Thursday, February 10, 2011

Viruses ARE Backpacks, and Backpacks are Necessary for Mission

My response to The Jesus Virus" on "The Miracle of China."

I'm curious...have you read Peter Leithart's book, Defending Constantine?  He argues that"Christendom" and "Christianity" are not opposed.

It is said that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church."  Persecution is a great way to plant seeds (or spread a virus, to use your metaphor.) But how will those seeds ever grow and flourish, if there is never a time when they can mature? The problem I have with the Yoder School of Church History is that it would keep the church in its adolescence. Without the supposed "backpack" of an institutional church, we wouldn't have theology, philosophy, art, music and other fruits of our life in Christ. Numbers aren't the only way to measure discipleship!

For that matter, even viruses are backpacks! By themselves, viruses are dangerous; however, they can be useful for "carrying" genes or other beneficial loads into a human body. Ironic, huh? ; )

Institutions represent universals. Universals are those things which make real relationships possible between beings; those things in which they "participate." The body of Christ is itself a universal, but we become gnostics if we insist that Body is never a physical reality. However, if it is physical, we must admit the reality and necessity of institutions.

By your logic, we should do everything we can to keep tyrants in power, and our Christian brothers and sisters "underground" so that the church will never become an institution. We should pray that Copts are oppressed by Muslims. We should pray that Communists continue to terrorize Christians in China. We should stop praying, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." We should start praying "Deliver us from kingdoms!" Anti-constantinanism should find the whole promise of Jesus reigning as our King, and establishing His physical Kingdom on Earth be a step backward, into "institutionalism." Sorry, but I don't find that sort of either/or thinking to be biblical.

So, instead of throwing babies out with bathwater, we should confess that institutions, like the individuals who participate in them, can be sinful and in need of Christ's renewal. Lord, forgive us and guard us against the sin of thinking that the Church is only a western institution. Or only an eastern institution. Or only a northern or southern institution. As Christ Himself promises in Luke 13:29, many will come from east and west, north and south to SIT DOWN TOGETHER and PARTICIPATE in His feast. May our backpacks be filled with His truth, beauty, and goodness, and may we carry them with us, sharing their provisions with all those we encounter.


Nick Case said...

If the Christian Church is both visible and invisible, and if the institutional Church is the visible sign of the invisible Church, we must also ask the question, what is the visible institutional Church rightly ordered through time? And if we answer with a specific Church, on what basis can we rightfully remain separate from that Church, let alone the magisterial authority of that Church?

Ann said...

I've not read Leithart's book, but I've read John Nugent's "Yoderian" critique of it and Leithart's response. One question I have, Beth, is why we need to see the church as an "institution". The church is compromised of the people called out by God to be resurrected & formed into new community in Christ. Would it help if we define "church" as the constantly breathing, moving members and their inter-relationality with each other. "Right ordering" sounds less apt than "righteousness and justice" in that living Body.

Ross Rohde said...

Dear Beth,
I’m going to respond to a few of your questions and suppositions. I have never read Peter Leithart’s book or studied Yoder. I’m using the word Christendom as “all non-biblical additions to biblical Christianity.”
Tertullian did write that “the blood of the martyrs is seed.” I agree with him, but I am not arguing, in this post, that persecution is the reason house church Christianity prospered in China. It is one factor. But both the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) and the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) were persecuted out of existence during the Cultural Revolution. At the same time, the house church movement not only survived but advanced. The difference in the Chinese case was institutionalism, not persecution. All were persecuted. The level of numerical growth and spiritual health was tied to their institutionalism or lack thereof. I would not argue that Christianity is better off under cruel regimes. I would argue that if they do happen to be under cruel regimes they will prosper better if they are non-institutional in structure.
Your assumption that institutionalism somehow leads to spiritual maturity is not based on fact. It is merely a supposition. There is a common supposition, by those who are institutionalized Christians, that we need officially trained clergy to protect against heresy. This is merely a supposition and fear of the unknown. The organically structured church in China has maintained its theological purity just as well or better than the Western Church at the same time. Both had heretics but the Chinese Church had far fewer in proportion.
Institutionalism does not lead to or stop theology, philosophy, art, music or the other fruits of our life in Christ. We tend to think this comes from institutionalism because this is how we happened to gain these things in the Western Church. The Chinese house church movement has all of these creative expressions. It particularly excels at music.
My issue with institutionalism is that the structure is not suggested by the Bible. But even more importantly, as a structure, it is ripe for the abuse of men. In fact, it is inevitable. It is one of the foundational principles of the world that Paul warned us about in Gal 4:3,9 and Col. 2:8,20. Humans always set up human power structures as an organizational principle. Institutionalism is merely one of the more sophisticated examples of human power structures. The basic idea of this structure is that humans control other human’s behavior. The new covenant states that God controls us by putting his law in our hearts and minds (Heb. 8:10). We are to be filled and controlled by His Spirit, not controlled by other humans (see my blog post Leadership??? ). So I don’t agree with you that I’ve set up a false dichotomy. I’m reacting to a stoicheia (foundational principle), the church being taken captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ (Col 2:8).
Yes Lord, guard us against the sin of thinking that the Church is only a western institution. Guard us against thinking we, the Church, are an institution at all. The Church, certainly isn’t designed or described that way in the New Testament. The Church is described as the body of Christ, an organic metaphor. I don’t say this with anger or bitterness, but I do think it needs to be said.
However, all of us are all sinful. Will Christians who have been taken captive by the stoicheia of institutionalism be at the marriage feast of the Lamb? Yes, of course. I do not advocate separation from Christians who have a different eccesiology than mine. But I also don’t advocate avoiding pointing out how dangerous bad ecclesiolgy is to the kingdom of God. That’s what I’ve attempted to do in this post.
Warmly in Christ,

