The Danger of Separation of Church and State (of being the Church)

church steepleAnother way to explain what I mean by my little play on words, is separation of church and state of being the church is the established church vs what that has always looked like. In other words, what are we doing compared to the history of the church?  Because the reality is the church has existed long before us and carries with her a rich tradition.

Tradition. There’s a word that raises hackles in a contemporary mindset. I find this especially true in independent Protestant church affiliations that disconnect from a 2,000 year heritage.  When the Reformation happened it was never meant to disconnect the church from its heritage only to source that in the authority of Scripture as opposed to authority in unwritten revelation and to correct corrupt practices in the church. We need to take the serious what has occurred in the past 2,000 years of church history.

In his book A High View of Scripture?, Craig Allert, a conservative evangelical, notes that disconnecting from tradition tends to result in traditionalism that imposes its own standards on the church. He expounds on J. Pelikan’s distinction between tradition and traditionalism – “tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Traditionalism forms its own tradition that can be blinded from its roots and in some cases, vastly deviate.

Defense of these essentials (of Christianty) has been emphasized at the expense of understanding their place in theological history and therefore at the expense of understanding their importance in the contemporary church. Thus, not only have certain nonessentials been given essential status, but also some foundational aspects of theology have been underemphasized or even ignored and therefore, undervalued, and this to the detriment of the body of Christ. The rich liturgical tradition of the church becomes confined to musically induced emotionalism. The importance of the community of faith for the life of the believer is reduced to crass marketing strategies and the newest ‘get spiritual quick’ scheme. The living voice of the Bible in theological history becomes lost in individual interpretation and defense of rather static propositionalism.[1]

Put another way, separation from the state of being the church results in myopic reductionism and an elevation of whatever novel concepts seem fitting for the life of the church in a contemporary context. It can also lead to arrogance in believing that we have it all figured out.

church history chart cartoon

Of course this impacts bible interpretation by reading it in an historical and theological vacuum.  Such methodology has the impact of elevating certain practices and beliefs so that whatever is deemed important for life and practice becomes the rule of faith. As a consequence, relatively non-consequential behavior or beliefs to a matter of denomination significance.

A prime example of this would be the fundamentalist movement of the 20th century.  Originally spawned to counteract liberal theology, it became more preoccupied with separating from society and how not to live than carrying on the rich tradition of faith. In fact, it flat out rejected it’s rich Protestant tradition from the past. Christianity was more about following the rules and avoiding certain behavior.  And this has carried forward. Without a measured criteria of what the church has always believed and stressed as important, we unwittingly accept whatever traditionalism that has been handed down and evaluate it according to our preference and limited interpretation.

In contrast, counter-active movements that dispel our predecessors faith. However, without a context of the church’s heritage, it often times is nothing more than rejecting undesirable traditionalism. But it shows how far we’ve come. Novelty is attractive. Believing that we have figured something out that no one has can give a boost of evangelical pride. Discipleship turns to marketing techniques and cultural relevance ends up being nothing more that clever stories. Pragmatism dictates arranging activity that will make us look like we’re doing something nobody’s figured out before. Somewhere in the process we can run afoul of losing what the church is supposed to be. Interestingly, as I was drafting this post, Jared Wilson posted this article, which pretty much says the same thing.

In his book RetroChristianity, DTS professor Michael J. Svigel notes 7 reasons to look back over church history (I will follow up on his points in another post).  Pertinent to this post, he warns that ignoring the past can result in arrogance in the present and a misappropriation of what is significant.

By looking back, evangelicals can connect to their own tradition actively, consciously, and critically. They can seek out their spiritual ancestors, experiencing familiarity and a feeling of kinship with the people of faith who preserved Scripture, took a stand for the gospel, reformed church practice, and glorified God with their words and works. They can see their own particular traditions in light of a broader spectrum of emphases and practices, understanding their own church’s attitudes and actions in light of its history. By re-establishing an active and conscious connection to their rich legacy, they will also be equipped to sort through the positive, negative, and neutral aspects of their beliefs and practices, led by more than personal preference or thoughtless traditionalism.[2]

The bottom line is that when the church disconnects from the state of being the church, she forgets who she is and her amnesia produces all kinds of egregious results.

We need not fear the tradition of the church. There is much to learn by looking back. If we realize that the same Spirit that dwells in us now, has been actively involved in the life of the church that ought to temper our rejection from learning from our past. Most certainly, we can learn much from history in determining what is significant about our faith and what things we can hold loosely.

[1] Craig D. Allert, A High View of Scripture? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 34

[2] Michael J. Svigel, RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgetten Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 47


2 thoughts on “The Danger of Separation of Church and State (of being the Church)

  1. xulonjam April 5, 2013 / 6:10 am

    I bet the guy who drew that cartoon is in a tradition that sees itself as that first line on the left and humbly thanks God that at least they are the ones left from 1 AD

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