Sheep and their shepherds (5): when the church turns herself into the parachurch, the sacraments die…
(Five in a series.)
In the last installment of this series “Sheep and their shepherds,” the subtitle “so the church became the parachurch” pointed to the overwhelming influence of parachurch organizations on the North American church the last half of the twentieth century. Let’s open this up a little more.
Pastors were slow on the uptake, but as the decades rolled by, we realized one way of coping with this massive shift from the church to the parachurch was to turn the church into the parachurch. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
Seeing that the thing people loved about supporting and being involved with parachurch businesses, missions, evangelism ministries, and social help organizations was the absence of the sacraments—and thus the absence of any necessity of saying “no” to anyone’s sinful doctrine or practice—we caught on and began to remove “no” from our churches.
This meant eviscerating the sacraments of their content and meaning. Since the sacraments were, in fact, the one thing the church had that the parachurch didn’t have, we didn’t toss out the sacraments entirely. Instead, we muddied them up to the point that no one from the Early Church or Protestant church history would recognize them.
People stopped baptizing their children. Baptism became a very personal statement of commitment or recommitment to Jesus Christ and this meant we allowed anyone to be baptised or rebaptised at any time for any reason. But no one baptized babies. Why rob the little one of his special ceremony publicly committing himself to Jesus when he came of age. Baptism was personal and should stay that way.
Similarly, the Lord’s Supper was turned into a very personal communing with Jesus Christ. This meant we allowed anyone of any age to take communion whenever and wherever they wanted.
With both baptism and the Lord’s Supper, all that mattered was that the person being baptized or given communion had sincere intentions of one kind or another in a sort of Christianly spiritual direction. But even their sincerity we didn’t judge. “Who were we to judge,” we’d tell people. “Doesn’t Scripture say that a man should examine himself? There, you see? It’s not the job of pastors to examine anyone. The sacraments are a matter of deep personal intimacy with God and I have no doubt those who come to God will never be cast out. Let them come. Don’t hinder them!”
There was no longer any attempt to understand, let alone submit to Scripture’s warning that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” We killed our Lord’s lordship by claiming any talk of fruit or obedience was a corruption of the Gospel. It was works-salvation and all Protestants know that is bad. We declined to discipline the church by Scripture’s “one faith,” instead engaging in a mind-numbingly endless repetition of “Christ unites but doctrine divides.” We looked down our noses at churches that used catechisms and confessions to instruct and discipline themselves and their children. We were in such bondage to evocative spiritualized blather of a Christianly sort that we wrote and adopted statements of faith of such brevity that they could be accurately summarized as “Jesus saves us from our sins so we love Jesus and are waiting for Him to return.”
We turned away from orthodoxy and orthopraxy to orthopathy. Right doctrine and practice were tossed out the window and right feelings became all that mattered. Instead of a community of faith and doctrine, the church became a community of shared experiences and sentiment. Now the only requirement for membership in Evangelical churches was some sort of testimony to having prayed the sinner’s prayer and some ability to testify to some sort of emotional catharsis one attributed to some sort of relationship with Jesus.
At first it was a “personal relationship with Jesus,” but as time passed, passion replaced relationship so that, now, even our passion need not be for Jesus. It’s sufficient to trot out some virtue bragging that at least obliquely is traced for its origin in a Christianly direction. Something like, “I read one of the Gospels once and since then have found within me a passion for racial reconciliation which I feel is my life’s calling.”
Speaking truthfully, this may be the most trusted confession of faith accepted by Reformed church planting types for admission to their communion tables. Most of them make a principle of not requiring any submission to the church and her elders for participation in the bread and the cup.
Fifteen years ago or so, there was an extended email debate over this matter within our Ohio Valley Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. In that debate, the major thrust of the teaching elders of presbytery was opposition to the denomination’s clearly-stated policy of requiring the Lord’s table to be fenced by her pastors barring those who refused to join a Bible-believing church and to promise submission to her elders.
Yet they claimed to be pastors, and more specifically presbyterian pastors. Keep in mind that “presbyteros” in Greek means “elder.” Government of the church by a plurality of elders is the raison d’être of the reformed presbyterian church, yet these men didn’t believe anyone coming to the Lord’s table should have to promise submission to elders. It would have been scandalous if these pastors verbally fenced the Lord’s table by calling the souls present to submission and then doing nothing to enforce that call. It would have been scandalous for them to give lip-service submission to their denominational requirement to say something about the importance of church membership before handing out the bread and the cup without saying it to their sheep personally and specifically, but this was much worse.
They denied the rightness of their denomination’s requirement, justifying their rebellion by facile declarations such as “where in the Bible does it say anyone has to be a church member in order to take Communion?”
Now then, let me explain how it came about that I began to believe in church membership. It’s a succession of stories that will take some time to spin so I’m going to save it for the next installment in this series.
[This is five in a series of posts on the difficulties church officers, particularly pastors, face today in our work guarding the flock our Lord purchased with His Own precious blood. Our Lord said He was the “Good Shepherd” Who gave up His life for the sheep. We want to be good shepherds like our Chief Shepherd, but it is hard. It may help us toward faithfulness to discuss some of the challenges we face. That is my hope in this series—that as I tell of some challenges I’ve faced in my work, it may be an encouragement to others facing similar challenges. It’s a small goal. Please pray for me.]