Leithart’s Eucharistic Politics

Last week, I wrote a post at the Political Theology blog entitled “Demystifying Eucharistic Politics,” in which I sought to offer a typology of how the Eucharist might and might not function “politically.”  The post cited both Peter Leithart’s recent Between Babel and Beast and with perhaps the most well-known book on this theme, William Cavanaugh’s 1998 Torture and Eucharist, but I only had space for the most cursory interaction with these texts.  I would like to use this post to build on the arguments I developed there in more direct engagement with Leithart’s book, of which I am working on a review.

In a nutshell, the post last week argued that much of the talk of “eucharistic politics” rests on a serial equivocation between the Church as polis and the Church as paradigm or pedagogue, between the Eucharist as a form of genuinely political action and the Eucharist as an inspiration, resource, or model for Christians as they pursue other actions that we would normally recognize as “political.”  Proponents of eucharistic politics (of whom, I should confess, I have often been one) seem to want the rhetorical oomph of the former without actually committing themselves to its somewhat unsettling consequences.  For the most part, what they want could be better described under the latter heading, in which the Eucharist helps to form Christians for a Christ-like mode of political engagement.  

However, resolving this ambiguity is not as simple as pointing out that these proponents are not using the word “politics” literally.  Because at times, they do seem to be; or at least, to be asking for rather more than a pedagogical Eucharist could provide.  But what exactly?

One of the great strengths of Leithart’s Between Babel and Beast  is its ability to telescope very large arguments and claims into a very small space.  But this can also be a weakness, or at least a frustration, and this is particularly so on the theme of eucharistic politics.  The theme is clearly a crucial one for Leithart, for when he comes to offer his so-what-do-we-do-now prescriptions in the very terse Conclusion, it is the first of his three proposals (the other two are “renounce the heresy of Americanism” and “risk martyrdom”).  Here’s what he says about it:

“American churches need to commemorate the final sacrifice of Jesus in regular eucharistic celebrations, and they need to work out the practicalities of a eucharistic politics—the end of sacred warfare, the formation of an international ecclesial imperium that includes all Christians, the cultivation of the virtues of martyrs, the forging of bonds of brotherhood that would inhibit Christians from shedding Christian blood.” (152).

Now this is a fairly restrained call, one that operates, it would seem, almost entirely within the paradigmatic-pedagogical conception that I outlined in the PT post.  In this context, the phrase “eucharistic politics” seems clearly to mean something like “a politics which draws its inspiration from the practice of the Eucharist, and what the Eucharist has to teach us” rather than treating the eucharistic rite as itself a political one.  Before delving into these practices, though, I should note that the first clause suggests something different, what we might call the proclamatory function of the Eucharist.  This was a category that I did not adequately distinguish in my PT post, but which is perhaps one of the most important things that people have in mind when they speak of eucharistic politics.  The Eucharist “proclaims the Lord’s death till he comes,” we are told, and in this statement are two points of political significance.  First, by proclaiming Christ’s crucifixion, we remember the injustice of worldly powers, and remember how Christ overcame that injustice with love and self-sacrifice.  Second, by proclaiming that he will come again, we remember that he will come in judgment, that unjust worldly powers will be dashed to pieces before him.  In this way, the enactment of the Eucharist represents a kind of prophetic protest against unjust powers, a reminder that Christ has unmasked them and disclosed a different kind of kingdom.  This function of the Eucharist is more directly political inasmuch as it can be aimed in fact at rulers and authorities, intending to get their attention and convict them (this might be hard to imagine in our American context, but in struggles against some Latin American dictatorships, for instance, the church sometimes used public celebrations of the Eucharist in this way).  But what is important to note about this function, and what ties it quite closely to the more straightforwardly pedagogical function, is that it is not ex opere operato; it is not self-interpreting.  Missionaries could not enter a pagan land, march up to the local warlord who was oppressing the people, break bread and drink wine together, and expect any reaction other than bewilderment.  In this as in all else, the Eucharist (as the Reformers were keen to emphasize) depends on the Word for its power.  Only by celebrating the Eucharist and proclaiming the Word along with it can we expect our “commemoration of the final sacrifice of Jesus” to have any prophetic value.  

