The very fact that we have to address this question, even in evangelical circles, demonstrates the true measure of the church’s worldliness. It is not a superstitious attachment to days, but respect for the Lord’s generous service to us, that gives us one day in seven to be swept into the drama of redemption. When the holy day is reabsorbed into the common week, the church is bound to be reabsorbed into the world’s bloodstream.
In the Old Testament, the weekly Sabbath is anchored in creation (Ex 20:8-11) and God’s redemption of Israel from Egypt (Dt 5:12-15). The apostolic church met on Sunday, “the first day of the week,” also identified as “the Lord’s Day” (Jn 20:19, 26; Ac 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2; Rev 1:10).
After the apostles, the twin dangers of antinomian neglect of the weekly assembly and “Judaizing” legalism already reared their head. Addressing the latter problem, Ignatius reminds the Magnesians, “If then, those who lived in antiquated customs came to newness of hope, no longer keeping the Sabbath but living in accordance with the Lord’s day—on which also our life arose through him and his death (though some will deny it), and by this mystery we received the power to believe…(Mag. 9:1). At the same time, the Lord’s Day continued to occupy its princely status in the weekly schedule. Constantine declared it an official day of rest in 321, launching a civil application of the fourth commandment that lasted even into twentieth-century Europe and the United States.
In the medieval church, myriad regulations—civil and ecclesiastical—had been attached to the Lord’s Day, along with a host of celebration, holidays, and rituals that Scripture does not authorize. The Reformers rejected this return to the shadows of the law. In fact, Luther tended to distinguish sharply between the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day. Yet he called each Lord’s Day “a little Easter.” It is not the day itself that sanctifies, but the ministry of the Word. For that very reason, though, his Larger Catechism insists upon the regular participation in the weekly assembly.
Calvin saw a threefold purpose for the Sabbath institution: 1) as a sign of the final rest that would come with Christ; 2) to maintain church order, and 3) to offer relief for workers. Calvin’s view (Institutes 2.8.31-32) is essentially the same that can be found in Luther’s Large Catechism.
Both reformers argue that while the moral obligation continues, the ceremonial aspect of the commandment, including the rigorous restricts attached to it, are abolished in the new covenant. Like Luther, Calvin emphasized that every day believers receive Christ as he is given in his Word and that we would attend daily services if we were not so sluggish. Knowing our weakness, God sets aside one day for the ministry of Word and sacrament. The same view is found in the Heidelberg Catechism:
First, that the gospel ministry and education for it be maintained, and that, especially on the festive day of rest, I regularly attend the assembly of God’s people to learn what God’s Word teaches, to participate in the sacraments, to pray to God publicly, and to bring Christian offerings for the poor. Second, that every day of my life I rest from my evil ways, let the Lord work in me through his Spirit, and so begin already in this life the eternal Sabbath (Q. 103).
In addition, our Church Order (originating at the Synod of Dort) states that although the consistory may call for other gatherings on special occasions, “Worship services shall be held in observance of Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost…” (emphasis added).
The Westminster Confession embraced explictly the “one-in-seven” principle, anchoring the Christian Sabbath in creation, “to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ was the last day of the week; and from the resurrection of Christ was changed into the first day of the week, which, in Scripture, is called the Lord’s day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.” There is no list of forbidden activities, but the general requirement to exchange ordinary “worldly employments and recreations [that] are lawful on other days” for “public and private exercises of his worship and in the duties of necessity and mercy” (Ch. 21). The Confession allows for public services “on special occasions,” but Puritans generally opposed the celebration of Christmas and other holy days. When one examines the ways in which these days were abused (not unlike today), this approach is quite understandable.
Reformed churches came to argue that Christ’s resurrection was sufficiently epoch-changing that it moved the weekly Sabbath to Sunday. Dutch Reformed theologian J. Douma warns, however.
