It is sometimes objected to Christians that their belief in God is unfalsifiable. “How can your position be rational,” it is asked, “if God is not an item proposed for belief? Is a debate over the existence of God useful at all, given such a level of commitment?” And I have seen some reply, “Think of it like the ‘existence of other minds’ conundrum. You can’t ‘prove’ this idea, even though it makes sense out of all of your reality. And, like my belief in God, it is likely that your belief in the existence of other minds is close to unfalsifiable for you.” I think this response is inadequate (thought not technically false) for both philosophical and pastoral reasons.
1. The epistemic status of “belief in God” is the not the same as “the existence of other minds.” This is manifest from the fact that belief in God has declined in many cultures, but belief in the existence of other minds certainly has not. While I think the “existence of other minds conundrum” is a great way to get at various faulty epistemological theories, it is important to be careful to avoid conflating the manner in which it is “obvious” with the manner in which God’s existence can be said to be “obvious.” We need to be comfortable saying that there are ways in which some things are more immediately obvious than the existence of God. There is a sort of immediate spontaneously-arising belief which has almost never increased or decreased in any person in any era of history (including things like simple mathematical truths, etc). Granted, “obviousness” is not what all the folks who bring up this conundrum (especially Plantinga) have in mind. But then there is a deeper issue…
2. Taking my stand on Calvin’s sensus divinitas, I’d argue that God’s existence, while not more “obvious” in every sense than some basic observations, is nevertheless both (a) more foundational and more interior than something “obvious,” and (b) the highest point and end of human reason and desire. With respect to the first, Calvin’s sensus divinitas does not cease to exist in the case of an atheist. All persons are inter-personally related to God via God’s very own Personal engagement with them (Person to person). This is not “obvious” in the way that other things are obvious, but it is the very ontological foundation of all things which are obvious. God’s being is more related to the being of each person and event than those persons and events are related to themselves. As pure contingency, they are suspended (in every particular) in His pure actuality. With respect to the second, God makes Himself to be known as the final end of human desire and reflection. In this sense, He is not “obvious” in the manner of a basic mathematical truth, but He is the final Object to which all mathematical truths, physical observations, aesthetic reflexes, existential coping, reason, being, and reality point. He is the object/end of the highest reflections. Indeed, He is the site at which all being, human faculties, and created diversity converges. As such, He is not always obvious. Reason cannot always survive cohabitation with certain intellectual (ultimately, personal) immoralities, deficiencies of proportion and wisdom, etc. This is not to say that God is not “obvious” in any meaningful sense, but His specifically epistemic obviousness can sometimes be obscured by disoriented faculties which fail to reason properly – in proportion with being, reality, beauty – that is, to reason with wisdom or character. There are many simple Grandmother’s who are, in this sense, far more reasonable than famous philosophers – and far more proportionate in their judgments. And to them, God is even “more” obvious (in a deeper sense) than the existence of other minds – all while remaining the mysterious and infinite Person which all being, goodness, and beauty finitely canvas.
In sum, God is not “obvious” in the manner that created realities are obvious. The latter are rather suspended between His Being as the ontological foundation of all that is “obvious” and His Being as the highest epistemic Object to be known (in all the rational, aesthetic, and personal dimensions of knowledge). That is, from Him and to Him are all things.
This is, of course, a rather large topic. And it is important for several (ultimately very practical) reasons. You see, Christians, especially suffering Christians, want to see God. They want Him to be “right there.” And it is theologies and philosophies which try to bridge the gap of divine absence which often lead to error. Indeed, this is perhaps precisely the reason John almost “out of the blue” emphasizes, in his first epistle, that “no one has seen God at any time” (1 John 4:12). But John goes on to say that in our love for one another, God dwells with us. And the same apostle, in his gospel says again that no one has seen God, but that the incarnate Christ “explains” Him or “makes Him known” (John 1:18). It is quite likely that John’s audience was assaulted by teachings which emphasized spiritual experiences, visions, and sight. But it is precisely the lack of these things that characterizes the present age. Faith is not belief against the evidence, but it is certainly belief when everything is not clear or “obvious.” This is precisely the contrast between walking by faith and walking by sight. It is not the contrast between reason and stupidity, but between immediate and apparent knowledge/experience and trust in an other’s knowledge/experience/character, etc. This experiential gap (wherein God is not “obvious” in the same manner that another person is obvious) is part of the current order of things. Even the incarnate Christ is no longer with us – the Holy Spirit bridging the gap of His absence by feeding us as pilgrims in the wilderness. In the interim, we make due with a diet of word, sacrament, and Christian love, through which the Spirit of the ascended Christ ministers to us.
