Looking Inward and Upward: The Inner Life of the Church
Renowned church historian, Robert Louis Wilken, penned an essay for First Things back in 2004 entitled, “The Church as Culture.” Therein he outlines how the Church is a culture unto itself, rather than merely a mechanism for effecting change on secular culture (the world). Contra H. Richard Niebuhr, who formulated the Church’s mission as part of Christ penetrating the world as a theological idea, to Wilken, Christ is culture, “the fullness of life in the community that is Christ’s form in the world.” In his view, Niebuhr’s conception of Christ and culture is deficient because it is devoid of actual historical considerations and the fullness of Christ’s new creation. Niebuhr’s view is deontological.1 It sees the temporal and historical attributes of the Church as mere accidents, thus eliminating both the significance of the historical moment and temporal location of Christ’s Incarnation and the establishment of the church in Acts.2 Niebuhr, perhaps inadvertently, prevents Christians from possessing a veneration for the past. In Niebuhr’s church, the literal past has no bearing on the present or future; all decisions, both missional and doctrinal, must be decided ex nihilo.
Wilken, however, will not let Christianity be degraded to this pure abstraction and the via negativa of Niebuhr.
“Christ entered history as a community, a society, not simply as a message, and the form taken by the community’s life is Christ within society. The Church is a culture in its own right. Christ does not simply infiltrate a culture; Christ creates culture by forming another city, another sovereignty with its own social and political life.”
Thus, Christ’s purpose and activity was not one primarily directed at liberation in the Enlightenment sense—liberation of man from establishments, religion, and all constraints on individualism. Rather, his purpose is better characterized as one of new creation, new society. Even John Locke recognized the societal nature of the Church, though he saw it as a purely voluntary association that was necessarily subjected to the secular state. It is through the new creation of a new society that man, being at last rightly ordered, is liberated. Wilken illustrates this through historical examples of Christian art and architecture, calendars and customs, and language and learning. He pays special attention to distinctly Christian language (ecclesiastica loquendi consuetudo): “We cannot hand on to the next generation what the words signify if we do not hold fast to the words.”
He concludes the article with a ominous but insightful warning:
“Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture.”
To some, this may sound too self-centered and inward-looking, but hang tight.
Living in a society that is currently hyper-occupied with questions of personal identity, Wilken’s words offer Christians a much needed polemical, sage perspective. Being reminded of the rich history and contributions of the Church throughout the ages is comforting and reassuring; it reminds us that we are part of something bigger than our present moment in history, a storied and royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9). When we commune together before Christ, we also commune with all the saints for all time. Wilken’s insight may be even more and particularly essential to evangelical protestant Christians because of their own skewed perspective on the purpose and activity of the Church. Disciple-making in evangelicalism has been too tightly relegated to making better individuals, rather than to cultivating a new city, the culture of Christ. A robust understanding of discipleship sees the inner life of the Church as the sine qua non of the Christian life; trading one master, one city, for another.
In the New Testament, the cosmos often refers to the inhabited earth apart from God, of which Satan is the ruler.3 The predominate evangelical outlook on the Christian’s existence is to be in the world but not of the world. This they define as holding fast to the idea of Christ and the internal change he causes in the individual whilst continuing in the pre-existing culture (cosmos) of the age. Believers are no longer ruled by sin and therefore are free to act differently, as an individual on a hill, conforming their minds and conduct to Christ. But how can this be done when their rhythms of life and habits remain the same; when their old culture endures? In fact, Christians encourage each other to attempt to contribute to secular culture in the name of a misinterpreted “world” in Genesis 1:28. It is like trying to force a round peg into a square hole. How could frustration and confusion not ensue when presented with this challenge?
Part of the deficiency of Christian evangelistic efforts is that they, like Niebuhr, offer Christ as a theological concept, albeit a comforting one. Yet, they accompany it with no alternative identity, no refuge, no City of God to new converts. Instead, they usher them into Robespierreian freedom; radical individualism tethered to the earth only by a rugged individualism, a spiritual manifest destiny. They tell them that now that they (the convert) are free, the world is their oyster (in Christ). They are now unrestrained by the chains of both sin and religiosity. “Go forth and conquer for Christ,” they say. There is no doubt that the American spirit, with all its Enlightenment influences, has inserted this into the life of the Church and mutated the Reformational concept of “the priesthood of believers.”
I am not speaking here of purely ‘health and wealth’ advocates. I am talking about genuine, Bible-believing, evangelical Christians who have truly found their personal worth and fulfillment in a personal relationship with Christ. But is this all there is to being a member of Christ’s bride? Did Christ come to create a sort of spiritual special ops unit to infiltrate society and sabotage, as it were, from within, flipping agents of Satan to become soldiers of the insurgency? Is this the limited scope of the Great Commission and life together? Is religion really only “a matter which concerns exclusively the relations between an individual and his Maker,” as Francis Wayland thought?
