The 600 Pound Modern Gorilla in the Church

This review of Jamie Smith’s new book, Awaiting the King, got me thinking about Smith’s understanding of cultural liturgies. Here are some quotes from the book in the review:

There is something political at stake in our worship and something religious at stake in our politics. (3)

Implicit in the practices of Christian worship is an economics, a sociology, a politics. (54)

The church’s worship does not “become” political when it is translated into policy or hooked to partisan agendas. The politics of worship is tied to the renewal of moral agency of the people of God, who are formed to be sent. (59–60)

[I]t is equally important that we see Christian worship as political in nature—not in the sense of being “partisan” or tied to “earthly city” special interest groups, but insofar as it is the enactment of a public ritual centered on an ascended King. (53)

Jonathan Leeman rephrases Smith this way:

Your trip to the mall, your Monday Night Football party, your standing for the national anthem both express your worship, identity, and morality and also shape them, for better or worse. You’re not just a “thinking thing,” you’re a desiring and a loving thing, and these various cultural practices shape your desiring and your loving, like the liturgies at church.

What Smith wants us to take away from the book, then, is more awareness concerning how the world’s liturgies affect and shape our worship and politics, and then to center our political life around the church’s liturgies. Doing so will cause us to take a more ambivalent posture toward public engagement.

What I don’t understand is how women’s ordination escapes Smith’s close reading of cultural liturgies. Is the ordination of women a way of resisting modernity or a capitulation to it? If watching football on Sunday afternoons is part of a liturgical tradition that undermines the sanctification of the Lord’s Day, why isn’t the ordination of women a sign of the church’s capitulation to individualism and egalitarianism? In terms of cultural tropes, after all, women’s ordination closer to shopping at Walmart than it is to supporting the mom and pop shop on Main St.

You don’t need to interpret women’s ordination in terms of orthodoxy or heterodoxy as Smith argued:

Now, no one for a second can deny that such views of sexual morality and marriage have been the historic teaching of the church. The weight of Scripture, tradition, and perhaps even “natural law” have sustained these views and beliefs for millennia. And one could argue that the silence on such matters in, say, Machen or The Fundamentals only reflects what was taken for granted, not what was unimportant. Certainly. And just because they are not matters of creedal definition doesn’t mean they are matters of indifference. The creeds don’t say anything about Christian nonviolence, for example, but that hardly means Christians are therefore free to adopt any posture or position they want if they follow the Prince of Peace.

But it is surely also worth pointing out that conciliar standards of orthodoxy do not articulate such standards. If the adjective “orthodox” is untethered from such ecumenical standards, it quickly becomes a cheap epithet we idiosyncratically attach to views and positions in order to write off those we disagree with as “heretics” and unbelievers. If “orthodox” becomes an adjective that is unhooked from these conciliar canons, then it becomes a word we use to make sacrosanct the things that matter to “us” in order to exclude “them.”

Precisely so. So if you depart from the historic position of the church on ordination, how are you sufficiently worried about cultural liturgies that promote ideas and expectations that make God’s people like the larger society? And if you believe that part of Protestant orthodoxy involves the sufficiency of Scripture, how do you go against clear biblical teaching on ordination and say you are committed to conciliar orthodoxy? How for that matter, are you going to be a reliable ally in disputes about matters of conciliar orthodoxy? The CRC may still confess the Canons of Dort, but will it refuse membership in ecumenical organizations that include Arminians?

11 thoughts on “The 600 Pound Modern Gorilla in the Church

  1. “If “orthodox” becomes an adjective that is unhooked from these conciliar canons, then it becomes a word we use to make sacrosanct the things that matter to “us” in order to exclude “them.””
    I suspect our Catholic friends would disagree. Then where do our Baptist/Evangelical friends who do not recognize the authority of the conciliar canons fit in? Why is the text of the Bible a weaker standard than one’s opinion about what the conciliar standards mean? Then there are the Westminster/TFU standards. Does deviation from these make one a heretic from the reformed standard? It would certainly seem so. I don’t see how it makes sense to talk about “heresy” across different interpretative communities.


  2. Perhaps there is more than one room, and more gorillas than one in every room.
    The Kuyperian conflation of creation and redemption begins with excluding 2k folks from the room.

    “Roper tells of Luther’s career littered with violent enmities and broken friendships with trusted associates, including Luther’s mentor and confessor Johann von Staupitz, his radical colleague Andreas von Carlstadt, and even his ally and successor in Wittenberg, Philipp Melanchthon. No one was immune to the vitriol and bile that poured from his mouth and his pen – he instantly denounced all those who crossed him as agents of Satan.