Christians, especially suffering Christians, might be tempted to ask “why?” Why won’t God just peel back the clouds and make Himself obvious? Why must prayer sometimes be hard? Why must we sometimes persevere to believe that He is there, that He is not silent, that He cares? And here is where we must confront a strange reality: Because God wants it that way. You see, God’s revelation is clear, but that doesn’t mean it is as clear or as “obvious” as it possibly could be. No, God does not intend it to be so. God is not interested in being as “clear as possible.” He is interested in being “clear enough.” He is not interested in our desire for His revelation to be this way or that way, but He is interested in making Christian persons who are formed through suffering, through perseverance, for grasping after Him – and progressively coming to know His gentle providence sanctifying the Christian soul between the habituated rhythms of Sabbath and sacrament.
God’s existence is clear and rational, but it is clearest and most obvious to the rightly oriented soul. Do you want to know God more? Do you want to be persuaded of His reality? Then don’t just think. You have to pray. You have to love others. You have to engage Him in His word. And He has revealed Himself in such a manner as to call us to these activities. He has revealed Himself in such a manner as to be given to simple pious babes – while He is hidden from the disoriented (and fundamentally irrational) teachers of this age.
And being rightly oriented to reality, to God’s being, we find ourselves in a position to sift through all those threats to faith which are parasitic on life’s ambiguities. You’ve heard the objections. “Why didn’t God do it this way?” “If He’s so great, why not.” Why not? Why not? Why not? Like Christ, we can answer questions with questions. Why must these be answered? If there are independent reasons for asserting the rationality of a thing, then my lack of knowledge about all aspects of reality (and its mysteries) does not mitigate that thing. Let’s be frank. This is reality we’re talking about. Things are complicated. Why didn’t God do something this way rather than that? Maybe I could hazard an answer, but it is also completely alright to say “I don’t know.” And we all do this all the time, Christian or not – because that’s life. Life is walking by faith, no matter who or what the object is. But secondly, the Christian knows that the God who reveals Himself and makes Himself most clear to whole persons, the God who is known in Christ, who reveals Himself through nature/reason, Scripture, and history – in faith, hope, and love – is quite predictably difficult to grasp. Do we know why He does all He does? No. But why would we? There is still a ton of stuff that we (including the educated) don’t understand about ourselves, our neighbors, our spouses, others, history, life, science, nature, physics, biology, etc. Why should we understand the Author of all? The fount of life? The Christians always comes back to the obvious. God is God and I am a man. But the incarnate Christ has made Him known. There, I see God “for me” – to be grasped by faith and responded to in love.
In the end, God loves processes. He didn’t make the world all at once (sorry, Augustine!), but over time. And all of created order is motion from potentiality to actuality. It is childhood to adulthood. It is immaturity to maturity. It is Adam to Christ. And this is precisely why we do not yet see God as we would like. We live as pilgrims walking toward the promised land. We’re not there yet. God is not as “obvious” as we’d like. But the manna of Christ, Christian love, natural revelation, revealed Scripture (etc) is sufficient for the journey. And when it is not, know that this is a problem of our orientation, our desires and diets rather than the sufficiency of God’s revelation. And this is by God’s design. He will not just thrust us into the fullness of the eschaton. He will have us grow and learn to suffer and to walk by the Spirit. He will turn is into adults like our elder brother, Jesus. And He will do so not by circumventing our will and all of our faculties, but precisely through them. In short, God’s obviousness is clearest to “entire” persons. Speaking specifically of human freedom, Bavinck gets this basic principle just right:
“A freedom that cannot be obtained and enjoyed aside from the danger of licentiousness and caprice is still always to be preferred over a tyranny that suppresses liberty. In the creation of humanity, God himself chose this way of freedom, which carried with it the danger and actually the fact of sin as well, in preference to forced subjection. Even now, in ruling the world and governing the church, God still follows this royal road of liberty. It is precisely his honor that through freedom he nevertheless reaches his goal, creating order out of disorder, light from darkness, a cosmos out of chaos.”
