How does a Common Cultural North American understand a church “confession”?
Tim Keller in a video on his book Center Church talks about the common baseline assumptions North Americans have with respect to God and religion. He describes it in this way based on the work of Robert Bellah, Christian Smith and Charles Taylor.
- No moral authority other or higher than the self. My personal happiness is the highest good.
- In the end the good of the individual always trumps the good of the community.
- If God does exist he does for our benefit to make this a good world to live in (MTD)
- Whatever meaning or happiness there is must be found within this material world
How do these therapeutic assumptions play out when it comes to the expectations and demands religious consumers bring to the institutional church?
- The church’s job is to help me be all that I can be as an “authentic” “spiritual” individual.
- The church should not attempt to coerce or restrict me in any way I don’t think is helpful in my goal of becoming a more spiritual and authentic person.
- No one knows what that looks like better than I do. I will be the judge of whether or not I am making progress towards the goals that I embrace for myself.
Anyone reading this with any knowledge of the vows for membership and office holding in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) will see the obvious conflict. These assumptions make church discipline unthinkable for most North Americans. Once the church makes any movement to say even a negative word to someone most North Americans will simply escape and avoid the disciplining church community to the degree they are able.
Unintelligible To the Broader Culture
In our system a confession is understood to be a standard that can be brought to bear on an individual quietly through subscription and more directly through disciple. The real source of angst in this tends to be the fact that you can lose your employment, your health insurance and your career over violations of confessions. Do we in the church fully appreciate how strange and offensive this is in our cultural context?
Within the church system a confession is the answer to question that a person is held accountable to in the same way a math teacher holds a student accountable to the correct answer to an equation. This makes little or no sense to most North Americans for whom religion is a subjective experience not an objective truth assertion.
Most pastors understand the practical implication of this when it comes to church discipline or even just simple admonition. Many pastors like myself have adopted therapeutic language finding it far more effective than the older demand/command/compliance language.
What hasn’t changed is any of the confessional machinery within the church. When the church publically tries to operate this machinery many in the culture respond on horror and confusion. “Do you mean you can lose your job by publishing an article that affirms evolution and casts doubt on a historical Adam and Eve?”
Anyone following these conversations closely will note that confessional discipline is anything but consistent. There are violations of confessional standards we ignore, gray areas that we tolerate, and whole segments we turn a blind eye to. When there is a hot debate, usually one involving the broader culture war that excites us, the machinery is available to back up an offended constituency.
Most of us who work in this context get a feel for the implicit boundaries. We have a sense for the political landscape and can navigate without too much difficulty.
Imagine, however, someone with no experience of the contemporary CRC sitting down to read the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort and then broadly surveying CRC preaching, teaching and practice. What might they find? Imagine a CRC time traveler from 100 years ago doing the same? While the confessions certainly continue to shape our tradition do they do so more than the broader influences that we can’t see because they are so close to us?
When it comes to doing evangelism and discipleship in North America today the situations gets far more complex. For the reasons stated above it is often easier to enfold people who come from other church traditions usually evangelical Protestants. While they too are influenced by the therapeutic culture they often get how the church thing works and appreciate CRC conservatism on respect for the Bible and other matters. They will usually understand this set of implicit rules, they already know the ones you can really get in trouble for and others that you don’t without having any knowledge of the CRC confessions. How could this be? (sarcasm).
These rules are, however, becoming increasingly unintelligible and offensive to the young and to others who aren’t part of evangelical culture.
- In a CRC you can disagree with infant baptism and not get too bumpy of a ride. You might even find a CRC pastor who will privately dedicate your child in your home if that’s what you want or even in your church service. Have you ever seen a CRC pastor lose his job for doing this?
- If you are living with your opposite sex partner a CRC pastor may or may not ask you to separate before he or she is willing to perform the ceremony. If you start coming to a church AFTER you are married there are no problems. The same with divorce and remarriage. You learn it is better to take a church sabbatical or anonymously attend a mega church while you work through these “out of bounds” areas in your life. Once you are regularized you can come back if you want to. We’re happy to have you.
- In many places you can be an open Arminian without any trouble whatsoever, the Canons of Dort notwithstanding. Most language from any “Bible church” will be just fine.
- Personal opinions among non-clergy and non-subscription bound CRC institutional employees about politics, evolution, same sex marriage or premarital cohabitation will vary widely but people will quickly figure out how to modulate how public their opinions are based on local context.
What all of this creates is an understood culture of confessional fiction. The implicit rules govern more than the explicit ones. Knowing the unwritten communal rules is more important than knowing the written historical confessions.
Christians migrating to the CRC won’t be terribly disturbed by any of this. This is American church culture. “Doctrine” isn’t really as important as the broader, implicit church code derived from common evangelical Biblical interpretation. Most church folk get the rules and where the important lines are. What is meant by “Bible believing” governs more than formal subscription to historical confessions. Beliefs about gender issues or evolution may matter more than beliefs about semi-pelagianism or infant baptism. What does this mean about which confessions are actually governing in the church?
I’m not saying these issues don’t matter. I am saying that confessions don’t really seem to be governing like we say they should.
For those who don’t accept or understand this church culture none of this makes sense and a lot of it is offensive. Their rules are the ones that Keller listed above. How does any of this help them become a “more spiritual person”?
Confessions are bi-directional
How is the word “confession” understood in the broader culture? Beyond a mea culpa many will probably mostly understand it as self-expression. They will implicitly understand it as an authentic expression of how I see God in my life. The term is primarily understood as individual rather than communal, and constantly subject to change depending on my personal assessment of some “authentic self” I imagine myself to have or to be.
