Frank Schaeffer Is Wrong about Progressive Christianity

I’m glad to call Frank Schaeffer a friend (and I’m glad that he’s toned down his blog headlines from the FOX News variety that he used to publish). I’m glad to have him on the Progressive Christian channel here at Patheos. But he recently wrote a post about what’s wrong with progressive Christianity, and he’s wrong.

Actually, I agree with Frank’s premise:

We can talk about inclusiveness, diversity and making ourselves vulnerable until the cows come home but that doesn’t make religion more interesting or Christianity stronger it simply changes the labels and the shorthand jargon we talk to ourselves in.

The problem with North American Christianity is not the window-dressing– it’s the whole package.

But I wholeheartedly disagree with what he states as the main problem:

The great weakness of Protestant American Christianity across the board is that by and large it dispensed with liturgy. Having dispensed with liturgy it dispensed with the signposts that point people toward an identity that binds communities together.

To that I say [cough] bullshit! [cough].

I don’t know how often Frank goes to mainline Protestant churches, but I go to them a lot (Frank is a member of the Orthodox Church). In the last few months, I’ve guest preached at Methodist, Lutheran, and Episcopal churches. And you know what they’ve all got? LITURGY!

In fact, that’s the one thing that mainline/progressive Christians have held on to, even while Rome is burning around them. In The New Christians, I tell the story of Bob, an Episcopal seminarian who was driven to the brink of a nervous breakdown because, at his seminary, it was anything goes when it came to Christology, but nary a word of the rubric could be changed in the Book of Common Prayer.

And I’ve had similar arguments, ad naseum, with Methodists, Presbyterians, and even UCCers. They are all chained to books of order and discipline that have reified language patterns of days gone by. Language is changing fast these days, faster than ever in 10,000 years of human history. And yet these books that bind are only updated every 20 or 30 years, leaving clergy hamstrung.

Frank says we should go back to “eucharistic sacramental tradition,” and he has some other, similarly retrograde suggestions. But I’m surprised that someone who is usually so clear-eyed about the church as Frank seems to think that this ancient tradition comes without theological baggage. As many of his fellow Orthodox have told me, you don’t get to have only the aspects of Orthodoxy that you like, while ignoring the rest. In other words, if you want the Eucharist and the Jesus Prayer, you’ve also got to take the homophobia and the all-male priesthood.

In fact, I’d venture a guess that many in his own Orthodox communion reject just about all of Frank’s social stances, and they do so on the same grounds that he wants us to go back to the “eucharistic sacramental tradition.”

The fact is, going backwards is never a solution to what ails an institution (like the church). The future comes in moving forward.

And also this: every church — even Solomon’s Porch, where we take communion every week — has a liturgy. It may not look like a liturgy to Frank, but it’s a liturgy nonetheless.

  • iamstillrobdavis

    Amen!

    I’ve read a lot of James K.A. Smith’s work, and I think he is right when he says that humans are not only social but liturgical – that we need intentional rhythms in order to shape us in certain ways. But, where I get really confused is when he posits a “return” to “traditional” liturgy as the only possible solution.

  • Lausten

    Thanks Tony. Frank lost me when he started talking about the lack of liturgy. That may be happening at the extremes, but it is hardly a central issue. I would rather see more updated scholarship, rather than out dated liturgy, but I can see the value of the ritual.

  • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

    So true that every church has a liturgy … it’s just a matter of what liturgy they’re using.

    N.T. Wright wrote: “I am always amused … when I visit churches that carefully abandoned all signs of professional worship from a former age — robed choirs, processions, organists, and the like — and then invented new forms of worship that demand just as much professionalism in terms of competent people managing sound systems, lighting, overhead projection and PowerPoint, and so on. There is nothing wrong with either. All can and should be done to the glory of God. But the implication that older styles of worship are somehow less spiritual and the modern electronic worship is somehow more worthy is sheer cultural prejudice and should be happily laughed at whenever it emerges.”

    Likewise, the implication that older, “traditional” liturgical practices are inherently more spiritual is also culturally and chronologically prejudiced.

    • cwgmpls

      One of my pet peeves is how the sound and video guys today (yes, I’ve only seen guys doing this stuff, why is that?) don’t get to wear nice gowns and process with the clergy, the way the acolytes used to. Heck, in my church, they are often even passed over for communion! Even the guitar player and drummer get communion, for chrissake! The sound guys are doing the same thing, managing the “smells and bells” for worship, but their role is no longer recognized as the essential part of liturgy that it is.