The distortion of the Sabbath given in the casuistry of the Pharisees finds its mirror image in various casuistries related to what we may and may not do on Sunday. Every gospel—whether concerning the exodus from Egypt or concerning Christ’s redemption—can be made into a law.” This happened in the church, especially during the Middle Ages, “because the church no longer grasped the gospel of the fourth commandment. And this, after Christ’s own instruction about the Sabbath, is even more blameworthy” (121-2).
Paul warns against the superstitious attachment to holy days (Rom 14:5), particularly when people fail to realize that the old covenant Sabbaths and festivals were pointing to Christ as the reality (Col 2:16-17; see also Gal 4:10). This is the point, too, of Hebrews 4: an everlasting rest in Christ, that is signified by the various sabbaths under the old covenant. The Lord’s day is never said explicitly to be the Sabbath in the New Testament, but the fact that the former is set aside by the apostles singles Sunday out as the divinely ordained festival of Christ’s resurrection. As J. Douma points out, these passages clearly indicate that “the Jewish Sabbath has ceased” (136). He adds a comparison with circumcision:
Christ is the fulfillment of circumcision. The shadow has disappeared; but precisely for this reason, something else could replace the Old Testament sacrament, something which, just like circumcision, signifies and seals the covenant: baptism. Christ is the fulfillment of the Sabbath. That shadow too has disappeared, but in its place something else could arise which, just like the Sabbath, commemorates liberation. Anybody wanting to maintain the fourth commandment without keeping time with the clock of redemptive history must stick with the Jewish Sabbath. But then such a person will catch no glimpse of the true, liberating intention off the fourth commandment…The shadows of circumcision, Passover, and Sabbath made room for the signs of baptism, Lord’s Supper, and Sunday (137).
The key to a Christian use of the Lord’s Day is not drawing up a list of what can and cannot be done, but to give the whole day to basking in God’s Word, loading ourselves up with the treasures of Christ. Churches themselves are making this more difficult, as they trim down the public worship to a single service of an hour or so. Some churches suspend worship on “Superbowl Sunday”; others incorporate the new holy day into the service. Yet even in “rightly ordered” churches, the question has to be asked, especially by pastors and elders: Are we preparing a feast each week or are we contributing to the trivializing of the Lord’s Day and then blaming the people for not taking it seriously enough?
The Puritans called Sunday “the market-day of the soul.” On this day, we come and buy wine and meat without cost. We set aside our ordinary activities and past-times; we are not primarily doers but receivers on this day, although there may still be works of necessity and mercy. What are we indicating about where our ultimate treasure lies when we give ourselves to sports, shopping and entertainment on this day? Has nothing changed with Christ’s resurrection from the dead? Is there no new creation and new family to which we belong, with Christ as its first-fruits and head? Are there no means of grace through which the age to come is breaking into this passing age? Is there no place on earth today, no time in our weekly routine, in which the Spirit is at work uniting sinners to Christ, justifying and renewing them by his Word? It has become fashionable to pit “being the church” against “going to church,” but there is no church for us to “be” apart from the assembly that God is erecting in the wilderness by his Word and Spirit. We go to church to receive the means of grace, precisely so that we can be the church in the world.
There are Ten Commandments, not Nine. The ceremonial and civil laws attached to the moral law are no longer binding, but the moral law itself remains in effect forever. We can no more reject or treat lightly the fourth commandment because of legalistic distortions than we can dismiss the other commandments against murder, adultery, theft, and so forth. Charles Hodge observes, “The fourth commandment is read in all Christian churches, whenever the decalogue is read, and the people are taught to say, ‘Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law’” (Systematic Theology [Eerdmans, 1946], 324). If God has commanded something, it is to be obeyed; abuse of the command doesn’t abrogate it. John Murray puts the question well: “Why should insistence upon Sabbath observance be pharisaical or legalistic? The question is: is it a divine ordinance? If it is, then adherence to it is not legalistic any more than adherence to the other commandments of God” (“The Sabbath Institution,” Collected Writings, Vol. 1 [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976], 214).There is a wide spectrum of interpretation even in Reformed and Presbyterian circles today with respect to the Lord’s Day. As I’ve indicated above, that is nothing new. Calvin would not have countenanced the sort of sabbatarian casuistry exhibited in Puritan New England any more than Luther approved the lax observance of the Lord’s Day in sixteenth-century Germany. I have changed my own position in (The Law of Perfect Freedom), convinced now that the Lord’s Day is grounded in creation as well as redemption.
