Friday, April 15, 2005
I am rereading James Jordan’s book The Sociology of the Church at the moment (this book is also available online). As usual, Jordan is provocative, controversial, stimulating and — generally — right. I thought that I would post this extended quote, in which Jordan gives some thoughts on what Presbyterians and Baptists might learn from Episcopalians. Hopefully it will provoke some discussion. Some of us like to believe that our American Christian culture is based on Presbyterian and Baptist values. Obviously this is to a great extent true. The fact is, however, that both in Britain and in America, the dominant religious group has been Episcopalian. Like it or not, the Episcopalians have exercised more effective social dominion than have the rest. The strengths of Presbyterians and Baptists have been harnessed, monitored, directed, and overseen by Episcopalian rulers in both nations. Why is this? Why are the Episcopalians, as a group, the strongest, and that in spite of the fact that after the War of Independence they were associated with despised loyalists? … I believe that the salient factors are three: the promotion of excellence, the respect for tradition, and a certain primacy of the institutional church. First of all, it is my impression that the Episcopal churches, more so than any others, are careful to advance and promote their best men. If this is true in their church, it will also be true in their society at large. If one looks to see who the big name theologians of Episcopalianism are, they are frequently bishops. The Episcopalians identify, promote, protect, and prosper their best men. They provide large salaries, good homes, secure retirements. For their scholar-bishops, they provide domestic servants and secretaries, so that the man of the cloth is free from ordinary worries and duties and can devote his time to pastoral and literary work. Is anything like this ever done in Baptist and Presbyterian circles? I dare say not. To my knowledge, there has never been, in the entire history of Presbyterianism, a man who was set aside to be a scholar and writer. Without exception, Presbyterians load their best men down with detail and trivial tasks, so that they accomplish little. Their best thinkers are made teachers in theological institutions, where they are made to spend their days going over basics with young, immature men just out of generally worthless college educations. The rest of their time is taken up with committee meetings and administrative tasks. It is a wonder that any of them ever get any writing and research done. It is no surprise that the most brilliant of them, Cornelius Van Til, seldom was able to get his writings into polished English style — he had no time for it. We can contrast this with the armies of scholars maintained by Rome, and the small cadre maintained in Episcopalian circles. The difference is marked, and points to the fundamental difference between these two groups. The catholic party (Roman and Anglican) is frankly elitist. It strives to convert and control the elite in society, and it arms its best men for that task, giving them time for reflection and writing. The evangelical party (Presbyterian and Baptist, especially the latter) is infected largely with the heresy of democracy, and believes (wrongly) that the conversion of society comes with the conversion of the masses. Americans (evangelical) like to believe the myth that society is transformed from the “bottom up” and not from the “top down.” This flies squarely in the face both of history and of Scripture. The history of Israel, as recorded in Scripture, is not a history of revivals from the bottom up, but of kings and their actions. Good kings produced a good nation; bad kings a bad nation. The order is always seen from the top down, though of course with real feedback from the bottom up. … Christ is the head of the church, the New Testament repeatedly tells us. The church, however, is also a body politic, with eyes, hands, and feet (1 Cor. 12). Each part is necessary, but each part does not have the same function. There are rulers and governors — a hierarchy — in the church. There is no virtue in trying to evade this obvious fact, by objecting to the term “hierarchy,” or by ignoring the issue. Clearly, the greatest danger to the church comes not from wayward sheep, but from false leaders, savage wolves (Acts 20:30, etc.). Of course, we must say by way of a comprehensive philosophy of history that the Triune God always moves all at once, reforming from the top down at the same time as He reforms from the bottom up. The point, however, is that there is a small group of elite leaders and controllers — a hierarchy — in every society. There always will be. Whoever ministers to that elite group will control society. Paul knew that. That is why he wanted so badly to get to Rome. The Episcopalians also know it. The Presbyterians and Baptists have tried to pretend that this is not so, and have thus left the elite to others, as much by default as by anything else. Life and death flow from the head. This is true of Adam and his posterity, and of Christ and His. In smaller ways, the same principle is true in all of life. Good kings bring up a good nation; bad kings a bad one. That is why kings are likened to fathers and mothers in Scripture (Is. 49:23). Influence, for good or bad, flows from the head. People imitate those who are high and mighty. This is the invariable posture of Scripture. It was the belief of the early church, which arranged its elders, each of which had the same power, in ranks according to the pattern of Exodus 18. Modern presbyterians, infected with the heresy of democracy, try to make all elders equal in function as well as in office. This does not work, of course, as lay elders do not have the same time nor the same degree of concern for the day to day workings of the church as do fulltime elders. Their speciality lies elsewhere. Modern presbyterians, arguing against the Episcopalian notion of the bishop as a separate office, have gotten rid of higher ranks of elders (bishops) altogether, so that age is not really respected, and a truly spiritual hierarchy is never groomed. One bad result, because hierarchy is inescapable, is that power often, though not always, falls to those least qualified to wield it. Another bad result is that the Biblical pastoral hierarchy is replaced, in democratically infected denominations, with impersonal bureaucracies. Along with this goes a polemic against envy. A society that is openly hierarchical, as is the Episcopalian church, does not have near the problem with envy as does a society that pretends to democracy. A society that recognizes that there is a diversity of gifts, and