But let’s get back to those practical prescriptions now.  They are frustratingly vague as stated here, and although the rest of the book provides some elucidation, it isn’t all that much, as we shall see.  The Eucharist teaches us to end sacred warfare by pointing us to the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ the victim, reminding us that we fight now only as a necessary means of protecting the innocent and restraining injustice, not as agents of divine vengeance, purging the world of wickedness.  Clearly, this is a means by which the Eucharist may impact Christian approaches to politics; but equally clearly, this will not happen automatically, but will require careful teaching and discipleship to help us understand and practice these implications.  On the other hand, it is hard to know what to make of the second clause, “The formation of an international ecclesial imperium that includes all Christians,” although this is a recurrent motif of the book.  Something rather like this did once exist—it was called the Catholic Church, and in the medieval period, it took the language of “imperium” quite seriously, claiming to exercise authority over all the kings of the earth.  But Leithart is a Protestant, so presumably he means nothing like this.  Perhaps the most plausible reading of this clause is as another way of stating the fourth clause: “the forging of bonds of brotherhood that would inhibit Christians from shedding Christian blood.”  In other words, although we in fact only celebrate the Eucharist with a fairly small group of local believers, it is a sign and seal of our union, through our mutual union with Christ, with all Christians all around the world.  The consciousness of this brotherhood will make us think twice about casually going to war with other Christians and sending our sons (and as of this week, I might add, our daughters) to kill them.  (I should not in passing that I have problems with the implication which one might draw from this and other passages in the book that a Christian could never justly kill another Christian in war, but as he never says that straightforwardly, I’ll leave that be.)  Again, this is clearly a means by which the Eucharist may inform our political practice, but again, it does so only as a pedagogue illuminated by the Word.  This is true also for the last item, “the cultivation of the virtues of martyrs.”  By proclaiming Christ’s fearless death before tyrants, the Eucharist can help strengthen in us the faith and courage to be prepared to follow Christ unto death, a death that faithful opposition to unjust rulers may entail (although we in America are probably not going to find ourselves at that point for quite some time yet, Leithart’s somewhat melodramatic rallying-cries notwithstanding).  Again, though, the celebration of the Eucharist may prepare us to be martyrs, but it is not itself an act of martyrdom.  

Having thoroughly analyzed this concluding prescription, what can we say about the other passages in which the Eucharist crops up?  There are six, by my count.

First, page 40.

“The fulfilled Israel of the church, by contrast, was founded on the victim not the victimizer.  It was a city founded by crucified and risen Abel rather than Cain.  Its ritual center was not a repetitive round of bloody sacrifices, but the memorialization of the sacrifice-ending sacrifice of Jesus, celebrated with wine rather than blood.  With this founding and this ritual, ecclesial imperialism was sure to be a peculiar conquest.  The establishment of the ecclesial imperium did not immediately end war.  It did not even end war for Christians.  But it brought a decisive end to holy war, the sacrificial prosecution of war, the legitimation of imperial regeneration through violence.  The church’s sacrificial practice imitated that of Jesus, as willing martyr-vitims mixed their blood with His.  Renewal came through violence suffered, not violence enacted.  Force continued to be used, and could be used justly; but force was de-sacralized because de-sacrificed.”

Here we find a fuller exposition of the logic behind Leithart’s calls for both “the end of sacred warfare” and the “cultivation of the virtues of martyrs.”  The Eucharist teaches us to die for Christ, not to kill for Christ, and if faithfully followed, this will transform the practice of Christian politics.  Leithart is claiming in this section that in fact this is exactly what happened, and early Christendom did do away with sacred warfare.  This seems a rather romanticized portrait of the early Middle Ages, which seem in fact to have witnessed plenty of officially-sanctioned killing in the name of Christ.  But it is probably truth that the Church’s witness was effectual to some extent in changing attitudes toward violence during this time—as indeed it has been since then, I would argue.  My only complaint here, besides the romanticized history, is that this passage obscures the extent to which the Church did this by its teaching, not merely by celebrating the eucharistic ritual, as if it was some ex opere operato instrument of peacemaking.

By far Leithart’s fullest discussion of eucharistic politics comes on pages 60-61, which we will quote in full here

“At the center of this political community was a new ritual, the quasi-sacrifice of the Eucharist.  Through participation in the Eucharist, the members of the church were formed into a more-than-human community.  It was a human society constituted by its more common participation in the living God-man, Jesus Christ.  Christian belief in ‘a mystical body cohering around a godhead’ was unprecedented in Western political thought, and by this concept ‘Christianity helped father the idea of a community as a non-rational, non-utilitarian body bound by a meta-rational faith, infused by a mysterious spirit taken into the members; a spirit that not only linked each participant with the center of Christ, but radiated holy ties knitting each member to his fellows.’  By this concept, ‘The Christian community was not so much an association as a fusion of spirits, a pneumatic being.’  [Wolin, Politics and Vision, 119] Eucharist was seen as the sacramental embodiment of the fulfilled project of divine imperium that began with Abraham.  The community gathered at the eucharistic meal ‘crossed all ethnic borders’ and achieved a ‘unity that was not abstract, nor was it made by coercion or force,’ yet constituted a depth of ‘political [61] allegiance’ that had never before been achieved.  In the Eucharist the church ritually enacted ‘a transcendent vision that not even the most expansive understanding of “empire” could have competed with.’ [Pecknold, Christianity and Politics, 23-24.]