    Machen—“At present we are inarticulate; we know the riches of the gospel; we wonder at those who have it already at hand and yet are content instead with the weak and beggarly elements. When will God raise us the man of His choice to give His message powerfully to the world? We cannot say. But the truth is not dead, and God has not deserted His Church. Behind all the darkness and perplexity of the present time we can discern, on the basis of the promises of God, the dawn of a better day. There may come a time, sooner than we can tell, when again we cry in the Church, as every redeemed soul cries even now: ‘The old things are passed away; behold they are become new.”
    God Transcendent, pg. 51


  3. Calvin–“The magistrate, if he is godly, will not want to exempt himself from the common subjection of God’s children. It is by no means the least significant part of this for him to subject himself to the church, which judges according to God’s Word ” (Institutes, 4.11.13)

    Leithart ( Defending Constantine, 333): “The Creator made man to participate in and prosecute His wars.”

    Oliver O Donovan teaches us to reject the “John Locke Protestantism” in which sectarians are allowed to practice liturgies that divide them from the general public…..If the sectarians won’t join with the church, then we will be left with nothing but “invisible churches”. Separation of church and nation-state has its place, but the nation-state must be Christian, which means that the nation-state must be governed by the model of Israel.

    Mencken–The product of war is the capacity to accept its risks and horrors undismayed. The non-militarist, i.e., the moralist, the “good” man, forces himself into the immorality of war by convincing himself that it is a moral necessity. Nothing could be more ridiculous. War is never moral. War is the master immorality. War brings out, not what is “best” but precisely what is “worst”— that is, all the savage instincts which morality condemns to the sub-cellar. War enables us to live for a time in unqualified obedience to our natural impulses, to wound, ravage and destroy. To wage a war for a purely moral reason is as absurd s to ravish a woman for a purely moral reason.


  4. Is the OPC consistently producing better American voters than then Christian Reformed or the Southern Baptists?

    Who knows for sure what’s going on in your heart? Maybe even the sacramental gorilla is “only going through the motions”? So why worry about any form of Constantinianism? What could it hurt for any politician to talk about God given rights? REform is not REvolution. Kuyper was of the anti-Revolutionary party.

    PCA pastor Leithart (Against Christianity, p 75) explains why it’s wrong (Marcionite, anabaptist) to stress differences between old and new covenant liturgies. “First, the Reformers had a spiritualizing reading of redemptive history. We still see this today. Listen to Terry Johnson: ‘When Jesus removed the special status of Jerusalem as the place where God was to be worshiped, Jesus abolished all the material forms that constituted the typological OT system.’( p 157, in With Reverence and Awe, ed Hart and Muether).”

    “Second, Israel’s prophets inveighed against empty formalism, and some conclude that from this that the prophets condemned ritual as such.” “Third, the Reformers taught that the Word has priority over the Sacraments. Salvation comes by hearing the Word with faith, not by mechanical adherence to the sacramental system of the church. Sacraments are an appendix to the faith.” “Finally, privatization. Religion is a matter of ideology, ideas and belief. Public rituals can be faked, and so those who tie religion to public rituals tempt us to be hypocrites.”

    Bob Cornwall reviewing Jamie Smith—“Drawing from Augustine James K Smith suggests that Christians are citizens of the heavenly city, who live within the earthly city. This is not, he insists, a dual citizenship. As resident aliens of the earthly city, in Smith’s view, Augustine speaks of resisting and Reordering the cultural liturgies of the earthly city

    “Smith addresses the question of the church as polis, and then moves into a discussion of the influence of Christianity on liberal democracy. He suggests that are many ways in which the church has influenced the development of democracy, he calls these craters of the Gospel. Thus, it is appropriate to engage what is disordered, in order to reorder.

    “Smith’s chapter on pluralism gave me pause, because Smith appears to be suggesting that we should embrace a “Christian Diversity State.” It seems that in his view, there is room for pluralism in the land, but one granted by Christians. ..Even more important is chapter six, which is subtitled “Our ‘Godfather’ Problem.” The point of this very important chapter, in which Smith engages in conversation with Willie James Jennings, an African American theologian who is a graduate of both Calvin College and Fuller Seminary. The focus of the chapter is addressing the reality that Christian liturgy has too often failed to form us into good citizens. That is, one can worship and still be a racist. Thus, the point of the Godfather films, which the Godfather participates in religious ritual, but then engages in criminal behavior. There seems to be a disconnect….Why do we see malformed persons engaging in worship, but living contrary to the Gospel.