- Nevertheless, we should all be able to agree on the following points:
- The New Testament prescribes the Lord’s Day as the weekly gathering of the Lord’s people for the means of grace and public worship;
- The New Testament insists upon the regular attendance upon these public means of grace. We need a whole day to be bathed again in the powers of the age to come in the communion of saints;
- The moral intent of the fourth commandment remains in effect, but the ceremonial and civil aspects are absolete;
- The ceremonial aspects are obsolete because the types and shadows have been fulfilled in the reality, which is Jesus Christ. Any celebration of the Christian Sabbath or Lord’s Day that is not filled with this festive delight in Christ as he is clothed in the gospel is just another superstitious ritual.
- The carelessness for the Lord’s Day is ultimately a carelessness for the means of grace and the communion of saints, which is part and parcel of the Gnostic and antinomian spirit of our age. Christ has not done away with forms, structures, and tangible means any more than he has surrendered his body to the grave. As B. B. Warfield expressed the point, “Christ took the Sabbath into the grave with him and brought the Lord’s Day out of the grave with him on the resurrection morn” (“The Sabbath in the Word of God,” ed. John Meeter, Selected Shorter Writings—I [Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970], 319).
Folks as you know this is the time of year we need your support. Please consider White Horse Inn in your year end giving!!
From his conclusion:
Whatever these figures might say about God as redeemer, they do testify in important ways about God as creator, making is appropriate for Christians to give thanks for the incomparable product and productivity of these God deniers.
Michael Horton’s phrase, “Christless Christianity” gets a lot of play in our blog, magazine, and radio program. One of the more timely evidences of the problem will be on full display this Sunday, December 25th. We’re already hearing reports of churches that after offering a slew of programming on Christmas Eve will shut their doors on Christmas Day.
Not many Reformational churches will have this problem. They have a high enough view of the Lord’s Day that their services will still be held Sunday. But one problem they will face is the absence of some of their members, who because of family commitments and tradition will skip the service(s) in order to open presents, eat a big meal, and enjoy out of town guests.
One pastor shared his frustration with us and gave us permission to post a slightly edited version of his exhortation to the men of his congregation:
I can’t believe how ridiculous this is, but I am writing tonight to urge you to take your families to church on Sunday, December 25th. Before it is a holiday, before it is a family gathering, before it is anything else it is a Sunday: a day set aside by God himself to worship. It is a day that your elders have called the church together to worship. It is a day that you should be actively planning to take your family to church.
There is no excuse, not one, for not taking your family to church on Sunday. There may be some of you who will be out of town; find a church and take your family there. There will be some of you who are in town; you know where and when we meet. There is no reason for missing church on Christmas Day. In fact, a good argument can be made that of all the days to worship God, we should worship on Christmas Day. If we do not you are telling your family, your wives, your children, and your neighbors that Christmas isn’t really about Jesus at all. It will instead be about you, your family, your traditions, gifts, parties–everything that you will spend the next 12 months complaining about.
Some of you are part of extended families who have already made plans. Let me offer this piece of advice: be a man. Man up and tell your extended family that you are looking forward to seeing them and spending time with them but first you will take your family to church. It is your duty as a husband and father; it your responsibility; it is also your privilege.
This morning we read of King Ahaz in Isaiah 7 who despised the promise of the presence of God. It is easy for us to sit in judgment of the stupidity and hubris of Ahaz. But are you in danger of doing much the same thing? God promises to meet you and your family when you worship him. What possible reason can you have for turning away from that promise? What message does that send to your children?
