For the past few weeks, I have been trying to highlight Scot’s book A Fellowship of Differents, and to talk about how this book has shaped some of the ways I think and do local church ministry.
One of the major points that Scot makes toward the end of his book is that, in America, we approach church with the wrong voices in our heads, the voices of Roger Williams and Henry Thoreau. Roger Williams may not be known to many of us. But most of us have been greatly shaped by his vision of the church. When Williams first arrived in America from England, he was my age, in his early 30’s and a zealous young man wanting to purge the Boston Anglican church from all things Catholic.
He was a huge proponent of religious freedom, and getting the church right. He was often in trouble (put on trial a time or two) because he was unrelenting in his desire to purify the church. This sounds pretty noble, and in many ways it was. But eventually, to quote Scot:
Roger himself became the problem: every church he started he eventually pulled out of because it was never committed enough to his own views of what the New Testament taught. The one who wanted to separate church from state to create a pure church became the solitary church of one. He was the first American who loved Jesus but not the church.
Roger Williams leaves a legacy in Western churches that is problematic. We have this haunting idea that our job is “to find the perfect church” as if that was ever an option. In America, we have the freedom to choose, but we are quickly losing our freedom to be the actual Church that Jesus created. Because the church Jesus created wasn’t perfect, you will never find a church better than Peter; you will never find a church that is better than the first disciples; and as disappointing as that may be, it is only in imperfect, fallible communities that we can find Jesus.
The second voice that McKnight says we have whispering in our ear is the more well-known Henri Thoreau, described by his biographer as: “the most attractive American example … of the ageless Stoic principle of self-trust, self-reverence, or self-reliance.”
Thoreau poetically whispers to us “You are on your own. You don’t need other people, march to your own drummer, pioneer your own path”
While that sounds good, the dark side to Thoreau’s idealism is one that Mother Teresa dubbed the leprosy of the modern world. This is a very, very lonely way to live. Thoreau died without making truly meaningful connections and friendships. He lived deliberately, but perhaps he did not live well.
I am writing this so bluntly because I think Scot is right. Every week at Highland (the church I serve) people pray asking God to save them from their loneliness. We pray to be saved from being alone and we are surrounded by people feeling the same way. I would love nothing more than to just get everyone who is lonely into the same room, with name tags, and a few sign up sheets for service projects, and some small group leaders.But the door to the human heart opens from the inside, and it is heavily guarded by a huge lie that repeatedly tells us “You are on your own.”
The New Testament talks about Freedom a lot, but never quite like Roger Williams or Henry Thoreau. In the Bible, we are not just free from every kind of restraint, we are free for a certain kind of purpose. We are free to be certain kinds of people.
And I get the pushback here, I really do. Churches can be places of toxic authoritarian bullying that resembles a cult.
I remember hearing about some of the prohibitions that John Calvin set up when he was governing the Church in Geneva. He declared that there was to be no “feasting, dancing, singing, pictures, statues, relics, church bells, organs, altar candles, ‘indecent or irreligious songs,’ staging or attending theatrical plays, wearing rouge, jewelry, lace or ‘immodest’ dress . . . naming children after anyone but figures in the Old Testament.” Doesn’t that kind of church just sound like a party waiting to happen?
Reecently the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote an article mentioning that the fact that there is a smaller group of cults operating in the West should actually be seen as a red flag for other areas of culture., Douthat sees it as a sign of a deeper problem that we are no longer willing to risk our individual autonomy for something larger than ourselves.
Of course, neither Douthat or I am advocating that we need to join cults, or go back to Calvin’s Geneva, but there is something to be said that words like cultivate and culture come from the same root idea. These are the fruit of being able to tell ourselves no for the sake of a community. It is what comes from the ability to submit to mutual fellowship. This is more like what the New Testament means when it talks about Freedom – a freedom for something, not just a freedom from something.
Again here is Scot:
We too often…think of freedom only in personal terms, but for Paul “freedom” was a church word. We have a new expanded family because we are set free unto the new People of God….“Me” is not one of the most important words in the Bible. You don’t get “Me” until you pass through God and People; if you move in that order, Me morphs into We. The “I’m spiritual but not religious” slogan is what happens when Thoreau merges with Roger Williams.
I believe Scot is on to something that could lead to a better life for so many of us, and not just for pastors trying to get parishioners connected to a church.
I believe that one of the main reasons that we have so much anxiety as a culture is because we have two equally strong, competing myths, 1) We must be connected to something larger than ourselves, and 2) We must be an individual who is free, not letting anything hold us back. Anything that prevents our personal freedom is bad. But those two impulses are mutually exclusive, because to belong to community means, in the words of Chesterton, to become free enough to bind myself.
What we call freedom today, is often really a freedom from life and a freedom from love, and can ultimately be another form of slavery.