How Small Are Your Ten Commandments?

Jake Meador addresses the question of whether to support impeachment of President Trump on the basis of the Decalogue (as the Christianity Today editorial did implicitly). After all, if you argue that Trump lied and broke the 9th commandment, what about other presidents who were not exactly truthful about intelligence and wars?

He goes on to say that the Ten Commandments are the basis of Protestant political reflection:

First, the Ten Commandments are central to traditional Protestant political theology. Indeed, the Reformed political theorist Johannes Althusius says that you destroy all possibility of symbiotic human community if you remove the Ten Commandments from public life. (In as much as many of our arguments about symbiotic communal life today depend on structuring our economy in such ways that human selfishness is ingeniously twisted to promote mutual material prosperity, I think Althusius is almost certainly correct.)

Likewise, many early Protestants, Melanchthon included, would argue that the Ten Commandments are simply a distillation of the Natural Law and so to remove the Ten Commandments from all consideration in public life is to render public life lawless; it is to make the norms of public life equivalent to the wishes of the powerful, who have the ability to wield the power of government to their own ends and who, apart from the law, have no mechanism to limit their power. This, of course, is an echo of Augustine’s much-cited line when he says that kingdoms without justice are but little robberies. Given the state of our republic, I, once again, find this line of thought highly persuasive. Therefore, any attempts to push the Ten Commandments to the center of Protestant political thought is quite welcome, for it is an attempt to return Protestantism to its historical roots.

… The magistrate’s responsibility is to preserve the peace of society through protecting the good and punishing the bad. So while I might sin in my inner life through impure thoughts, coveting, or some other vice, these things are not crimes, properly speaking, because they are strictly internal; if these thoughts are externalized in my conduct then they could become subject to civil law.

But what about the sins of the First Table that, as Protestant political theology teaches, magistrates are supposed to enforce? Don’t people remember the original Westminster Confession?

The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he has authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordainances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he has power to call synods, to be present at them and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God. (23.3)

That might be a good idea — having the magistrate (as long as it’s not Donald Trump or Anthony Weiner) evaluate worship — if the church is struggling with veneration for POTUS:

For Rose Ann Farrell, 74, from Florida, the claim rang true. “I really believe he was sent to us,” she said. “From one to ten, he’s a ten. He lives in a Christian world and we needed a strong Christian, somebody who is not afraid. He speaks for us, has the guts and courage to speak what we want to say. His actions, his intentions, are Christian.”

But is it such a good idea to enforce the First Table of the law on Muslims and Mormons?

Plus, why do Protestants concerned about public life so often reduce the Decalogue to the Second Table? That was not the way old Protestant political theology had it. Not only did the First Table restrict religious expression and worship, but the magistrate — maybe someone like Barack Obama — was supposed to enforce worship and morality. It doesn’t get much older for Protestant political theory than Calvin:

no man has discoursed of the duty of magistrates, the enacting of laws, and the common weal, without beginning with religion and divine worship. Thus all have confessed that no polity can be successfully established unless piety be its first care, and that those laws are absurd which disregard the rights of God, and consult only for men. Seeing then that among philosophers religion holds the first place, and that the same thing has always been observed with the universal consent of nations, Christian princes and magistrates may be ashamed of their heartlessness if they make it not their care. We have already shown that this office is specially assigned them by God, and indeed it is right that they exert themselves in asserting and defending the honour of him whose vicegerents they are, and by whose favour they rule. Hence in Scripture holy kings are especially praised for restoring the worship of God when corrupted or overthrown, or for taking care that religion flourished under them in purity and safety. (Institutes, IV, 20. 9)

I understand Meador wants to promote the common good and to do so as a self-conscious Protestant. I don’t understand, though, in a nation that prizes freedom — even religious freedom — how that common good is going to come from the Decalogue if the whole of it is in view.

Presbyterian Sex

Decency and order come to mind but I am not sure you want to create a bumper sticker about how Presbyterians have sex.

