On Church Membership and Theological Disagreement

“Port William repaid watching. I was always on the lookout for what would be revealed. Sometimes nothing would be, but sometimes I beheld astonishing sights.”

The lesson from that quote (from Wendell Berry) is that fidelity to a place, a people, or a tradition is often its own reward. This is because learning to actually see something takes a great deal of time. It is only through the virtues of patience and affection that we can come to truly know a place and find our home in it. Seeing these things properly is something that takes a great deal of time to do, and the longer you take at it the more apt you are to realize how much more there is to see. This was the thought I continued to have as I watched the Future of Protestantism event earlier this week.

jayber crow coverThe event seems to have been prompted by two things: The first, and more acknowledged, of the two was the discussion stirred up last year by Dr. Peter Leithart when he published his “End of Protestantism” piece for First Things. But the second point, which stood behind much of the discussion and was explicitly mentioned by Dr. Trueman on several occasions, is the increased trendiness amongst younger evangelicals of swimming the Tiber in hopes of finding a more historically informed, sacramentally-grounded church home. Recently on Twitter Alan Jacobs pointed out that the two trends he sees regarding Protestant-Catholic relations are that evangelicals are friendlier to Catholics while the Catholics are becoming ever more critical of the evangelicals. As a result, many younger evangelicals are (reputedly at least, we still don’t have any good data on this) crossing the Tiber as they become more interested in Rome and Rome develops a stronger polemic against their Protestant tradition. One day a curious evangelical college student decides on a whim to read Thomas and within a week they’re convinced that the Roman church is the only holy and catholic church.

There is an irony in many of these conversions, of course, which is that these converts adopt what they often describe as a very Protestant mentality in deciding to convert: They decide that their theology aligns better with Rome’s than, say, Louisville’s and so they go join Rome. The amusing thing is that if you swap “Geneva” for “Rome” and “Dallas” (Dallas being the stand-in for non-denominational, dispensational evangelicalism) for “Louisville” in the previous excerpt than you’ve satisfactorily described the way that many young Reformed Christians became Reformed. In both cases, the person read some books, talked to some people, and came to theological conclusions that prompted them to join a new denomination. Simply put, many Catholic converts from evangelicals continue to act as they think Protestants act even after their conversion precisely because they converted in such a modern, rationalistic way. They found the theology they agreed with, found the church that teaches that theology, and that became home.

But what stood out to me as I listened to Drs. Leithart, Sanders, and Trueman talk is how little I actually know of the classical Protestant tradition. Several years ago I, stereotypically enough, contemplated crossing the Tiber, yet if I had done so I would’ve done so without ever having read many of the greats of the evangelical tradition. At the time, I had a basic acquaintance with Calvin and Luther, but I had never read Edwards, Owen, or Wesley. Nor had I spent any time with Kuyper or Bavinck. My knowledge of NT Wright was similarly limited.

Had I converted, in other words, I would’ve done so from a place of tremendous ignorance and, more distressingly still, a tremendous ignorance of my ignorance. And that is why that Berry excerpt above is so important. When it comes to church membership, many evangelicals have a distressing tendency to make such decisions based purely on degrees of perceived theological agreement. While those things are important, it is dangerous to proceed with that as our only criteria of deciding our church membership because it is based on a series of assumptions that are nearly always false.

First, it assumes that I have an accurate handle on my own theology, which is a dangerous assumption for the reason I already gave: as a limited, finite human being I am incredibly ignorant and part of that ignorance includes being ignorant of how ignorant I actually am. Second, it assumes that I have an accurate handle on the theology of various church traditions. This assumption may be even more problematic. Most major Christian traditions are centuries old and the cardinal works of one single tradition could fill a library. On what basis can I assume that I know the reformed evangelical tradition? Or the Roman tradition? Or the Eastern Orthodox tradition? Third and finally, this approach sneaks in an implicit rationalism, as it assumes that church membership ought to be determined based primarily on theological agreement rather than other factors, such as personal relationships, local communities, and simple fidelity to a people and a place.

