended with evangelical humiliation. Evangelical humiliation is a sense that a Christian has of his own utter insufficiency, despicableness, and odiousness, with an answerable frame of heart. Seventh, gracious affections are attended with a change of nature. Eighth, truly gracious affections tend to, and are attended with, the lamblike, dovelike spirit and temper of Jesus Christ; or in other words, they naturally beget and promote such a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness and mercy, as appeared in Christ. Ninth, gracious affections soften the heart, and are attended and followed with a Christian tenderness of spirit. Tenth, truly gracious and holy affections are beautiful in symmetry and proportion. In the truly holy affections of the saints is found that proportion which is the natural consequence of the universality of their sanctification. Eleventh, gracious affections, the higher they are raised, the more is a spiritual appetite and longing of soul after spiritual attainments increased. Twelfth, gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice. Their lives are universally conformed to and directed by Christian rules.

Edwards’ purpose in outlining these twelve signs is to test affections within one’s self, not to distinguish true from false affections in others. Further, he is primarily concerned with those operations of the Spirit which are saving in the heart of the individual.

One of the difficulties that I have encountered while reading Edwards is maintaining a clear understanding of what he means by his distinctions between such things as understanding, inclinations, will, heart, affections, etc. In all of his ability to maintain sharp distinctions between such concepts, it seems that he might run the risk of losing the unity and integrity of the human soul, or the self. This might not be that major of a point, however, considering the fact that throughout his argumentation these distinctions often times lose their sharpness.

Critical observations of Edwards aside, I am more interested in what you guys believe to be the signs of genuine “gracious affections.” In my paper, after I consider the twelve signs of genuine religious affections, I plan to describe them and then move to articulate what I believe to be the fundamental signs of a genuine believer. To begin our discussion, What do you believe to be the fundamental marks of a true believer? How would you answer the overarching question that Edwards sought to answer, “What is true religion?

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

Flotsam and jetsam (4/28)

  • Jerry Bowry argues that the modern seminary system is broken and we are facing The Seminary Bubble. Although his criticisms focused primarily on mainline seminaries, I found this comment particularly interesting:

Historian and sociologist Rodney Stark finds that the historical pattern fits the current one. Decentralized church systems with a history of less formal schooling historically outperform top-heavy ones with heavy academic requirements.

Admittedly, Austen’s world is idealized, yet consider this: who would you prefer your daughter to bring home? 1) a young man whose sexual imagination has been formed by Jane Austen along with Homer, Virgil, The Song of Solomon, Dante, and Shakespeare or 2) a young man who has spent the last ten years of his life fantasizing about women whose images he has objectified and consumed through pornography?

In light of this reality, Warren is only capable of talking about such social relationships and the nature of social injustice as sin in terms of the abstract.  The concrete reality of unjust relationships does not become part of his discussion because his theological language is not apt to describing relationships in terms of power.  Warren’s silence on the issues of racial and economic justice is indicative of the silence of many European-American churches that choose to remain quiet while instances such as the hanging of nooses in public spaces continues to occur; thus, churches with predominantly minority members are left to shoulder the burden alone in confronting domestic terrorism.

The fact is, there never was a golden age of the church. The New Testament church was just as messed up as the 21st century church. And I take that as an encouragement rather than a rebuke from the past. The early church was full of greedy, bickering, sinful people who did not get along with each other, did not listen to their leaders and even split off from one another when disagreements became too heated. And sometimes their leaders said bad things about each other. Let’s not forget that all of Paul’s opponents were not non-believers, but followers of Jesus who happened to disagree with the apostle. Not unlike what we experience today.

The new universalism is not the old universalism. Fair enough. But those of us who reject even the new universalism aren’t gleeful about it. We might even wish it were otherwise. But we also recognize that even our wishes, hopes, and desires need discipline.

Do I really have to go to church? (Light from the Dark Ages, part 2)

Sunday morning again. Great. I’m tired, I have a headache from staying up too late the night before, and my wife’s stupid cat won’t stop meowing. Not for the first time, I wish that I kept a BB gun or a large hammer next to the bed.

I really don’t want to get up. I work hard all week, and Saturdays are always full of chores, errands, and other responsibilities. Can’t I have just one morning to relax?

I’m pretty sure my wife didn’t sleep well either. She was up with the kids at least twice, and I’m sure she’s as exhausted as I am. She’s awake; I can tell. But she hasn’t moved yet. I can almost feel her thinking the same question that is running through my mind.

Do we have to go to church this morning?

Which leads to the question: What happens when God’s people start thinking of church as an optional activity in the midst of a busy life?

That’s exactly the issue that the church had to confront during its transition into the early middle ages. I’m sure this wasn’t a new problem, but it certainly took on a new level of seriousness as church attendance declined precipitously during this period.

