2006-02-18

An Open Letter to Those thinking of leaving their Christian Traditions

This is a letter primarily to some of my good friends (you know who you are) who have expressed severe disenchantment with their own Christian Traditions, and are currently thinking of moving over to the Anglican, Roman, or Orthodox Communions.  But this letter is also for everyone who may be thinking about "jumping ship".  I want to begin with a quote by St. Paul:

"To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.  To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.  To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings." (1 Corinthians 9:20-23)

Now let me tell a little story to illustrate the points I want to make:

The other day I was reading commentaries for my Seminary class on Genesis.  One of the commentaries that speaks to me the loudest is that of the internationally renowned scholar Walter Bruggeman (and believe me, there is a reason why he is renowned).  He is one of the few scholars that both so-called "Liberals" like and so-called "Conservatives" like.  I'm not a big fan of the "L" word, or the "C" word because they are both pejorative and both stretched so far that they have little meaning anymore other than being a verbal club to beat the other side with.  Yet, I am going to use both terms here because I need some type of verbal shorthand to make my point.  I will also use "Left" for "Liberal" and "Right" for "Conservative".  So forgive me if you don't like the terms nor my idiosyncratic use of them.  

But, anyway, Bruggeman comes out of the United Churches of Christ, which is arguably one of the more "Liberal" Protestant Traditions.  Despite this, he is one of the world leaders in a revival of looking at the Scriptures from a "canonical" viewpoint.  That is to say that he believes God is still speaking to his people through the words of the canonical documents we have in our Bible today, which have been virtually the same (for the Hebrew Scriptures) for the last 2,500-2,000 years.  Canonical criticism basically says that however God got these documents to us- whether by original authorship, or collection and adaptation of verbal traditions, or by gradual editing and redaction- he got them to us.  And ever more than that, the Word of God is genuinely and uniquely present in these texts and if we refuse to listen to God speaking through them, then we are simply refusing to listen to God altogether and are instead creating a "god" in our own image.

The professor of my Genesis class seems to come to the text with the same basic viewpoint as well. The very interesting thing is that both Bruggeman and my professor were educated in old-school, Bultmann-type, Demythologizing Liberal Biblical scholarship. This Liberal scholarship was the direct heir of 19th and early 20th century theological and Biblical Liberalism that cut up the Bible into a puzzle of thousands of "source documents" and "oral traditions", and declared the Bible to be just another book about human experiences of God, rather than a unique book that records God's self-disclosure to humanity.  Furthermore, this old-school type of Liberalism was empirical, naturalistic, and pseudo-scientific, so it largely emptied the Scriptures of any unique supernatural intervention by God (including becoming uniquely incarnate in Jesus Christ).

What was the "Conservative" reaction to these "Liberals"? To deny them, decry them, and ultimately leave them.  And, in all honesty, in the early 20th century most "Liberal" clergy were more than glad to kick their "Conservative" family members out the door and deny them as well. For 150 years "Conservative" screamed at the Liberals over and over that they needed to believe that God was really, uniquely speaking through the Scriptures, and that the classical doctrines of the Church on God, Christ, Spirit, Scripture, and Salvation were true.

Most of that went unheeded by "Liberals", who were so darned sophisticated they were sure the old faith needed to be radically re-adapted to fit a "modern age".  But, two world wars, two atomic bombs, several depressions and genocides, along with the radical failure of almost every utopian plan for a great society, and "Liberal" optimism began to falter and then crumble under the weight of failure to estimate the sinfulness of sin and the necessity for a supernatural salvation.

Enter Karl Barth, who was raised as a good son of Liberalism, yet began the first serious, sustained, in-house protest of his own Liberal Protestantism.  He did not leave the Liberal camp, nor did he yell at it from the outside like so many "Conservatives".  He sat resolutely, unflinchingly, expertly right in the midst of the storm and preached Christ crucified and risen, and the reality of God speaking through the Scriptures. His lead has been followed by many in this country, especially in such developments as Post-Liberal theology led by George Lindbeck, Radical Orthodoxy led by such people as John Milbank, and the awakening to classic orthodoxy led by people such as William J. Abraham and Thomas Oden.

