The Problem with Protestant Ecclesiology « Daniel B. Wallace

Dan Wallace is saying something really important here. I’ve come to think that a huge cause of the problems within Evangelicalism is our weak ecclesiology, and Dr. Wallace voices some of the exact feelings I’ve had of late.

The Problem with Protestant Ecclesiology « Daniel B. Wallace.

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7 thoughts on “The Problem with Protestant Ecclesiology « Daniel B. Wallace

  1. I thought this was an interesting thought about ecclesiology. I often do feel quite alone in a non-denominational church. The autonomy seems at once freeing and unsettling. Floating out there on your own as a church, it seems ripe for going astray theological or methodilogically. Non-denominational churches seem to find themselves chasing fads of one sort or another and I think we find a sort of high school form of cliques among our non-denominational churches: the edgy crowd, the nerds, the willow-creekers, the missionals, the purpose-driveners, etc…
    However, the flip side is unsettling because top down structures can be even more damaging when they fall into the wrong hands….like the Presbyterian branch that began to introduce homosexual pastors into the mix that affected a small church in upstate NEW YORK….and various other progressive maneuvers. For that small church, they were having decisions imposed on them from the very structure that was supposed to protect doctrinal purity (in similar fashion I am sure to the Roman Catholic Protestant saga of Luther’s time). The churches under that umbrella found out that the umbrella can close on you quickly. If the history of the church tells us one thing, it is that authority structures can become corrupted as quickly as individuals on their own. In particular, look at the power plays happening at the time of Constantine and a bit later with John Chrysostom…..whoever wins the emperors ear, can win the bishop spots and bend the church to Arianism or other forms of corruption (be it character or materialism). Who knows what to do? I do crave a theological sounding boards and fail-safes in churches, but I don’t think a modern liturgy is the answer. There seems like there should be some way to ensure theological cohesion without imposing liturgy that restricts creativity of ministry (I grew up in the Lutheran church and love aspects of the liturgy…but I didn’t when I attended that Lutheran church). This may put us in danger of placing theological accuracy above the freedom to adapt the gospel in a myriad of ways to the many people we meet. Jesus seems able to have theological integrity and yet adapt the style and delivery of his message in a thousand different ways….customizing his message to the needs of those before Him. Yet how can you manage allowing adaptive freedom in method and yet impose theological checkpoints? I suppose I have no answers….just more questions.

    • I hear your concerns about imposing a strict liturgy, and I share them to some extent. In recent months, I’ve been exploring liturgical worship from an Anglican perspective. What I’m finding is that within conservative Anglicanism, there is quite a lot of flexibility on worship, though in all of them there was a sense of order and familiarity as aspects of the liturgy were used.

      I have no hard answers either, but I have come to be really frustrated with the faddish and unstable nature of independent churches. I suppose for me, if there were only two options, a faddish, hip evangelical church, or a liturgical church, I’d choose liturgy. With that said, I don’t think there are only two options, and I’m working it out for myself.

      I think U2 said it best, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

  2. Always ending with a Bono quote…there is something to be said for that….did you grow up in a liturgical church or evangelical….I forget what your church was in West Virginia? It just seems to be that a lot of people (not saying you) who grew up in independent Bible churches get geeked out by the liturgy because of its sophistication and thoughtfulness….yet they have never really lived the liturgy day in and day out. The best thing about it is the reclaiming of the rhythm of the year and reclaiming it for Christ. Its balance of the testaments, creeds, etc.. The worst is its ability to enshrine itself as “the” way of worship and its unresponsiveness to the people. The liturgy seems driven by good theology but is cold in terms of love and affection for people. It does not take suggestion and it keeps rolling whether you care for it or not. Its repetition often (but now always by any means) becomes dull and lifeless for those who perform it and for those who receive it. It appeals to a certain type of person I think, but ignores a wholly other type of person. In the end, a liturgical service is as much a “fad” as anything else that appeals to some and not to others. Its as good as it encourages people in their faith, which is some Christians and yet other Christians are encouraged by a different type of “liturgy” i.e. 3-6 songs, announcements, and a sermon in the vernacular. I think Scripture points to “order” in worship, but then doesn’t necessarily declare what that order is. Sure there are common elements (teaching, prayer, perhaps communion, etc.) but even communion has shown itself in the history of the church to have a wide variety of how it is practiced. Each congregation crafts a liturgy for its people and the liturgy that is decided upon is as it usually is, a combination of biblical practice filtered through cultural eyes. Liturgy then is a cultural perspective. And that’s why there are so many varieties…because what “edifies” is also as important as “order”