That point may well be the clincher. Perhaps this illustration can explain why: I am a fourth generation Nebraskan. My great-grandfather came here from Sweden in 1895 and began farming in the small town of Oakland in northeast Nebraska, which to this day calls itself the Swedish capital of Nebraska—it’s a rather uncontested crown. As a fourth generation member of this place, I have received a certain inheritance in it that I could not possess through any other means. I am an heir of the stories of my grandfather working on the railroad in Havelock, only a half mile from the home I grew up in in northeast Lincoln. I am the inheritor of my mother’s stories of the places she has seen change in Lincoln over the course of her life. I will never know a place the way that I know Lincoln and, should we leave, my daughter will never know any place in the way I know Lincoln, nor will her children or even her grandchildren, for none of them would be fourth generation members of a place. (Of course, if I stay my daughter will know Lincoln even better than I do, being a fifth generation Nebraskan.)

I suspect something like the same point works for church membership. By choosing—that wretched word—to stay Presbyterian even in the teeth of my struggles with problems I perceived in the church, I was making it possible for the church to correct me and to give me a fuller picture of its theological commitments. I was setting my perceived theological disagreement to the side and choosing to participate in the life of the community given to me. As it happened, it was the act of making that choice that made it possible for me to become more settled in my Presbyterianism. But if I had been a good dutiful modern and simply made a rationalistic decision to attend the church I thought agreed with me most, I never would’ve discovered the riches that were set in front of me all along within Presbyterianism. Fidelity to Presbyterianism has helped me to see Presbyterianism more faithfully, in other words. And it is precisely because I committed to it in the midst of my critical questions and theological uncertainty that I was able to receive that knowledge and be corrected by it. Had I instead attempted some sort of neutral, objective theological evaluation of the tradition it is probable that I would have had my suspicions confirmed and that I would no longer be Presbyterian. It was in committing to the faith that I was able to find it—fides quaerens intellectum, as Anselm put it, faith seeking understanding.

Hauerwas has said that modernity is the belief that one has no story except for the story one chose when one had no story. Viewed that way, it is very easy for one to ostensibly adopt an anti-modern theology while still holding tight to one’s methodological modernism. But by setting aside the myth of being a neutral, detached, independent agent capable of objective rationality and instead embracing the given limits of my home church and committing myself to it, I have found that I have been given a story and it is a story that I can profitably read for the rest of my life without becoming bored.

image credit: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_uoXcKGeeo_0/SxvD3_IhdNI/AAAAAAAAAGI/gqQNMZn-RrU/s1600-h/Jayber_Crow_detail.JPG
email
  • Christof Meyer

    I can’t see that quote! Oh the humanity of it all! The ignorance of my ignorance of your (Wendell Barry’s) thoughts. It’s like a big blank spot in the universe of this blog filled with nothing and yet so much potential. Can you fix it?

    Or is the quote meant to be invisible? A kind of “John Cage meets up with Nietzsche and then Jesus walks into the bar” type situation. In which case I’m not sure what I think about this post…

    • jakemeador

      Apologies, it got deleted somehow. Adding it back in now.

      • jakemeador

        Still working on it. It’s showing up in the draft mode of the post but when I actually view the post, it isn’t showing up.

        • http://www.moscowcoffeereview.com/carpecakem coffeematt

          Tech is so amazing!

        • Sarah Hannesson Wong

          Well, can you just post it here in a comment for now, while you’re getting the main post itself worked out?

  • hannah anderson

    Yes, love this piece but… what’s the quote?!?!?

  • http://dogmatics.wordpress.com/ Kevin Davis

    “Trendiness”? We may want to be careful about overusing this pejorative label, and, yes, it is almost always pejorative. Are all the cool evangelic kids becoming Roman Catholic? Hardly. I know evangelicals that have converted to Rome, and they are thoughtful and rather generous and irenic on the whole, notwithstanding a handful of loud-mouth zealots on the internet. But this is hardly some massive movement or even a modest-sized movement. Those who want intellectual substance and historical depth are more likely to become Reformed or Lutheran or Anglican, and only a very small minority will become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.

    • jakemeador

      Kevin – A bit of background: Here in Lincoln we have had a lot of people convert. One entire church has basically been gutted by it. We’ve also had guys in our presbytery and on staff at local church’s convert here as well. Part of the issue is probably the fact that Lincoln’s diocese is *fantastic* and so you really do get a chance to see Catholicism at its best if you’re in Lincoln. Anyway, I may be overstating how trendy it is based on my local experience, but it’s definitely a trend in Lincoln.

      • http://dogmatics.wordpress.com/ Kevin Davis

        Wow, that’s fascinating. I had no idea. We have had conversions here in Charlotte (which is also a fantastic, very orthodox and growing diocese), but nothing widespread…much less anything that would “gut” an entire church. Much more common is guys/gals becoming Reformed.