  • barry taylor

    i’m with you on this one Tony–I think it was Picasso who said that you can honor tradition by wearing your grandfather’s hat or by having grandchildren–one uses the tradition as a foundation for reinvention and recapitulation, the other, just..wears the same old hat, even when it has gone out of fashion (which is not just a mark of disposability but a sign of awareness of the present moment)–as someone doing work within a liturgical horizon I find the tyranny of the old, and its old not ‘ancient’, a tedious thing much of the time-a bondage and not a liberation and again-the only way forward is forward

  • livingmartyrs

    I have come to inherently distrust anyone who says “the single greatest problem of the church is___”. This is a revelation of that person’s singular perspective (ie egocentrism), not necessarily a universal problem of the church. It is valuable to hear concerns about the church, internal and external, and we all need to be prepared to correct our course in humble discernment.

    But just imagine we all obeyed such a statement by any one person, and in this example every church followed the same liturgical traditions — wouldn’t this give rise to a new “single greatest problem” to conquer? A quick glance at history might help answer that. :-)

    Ultimately, if I make such a singular truth claim, I’m offering myself up to judgement for the arrogance with which I try to impose my own preference(s), much more than the condition I’m pointing at.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bob.carlton Bob Carlton

    Thanks for posting Tony – and for listening to my story when you wrote THE NEW CHRISTIANS.

    For all the energy Episcopalians use to rail against “those fundamentalists”, it saddens me just how fundamentalist rubrics and practices around liturgy continue to be. It is a striking contrast to be a part of conversations around new models of ministry, then gather around a table where the professional celebrates and civilians watch & consume.

    I have no doubt that other parts of progressive Christianity carry their own fundamentalism, often as a cultural point of pride. While many of my best friends survived seminary & ultimately ordination, I did not. That fundamentalism, heavy in the air of Berkeley where my seminary was, weighed me down like wet vestments.

    There are no easy answers here – the Great Unraveling is asymmetrical, more like Apple maps than the gorgeous work of monks who create intricate maps of empires past.

  • cwgmpls

    I don’t understand the disagreement. In my experience, emergents are much more liturgical than, say, Methodists. But then, I don’t get out much. If Solomon’s Porch follows a liturgy, then what is the complaint with someone saying that liturgy is a really good thing?

    What makes liturgy a good liturgy, rather than a retrograde liturgy? Or is it your point that focusing on liturgy is missing the point?

  • http://twitter.com/elaneorourke Elane O’Rourke

    Not liturgy, in the sense of an order of worship plus stock phrasing. Mystery. A “high” holiness–a sense of the absolute otherness of the majestic. Wouldn’t mind a bit more creed and communion, either.

    • Theodore Seeber

      To have order, don’t you need ordination? To have ordination, don’t you need a divine individual ordering the universe?

      As a Catholic, that’s what is wrong with Protestant liturgy- it’s largely play acting, having forgone a centralized episcopate.

  • http://charityjilldenmark.wordpress.com/ Charity Jill Erickson

    I assumed I was missing something when I started reading that Frank Schaeffer article the other day, because I have been making a point to visit many new churches lately and the more progressive/liberal ones have the MOST liturgy. I went to the ELCA church around the corner for my first Ash Wednesday service ever last night, and they were using the same call/response texts as a Catholic Mass. I was so blessed by a recent visit to Solomon’s Porch–I’m sad that I won’t be able to go again until Lent is over.

  • jayseidler

    I agree with you Tony. liturgy, eucharistic, sacramental. Wow! Is the congregation of God so stuck in time that it cannot speak the language of the masses? Some ancient words are commonly known in the venacular, but let’s review from time to time to make sure what we are saying is easily intelligible. From Greek, English gets the word mystery, so why does some “church” need to use the Latin word sacrament when few outside the church know what it really means. Why not use the word thanksgiving instead of eurcharist, and the word worship (whatever order is followed) is surely more understandable than liturgy. Not only is their vocabulary stuck in time, but so are their symbols that are meant to point to the spiritual mysteries.

    • http://gravatar.com/cwgmpls cwgmpls

      Why? Because words have meanings.

      “sacrament” is an act, prescribed specifically by Jesus, that presents God’s promise in physical form. Which word would you like to use for this instead?

      “eucharist” or “communion” is a specific sacrament of sharing God’s body and blood with one another, as described by Jesus. “thanksgiving” is a holiday in November. I’m not sure why we would want to confuse the two.

      By the way, when the context is clear, many people just call “communion” “the meal”. But out of context, “the meal” is not specific enough. “communion” or “eucharist” are nice shorthand for the same thing.

      “worship” is any act of expressing adoration “liturgy” is a specific, and historic, manner of expressing that feeling.

      Christian vocabulary is not any more stuck in time than any other words. It is simply vocabulary that has meaning, and the meaning would be lost if we used other words.

      • jayseidler

        If your are going to interact with my comment, please to try to at least give me the etymological meanings of the words in question and then continue with the contexts in which they are used in the Bible. BTW language is always changing so if we are progressive in our spiritual practice we also need to use language that is relevant to our time.