Reading Emily Suzanne Johnson’s new book, This is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right (Oxford University Press), took me to quotations from Marabel Morgan’s Total Woman and Tim and Beverly LaHaye’s Act of Marriage. Morgan wrote in 1973:

For super sex tonight, respond eagerly to your husband’s advances. Don’t just endure. . . . He may enjoy making love even when you’re a limp dishrag, but if you’re eager, and love to make love, watch out! If you seduce him, there will be no words to describe his joy. Loving you will become sheer ecstasy. (75)

That’s not very graphic, but it’s way more explicit than anything that H. L. Mencken printed and that subsequently landed him in a Boston jail under the charge of publishing obscenity.

But the LaHayes discussed the subject in ways that likely forced parents to hide their book, Act of Marriage (1976), from adolescent boys:

The husband who would be a good lover will not advance too quickly but will learn to enjoy loveplay. He will not only wait until his wife is well-lubricated, but reserve his entrance until her inner lips are engorged with blood and swollen at least twice their normal size.

Yowza!

Morgan was some kind of fundamentalist, a graduate from Florida Bible College. The LaHayes were Southern Baptists (Tim is deceased, Beverly is still alive). That kind of discussion of sexual intimacy is not what I learned was fitting in the Baptist fundamentalist home and congregation in which I grew up.

Meanwhile, Tim and Kathy Keller arguably discussed briefly and more openly than I would care to do their sexual history, but the theme is restraint:

Kathy and I were virgins when we were married. Even in our day, that may have been a minority experience, but that meant that on our wedding night we were not in any position to try to entice or impress one another. All we were trying to do was to tenderly express with our bodies the oneness we had first begun feeling as friends and which had then grown stronger and deeper as we fell in love. Frankly, that night I was clumsy and awkward and fell asleep anxious and discouraged. Sex was frustrating at first. It was the frustration of an artist who has in his head a picture or a story but lacks the skills to express it. (Meaning of Marriage, 79-80)

That is still TMI for my own comfort. But it is a very different picture of sexual intimacy than what the fundamentalist Morgan and Baptist LaHayes presented.

Which raises the question: if you can be a Presbyterian in the bedroom, why not in worship?

Has the Bible Become So Common that People Don’t Go to Church for It?

One of the questions I raised in my review of John Fea’s book on the American Bible Society was whether making the book so widely available, even more common than Wifi, has undermined its uniqueness:

What happens when you take something that is special and make it ubiquitous? In other words, to what degree did ABS operations render a holy book trivial? Hollywood, after all, lost its glamour when Americans could watch movies not only in palatial theaters but also on television in their living rooms. Perhaps, as well, this riddle is connected to the nationalistic dimensions of ABS history. By linking the Bible’s greatness to American exceptionalism, the American Bible Society was attempting to counter how ordinary the Bible would become through over-distribution.

The recent Pew survey on what people look for in going to church underscores this point. Do people go to church to understand God’s word — because it is in Scripture that he reveals himself — or are they looking for ways to be a better Christian that may or may not involve understanding Scripture? They may say that look for a church with good preaching, but the content of that preaching is not in view in the survey:

“Of the country’s largest religious traditions, evangelical Protestants are among the most likely to say they have looked for a new congregation,” Pew wrote. “For Catholics, this may reflect that choosing a new congregation (after a move, for example) can be as straightforward as determining which Catholic parish they reside in, removing the need for a more extensive search. Members of the historically black Protestant tradition move to new communities less often than other Protestants, which may be one reason they also are less likely to have ever looked for a new congregation.”

When evaluating a new church, top-quality sermons are the most important thing both evangelicals (94%) and historically black Protestants (92%) are looking for. They also want to feel welcomed by leaders (82%).

Evangelicals put slightly more emphasis than historically black Protestants in the style of worship services (80% vs. 76%) and location (69% vs. 62%).

Is that preaching or ministering God’s word or merely the pastor’s thought about religious matters in a sermon?

But if Glenn Paauw thinks Christians need to encounter bigger passages of Scripture than the McNuggets they generally read for personal edification, wouldn’t a worship service or two on Sunday with exposition of Scripture be a good place to start?