–Prolegomena, vol. 1, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), p. 479.
So I’ve been having some odd neuro-symptoms that I needed to get checked out recently. After delaying for a while, I finally saw a neurologist who ordered an MRI for me. At the MRI office, I was asked if I was claustrophobic. Without hesitation, I answered “nope.” My wife drove a confident me to my MRI appointment this morning, and a confident me went into the MRI room. A confident me sat down on the MRI bed – and a slightly less confident me was slowly pushed into the MRI machine. Within 30 seconds, an insanely maniacal freaked-out me realized that there was no way in Hell that I could make it through the procedure. I seriously panicked and I was out before the machine even turned on. Shameful, but I guess I am far more claustrophobic than I thought. Of course, when you are asked such a thing – it is difficult to think back to analogous circumstances wherein I spend a long amount of time in a small tube with loud magnets swirling around my head. So I left the office discouraged (especially since I’ve taken too much time off of work and put my wife through a lot as I’ve been trying to figure this out). Fortunately, the doc told me about open MRI’s (the sort where the machine is not a tube but leaves space for peripheral vision). And fortunately, there was a place a few doors down that offered just such services. So determined to use my day off well, I went a few doors down, gave them my doctors orders, shuddered at the look of the “open” machine and (later) scheduled an appointment for 2:00.
Then began the real planning. I called my wife to meet me at the metro with some tranquilizer pills that I happened to have that I have never used. Despite the “openness” of this machine, I knew I’d need to be in an altered state to make it. Then, since my wife had to watch our three children, I called a dear atheist Jewish friend to come hold my hand while I went through the procedure. I knew he wouldn’t pray for me, but I’ve been his confidant through a lot of trials, and I knew he’d be happy to help me through mine. And so it was. I met my wife. I took a “happy pill” and met up with my friend David near the office.
We went in. I was slightly relaxed from the meds. The doctor turned on a rock station (playing Boston I believe). David sat next to me, spoke encouraging words, gave me fist-bumps, and read me excerpts of Hannah Ardent’s Jewish writings. I believe he was reading from the introduction concerning the difference between Ardent’s zionism and that of Theodore Hertzl. The doctor allowed to tilt my head just enough so that I could see his face out of the corner of my eye. And, just to top it off, I prayed, recited Scripture, had libidinous thoughts (pure ones, mind you), drew numbers in my head, and frequently panicked. But I did it. 25 minutes. Done. Drugs felt even better afterwards.
I’m not sure what the moral of the story is. But all I can say that is that on this particular day, I appreciate the face, voice, and friendship of a young Jewish atheist. Medical crap can be rather lonely. And despite our ideological differences, there is a more fundamental sameness between David and I than difference. We are both God’s image. We are both persons. We are friends. And as much as we try to adjudicate our ideological differences, the underpinning of basic humanity is common. It is delightful. And it is precisely what God created us to need and enjoy. I needed God’s provision in the form of a person today, or I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have made it. It feels stupid to say so, but it’s probably true. And today, God’s face looked like a Jewish atheist who read Hannah Arendt out loud.