“When Constantine gave permanent legal recognition to the church, he was implicitly, more or less consciously, acknowledging the the church was a true and independent imperium in the midst of the Roman empire.  Not the empire, but the church was the true city, an outpost of a heavenly imperium.  Constantine simultaneously suppressed traditional Roman sacrifice, and (again, more or less consciously) placed the Christian eucharistic sacrifice at the center of Roman order.  Sacrifice is an inescapable feature of political order, and the relocation of sacrifice, the public recognition of the Eucharist as the one true sacrifice, is one of the foundations of Western Christendom and Byzantine order.  Public acknowledgement of the eucharistic sacrifice went hand in hand with the early medieval notion that loyalty to the church, as well as to local communities and families, transcended loyalty to the state.  Where your sacrifices are, there will your heart be also.  By the regular remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice, the church celebrated the end of sacrifice, the end of sacralized politics and sacralized war.”

In the latter paragraph, we find the now-familiar theme of Eucharist-as-end-of-sacred-violence, but this passage also gives us a new theme, one that ties in with the references in the conclusion to “the formation of an international ecclesial imperium that includes all Christians” and “the forging of bonds of brotherhood.”  We might try to read all this as just a fancy way of saying, “All Christians should really love one another and treat one another like brothers and sisters”—perhaps this is what Leithart means by “the early medieval notion that loyalty to the church, as well as to local communities and families, transcended loyalty to the state.”  “Loyalty” can after all mean something like that, rather than political allegiance.  But we do encounter here the explicit language of “political allegiance” and it is most bamboozling what we are to make of it.  We are told that “the church was a true and independent imperium in the midst of the Roman empire.  Not the empire, but the church was the true city, an outpost of a heavenly imperium.”  The only way to make sense of any of these terms in their standard English (and Latin) usage is something like the medieval papacy, which did function as an independent juridical body, claiming immunity from worldly political authority and supreme power of command (imperium) over worldly authorities.  Again, it is hard to think this is what Leithart wants, but what then does he mean.  The quotes from Wolin and Pecknold in the first paragraph just confuse the issue further.  To be sure, the Christian community is something “unprecedented,” “mystical,” “transcendent,” in which we are each “linked with the center of Christ” and through him to one another; it is “a fusion of spirits, a pneumatic being.”  But that is precisely the point.  These aspects of the Church do not take place at the level of body, but of spirit.  Forgive my stubborn Enlightenment dualism, but it really seems hard to deny that when we are talking about our mystical union with Christ through faith, and to all who are elect in him, past, present, and future, we are talking about something fundamentally and categorically different from a political community as we could ever meaningfully use that word.  The quote from Wolin implies somehow that this concept of a spiritual community provided a new paradigm for understanding the political community in the Christian West.  But how?  Did Christian polities start trying to fashion themselves into “non-rational,” “non-utilitarian” bodies “infused by a mysterious spirit.”  

What Leithart is gesturing at here is the idea that Christians are a people bound together by a common allegiance to Christ that will, when the chips are down, trump any earthly allegiance, and that the Eucharist is a visible sign of this allegiance.  But this “binding together” is necessarily an essentially invisible binding.  Leaving aside the stubborn theological fact that a great many in the outward Church have no real allegiance to Christ, the simple problem of geography, and of diverse denominations, ensures that this is the case.  Any attempt to make this community of shared allegiance visible and clearly-delineated would seem to require an international juridically-unified church, which requires an allegiance to earthly church authorities besides Christ—as I tried to spell out in my PT post.  Viewed in this light, the language of “loyalty to the church” takes on more troubling overtones.

All of these problematic ambiguities reappear in perhaps even starker form a couple pages later, in the following passage: 

“In Christendom and Byzantium, then, ‘political order’ in the narrow sense was founded on central metapolitical convictions.  At the heart of the project was the ‘state’s’ recognition of the church as an independent polity or order of its own, the civil order’s (often grudging) acceptance of the quasi-civic order of the church in its midst, the acknowledgment of the Eucharist as the sacrificial center of a polity—a sacrificial center not controlled by the state—and civil government’s embrace of the church’s end, the kingdom of God, as its own end.  Christendom in the West and Byzantium in the East took shape within the metapolitics of christological and ecclesial typology, a political ecclesiology, eucharistic practice that nourished the spirit of martyrdom, and eschatology.”

What does this language of “independent polity” mean?  In using the phrase “quasi-civic order,” Leithart highlights the ambiguity. Is it civic?  Or ain’t it?  And if so, how so?  The eucharist is the “sacrificial center” around which all Christians, worshipping all over the world, spiritually unite, but can this communion of saints be described as “a polity”?  