At least five things seem to have contributed to this growing problem.

  • The professionalization of worship. By the middle ages, the professionalization of the clergy was well-established. A clear divide had developed between the average Christian and the priests, bishops, and monks who were the real focal point of Christian worship. Thus, as long as the professionals were there to take care of the business of the church, all was well.
  • The mediation of worship. Along with the professionalization of the clergy came the idea that the worship of God’s people was essentially mediated through the clergy. We saw in our last post that the language of the church contributed to this development as only the professional clergy really understood what was going on. It was a short step from here to the idea that the clergy really do the work of worship for the people. Once that becomes the mindset, is it any wonder that people began to think if their attendance was all that important? The real work of worship will happen just fine without them.
  • A “What’s in it for me?” Mentality. And, once people begin to view their participation in worship as optional, the only other reason for attending regularly would be the idea that they’ll get something out of it.  But, such an individualistic ethos only served to decrease attendance. Certainly my salvation doesn’t depend on regular attendance at church. So, although there may be some other cursory benefits, the bottom line is that my fundamental relationship with God remains unchanged even if I decide to skip church. Why, then, should I take time out of my life to do something with limited apparent benefit to me?
  • The Guilt Factor. The only real recourse that the medieval church had was to play up the people’s experience of personal guilt and to emphasize the eucharist as the only effective means for dealing with that guilt. But, the more they played that card, the more they made people feel unworthy to stand in the presence of a holy God. Thus, contrary to expectations, the guilt card actually made people less likely to attend church regularly. Instead, many came just once a year – the least they thought they could get away with and still be in good standing with God.
  • The Chaos of Life. We should also recognize that in many ways this was just a difficult time to be alive. The decline of centralized authority and the rise of regionalized powers (the barbarian “warlords”), along with other factors like the rise of feudalism, economic decline, famine, and the Viking and Magyar invasions, all contributed to a laity distracted by the complexity and chaos of everyday life. Such were the “excuses” of the early medieval period.

I think we wrestle with many of the same things today.

  • The professionalization and mediation of worship. Although Protestants have long emphasized the priesthood of all believers, we continue to struggle with the dynamics of a professionalized clergy. As long as worship is really what happens on the stage, is my presence all that necessary? Surely I can miss a few Sundays without impacting anyone. The worship team will still be there.
  • The “What’s in it for me?” mentality. Why not sleep in today? Am I really going to get anything out of the service? Who’s preaching anyway? I bet it’s that one associate pastor who doesn’t do a very good job. I never learn anything from him anyway. Or (maybe just as likely) I think I’ll go visit another church today; I hear they have better worship. Clearly this mentality did not die with the middle ages.
  • The Chaos of Life. This is really what I was alluding to at the very beginning of this post. Life is hectic and complicated today. And for many people, the background noise of everyday life easily overwhelms the unconvincing reasons they have for attending weekly worship. They’ll still attend on occasion, but only as it fits in their otherwise busy schedule.

So, many of the factors that contributed to a declining emphasis on corporate worship in the early middle ages are still with us today. And, just like in the medieval period, The Guilt Factor really doesn’t work. The more people feel guilty for missing church, the less likely they are to go. Hiding from your guilt is often easier than facing it.

The problem today, and in the medieval church, is a failure to cast a compelling vision of what corporate worship is all about. Ultimately, corporate worship is about the people of God manifesting the glory of God in the midst of the creation of God so that all people everywhere can see how amazing God is.

And, if God’s people don’t show up, it can’t happen. It’s not something that anyone can do for us – it can’t be mediated or professionalized. We can pay people so that they have more time to prepare to lead us effectively in this process, but they can’t do it for us. And we shouldn’t want them to. Why would we want to miss out on the opportunity to be involved in something this special, this amazing – the very reason for our existence?

But, when we fail to cast this vision for God’s people, a vision of what corporate worship is all about, it’s easy for it to become a burden – something to be avoided when we’re tired and distracted. That’s when attendance turns into attrition, and the pews sit empty.

[This is the second post in our series on 6 Things We Can Learn about Worship from the Dark Ages.]

Charting church history from a Presbyterian perspective – or, what happens when church history is really misunderstood

Many people expressed deep appreciation last week for my (insert superlative here) chart on church history from a Baptist perspective. Indeed, it was almost universally accepted as the only true depiction of church history.

I say almost because Jason Goroncy has demonstrated unequaled audacity by producing his own chart on church history from a Presbyterian perspective.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that his chart is prettier and offers more detail than mine. And starting off with “Jesus MacGod” was brilliant. Nonetheless, he has an obviously skewed understanding of church history. Someday I’ll have to share the Gospel with him so that he can become one of the faithful too.

Here’s what he came up with.