First of all, I mean it literally; we need to increase the size of our Bible readings. Start reading the words around your cherry-picked passages. Then you’re immediately confronted with context. If you’re reading in Philippians—“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”—then you’ll start reading about the situation that Paul was in when he wrote those words. You’ll get a better understanding about the kinds of things he may be able to do in this situation. You won’t take it as an absolute promise about any endeavor you can envision, like winning a football game. So read bigger passages. I’m a big fan of reading entire books of the Bible.

We have a diminished view of Scripture in another way, especially in the West. We see the story as this individualistic, go-to-heaven-when-I-die story instead of a restorative story about the renewal of all creation and my place within that larger narrative. That’s the bigger, glorious vision that the Scriptures give us.

Going to church for the word read and preached is a two-fer — worship your maker and hear his word.

From DGH on The Death of Prayer Meetings Submitted on 2015 05 12 at 10:52 am

Mark, you are so good at quoting from historical figures that I’m a little taken aback by your throwaway reference to John Calvin. Since he had preaching services during the week, I’m surprised to learn that he advocated a mid-week prayer meeting: “Church history also gives us many good examples (e.g., Calvin in Geneva).”

Here’s a question, though. Say you are a congregation that already has two prayer meetings. Each one takes place on Sunday, one in the morning and one in the evening. These instances of corporate prayer, as you may have guessed, are part of the sanctification of the Lord’s Day. Are you advocating that we add another, for the sake of sanctifying Wednesday night (sure hope it doesn’t conflict with Hockey Night in Canada)?

Or what if you are part of a congregation that only has one service on the Lord’s Day — in the morning, for instance? Do you think a church should first start an evening Sunday service before adding a mid-week prayer meeting? Or is corporate prayer so important that Christians should leave their homes and offices for it, even though they may already pray in those non-church settings alone or with other Christians?

I am having trouble figuring out why you might advocate corporate prayer the way you do. For instance, you say that one reason is that people are too busy. But that’s the same argument that people use against a second service on Sunday. I can well understand that people have vocations that make attending church functions like Bible study, youth group, even catechism difficult. I can also well understand a session that is reluctant to add to a church member’s burdens, someone who already is committed to and practices keeping the Lord’s Day holy.

I don’t know why you don’t see the potential burden unless you don’t understand the doctrine of vocation. Isn’t it Reformed to think that someone is actually serving God by carrying out their civil, secular, professional, and family duties? If they perform those tasks on the Lord’s Day, then Houston we have a problem. But if they honor their callings during the week and cant’ attend a church function to which officers cannot attach a “thus saith the Lord,” are you really suggesting that to be truly holy and pious people need to pray together at the church building (instead of with their families or over the course of their work days)?

Maybe the problem is that you don’t appreciate the importance of Lord’s Day worship and week-day vocation.

Or maybe you simply have forgotten that all of life is worship (thanks to our southern correspondent):

The New Testament model for worship is not just about singing praises. It is living a life of service. It’s about far more than music. It’s helping your neighbor bring in the groceries, providing for the elderly, taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves, helping the poor and needy—these are all examples of biblical worship.

Actually, I’d prefer that you not follow this Framean understanding of every-square-inch liturgy, but you may want to recognize that your version of pietism is out of whack with the neo-Calvinist high intellect pietism. For neo-Cals, missing a mid-week prayer service is no problem since a believer must 24-7 be engaged in some means of grace. As you yourself have argued, grace can be a fairly expansive category that extends to God’s work of creation and providence. So if someone at church who is following Kuyper misses a prayer meeting because they are redeeming culture by watching Downton Abbey, which seventeenth-century theologian are you going to quote against them?

No Rest, No Worship

I wish Bethany Jenkins would try to find the work for which she trained in law school. To graduate from Columbia, she must be bright. But I’m not sure she has captured the high points of Reformed theology and worship. I think that means that I also wish the Gospel Allies would not give spiritual cheerleaders a platform. (Unlike Las Vegas, what the Kellers enable doesn’t stay in but spreads all over.)

