Recommendations for a Nation of Heretics

Recommendations for a Nation of Heretics May 9, 2012

In my last post, I began to comment on Ross Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Well, actually, I focused on a recent interview Douthat did with Christianity Today. He does believe that much of American religion, Christianity, in particular, is “bad” because we have lost touch with Christian orthodoxy and with the institutions (churches, denominations) and guard and pass on classic Christian truth.

Ross Douthat at Faith Angle Forum, May 2012

In the last couple of days, I’ve been attending the Faith Angle Forum in Florida. As it turns out, Douthat was one of the featured speakers. He is as good in person as in writing, which made for an engaging conversation about the state of religion in America. Whether you agree with Douthat or not, he is a valuable contributor to this dialogue and I hope he continues to express his views on the matter.

Anyway, back to Christianity Today. In the interview, Douthat was asked: How can we begin to address a nation of heretics? “We,” in this question, means “we who believe ourselves to be orthodox Christians.” Here is Douthat’s telling answer:

There has been much healthy Catholic and Protestant dialogue and cooperation during the past 30 years. But ultimately the success of U.S. Christianity depends on individual churches and confessions, not on ecumenism for ecumenism’s sake. Protestants and Catholics need to recognize everything we have in common and then say we’re also going to focus on building separate effective churches.

Christianity’s failure in the United States is an institutional failure, and the answer to institutional failure is stronger institutions. America has more to gain from a more potent Protestantism and Catholicism than it does from even the most fruitful Protestant-Catholic dialogue.

For evangelicals, it means thinking more seriously about ecclesiology and what it will take to sustain Christianity across generations. Promise Keepers, Campus Crusade for Christ, and other parachurch groups have been important to evangelicalism. But “parachurch” makes sense over the long term in the context of a church. The danger for evangelicalism is becoming too parachurch without enough church. Some megachurches seem to function like parachurches rather than churches, as though everything else that’s going on is more important than the central life of the community of worship. It might be important for evangelicals to think of themselves as Presbyterians, Baptists, and so on, and recover the virtues of confessionalism, because it’s confessions, not just superstar pastors, that sustain Christianity over the long haul.

I think Douthat is substantially right. Though it’s popular these days to love Jesus and hate the church, in fact, the church is the context in which the truth about Jesus is told and passed on. It’s the context where Jesus is honored and worshiped. You cannot ultimately have a vital, sustainable Christian faith apart from the church.

I take seriously Douthat’s recommendation for evangelicals. I agree that we need to do much more thinking about ecclesiology (the understanding of the church). Though parachurch organizations can help to revitalize and strengthen the church, they should not suppose to replace it. As you may know, I work for a parachurch organization (Foundations for Laity Renewal). One of the reasons I joined this organization had to do with its longstanding commitment to support and partner with the church (in the form of particular churches).

By the way, if you’re looking for some serious reflection on the church and its relationship to Christian faith, I would recommend an outstanding book by my friend Tod Bolsinger. It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian: How the Community of God Transforms Lives has been well-received in a wide range of contexts: churches, small groups, seminaries, pastors’ retreats, etc. You can also find lots of insights about the church on Tod’s blog.

In my next post, I want to think with you about why the notion of “heresy” is an important one, even if it isn’t especial PC these days.


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  • Peter

    Mark:  Good post. I am reading Douthat’s book right now.  I have a somewhat different take on the solution to the creeping heterodoxy of the American church today.  I think we must at some point come to terms with our loss of cultural dominance and accept it, rather than resisting and mourning the loss of it.  In many ways, we once again find ourselves in a First Century situation of being a minority with little ability to control or dominate the direction of culture.  In other words, we are no longer in the driver’s seat which was the case until the mid-20th Century or so.  If this is true, the solution does not lie in any institutional approach – of trying to forge new and better institutions (ie. WCC, NCC, PC(USA) but at the local level, building and flourishing, healthy faith communities where Christ is central, the Gospel is preached and lives are being transformed.   In some ways, it’s like the Dark Ages when the survival of the faith depended on isolated, individual communities that refused to sink into barbarism and unbelief, but preserved vital center of worship and outreach in places like Irleand and Scotland.  These communities seemed so small and beleaguered, but in the long run they turned the tide of civilization.  Personally,  I believe the future of the church lies in this direction.  In a sense, we are returning to our roots….where there was no institutional Christianity but only vibrant points on the map: Antioch, Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica.  Speaking for myself, I have stopped attending national conferences to listen to dynamic speakers who are seeking to re-invent the church every couple of years or offer the spiritual steroids that will pump up the anemic Body of Christ.  It is in prayer, scripture and seeking the indwelling power of the Spirit that pastors and communities of faith will be revitalized.  It is odd to me that you can attend some of these conferences about church growth, leadership, etc. and nothing is said about prayer.  For me, the text that speaks to our current dilemna is Matthew 5:13:  “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men.”   In an age in which the Christian faith has been corrupted and watered down by inpurity, the solution is salty churches that have not compromised the Gospel.  And as Jesus suggests, a church that attempts to water down the faith in at attempt to attract and appeal to the world is good for nothing and will ultimately be despised by the world.   The Holy Roman Empire is now officially over…and that is a good thing.

  • markdroberts

    Great thoughts, thanks, Peter. Though you’re speaking of smaller churches, you are still talking about the importance of institutions, i.e., local communities of faith.