    • I hear what your saying about the potential coldness of liturgy. I hear that a lot from people.
      A few thoughts:

      1. Old Testament worship was ordered and liturgical, ordained and established by God.

      2. Early Church worship (not necessarily New Testament) borrowed from the Jewish structures and created a liturgy. Early examples such as the Didache give us some sense of this.

      3. This worship structure stayed relatively stable in the Western Church (and certainly in the Eastern Church to this very day) until the post-Revolution American frontier. American Christianity takes on a strong populist approach to worship. It seems very arrogant to me to assume we can disregard 1800 years of Christian practice because of a change in our politics. (If you haven’t read Nathan Hatch’s “The Democratization of American Christianity”, it is very important.)

      4. Modern evangelicalism is obsessed with music in a way that the Church was never concerned with it. I love music, I hate concerts we call “worship”. I would also argue that judging the value of a service or liturgy based on a person’s preferences is a serious problem. I believe there was and is an appropriate structure for worship. We can’t just make it up as we go along based on what I like at the moment. It is as if we rush right past the question of whether or not our preferences are good or bad.

      5. Your point that each congregation crafts its own liturgy is precisely the problem I have. Not so much that each church crafts its own liturgy, but that I no longer have any confidence in Evangelicalism’s ability to make these judgments. I don’t believe we are filtering through biblical eyes. I think we’re just trying to appeal to masses. What I see in modern worship looks nothing like what we’ve see in scripture or Church history. We’ve sold out to pragmatism in the name of church growth. We are essentially in the same condition of liberal mainline of 100 years ago. The Libs sold out theology in the name of appealing to the modern mind, we have sold out worship in the name of attracting the non-Christian to worship the God they do not know. The effects will be similar.

      6. I have a hard time seeing something that has been around for 2,000 years a “fad”, but I agree that some Evangelicals view traditional liturgy as just a new way to appeal to the crowds.

      7. My proposal for part of a solution is not so much to return to a strict liturgy, but to recover the elements of historical worship, and to anchor worship in thoughtfulness deeper than the latest hit on K-Love.

      8. I grew up in a traditional (as in “not contemporary”) Bible Church. My interest in liturgy started in seminary, but has increased significantly in the last 2 years because of what I see as a chaotic scene in the Evangelical circus involving worship and preaching that resembles little the Church has known in its history. The elephants are running loose, and no one knows how to stop them.

      (side note: I spoke on the phone recently with a very tall historic theology prof at DTS, and he is not optimistic about Evangelical free churches and institutions. He feels they’ve sold out to pragmatism, and are going right down the tubes.)

  3. 1. Old Testament worship was ordered and liturgical, ordained and established by God.

    True…I am all for order, and yet have we not seen the problem of the modern church (Catholic) adopting various OT forms of worship without sending that through a Christilogical lens…What are we to make of the book of Hebrews entire message and perhaps John 4 in terms of the flexibility of that order….not to mention what appears to be a variety of expression from church to church in the NT. There seems to be unity and diversity, stuff handed down and stuff that is flexible.

    2. Early Church worship (not necessarily New Testament) borrowed from the Jewish structures and created a liturgy. Early examples such as the Didache give us some sense of this.

