There’s a widespread instinct that the higher a church’s liturgy, the more apt a church is to be full of lukewarm nominal believers. Mainline liturgical churches like the ELCA, ECUSA, PCUSA are, it is argued, full of people who know nothing of the Bible and little of Jesus, and they have high liturgical traditions.
Of course, correlation does not prove causation. And there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Anyone who thinks only high church traditions are afflicted with nominal believers should spend some time in the Bible Belt, where there’s a low-church nominal Baptist everywhere you look, a Baptist who stepped into a revival meeting 25 years ago and got himself saved.
Perhaps we should conclude that every church runs the risk of hangers-on. But I suspect we can do better. I think there are factors that make it more likely for a church to have unserious Christians. I just don’t think it has anything to do with liturgical “height.”
First, there are theological factors, the most prominent being the stress on teaching the whole Word of God. A church that unapologetically and uncompromisingly teaches the whole Bible is less likely to have problems with nominalism. Nominal believers will find too much to object to, and find it too easy to go down the street to a church where the Bible is muffled and muzzled. When Jesus is present through the Word, He is a savor of life and of death. Many will stay away because they don’t like the “stench” of Jesus.
Second, there are factors of practice, the most obvious being church discipline. A church that is serious about discipline in all its forms is not likely to have problems with unserious members.
Third, there are sociological factors, the most obvious being the degree of a church’s cultural “establishment.” When membership in a church offers social and political advantages – as membership in Episcopal or Baptist churches does in various places – it is likely to attract the ambitious, whether they care much about the faith or not. A church protects itself from becoming culturally established in this negative sense by preaching the whole word of God, by genuinely and not just theoretically speaking truth to power. This is tricky, though, because a faithful and courageous church will become politically potent over time, and thus will become attractive to climbers. The response is to remain faithful to the Word of God and faithful in exercising discipline. In other words, however attractive a church becomes to the ambitious, the church must resolutely resist the lure of ambition.
If high liturgy does not itself encourage nominalism, why is this idea so widespread? It has to do with the contingent, providential fault lines of various conflicts in modern Christianity. Going back to the time of the Reformation, faithfulness to Scripture and the gospel got hitched to opposition to liturgical forms. In some respects, opposition to liturgical forms was inherent in the Protestant protest. Sola scriptura entailed opposition to a sacramental view of confirmation, opposition to certain ancillary rites surrounding baptism, opposition to Catholic theology and practice of the Eucharist. In other respects, the opposition to liturgical forms had nothing to do with faithfulness to Scripture and everything to do with attachment to humanist dualisms. There is nothing inherent in the Reformation that would lead to infrequent Eucharists, for instance; quite the contrary. Yet many Protestant churches became habituated to infrequent Eucharists, and over time that became a defining feature of Protestant liturgy in some quarters.
The unfortunate anti-liturgical tendencies of some branches of the Reformation were reinforced massively in American church history, with the eventual result that the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy (itself an oversimplification) seemed to coincide with a Low-Church/High church divide. This was never actually accurate, as the conservative resurgence in the LCMS demonstrates. Yet in the minds of many Bible-believing Christians, the links between high liturgy, liberal theology, and nominalism came to seem self-evident.
I don’t think the links are self-evident at all. And one of the first tasks of any contemporary effort at Reformation is to cast off this linkage as the mythology that it is.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Saturday, July 7, 2012 at 3:03 pm
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