I didn’t think I would have to write this email, but after several different conversations with people who could go to church on Christmas but are not going to, I felt I had no choice. It is my divine duty to call you out. This is not the life of discipleship that you are called to; this is not the obedience that you are obliged to; this is not what I want the men and potential leaders of _______ to be known for.
Go to church.
For a few more posts on the subject, see:
- Pastor Chris Gordon on The Christmas Controversy
- Pastor Jason Stellman on The Treason for the Season
UPDATE: Dr. Horton weighs in on this discussion.
The LIBERATE Conference organizers have announced that they will be offering a second chance to buy one LIBERATE conference ticket and get the second one half off today Wednesday, December 21. More information is available on their website www.liberateconference.com. Don’t miss this great opportunity to hear Mike, Rod and friends!
On this program, the hosts continue walking through the messianic story of redemption as it unfolds throughout the Old Testament. On this broadcast, the focus of the discussion primarily centers on the book of Exodus and Moses’ leading of the people of Israel to the Promised Land.
What Are We Looking For in the Bible?
WHI Discussion Group Questions
George F. Handel, The Messiah, “And the Glory of the Lord”
In his blog yesterday (12.16.11) Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, suggested that there has been a lot of helpful conversation about Christ and culture in the last year. I agree, although the caricatures continue unabated and, with it, continued polarization.
“On the surface,” Tim writes, “the Reformed and evangelical world seems divided between ‘Cultural Transformationists’ and the ‘Two Kingdoms’ views.” Although the Transformationists include disparate camps (“neo-Calvinists, the Christian Right, and the theonomists”), “they all believe Christians should be about redeeming and changing the culture along Christian lines.” “On the other hand, the Two Kingdoms view believes essentially the opposite—that neither the church nor individual Christians should be in the business of changing the world or society.” Here, too, there is a spectrum. Then you have the neo-Anabaptists who “much more pessimistic than Reformed 2Ks about the systems of the world, which they view as ‘Empire,’ based on violence and greed.” Yet 2ks and neo-Anabaptists both “reject completely the idea that ‘kingdom work’ means changing society along Christian lines. Both groups believe the main job of Christians is to build up the church, a counter-culture to the world and a witness against it.”
Among the books that Tim thinks have brought greater moderation to the debate is James Hunter’s To Change the World, particularly the University of Virginia sociologist’s emphasis on “faithful presence” as the appropriate model for Christian engagement with culture.
I confess that I am often baffled by the gross caricatures of the 2K position, especially by some within the Reformed community whose vehemence outstrips their attempt to understand and wrestle with the actual position. Especially after several decades of triumphalism in the name of “Christ’s lordship over all of life,” it’s not surprising that the 2K view would seem something like a party-crasher. But what’s gained by misrepresentation?
That is not true of Tim Keller’s interaction, of course, and he is encouraging healthier conversation. Yet even in his post there remain what I would regard as some misunderstandings about the 2K position. I can’t speak for anyone but myself and for more thorough treatments of the view I’d recommend David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms and his more scholarly historical work on Reformed social thought, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms. (He also has a new work coming out soon, also with Eerdmans, defending the position with exegetical and biblical-theological depth.)
As usual, Tim is respectful of the different views. However, I want to challenge his description of the 2K position a bit. He describes the 2K position in general as holding that because “Christians do their work alongside non-believers” on the basis of natural law and common grace, “Christians do not, then, pursue their vocation in a ‘distinctively Christian’ way.” Two-Kingdom proponents believe “that neither the church nor individual Christians should be in the business of changing the world or society” and “reject completely the idea that ‘kingdom work’ means changing society along Christian lines. Both groups believe the main job of Christians is to build up the church, a counter-culture to the world and a witness against it.”
This description makes it sound as if 2K folks are more neo-Anabaptist. On one point, I think that’s true. Neo-Anabaptists like Stanley Hauerwas and Scot McKnight argue that the church is called to be a new society in this fading evil age, not to create one.
Beyond that, though, we are worlds apart.