If the answer to the questions was found to be in the affirmative, then much credence would be afforded to E.Y. Mullins’ view of the Church as a Lockean social contract. “The church,” said Mullins, “is a community of autonomous individuals under the immediate lordship of Christ held together by a social bond of common interest.”4 Following this trajectory of thought, the individual can discard the institution of the Church when it ceases to be an effective or expedient mechanism for furthering the “common interest” for which the social bond was created. In this view, the Church itself can never be the goal. This language of “common interest” speaks to the prevalence of Niebuhr’s view, that Christ is an idea, an abstraction, a mutual interest.
Yet, Wilken’s answer to the aforementioned questions is in the negative. He answers with Karl Barth that Christianity is “understood as a nation rather than as a system of belief.”5 “It is the commonwealth gathered, founded, and ordered by the Word of God, the ‘communion of the saints.’”6 In this sense, though common to all Christians is a distinct worldview and theology, this is not what defines the Church in the final analysis. As individuals are compelled to believe in the Word, the Word sets them squarely and concretely in a new community. It is not through assent to new and common interests and ideas that men contract together, but through entering into the new covenant with God that they are spiritually joined together as citizens of a new society. They then become the “secondary witnesses, the society of men called to believe in, and simultaneously to testify to, the Word in the world.”7 Yet, the new community does not speak with words only, but also “by the very fact of its existence in the world” and its subsequent activity therein.8 And these activities of the Church, indeed its very quest for truth and righteousness, do not come from without, but “from within, or more precisely, from above; it comes from the Word of God that founds the community and [its] faith.”9
Hence, the new community is a collective project. All members must be concerned with whether the Church is fulfilling its role as a true witness to its Creator-Sustainer and to its purpose and speech. This relates to not only the Church’s position to problems of the world, but also to its internal order, since it will be known not primarily by its external interactions but by its internal relations and inner life (John 13:35).
Furthermore, since this inner life of the Church is a witness to the world, through which the Holy Spirit grows the new community, the individual members are called to be theologians, to ensure that this inner life is consistent with what is professed. This is “the testing of the whole communal enterprise in the light of the question of truth [Acts 17:11].”10 “A community that is awake and conscious of its commission and task in the world will of necessity be a theologically interested community.”11
It seems to this author that the lack of theological precision, or even general interest in theology (and history), in evangelical churches today must at least in part be attributed to this lack of consciousness to its commission and task; its lack of apprehension of its own identity and purpose; its disinterested or nonexistent answer to the question of truth, and the proper pursuit thereof, that Barth implored the Church to always be asking itself.
Theology is fundamentally the love of God with the faculties of the mind, and service to the community towards its collective fides quaerens intellectum. It is what solidifies and makes sense of the order and activity of the new community. Since the communion of saints encompasses the new community throughout history, this process of cultivating and maintaining the inner life and purpose of the Church is not begun anew with every generation, but rather is inherited and continued. To “serve the community of today, theology itself must be rooted in the community of yesterday.”12 And again, he says, “Theology does not labor somewhere high above the foundation of tradition, as though Church history began today.”13 Rather, the task of today’s Church is to test the belief of yesterday to make sure it coincides with the mission and character of the Church as it should be. Yet, “fundamental trust instead of mistrust will be the initial attitude of theology toward the tradition which determines the present day church.”14 Instead, evangelicals have discarded the truth passed down from past generations in favor of self-determinationism and individualism. With every alleged member of the new community self-defining his own belief, purpose, and action to independently discern whether an advantageous contract with other “believers” can be formed, the union of the community is held together only by the lowest common denominators. Evangelism is an easy one to agree upon. Thus, it has become the sole raison d’etre for much of evangelicalism.
A Misplaced Zeal
Evangelicalism has always been concerned with evangelism. And so it should be. It is a group or affiliation of Christians after all, albeit a group whose true definition and criteria for membership have remained allusive. George Marsden has defined evangelicalism as “anyone who likes Billy Graham.” But, when asked, ironically Graham himself could not define it. However ill-defined and regulated it may be, it can confidently be said that evangelicals in the main are proponents of missions and evangelism. Yet, this passion has been misapplied to the detriment of the inner life of the Church.
Despite the zeal for evangelism and missions that evangelicalism has exhibited, somehow their membership is dwindling and their churches are closing. It is no secret that Christianity in America as a whole is bleeding freely. Evangelicals, displaying a sort of propensity for top-down social engineering in their churches, answer the membership crisis with more vigorous evangelism and making church more “relevant” or modern, thus allowing the direction of the Church to be directed from without rather than from within. This incessant alteration, or complete neglect, of the inner life of the Church leaves nothing settled, nothing constant. By casting out the historic confessions, rituals, and habits of the Church, evangelicalism shows that it implicitly presumes itself omnicompetent to define what the Church is. As the innovations have caused more and more confusion amongst the Christian (and secular) populace regarding the faith, evangelicals have only become more enthusiastic about the very practices that have brought them to the beleaguered state in which they find themselves.
