Ekklesaphobia Post #2: The Protestant Principle

Warning: The following post is more theological requiring some interaction with theologians and church history.

My last post I started to explore the subtle fear and resistance to church practices so common in today’s missional church. I claimed there is often an out-sized reaction in and among the missional church against organizing people into practices traditionally associated with being the church: practices like worship gathering, teaching evangelism postures, ordination of clergy. I called this “ekklesaphobia.” I freely acknowledged that there are abuses and malformation in all of these practices so a healthy caution is good (a quick glance into the archives of this blog reveals I write a lot about this). We need a reformation of church practice in the West so as to shape a church into God’s missional life. Nonetheless, this phobia, I argue often goes too far leaving us lacking in sustainable formation of God’s people for His Mission as well as a dysfunctional leadership. I named 3 sources of this phobia. 1.) fear of colonialism, 2.)  fear of the protestant principle. 3.) fear of being abused again by corrupt authoritarian church structures as many of us have been in the past. I want to “riff” a little bit on these 3 fears in the next few posts. I want to start with the fear of “the protestant principle,” the most difficult of the three to describe and see at work.

The Protestant Principle argues that we must challenge the church (or anyone else for that matter) anytime it acts like it in any way owns the privileged place of God’s presence and authority.  Because when this happens, the church will eventually use this authority for corrupt ends. We are human after all. We are prone to ego and self-serving motives. On the other hand, without the church as  location for Christ’s social body in the world, we are basically left alone to be little Christ’s. We must be an authority unto ourselves (even if we do look to the Bible as a personal authority) in the world to do/participate in God’s Mission. As intuitively American as this is, this still leaves us to be absorbed into society’s structures even when they are bad/evil/corrupt. We get rid of the church as corrupt structure only to be absorbed into the social structures of society (which may be corrupt themselves, or at the very least lacking in the reconciliatory power of Christ).

Paul Tillich articulated the protestant principle as that theological principle which must challenge all historical representations of the divine. In other words, we cannot expect that the transcendent, almighty and perfect God would be located (or limited to being located) in a human institution like a church. For human institutions are by their very nature corrupt and imperfect. And so when we give divine authority to such a structure the worst things imaginable will happen. Human beings will claim to be acting on behalf of God (i.e. the Roman Catholic church and/or the pope). Even worse, divine salvation shall be limited to this structure and be controlled by human beings to their own benefit (i.e. the Roman Catholic church and the transubstantiated Eucharist). In the lineage of the European protestants who have gone on before us, therefore, we must protest whenever we see this happening. God cannot be controlled. God only comes in His own freedom to us (as individuals). The minute anyone associates (in any way!) a human institution as the place where God works, bad things happen! Whenever the church makes any “claims to absoluteness” (Tillich, Systematic Theology vol. 3 p. 245) in the name of Christ it rejects its own identity in Christ. For God in Christ cannot be contained or boxed in by the church or any other human organization. This principle was followed by H Richard Neibuhr, his brother Reinhold and carries on in many circles of American protestant church. (For more on the protestant principle see D. Stephen Long, who first introduced the concept to me,  Divine Economy 136ff. and my own The Great Giveaway note 17, in chapter 6).

Who can deny this? There is much truth here. Especially to those of us who have seen pastor-authority figures use the church for their own ends. And we must resist the notion that God works in, especially “only in,” His church. This is a big source of the problems we now face as a church incapable of being in the world where God is working.

BUT (please, hear me on this) we must avoid the other extreme in saying that the church is merely a group of individuals trying to be little Jesus’s, and we come together for mutual support, encouragement (and worse admiration). For this denies that God in history has chosen to reveal himself in the witness of a people before the nations. God in fact does come, in authority, to inhabit a people in a social and visible way WHEN HIS PEOPLE ARE IN SUBMISSION TO HIM AND RECEIVING OF HIM IN SOME BASIC CORE PRACTICES GIVEN TO US IN AND THRU JESUS CHRIST HIMSELF.

Here is a primary example: when people gather (as in Matt 18:15-20) to submit to Christ’s authority as King (“in my name”) and be reconciled (“agree on anything”), Christ’s authority is made manifest (“what you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven”). He becomes present in a special way (“there am I in your midst”). His presence, and that inbreaking authority is carried with us whenever we bring this reconciliation of God in Christ into our everyday relationships, vocations and neighborhoods. This is real flesh and blood (incarnational) Kingdom authority of Christ breaking in our lives and neighborhoods. We do not control it, we cannot possess it, only cooperate with it and be instruments of it. But this is a practice of being His people in His church where God exerts divine authority and becomes divinely present by the Son through the Spirit.

The same can be said of many other practices such as the Eucharist (Luke 22:29), the proclamation of the gospel (Luke 10), of the fivefold ministry (Eph 4), Kingdom prayer (Mark 9:29, Matt 6:9ff)) and so on.

These Practices, When Practiced in Submission to Christ, Extend His Reign.  By gathering in the neighborhoods, via these practices, we bring the Kingdom into visible manifestation as a witness to His Lordship and rule over the whole earth. “Witness” always means we do cannot control or possess this authority (Karl Barth’s work on “witness” comes to mind here – Barth Church Dogmatics IV.3.2 par.71 #4) Instead we point to it and allow it to be manifest in our lives together into the world. These core practices, birthed out of the death, resurrection and enthronement of Jesus Christ as King, become the means by which Jesus becomes present and His reign breaks in. They do not need to ossify a people (like they have in the past) as a people set apart over against society. Instead they become the means by which we materialize the Kingdom in a contextualized way, offering in our midst His reconciliation (Matt 18), hospitality (Eucharist), freedom from sin, death and evil (proclamation of the gospel), leadership into God’s work in the world (5 fold ministry). It is no secret that I have a whole book in process on how these practices, grounded in Jesus Christ Himself as sent one, released through the Holy Spirit, become missional practices when they are released from the captivity of the Christendom institutionalized church.

Til then, what do you think about the protestant principle? Have you seen it at work in your church? your ministry? Do you see it as a deterrent to ministry in your neighborhood? Do you see it as a deterrant to the formation of people into God’s Mission? (P.S. should I keep more theologically intense posts off this blog? keep them in more traditional outlets like journals etc.?)

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