Leithart goes on to argue that our modern woes can be blamed largely on our loss of this eucharistic center:

“The Reformation produced martyrs aplenty, but they were mostly Christians put to death for heresy by other Christians.  The church utterly lost its eucharistic center.  No longer did the Eucharist function as a locus of union of all nations and peoples.  It was no longer even the locus of union for all Christians.  The sacredness of the Eucharist was increasingly co-opted by the state, which demanded absolute, sacrificial loyalty.  Kings were quick to seize on the relatively new ideology of holy war: If the state is a sacred community, and war endowed with a mystic aura, then kings might well think they have the right to demand that their soldiers sacrifice themselves and their enemies for the fatherland.” (66)

“It has been a long time since a sizable proportion of American Protestants have viewed the Eucharist as a gift of the corpus mysticum that forms individual participants into a pneumatic body in Christ, and it is thus a long time since American Protestants have thought that the Eucharist would do much to form God’s Abrahamic imperium in America.  American Eucharists have done little to nurture an alternative empire of martyrs ready to resist the unjust demands of the nation. . . . Given the pressure of American typology and eschatology, it was inevitable that a new form of nationalist sacrifice would take the place of the eucharistic sacrifice of martyrdom, a sacrifice not for Christ but for kin and country.” (77)

The second of these quotes may have something to it (although it should be noted that modern nationalism was much stronger in “high-church” countries like Britain and Germany and even Catholic countries like France), and undoubtedly Americans need to reclaim the powerful message of the Eucharist as a warning against sacralizing their nation.  But the first quote offers a remarkably uncritical restatement of the standard Radical Orthodox narrative of the migration of holiness from church to state during the Reformation.  The holes in that narrative are many, but I will just point out two here: (1) “the relatively new ideology of holy war”?  On Leithart’s own narrative in this book, that ideology had already surfaced in medieval Christendom at least as early as the 9th century, 700 years before the Reformation.  As new as the Canterbury Tales is today, that is.  In any case, one of the crucial planks of Luther’s reform was his wholesale rejection of the sacralization of violence.  (2) “The church utterly lost its eucharistic center.”  If the point of the Eucharist is to knit together the body of Christ into a community, then the Reformation was precisely about recovering this.  The Reformers protested the medieval church’s elitization and privatization of the Eucharist; the majority of masses were celebrated by individual priests in private chapels, funded by wealthy lords.  Even in those masses that were public, very few of the laity took part, and those who did only communed in one kind.  The Eucharist was unaccompanied by teaching in languages that the common people could understand, so it could hardly serve its purpose of training Christians for potential martyrdom.  The Reformation sought to re-establish the Church’s eucharistic center, with frequent celebration of communion in both kinds by the whole congregation, accompanied by thorough teaching.  The only sense in which the Church became disconnected from the Eucharist was that the Eucharist no longer functioned ex opere operato; it could not create a church without the Word, and it could not be used as a coercive threat by which clergy could intimidate lay rulers.

We are thus left to wonder whether it is in fact the overtly political function of the Eucharist—a way for the church to wield coercive imperium against other empires—that Leithart is lamenting we have lost.  A brief hint on page 110 shows this is not mere paranoia: 

“Even Christian leaders in the United States are not in any real way accountable to the officers of God’s imperium.  Whatever their private convictions, public officials are not held publicly accountable to King Jesus.  When was the last time an American politician was excommunicated?  When was the last time an excommunication had any effect on American politics?”

Of course, an unfaithful Christian who holds political office may warrant church discipline as much as an unfaithful Christian in any other station of life.  But this discipline should be conceived of as a pastoral tool for this sinner’s spiritual healing, not as an instrument for directing public policy—however good our motives.  That way lies a whole nest of temptations, that plenty of ugly episodes in church history should warn us to steer clear of.  


We have seen then that the main substance of what Leithart wants to do with “eucharistic politics” could probably be well-expressed using a paradigmatic/pedagogical conception of the Eucharist, a way of training God’s people to be more Christlike, that they might resist injustice where they encounter it.  But there is an undercurrent in his exposition that cannot be easily reduced to that way of speaking, an undercurrent that either has to remain an incoherent metaphor or else find expression in a strikingly un-Protestant ecclesiology.  I am sure Leithart does not intend this consequence, but it is hard to see exactly what else to do with his language, and it needs to be queried accordingly.  Of course, after such a negative ending, I want to hasten to say that
Between Babel and Beast is an extremely valuable book, both in its remarkable exposition of Scriptural teaching, and in its compelling and much-needed indictment of contemporary American practice.  So it is lamentable that this whole business of eucharistic politics introduces a significant ambiguity into the argument at certain crucial points, undermining some of its more valuable insights.  If you haven’t read the book, however, I certainly commend it to your careful attention.


Some Excellent Reflections on Church Discipline

In the absence of finding time to write the posts I keep promising to write (more systematic reflections both on women’s ordination and on the “rules of engagement” for thoughtful, charitable, but principled theologial debate), I’ll keep stalling by pointing you to good things other people have written.  Thankfully, I don’t have to look far to find some.

My friend Joseph Minich, with whom I’ve had a number of very fruitful conversations on these questions in recent months, has just posted (on his brand-new blog), a set of excellent reflections on church discipline and church authority.  In essence, he tries to demystify the whole concept (which a lot of recent writing on “recovering high ecclesiology” among Reformed Presbyterian types has worked hard to re-mystify) with good old-fashioned Reformation Protestantism.  If the authority of the minister (and the elders) is only the Word, then a sentence of discipline has no spiritual ramifications unless it is a true application of the Word to the individual’s spiritual state.  And, as a corollary, the application of the Word by any old fellow congregant, who sees the need to all his brother to account, is of equal weight.  Ministers do have a particular authority, but it is a non-conscience-binding prudential authority over prudential matters of polity, as well as the informal moral authority of wisdom and vocation.  