    Depends on how early you go I suppose….I would imagine the study of the liturgy (I think this was Ralston’s thing) shows a tremendous variety even from an early stage. No doubt commonalities, but also variety (from things I have read this is a guess, I am not totally sure…if I found out that I was wrong, then I would start to change my thinking perhaps)….what are we to make of that? While we have the Didache, we also have Hippolytus (wait 3 years until baptism). Even in the Didache there is variety (dunking in living water, dunking in stagnant, puring, sprinkling all mentioned) After Constantine, no doubt you start to see a commonality form….but is this Jewish influence or Roman or both? I think the origins are probably a more complex mix then we might think. Processional I believe derives from a Roman thing….I know the architecture of early Constantinian churches reflect the architecture of standard Roman meeting halls, chosen because of a already existing crucifix type pattern or Christianized to include the crucifix pattern (just like the Pagan holidays). ALso, in the OT, what are we to make of the commonalities of worship between Jewish rites and other religions of the time…true there are important distinctives that make something Jewish versus Pagan and there are no child sacrifices or prostitution, etc…..but there are cultural commonalities. Was God really trying to mandate order of worship beyond the Jews? True there are timeless principles to pull out, but we should separate those from the cultural wrappings….otherwise head coverings for all, steeples for Africans, and the like. Did the Acts 2 church have a liturgy? Surely if liturgy means order, I am sure they did have order. But was it is the same as the Didache….would we retroactively fit the Didache to the Acts 2 church….so why should we proactively fit the 200-300 AD liturgy to the modern church? I think a spirit of John 4 would help us. Liturgy is always changing. Let’s learn from the past….let’s borrow forms that are tried and true and helpful for edification…but we should be careful to think that there is a “right” way (or more “thoughtful” way) or perhaps assume there is more continuity in the liturgy over time than maybe there was….no doubt there was continuity after 300 AD but there was also a marrying of the church and state at that time as well (similar to the situation with manuscripts…the Byzantine type taking over and thus arguments of Critical text versus Majority text). Of course, I am no liturgical scholar….so I imagine the worship structure is not a free for all as well….so I really do like connecting with the past….and I think Evangelicals are a bit, me-and-my-bible arrogant too.

    3. This worship structure stayed relatively stable in the Western Church (and certainly in the Eastern Church to this very day) until the post-Revolution American frontier. American Christianity takes on a strong populist approach to worship. It seems very arrogant to me to assume we can disregard 1800 years of Christian practice because of a change in our politics. (If you haven’t read Nathan Hatch’s “The Democratization of American Christianity”, it is very important.)
    YEah, I have wanted to read that Nathan Hatch book for a long time. I have read Marsden’s book and some extra Noll stuff. I do think our democratic notions have “devolved” into a “I do what is right for me attitude” and undermines authority and over celebrates pragmatism as the end all be all. I would recommend a secular book called “Consumed” as well. In that book, Bejamin Barber (also wrote Jihad vs. McWorld), describes how we are use the “tyrant” rhetoric of American Revolution thought to ignore public responsibility and move to damaging self-interest all in the name of freedom and rights.

    4. Modern evangelicalism is obsessed with music in a way that the Church was never concerned with it. I love music, I hate concerts we call “worship”. I would also argue that judging the value of a service or liturgy based on a person’s preferences is a serious problem. I believe there was and is an appropriate structure for worship. We can’t just make it up as we go along based on what I like at the moment. It is as if we rush right past the question of whether or not our preferences are good or bad.
    You call it a “concert”, others wouldn’t. Taste seems to be an issue here. There is a particular temperament and type that is attracted to a certain type of liturgy. Pragmatism is not always about preference but fitting something to a culture….and having it make sense. It reminds me of the “form” and “function” discussion in Dr. Mark Young’s mission class. What if it is not meeting preferences but thinking about what would “edify” in a particular culture. Jesus adapting his teaching style and illustrations to his audience without distorting the theology….we should try to do the same. Is this not love and the principles of Incarnation to change forms to translate the gospel to a culture so that it makes sense to them?

    5. Your point that each congregation crafts its own liturgy is precisely the problem I have. Not so much that each church crafts its own liturgy, but that I no longer have any confidence in Evangelicalism’s ability to make these judgments. I don’t believe we are filtering through biblical eyes. I think we’re just trying to appeal to masses. What I see in modern worship looks nothing like what we’ve see in scripture or Church history. We’ve sold out to pragmatism in the name of church growth. We are essentially in the same condition of liberal mainline of 100 years ago. The Libs sold out theology in the name of appealing to the modern mind, we have sold out worship in the name of attracting the non-Christian to worship the God they do not know. The effects will be similar.
    Yeah, you may be right….we have gone too far in evangelicalism and we are not learning from the past enough. And theology may also be out the window as well, which is REAL bad. I think what motivates these churches is the thought that American adults minds tend to filter out anything that doesn’t meet a current felt need….thus, teaching something adults don’t want to hear…well, they just don’t want to hear it. So we scramble to try to get them to “hear it” by teaching to felt needs….which always leaves a lot of stuff out, like evangelism….no one ever chooses that!