What follows is not a “professional” take on the scientific method. I am just gathering into one place my own thoughts concerning what makes scientific hypotheses more or less “persuasive” or “real” or “probably correspondent to the real world.” Here, I am using “science” in its limited modern sense – that is – the study of physical realities and the laws that govern their behavior. This sphere of explanation corresponds roughly to Aristotle’s “material” and “efficient” causality, without necessarily making reference to the philosopher’s “formal” or “final” causality. The abandonment of the latter by advocates of “scientism” (the view that science is the chief or only means of explaining any phenomenon at all) is demonstrably fraught with philosophical and practical problems, but I don’t want to get into that here. Nevertheless, I’ve been in several conversations of late with both conservative Christians and with confident atheists that have motivated me to collect my thoughts about what makes scientific claims “persuasive” into one place. And here, I do not mean to imply that any scientific theory will meet all the below criteria, but only that their persuasive power is either “more” or “less” intense depending upon the amount of the below criteria which are met and to the precise extent that each individual criterion is met. And so, in relative order of importance:
Addendum: I should have mentioned (number 6?) that a hypothesis is more persuasive when it has independent lines of confirmation or fittingness. So, for instance, evidence from different fields of biology, chemistry, physics, geology – fittingness with philosophy, reason, etc. This means that even if a particulate line of evidence is negated, the whole is not necessarily negated. Basically, there is something of a “cumulative case” principle here.
In the last week, I’ve had two conversations with friends and colleagues about the explanatory power of evolution (particularly evolutionary psychology) and the potential explanatory reach of the scientific method. So, a few thoughts on the subject:
When tragedies like that at Sandy Hook Elementary School occur, I always wind up feeling guilty. Why? Because while many of my friends family express profound grief and sorrow over such a heinous event, I usually feel very little. Sure, it disturbs me, but mostly it just doesn’t seem real. Perhaps this means I lack empathy, but I doubt it. When grief strikes my family, friends, or community, I usually respond with a good bit of emotion and empathy. And that’s just the difference. I don’t know these people. I don’t know their children. I don’t know their community. And after all the tears of my friends are wiped away, those parents and those children and that community will keep weeping. This has all made me think about two things, and then a third.
First, I have been reflecting on what Charles Taylor has called the modern “social imaginary” – the way in which we collectively and reflexively experience our connection with other people in our modern open access society. For Taylor, this involves public space, public action, and what he calls a “simultaneous mutual presence, which is not that of a common action, but rather of mutual display. It matters to each one of us as we act that the others are there, as witness of what we are doing, and thus as co-determiners of the meaning of our action” (A Secular Age, 481). This is perhaps the way in which our modern society preserves some pre-modern forms of religious ceremony. We have collective experiences through things like rock festivals. And indeed, we experience collective grief (think Princess Di’s funeral). And these moments of collective action stand in contrast to (perhaps a therapy for) modern atomistic and dis-engaged Western individual existence.
Second, I have been reflecting on the role of the media in our modern collective experiences. Collective grief is more complex that common excitement at a rock show. We don’t plan for it. It just happens – usually as served through news-media. In the recent tragedy, it would be difficult to describe the networks’ reaction to this as much different from the “play by play” mode of reporting that is common in professional sports reporting. “it was this boy.” “No it was the other one.” “His mom worked there.” “No she didn’t.” “It was 10 kids.” “No, it was 20 kids.” It is important to come to grips with the fact that the news is an entertainment medium. The music which opens the news is indistinguishable from that of a game show. And the developments in our world that the news reports are not those which are most important to our lives, but the ones likely to get the most viewers – and therefore most likely to gain the biggest audience to watch the commercials which fund the programs themselves. This is the nature of most television, internet, and newspaper reporting. Neil Postman spoke about “the news of the day” as a modern genre of information. There are many important things going on in the world, but exceptional evil and the sex lives of celebrities sell. I’m observing more than I’m judging. Like many people, I’m quite sure I have found myself curiously clicking on a link featuring some detail of Taylor Swift’s private life when I could have been reading about recent grain developments in the third world or about local political issues which directly affect me.