Calvin, who explicitly affirmed the “two kingdoms” in terms identical to Luther’s (for example, Inst. 3.19.15; 4.20.1), not only opposed medieval confusion on the point but also the radical Anabaptist “fanatics” who disparaged God’s common grace in culture (2.2.15). Like Luther, Calvin was convinced that Christ’s kingdom proceeds by Word and Spirit, not by sword, but that Christians could be soldiers and magistrates as well as bakers and candlestick makers. The power of the gospel is not the same power of the state, nor indeed the power that we exercise in everday callings as parents, children, employers, employees, and so forth. The kingdom of grace is distinct from the kingdom of power (pace Rome), but not wholly opposed (pace Anabaptists). Like Luther, Calvin believed that the two kingdoms were God’s two kingdoms, not that there is a secular sphere in which the believer’s faith has no bearing on his or her vocations. And also like Luther, Calvin believed that these two kingdoms or callings intersected in the life of every believer. They are not two tracks that never touch; they are two callings that intersect.
Interestingly, James Madison—a student of Presbyterian theologian John Witherspoon—saw the “two kingdoms” doctrine as essential for the good of the church as well as the civil society; that is, the “due distinction, to which the genius and courage of Luther led the way, between what is due to Caesar and what is due to God.” This view “best prospers the discharge of both obligations,” he said.
Nothing in the 2K view entails that “Christians do not, then, pursue their vocation in a ‘distinctively Christian way’” or “that neither the church nor individual Christians should be in the business of changing the world or society.” Calvin’s heirs are among the most notable figures in the history of the arts, sciences, literature, politics, education, and a host of other fields. They didn’t have to justify their vocations in the world as ushering in Christ’s redemptive kingdom in order to love and serve their neighbors in Christ’s name.
The Reformers were convinced that when the church is properly executing its ministry of preaching, sacrament, and discipline, there will be disciples who reflect their Christian faith in their daily living. The goal of the church as an institution is not cultural transformation, but preaching, teaching, baptizing, communing, praying, confessing, and sharing their inheritance in Christ. The church is a re-salinization plant, where the salt becomes salty each week, but the salt is scattered into the world.
If I’m not mistaken, this is pretty close to Abraham Kuyper’s distinction between the church as organization (institution) and the church as organism (believers in their callings). Kuyper observed that Christ is King over all kingdoms, but in different ways. None of the “spheres”—including the church—could encroach on the other spheres’ independence. Together, these observations yield a position that is in principle consistent with “two kingdoms.”
C. S. Lewis’s line is appropriate here: “I believe in Christ like I believe in the sun, not just because I see it, but by it I can see everything else.” Immersion into God’s world, through Scripture, changes the way we think, feel, and live—even when it doesn’t give us detailed prescriptions on every aspect of our lives. It would be schizophrenic—indeed, hypocritical—to affirm Christian faith and practice on Sunday and to live as if someone or something else were lord on Monday. The biblical drama, doctrines, and doxology yield a discipleship in the world that does indeed transform. It never transforms the kingdoms of this age into the kingdom of Christ (for that we await the King’s bodily return); however, it does touch the lives of ordinary people every day through ordinary relationships. Not everyone is a William Wilberforce, but we can be glad that he was shaped by the faithful ministry of the Anglican Calvinist John Newton and committed his life to the extirpation of the slave trade.
As I read Professor Hunter’s excellent book (To Change the World), I actually thought that his argument for “faithful presence” was exactly what 2K folks are after. Our goal should not be to change the world, but to maintain a faithful presence in the world as “salt” and “light.” That can only happen when the church is doing what it is called to do (viz., the Great Commission), and Christians are engaged actively in their many different callings throughout the week.
So I hope that Tim Keller is right that we’re becoming less polarized over this issue. I suspect, though, that we have a long way to go. One important step is for proponents to articulate the 2K view more clearly and for others to represent it more accurately. In the era of rapid social media, different points of view easily become classified as different schools. We shoot at each other and talk past each other, under one banner or another. That’s very different from realizing that we belong to the church together, with its long conversation, and that our discussions (even debates) today aren’t really radically new but are questions our forebears have wrestled with for a long time and in very different historical contexts that shape the views themselves. This discussion is part of that great conversation and as it matures, one hopes that our cultural engagement will mature as well.
