Taking yet another break from the Anglicanism posts (I trust that Churl has received a somewhat adequate answer in part 3), I’d like to write some reflections on a sermon that I heard at a free church last Sunday. I don’t have any interest in attacking either the church or the preacher, so I will keep both vaguely anonymous and instead critique the individual sermon as it stands on its own. Because I’m starting to feel a growing conviction that silence in the face of hearing these sorts of things is a form of implicit assent from a passive congregation, I’d like to speak with a critical tone. My aim (once again) is not to attack the church or the preacher, but rather to say that the church would have been better served if the preacher had not preached what I’ll be calling in this post an ideological sermon, that is, a sermon that uses the text as a vehicle to push an abstract political agenda. Because this church employs a congregational polity, I’d like to state for the record that I am not a voting member of this congregation and thus my statements are not representative of the congregation; they should be read, in many ways, as those given by a sympathetic outsider. However, as a baptized member of the church catholic, I’d like to appeal to our greater solidarity in the communion of saints as I voice my critique.
To demonstrate my complete solidarity with this free church despite my sacramental status as a confirmed Anglican layperson (which I’ll discuss more in part 4), I’d like to first express my deep thankfulness for the work of this congregation’s second-generation English-speaking ministry pastor. Not only is he one of my longtime friends, but he is an incredibly thoughtful evangelical working within a free church tradition with young people and their parents, skillfully navigating the tricky political waters that often come with that terrain. While I sometimes disagree with his exegesis of biblical texts (he often waxes a bit too individualistic for my liking), his careful engagements with pastoral care in the congregation and his sincere efforts to engage the neighbourhood around him with more than simply token words of appreciation are simply inspiring. It is fascinating and joyfully exciting to watch the growth of his pastoral work, as well as the work of the people who compose that church in their music, hospitality, and theological reflection, and as a Chinglican, I am glad to attend their services on a semi-monthly basis. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and my hope is that even as we speak of ecumenical reconciliation movements between Anglicans and Lutherans with the Roman Catholic Church, we might also someday be able to talk more deeply about the reconciliation of the free church with communions that are increasingly recognizing the wrongheadedness of their embeddedness with the state. In this, I am also expressing my sincere gratitude to free churches as a whole for their witness against the church’s entanglement with the state, and I am hopeful that we will all one day be fully reconciled in Christ.
It’s in that context that I’d like to express my utter dismay at the sermon last week, a homiletical piece that was delivered neither by my friend nor by anyone who grew up at the church, but by an older white man in a prominent position at a local evangelical institution here in the Pacific Northwest.
Let me first unfold the piece as I heard it. I will follow my summary with a critique.
The sermon was purportedly an exposition of the first psalm in the Psalter. As the preacher ran out of time, his focus was on the first three verses, which I’ve reproduced here in the New International Version, which he was using:
1 Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
2 but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
3 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
The sermon was itself a spirited critique of compartmentalization, the notion that one’s faith should be kept in certain spaces but should not exert any influence on the secular parts of one’s life, including one’s schooling, employment, or romantic relationships. The danger of compartmentalization, the preacher continued, was that it allowed evangelicals to be defined by the culture surrounding them, particularly through the media (and especially, as he was quick to point out in this second-generation Chinese Christian congregation, by video games). As a result, he argued that evangelical faith’s influence in the culture was slowly waning, that marriage rates were dropping, and that evangelicals themselves did not know right from wrong, which was apparently visible in their voting patterns, as they would often vote in favour of sexual liberalization. The preacher’s diagnosis came courtesy of the psalmist: evangelicals have stepped too long with the wicked, stood too long in the way of sinners, and sat too long in the company of mockers, often to the point at scoffing at the values in their own faith. (He then added, ‘If you are rolling your eyes at me right now, then you’re probably sitting with the scoffers too.’ He said that exactly as I was rolling my eyes.)
