With thoughts of a former pastor being removed from office and the questionable direction of the modern Christian conference circuit going through my mind this morning, I came across John Haldane’s article “A Tale of Two Cities – And of Two Churches.” Haldane, who is descended from Scottish Presbyterians, contrasts the compromise and decline of the Church of Scotland with the steadiness of the Catholic Church over millennia. He quotes Lord Macaulay’s 1840 review of von Ranke’s History of the Popes:
The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilisation. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. . . . She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.
I’m not going to become Catholic, God-willing, but it is hard not to be impressed by the longevity of the Catholic Church. The seminary I graduated from still plays bagpipes at graduation so I’m descended from the faltering side in this case. The thing about conservative evangelicalism is that it’s not geared for the long run. It’s an assortment of individuals, churches and groups trying to grow a little bit or simply stay in existence. Of course, there are many noble men and women involved so I’m not trying to belittle anyone. I’m simply pointing out that our current approach isn’t sustainable long term.
In light of our current shortsightedness, here are some suggestions to help us become more stable for the long run:
- Don’t become enamored with parachurch ministries, and especially not with gifted individuals. Focus on your local church and the Church at large, not with the few uber-impressive guys who sell all the books and conference tickets. I’ve seen this in both Charismatic and broadly evangelical circles. There are those few stars that run the show, so to speak, until it’s found out they are practicing homosexuals or cheating on their wife or stealing money from the church or fill in the blank. I’m not speaking of all individuals with large ministries, of course, many are wonderful human beings no doubt. However, people are not meant to be idols. The apostles were special, but they were also the dregs of the earth. We’ve inverted that pattern. A global platform without suffering is a dangerous thing.
- Become as solid as you can, both in your understanding and your character, for the sake of the church. If you want to become a pastor, know that, in general, this will not help you get a position. It’s as likely that theological knowledge and piety will be regarded by churches as a hindrance to ministry as an asset. Go for depth and maturity anyway, and try to take others with you.
- Emphasize Church unity – a great way to avoid self-focus is to focus on people outside yourself and your group. Receive from others. You will learn more, love more, and the world will know that we are Christians by our love for one another.
- Avoid power as long as possible. We all want influence, but it’s easy to confuse the fallen desire for dominance with the godly desire to improve things. I wonder how many of us can tell the difference in our own hearts.