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Speaking Prophetically to the Church or Publicly Criticizing the Church?

August 1st, 2013 | 9 min read

By Jake Meador

Derek Webb Prophet If you want a good example of speaking prophetically to the church... start here.

One of the underlying questions behind the "should the church change along side millennials?" question is what it means to speak prophetically to the church.

As I mentioned in the comment section of the last post, there's one sense in which RHE's critique is a very familiar and reasonable one--at times in our recent history American evangelicals have abjectly failed to live up to the moral teachings of our scriptures and our tradition. It's an indisputable point, which is why Francis Schaeffer raised it in the 60s and 70s, Keith Green raised it in this video from the early 80s, Rich Mullins raised it in the 90s, and Derek Webb has been raising it for the past 10+ years.

So there's a way to register criticism, sometimes quite severe criticisms spoken in a strong, abrasive tone (go read the prophets... Amos calls the Israelites a bunch of cows and Ezekiel has some downright profane things to say in Ezekiel 23), that is actually a way of showing affection for God's people. That's not what's in dispute here. I don't think anyone is arguing that you can't criticize the church. The issue is the manner of the criticism. The question we must ask is whether or not the criticism is embedded within the fact of one's membership in a local church and a church tradition.

It's fine to speak of prophecy, but prophecy implies a place and a tradition. When the Old Testament prophets spoke against Israel, they were doing it from the vantage point afforded them by the Torah and their membership in God's people.

There are things we're willing to say about family members or close friends that would make us quite angry and defensive if said by someone from outside the family. The point in these cases isn't whether the criticism is true, but the context in which the criticism is offered.

Tolkien, for instance, was famously defensive of C.S. Lewis despite the fact that he actively disliked the Chronicles of Narnia, thought That Hideous Strength an awful conclusion to a marvelous series, and thought Lewis's apologetic works were grossly inappropriate works for a layman to write. He even said that Lewis's Anglican church was a "pathetic and shadowy medley of half-remembered traditions and mutilated beliefs."

And yet for all that you would not have found a firmer defender of Lewis and his work at Oxford than the man Lewis called "Tollers" or "Ronald." Indeed, it was Tolkien who was instrumental in helping Lewis secure a professorship at Cambridge later in life. He knew Lewis's faults well, but few people loved Lewis like Tolkien. And whatever criticisms Tolkien made happened within the assumed space of relationship and intimacy which they created over many years of friendship.

I don't see that kind of embeddedness in the way post-evangelicals write and talk about the church. I see RHE dismissing sections from the Old Testament as nothing but "genocide" and laying down a functional ultimatum that says if the church doesn't affirm her beliefs about gender issues or sex ethics then she can't participate in its public worship. But she isn't the only one--not by a long shot. Elsewhere, I see Christian Piatt resurrecting the tired banana bit from Comfort and Cameron that should have been retired ages ago, I see Matthew Paul Turner finding church signs, albums, and other bits of Christian kitsch to mock because, you know, there simply isn't enough of that going on. And, of course, one can't talk about the Progressive Christian as Self-Appointed Church Critic meme without mentioning Frank Schaeffer. (If you need more examples of what I'm talking about, the good news is there's an entire hub online devoted to this kind of detached, affectionless moralizing. It's called the Progressive Christianity channel on Patheos.)

These are not comments made by prophets speaking from within the church. They're comments made by people willfully standing outside the church, making demands of her and harsh, uncharitable criticisms of her. The thing that's so tricky here is that RHE and the rest of the post-evangelicals aren't (usually) just liberal mainliners, even if they sometimes sound a lot like them. If that were the case, I wouldn't bother writing about them for the same reason I don't bother reading writing about the PC(USA), TEC, the ELCA, etc. At this point writing about TEC is simply beating a dead horse. RHE, and some of the other post-evangelicals, are different. RHE, for example, is actually an exceedingly gifted writer with some really valuable things to say about the Christian life, as I noted when I reviewed her book here. Amongst other things, I said the following:

One of the big questions with transformative journals is “so what did your experience teach you?” Evans has a good answer for that question, offered in the form of several resolutions she shares at the end of the book. Here again her conclusions are very sound and helpful. They include the following: Eat more ethically, identify and praise women of valor, embrace the prospect of motherhood, nurture the contemplative impulse, make room for ritual remembrance, champion women leaders in the church, honor Dan (her husband), and keep loving, studying, and struggling with the Bible. Any evangelical Christian should be able to affirm that list and support and encourage Evans in her attempts to honor it. I’d be remiss if I didn’t add a personal note here, which is that one of the women Evans has personally helped is my fellow Lincoln-based writer, Michelle Derusha. Michelle has, in turn, been a great help to me with my questions about the writing life. So I am a direct beneficiary of Evans’ project.

RHE is a gifted writer whose work I've benefitted from on many occasions. And, as I noted above, I've personally benefited from her kindness to another Nebraska-based writer. And that is precisely why I swung so hard at her posts about millennials and the church. She is too talented (and her influence is too broad) for this ecclesiological issue to not be addressed.

The problems she is highlighting in her post are very real--American evangelicalism often does have a strikingly faddish, consumer-oriented feel. And as she's written elsewhere, we do not always do a good job of answering questions well or of welcoming people who don't look or act like the rest of us. Those are all fair criticisms and we need to reflect carefully on what is to be done moving forward.

But when you frame it in terms of how the church needs to change to adjust with millennials you are setting up a basically antagonistic relationship between the two parties. You are saying that the institution must change "along with" a generation, which, as I tried to demonstrate recently, is nonsense. Framing the issue as "the church vs. millennials" is a fundamentally problematic way to approach the issue, and so the best thing to do to promote the conversation is to dispute the framing of it and try to refocus the question in a better direction.

I don't stand outside the church as some sort of independent ethical supervisor ready to wag my finger and frown in a stern, disapproving way whenever she fails. (And, by the way, assuming a definitionally adversarial relationship between a generation and the church is an extremely modern approach to the issue.) I stand within the church and whatever critique I make of her comes from that vantage point. Her sins are my sins, and sometimes they are quite grievous. But, likewise, her salvation is my salvation.

I think perhaps we could be spared a lot of silliness if we simply made hymns like "The Church's One Foundation," and "For All the Saints," a more regular part of our liturgies (and, to be sure, if we sang them with people who annoy us, bother us, or disagree with us). Prophets speak affectionately from within, they love the church as she is, but also long for her to be what God has called her to be. And so they say things that can seem harsh, difficult, or excessively strict. But they do it within the context of relational intimacy, which allows those things to be received within the history of that relationship, and so you can sense both the anger and the hope in equal measures. Where many of the hand-wringing posts from the post-evangelicals go wrong is in failing to recognize this intimacy and in their insistence to speak of the church as if they are outside it.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis warns against precisely this kind of mentality. In the second letter, Screwtape writes the following to Wormwood:

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do riot mean the Church as we see her spread but through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes I our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather in oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like "the body of Christ" and the actual faces in the next pew.

The church's public critics tend to see what Screwtape wants them to see. The prophets, in contrast, see the reality but also hold in their minds a glorious image of the church "through all time and space rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners." When her public critics discover that vision of the church and become prophets, she will be well-served indeed.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).