The post that has my jaws clenched today (thanks to our southern correspondent) is one in which Bethany calls for worship that reflects all the ways that God is glorified, especially the work Christians do outside the worship service:

For churches, the question is not just, What is worship?, but also, What kinds of worship should we experience and model when we gather together? Shying away from offering any particular rules, Carson casts a high vision for corporate worship: “Work for a massive display of the glory of God and character and attributes of God.”

That display is not massive, but miniscule, when we limit it to include only work that contributes to our worship services. If we only have church activities in mind when we sing, “Come and see what God has done” (Ps. 66:5), then we miss out on that “massive display” of God’s glory, character, and attributes.

If Ms. Jenkins ever watched The Wire or a Coen Brothers movie she might have a clue about how self-serving this talk of massive displays of God’s glory seems. She is close to saying, even though I’m sure she doesn’t intend it, that worship should be about what WE do during the week. If worship doesn’t expand to include our work and how we think about it, we will miss God’s glory. If we only hear about and meditate on — oh, say — the creation of the world, the call of Abraham, the exodus, the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension, our worship doesn’t capture the big picture of God’s glory. Sure enough, I love it when people compliment me for the books (all about me) I’ve written. I even like it when they talk about the ways (some about me) my writing has helped them understand the gospel or the work of the church. But I thought the point of worship was not all about me. My understanding of Reformed worship was that it was theocentric.

The self-servingness of Jenkins and company’s understanding of work is especially evident when she quotes the formal words of commission that folks at Redeemer NYC give to people who work in professions:

In a world filled with brokenness, confusion, darkness, mourning and loneliness, God has called his people to bring the healing light of the gospel into every sector of our city through every profession, institution, and calling. There is no inch of this city where his gospel cannot redeem.

If you work in mid-town Manhattan, drink a lot of expensive coffee, and roam from wi-fi hotspot to hotpsot, these words may give you the gumption to go out and get things done. But if you’re a pig farmer, or regularly milk cows, or clean toilets, or collect subway tokens, the inspiration that works on mid-town Manhattanites may not be your cup of chai.

Entirely missing from this bloated view of work is the Sabbath setting for worship. The Lord’s Day is one reserved for rest and worship and as the Heidelberg Catechism explains, that rest has soteriological significance:

Question 103. What does God require in the fourth commandment?

Answer: First, that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained; and that I, especially on the sabbath, that is, on the day of rest, diligently frequent the church of God, to hear his word, to use the sacraments, publicly to call upon the Lord, and contribute to the relief of the poor. Secondly, that all the days of my life I cease from my evil works, and yield myself to the Lord, to work by his Holy Spirit in me: and thus begin in this life the eternal sabbath.

One of the arresting points of redemptive history I am learning from a Sunday school series on the Sabbath taught ably by our pastor is that the Sabbath was almost nowhere to be seen between the creation week and the giving of the law at Sinai. The patriarchs knew no real Sabbath and Israel did not enter into meaningful rest until the saints entered the promised land where they could worship in the holy of holies.

If Ms. Jenkins paid more attention to the Bible and its teaching about worship, rest, and the Lord’s Day, she might reconsider her views about massive displays of God’s glory. A loan, a contract, a consultation, a piece of legislation, a foundation grant, an interview with a reporter might look important if you don’t rest from your labors but carry thoughts of them into worship. But if you take a break and contemplate the remarkable work of God in redeeming a sinful world, you may be able to discern the difference between temporal and eternal things.

Preparation for Worship

I had to scratch my head after reading this one:

Why are you part of a church community? Why are you a member of a church? Why do you go to the public gatherings of the church on Sunday morning? Broadly speaking there can be two reasons: You go for the good of yourself, or you go for the good of others. There is a world of difference between the two.

When I go to church for the good of me, I am free to be shy and introverted, free to keep to myself and free to be consistent with who and what I naturally am. I can hide in a corner or bury myself in a book. I can hope that others will come to me and pay attention to me. I can come for the service, sing some songs, hear a sermon, and slip out seconds after the final amen. I can do whatever is good and comfortable for me. I can hate that stand and greet time because of how it makes me feel, because of how it forces me shake hands with people who have colds, because of how it prompts me to judge others as less sincere than myself.