This revolution in systematic theology started in the 1940's was followed by the "canonical" turn in Biblical studies that began in the 1980's, led by folks like Bruggeman. All of this led me to ask myself the BIG question:

Why has this turn in Liberalism back to classic orthodoxy happened in the last 50 years, spurred on by people INSIDE the Liberal camp, when 150 years of the rantings and ravings of the Conservative camp utterly failed to change Liberalism?  After all, the turn that Liberalism is making is coming back around to essentially classical positions on God, Christ, Spirit, Scripture, and Salvation.  Sure, those coming from the "Left" still reject some of the more oddball (and equally non-classic) doctrines of the "Right", such as absolute historical inerrancy of the Bible and scientific precision of the Creation and End-Times narratives of the Bible. But these doctrines are scrutinized from within the Conservative camp as well.

I believe that the reason why the revolution INSIDE has changed the "Left" far more than the OUTSIDE attack of the "Right" is because the "Right" has been guilty of protesting the "Left" in a way that is fundamentally un-Biblical, non-Christian, and anti-Incarnational.  In fact, I would go as far as to say that this is why 450 years of "Protest" by "Protestants" outside the Roman Catholic Church has failed to change them as much as 50 years of internal reformation has through Vatican II and Pope John Paul II.

The idea that we can somehow speak prophetically to change a group of people from OUTSIDE of that group of people is patently false.  The idea that social, political, and even military pressure from outside of a community can cause internal change in that community is utterly wrongheaded.  When the Hebrew prophets railed against the idolatry and injustice of the Jewish religious community, did they advocate leaving the Jewish community and making a new Temple? No, despite the Jewish abuses (which were as bad as the worst Catholic or Liberal or Protestant or Conservative abuses), the prophets advocated reformation from the inside of the community.

This is followed by the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles as well, who always conceived of the Jesus-movement as operating WITHIN the Jewish synagogue system.  It was only when forcibly expelled by the Jews that the Christians began separate gatherings.

In fact, the whole principal of changing communities is utterly, totally Incarnational throughout the Bible.  God leaves all of the perks, privileges, and rights of heaven, and empties Himself, and becomes one of us to reach us in Christ.  He does not invade from outside to force conformity (at least not until the end of the Age).  He comes in humility and speaks prophetically from within the human experience as one of us.

Paul, following this pattern, empties Himself of all of the perks, privileges, and rights of his Jewish heritage, considering it all a pile of crap compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing and sharing Christ with others (cf. Phil. 3). Paul empties himself, lives as Christ, and becomes all things to all people, so that he may bring them to Jesus.

Jesus and Paul do not merely tolerate the people they empty themselves to become part of.  They love them.  They like them.  They deeply enjoy and care for these people, not disdaining them (even if they have to rebuke them).

This same pattern is followed by all effective missionaries.  Look at St. Boniface among the Germans, St. Patrick among the Irish, the Family and friends of Jim Elliot in South America, and Mother Teresa among the Indians.  All emptied themselves and became part of the people they wanted to reach so they could be prophetic from the inside.

That is why Barth and Bruggeman and people like them have been able to speak prophetically to Liberalism and change them.  That is why Pope John Paul II was able to change the Catholic Church.  They are part of the ethos of their communities, and they speak the language of their communities, and they deeply value their communities, and thus they are able to speak Christ into their communities prophetically.

Conservatives who think they can bring about this kind of change by yelling at people from outside are simply not Biblical.  A true prophet does not speak from outside in, but from the inside up.  Even Jonah was brought by God into Ninevah to bring them to repentance (even though he did not want them to repent).  I feel like many Conservatives are a lot like Jonah.  They yell from outside about how bad this group and that group is, and how bad they need to repent, but they don't really mean it.  They just want to justify themselves by pointing out how bad others are.  They don't really want people to repent, or else they would leave their privileged status inside the Conservative community, become missionaries inside the community they despise, and speak prophetically from inside.