Recently Dr. Horton was invited on the Christ the Center podcast with the Reformed Forum to discuss “Union with Christ” in response to Dr. Lane Tipton. To read more click here.
To listen to the interview the audio is below:
What do the latest findings on marriage in America have to do with trends in church life? Plenty.
Yesterday the Pew Research Center released its findings on the “obsolescence” of the marriage institution. Here are some of the notable stats:
- 1960: 72% of America’s adults were married; Today: 52%
- 1960: two-thirds of America’s twenty-somethings were married, but today that has fallen to 26%.
- While 32% of those 65 and older say that marriage is becoming obsolete, 44% of America’s 18-29 year-olds agree.
According to Pew, and the reports I’ve encountered so far, the demise of “The Family” doesn’t mean the death of (re-defined) families. It’s just that now people depend on broader social networks. In an NPR report of the finding yesterday, it was suggested that Americans “cycle through” a lot relationships, including marriage. They’re finding meaning apart from traditional institutions that limit ever-ephemeral personal choice.
I awoke yesterday morning also to a Washington Post piece, “Christianity 2.0″. As if channeling “Emergent Church” leader Brian McLaren, author, church consultant and Episcopal priest Tom Ehrich asks, “What will a fresh Christianity look like in America?”
No big surprises here.
Confessional labels won’t matter. The usual services, “with people sitting in pews facing a preacher and singing hymns,” will still be around here and there. “But that Sunday paradigm will cease to draw the big numbers or to justify a primary claim on funding.” It will be more interactive, with lay facilitators. No more ordination to special offices. “I foresee less focus on institutions led by trained experts, and more attention to fluid relationships facilitated by assertive and visionary leaders. These leaders will be gifted in personal suasion and in technology, and their work will be to nurture a relational context, not to preserve denominational tradition. “Traditional resources like prayer books and hymnals will give way to local idioms and creative resources.” In sum, “Sunday worship will cease to define the faith community. People will connect with each other in multiple ways, from neighborhood circles to online venues to special interests like a particular mission thrust. There will be less focus on uniformity and consistency, and more freedom to see what emerges from the stewpot.”
Mostly younger, these groups won’t be “beholden to the traditions of national denominations.” “Look for less focus on familiar forms of authority like the Bible and ecclesiastical tradition. Instead, Christianity 2.0 will move away from expertise-based systems and arguments over right opinion, and focus more on creating circles of friends seeking God’s presence and help, both in daily life and in the world beyond personal experience. Bottom line: less intellectualism, more intuition.”
What kind of nourishment can we expect from this new “stewpot”? A lot less friction and denominational power-struggles. Evidently, human nature is a lot better in personal relationships than in institutions. Oh, and “little need for funds,” because you don’t need physical institutions, but simply “to engage a diverse and growing community of people seeking personal health and transformation of life.” Money is still collected (of course) “but it will go toward external mission and mutual support, such as help in emergencies and with joblessness, and not for institutional maintenance.”
Consequently, “The faith community will be highly emotive…Constituents will argue less and share more…” In contrast to “the fear-driven, change-resistant” institutions of today, “Faith circles will create more positive buzz, present a friendlier and less arrogant face, attract more interest, and transform lives.” It will be so fresh that “we will wonder why we endured for so long…a bleak and self-destructive period.”
So, just as the apparent demise of the institution of marriage doesn’t mean the death of social networks that we call “families,” the end of the institutional church is but the bodily carapace that spiritual souls need to cast off. Out of the outer cocoon will emerge a beautiful butterfly.