A North American might understand a communal confession in a similar way but would assume that they would have had an opportunity to give input in shaping this confession. In order for it to be authentic it must be personal.
The CRC majors in the other direction of confessionality. A confession is a document of the church prescribing beliefs that members ought to subscribe to on the basis of the church’s authority. If you again read Tim Keller’s four points you can see how far many, especially young Americans would be from this definition.
Where we are today is that conversion to anything like the CRC assumes confessions to work requires a radical departure from the cultural assumptions of an individual regarding authority, individuality, authenticity, what faith is and how it works in a person’s life. Christianity does not simply describe my feelings about God and Jesus, it asserts objective truth statements about the shape of existence that wise people will acknowledge and allow to shape their thoughts and behaviors.
If you listen to any more of that Keller video you will see why he asserts that evangelism has fundamentally changed in North America. The church’s assumptions about what faith is, how and why it is subscribed to are radically different from common assumptions especially of the young. The Western world has changed and the church’s job in it as gotten a whole lot more difficult.
The Shape of North American Churchianity
Given these cultural changes it is easy to see why numerically “successful” church in North America has the shape it has. Individuals may feel able to pledge allegiance to a local congregation, a local pastor, and the community connected with it because it feels authentic and true. Something larger and less personally accessible like a denomination requires a whole different level of trust. Even if the megachurch subscribes to the Bibley implicit evangelical code the chances of any meaningful confessional discipline being applied are slim to none unless you’re employed by the church as a leader.
A survey of people who attend very large churches found that the number one asserted reason for choosing that church was worship style or style of music and the number two was the personality of the senior pastor. Alignment with personal religious beliefs comes further down the line if it shows up at all. This says that people will tolerate a church with different beliefs than they hold, be open to the beliefs of the church if the pastor and the music are right, or that the specific of religions beliefs are less important to them if they find the church helpful towards becoming a more “authentic” and “spiritual” self, however they feel that to be true.
The implications for the CRC are obviously dramatic. While there is a declining population of Americans that are of an older, minority culture who want their church to align with their beliefs and may even be open to church discipline to hold them to these beliefs, the CRC is in competition with other traditional churches for this aging, declining population. Local CRCs come under increasing pressure to ignore their own confessional standards and to assimilate into the broader evangelical world in order to attract this population if only for local church institutional viability reasons. Enfolding wonderful Bible believing Baptists who give, believe the Bible, are religiously and politically conservative is an easier and more acceptable way of keeping your church open than trying to actually disciple therapeutic self-expressive heathens into confessional fidelity. Doing an infant dedication or two is a small price to pay. Aren’t conservative Baptists also part of the body of Christ? If they become 5 point Reformed Baptists can we just turn a blind eye to their rejection of infant baptism? Which “doctrines” ARE important and which are not?
This is also part of the reason why the hope of mainline, more religions and political liberal churches are failing to receive a windfall from their alignment with social trends. You can indeed believe what you want in many of these churches but people will or won’t attend or commit to your church based on how well the church helps them achieve their life goals. Many will simply opt for yoga, Buddhist meditation, visiting a park or doing some reading rather than attending a Sunday morning gathering.
Politically Convenient Confessionality
What we probably need to first figure out how to do is to stop playing the game of politically convenient confessionality. The game goes like this.
- When someone is doing something that I disagree with or feel threatened by I will grab confessional machinery to threaten their job. Confessions are used primarily to enforce the implicit rules I think are most important.
- At the same time I’ll turn a blind eye to confessionality when it is in the best interests of my view of the church.
Both sides play this game.
The Culture Chasm
So on one side you have the CRC already well along the way of being assimilated into the broader evangelical culture. Confessional integrity diminishes as the evangelical non-confessional grows in practice.
This is happening at precisely the same time as larger segments of North America find evangelical culture unintelligible and offensive making that population more and more difficult to engage.
The broader culture war continues to be played out within the CRC and in other churches as the cultural distance increases. The confessions themselves become increasingly incoherent and unimportant in the life of the church for many. They become some old law you pull out when you want to hurt an adversary.
While the young, restless and Reformed emergence has added a new wrinkle to this narrative, it’s too early to tell where it will go.
Is Confessionality Salvageable?
After reading this you might think that because of the present cultural distance we should abandon church confessions and pursue the what appears to be the more practical approach of non-confessional churches. I think the opposite. I think confessions are probably MORE important in a context like ours for the sake of critiquing the therapeutic culture.
None of this means that the CRC must abandon confessionality. It does mean, however, that it needs to be much more clear on the implications of what it is trying to achieve, and it will probably have to adapt in a number of ways to make its ideas of confessionality accessible, intelligible and attractive to North American for who this culture is foreign and in many ways presently undesirable.
I think our therapeutic culture can devolve into a sort of practical solipsism. Historical and contemporary confessions help us see beyond ourselves.
- We’re going to have to figure out how to do this in a way that isn’t unintelligible or offensive to the therapeutics, but rather attractive.
- Many probably won’t abandon the therapeutic catechism until they find it ironically lonely. If you are your own god you have a lousy god. Time to look for a better, truer one who is both strong and loving and can teach you to love like he does.
- One of our deepest prisons can be the prison of the self. Can we learn to tolerate and embrace a community that says “no” to us and invites us into a world that is more real than our own choosing?
- The church will have to master the language of the therapeutic culture and use that language to communicate the heart of what the confessions teach, which is that God’s mission of healing to the world is both cruciform and communal.