    James K Smith—- “part of the pastor-theologian’s political work is to enable the people of God to read the practices of the regnant polis and to exegete the liturgies of the earthly city in which they are immersed.” (p. 195). .

    Now to the one who is better formed (infused definitely with new habits) and really DOES something for her country, reward is not considered as a gift, but as something our actions give evidence we have coming. But to the one who does not act to reform her culture , but believes on HIM who merely makes a soteriological declaration about some of the ungodly becoming righteous in “legal contract” status before God , the action of Christ’s death is credited for righteousness, even though death does not look much like an achievement and even though Christ’s action in the past is no substitute for our actions in the present

    To the one who does not reorder or defend the culture but trusts Him who justifies those whose actions are ungodly, Christ’s death is counted by God as their righteousness.”

    Psalm 2: Why do the nations rebel
    and the peoples plot in vain?
    2 The kings of the earth take their stand,
    and the rulers conspire together
    against the Lord and His Anointed One:
    3 “Let us tear off their chains
    and free ourselves from their restraints.”
    4 The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
    the Lord ridicules them.
    5 Then the Lord speaks to them in His anger
    and terrifies them in His wrath:
    6 “I have consecrated My King
    on Zion, My holy mountain.”


  5. Indeed. Perhaps 900 lb.

    In 1976 I was introduced to both Pearson Integrated Humanities program at the University of Kansas and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. It was as though two seeds were planted, only to germinate forty years later. Eph. 5:14-33 Now, as my fellowship (ECO) formulates creeds beginning later this month, one can only hope and pray that the soon to be defined book of confessions, will not preclude us from eventual union (maybe in decades, or perhaps centuries) with EPC. If significant barriers were erected, I would be forced to evaluate if my conscience would allow me to remain in ECO. May God strengthen my faith.

    The adjective “orthodox” untethered from ecumenical standards? It descends into “what seems the best Christian teaching” in the eyes of those away from the best Christian teachings and traditions. i.e. It can diviate a little or a lot.

    LaMaRaGShu, indeed.


  6. KJ T, that’s a story I’d like to hear about more — the KU/Covenanter connection. Just read a review in First Things by Russ Hittinger about the founder of the KU program. Lots of conversions to Rome.


  7. Yes, many went to Rome. My impression as one who only completed one year of the program, and ended up in engineering, not classical antiquities, was that many of those who went to Rome were either already in that camp or had little grounding.

    As for the Lawrence RP connection, I need to back up a year. When I arrived at KU, I fell in with a bunch of schol-hallers that directed me to an Intervarsity meeting sometime within the first two to four weeks. It was my main fellowship during my KU years. Early in my sophomore year KU IVCF had a new staff/director. He turned out to be a son of a man who had been a friend of my Dad’s family in Pennsylvania (either in Legonier, PA, or more likely Beaver Falls, PA). He was quite influential. After a year and a half or so of trying three or four churches, I decided to go to Steve’s local supporting church. He had completed his masters and spent a year or two in Europe with Frances Schaeffer et. al. at L’ Abrie. So, I sang psalms and did my best to understand Covenanter life. There might have been one or two others from IVCF that did likewise but I don’t think so or I would be able to remember a name, which I can not. Steve’s brother-in-law was the preacher at the Lawrence RP church and he had another brother-in-law who was the preacher at the Topeka RP church.
    I was understanding the basics of their theology, but perhaps not on too deep of a level.

    The psalms were both an inspiration and a difficulty for me. The more one can focus on the Lord’s prayers, i.e. the psalms, the better ones outlook will align with His holiness. The second semester of my freshman year I was fortunate enough to sing in a freshman choir that took part in the midwest U.S. primier of the Chichester Psalms on the Saturday before Easter at Murphy Hall. It was quite a moving experience. (A lot like Westside Story without the actors, but in Hebrew.) After that, it was hard to not grumble about the 17th century psalms “enjoyed” by the covenanters. Perhaps the Lord was trying to teach me humility. I do remember trying to get an explanation in light of Psalm 98, of the antiquity of all of the melodies in the RP psalter. Alas, with no success.

    So there in a nutshell is my connection to the Christ the King Covenanters in Lawrence.


  8. This whole spiel sounds like papal social claptrap. Can I believe without caring about politics? And help my neighbor thru my church versus my congressman or global warming committees or Donald Trump? And worry about my salvation versus who is watching the NFL? Please?


  9. Oh and Doctor Hart,

    Anyone having the hubris to attempt to usurp the rightful position of the Covenanter’s KING JESUS??? Their future would be BURNT TOAST!!!

    For them, its . . . been there, done that.

    Any description of the Covenanters without such a statement would be somehow lacking.


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