that actively promotes its best men, has gone a long way toward stripping the envious of their power. Baptist and Presbyterian bureaucracies not infrequently have their least capable men in high position, in part due to the greater prominence of envy in their midst. We may question whether Baptist and Presbyterian bodies really even want to minister to the elite. It is easy to say “there are not many mighty called.” So what? What about those who are? And what about influencing those who are not? Men who are big frogs in small ponds have a vested interest in keeping the pond small. They don’t want an invasion of elite people, who have more money, more education, and more power than they do. Thus, they really don’t want to minister to the elite. They don’t want to take over the elite. They don’t prize excellence, and they don’t reward it. They move to cripple the capabilities of their best men, as I have described above. They cling to the myth that literature oriented toward the masses will do more than scholarly material oriented toward the elite. That this is baloney does not bother them, because they really do not want dominion. …The production of literature aimed at the masses has its place, of course; but it does not affect the transformation of society. It is a legitimate ministry, but it will not change the world. In fact, in the history of the church, to my knowledge it has never been possible to reduce hard, intellectual, elitist theology to the level of the common man. The effort to do so seems wasted. (This is not to reject the need for genuinely content-full Biblical preaching.) This is not to despise the poor and the simple. One of the ministries of Episcopalian churches in town after town is the Episcopal Thrift House, where the used clothing of the wealthy is made available to the poor at extremely low cost. I got through college wearing coats from the Episcopal Thrift House. These stores are staffed by volunteer ladies from the Episcopal church, ladies whose husbands make so much money that they can afford to donate lots of time free to this ministry. This kind of ministry is simply impossible among churches that do not have wealthy members. The second factor that has made Episcopalianism strong is its respect for tradition. Unlike most other Reformed churches, the English church was blessed with reforming bishops. The bishops were not the enemies but the friends of reform. As a result, the English church never reacted against the Medieval tradition, and sought to conserve the best that was there. All the Reformers were experts in the early church, and also in the Medieval theologians. After a century, however, the other Reformed groups had begun to ignore the Fathers and the Medievals. The myth arose that the Medieval church was wholly evil from A.D. 606 on. The great advances of the Christian centuries were overlooked. The real accomplishments of the Papal See were rejected. Only among the Anglicans did Patristic and Medieval scholarship retain a strong footing. Thus, the Episcopalian churches have never lacked a strong sense of tradition. They subordinated tradition to Scripture, but never threw it out altogether. They have built enduring institutions, both physical and literary. They are here to stay. In their respect for tradition, they are like the Jews, who are the other group that makes up the elite in British and especially American culture. Third, the Episcopalian churches have put the visible church in first place, before theology and before personalities. The history of the Baptist churches is a history of personalities (preachers). The history of the Reformed churches is a history of combating theologies and theologians. Both groups have a history of one schism after another. This is not true of the Episcopalian churches. This is because they permit various theologies to exist under the common umbrella of the institutional church. Is this bad or good? Before answering that, let us look at how it works, and how strong it is. The Episcopal churches bind their people to the church and to the tradition by the careful and plenary use of profound symbol and beautiful ritual. These things, contrary to the rationalistic and intellectualistic criticisms of it heard in the Presbyterian and Baptist world, sink deep into the consciousness of the people. The result is that the church becomes something more than merely a collection of people, and it transcends their differences. Not until the Episcopal church began ordaining women and homosexuals, and openly denying the faith, did any schism come. This makes for a strong church, if a rather closed one. There are a lot of analogies to the Jews here, not least in the failure of either group to evangelize for itself. (Elites seldom feel any need to evangelize.) Provided the various theologies tolerated in the church are each basically orthodox, and in line with the historic creeds, there is no problem with having a strong church. The problem comes when liberalism creeps in, and of course the Episcopal churches today have rotted out as much as any others have. Doubtless Episcopalian readers have been amazed at how I have described their church. Doubtless if I were an Episcopalian rather than a Presbyterian, the grass would look greener on the other side. Doubtless what I have written here is more an occasion to set out some of my own thoughts than it is an accurate description of Episcopalianism. We ought, therefore, in closing to look at the glaring problem in Episcopalianism. That problem is the lack of discipline in that body. Do Episcopalians ever declare anyone excommunicate? (Nobody else does either, but for different reasons.) Episcopalianism has been tied to the cultural elite, with the result that Episcopal churches often can become little more than religious country clubs. The cart (the elite) begins to pull the horse (the church). This is the danger and corruption of Episcopalianism. The answer to this problem is seen only in the Roman Catholic church. That body alone has retained a ministry to all levels of society. The result is that no particular cultural group controls it. A second result is that there is no reticence about disciplining apostates. Clearly, the reconstruction of the Christian church must take a catholic (though reformed) approach. The point of this essay is that there are things in evangelical protestantism today, which is basically Presbyterian, that prevent this wholistic type of ministry. In particular, if we want to capture the leadership of society, we have to take seriously those things that enabled the Episcopalians, in the early days of America, to emerge as the dominant social force.
James B. Jordan, The Sociology of the Church (pp.15-23)