The Pharmakon Athanasias
S. M. Hutchens on Worshiping the Lord Without Lying About the Faith
I just received in the mail a glossy, color flyer for a startup megachurch wannabe in our area. It assures the reader "no church experience required," and is emblazoned with photographs of happy, active young people, including the pastor, in blue jeans and t-shirt, along with his cute little wife, similarly attired. "Remember when you were a kid and you had to take medicine that tasted really awful?" the flyer intones. "Even if somebody said it was good for you, didn't you just hate it? CHURCH SHOULDN'T BE LIKE THAT!" The message of this advertisement, which I am afraid is widely ratified these days, is that church should be entertaining, centered on the tastes of the young and the hip, and void of things that "taste really awful."
I wonder, really, what religion this is. The Lord on many occasions displeased—confused, scandalized, rebuked, and burdened—his disciples with his words and actions. As a result, many left him, the attitude of the ones who stayed being represented in the gospel by Peter's question, "To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."
The abovementioned conventicle, it would seem, is either (1) dubiously Christian because it does not plan to deliver the whole gospel: the hard, offensive, and forthrightly delivered words of the Lord and his apostles, along with the positive and comforting ones, or (2) dubiously Christian because it is misrepresenting what the receivers shall receive when they get there. Clearly it is setting itself up for a Willow Creek situation, where it is discovered that the Christians who have been able to mature furthest in the faith by the church's own criteria for maturity are the most dissatisfied with its form of ministry. But no matter: experts have known for some time that one cannot market the Christian faith without lying about it.
The most interesting thing about Peter's question is the depth and tenacity of the faith it exhibits as to what is required to follow Jesus. It seems that the Lord did almost everything he could not to please his followers, but to shake them off. He tested them, by the application of truth, to find something deep within that sought the One who had called them, held fast to him when he lost his popularity, and grieved when their sin and fear divided them from him. They, excepting Judas, needed no incentive in what the world values to follow him, only the conviction that he had the words of eternal life. This is not to say that any of them knew him very well yet, but in the dim light of their dawning consciousness the Lord sought and found evidence of the nature of their bond to him by the application of things that tasted really awful.
Essentials of Christian Worship
This says little, to be sure, about just how a service of worship is to be conducted, but it does contain a heavy warning about the necessity for the church that claims to follow Christ to keep the Words of Eternal Life clear, well-set, complete, and unadulterated in all aspects of its life. This imperative can be lost in a "seeker sensitive" environment just as well as in whatever stodgy and uncomfortable churches its leaders expect their consumers to hate. This is what may be expected to happen wherever the liturgy is designed to conform to someone's taste rather than something higher that reflects the character of the gospel itself.
And it must be said as well, in case anyone is so dull as to miss it, that all devotion to mere taste in liturgy, including that in churches designed around popular taste, will alienate someone. The ecclesiastical equivalent of Wal-Mart that so many churches are becoming seems specifically designed to alienate the mature, the cultured, and the thoughtful, which these churches repel, but need.
If, as we see in the biblical history of Israel, any mere form of worship, even one given in explicit detail by God himself, does not in itself assure against the spiritual decay of the worshipers, does this mean that the form doesn't matter?—that people are free to worship as they see fit, keeping the service changing or unchanging at will? I think not, because both Scripture and church tradition provide a template, a basis, flexible, but, since given, of an unavoidably conservative character, for those who "continue in the apostles' doctrine, the breaking of bread, and the prayers."
If the Words of Eternal Life are to be exhibited in a manner clear, well-set, and complete in and through the preaching and teaching of Christian doctrine, in the Lord's Supper, and the prayers of the Church, I suggest this places certain demands on what should reasonably, and in consultation with the Church of the ages, be done in public worship and what should not, including how Christian worship should be presented to seekers. Despite the unavoidable debate on precisely what it is, there is indeed a "shape of the liturgy," and the churches are obliged to seek it out and follow it as best they can.
I will go further than this: Scripture, reason, and history dictate that a full service of Christian worship should contain Scripture reading from all the principal parts of the Bible and, if available, authoritative exposition thereon, recitation of the Creed, the Lord's Supper, and prayers, principally the Lord's Prayer, which contains all other Christian prayers, and the Psalms. In all these, how can it be denied that Holy Communion is the center to which all leads and from which all follows? Music, which has, in a kind of madness, come in many places to be the definition of "worship," is not required, but where it is found, it must be entirely subordinate to the part of the liturgy it serves, and fully controlled by the teaching authority of the church.
For Truth, Not Comfort
How can a Christian church be made comfortable for anyone not used to hearing the Words of Eternal Life? Or, for that matter, for those who are? What is required is that we be made uncomfortable by many of them, and that the people help, not hinder, anyone's coming to belief. It is for this reason that the Church should welcome the stranger: that he come to the knowledge of the truth, to accept or reject. It cannot let sensitivity to seekers drift over into the idea that they should be preserved from the offense of the Christian faith.
Pharmakon athanasias, the "medicine of immortality," was an early Christian name for the Lord's Supper.
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“The Pharmakon Athanasias” first appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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