And so a third and final thought. At the end of the day, these are illusory and transient experiences. Our faculties are designed to respond to evil with grief. And it is a natural human response to want to “do something” when these tragedies hit. And digital media has made us to feel a part of these events. The schoolhouse, grief-striken parents (etc) are all in our living rooms. But again, this is illusory. We’re far away. We don’t know them. We usually can’t help them. And again, we will stop crying very soon. They will not. They will never “get over it.” They will find a new normal. I might send up a nameless and faceless “air prayer” and then get back to whatever I was doing before. I don’t mean to denigrate our prayers or our emotions, but it seems to me that they are (in many of these cases) a servant to modes of receiving information for which are faculties were not designed. And even if we actually “do something” in light of the information, we did not receive the information because we can do something, but because it was a “good story.”
And so I’m ambivalent. I have moments of sadness. But it is surprisingly easy to forget. And that, too, is normal. In a way, it almost seems almost disrespectful to feel “a part” of this tragedy. It was given to me by a dispenser of “good stories” because it was more interesting than any other number of things that could have run that day. But many real families in a real location in real space and real time are forever really changed. I am not. I can pray for them, but not like their neighbors and families. Perhaps this seems unfeeling, but I can only imagine that if (God forbid!) something similar happened to me, I’d look with bewilderment at the NBC van but with longing at the comforting and tearful grasp of my real neighbor.
After several conversations with a dear friend concerning the nature of the church’s authority, he bought me the 2010 book, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline, by Jonathan Leeman. Leeman argues, in sum, that God’s love is defined for the world by the practices of formal church membership and discipline. This book is endorsed by prominent Southern Baptist pastor, Mark Dever, and by the Reformed theologian, Michael Horton. It represents a trend among recent confessional evangelicals in North America to reclaim (against the backdrop of its de-emphasis) the doctrine of the church and its centrality in the life of the believer. While I benefited from many sections in the book, I’m uneasy about this new re-emphasis on church authority. In my judgment, many ambiguities attend the recent Protestant recovery of “church authority.” And as much as I consider myself to have a “high ecclesiology,” the flavor seems off here. Many of Leeman’s most controversial statements must die the death of a thousand qualifications – some of which he gives and some of which he does not give. Here are a few thoughts:
1. The concern for “clarity” as it concerns the relationship between the visible and invisible church can, in fact, be unprincipled. Over and over again in Leeman’s book, he argues that church membership and discipline are God’s way of guarding His name, making clear what His love actually looks like, etc. The less we practice formal membership and discipline, presumably, the less clear we are about the exclusive nature of the gospel and Jesus’ gospel demand for repentance. But, the “boundary” between the visible and invisible church has never been particularly clear. Look at the people Paul can meaningfully call “brothers” and “churches” in his Corinthian correspondence. Consider the letters to the seven churches in Revelation. The objective behavior difference between the visible church and the world is sometimes sadly blurry. But this is just a feature of living in the age between Christ’s first and second comings. Certainly, the line between the church and the world is not endlessly elastic. Paul did, after all, oust someone in 1 Corinthians. And surely if a person said, “I don’t believe in Jesus anymore,” they’d be out. But the threshold of entrance into the church in the New Testament is not particularly high.
As much as we might like to make the line more clear, we are not authorized to do so in the New Testament. While the entrance threshold is quite low (i.e. basic confession and the lack of any explicit evidence against the confession) – the standard that the confessed are held to is rather high. Paul spends a lot more time in his epistles exhorting confessors than he does questioning the “reality” of their faith. In any case, once we focus too much on church membership and making the line “clear,” where do we stop? Church history is, after all, riddled with churches that have all sorts of ways of making “extra sure” that individuals’ confessions are real – and with terrible consequences.
The answer to nominalism in our churches is not to “up the ante” for church-membership, but to encourage and disciple one another with the word of God. We do not need to construct artificial forms of community (see below), but rather be ever more vigilant in pursuing the love of God through the gospel. The risk of luke-warm Christianity is not a risk Jesus saw fit to absolutely eradicate. And this is precisely because the church is a school for sinners, not a club for saints – a contention that surely everyone in the current debate would agree with.