In the Bible, those who speak from the outside of a community only have two words to speak: judgment and abandonment.  Isaiah and the other prophets only speak of the judgment and abandonment of the pagan nations when they indict them.  When Lot and his family are called out of Sodom and Gomorrah, they are to utterly abandon them to judgment, and not even look back.  This is not a missionary move, but an anti-missionary move that indicates that they have given up all hope for those communities.  They no longer want to change them, nor have a part in changing them.  They only abandon them to judgment.

What does all of this mean to "jumping ship"?  It means that if you abandon your Church Tradition, you are denying and abandoning the Family you came from.  You are giving up all rights to critique or be a prophetic voice to them.  You are turning your back on Lot and heading to a new land, never to look back.

This is not to say that there is not a time to abandon ship.  Sodom had to be abandoned.  If many views of the End of the World hold true, then Christ will only come back when the world gets so far gone that it can no longer be redeemed. We all know that some families and communities can get so sick and unhealthy that they have to be abandoned or else they will literally kill those inside.  But abandoning is a very serious thing.  It is handing over something to death.  It is giving up all rights of being prophetic or redemptive as long as one remains outside of the group, abandoning the group.

When I first found the Anglican Communion, and its American segment, the Episcopal Church, I left my Conservative, Evangelical, and Charismatic "roots" and fell in love with a new way of following Christ.  I knew that I brought things to the table that the Episcopal Church needs- like a passion for Jesus, a love of the Scriptures, and a belief in the work of the Spirit- but they also brought me things I needed- like Reason, Sacrament, and Historical rootedness. After I found that, then I was eager to bring everyone to the Episcopal Church, with all her warts and all her glory.

I have changed this, however.  Not because I love my Christian Tradition any less.  But because I love the whole Church even more.  I still think my Tradition is better than yours, and would be glad to discuss why.  But what does it mean that mine is "better" than yours?  It means that where I see the Anglican Tradition doing things "right", I feel that they correspond with the my most important insights into the Gospel, and where I see them doing things "wrong", I feel I can either tolerate, or protest them, better as an Anglican than anywhere else.

Those on the Left and on the Right have strengths as well as sins.  The sins of the Left are the sins of Liberalism, while the sins of the Right are the sins of Legalism.  It just so happens that God has made me better equipped to deal with the strengths and sins of the Anglicans than anywhere else, and He has called me to be a prophetic voice here.  "To the Anglicans I became an Anglican."  But God makes us all a little different, and calls us to be prophetic to Anglicans and Atheists, Baptists and Buddhists, Democrats and Republicans, Churches of Christ and the Church of Satan, Catholics and Charismatics, Wahabis and Wiccans.  Some of these I can be prophetic to, some you can.  Some I can't stomach, some you can.

So, to those who want to leave their Church Tradition, I give a warning and a welcome.  The warning is this: If you leave your Tradition and become Anglican (or Catholic, or Orthodox, or whatever) you will find that the grass is not actually greener over there than they are on your side of the fence.  It just happens that the green spots and the brown spots are in different places than where you are, and you can't yet see that from the distance you are at.  If you leave your side of the fence to come over here, it will not be long before you realize all of our brown spots and wander if there is not a more pure, more green pasture somewhere else.  Furthermore, if you leave your Tradition you loose all rights and abilities to be prophetic to them.

The welcome is this, especially to my friends: I have no doubt you would make great Anglicans, and that you would be deeply edified by Anglican faith and piety, just as I have.  It could be a great home for you (but I don't make guarantees). Furthermore, the Anglican Church could benefit from people like you- people who are passionate about Jesus and who stand for the Scriptures.  You would have quite a ministry here, and you would be welcome.

So, you gotta decide: Who has God called you to be prophetic to?  To the Church in general?  To your Tradition in particular?  To those outside the Church? To the academic community?  To the business world?  How would switching Traditions affect your ability to be prophetic to the people God has called you to?  As the Clash sang: "Should I stay or should I go?  If I go it will be trouble, if I stay it will be double."  Stay or go: It opens doors and closes them.  It gives benefits and costs a great deal.  Choose wisely.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.