With the exception of a brief college sojourn, I am a life-long Presbyterian. There are a dozen or so Presbyterian denominations in the United States. They all sprang from the Church of Scotland which in turn sprang form the Church of England, which broke away for the Roman Catholic Church when Henry VIII wanted a divorce that the Pope would not agree to. It is a long and sordid tale that proves that politics and religion are not entirely separate. The Christian pluralism that sprang from the 16th century dissolution of Rome’s Christian monopoly in the west produced the United States in ways both direct and indirect; it has been a blessing. But it is possible to take a thing too far.
This thought occurred to me when I read a story in The Telegraph reporting that the Church of Scotland is considering offering “online baptism.” I will not bore you with the theology of baptism or sacrament. I will simply note that in a time when “spiritual but not religious” is rising to frightening levels, such a move encourages more individualization of faith, not less. The article flat out states the CoS move is to “boost membership” which can be translated into political power and more importantly money, but one must question how such a move contributes to the actual mission of the CoS on less material and far more important levels.
In contrast, in his latest column David Brooks looks at a book from Yuval Levin that I look forward to reading – “The Fractured Republic.” I do not agree with everything Brooks says in the column, and based on what he says about the book I probably won’t agree with everything Levin says in the book, but this paragraph from Brooks, describing Levin, caught my eye:
Levin says the answer is not to dwell in confusing, frustrating nostalgia. It’s through a big push toward subsidiarity, devolving choice and power down to the local face-to-face community level, and thus avoiding the excesses both of rigid centralization and alienating individualism. A society of empowered local neighborhood organizations is a learning society. Experiments happen and information about how to solve problems flows from the bottom up.
I’ll be doggoned if that does not sound like a local congregation to me! Based on Levin’s sociological work, the local church is a grand idea, unlike the individualization the CoS seems to be promoting. Now combine that with this from a long ago devotion written by friend of the blog Marks Roberts:
Paul assumes that God’s life is to be experienced in and through the community of God’s people. Though we can know God personally as individuals, this knowledge is mediated and nurtured through shared experience of God. God did not reveal himself independently to a dispersed group of individual Jews. Rather, God made himself known to the people of Israel, to whom he revealed his “covenants of promise” and sent his Messiah.
The essential work of Christ was not merely salvation – it was salvation as a gateway to becoming the men and women God always intended us to be. Salvation is not the end, but the beginning of a journey towards character and goodness. Further that journey is a journey that must be taken in community.
The key to reviving faith in our nation is not to continue to devolve the church, but to reassert it. Many churches in the US have followed a path similar to that which the CoS current struggles with, following the culture instead of standing in contrast to it. This is no time for the church to slink meekly into “cultural relevance.” This is a time for the church to be the church – to build communities for the purpose of evangelism and, just as importantly, for the purpose of making men and women be the kinds of men and women God intended.