суббота, 18 января 2014 г.

Greener grass... or the search for the ancient church

Olexiy Bayev / ShutterstockMy heart sinks when I read yet another article about evangelical Christians finding their home in the alleged ritual of the Ancient Church. (click here for a case in point).

Don't get me wrong. I do genuinely have an open heart to all those who profess the Lord Jesus Christ and I have a love for the history of the Church. I am not so evangelical that I don't honour the sacraments or can't see the gospel truth in ritual forms.

At the same time, to me the double appeal to post-modern subjectivism and pseudo-historical argument ring hollow. Maybe I am not listening properly, but what I never hear is testimonies of such Christians 'coming home' to Rome or Constantinople or Canterbury in terms of the conviction of sin or an all-consuming trust in the Saviour. It is not about that. It is not more of the gospel that they are seeking, but for the most part transient external trappings, which date from long after the Apostles or the first generations of Christians. Robes, processions, cathedrals, icons, monks - we know that these were later developments and not part of the early church's life or worship. But they seem to fill the empty post-modern soul, they speak to our rootless condition. At least for a season they might stave off the hunger for the Bread of Life. (Incidentally, in the words of a French writer, "I love Germany so much, that I am glad there are two of them." In His providence, God has permitted more that one pretender to the title of One True Church.)

I cannot claim objectivity or comprehensiveness, but for good or ill I have had fellowship with Anglicans, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterians, evangelicals of different kinds and others. I think I can say with some degree of certainty that I have met genuine brothers and sisters in Christ in all these traditions. What united us was not outward form or tribal allegiance, but our Saviour the Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit who gives life to the Body which is the church invisible and the One whom we can call Father.

I would be the first to accept that form and tradition have their place. Churchless Christianity is ultimately a road to nowhere: time-tested forms are simply replaced by childish innovation and impulse. And yet my observation is that form can be and is exalted not merely as necessary outward 'packaging' but as the Thing itself. In my own tradition it is preaching which is exalted so that it can become an end in itself. Doctrinal soundness, pulpit performance and theoretical Bible knowledge become the measure of godliness - at the expense of faith, hope and love. In other traditions the church ritual or historical legitimacy can likewise become the Main Thing. Not only does this unchurch the rest of Christendom, but it also diverts attention away from the 'weightier matters'; the means becomes the end. In this environment Christians become complacent, exclusivist, supercilious and cynical. It is enough to 'talk the talk' and 'process the procession' and you are okay. Often behind the ecclesial facade are all kinds of unbelief and ungodliness. Choirmasters who read Playboy. Church choirs known for drunken debauchery. Churchmen whose certainties are the latest ethical fads of the world, but when it comes to the precious truths of the gospel cannot honestly stand up and say, "Credo." Priests renowned for drinking and sleeping in church. Pastors leading double lives behind their wives' backs. High-ranking churchmen enjoying personal fortunes and unmarried consorts. Preachers with thinly-veiled power agendas. These are all actual examples.

I personally know a young person converted to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ through an evangelical ministry. Proselytised by zealous Orthodox believers they came to believe that we are not a true church and moved to the Orthodox church, seeking depth of spirituality, historic doctrine, the true fellowship of the Body of Christ and most importantly the true body of Christ in Holy Communion. What they have found is a church with treasured ancient traditions, but with unintelligible services, virtually no Christian family, no Bible study, a 'mixed multitude' membership, undercurrents of jingoistic nationalism and Byzantine political intrigues. The young person is now divorced and attending church infrequently. I am sure this is not true of all Orthodox communities. But I am equally sure that this is not the one true Body of Christ to the exclusion of all others. Another couple we know turned their back on the 'tin chapel' where they came to faith to become confessional Lutherans in a 'proper church'. Their zeal for the Lord and the gospel has gone and the best church in the world is so good that you don't have to go that often - once or twice a month is plenty, especially if there are other pursuits available on Sunday morning.

The lesson is: don't be beguiled by the outward form. It's all about God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The message is Jesus, the Bread of Life given for us. You must be born again by the Spirit. And the greatest commandment is love. If your church tradition is about that - or if it focuses your attention and efforts on that - then all power to you. But don't put your trust in candles, cassocks or expository preaching.

Brothers, keep yourselves from idols.  

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