When I go to church for the good of others, I have no right to be shy and introverted, and no right to keep to myself. I have to die to myself and so much of who and what I naturally am. I can’t hide in a corner or bury myself in a book, but I need to seek out others and pay attention to them. I can come for the service, sing some songs, hear a sermon, and enjoy it all. But when I hear that final amen, I am right back to seeking out others and looking for ways to serve them.

I used to think — silly me — that the point of going to church was not for me or for my fellow members but to obey the first commandment: know and acknowledge God to be the only true God and our God, and to worship and glorify him accordingly. Maybe Mr. Challies simply took that reason for granted and was interested more in “body life.”

Still, one of the reasons for the worship wars and the silliness that God’s people have had to endure for the last 35 years (though in many instances they wanted it and got it good and hard) is that Christians seemed to forget that worship was chiefly an instance of entering God’s presence and honoring and praising him as creator and redeemer — you know, assembling with all the saints (living and dead) and angels at Mt. Zion. If you go with that understanding, you may actually come across as one of God’s frozen chosen since you may be thinking more about how to please God (and worried about offending him) than about whether the pastor and church members were friendly.

I mean, for all of that theocentric rhetoric of the New Calvinists, their hugs, sighs, and embraces send a different signal.

Culture the Basis of Cult?

A frequent claim in conservative intellectual circles is that cult is the basis of culture. T. S. Elliot Eliot may have been the first to assert and Russell Kirk may have picked it up from Elliot Eliot, though Christopher Dawson was also likely responsible for introducing this notion among conservatives in the U.S. The problem with this assertion is that in the Garden before the fall, we see no explicit forms of worship. Adam didn’t preach to Eve. They didn’t sing Psalms in corporate worship. And of course, they did not make sacrifices the way the Israelites would. Why? The introduction of sin.

After the fall, God’s presence is no longer with the human race but is restricted to specific, holy places. Meanwhile, to enter into God’s presence requires fallen saints to take sin into account, either by sacrificing bulls and other barnyard animals, or by confessing sin and observing Christ’s death, the ultimate sacrifice, in the Lord’s Supper.

In other words, you could argue that the fall introduced worship into human history as we (generally) now know it.

This also means that worship before the fall was essentially synonymous with what we now regard as work — specifically, gardening. If the Garden was the place where God was specially present with his people, Eden was also a temple in which Adam’s tending and keeping the land was a kind of priestcraft. According to Zach Keele and Mike Brown (Sacred Bond):

Eden is a place where God dwells . . . . By definition in the ancient Near East, temples were houses of gods, dwellings of the gods. To go to the temple was to draw near the presence of the gods. . . . This holy temple setting, then, means that Adam was a priest. Only priests, along with their guilds of servants, lived and worked in temple precincts in the ancient world. One had to be consecrated as holy to live in a holy place. . . . In fact, the tasks of serving and guarding given to Adam in 2:15 are the most common Hebrew verbs used for what the Aaronic priests and the Levites did in tabernacle and temple (Num. 1:53, 3:7-10) (51-52)

This way of understanding the relationship between worship and work before the fall not only upsets the conservative shibolleth about cult and culture, but it may also resolve the tension that Anthony Bradley noticed about Christians looking for the gospel in the first chapters of Genesis:

There are two prominent schools of thought within conservative Protestant circles that continue to clash over what Christianity is about because their starting points comprise different biblical theological visions. . . . One begins by constructing an understanding of the Christian life orientated around Genesis chapters 1 and 2 and the other begins with Genesis chapter 3. A Gen 1 and 2 starting point views the gospel as means of human beings having a realized experience of what their humanity was meant to be and to do, whereas a Gen. 3 orientation sees the gospel as a means of saving us from our humanity in preparation for the eschaton (heaven). . . .

