A good friend of mine, Josh Gibbs, has posted a couple of recent entries on his blog that I wanted to respond to.
First, in his Joe Versus the Volcano post from July 17th, he suggests that perhaps one of the ways of looking at the cross-migration of folks to and from various traditions of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy is in the way that God determines to grow particular individuals up. He cites friends of ours in particular who have “blossomed” in their new surroundings and recognizes that there are just as many folks coming the other way into Protestantism from one of those two branches of the church that have grown in ways never conceivable in their old cathedral digs. Now, I certainly appreciate Josh’s sensibility to recognize that this is going both ways, (although I would suggest it is FAR more common that cradle catholics and orthodox are blossoming when they “get saved” in college through some hip and trendy evangelical ministry than the other way around – but that’s not really what I want to talk about). My first objection to Josh’s logic is how myopic this description appears to be. It seems fairly near-sighted to evaluate one’s transition based on six months or two years of experience. Yes, I know that we can all name certain (in)famous characters who have done the transition to Rome or Constantinople and lo, there they are 20 or 50 years later and appear to still love Jesus with all the fervor of a spirit-filled charismatic. And thank God for that. But what about their children and their grandchildren? Jesus warns about certain people who get their houses exorcised, all swept and clean and organized so that after a while seven more demons can take up residence. Which is all to say that judging “ugly” in one tradition and “lovely” in another seems far too superficial. I know that Josh means things like simple, sacrificial obedience and love for neighbors and family, but again, how can we judge the trajectory of that kind of transition after a few years? Which is to say that this kind of evaluation is always secondary to the question, ‘who do you trust?’ This is the most important question, I believe. Do you trust the pastors and teachers who have faithfully taught you, prayed for you, counseled you, and given themselves up for you over the last number of years, or do you trust the guy who you met a few months ago who chants prayers to icons? And this is not a question about whether you may like or respect people in other traditions. The question is, who do you trust more? Who will you submit to?
People who leave traditions do so because they no longer trust their pastors and elders to lead and pastor them. And sometimes that’s understandable, but Josh’s apparent ambivalence doesn’t seem to recognize the personal nature of the church community. You can’t just say, sorry I found a new church; it’s nothing personal. It’s always personal. It’s always a question of loyalty and trust and gratitude. And yes, it has everything to do with the “frustratingly personal God” found in Jesus Christ and him alone. But where are we to see this personal God found in Christ? St. John says, “If you do not love your brother who you have seen, you cannot love God whom you have not seen” (1 Jn. 4:20). Similarly, the whole point of the parable of the sheep and the goats is the calling of Jesus to see Him in the people right in front of you. And so my question is, how many migrating goats will be told on that great and terrible day, “when I was hungry you went on a pilgrimage to Rome.” “When I was naked, you were praying to your icons. When I was sick and lonely, you preferred to spend time with your well-vested priest. Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:31-45). It is all about Christ, and so I want to know why it would ever be OK to treat the body of Christ like an amusement park where different people can get their thrills on different rides and that’s really all that matters at the end of the day. Now I know that Josh isn’t saying that, but surely he would recognize that his point is not too far removed. If Christ is found in the people right in front you, why would you ignore them, walk away from them to find new friends in some other tradition, and how could it be done in the name of finding Christ? Christ is goodness, and his goodness is the family he reared you in, the fathers and mothers he gave you when you were young, and the friends and brothers who still love you today.
Second, I wanted to respond to Josh’s post on closed communion in the Reformed tradition (also from July 17th). On that note, it is true to point out that Reformed churches of various stripes do indeed practice various forms of closed communion. In some Reformed churches only the members of that particular church are allowed to partake. In others, there is only a small number of fraternal denominations that are recognized as being able to participate with them. And so comparing those with Rome or Constantinople, there really isn’t much difference on that point. But Josh’s point has more to do with taking communion to the sick, the disabled, and the outcast who are for various reasons unable to be in regular Sunday service. But here there are several important distinctions that Josh isn’t careful to make. He does say that he is willing to be taught, and that’s great, but these are the kind of distinctions that a couple of introductory books on reformation theology would clear up. And all I mean is that the answer to Josh’s question is fairly simple. The Reformers were fed up with the Eucharistic idolatry going on in the late middle ages. Saving the elements in order to pray to them later, holding them up in the air and walking through town for the crowds to cower at various clergymen’s feet, and using them as tools of manipulation against God’s people were all abuses that the Reformers (and probably most modern RCCs) loathed. The Westminster Confession’s point is merely to disallow the idolatry and the practice of private masses, where one individual could be elevated above the rest to have communion by himself, or commonly where political rulers could get their grace without actually being part of the worshipping body of saints. To be clear: the reserving and venerating of the host had grown into a kind of manipulative maneuver that pushed the majority of the people of God into the margins. These idolatrous practices were being used to abuse the very lambs that Christ called his apostles to feed. Ironically, the very thing that Josh thinks he sees in Westminster is the very thing the Reformers were seeking to correct. The Eucharist is for the people of God; it’s for the commoners, the outcasts, the sick, the lonely, the dying.
And while I think we could always do a far better job of acting this out in practice, I know of plenty of occasions where it has been done in Reformed churches, where pastors have celebrated the sacrament with the faithful in hospital rooms and nursing homes, and as at least one commenter pointed out in the original post, there were prominent examples of this in the early Reformation churches themselves.
All that to say, these are great questions to raise and worthy of discussion. But I would plead with whatever audience I have to be patient and use caution in rushing to conclusions. People have actually discussed these very things before. These questions have been raised and answered by our fathers in the faith. Don’t think that this is a new discussion. It’s been going on for 500 years. Honor that tradition enough to listen for a little while.