Joe addresses ecclesiology, contending, “the visible church is just the totality of the baptized in the world. The church is just the people of God called out of the world. They exist prior to their institutional expression,” and then also gets into questions of what the term “the Church” really means when we get down to brass tacks and talk about concrete ecclesial communities:

Am I “more obligated” to members of my local church than to members of another local church? Am I “more” of a spiritual family with my local church than with other believers throughout the world? Should I submit my resources and my calling “more” to the local church than to other churches, believers, or unbelievers? If the institutional church is just the natural political expression of the baptized community, then the answer to all these questions is very simple: It depends – and it depends on precisely the same sorts of “neighbor loving” or “group” considerations that obtain in any other institution.”

Read the whole post here.


Calvin Against the Anabaptists

In several recent posts, I have hinted at the tendency of Reformed disciplinarian thinking to fall into the same errors as Anabaptism, attempting to collapse the gap between the pure Church, hidden in Christ and only glimpsed in the world, and the mixed Church of wheat and tares in which we must live and worship—or, to put it more succinctly, attempting to immanentize the eschaton, anticipating the judgment which only Christ can make by claiming to identify in the here and now all those who are his and those who are not.  

In his Brief Instruction for Arming All the Good Faithful Against the Errors of the Common Sect of the Anabaptists (a critique of the Schleitheim Confession), however, John Calvin offers an extraordinarily fine summary of what is at stake, and why rightly Reformed discipline must never seek to overstep its all too human limits.  (Of course, it may justly be argued that Calvin himself perhaps did not always sufficiently maintain these caveats in practice, and later disciplinarians would certainly cite him as precedent for some of their excesses.)  Here is the nub of the matter:

“The debate is over this: they think that wherever this order [excommunication] is not properly constituted, or not duly exercised, no church exists, and it is unlawful for a Christian to receive the Lord’s Supper there.  Thus they separate themselves from the churches in which the doctrine of God is purely preached, taking this pretext: that they do not care to participate in the pollution committed therein, because those who ought to be excommunicated have not been banished.

“We, on the contrary, confess that it certainly is an imperfection and an unfortunate stain in a church where this order is absent.  Nevertheless, we do not hold it to be the church, nor persist in its necessity for communion, nor do we hold that it is lawful for people to separate themselves from the church.”

He subdivides this matter into two questions: (1) is a church that does not discipline still a church? (2) is it legitimate to separate oneself from a church on the account that it does not practice discipline?

On the first, he appeals to the example of the Corinthians and Galatians, who were still designated “churches” despite their severe corruptions.

“Therefore, let us not deceive ourselves by imagining that a perfect church exists in this world, since our Lord Jesus Christ has declared that the kingdom will be like a field in which the good grain is so mixed with weeds that it is often not visible (Matt. 13:24).  Again, the kingdom will be like a net in which different kinds of fish are caught (Matt. 13:47).  These parables teach us that although we might want an infallible purity in the church and take great pains to achieve it, nevertheless, we will never see the church so pure as not to contain many pollutions.”

This ongoing pollution is of two kinds: first, the persistent sin in the lives of believers, who are simul justus et peccator, so that “even if we had the best-disciplined church in the world, nevertheless, we could not evade the fact that we would daily need our Lord’s cleansing of us in delivering us from our sins by His grace”; second, in that the church always contains hypocrites, who do not fear God or honor him in their lives.  

Now, it is the role of excommunication to remove the latter from the Church, but we must be realistic about its limits:

“This pollution ought to be eliminated by the discipline of the ban, and the church ought to diligently work, to the best of its ability, to do so . . . but [even the most diligent] never arrive at a point where there still aren’t a large number of unpunished evildoers present.  For the malice of hypocrites is often hidden or, at least, is not so well discovered as to permit one to pronounce sentence against it.

“Therefore, in sum, let us hold to what our Lord says, that until the end of the world, it is necessary to tolerate many bad weeds, for fear that if we should pull them all up we might lose the good grain in the process (Matt. 13:25, 29).  What more do we want?  Our Lord, in order to test his own, has willed to subject His church to this poverty, so that it has always contained a mixture of good and bad.”

It is for this reason that Calvin refuses to elevate discipline to a mark of the Church, as some other reformers, influenced by the Anabaptists, were doing:

“For we owe this honor to the Lord’s holy Word and to His holy sacraments: that wherever we see this Word preached, and, following the rule that it gives us, God therein purely worshiped without superstition, and the sacraments administered, we conclude without difficulty that there the church exists.  Otherwise, what would you have?  That the wickedness of hypocrites, or the contemptuous of God, should be able to destroy the dignity and virtue of the Word of our Lord and His sacraments?