He then proposed two solutions to this evangelical erosion. First, he noted that in contrast to the acts of stepping with the wicked, standing with sinners, and sitting with mockers, it was important for evangelicals to spend much more time with fellow evangelicals who shared their faith values and could ask those going astray from these values how their thinking worldviews were consistent with evangelical faith. However, he quickly noted (and this was his second point) that the psalmist proposes a much more radical solution: it is to be rooted in the ‘law of the Lord,’ that is, the Word of God as revealed in the literal Scriptures, and to meditate on it day and night. In other words, while community is nice, the preacher argued that it was incumbent on individual evangelicals themselves to read the Bible, to meditate on it day and night, and then to be individual trees planted by streams of water, yielding their individual fruit in season, keeping their individual leaves from withering who prosper individually in all that they do. In short, God calls individual evangelicals to forsake the crutch of social relations and to apply his word literally in all situations in an individualistic way. Calling for solidarity among all evangelicals (and especially free churches) around this individual reading of the Bible, the preacher ended with an attempt to forge this reading of Psalm 1 as the central identity piece that defined who evangelicals were and how they should engage the world.
It’s like this preacher was just asking for a critique from the church catholic. I’m happy to give it to him.
Let me emphasize first that while this theology certainly floats around in this free church, it certainly isn’t the main thing that I often hear preached. In fact, as I said before, my friend’s work (the pastor) is much more thoughtful than the standard evangelical caricatures that I’ve also seen floating around. Indeed, if there is an exception to Churl’s scream against evangelicalism on the blog, it’s my friend. My critique, however, is not one of evangelical theology writ large, then, tempting as that might be. (Indeed, how can one critique evangelical theology writ large if evangelicalism itself is such a fragmented movement at present? More on this in a separate post.) Following the individualism in the sermon that was preached, this is simply a critique of one individual sermon unfortunately preached by someone of some stature in the local evangelical community, which means that despite its capacity to stand alone, it’s not something that should be overlooked. It should be rigorously engaged and refuted for the sake of the church’s well-being.
So without further ado, the critique:
This sermon, as it stands, did an utter theological disservice to both the gift that is the free church and the body that is the church catholic. It did so by reducing the church to an ideologically-driven community and the Scriptural text to an ideological manifesto. Let me take both in turn.
The gift that is the free church to the church catholic is its witness against Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican complicity with the development of modern nation-states. The story is often told in the free church that while the Protestant Reformers broke away from the Catholic Church because of Rome’s increasing corruption of both doctrine and ecclesial practice, they also quickly sold the church to the state in the German states, the Calvinist city-states, and the English nation. Standing against the ideological co-optation of the church by the state so that all citizens of those states became nominal Christians, the free church wrested control of church governance away from the state and put it into the hands of the people in the churches themselves. This was the origin of a particular kind of free church governance, one that prized congregational autonomy and the decision-making of the congregation itself over against any kind of hegemonic elite rule. The Chinese evangelical variant of this free church polity originated from evangelical congregations in North America whose senior pastors ruled the congregation with an allegedly iron first. Discovering the free church’s polity, Chinese evangelicals planted free churches with bylaws that wrote out the pastor from church governance, enshrining power within a democratically-elected deacon board that was always directly answerable to the congregation while putting pastors under the charge of the congregation and the deacons to make sure that they were doing their job of prayer, congregational visitation, and the ministry of the Word. Some ministers in this polity have described it as utterly oppressive, subordinating the clergy to the will of the people, while others have said that it is freeing to know that administrative matters are not within the provenance of the pastoral staff and are conducted instead by the congregation. Seeing the merits of both sides, my friend pleads ambivalence.
In any case, to reduce any of this free church polity to an ideologically-policing community does the free church a major disservice. At a textual level, this theological interpretation of Psalm 1 is already a hermeneutical blunder (shout out to New Testament exegete extraordinaire Sam Tsang and his blogs on Scripture and preaching), failing to take into account how the ‘wicked,’ the ‘sinners,’ and the ‘scoffers’ are framed in the Psalter and in the Torah: they are not framed as people who don’t hold ideologically to Christian values, but as greedy, exploitative, backstabbing, traitorous thieves seeking to murder the innocent, exploit the poor, and do violence to their communities for individual, private gain. The ‘mockery’ of the mockers is not the mocking of Christian ideological values (which is why I was rolling my eyes); it is the act of wickedly mocking the innocent, the righteous, and the pure in heart, the ones who do not take bribes or charge interest on their loans, the ones who help the poor and the least of these without thought for personal gain, the ones who forego wealth accumulation to be in radical solidarity with the downtrodden. Hang out with those who mock the poor, the psalmist says, and your entire way of life will become exploitative and scheming, out of step with the way of life prescribed in the Torah with its preferential option for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.
