Saturday, April 07, 2007

Authenticity and Establishment

I wrote a paper in the summer which touched on some themes that came up again in class today. As I was looking back at it I rememberd how important this research paper was for me as I wrestled with, as the subtitle of the paper called it, Perpetual Tensions in Evangelical History. If this is God's church, why so many disputes, tensions, disagreements, failures, etc...?
In my review of major episodes of church history within my stream of it (evangelicalism) I discovered not only further reason for discouragement, but encouragement as well. I found what I thought might be a better place to put my hope.

Historical review aside, here is the intro and conclusion of that paper:

When Martin Luther sought reform within the established Church he opened the floodgates for the individual experience of salvation by grace through faith and set a precedent for perpetual tension in what would become Protestant Evangelicalism. Although these tensions indicate a struggle between freedom and authority, evangelical history has shown that they spring from essential human needs for both authenticity and establishment.

As Christians seek an authentic faith they pose new questions and embrace fresh expressions of worship. As they seek communion with one another they challenge previously polished answers and confront genuinely held preferences for tradition. These tensions test church unity and threaten its witness to the world, but have also led to some of the most redemptive moments in evangelical history. God has certainly shown His faithfulness and grace to the church through the centuries.

The study of the perpetual tensions throughout evangelical history leads to the recognition of some recurrent themes. Some common pitfalls in the ironing out of these tensions jump out from the pages of history. Mistaken assumptions are like a cancer that destroys understanding. What cuts against the grain is often mistaken as naive or rebellious and the establishment is often assumed to be ignorant or oppressive.


As deadly as such assumptions can be, they are even more deadly when they turn out to be right. Excesses of enthusiasm and stubbornness of tradition only serve to galvanize the misgivings of others. All it takes is one person to provide fodder for detractors, especially when battle lines have been drawn. Too often sides are hastily taken, a monopoly on the truth is claimed, the opponent is demonized, and false antitheses are the rhetoric of the day. Add to these the pitfalls of each person’s pride and selfishness and it is a tribute to the grace and faithfulness of God that the church is still around.

As evangelicalism heightened the value of each person’s experience of salvation the question became not whether one would accept the church but whether the church would accept them. When tradition that was meant to keep the faith alive no longer conveys the same emotion or seems to answer current questions, tensions of authenticity and establishment rise to the surface. The dilemma in all of this is that the two are so intertwined. A healthy establishment provides an anchor for spiritual and intellectual experimentation and authentic individual expression provides the life that sustains the health of the church.

In this light the tensions of authenticity and establishment appear as opportunities rather than obstacles. The most redemptive approach, then, is a deep commitment to the Church that includes an almost unrelenting propensity towards dialogue rather than division. The most admirable figures to emerge in evangelical history are those who exemplify the biblical injunction to "speak the truth in love" (Eph 4:15 NIV).


The pendulum swings in Christianity can be discouraging, and it may be debatable whether entropy or progression is being experienced at any given time, but it is clear that the Church is always moving. In fact, when one takes into account the faithfulness, grace, and power of God there is reason to recognize tension as perpetual not only in the sense of repetition but also in terms of motion. Although the temptation is to give credit for the progression of the church to one group or another, it is evident that the working out of tensions–not any one cause of them–that is key to the growth of the Church.

The crux of Christianity continues to be the cross of Christ and the "ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor 5:18) History has shown that when evangelicals embrace their tensions with humble honesty and commitment to one another the love and truth of Christ is more fully known not only despite the inevitable tensions but through them.

7 comments:

Tony Tanti said...

embrace the tension. I like that. If this were to happen we may be able to avoid what has traditionally happened when change takes place; much of the good gets thrown out with bad for the sake of change.

I see an encouraging trend away from this today and I like it. This embracing of the tension may just be the key.

Tony Tanti said...

I like the new look by the way.

matthew a. wilkinson said...

Fascinating stuff.

It will be a happy day when the church as a whole is able to see things as clearly as you, and embrace rather than reject the complexities of life.

"What cuts against the grain is often mistaken as naive or rebellious and the establishment is often assumed to be ignorant or oppressive."

That is a great summary of almost every church division I've ever encountered.


For me, the problem with the church's relationship with the tension between authenticity and establishment is that they spend so much time divided, that by the time they come to any sort of consenses they are decades behind the rest of the world.

The church seems like (and is) a very reactionary institution. It is 2007, and we are still having heated arguments over the role of women in the church. Our worship music all sounds like bad imitations of 1980's U2 albums (not that I want worship music to sound like whats on the radio today; I'm just pointing out that we're perpetually stuck in the past. Personally, I wish we'd stick with hymns).

I would love to see a church that is ahead of the game. A church that champions minority rights, encourages complexity in debate (rather than claiming "a monopoly on the truth"), and is an institution the world could look to for leadership; instead of being so far behind the times it's embarrassing to see the issues they are concerned with.

This is part of the reason the Catholic church is a lot more attractive to me than any protestant denomination; because for the most part it seems they've stopped trying to be relevant (read "cool"), and accepted the fact that what makes Christianity "authentic" has nothing to do with keeping up with fads.

Of course, the Catholic church has it's own problems.

Anyways, I've rambled; and not expressed myself well, I fear.

Good post.

Coutts said...

you've expressed it very well actually. crazily enough, matt, i said much the same thing (almost verbatim actually) to my pastoral theology class last week in a discussion I was leading, and it is encouraging how much of us (in seminary at least) are seeing it that way. change is slow however, and as you said, reaction to trends is probably a bad idea for exactly that reason.

Coutts said...

thanks tanti. i, like the church, hesitated to "change" with the new blogger trend but managed to catch up just in time for "facebook", which is apparently the latest.

Coutts said...

the thing that makes it difficult is that the church does believe it has the God-given truth. then it all becomes about whose interpretation is right. this is when dialogue would be better. but even then the goal is to understand and to have some idea how to act. so everyone "lands" somewhere, otherwise they are paralyzed. my thought in my research was that, while there would be errant interpretations, we can trust the Spirit to do the Spirit's thing as the church seeks and lives, and that the key to the church getting along will be dialogue, and in disagreement, reconciliation. for if there is one thing all the church agrees on (else it really ceasess to be the church), it is reconciliation in Christ. my thought is that if that really was central at all times for us, while it might not save us from disagreement or even divisions (where we agree to disagree) it could certainly go a long way to getting us to cooperate and to dialogue and even to trust one another. for all our debates and efforst in the world, this reconciliatory unity might be the best "witness" to Christ that the church could offer.

anyway, i've gone on long enough

Colin said...

I think that your brief comment about the question of "correct" interpretation hits upon a big part of the problem in many current evangelical divides. What you're describing when you speak of a give and take interpretive relationship resembles what literary critics call inter-subjectivity. A long time ago academics reading literature realized that the concept of a truly "correct, objective reading" was impossible because objectivity is a pipe dream. At the same time we know that more is happening when people read a text than pure subjectivity, because there are degrees of agreement and disagreement between interpreters. The solution is the interaction of inter-subjectivity...a community of people interpreting together, back and forth in an infinitely reciprocal relationship. This is how we need to learn to read Scripture, as members of a community interacting with each other and allowing our readings to stand with and under and over other readings. The other piece of the puzzle in my mind is the need to allow for the possibility that more than one reading of a given text is viable and valuable.

Oh and for Matt, there are churches doing what you describe, though they are admittedly a little few and far between. My favorite is Mars Hill in Grande Rapids, MI. Find them online and check out their podcasted sermons...fantastic stuff.

Cheers all.