For example, when one begins with Genesis 1 and 2, as one well-known Protestant pastor opines, we could understand the gospel this way: “Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.” As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Theodore G. Stylianopoulos reminds us that the gospel is “the good news of God’s saving work in Christ and the Spirit by which the powers of sin and death are overcome and the life of the new creation is inaugurated, moving towards the eschatological glorification of the whole cosmos.” Because the entire creation has been drawn into the mutiny of the human race, (Rom 8:19-24) redemption must involve the entire creation, as Michael Williams argues. In a Genesis 1 and 2 framework, everything matters in God’s redemptive plan. . . .

On the other hand, when the gospel begins with Genesis 3, as the conceptual starting point, one might articulate the gospel as: “the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again, eternally triumphant over all his enemies, so that there is now no condemnation for those who believe, but only permanent rejoicing.” As such, because of Christ’s redemptive work, argues this view, “there is nothing that separates those who believe from their Creator and all the benefits that He promises in him.” What matters for the church and the Christian life is keeping the issues of sin and salvation front and center (John 3:16, Eph 2:8-10).

I myself am much more drawn to the Genesis 3 understanding of Christianity. Christ’s work makes no sense without the fall. I know that is not the point as Bradley explains it. But neo-Calvinists in their cosmological understanding of redemption tend to discount the effects of sin (I believe) to the point that they say silly things about redeeming television by our efforts (of course, blessed by the Holy Spirit) — as if television had sinned or believers could save anything.

But if part of the point of God’s creating man was to fellowship with a creature created in the image of God, and if that fellowship was to involve a real presence in which God resided with his people, the idea of saving the cosmos again doesn’t make much sense. After the fall, God is present is specific and special ways with his people but is absent in the way that he was present in the Garden. At the same time, the new heavens and new earth promise a place where God will again be present with his people in a specific and special way. The only harbingers of that redemptive presence between the fall and consummation are not a great symphony or expert plumbing but when Christians gather in God’s presence in the holy of holies for worship. The cosmological understanding of salvation, in other words, does not do justice to what happens in all of Genesis 1-3.

If culture is the basis of cult, then conservatives and neo-Calvinists need to reboot their understanding of culture.

The First Law of 2K Dynamics

The more committed you are to a high view of the church (teaching, worship, and government), the less concerned you are about political causes and cultural transformation.

This law came back to me after reading a post that commended an article by John Frame, who was yet again singling out Mike Horton. At one point, Frame writes:

[Horton] brings up the distinction between the church and civil society. But one can surely acknowledge such a distinction without disavowing attempts of the former to influence the latter. So far as I know, nobody in this discussion thinks that the state should administer sacraments, or, again, that the church should lead Christians into armed warfare. So to bring up these issues is to make a straw man argument.2. Horton asks whether the kingdom of God is a culture, created by man, or God’s sovereign action? Certainly the latter. Again, I know of no evangelical who thinks otherwise. Does this distinction mean that we should take a passive stance, waiting for God to deal with social evils, rather than seeking to alleviate them by our own resources? Scripture never draws this sort of conclusion. The sovereignty of God never excludes human responsibility in this way.

Frame’s objections to Horton — no one is actually denying the distinction between the church and the wider culture — actually put Frame in the hot seat. The reason is that he is well on the record for having worship services that are fully accessible to people who aren’t in the church. In which case, the anti-2k critics are not as firm in their distinctions between the church and the world as Frame thinks. For 2k’s critics, the goal is a Christianized culture, maybe not as moral as the church, but more so than what you get in a secular arrangement. And for these same critics, the church domesticates its distinct teachings and practices to be open to a wider part of the community. The relationship appears to be that as the church lifts the boat of culture, the church also lowers itself several notches below (in this case) Reformed ideals.

2Kers, on the other hand, have no trouble separating the church’s standards from those of the culture. The two are distinct. When the lines blur, you get New School Presbyterianism — nationalistic, revivalistic and evangelistic, and moralistic. When they don’t, you get the kingdom of heaven, the means of grace, and the gospel.

