“For the typical Protestant church member middle class commitments to family, career, and standard of living are so strong that the church commitment is largely instrumental to them and contingent on whether the church appears to serve them. As a result, many local churches tend to become instruments for achieving middle class interests, whether or not these interests can be defended in New Testament terms.”
…Most American “church people” look for a church that will entertain and comfort them. As soon as it challenges their most basic values and lifestyles, they either protest or leave.”
THE MOST PERNICIOUS AND PERVASIVE HERESY (IN AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY)
It’s not what you expect. In fact, most people would never even recognize it. It’s so pervasive (at least in American Christianity) that it’s hardly ever noticed. I suspect, however, that if a first century apostle or second century church father came among us it would be one of the first things they would notice—and condemn—about our “Christianity.” It’s not a formal heresy like “Arianism” or “Pelagianism.” It’s a mostly unconscious heresy that we have fallen into without thinking about it. But if you were to step back and away, especially if you were able to take a space ship to the moon, so to speak, and look down at American Christianity from a large distance, it would stand out like the Great Wall of China. In other words, as long as you are immersed in “American church life” you don’t see it; I suspect only missionaries to us from foreign lands can really tell us who we have become and what we have done to authentic Christianity.
Years ago Presbyterian sociologist of religion Dean Hoge (Catholic University of America, d. 2008) wrote this about American Christianity:
“For the typical Protestant church member middle class commitments to family, career, and standard of living are so strong that the church commitment is largely instrumental to them and contingent on whether the church appears to serve them. As a result, many local churches tend to become instruments for achieving middle class interests, whether or not these interests can be defended in New Testament terms.” (I wrote this quote down on a three-by-five card years ago and have it still, but unfortunately I did not write down its source. My possibly mistaken memory is that it was published inChristian Century.)
Of course there are many exceptions, but, in my experience, they are rare. Most American “church people” look for a church that will entertain and comfort them. As soon as it challenges their most basic values and lifestyles, they either protest or leave.
Here is the heresy I’m talking about most clearly and prophetically stated by Karl Barth himself:
“When the gospel is offered to man, and he stretches out his hand to receive it and takes it into his hand, an acute danger arises which is greater than the danger that he may not understand it and angrily reject it. The danger is that he may accept it peacefully and at once make himself its lord and possessor, thus rendering it innocuous, making that which chooses him something which he himself has chosen, which therefore comes to stand as such alongside all the other things that he can also choose, and therefore control. … Wherever the gospel is proclaimed…it is exposed at once to the danger or respectability.” (Church Dogmatics II/1, p. 141)
Can we give the heresy a name? I think so: the desire for respectability and domestication of the gospel and the church. If you need a single word, then I suggest “respectabilism.” We want our churches to be respectable.
Do I need to detail the ways in which respectabilism appears?
In my opinion, the main way is that we expect our pastors (and other Christian leaders) to comfort, encourage and support us and never seriously challenge us to the core of who we are. Most pastors know very well that if they do that, their job will be in jeopardy.
Another way is the influence of money and power in church life. Churches usually choose successful businessmen to be their lay leaders and they are not always the most spiritually-minded people of the congregation.
Yet another way is “professionalism” in worship. Many churches hire people, whether Christians or not, to sing in their choirs, play their organs, etc. Appearance and polished performance become more important than real Christian community (participation) and spirituality. Ordinary people of little beauty or talent are rarely, if ever, asked to participate “up front.” How far we have wandered away from 1 Corinthians 14:26!
Finally, many pastors and their congregations feel the need for the pastor to be known as “Dr. So-and-So”—whether he or she has an earned doctoral degree or not. I often see pastors’ names on church signs with the honorific title “Dr.” before them and know the pastor does not have an earned doctoral degree from any reputable institution of higher education.
I’m sure there are many other manifestations of respectabilism in American Christianity. And I’m sure there are many churches and Christian organizations that are not guilty of it. However, in my opinion (and I know in that of many observers of American Christianity), it is a common feature of American Christian church life.