“Now I readily acknowledge that discipline also belongs to the substance of the church—if you want to establish it in good order—and when good order is absent, as when the ban is not practiced at all, then the true form of the church is to that extent disfigured.  But this is not to say that the church is wholly destroyed and the edifice no longer stands, for it retains the teaching on which the church must be founded.”

Discipline cannot be a mark, because discipline is something that we do, and the Church is the work of God:

“it would be incorrect to base consideration solely on men.  For the majesty of the Word of God and His sacraments ought to be so highly esteemed by us that wherever we see that majesty we may know with certainty that the church exists, notwithstanding the vices and errors that characterize the common life of men.

“In summary, whenever we have to decide what constitutes the church, the judgment of God deserves to be preferred over ours.  But the Anabaptists cannot acquiesce in the judgment of God.”

 

The second question to be addressed follows logically from this discussion—ought we to separate ourselves from churches that do not discipline properly?  (Note that Calvin has in mind a context where there is essentially one established Christian community—or one Protestant community at least—not a modern denominational setting where many different instantiations of the church exist alongside one another.  To separate from the church at Geneva, in Calvin’s context, would have been a declaration that it was not a legitimate church.)  The Anabaptists said that “wherever the undisciplined are not excluded from the communion of the sacrament, the Christian corrupts himself by communing there.”  Unholiness, on this understanding, is intrinsically contagious.  Note that this is not the concern (which Calvin elsewhere will express) that sinners left undisciplined will corrupt other Christians by their bad example, but that their mere presence at the Table is sufficient to bring judgment on all present, to turn the Supper of the Lord into a table of demons.  Such attitudes remain remarkably common among many Reformed today (I knew a Reformed seminary professor once who considered that at a church that practiced paedocommunion, one could not receive a valid sacrament!).  Calvin has firm words for this kind of thinking:

“a Christian ought certainly to be sad whenever he sees the Lord’s Supper being corrupted by the reception of the malicious and unworthy.  To the best of his ability, he ought to work to see that such does not happen.  Nevertheless, if it does happen, it is not lawful for him to withdraw from communion and deprive himself of the Supper.  Rather he ought always continue to worship God with the others, listen to the Word, and receive the Lord’s Supper as long as he lives in that place.”

Calvin goes on to fortify this opinion with Biblical examples, and particularly with the example of Christ himself, who did not scorn to participate in the rites of a deeply corrupt temple system.  Indeed, we should remember that Paul is quite clear in 1 Cor. 11:28 where chief responsibility for fencing the Table lies:

“he does not command everyone to examine the faults of his neighbors, but says accordingly, ‘Let every man search himself, and then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For whoever comes in an unworthy manner will receive his condemnation.

“In these words there are two matters to note.  The first is, to eat the bread of the Lord in an unworthy manner does not mean having communion with those who are unworthy of it, but not preparing oneself properly by examining if one has faith and repentance.  The second is, that when we come to the Lord’s Supper, we ought not begin by examining others, but each should examine himself.”

 

In summary, Calvin says, while churches should seek to discipline the openly ungodly in their midst, such discipline should not think of itself as maintaining more than a poor approximation of the holiness that properly belongs to the Church:

“let us take thought of what we can do.  And when we have done what was in our power and duty, if we cannot achieve what we had hoped to and what would have been desirable, let us commend the rest to God that He might put His own hand to it, as it is His work.”

(all quotes taken from pp. 57-66 of Calvin’s Treatises Against the Anabaptists and the Libertines, edited and translated by Benjamin Wirt Farley)


The Dutch Disciplinarian Deja Vu

Although mainstream Reformation scholarship has long since emerged out of confessionalist provincialism, and started learning to trace developments in the continental Reformation across cultural and political boundaries, cross-pollinating between France, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, and even Italy and Poland, English Reformation scholarship continues to lag behind the curve.  To be sure, the frenetic commerce with continental Protestantism in the reign of Edward VI has received much attention, and the dependence of Elizabethan Puritans on ties with Geneva has been a recurrent theme.  Only recently, though, has the dependence of “Anglicans,” or apologists for the Elizabethan establishment, on Continental models received significant attention (notably, for instance, in Torrance Kirby’s The Zurich Connection).

Most remarkably, the developments in England’s closest continental neighbor, the Netherlands, have received scarcely a syllable’s mention in the voluminous scholarship on debates between the Puritans, pressing for a further reformation modeled on Genevan polity, and Anglicans, defending a magisterial reformed Church under royal administration and with less rigorous discipline.  This despite the documented close connections between both Puritans and conformist apologists with people and places on the other side of the Channel.  And the parallels, as it turns out, are uncanny—the appeals to Zurich vs. Geneva, the debates over excommunication, the emergent Calvinist concept of the church as an autonomous spiritual kingdom (along semi-Anabaptistic lines), gathered out of and separate from the broader professing Christian community, the accusations by their opponents that their discipline constituted a new popery, etc.  

