I May Come to the Garden Alone, But Stay (in part) Because of Who’s There

Is it okay for conservative Presbyterians to talk about the perseverance of the saints in terms of social psychology? Not exclusively, but at least a little? The idea is that we certainly depend on the work of the Spirit to endure hardships and doubts. But what if the work of the Spirit includes the people around us, in our homes, congregations, friendships, social networks?

Part of what got me thinking about this was an exchange a while ago between Glenn Loury and Steven Teles about the former’s Christian background and how he experienced tensions between the fairly unsophisticated faith of his charismatic congregation and the intellectual cast of his peers at an Ivy League university. This was not simply a question of faith versus reason. It was one of whether Loury knew other academics who were Christian and, by virtue of associations with them, make his own Christian belief plausible. Here’s a link to that conversation.

These thoughts returned after reading Tommie Kidd’s post about Philip Jenkin’s reflections on fertility and religiosity. First Jenkins (via Kidd):

… there is an inverse relationship between the fertility rates of a community and that society’s degree of religious fervor and commitment. High fertility societies, like most of contemporary Africa, tend to be fervent and devout. Conversely, the lower the fertility rate, and the smaller the family size, the greater the tendency to detach from organized or institutional religion. That shift from high to low commonly takes place in a short time, a generation or so. Fertility rates thus supply an effective gauge of trends towards secularization. What follows is a bare sketch, but I will deal with it in much greater detail in a book that I am currently working on–especially on issues of causation and correlation.

The classic example of demographic/religious change is modern Europe. Not coincidentally, the Europe that has become so secular since the 1960s has also, in these same years, pioneered an epochal demographic revolution of historically low fertility rates. Those rates are at their lowest in such countries as Spain and Italy, where they stand today around 1.3 or 1.4, and they have dipped well below that.

(Ahem. What am I missing about Humanae Vitae, Spain, and Italy?)

Then Kidd:

Religious adherence does have a lot to do with kids. In spite of horror stories about how many youth group kids “leave the faith,” people who took a break often come back into church when they get married and start having kids. Anecdotally, I know of parents who readily admit that they only go to church for the sake of their kids. I recently had a conversation with someone who said they would not go to a certain church because of a lack of children and children’s programs. My family would certainly have to re-evaluate our involvement at our current church if we felt like their programming for teenagers was inadequate (thankfully, it is terrific).

I too know of people who became pillars of Reformed congregations after having kids and recovering the faith that they had mainly abandoned during young adulthood.

But the point I am raising goes beyond families and child rearing. It has to do with the people with whom we hang out and how they keep us in the faith. You may have a doubt or two, but because you know other folks for whom these thoughts are not troubling, you may be inclined to go with the flow until you find a resolution. Conversely, without people in your faith tribe who reinforce your beliefs by virtue of their smarts, humor, outlook, sartorial display, or friendship, if you hit a period of doubt, are you more willing to consider unbelief?

Our dependence (if that’s not too strong) on other believers need not be at odds with the work of the Spirit. After all, the Spirit is also behind providence, which are God’s most “holy, wise, and powerful, preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions.”

So it’s not social psychology or pneumatology. It’s both/and, a win win.

Or maybe not.

15 thoughts on “I May Come to the Garden Alone, But Stay (in part) Because of Who’s There

  1. I think this is exactly right. Christianity at it’s core is communal. One of the means of grace is Christian fellowship. Effectively excommunicating one’s self is a good way to ensure that one’s faith will not persist.

    Seems to me that this has important ecclesiastical corollaries. First, we should not errect barriers to the faith. Two, we should strive to keep our fellow congregants in the fold. Third, we should resist the urge to subdivide into ever smaller nano-denominations (congregations).


  2. Excellent post! For most of my Christian life I was a Christian “loner” who basically lived an individual faith, even with regular church attendance. Only in the past few years have I come to understand the real value and vital importance of Christian community.


  3. But what about situations (which are manifold nowadays) where the Christian “community” departs from the faith under pressures from modernism, rationalism, or just plain social justice motives? I’ve always felt, much to the chagrin of most e-e-evangelicals I’ve met, that it’s the confessions that bind a community together. And that’s NOT saying, as is often the accusation here, that confessions trump scripture – they are simply a link to scripture that allows congregations to keep members in the fold through an explicit unity: if you confess them and follow them, you’re welcome; if you disagree, perhaps you should find another church; if you confess them, but live and speak in a deviant way, you may be asked to appear before a group of elders.


  4. Our dependence (if that’s not too strong) on other believers need not be at odds with the work of the Spirit.

    Ditto with you, sbd, vv — not only not at odds, but a fundamental part of His plan and work.

    -Ephesians 4:Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
    -Acts 2 44 And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common;
    -1 Corinthians 12: 7 to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good


  5. Maybe I’m reading it wrong, but the relationship between fertility and religious fervency seems like a direct rather than inverse relationship contrary to the author’s statement. As fervency increases, so does fertility and vice versa.


  6. Hebrews 12: 15 Make sure that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no root of bitterness springs up, causing trouble and by it, defiling many.

