Chapter One.
The Idolatry of Love

“All you need is love.”

John Lennon


Main Question: How do our common cultural conceptions of love today hinder our acceptance of church membership and discipline?

Main Answer: We have made love into an idol that serves us and so have redefined love into something that never imposes judgments, conditions, or binding attachments.

Step 1: Doing a doctrine of the church requires us to consider our cultural baggage.

The Risky Business of Ecclesiology

Tampering with the doctrine of the church is a risky business. Perhaps more than with any other Christian doctrine, the doctrine of the church—also called “ecclesiology”—is where the variables of personal ambition and vain conceit factor into all the equations. Ecclesiology is the domain of turf wars and political rivalries. It’s where the embattled pastor and his ornery deacon board haggle yet again over where the “buck stops”; where the local Episcopal church has to determine what it means to separate from the larger Episcopal communion that has forsaken the gospel; where the presbytery decides whether a member’s lifestyle places her outside the community’s affirmation of faith.

One might say that it’s comparatively easy to debate God’s foreknowledge, or whether regeneration precedes conversion, or what the millennium is. Raise one of these topics, and over half the church will shrug their shoulders and claim agnosticism. But raise the topic of who has final say over the church budget, or who chooses a new pastor, or whether the church has the right to discipline the elder’s wayward adult son, and you won’t find many agnostics here. Sure enough, church history is replete with examples of theologians changing their ecclesiology to suit political circumstance.

In other words, there’s a “real worldness” to the doctrine of the church. Deciding who receives baptism and the Lord’s Supper and who doesn’t is a “political” decision in a way other doctrinal decisions are not. So is deciding who has the final say in decision-making matters. As such, our ideas about ecclesiology will be uniquely affected by the personal experiences we bring to bear, coupled with the ambitions and fears harbored in our hearts. Some writers have speculated that the Scriptures don’t have much to say about how Christians should exactly structure their churches, so Christians can fashion and refashion their churches to best suit their missiological contexts. I think it’s better—and less speculative about why God did what he did—to remove the normative element from this proposal and say, simply as a matter of sociological description, that our doctrine of the church is at least as likely, if not more likely than other doctrines, to be shaped by our time and place.

After all, is it coincidental that for fifteen hundred years churches moved toward a centralized authority while the world was ruled by Caesars and Charleses? Is it coincidental that democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century and the proliferation of democratic governments that have followed ever since have been roughly matched by a similar proliferation of congregational and other non-connectional forms of church government? Yes, exceptions occurred. But doesn’t it stand to reason that, when a culture becomes accustomed to a particular form of government, churches will more likely adopt those same forms? The same is true of business models. It’s only natural for people to pattern their church after what works at the office. Committees in the forties and fifties? CEO pastors in the nineties? Multi-campus franchises today? Finally, is it terribly surprising that, in the anti-institutional, anti-boundary, anti-authority postmodern West, Christian leaders today would increasingly call for the de-institutionalization of the church?

For these reasons, it’s helpful to consider a writer’s context as he or she writes about the doctrine of the church. In the introduction we considered the call for “less institution” and “more community” among many writers today. The theologian Jürgen Moltmann makes this kind of statement in the early pages of his work on ecclesiology, but he does so staring into the “crisis of the national and established churches in ‘Christian’ countries of long standing,” like Germany’s state Lutheran church. Given what he’s looking at, I’m entirely sympathetic with Moltmann. But what if a writer says the same thing as he is looking at revivalistic and seeker-sensitive Southern Baptist churches, as one Southern Baptist Convention leader does in his popular-level book for pastors? Even though I’m closer to the Baptist author theologically, I’m a little more suspicious.

So tampering with the doctrine of the church is a risky business because it’s particularly susceptible to the realities of enculturation generally and personal ambition specifically. That’s why I want to devote an entire chapter to examining some of the forces that most likely affect how we view the matters of church membership and discipline today. We don’t come to these topics without cultural baggage. We come with a train full.

A Culturally Counterintuitive Proposal

If the doctrine of the church gets wrapped up with the ambitions and fears of the heart, doing a cultural baggage check is far more involved than asking what presuppositions or opinions we might have about the church. It’s a matter of examining fundamental conceptions of love, God, and more. What’s more, our understanding of Christian doctrine—especially ecclesiology—ties into every area of our lives. The fact that my wife enjoys romantic comedies on Saturday nights, or that I like watching action-adventure movies, affects how we gather with the church on Sunday mornings more than we realize. Indeed, the very fact that we will watch movies on Saturday evenings instead of sing songs in the old family parlor by lantern light will affect how we give and receive love to other members of our church.

My main argument in this chapter is that our ideas about love are more idolatrous than we realize. To see this, I want to pick up the storyline that we began in the introduction concerning the Romantic impulse latent within postmodern, Western culture against structures, boundaries, or anything reeking of exclusivism. After all, I trust that most Christian readers will find this book’s principal proposal—that God intends for the exclusivistic practices of church membership and discipline to help (re)define love and beauty for fallen human beings—deeply counterintuitive. The very elements that comprise the DNA of our Western postmodern culture cause most of us to react against anything remotely suggestive of institutionalism or exclusivism, like white blood cells programmatically responding to foreign bacteria. The one boundary most people agree upon these days is the boundary keeping boundary makers out! Most pertinently, it contradicts our ideas about love. We regard love as the very thing that calls us to wield our hammers and knock down the old walls of division rather than build them.

Why does it feel unloving to draw clear borders around a church? Is it? What do we take “love” to be? Are our notions of love in fact biblical? Many writers today say that Christians in the West are overly (1) individualistic. And along with such individualism, they say, comes (2) consumerism, (3) a reluctance to make commitments generally, and (4) a skepticism toward all absolute truth.