As we approach winter, it may not be too early to announce a Gnostic Spring. In many ways, we’ve been in it for a long while. America has long been the melting pot for various creeds and spiritualities. Fairly early on, pietism and revivalism launched an evangelical movement that downplayed creeds and confessions as evidence of a “party spirit” inimical to mission. Baptists and Methodists soon overtook the more “established” churches from Reformation and Puritan traditions. Revivalists within these confessional bodies eventually created denominational divisions. Persecuted sects from Europe, like Anabaptists and Quakers, found haven in the New World, as did Reformed, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic immigrants who largely opted out of what they found to be a bewildering cauldron of “enthusiasm.” From the Quakers to the Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau, not to mention Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams, diatribes rang out against creedal, institutional religion in favor of following the “inner light” based on personal autonomy and self-crafting. The new nation was giving its own distinctive stamp to every sect. Unitarianism in New England and a host of odd millenarian movements on the frontier could combine forces, each in its own way, against traditional churches.
So America has a long history of being anti-institutional, suspicious of anything with the adjective “old.” “Don’t fence me in,” says the rugged individualist who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. While skeptical “infidelity” (unbelief) was gaining the upper hand in Europe by rejecting the faith, fanatical “enthusiasm” (detachment from outward forms) fueled a lively industry of native-born spiritualities and movements in America.
Every generation seems to have its own “great awakening.” On the heels of the Second Great Awakening, churches were split along the lines of what the victors would identify as “traditionalism” and “Spirit-led revival.” Promising unity, each enthusiastic movement only created further divisions, as anti-denominational circles of the “truly converted” eventually formed new denominations. Just think of the trail that leads from Methodism to Finney to the Jesus movement, the Shepherding movement, the charismatic movement, Pentecostalism, the church growth movement, the emergent movement, and now, it seems, the no-church movement where technology has made it possible to be more institutional than ever.
So what does this have to do with marriage? Well, it too is an institution. While all of us human beings are born Pelagians, I think we Americans are basically Gnostic, too. Like the ancient heresy that swept through the second-century church, the new Gnostics pit the body against the soul. Obviously, it’s anti-creedal in substance, but also in form. Everything visible-institutions, an ordained ministry of public preaching and sacraments, church order and discipline-is the bodily prison-house of the spirit. Countless studies of American religion in recent decades emphasize the ways in which we prize the inner over the outer; the informal over the formal; the spontaneous over the ordered; the soul’s immediacy to the divine without requiring a Mediator, or at least means of grace, and so forth. “Spirituality” is fine, but “organized religion” is the problem. That’s been the growing refrain of Americans for at least two centuries. It’s not rank atheism, but Gnostic enthusiasm, that’s killing us softly.
Yes, of course, there’s more to it. Other social, especially economic, factors figure prominently in the unraveling of marriage as well as settled churches. However, there has to be a framework of meaning that makes these moves justifiable-even requiring perpetual revolution.
The problem with this Gnostic impulse, from a Christian perspective, is that it is simply the opposite of biblical faith. The Bible affirms creation and the Creator who made everything, “visible and invisible”; that “the Word was made flesh,” not that we ascended away from the world and history to rediscover our oneness with divinity; that redemption is not the liberation of the soul from the body through inner enlightenment, but “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” The Christian faith knows that there is more to reality than matter; more to the Christian life than visible forms, practices, and ordered structures; more to marriage and discipleship than institutional membership-but in every case, that it is more, not less, than these.
It’s not surprising that Scripture draws such a close analogy between marriage and the relation of Christ to his body. Simply on the practical level, I suspect that many twenty-somethings (and their Boomer parents) who want the rewards of close relationships without the institutional commitment may rethink things in the actual struggles of life. The prospect of death has a way of shaking us up on that front. At some point, hopefully, many will wonder why their ever-cycling social network of informal relationships leaves them bereft of physical and spiritual support when they’re out of the social loop. And they may wonder why they’re alone, even though they participated regularly in the latest equivalent of Twitter-church and were “followers” and “friends” on some self-ordained life coach’s Facebook page. Maybe then they will realize that they are embodied, historical, and finite creatures after all. Maybe then they will be ready for a visible church that, in spite of their Gnostic defiance, still delivers a risen Christ to sinners through words, water, bread, and wine.