    T. David Gordon—“John Murray (and his followers) implicitly believe that the only relation God sustains to people is that of Redeemer . I would argue, by contrast, that God was just as surely Israel’s God when He cursed the nation as when He blessed it. His pledge to be Israel’s God, via the terms of the Sinai administration, committed him to curse Israel for disobedience just as much as to bless her for obedience. In being Israel’s God, he sustained the relation of covenant suzerain to her; he did not bless or curse any other nation for its covenant fidelity or infidelity. In this sense, he was not the God of other nations as he was the God of Israel.” p 120 in “By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification”

    Matthew 2: 3 an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Get up! Take the child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. For Herod is about to search for the child to destroy Him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and His mother during the night, and escaped to Egypt. 15 He stayed there until Herod’s death, ….16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been outwitted by the wise men, flew into a rage. He gave orders to massacre all the male children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, in keeping with the time he had learned from the wise men. …
    19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Get up! Take the child and His mother and go to the land of Israel, because those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21 So he got up, took the child and His mother, and entered the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus[ was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned in a dream, he withdrew to the region of Galilee. 23 Then he went and settled in a town called Nazareth .

    Hebrews 11: 32 And what more can I say? Time is too short for me to tell about those who… shut the mouths of lions, those who quenched the raging of fire, those who escaped the edge of the sword, those who gained strength after being weak…. Some were tortured in order to gain a better resurrection, some were mocked and beaten and put in prison. Others were stoned, some were sawed in two,. Some wandered in deserts, hiding in holes in the ground. All of them had faith, but they did NOT receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for US, so that they would not receive what was promised without us at the same time receiving what was promised

    Isaiah 43: 18 “Do not remember the past events,
    pay no attention to things of old.
    19 Look, I am about to do something new;
    even now it is coming

    2 Corinthians 5: 16 From now on, then, we do not know anyone in a purely human way. Even if we have known Christ in a purely human way, yet now we no longer know Him in this way. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, that person enters the new creation. Old things have passed away, and look, new things have come.

    Hebrews 12: 22 You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God (the heavenly Jerusalem), to myriads of angels in festive gathering, 23 to the assembly of the firstborn whose NAMES have been written in heaven… to Jesus (mediator of a new covenant), and to the sprinkled blood, which says better things than the blood of Abel.



  7. @George In my experience, most congregants are largely ignorant of the content of their confessions. How many OPC members put up nativity scenes with the statuette of Baby Jesus at the center completely oblivious to the WLC prohibition of such images?


  8. sbd – I kinda look at this way: If you are arrested for something, you can’t claim “ignorance of the law” and get away with it. It is certainly the responsibility of the clergy (and the elders) to make sure that their congregants are well catechized and familiar with the confessions (and therefore scripture). But if someone was busy texting or day dreaming during their instruction the blame for their lack of knowledge does not somehow shift to the pastor or elders. Similarly, it’s kind of like a court of law: When you are sworn in as a witness, you are bound to tell the truth as you saw it or know it. If in the trial process it is discovered that you knew something differently that what you testified you may be charged with perjury. I’m not sure what any of this has to do with fertility rates or who we hang out with, but it seems like a way at least get people to commit – at least verbally – to the things they believe and take them seriously. If there is an unwillingness on the part of members to make that kind of commitment nowadays and a hesitancy on the part of those over them to enforce those requirements for membership, it may well explain why Protestantism is in such decline.


  9. Requiring strict subscription for all congregants seems like a bad idea. How long does a convert have to get it all down? Can a congregant gradually come around in the limited atonement or do they get shown exit if they don’t accept it on first hearing about it? My experience is that the scope of agreement gradually increases from regular attender to member to as teacher to ruling elder to teaching elder. That sliding scale is prudent and consistent with the patience and gentleness scripture calls us to adopt when we teach the faith.


  10. VV & sdb: I understand your points and agree to the extent that not everyone in a given congregation will be at the same level of comprehending the truths of scripture the same way with the same depth. However, without some kind of binding agreement about what scripture has to say about soteriology how does one implement safeguards against error (heresies)? Further, even if everyone commits to what the scriptures say as reflected in the confessions, that does not mean that they are all honest about their profession. One of the complaints I’ve heard lately about some of the wacky things young pastors are preaching leads directly back to some of the seminaries. Most of those teaching in these schools have had to sign a statement of some sort that “binds” them to the underlying beliefs of the institutions. When called out about deviant teaching these professors will often say that they signed the statement, but “it had a different meaning to them.” Caca!

    We have plenty of evidence from the apostolic epistles and apocryphal literature that these same kinds of problems already ran rampant in the early church. The best we can hope for is a way to get our congregants to at least be on the same page – and the confessions attempt to do that.


  11. b, sd, I was thinking less of fellowship (which is good but sometimes like eating broccoli) and more of family and friends, who may or may not be in your congregation, but whose belief makes your feel comfortable as a believer.


  12. @George
    I agree that we should be strict about subscription for elders and seminary professors. If “no one” really believes some aspect of the standards, then we should have an open debate about changing the standards rather than just ignore it and hope no one makes a stink about it.


  13. @dgh
    I see. That makes sense too… I seem to recall someone referring to friends and family who believe as creating “plausibility structures”. This is why the decline of nominal cultural Christianity and the RC scandals are bad news for believers in general.


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