I excerpt some passages from Alastair Duke’s fascinating essay, “The Ambivalent Face of Calvinism in the Netherlands, 1561-1618,” that describe some of the Dutch debates in the 1560s-1580s, exactly contemporaneous with the English debates:

“To the Erastians among the civil authorities the Reformed church no longer had any need of consistories now that it lived under a Christian magistracy.  Caspar Coolhaes, a minister at Leiden between 1574 and 1582, supported this opinion.  In a treatise written in 1582 he argued ‘wherever the Christian magistracy discharges the office of guardian towards the church . . . there is no need for any consistory’ and he pointed to the example of the church at Zurich.  In the early seventeenth century Cornelis Pietersz Hooft complained that the contemporary Calvinist ministers had failed to distinguish between the circumsntaces ‘of a church which is under the protection of a  Christian magistracy and one which is under the cross.’

But when Hooft wrote of a Christian magistracy he was, at least as far as his opponents were concerned, merely begging the question.  In 1607 a minister in a synod at Delft declared that he would not acknowledge the civil powers as ‘Christian’ until they had expelled from the country everyone who refused to join the Reformed church!  An uncharacteristically extreme statement, no doubt, but it demonstrates the problem contemporaries had in reaching a consensus on the qualities expected of a Christian magistracy.  The Calvinists had their own definitions.  The authors of the Netherlands Confession of Faith laid on the magistrates the responsibility for the uprooting of all idolatry and false religion ‘so that the kingdom of Antichrist may be overthrown and the kingdom of Christ Jesus advanced.’  The problems for the Reformed were twofold.  Could magistrates, who themselves declined to submit to the Reformed discipline, fuflil such a charge?  And secondly, should the Christian discipline be maintained, even where a Christian magistracy occurred? . . . 

“Petrus Dathenus, who was noted for his Calvinist fervour, confessed in a letter too Bullinger in 1570 that it would be unrealistic to expect the same strict discipline in a territorial church, such as was then being established int he Palatinate, as could be maintained in Geneva or in the Dutch stranger-church at London.  As a minister who would be required to answer before the Lord for those committed to his care, he was satisfied if he could clearly distinguish his flock and if the sacraments could be protected against open profanation. . . .

[Many Dutch Calvinists, however,] would not surrender consistorial discipline.  Admission to the Lord’s Supper was to remain carefully supervised to ensure that those who sat at the Table ate ‘worthily’.  That was only possible with consistorial discipline: in the absence of discipline the Lord’s Supper could not take place. . . . the fundamental distinction between ‘the children of God’ and ‘the children of the world’ did not change [with the emergence of a Christian magistracy], for that was quintessential to Dutch Calvinism.  Ranged on the other side in this debate about the nature of the church were those for whom the Reformation had, above all else, put an end to the tyranny of penance, which had brought despair to sinners, and restored evangelical liberty.”  
“In the Low Countries the Calvinists were accused by other evangelicals of forging a ‘new monkery’ and of setting up ‘the Genevan inquisition’, on account of the strict discipline which surrounded the Lord’s Supper.  To Duifhuis, for whom church orders belonged to the category of matters indifferent, any other sort of discipline than that exercised by the magistrates represented a ‘tyrannizing over consciences, and a remnant of the Popish yoke’ . . . These critics of the Calvinists wanted a comprehensive church.  In the church orders drafted by the States of Holland in 1576 and 1591 the Lord’s Table would have been opened to all who wished to come.”

 “With some, especially among the magistrates, there was a natural desire to retain control of the new church, but one may also detect an irritation at the refusal of the Reformed churches to fulfill the part of a comprehensive church to which all patriotic Dutchmen might belong.  From the standpoint of the civil powers the Calvinists’ separation of society into two camps was very inconvenient.  No wonder some magistrates, notably at Leiden, looked enviously on the Reformed church at Zurich, where discipline remained unambiguously in the hands of the lay powers and where consistories were unknown.  
But the Calvinists were not convinced.  They believed themselves to belong to a people whom it had pleased God to call forth from the nations.  That they found themselves, at least for a time, in a small minority caused them no surprise.  After all, as their confession of faith declared, the Church might appear to the world to be ‘very small’, as in the time of Ahab, yet even then the Lord had reservers to Himself seven thousand, who had not bowed down to Baal.”


Excommunication and Homosexuality

Nearly a year ago, in a post called “The Excommunication Dilemma,” I explored the question of how churches ought to respond to the problem of homosexuality today.  While allowing that homosexuality was a serious sin that by New Testament standards called for church discipline, I argued that it was inappropriate for conservative denominations to de facto “excommunicate” more liberal denominations for their failure to enact such discipline.  Furthermore, I suggested that in groups like the Anglican Communion, church discipline on a macro scale–say, cutting off the whole of TEC–was a much more complicated matter than simple congregational church discipline, and there were no clear and clean-cut models for how such macro-discipline should be carried out.  However, at that time I still maintained that of course individual churches ought to take a hard disciplinary line on unrepentant homosexual congregants.  But after a conversation with a good friend last week, I’m not quite so sure anymore.