2. While I think the first point constitutes the largest sentimental problem with Leeman’s paradigm, the largest semantic problem has to do with his equivocal use of “authority” in ecclesiological matters. Again and again, we are told that the church has been given Christ’s authority. We are told that the local church (not individual Christians) has been authorized to speak in His name, declare who belongs to Him, separate those who don’t, disciple its members, etc. This might offend us, we are reminded, but this is only for the same reason that God’s authority offends us.
There is a major problem with putting the matter this way. As I’m sure Leeman would agree, when it pertains to Christian conscience, the church only has the authority of the word. If the church excommunicates you for no good reason, it has no spiritual implications. If the church doesn’t excommunicate you when it should, then you are still in big spiritual trouble! Why? Because the church is only declaring externally what is already true spiritually. The only “authority of Christ” it has is an “inasmuch as” authority. That is, it has “ministerial” and declarative authority. But, this authority really belongs to every individual Christian. Spouses can minister God’s word to one another and to their children. Individual can admonish one another and rebuke one another with the word. And inasmuch as their admonishments, encouragements and rebukes accurately reflect the word, they are (indeed!) speaking for Christ! The only difference the “group” makes is with respect to the “group,” not with respect to the underlying spiritual realities so declared. Certainly only a body of believers can kick someone out – but that is because of the nature of belonging to a collective body. Certainly only a local church (not an individual) can refuse you the Lord’s Supper or baptism, but that is because both of these are communal events which require more than one person. But here is the key. The spiritual meaning and implication of this refusal to the sacraments is not different when it is said by a group or by an individual, because all that is being said is what God’s word says. It is not as though one is “right with God” up until the moment of excommunication and then they’re “out with God” when the church gavel hits. That is just a visible testimony of what is already true of someone – and which can (in principle) be stated by any believer. And this is also, by the way, the reason the tense of the verbs in Matthew 16 matters. “What you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” can also be translated “shall have been bound in heaven” (future passive). In other words, the earthly binding takes its “binding” quality from its already heavenly archetype.
And so, the church does not have “spiritual authority” in any way analogous to the earthly authority of a parent over the life of a child or a magistrate over a citizen. The church has this sort of authority only as it pertains to certain externals: the time of worship, the order of the service, the “Cider House Rules” of each particular church community, etc. These are a function of the church being like any other organization or political structure. As a political or institutional structure, the church has no particular or unique relation to Christian conscience. It is only in respect of its gathering around the word and sacraments that the corporate church has a particular relationship to Christian conscience – but this is (again!) a function of the word being gathered around and its ministry rather than a function of the institutional quality as such. The “spiritual authority” is only ever the word – and this exists in principle with any priest (i.e. believer) ministering in God’s name.
Of course, we certainly render our elders and pastors the submission and deference due their office, service, etc. We want to make their lives a blessing in gratitude for their ministry to us! And (hopefully!) as exemplars of what the word looks like in practice, we might take their council as more weighted in moral and spiritual matters than most other church members. Indeed, churches normally hire someone to explain the word and it is normative for a believer to go to such a person for help in understanding what God’s word requires us to do and believe. But in all these cases, as it pertains to Christian conscience, we are only bound to follow these men inasmuch as they proclaim the word accurately – and (in precisely this sense) we are just as obliged to listen to any brother or sister who accurately applies the word to us. Again, the most obvious difference between the authority of any individual in Christ’s body and its leaders (or the church corporate) is in the non-binding prudential matters which are a part of any institutional organization of people.
3. Behind this semantic issue is a confusion, in my judgment, about what the “church” is. The visible church is just the totality of the baptized in the world. The church is just the people of God called out of the world. They exist prior to their institutional expression. This is why a mother can “minister” to her child. The church is a community (both worldwide and local) and has all the ambiguities of normal human communities. Indeed, in founding the church, did Jesus’ even found a particular institutional form? For the most part, the history of church structure and government has been a history of Christian prudence. Like Jethro’s prudential suggestion that Moses institute judges in the Old Testament, so the New Testament church basically follows the Inter-Testamental Synagogue pattern (See James Burtachaell’s From Synagogue to Church). In Acts, the founding of the office of the deacon seems to be rooted in particular problems that require a particular solution. And what is more, most human communities in history have had something very similar to “elders” and “deacons.” Even in Ephesians 4, Paul’s exposition of the “word ministries” assumes the prior existence of the church to which the ministries are given as fitting to “build up” the people with the word. In sum, the church is just the community of confessors and the political form they take is rooted in nature and in Christian prudence as guided by Scripture.