Beth B said...

Ross, this response is not to "score points" but to genuinely try to understand your point of view. The purpose of this blog is dialectic, not debate. I hope you will take what I write in a spirit of Christians together searching for truth in Christ. Let’s address two issues here:

First, I appreciate your clarity in wanting to offer a definition of what you mean by "Christendom." Many people share your view, and hold it as axiomatic. However, I've never been able to quite understand them. (Some might even say that defining Christendom as “all non-biblical additions to biblical Christianity” is an instance of the Definist Fallacy.

Anyway, ISTM that this definition is actually a product of prior presuppositions, (dare I say stoicheia—principles? :D Liddell-Scott’s Greek-English Dictionary definesstoicheia as “the rudiments of knowledge,” or “that which lies in a row.” Isn’t that what one’s hermeneutic does? A hermeneutic offers a foundation for understanding a text.) In particular your definition echoes the hermeneutic of the Radical Reformers. (Since the word “Christendom” isn’t defined in the Bible, much less found in scripture, there must be some extra-Biblical chain or reasoning that connects the definition to the term.)

Historically, mistrust of Christendom is rooted in the Anabaptist experience. The Catholics, the Reformed, the Lutherans and even the Anglicans all persecuted the Anabaptists. The Peasant’s war and the failed Munster rebellion confirmed their view of human power structures. No wonder they rejected "Christendom" and sought to disassociate themselves with the religious and political institutions of their day! No wonder those reading scripture through such lenses should view institutions as “human power structures” ripe for abuse. It isn't surprising, then, that in China, where persecution has also been experienced, this should be a popular hermeneutic, But why should it be considered the ONLY genuinely BIBLICAL hermeneutic?


Beth B said...

Secondly, I am currently working on an essay suggesting that even the “organic” view of the church is actually an INSTITUTIONAL view, insofar as institutions are universals in which individuals participate. As you see, I do not share your postmodern definition of “institution” as a human power structure necessarily opposed to God.

So: I want to suggest to you that a) there might also be other faithful ways of reading scripture; b) that the warnings against “vain philosophy” and “the principles of this world” exist because Christ wishes us to be renewed by the transform our mind (Rom. 12:2, NASB) and so think philosophically ways that glorify Him; and c) that these may lead us to another way of understanding and being the church. This is a lot to explain, so I will save it for a later discussion.

Finally, you seem to be making a strong connection between “Chrisitian primitivism,” faithfulness, purity and spiritual maturity, and if I understand you correctly you take anti-institutionalism as a necessary condition for these virtues. Again, this perspective has been shared by many Christians through the ages, most recently by the Restorationists (those who come out of the Stone Campbell movement) here in the United States. )
Time will tell if the Chinese church does any better than the Restorationists in remaining "pure" and "united." No one would be more delighted than me if it were to be the case! However, the track record here is not encouraging.

I write as an American in America. In my humble opinion, it is not institutionalism that poses the greatest danger to Christians here. Rather, it is nominalism, and the idea that every individual is a discrete, autonomous individual. .
That is a stoicheia that leads to dangerous ecclesiology, as far as I can see, because it denies that we are not our own and that Jesus Christ has bought us with his own blood (1 Cor. 6:20.) This stoicheia makes everyone his own god.

Chinese culture never went through the Enlightenment, so it was never infected with nominalism. One of the hallmarks of nominalism is a rejection of universals and institutions. Right now, the institutions of marriage and the family, as well as law, the Sabbath and the Church are being rejected by Americans. These institutions have not been created by human beings (as Modernists would have us believe) but are given to us by God. The last thing we need right now is to reject them and lose them! Our prayer here is that He might raise up Christians who will participate in all these institutions—who will be in the world but not of it—and so be agents of Christ’s redeeming work.

Looking forward to continuing this discussion--if not here, then at the Feast!

Yours in Christ,


ren said...

Great discussion. Give me more!

Kent W. said...

That comment was mine. I didn't know Ren was signed in on my PC.