However, put into the context of the free church as a gift, the ideologization of Psalm 1 nullifies the whole reason that the free church broke away from the state churches: to escape the tyranny of ideology. The point of the church isn’t to teach what is right and what is wrong and to police its members’ values; it’s to live out a Christian life founded on an alternate mode of existence called love. This is arguably precisely why the free church had to depart from the state: it was the state that was policing its members’ values, co-opting theological concepts for its own political agenda. If the free church were to police its members’ ideological views, then we must ask what the political motivations of the free church vis-à-vis the state are. And if we were to find out that the free church withdrew itself from the state only to influence the state with its own ideological values more effectively, then does this posit that the free church was founded on a lie? I’d like to think not. I, for one and as an Anglican grappling with the baggage of state-entanglement in my own communion, treasure this witness from the free church that the church should neither be controlled by the state, nor have a political agenda to suggest to the state to enact on the free church’s behalf.
This brings us to the larger point that the preacher was trying to make: that individual Christians should be planted firmly in the Word of God, that is, the Bible read as an ideological manifesto. By relativizing the sociality of the Christian life (a good that is affirmed by Catholics in Henri de Lubac, by state-entangled Protestants in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and by free church theologian Miroslav Volf), the preacher is claiming that the church catholic is unnecessary and that everything we confess in the creed about the Holy Spirit is tangential to our common baptism. At one level, this assertion reduces the Bible from its complex canonical library, its purposefully ambiguous narratives about the mystery of everyday lives lived before the living God, and its radical disclosure that God is alive and incarnate in Jesus Christ. It strips away all of this textual richness and leaves us with an abstract code that can be mined for principles and values over morning coffee. There is nothing even literal about this sort of epistemic violence perpetrated on the text, except that it is literally a violent way of dealing with the text. It in fact enshrines the reader as interpreter over the text, drawing out values for his or her own interest in ideological formation with little reference to what Scripture is actually trying to tell the reader about God and the world. It is thus a betrayal of everything that evangelicals themselves purport to believe about the nature of Scripture, for the one that quickly becomes inerrant in this ideological reading is not the text, but the reader.
But to enshrine the inerrant reader as an individual Christian boasting of his or her firm ideological rootedness is a denial of everything that the Body of Christ stands for. The church catholic exists precisely to mitigate against these ideological claims to individual sovereignty. It tells us that our identity is not rooted in one’s individual ideological formation, but in one’s relation to the ‘other,’ in what Bonhoeffer called ‘being for the other.’ And here, the text of Scripture does not show us what values to hold. It unfolds for us these complex lives and stories of people in messy communion with each other, struggling between temptations to assume the ideological power to define the knowledge of good and evil and the life-giving way of the Torah to give ourselves up in love for our neighbour. This is precisely why the Lord Jesus founded a church, why St. Paul calls us to imitate him in love, why St. Peter calls us a holy nation and a royal priesthood, why St. John tells us that the Lord’s new commandment can be summed up this way: that we love one another as he loved us. Christian life is not about me and my rootedness. Christian life is about my neighbour, my brother, my sister, even my enemy, and whether I love them and give myself up for them.
And so I say to the preacher: no, ideological sermons are not OK. They are a disgrace both to your free church tradition (which is a gift to all of us in the church catholic) and to the church catholic itself (into which you confess yourself to be baptized). They reduce the means of grace which the Lord has given to us in both the Word and the church to abstract statements. They excarnate Christian life precisely where the Scriptures (and dare I say it, the entire Christian tradition) call us to incarnate life.
In short, I am saying to the preacher: by virtue of your baptism, you are better than this, and I am calling you out because you are my brother, preaching to your brothers and sisters, and as you get up to the pulpit and declare the whole counsel of God, you do not only speak privately to a church gathered by a common ideology. You are speaking to the entire church catholic because we Christians gather on Sunday not around abstract values, but around our risen Lord whom we confess to be in our midst. Don’t get up there and deny your solidarity with the church. Get up there and perform your ministry of reconciliation. It’s that to which the risen Lord calls us, whether we are free church or Anglican, Catholic or Chinglican. We are a gift to each other, exercising charisms that build up the Body of Christ in our collective witness that the old order is falling away and the new order of the Resurrection has already been inaugurated in the risen life of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
In short: please, please, preach the Word.