    6. I have a hard time seeing something that has been around for 2,000 years a “fad”, but I agree that some Evangelicals view traditional liturgy as just a new way to appeal to the crowds.
    Again, if there is a commonality in the history of liturgy that isn’t just a product of the church and state combo of Post-Constantine Christianity…then I would be more persuaded. But if liturgical studies are anything like studies of spirituality….then there is amazing variety.
    Some unity to be sure…and we can learn from it all.

    7. My proposal for part of a solution is not so much to return to a strict liturgy, but to recover the elements of historical worship, and to anchor worship in thoughtfulness deeper than the latest hit on K-Love.
    True that….but each person/scholar will disagree with which elements are “historical” and “essential” which is why there is great variety in the “liturgical” churches we have today. But I am all for learning from the past and getting more thoughtful and deeper than K-love!

    8. I grew up in a traditional (as in “not contemporary”) Bible Church. My interest in liturgy started in seminary, but has increased significantly in the last 2 years because of what I see as a chaotic scene in the Evangelical circus involving worship and preaching that resembles little the Church has known in its history. The elephants are running loose, and no one knows how to stop them.
    You might be surprised how cultural or even chaotic at least preaching is. Even the great John Chrysostom did not do some type of transcendent and timeless type of preaching…but railed against the chariot games of his day and preached against the empress calling her Jezebel….feels a little like a circus then too. And he was called “Golden Mouth”.

    (side note: I spoke on the phone recently with a very tall historic theology prof at DTS, and he is not optimistic about Evangelical free churches and institutions. He feels they’ve sold out to pragmatism, and are going right down the tubes.)
    Either that or they are finding new cultural ways to reach a new culture just as it has always been….granted some will falter and go too far as they always do (Rob Bell for instance and others). Others will maintain the gospel and reach a whole new generation or segment of the population, and the church will march forward into the next century.
    Hopefully, they change the form without changing the theological core….have you ever read Leslie Newbigin, “The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society”?
    Sometimes I hear the doomsday talk of Evangelicalism, and it reminds me of End times thoughts through history and how the Beast is always a current figure and the end is within 20-40 years of the writer….yet it wasn’t. Evangelicalism may be in trouble, but the church and its mission will carry on….if not as strongly in America…then in another culture perhaps. The invisible church will be fine. You and I just get to keep fighting the good fight in the visible expression of church

    Good thoughts Mr. Eric….I wonder if you would have a different perspective if you had grown up in a liturgical church like I did, and whether I would have a different perspective if I grew up in a Bible church or some independent deal. Thanks for your thoughts and your post

    • These are good discussions we’re having. I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I’m glorifying history as some sort of golden age. I’m not.

      Your point about variety in liturgy is understood. My own study of Anglican practice has shown that even among them there is room for a wide range of expression, but the core focus on Christ in intact. Really, at the heart of it, this is my problem. I just don’t see Jesus or the gospel in much of what passes for worship.

      As for preferences and what I call a “concert”, on this point we might just have to disagree. The 45 minute 6 song set with almost no prayer, no confession, no communion, little or no scripture reading, and preaching lite would be unrecognizable to any Christian before the 1880’s even if there was variety in the liturgy. I can’t call it worship.

      And yes, I suspect we would have different perspectives if we had different experiences. For instance, no one ever told me about any creed until I was at DTS, and I went to a Baptist university and earned a Bible degree!

      The reality is that Church is a messy business, and always has been.

      Good kicking this around with you.

  4. Same to you sir…I love your thinking! I too would love less focus on music too….and I would love to see more prayer, confession, communion, and Scripture reading too. I just talked to our worship guy about this the other day…he heard him saying to me that a church has to go all liturgical or nothing….I disagreed with him. Thanks for getting me thinking!

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