Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Problem with Mere Christianity | Christianity Today

The Problem with Mere Christianity | Christianity Today:
J. Todd Billings

"In a recent ecumenical meeting of Christian leaders discussing theology and worship, two evangelical representatives expressed a shared dilemma: How should they integrate concerns for justice and care for the poor into worship? One complained that modern praise songs do not speak about these issues. Given their nondenominational backgrounds, they were not sure where to turn for help.

These evangelicals hit one roadblock that arises when "mere Christianity" severs our ties to theological traditions. At its best, mere Christianity can be summed up by Augustine's proverb: "In essentials, unity. In nonessentials, liberty. In all things, charity." Mere Christianity should also remind us to celebrate the oneness of all believers, united through our one head, Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:15). However, mere Christianity will disappoint when it becomes a substitute for the Christian faith. At its worst, mere Christianity shifts with the trends of praise music or the latest evangelical celebrity. Despite our best intentions, our theology and practice can become "conformed … to the pattern of this world" (Rom. 12:2). ..."

I've been sitting on this posting for a few days, mulling it over. When I first saw the title I thought of C.S. Lewis' book Mere Christianity, a book that has affected many people, me included.

So what is "mere Christianity"? As with Lewis, Billings sees it as peeling away the human traditions and trappings of religion that tend to obscure the core of our faith. Lewis wanted to speak of the common characteristics of the various Christian traditions, without making his picture of Christianity look like the Church of England (or Presbyterian, Methodists, Lutherans or Roman Catholics). Billings recognizes the various traditions, and is not so concerned about stripping those away.

We Presbyterians have this enshrined in our Book of Order where it states that "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his word, or beside it, in matters of faith and worship." -- G-1.0301(a) This powerful statement at once establishes limits not only on the "doctrines and commandments of men", but also, by specifying the standard for our beliefs, provides us with the boundaries of our beliefs. This statement, however, becomes meaningless when it is stripped down to the first seven words.

Billings provides many examples and illustrations of how Christianity can be stripped down so far as to make it all-inclusive (albeit bland), as well as examples of how the "essentials" can be drawn so rigidly as to be unnecessarily exclusive.

Early in his article he asks rhetorically "If you take Presbyterian out of the church name and avoid teaching about predestination and the sacraments, more people will come, right?" He then goes on with an illustration of a man who belonged to a Reformed denomination speaking with his daughter-in-law who was a member of a non-denominational church. He showed her the Heidelberg Catechism to help her understand where his denomination was coming from. She replied that her church used the Heidelberg Catechism all the time and it was an important part of what they taught. In Billings words, "Consider the irony: While many Reformed churches push their own catechism to the side, this large nondenominational church discovers the same catechism to be a profound tool for teaching the Christian faith."

Neither denomination was, in Billings' view, a particularly good example of "mere Christianity": "One church claims to be nondenominational instead of naming its tradition. The other fails to uphold its explicitly named tradition."

Traditional Christianity is not a pejorative to Billings -- rather he holds that it can act as a defense against "succumbing to the 'spirit of the age'." He notes that the Holy Spirit has been working actively in the Church for 2000 years, and that the wisdom of our predecessors in faith can be an important resource in our own spiritual development.

What I understand him to be saying is that what defines us as Presbyterians (or Baptists, or Methodists, etc.) can provide a far better platform for moving into a complex and uncertain future than jettisoning our distinctives and traditions in favor of trying to be more attractive.

Definitely food for thought...


Mark Smith said...

There is a danger in defining the boundaries of the faith too clearly and distinctly.

It is certainly true that one can be following "mere Christianity" and be outside of the boundaries of the denomination's faith. It may be true that those boundaries need to be clearly defined for those in a teaching role.

However, clear and sharp boundaries also stifle creativity. Now, don't get too bogged down on human thought vs. Godly creation - ALL creativity has a Godly angle. (Indeed, ALL human behavior has a Godly component if you believe CS Lewis). When we make hard and fast rules, we leave out the ability for God to provide new examples.

The same danger exists in turning inward to avoid the "stain of popular culture". If we've already decided that what we do and believe now is God's intention, we haven't left any room for God to show us new ideas, behaviors, concepts, beliefs.

I agree that jettisoning our distinctives and traditions in order to attract new converts can be dangerous. However, it's equally dangerous to blindly cling to them and not at least take a look around and see what new light God has shined upon us.

You can't see diddly-squat through a closed stained-glass window. Through a clear window or an open window - yes. Through the window but still within the church, you have a unique platform to observe the new and yet still be protected and safe.

Denis Hancock said...

Thanks, Mark, for your comments. I find much that I agree with and some that I disagree with.

A writer is not stifled by the margins of a sheet of paper (or a computer monitor) -- within the margins one has complete and full freedom and creativity to write what one wants.

I'm not worried by clear and distinct margins, but I AM worried about margins that are too narrow, or margins that are so wide as to be meaningless.

A few paragraphs after "God alone is Lord of the conscience ..." is G-1.0302:

"That, in perfect consistency with the above principle of common right, every Christian Church, or union or association of
particular churches, is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion, and the qualifications of its ministers and members, as well as the whole system of its internal government which Christ hath appointed; that in the exercise of this right they may, notwithstanding, err, in making the terms of communion either too lax or too narrow; yet, even in this case, they do not infringe upon the liberty or the rights of others, but only make an improper use of their own.
" (emphasis mine)

As a Presbyterian baptized by sprinkling I would not be eligible for membership in a Baptist congregation -- but that would not put them (or me) outside the pale (except, perhaps, for a very small number of people).

What Presbyterians and Baptists have in common is a tradition of sola scriptura and, depending on which Baptist denomination, we also share the 5 points of Calvin.

As long as the focus is on the Lord and Scripture, then the Baptist, Presbyterian, and any other tradition can lay claim to "mere Christianity". It's when the focus turns from the Word of God (taken both ways) to denominational affiliation, that we start adding the "doctrines and commandments of men" to what the Lord requires.