The point here is not to say that we can pick and chose any form of ecclesiastical organization that we want – any more than we can say the same of human government generally. The point is rather to say that the rhetoric which is associated with “ministers” and “offices” that Jesus has given to the church as “authorities in His name” understate the extent to which these ministries stand in continuity with the ministries of Israel and with all human communities. And in recognizing this, we move a step away from viewing the church as a people associated with a priestly caste and rather just call the church the people – the offices just comprising the political expression of the people in the manner that all human communities express themselves. Far from making a “free for all” blueprint as it pertains to forms of ecclesiastical government, however, there are independent arguments (both Scriptural and prudential) to be made for particular forms of church organization.
Putting the matter this way also helps to clarify that the individual Christian has the same relationship to the word as “the church” does corporately. Both as individuals and a body, we stand under the word. The body nor its officers mediate the word to the individual as a political ambassador reading decrees. Any individual can receive such decrees from the word individually or from another Christian apart from a particular institutional expression – even if we recognize a particular blessing in the worship gathering and the uniqueness of the manner (preaching and sacraments) in which we receive the word there.
4. As stated above, there is a failure here to perceive how the church as an institution is not unique among human institutions. Making the church as a local institution something “special” in this sense creates lots of awkward problems. Am I “more obligated” to members of my local church than to members of another local church? Am I “more” of a spiritual family with my local church than with other believers throughout the world? Should I submit my resources and my calling “more” to the local church than to other churches, believers, or unbelievers? If the institutional church is just the natural political expression of the baptized community, then the answer to all these questions is very simple: It depends – and it depends on precisely the same sorts of “neighbor loving” or “group” considerations that obtain in any other institution. Does the fact that one has a significant ministry in the life of one’s unbelieving neighbors play a role in making a decision about whether or not to move? Does the societal benefit that incurs when one uses their gifts at their job perhaps mitigate against an offer to make more money?
Certainly it is a problem to move from church to church willy-nilly. But this is not because our “church vows” obligate us otherwise, but because we shouldn’t behave this way in any community of which we are a valuable part. Members in Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance, develop deep relationships with one another and really need each other. It would reflect bad character to skip from AA chapter to AA chapter without building the deep and personal relationships for which the program was designed. The problem of “church skipping” is not to be solved by binding the conscience (comparing local church membership to a marriage contract, for instance), but rather by dealing with the societal impulses that make us unable to commit and love people.
5. This leads to a final point. It seems to me that the “return to ecclesiology” (which is a good thing!) can have some uncritical “pendulum” effects. In a culture awash in options, a culture in which there is nothing forcing us to commit to anything, where we can divorce at will, choose to form relationships in ways that our forefathers would never have dreamed, etc – we face many complex pastoral problems that former generations did not have to face. The solution to this, however, does not lie in the artificial erection of boundaries or laws to “compensate” for the modern situation. The solution is to reflect upon the uniqueness of our situation, pray for wisdom, and seek the Spirit’s help in building up natural community and accountability in the way that human beings have always done. Behind this solution is the old Reformed notion that redemption renews (rather than replaces) creation. The reason church community looks very much like natural community is that God is in the business of redeeming creation. And for precisely this reason, the problem of church membership and discipline is not different from the problem that faces our human communities generally. We don’t suffer from a problem of church commitment only, but from job commitment, marriage commitment, organizational commitment, friendship commitment, etc. The solution is to analyze the way in which our modern situation destroys natural human bonds and flourishing and to recover nature – but as moved along by grace.
The other solution is to recover the Reformed doctrine of the “two kingdoms,” for which I recommend Brad Littlejohn’s recent series.