Monday, August 29, 2005


Two ditches on the side of the road


Regarding the question, "Whom can we consider to be a Christian?", I think it would be useful to consider the analogy of a narrow country road with a ditch on either side. So long as you stay in between the ditches, you're on good, smooth pavement, but if you find your way into either ditch, you're looking at a serious accident. The ditch on the left is named "pietism" and the one on the right "latitudinarianism." These ditches are the danger ground, ready and waiting to trip up anyone who veers into them.

Since we're a support group for folks leaving the Charismatic movement, I suspect that pietism is going to sound rather familiar. As I understand it, the word "pietism" is most closely associated with a 18th or 19th century movement within the German Lutheran church that encouraged a strong emphasis on the Christian's personal spiritual life, or, to put it in the modern vernacular, "my personal relationship with Jesus Christ." As such, pietism encourages a move towards self-centered religion as well as a move away from engagement with the church. Sadly, modern evangelicalism has drunk deeply from the well of pietism: what's all-important is "me and Jesus", with my relationship with the church having little or no importance. Make no mistake: pietism is a great danger.

Our other ditch, with its peculiar name of latitudinarianism, may be unfamiliar to you. I've found a helpful introduction at this site:

Some excerpts from this page:

'This critical label became attached to a group of Anglican divines in the late seventeenth century whose thought displayed a high regard for the authority of reason and a tolerant, antidogmatic temper ("gentlemen of a wide swallow")...They reacted against the Calvinism of the Puritans and were broadly Arminian in outlook. They aligned themselves with progressive and liberal movements in the contemporary intellectual world...Their comprehensiveness allowed only a narrow core of fundamentals in religion. They resisted the Laudian or High Church insistence on conformity in nonessentials such as church order and liturgy...Above all they held that "true philosophy can never hurt sound divinity," which in practice normally meant harmonizing Scripture and the fathers with the light of reason. Theologically vague and spiritually insubstantial, their religion was strongly moralistic.'

In a sense, latitudinarianism is the polar opposite of pietism. Whereas pietism features a narrow focus on the individual, latitudinarianism features a broad, ecumenical view that's eager to welcome practically everyone into the church. So long as your denomination adheres to "a narrow core of fundamentals", the latitudinarian will be happy to greet you as a brother Christian. Whereas pietism is closed in on the individual and disinterested in the church, latitudinarianism tends to be exclusively interested in the broader church and disinterested in personal spirituality. The danger on this side of the road is that we are liable to be so open-minded about welcoming this or that person or church into the church that we come to care too little about the individual's right standing before God.

As I drive down our narrow country road, I have to take care to avoid both ditches, but since I drive on the right-hand (or, in the UK, left-hand) side of the road, one ditch is closer to me than the other. In modern evangelicalism, the closer ditch has undoubtedly been pietism. As you and I come out of Charismatic error, it is quite understandable that we will find ourselves coming to a higher view of the corporate church. Doing so will increase our distance from the pietistic error, but yet as we learn to place the church in higher esteem, we ought to take care that we exchange our pietism for latitudinarianism.

Indeed the Christian faith isn't just about "me and Jesus", but the fact of the matter is that the church is made up of many members, with each and every one of those members being an individual. Moreover, the invisible church--the bride of Christ, the true sheep, the circumcised in heart--is entirely made up of these individuals: the Elect.

In God's providence, the Elect are found in many sheepfolds: the Reformed, the Baptist, the Methodist, etc.. We often call these sheepfolds the "visible church." In some sheepfolds, the true Gospel is preached clearly, at some times more clearly than at other times, but in other sheepfolds it is very dimly preached, if at all. The light of Gospel truth was not always dim in these sheepfolds. In many cases, it took many, many centuries for the light to go out. It is often difficult, if not impossible, to identify the point in history at which the light went out in a particular sheepfold, but history is not our infallible guide. Our sole, sufficient guide for what consititutes the true Gospel or a healthy sheepfold is the same: the Scriptures. In a world of imperfect churches, the best we can do is to encourage one other to seek out those local sheepfolds where the Gospel light shines brightest.

As the Christian drives down the narrow road that is the Christian life, he does so both as an individual sheep--saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone--and as a member of the church. He must never think that he can go it alone without the church, but yet in the final analysis Christ saved and called him as an individual. A Christian ought to be a useful member of the church, but yet being a member of a church--even one which enjoys bright Gospel light--doesn't make one a Christian. Therefore, as we consider the question of whom we ought to consider to be a Christian and what is to be considered a Christian church, let's take care to avoid our two dangerous ditches. Let us neither define the Christian life too narrowly or too broadly.

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