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.

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  • 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.

    • 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.

        “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.

        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.

    • 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?

  • 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()

  • 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.

      • 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.

  • 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.

  • Mike

    “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.”

    I think maybe the Anglican Communion missed that memo