Before you freak out, I am not questioning whether excommunication is a legitimate action to take with regard to homosexuality–in principle, it seems clear that it is (as it is also with a host of other sins, I should add).  I am wondering now whether it is the most appropriate action to take, from a pastoral perspective.  There is a great deal in the New Testament advising great caution in exercising judgment if those exercising the judgment are not themselves above reproach. We think immediately of Mt. 7:1-5:

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Or Rom. 2:1-3:

Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. But we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things. And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God?

Or of course the famous and hotly-debated passage from John 8: “Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone.”

 

Now of course each of these contains the element, to greater or lesser extent, of concern that the judges not be guilty of the same sin as the guilty.  This seems emphasized in Rom. 2:1-3, is probably broadly present in Mt. 7:1-5, and is, some would argue, the point of Jesus’s dismissal of judgment in John 8 (I will leave aside for now the question of whether that is the only point).  On this basis many would be quick to retort that so long as church leaders are not themselves practicing homosexuals, there is no bar to them pronouncing judgment against those who are.  But this seems to me an altogether too narrow reading of the point of such passages, the sort of legalistic nicety Pharisees would love.  

Taking a somewhat broader lens, is it fair to say that the evangelical churches are, on the whole, knee-deep in hypocrisy when it comes to sexual ethics?  I don’t want to be guilty myself of pronouncing overly sweeping judgments, but from all I hear, they are.  Churches that take a very hard line on any hint of homosexuality are happy to sweep it under the rug when the guy in the next pew is having an affair with his secretary, or when half the men in the church are hooked on porn; divorce is rampant in many evangelical churches, a problem that many are just beginning to address (see, for instance, this encouraging start from the SBC).  Do we have the standing to just start excommunicating (or worse, turning away at the church door) homosexuals?  Of course, many might respond that their own churches are not guilty of this hypocrisy, but I don’t know if it’s that simple…the evangelical conservative churches, like it or not, share a common public identity, they are perceived as a common body of sorts by the watching world, and those individual churches that have their own houses in order can’t pretend to be unsullied by any of the messes of their brothers and sisters.  

And then of course there are the deep problems in the witness the Church is presenting about homosexuality itself.  In many evangelical churches, the atmosphere that prevails is not one of a calm and steady opposition to the sin of homosexuality accompanied by a warm welcome to homosexually-inclined people, a sympathetic recognition of their struggles, and an attempt to patiently guide them.  Rather, the dominant atmosphere is often quite rightly described as homophobia, in which homosexuals are scorned, derided, feared, held at arm’s length, and in which the idea of a “homosexual Christian” is considered an oxymoron.  Because of this, we are incapable of presenting a clear and Biblical witness to the watching world, and to liberal Christians, against homosexuality.  Because so many of us have so often spoken in terms of ungodly homophobia, rather than a compassionate call to put away sin, any action that conservative churches take against homosexuality, even if itself legitimate and rightly-handled, cannot but be perceived as homophobia.  It will take a long time and a mature response for evangelicals to be able to offer an effective witness by their church discipline in this area.  (By the way, my point here about patience and sympathy should clarify that when I call on our churches to “get their house in order” I am not meaning we should start chucking people out left and right–we should be firm with the various sins in our midst, but loving at the same time.)

A third set of issues, which I will not elaborate on here, though I have mentioned it before, is the disconnect between evangelicals’ hard-line stance on certain sexual sins and their complete laxity regarding economic sins.  This too greatly compromises our witness and renders our motives suspect; however, one could easily respond that the sins are sufficiently different that our guilt in the one area is no bar to discipline in the other.

Given the first set of problems, it seems questionable whether evangelical churches even have standing to discipline homosexuals.  Perhaps some don’t, until they get their own houses in order.  For the rest, especially given the second and third set of problems, it certainly seems questionable whether, even if they have standing to enact discipline, such discipline is prudent and likely to accomplish its purpose.  It seems more likely simply to confirm false ideas of the Church that many have formed in recent years and, most seriously, to alienate the homosexuals under discipline, who will have good reason to conclude that they they are being pushed away simply out of fear and bigotry, rather than godliness, and will thus fail to repent.  Could it then be possible that, as a matter of pastoral wisdom and effective witness, evangelical churches should take a much softer line against homosexuality until they can remove the various logs from their own eyes?

I am far from convinced that the answer is yes, particularly in light of the example of 1 Corinthians.  Here is a church that was knee-deep in all sorts of problems, yet that did not keep Paul from urging them to take a hard disciplinary line against the member who was involved in incest.  Many of the factors in that situation were different, of course, so it is hard to use it as an open-and-shut counterexample; however, it does seem to suggest that we are not required to wait until our house is in order before we can take formal disciplinary action.  I am thus not persuaded either way, but I do think this is an important question to think about, at the very least so we can read the concerns of “liberals” more sympathetically, and I’m interested in what sort of input others offer.