No Assembly Required

Another batch of back issues from the Nicotine Theological Journal has been posted. The July 1999 issue proves just how cutting edge the NTJ is. Well before Keller or Piper were debating multi-site congregations, other technologically driven pastors were conceiving of an entirely different understanding of gathering with the saints and angels. Here is an excerpt:

“I will tell of thy name to my brethren,” David vows to God in Psalm 22. “In the midst of the assembly I will praise thee. From thee comes my praise in the great assembly; I shall pay my vows before those who fear Him.” David understands that redemption has consequences. His praise must not be private or domestic, but it must be public, in the presence of fellow God-fearers. Not until we worship solemnly with the saints do we express adequately our gratitude to God for our deliverance.

Unlike the psalmist, evangelical Christians today seem terribly confused as to why they are to gather for worship. Consider this metaphor, popularized by Chuck Swindoll. Worship is still important, we are assured, and it is as vital for the church today as the huddle is for a football team, for in both cases that is where the players gather together to learn the plays. The flaw in this metaphor is obvious. The huddle is not the action in football. It is the lull in the action, a moment so uneventful that the well-conditioned TV viewer can use it to race to replenish his beer. So to compare worship to a football huddle is to encourage the mistaken notion that the real world is “out there,” and that the church gathered for worship is somehow something less.

As bad as that is, far worse yet is the increasingly popular conviction that Christians can engage the world with a no-huddle offense. As far as assembling together, more and more are encouraged merely to phone it in. This is not entirely new. As early as the 1950s, dial-a-prayer services were as popular as phoning for the time or the weather or for movie announcements. In a 1964 article in Christianity Today, many pastors were extolling the efficiency of this automated ministry. Said one, it was the only way he could talk to 200 people a day. What is more, his church could minister this way to people at two in the morning without waking up the pastor. Beyond efficiency, its popularity owed to parishioners enjoying anonymity without feeling lonely.

AND THEN CAME THE INTERNET. Any surfer knows that religious communities are thriving in cyberspace. We visited one recently, the First Church of Cyberspace (found at “Godweb.com”). Characteristic of an age that cannot distinguish between profession and self-promotion, the website opens not with a description of its beliefs but with positive comments from recent visitors. Guest book kudos come from Baptist, Presbyterian, and Universalist circles, from as far away as Germany and Japan. Much of the enthusiasm is brief and to the point: “Wow!” or “Cool!” Perhaps what impresses visitors most is the non-fundamentalist character of First Church. From the church’s home page, the surfer is but a couple of hyperlinks from what is euphemistically described as “Adult Christianity.”

OF COURSE, A CYBERCHURCH IS admittedly unconventional, and that is its great advantage, boast its afficionados. One church website designer has claimed that “all elements of congregational life can be experienced through the Internet,” including the sacraments (don’t ask). And all the while – and here is the real virtue – it is in the “real world.” By contrast, a church gathered traditionally is mired in the past, with members who are missing the action. We know of one Presbyterian megachurch that recently appointed to its large staff a “Minister of Technology.” This minister is urging his church to make room for technology, lest it become “too painfully obvious that we have become completely irrelevant.” (He omits the other painful reality of ecclesiastical technophobia: that ministers of technology will find themselves unemployed.)

This then is the church in the technological age – no assembly required. We can forgo the gathering, because technology has conquered the restraints of time and space. One megachurch in Central Florida is explicitly making this claim. Recently this church changed its name from a “Community Church” to “a Church Distributed,” because it had discovered a “new form” of the church (which will eventually become the norm, it predicts). . . .

Why Not Simply Cite God's Law?

Our Virginia correspondent sent word of a reminder from the deities of the NFL to churches about legal and illegal Super Bowl festivities:

(1) Churches may only show the game on equipment that they regularly use for worship. They may not bring in additional rented audio-visual equipment.
(2) Churches may not charge admission. They are, however, allowed to take donations to defray party expenses.
(3) Churches may not record or further retransmit the broadcast of the game.

Apparently the separation of church and state does not extend to football and church.

If the NFL had simply reminded Christians of the need to keep the Lord’s Day holy, they could have cut through the fine print. But this way, the footballers get the best of both kingdoms (which is not a good thing if you are certain church in Laodicia).