        • jakemeador

          Yeah, Lincoln is a weird little place. The dominant evangelical presence here has always been fundy/bible church. (The cult-like church I grew up in had 2000-3000 people back in the 70s. It has shrunk a ton since then but all those members go somewhere, so the non-denom bible churches are the biggest ev churches and by a pretty comfortable margin. Combined PCA membership here is probably 400, combined PCA attendance is probably 800. The biggest non-denom megachurch, meanwhile, has 6000 weekly attendees last I heard.) So there isn’t a strong reformed presence to begin with. Plus if you come out of that non-denom bible church tradition, RC looks *extremely* appealing. And yeah, one church, last I heard, is about 1/4 the size it was before folks started converting. A lot of people left to convert and a lot of others left b/c the church was too friendly to Catholics, so they’ve been hit from both sides.

          • stan schmunk

            I don’t know about what that church was like when you attended but it wasn’t ‘cult-like fundy’ when it started. It was definitely pre-trib dispensational and cessational on certain spiritual gifts. But it also held to certain ‘RC’ interpretations to the point that they were probably 4 and-a-half point Calvinists. So I think ‘cult-like’ requires a little more explanation.

      • stan schmunk

        What does ‘Catholicism at its best’ mean?

      • gk

        Jake, you got me curious. Bishop Bruskewitz, now Conley in Lincoln. I can see, perhaps, what the attraction is. From Wiki: Bishop Conley is a supporter of the Extraordinary form of the Roman Rite. Speaking at the Midwest Theological Forum in 2011 he said, “I have great love and appreciation for the Tridentine, or ‘extraordinary form’ of the Mass. But I also see how the ordinary form, the Novus Ordo, has nourished and sanctified the spiritual lives of countless souls over the past 40 plus years.” “And yet”, he commented, “something has been lost. Something of the beauty and grandeur of the liturgy. Something of the reverence, the mystery, the sense of the transcendent…..

  • Hermonta Godwin

    So what are the proper circumstances under which one should change traditions? If a Roman Catholic wanted to become Reformed, they should be told to simply read more Aquinas or vice versa, they would need to read more Calvin?

    Next, why should friendships trump theological agreement in deciding where to make one’s home?

  • http://michaelalanhansen.wordpress.com/ Michael Hansen

    Wonderfully put there at the end when you mention how easy it is to “adopt an anti-modern theology while still holding tight to one’s methodological modernism.”

    It is very good to be reminded that, not only are we ignorant, we are ignorant of our ignorance.

    Thanks for the piece!

  • Andrew

    Jake, that Hauerwas line is great, and it’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to. We’re all (post? hyper?) modernists now, there’s no escaping it. Even Wendell Berry does not seem to be an exception. Those of us with reactionary sentiments who have tried to reject, insofar as it is possible, the fundamental tenets of modernism and embrace a kind of traditionalism (in religious identity, back to Catholicism, back to Orthodoxy, back to Classical Protestantism, whatever) are really play-acting, and are still modernists at heart. Who among us simply receives with gratitude and affirms the faith of our fathers? Sure, there’s something really idyllic about that, just as Wendell Berry’s ideas are really idyllic. But is that even possible given the modern world we find ourselves in? If it’s not, is it fair to criticize moderns for not being pre-moderns?

    In Mark Noll’s America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln he says (and I’m paraphrasing) that the religion of nineteenth century Protestant Evangelicalism differed as greatly from Classical Protestantism as Classical Protestantism differed from Roman Catholicism. Question for you: have you not done the very thing you criticize Evangelicals-turned-Catholics for doing—i.e. infidelity to place, people, tradition—in leaving the independent Bible church of your youth for Presbyterianism?

  • Pea-Tear

    That Geneva – Rome – Dallas – Louisville sentence was tough to parse, my dude. But I made it (rewarded with a chuckle for my efforts)! I liked this piece. Your description of young evangelical converts to Rome also lines up with my limited experience, over here in Southern Ontario (in Canada…just in case lol).

    However one thing that you don’t mention–probably out of scope here–is that such rational/rationalist grounds for the decision are soon buffeted by personal spiritual experience. Of the ‘I sensed God saying ‘Come Home” variety.