        ευχαριστιας
        “for nothing be anxious, but in everything by prayer, and by supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God”
        μηδεν μεριμνατε, αλλ εν παντι τῃ προσευχῃ και τῃ δεησει μετα ευχαριστιας τα αιτηματα υμων γνωριζεσθω προς τον θεον.

        λειτουργέω
        Indeed, the word worship is too narrow as it should also include social service

        Rom 15:27 It pleased them indeed, and they are their debtors. For if the Gentiles have been partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to serve them in material things.
        ηυδοκησαν γαρ, και οφειλεται εισιν αυτων· ει γαρ τοις πνευματικοις αυτων εκοινωνησαν τα εθνη, οφειλουσιν και εν τοις σαρκικοις λειτουργησαι αυτοις.

        Sacramentum was first used in the beginning of the third century by Tertullian as a translation of the Greek word mysterion.

        Ephesios 5:32 sacramentum hoc magnum est ego autem dico in Christo et in ecclesia

    • Fr. John Morris

      As an Orthodox Priest, I have several observations. First of all I resent my Church being called homophobic, because a phobia is an irratrional fear. Using that word to describe beliefs that every taditional Chrisian has held for centuries, is itself intolerant because it fails to consider that others may have different views.
      I also point out to one person above that Orthodox Christian worship is for the Orthodox. It is supposed to be a mystery. It requires some education to understand it. It is not something that one can really appreciate the first time, because it overwhelms one with color, incense, chant and all sorts of movement. However, if you take the sense of mystery out of it as someone above suggested, it would not be Orthodox.It is much like certain kinds of music. The first time that one hears a Beethoven symphony it may be boaring and strange for someone who is used to rock. However, after a time it grows on you and you begin to appreciate it. In the anient Church, those not members of the Church and those studying for Baptism were actually dismissed before the most sacred parts of the Liturgy.

    • Theodore Seeber

      A sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace. No mystery involved, unless you think grace is a mystery.

  • Brad

    I thought “doing Christianity” was helping the oppressed: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, etc, MT 25, James. And fixing systems that create such. I appreciate a lot of Frank’s work. Especially his proof for the existence of God… His granddaughter. But if I want a try mystical experience I contemplate God being involved in the life at the bottom of the sea and the chemical processes going on in distant stars and healing of body and soul.

    • JC

      Not to discount your experience, but the purpose of liturgical worship is communal, not individual. Christians of all shapes and sizes experience God in the wonder of nature, but when it comes to worshipping together, liturgy matters.

  • Bob

    From what I read, the life of the early church was in being together, not in the structure of their services. Paul had to get on some of them for that, as I recall.

    • http://gravatar.com/cwgmpls Curtis

      Right. But what does it mean to be together with a church that is now global?

      Is it each group of 10-20 people getting together in a house and doing whatever the Spirit leads them to do, similar to the early church? If so, doesn’t that make us hundreds of millions of churches, rather than one church?

      Or is there some practice we all share in common, that unites us as one church? For many Christians, our practice achieves some unity through liturgy. If not liturgy, then what else binds our worship together?

      If we are not together in some form as a global Christian church, then what does “being together” mean?

  • http://www.facebook.com/erikarae333 Erika Rae

    Was wondering if anybody else thinks Frank’s comments might make more sense if he is describing progressive evangelicalism rather than progressive mainline Christianity?

    PS – Sorry if this gets posted twice…I’ve tried to post comments twice before and they seem to have disappeared. Then again…maybe this is a stupid question?? ( : In which case, delete away!

    • Theodore Seeber

      Yes, I was thinking the same thing, despite making the same mistake in my comment below.

  • Pingback: Djesus Uncrossed vs. Christ Crucified #progGOD

  • http://www.lara-thinkingoutloud.blogspot.com Lara

    Ya, It really surprised me that liturgy was Frank’s prescription. There are some things I really like about high liturgy. I went to an episcopal church once and I really liked feeling connected to Christians throughout the ages during the communion ceremony. But for all of us who grew up in the evangelical church who are now spiritually homeless, I don’t see how liturgy addresses any of the issues we have. Liturgy doesn’t teach us how to love our neighbor or how to deal with the bible now that we know it isn’t inerrant. We need a space where we can ask questions and have conversation without shame or shock. Liturgy doesn’t help us feel less “outside”.

    • Fr. John Morris

      That is not true. In the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy before the Creed and the most sacred part of the Divine Liturgy, Deacon, or Priest if there is no Deacon, proclaims, “Let us love one another that with one accord we may confess….” and the people exchange the kiss of peace. Then they say the Nicene Creed and go on to the Consecration of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Thus through liturgical actions we are proclaiming that we must love one another.