5 thoughts on “THE MOST PERNICIOUS AND PERVASIVE HERESY (IN AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY) [BY ROGER E OLSON)”
Are you sure the “heresy” is not the thing that is challenging ” their most basic values and lifestyles”? What does that even mean? I can think of a few things:
1. The pastor challenges them to stop believing they should care for their families by working, and tells them to get on the government teat, i.e. welfare. Tells them that “if a man will not work he should not eat” (the apostle Paul said that) is wrong, and that they should stop working but keep eating on someone else’ dime.
2. The pastor tells them Christianity is all about giving your money away TO THE WICKED so that they can use it to destroy society and overmaster it. Not much different than number 1, except in this scenario rather than asking the parishoners to stop working themselves, he’s asking them to keep working but feed those who refuse to work and instead smoke marijuana, drink beer, watch TV, and have pre-marital or extra-marital sex all day when they should be at work working for a living.
3. The pastor tells them they cannot judge sin.
In all three of these cases the pastor is a heretic and the “middle class interests” being preserved are the mandates of God’s Holy Word.
Oh perish the thought that someone might want a pastor whose life is clean, who doesn’t preach pornographic sermons like your hero Mark Driscoll and doesn’t swear, doesn’t have tattoos, and doesn’t glorify comitting sin as the goal of Christianity and belittle living right as evil. How horrible for American church people to be church people, and not want their children doing sinful things, and to not want a fitlhy Calvinist (or limp-wristing “Arminian” who is nothing but a Calvinist in disguise) pastor who calls good evil and evil good. How horrible that they want their children to have a “boring testimony” rather than to raise them to be sex maniacs and drug addicts early in life so their testimony can be “exciting” to the reprobates and perverts who tend to run churches these days. Oh my, how horrible “church people” are! You sound like that filthy reprobate Francis Chan who accuses anyone who doesn’t curse like a sailor as not believing in Jesus. But God knows who are his and who are not, and he knows none of those who teach this “sanctified sin” Christianity taught by the Calvinists (whether open ones or lying ones who claim to be Arminians) will go anywhere after death but the lowest pits of hell.
You obviously have a lot of passion about the Calvinist/Arminian debate. That’s not what this post is about, and it is certainly not the subject of this blog. And we do like to keep it a little more civil here than you are doing.
The main point, and the reason I re-posted it (I’m not the writer, as you should realize) is that many Christians see church only as an aid to living a respectable middle class life. I have nothing against a respectable middle class life — I live one, myself. I don’t curse. I have a boring testimony, and I pray for my kids to have a boring testimony also. But the mission of the church is not to help middle class Americans feel good about themselves, and there is plenty about the American dream that gets in the way of following Jesus. There are too many people in our churches who are like the Rich Young Ruler — only we don’t confront them, as Jesus did for him.
I have personally seen people leave our church and go down the street to another one, because they could no longer hide their secret sin in our congregation, and they did not want anyone’s help in actually changing — they only wanted affirmations for their fake-masks and programs for their children to attend. That is a very serious spiritual problem, and I’ve seen it in many churches.
“I have personally seen people leave our church and go down the street to another one, because they could no longer hide their secret sin in our congregation…”
Can you give a concrete example of what you actually mean by sin? Because I know there is tendency among this circle to call emotions sin. If you’re sad, they call it sin because they follow John Piper’s “Christian hedonism” that will allow for adultery, homosexuality, drunkenness, and every real sin, but if you don’t plant a permanent fake smile on your face, oh my, you’re a sinner. Are we even talking about a real sin?
David, your comments sound to me like you are looking for a way to pick a fight. I’m not sure why you are looking for that fight here, other than that you don’t like that I re-posted something from someone else that you seem to have a problem with (first time I’ve even read anything by that guy, by the way, and I thought his main point was on target). I like hearty discussions, but I have no interest in foolish quarreling.
To answer your question, Sin is defined by the bible. In the examples I used I was talking exactly about some of the things you named.