    • http://www.moscowcoffeereview.com/carpecakem coffeematt

      Not out of scope at all I think. A number of Roman conversion stories I have heard could have only been written by people steeped in evangelicism – highly personal, frequently phrased in terms of being led by the spirit, etc. The men will often describe it as more of an intellectual journey, but even the most heady of those is not without an emotional or mystic side.

  • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com/ Matthew Loftus

    I think I’ve mentioned this before, but out here on the degenerate East Coast, my anecdotal experience splits 50/50 between RCs going evangelical and evangelicals going RC. Mostly related to marriage.

  • gk

    Is there a difference between the “way” people travel ecclesially? Is it the case that Evangelicals Roam then settle in Rome; whereas those from Rome who leave, then Roam?

  • Naomi

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece. As an young evangelical who converted to Catholicism, I find it does not at all represent my personal experience (although I do not live in Lincoln!). Oddly enough, I think we agree about the principles here, but disagree about the nature of the phenomenon. It is perhaps telling that most converts describe their conversion as a kind of “coming home”. This is certainly my experience.

    In fact, I was not at all close theologically to Catholicism when my conversion experience began—I was fairly “liberal” I guess you could say, on issues of sexuality, gender, etc., I saw no reason to believe in transubstantiation or to venerate the saints. I had been church shopping, getting so sick of church shopping, and sort of settled into a Catholic mass as the least offensive service around—they just read Scriptures, sang a couple of songs, and did lots of kneeling, and then there was a 5 minute homily consisting mostly (I’m sorry to say) of anecdotes.

    But slowly, through conversations with various people, I began to realize that Catholicism was so much more than this. The things that I thought would preclude my entry into the church forever were the very things I eventually came to love and embrace. And not in a way that I ever felt like I comprehended them. In learning about, for instance, Catholic views of sexuality, I found a tradition so rich, something I certainly still don’t comprehend in all its fullness, but which explained so much of my own experience and pain. I can say the same thing about the Eucharist: what once struck me as silly superstition turned out to be a beautiful mystery, full of affirmation of the physical, and the intermixing of the Spiritual in this world, I came to a whole new understanding of what it means to be the body of Christ.

    So, far from feeling like I knew everything, I started to feel for the first time that I knew so little, that these mysteries were so far beyond and above me. I felt the Holy Spirit working in a new way in my life, I felt a kind of awesome humility in being part of something, not that I could explain, but that could explain me so well.

    So of course there are intellectual elements here — no voice spoke to me out of a cloud and told me to be Catholic, my conversion involved my whole person and my intellect is a big part of that. But it was the opposite of the church shopping that I had come to hate, in which one searches (as you say) for something they already agree with, leaving so little room for growth. It was my first experience in a long time of that kind of humility that leads to growth, of feeling that something was being done to me, and I could only thank God for this incredible grace that has seriously changed my life.

    • gk

      “Like” ;) I hope you do not mind, Naomi, but I was so impressed by your comments, I posted them at my FB.

  • Chad Steiner

    Jake,
    Thank you for this contribution, and for the opportunity to think your thoughts after you. In case you’re not already aware, Bryan Cross has written a response which dovetails with a couple of the issues you and I have been discussing in the Newman thread on my Timeline.
    In the grace of Christ,
    -Chad

  • Gregoire de Rien

    Jake, I have written a response to your thoughtful article, from a Catholic convert’s perspective. See it at flyingcatholic.blogspot.com

  • Mark Olson

    Just had a conversation with a colleague this morning about the value of being from somewhere. I am from and always will be from Bartlett, Nebraska though I haven’t lived there for 30 years. My kids will always be from Milford, Nebraska though I doubt they will ever live here again. Being from somewhere or staying with a church/denomination is important because we need a fixed referent whereby we can measure competing views.

  • stan schmunk

    The issue still is ‘justification by faith alone’. There is no converting to Catholicism or Protestantism. One only decides to accept Christ by grace through faith alone or join a church so laden with unbiblically supported traditions of men. Catholic theology hasn’t changed a whit but for some reason evangelicals are dying to embrace catholicism.

    • gk
      • stan schmunk

        Neither party in this agreement seems to know what justification is. It’s a declaration of righteousness based on the work of Christ as described in Colossians 2:13-15. All the rest of the agreement is a lot of verbage, useless in itself. Justification does NOT occur at baptism, especially at infant baptism, which both groups practice. And the many traditions which Catholics add to Scripture make justification a small and almost irrelevant issue as does the ELCA acceptance of same-sex marriage and homosexual and lesbian leadership.