      • http://wideopenground.com Lana

        And the Eastern Orthodox church doesn’t say the Bible is inerrant, does it? Thanks for your input.

  • Pingback: Progressive Christianity Doesn’t Need Ancient Liturgy — Pomomusings

  • duane

    “The fact is, going backwards is never a solution to what ails an institution (like the church). The future comes in moving forward.”
    And you know this how?

  • James

    “In other words, if you want the Eucharist and the Jesus Prayer, you’ve also got to take the homophobia”

    I’m going to assume that this very thinly-veiled jab at the Catholic Church is based purely out of ignorance and not malice, because that wouldn’t be very Christian of you…

    I don’t really see any compelling arguments in this piece about why your friend was necessarily wrong other than that Rome is burning (another jab at Catholicism) and that you say language is evolving. What do you mean by Rome is burning and how is that a case against a return to tradition? Also, I don’t buy your weak argument (with no supporting evidence) that language is changing so much in the last 20 years that it is no longer relevant. I don’t completely agree with Frank’s post, but at least he provides some very compelling arguments with compelling evidence.

    • Untouchable

      “In other words, if you want the Eucharist and the Jesus Prayer, you’ve also got to take the homophobia”

      “I’m going to assume that this very thinly-veiled jab at the Catholic Church is based purely out of ignorance and not malice, because that wouldn’t be very Christian of you…”

      Ignorance? I’m a fifty-two-year-old gay cradle Catholic and you’re lying. The Church treats gays with ruthless hatred. Chrysostom called gays worse than murderers because gays murdered the soul within the body and said they’d be better off dead. I read that hate porn at 13 in the Catholic Encyclopedia and my high school. The writings of a saint suborned suicide to me and said that my love for another would cause his damnation.

      The last pope did all he could to enforce anti-gay apartheid against society as a whole. The only protection that he said gays were allowed is secrecy. He can burn in Hell for all I care and so can the apologists for Axis Catholicism.

  • Tom

    Frank is generally wrong on just about everything.

  • Ron

    I am not Orthodox, but I want to say “amen” Fr. John. I also “amen” to Frank’s statements. After 30t years of being part of christian fellowships that distained any mention or practise of liturgy I am one who is convinced that the only way to recover any accuracy to the meaning of the word “gospel”, is to reconnect with the past practices of the past church. If we continue on into the future as you suggest Tony, we still will end up with “liturgy”, it will just continue to trail off into more and more self help theraputic stuff that I could get at the local rotary club.

  • Theodore Seeber

    Frank is right- but the modern progressive American won’t understand the reason. So let me put it to you another way entirely: What is wrong with progressive Christianity is too much progressive and not enough Christ.

    What you don’t understand about the Eucharist- as opposed to your late outside the mainstream Protestantism- is that it *IS* the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It isn’t just liturgy. It is transubstantiation. It is Christ become Flesh to feed our corporal works of mercy for another day.

    Without that, all you have is following a nice philosopher from 2000 years ago whose teachings are entirely outdated. What is left, well, even the atheists run soup kitchens these days, when they aren’t using divorce and homosexuality to make a mockery out of family. But maybe- just maybe- it is the progressive culture that has it all wrong- and those so-called outdated teachings are what is RIGHT.

    But since that’s so hard to hear in a culture that is full of divorce, contraception, euthanasia, unjust war, killing off the guilty (and sometimes, those who are only guilty of being conceived), and jailing those who feed the poor, modern Americans would rather become “emergents” or “nones” than take the tough medicine that is Christ.

  • http://gravatar.com/rumitoid rumitoid

    Not a single child ever has been raised in HOW TO BELIEVE. Proving facts? Yes, we have Scientific Theory and methods. But a way to find reliable spiritual truth: nothing! What could be the criteria? No one cares, as long as the child conforms to what is taken as truth, case closed. And for good reason: tools for discernment, or HOW TO BELIEVE, are far too dangerous. Indoctrination is not evil. Sanctions against the rebellious are not oppressive. These are only aids to bring the wayward into proper alignment. Fractious or innocent, these measures help to insure both the continuation and purity of a particular tradition.

    The casual evil doled out under the auspices of conformity probably accounts–in my eyes, definitely accounts–for the greatest persistent and harmful wrong-doing we endure as a species.

    Schaeffer is broken; listening to him is like listening, pardon the accurate pun, to a broken record. Far, far too much anger and resentment. Put him in the AA Program and he might have a chance to grow. Addressing any of his comments in a serious sense is the same as taking Grimm Fairytales as real.

    It is not that Frank has “retrograde suggestions” but that both you and him have first half of life thinking. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. That’s where you are and you articulate it well.

  • thushjz

    Poor Frankie…still mad and rebelling like a teenager because his daddy spanked him.


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