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Ecclesiastical anarchism has a long history in American Christianity, but few have gone quite as far as James H. Rutz, whose new book, The Open Church, had a prominent advertising spread in World, an evangelical news magazine. To his credit, Rutz has identified some of the glaring weaknesses of American evangelicalism. He rightly detests worship that reduces congregations from priests to spectators, the superficiality of relationships within the body of Christ, and the apparent impotence of Christianity in the world. No one who has thought seriously about American Christianity will deny the validity of many of Rutz’s diagnoses. I suspect that few pastors would argue with his claim that congregations place excessive burdens on their pastors.

Unfortunately, Rutz’s medicine—the “open Church” of his title—is, to my mind, at least as bad as the disease. Covered with a patina of naive historical scholarship, Rutz’s book proposes a restoration of the simple, warm, exciting community of the New Testament Church. To that end, he favors the elimination of the classical pastoral office. Gene Edwards, who serves as guest author of several chapters in The Open Church, claims that early Christian documents make “absolutely no mention of a ‘minister’ or ‘priest’ or ‘pastor’ or another term for any office or any kind of leadership.” Instead, “to the early Christian, his church elder (bishop) was a ‘regular guy.’ ” (These sentences, which appear in successive paragraphs, give one pause: Who were these elder-bishops, if there were no terms for officers?) While the authors laud the Reformation’s theological achievement, they are extremely unhappy about its overly intellectual emphasis. Doctrine divides, but … well, you know the rest. And there is something more than a little disingenuous about a prophetic call to return to the simplicity of the New Testament Church that is backed by a $100,000 advertising campaign.

Rutz and Edwards save their most severe criticism for Protestant worship. Here as nowhere else, the authors insist, the Reformers failed the Church. Without the slightest effort at sympathetic understanding, they dismiss traditional Protestant liturgies by saying they are “just as unimaginative, ossified, hidebound, ridiculous, boring, dead, and irrelevant to modern man as what Gregory [the Great] invented.”

Tracts such as The Open Church illustrate in glaring colors the difficulties Protestants have always had with ritual. Medieval Rome’s liturgical and sacramental customs were among the Reformers’ chief targets. According to the Reformers, the Roman Catholic view of ritual and sacrament verged on the magical. The Reformers attacked the notion, attributed to Roman Catholics, that the rites and sacraments of the Church automatically communicated grace, and emphasized instead that Christ is always and everywhere received by faith. The Reformers saw themselves as heirs of the Old Testament prophets who denounced Israel’s trust in the bricks and ritual of Solomon’s temple.

Having dismissed the Roman view of ritual, the Reformers were faced with the challenge of the Anabaptist “left wing” of the Reformation: if rites do not function automatically, then why retain them at all? If subjective faith is really crucial, what need does the believer have of objective externals? To the extent the Reformers retained traditional liturgies and claimed that the sacraments had objective reality, the Anabaptists charged, they showed themselves to be still in thrall to Rome.

The position of the Reformers was not an enviable one: they had to resist the apparent logic of Anabaptism without abandoning their principles of “Scripture alone” and “faith alone.” They insisted they could not abandon ritual altogether because Jesus Himself had commanded His followers to enact the rites of the supper and baptism. Rather than attributing quasi-magical powers to the sacraments, they defined the sacraments as means of strengthening faith.

I would not be a Protestant if I did not believe that the Reformers were fundamentally successful in their two-front war, but honesty compels the admission that their via media between Rome and the Anabaptists was sometimes precarious. Later Protestants have had difficulty avoiding embarrassment on this score. On the one hand, there is embarrassment in the face of Rome’s claim to objectivity; on the other hand, there is the embarrassment of not having finished the revolution of subjectivity that, according to the Anabaptists, Luther started.

Useful materials for a Protestant theology of ritual are, however, not lacking. In his stimulating little volume, Peculiar Speech, William Willimon applies some of the insights of recent philosophy and theology to preaching. Following Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas, Willimon challenges the Enlightenment notions of universal reason and universal language. Language and meaning are culture-specific. Language and culture are virtually two sides of the same coin; to cross a cultural barrier is to cross a language barrier, and vice versa. This is true even when the official language is the same on both sides of the barrier. Residents of Manhattan and Montgomery, Alabama may all speak English, but in a more than grammatical sense they speak different languages.

Thus, Willimon argues, “Christianity can be described as a culture, a set of practices, beliefs, a distinctive language.” A convert to Christianity does not leave some abstract universal “culture” when he comes to Christ; he moves instead from one culture into another and in doing so also crosses a language barrier. Christians “must learn Christianity, even as we learn a foreign language.” Preachers likewise do not speak in a cultural void; they preach to the baptized, and thus cannot avoid “baptismal truth that we preach within a distinctive universe of discourse. We talk funny.” Preaching involves cultivation of “those insights, means of describing, and vocabulary with which Christians describe the world.”

What Willimon asserts about preaching is true of worship more generally. Worship is primarily public homage to the King of kings, but worship can also be seen as the cultivation of a distinctively Christian culture, that is, a distinctively Christian way of naming the world. Worship is language class, where the Church is trained to speak Christian.

This perspective underscores the wisdom of the Reformers’ choice of structured worship. One best learns a foreign language by repetition. Traditional liturgies, with their “boring” and “hidebound” recitation of Psalms, creeds, and rote prayers, drill converts in their new language. Not only is the worshiper made part of the culture of Christianity, but, more importantly, that culture is made part of the worshiper. From this perspective, the Babel of charismatic worship is seen as the abandonment, not the fulfillment, of Christian worship. How can the Church be trained to speak Christian when everyone says what is right in his own ears?

Such an understanding of ritual lends itself to the construction of a Protestant theology of culture. George Steiner suggested in In Bluebeard’s Castle that the shared norms and images of Western culture were inculcated by Scripture and the liturgies of the Church: “Scriptural and, in a wider sense, religious literacy ran strong, particularly in Protestant lands. The Authorized Version and Luther’s Bible carried in their wake a rich tradition of symbolic, allusive, and syntactic awareness. Absorbed in childhood, the Book of Common Prayer, the Lutheran hymnal and psalmody cannot but have marked a broad compass of mental life and their exact, stylized articulateness and music of thought.”

In short, as many writers have observed, it is no accident that culture and cult derive from the same root.

Peter J. Leithart is Pastor of Reformed Heritage Presbyterian Church in Alabaster, Alabama.

Photo by Simon Alibert on Unsplash. Image cropped.