The Dwindling Progeny
I would argue that the reason millennials have left the Church in droves following high school is not because they have not been supplied with the full arsenal of apologetics. It is not because AWANA has failed them and they have forgotten their memory verses. It is because their tribe, their platoon, their faith is devoid of any real content or point of reference. “The activity of thinking does not, of course, arise spontaneously from nothing.” said legal scholar Anthony Townsend Kronman. “Thinking always begins within the context of a particular cultural milieu, and the questions that a person chooses to think about are often determined by the culture he inhabits. In that sense, we might say, culture gives thought its stimulus or starting point.”15 Christian teens and young adults over the past generation did not receive that “stimulus” from the inner life and culture of the Church, and thus, they gained it from the broader culture, though doubtless with a Christian twist or ancillary vocabulary attached. The culture of the Church has not been their compass.
Not only do they have no appreciation of the richness and antiquity of Christian doctrine (in its creeds and confessions), but they see no alternative culture and identity to join. No new city to replace the old. They are only offered an idea of Christ that they must try to (independently) integrate into a world that not only denies him, but that is in active rebellion against him and everything he stands for (Rom. 1). Accordingly, when secular culture is presented to young students in the halls of academia, they witness for the first time a theory of life that is all-encompassing, a complete system to order the world with. Therein they finally find the identity, explanation, and belonging they so desperately seek.
Other belief systems understand this dynamic. Islam is arguably just as much a culture as it is a creed. Thus, if people come out of Islam or the secular religion of Ivy League campuses and assent to the assertions of Christianity, they need to also encounter a new culture to accompany said assertions; something to replace what they have left. Yet, presently, evangelicalism possesses no such gift to offer.
Most evangelical churches are not only non-confessional, meaning that they are doctrinally disconnected to any other group of Christians in history, but they possess no distinct culture. This is ineffective both in retaining current membership and in drawing new members, not only because theories of human psychological and sociological need tell us so, but because the evangelical church is fundamentally operating against its divine design. It is attempting to live, breathe, and eat with a gaping hole in its abdomen. How then can it expect members to the LGBT community or various secular groups to be drawn towards the truth it allegedly offers? It may be an offer of a compelling belief system, but it is one devoid of any place to reside whilst believing it. It is not the City of God. It is only an alternative City of Man.
The Church is a culture to itself, not merely a mechanism for altering secular culture or a detached, exclusively personal intellectual identity. Accordingly, the project of the Church (i.e. Great Commission) must be focused on cultivating this inner life of the Church that is essential to maintaining true, robust discipleship, “the sacred aura of [its] original liberating purpose.”16 Being forced to look inward is where the rubber meets the road in living out the New Testament. It is easy to look outward at all times at the “them,” critiquing their mistakes. Remaining in a position of abstraction toward the Church’s mission makes it easy to love Christ and the Church as an idea. It is harder to love the real people and real, distinct culture of the Church, yet humans crave that God-ordained love. We finally accomplish that, however, by cultivating the inner life of the Church so that converts have a real home to enter into, a new society to replace the old one (not merely a modified old society); it is then that our witness is loudly proclaimed and widely known. Then that the Great Commission is truly fulfilled. God delights in being glorified by his own holiness, seen in his actions and creation. This applies to the purpose and life of the Church. Needless to say, “seeker friendly” models of church are not what Wilken advocates. Evangelicals, if they want to stop the bleeding, would be wise to cauterize the wound with Wilken’s insight and to look to the inner life of the Church and the distinct culture Christ is creating there:
“If Christ is culture, let the sidewalks be lit with fire on Easter Eve, let traffic stop for a column of Christians waving palm branches on a spring morning, let streets be blocked off as the faithful gather for a Corpus Christi procession. Then will others know that there is another city in their midst, another commonwealth, one that has its face, like the faces of angels, turned toward the face of God.”
Culture is a distinctly human activity and establishment.17 As Aristotle noted, neither beasts nor gods live in cities; beasts are incapable and gods have no need.18 And this special endeavor is not the product of the Fall. The New City established by Christ through a community of redeemed sinners, simul justus et peccator, is no less human than the unredeemed culture of the City of Man. It is arguably more or truly human. Should (evangelical) Christians not concern themselves with its flourishing and see themselves as its custodians?
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(1) Respect for the past is justifiable, from a deontological point of view, only when it serves an end outside of time.
(2) Obviously Christ as a Member of the ontological Trinity stands outside of time, as does the truth that flows from him, but this discussion is focused on the nature and purpose of the Church inside of time, which, though inaugurated as Christ’s kingdom, cannot yet be considered outside of time (consummated).
(3) See Jn. 12:31; 16:11; 1 Jn. 5:19.
(4) Mullins, E.Y., The Axioms of Religion (Mercer University Press, 2010),128–129 (emphasis added).
(5) Barth, Karl, Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963), 37.
(8) Ibid., 38.
(9) Ibid, 39.
(10) Ibid, 41.
(12) Ibid., 42.
(14) Ibid., 43.
(15) Kronman, Anthony Townsend, “Precedent and Tradition” 99 Yale L.J., 1029, 1059 (1990), available at http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/fss_papers/1059.
(16) Ortlund, Ray, “Is your church an institution?” The Gospel Coalition, May 23, 2017, available at https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/rayortlund/2017/05/23/is-your-church-institution/.
(17) See Kronman, 1066 (arguing that respect for culture is what establishes our humanity in the first instance).
(18) Aristotle, Politics (New York, NY: Barnes and Noble, 2005), 4 (1253a2).