|Cristendom, Structured Loyalties, and the Local Congregation|
|Presbyterion: On Church Government|
|Written by Douglas Wilson|
|Wednesday, 14 October 2009 20:19|
In his book Against Christianity, Peter Leithart argues effectively against the idea of the Christian faith as an “ism.” We believe in Jesus, not in some abstracted form of Christianism. Not only do we believe in Jesus, but we are also connected to His body, the Church, and we function there with tangible loyalties in view. But the point of connection for us is always to a local congregation, and this creates some problems and questions.
The Christian faith has exploded around the world and, at least until the objective formation of Christendom 2.0 occurs, the only way to get a handle on “Christendom” as it currently exists is by means of abstraction. The abstraction Christianity refers to is the doctrinal content of our faith, and our current form of scattered Christendom can only be apprehended by a comparable form of abstraction. To take the teaching of all the Bible and winnow it down to a few basic creeds gives us Christianity. But this is actually easier than to conceptualize the concrete reality of the worship and lifestyle practices of a billion individual Christians and call it Christendom. When I say Christendom, I have no specific idea in my mind, any more than if I say beauty, truth or love.
My connection to the local body of Christ is very tangible but, by definition, is it must also be limited, concrete, and specific. My organic point of contact is with a body where everybody speaks English, all of us are wealthy in global terms, almost all voted in politically conservative ways in the last several rounds of elections, and so on. If we pull back away from all this and take the Google Earth view of Christendom, then we have something that is pretty much at the same level of abstraction that Christianity is. We can see the forest, but no trees. If we zoom into another kind of local congregation, somewhere in Nigeria, say, we will get a very different set of demographic realities than I am used to here. If we choose China instead, the picture will again alter accordingly. If we back away to look at the whole again, we discover that all the nitty gritty details have been washed out. Put another way, Christendom (for us in our experience, at any rate) is as much of an idea as Christianity is.
The scandal of the Incarnation to the Greek mind was in part because of its particularity. Jesus had a hometown, and a particular woman was His mom. The Hellenistic mind always kicks against this, and inevitably wants to universalize. It has a built-in bias against the particular and specific, especially when that particular and specific thing claims to be the ultimate Logos. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
The First Christendom grew up as a kind of civilizational revolt against this Hellenistic bias. But as it grew up, something funny happened—the organic connectedness to Christendom that Christians had was very different in the different places where they lived—very different in England than in Russia. Very different in Georgia than in Georgia. Because there were no cable channels, and no twenty-four hour news coverage, a lot of this went unnoticed for a long time.
In the gospel, God does not offer us one particular in exchange for the one universal. Rather, He bestows multiple particulars on us, all tied together with the one universal Christ. The Incarnate Christ was from a town called Nazareth. The risen Christ is at the right hand of the Father, He is the arche, the One in whom all things tie together. In Christ we have a particular Universal. But the Father is the only one who sees how it all ties together. We know that it does, but apart from abstraction, we cannot know how it does.
So here is the practical problem. A generic loyalty to “Christendom” amounts to loyalty to no one in particular, and as such, it suffers from the same problem that loyalty to “Christianity” does. But when someone develops strong loyalties to the one tangible manifestation of the Church that he actually knows, the problem is frequently that of becoming sectarian and/or provincial. The local church is taken for the whole, instead of being the point of entry to the whole.
The more I cultivate loyalty to people I see, visit with, and worship together with, the more American my direct experience of the faith becomes. The more I try to distance myself from this kind of thing, the more I become a rarified, deracinated Christian. Some cosmopolitan Christians avoid this by traveling a lot, but this does not give us the universal view from nowhere, but rather creates an ecclesiastical version of the cosmopolitan traveler—just another particular.
The solution appears to me to be this: we must reject the idea that we have to choose the universal Church over the particular congregation. We also must reject the idea that we can settle into our provincial loyalties without any thought to the universal Christendom. We are finite, and we have to work within the constraints of our finitude. That means that our only real choice is between a healthy loyalty and attachment to our local congregation and an unhealthy and idolatrous attachment to that same congregation. If we fall into the latter, then our attitudes to the broader Church will be diseased in some way. If we are connected to our local body in a healthy way, then God—who is after all the One who is knitting the body together—will see to the rest of it.