Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Wheaton College, the Nazarenes, and the New Reformation

I'm generally a realist about most things. I try not to get too caught up in idealism, because we live in a real world where ideals rarely play themselves out cleanly. At the same time, I try to recognize that ideals are important and do my best to live up to them. I try to give ideals the benefit of the doubt as much as possible. I'm loyal.

Despite all that, I may have reached a tipping point with this whole Wheaton College thing.* It's not so much the theology of the matter, although that bugs me, but because the theology seems to be more an excuse for institutional preservation than it is a legitimate theological argument.

We've seen this all over the place within evangelicalism in recent years - calls for theological purity that are far more about power and control than they are about genuine intellectual and theological inquiry. Beyond even theology, my own denomination, The Church of the Nazarene, has seen incident after incident where institutional cohesion, control, and continuity have trumped the basic tenets we claim to believe. It's undermined the authority of the institution and caused the exact divisive harm it was intended to prevent.

I've tried to be a big believer in the ideal of Christian community - that despite our messed up tendencies we can and should be together. I'm not rejecting that notion, either practically or theologically, but I feel like I've now abandoned the notion that our historic or traditional institutions have any real place in the future of Christianity.

The institutional church in America - at least the evangelical variety - is eating itself alive.** At the same time, I'm pretty certain any group of people must, in some measure, be institutionalized to remain cohesive in any way - not that it has to be done, but that it will inevitably happen. There will always be institutions when people try to live together - from communes to corporations, overt or unintentional, we all institutionalize, even the most radical revolutionaries. We're going to have (and need) institutions, but I'm no longer convinced those institutions we have are capable of being the institutions we need moving forward.

More and more I'm realizing that perhaps talk of a "new reformation" is not so far fetched.

You have the argument from history. As (the late, great) Phylis Tickle so eloquently laid out, every 500 years or so there are massive changes in both the form and institutionalization of Christianity. We went from a movement of loosely connected local cells, to an empire-influencing centralized body, to an almost brazenly political force, to a relatively disconnected conglomeration of competing denominations. None of these system looked much at all like the last. For years people have been foretelling a similar change (it is about time, after all) - I've resisted those calls, but my resistance is waning.

On a small scale, I can see in my own denomination the real dysfunction and purposeless that continues to radiate from the center. At the same time I witness a real vibrancy of mission by those on periphery.*** There is a hunger for living out the Christian life in creative, faithful ways among people that just can't be supported by the old structures of the institution. The two forces seem increasingly divergent - one pushing to fit new developments into an old structure and one marching forward with intention, ready to build whatever structure makes sense as we go along.

Our idealism as Christians tells us we should be able to reconcile these forces. I'm just not sure that's really possible anymore, especially as sustaining the institution becomes more and more important to those in charge. I get the tension there - being in charge specifically means care for the institution, but what I'm beginning to realize is that perhaps, in this rare and unique instance, caring for the institution might just mean tearing it down and working to rebuild something different.

I have a lot of fear in that statement. There's a lot of grief and sorrow. I imagine it's similar to the sorrow of Martin Luther, who saw much of his beloved catholic church deconstructed by the movement he started - not that he regretted speaking out and sparking a reformation, but that he felt genuine grief over the loss of something beloved and familiar. It's a difficult position to be in; I don't envy any institutional leader.

At the same time, those leaders must be willing to make difficult decisions, even if they're unpopular within the institution itself. That is sort of the point of leadership, right? To recognize when context is changing and lead people to change with it. Mission and ministry in the coming years will not be served by the structures and systems of the past. This isn't just a generational shift, I'm starting to think it's something bigger.

At the end of the last reformation, the catholic church was broken - broken to such an extent it's taken 500 years to begin to recover its footing. The idealist in me celebrates the re-emergence of catholic leadership in the world because it speaks of the real perseverance of the saints. Even if missteps are taken in dealing with a new reality, there is hope for the future. It's what keeps me optimistic about the old systems and structures I love, but often bristle against. The core goodness within them is real, even if it's not expressed in appropriate ways for a changing context.

Evangelicalism is facing a whole host of pressures from various forces and perspectives. It's not really about one thing. It's not just about theology, but also the place of religion in society. It's not just biblical interpretation, but how human society itself is evolving over time. It's not just about what science means for core beliefs, but how those new realities impact the way our very institutions are ordered and designed. It's not an easy picture.

I guess, in the end, I'd call on all of us - those who cling to institutions for security and safety and those who push boundaries almost by nature, and even those in the middle, like me, who see the real value of both - to maintain a vision of Christ. We do claim to be Christians after all, and even if we can't agree on theology or practice or organization, perhaps we can agree on the need for continued communication, charitable discourse amongst ourselves as we move forward with whatever comes next.

I really struggle with some of these incidents, like the one at Wheaton, the one before it at Northwest Nazarene, and many others - not because they're emblematic of some larger issue, but because they're precisely the opposite - they're distractions from more important conversations. They're side-skirmishes in a larger struggle to engage the changing global context with the grace and peace and love of Jesus Christ.

I'm loyal, probably to a fault. I love my denomination and my evangelical identity - even when evidence suggests I resemble those things less and less every day. I don't want to see us descend into the literally wars of religion that marked the adjustment period following the last reformation, I'd like to see us moving forward together, even as we're a bit wary of each other and what lies ahead.

So I guess we could say, there's still a little bit of idealism left in me, and I hope, with good reason.

*If you want further information about this issue, you can see both the professor's statement and the statement from Wheaton.

**The mainline version has pretty much marginalized itself over the past 60 years in a different, but no less effective way.

***I wrote a little bit about how that functions psychologically in a post a few weeks back.


Gloria Coffin said...

Thank you, Ryan. Well spoken!

Josh Broward said...

Good work on this Ryan. I'm hopeful that we can find ways to move forward together, but like you said - the way forward will necessarily involve deconstruction. That's hard, but the reconstruction is lots of fun.