Non-Voluntarist Protestantism and the Dangers of Secular Modernity

There are two types of churches which constitute the visible expression of  Christianity in the modern age. For the sake of simplicity let me call these two expressions of the church the non-voluntary and the voluntary models. If these seem initially confusing they should be clearer as soon as you read what follows.

Non-Voluntary Churches

imagesThe decline of non-voluntarist Western Christianity, of both the Catholic and Protestant variety, has been much greater than that of the voluntarist variety of church expression. This should not really be surprising if you consider the context of this statement. A good part of church decline in the West has been the decline in the “mainline” churches. “When a state church loses its central role in society it loses something of its soul” (An Introduction to Christianity, 347). This is exactly what has transpired over the last sixty years or so.

In these mainline churches God was humanized and anything remotely like severity was all but removed. Liberalism led many young people to turn away from divine transcendence toward “human values,” values that were more consistent with liberal social values. Mainline Christianity continually ceased to be confessional and dogmatic, thus becoming a broadly ethical movement with a strong emphasis upon a caring and loving life.

It has often been argued, in a number of popular studies about Christianity’s decline in the West, that liberalism is the primary cause of this religious decline. I think this thesis is at best a half-truth. (What follows is not a defense of liberal theology, per se.) The mainline churches have almost all retained a deep attachment to structures rooted in top-down power. (This is part of the reason for why they are called non-voluntary churches.) These churches have “residual alliances with social power, and their own personal arrangements” (An Introduction to Christianity, 349).

Simply put, hierarchical arrangements are hard to break inside these older expressions of institutional Christian faith and practice. While these churches maintain a commitment to equality and autonomy their structures tell young people something very different when they encounter the church. “They have not, in other words, been able or willing to place the unique individual centre stage and devote their energies to catering for individual spiritual growth” (An Introduction to Christianity, 349). This will become more clear in tomorrow’s post.

booksLinda Woodhead concludes that mainline Christianity has suffered because it has fallen between two stools. On the one side it has remained too aligned with power from on high to powerfully attract subjectivized selves who were coming to maturity in the 1960s. On the other hand it alienated a sympathetic and morally conservative constituency by becoming too liberal in its teaching, or broad doctrinal emphasis. What is impressive in the mainline churches is the record of public service, care for the community, and the ability to make serious political interventions. (The problem here is that these interventions are often extremely ideological and generally are only on one side of an ever widening chasm on the political spectrum.) What is appealing is the ability of such churches to face outward toward the wider community with an open and welcoming posture. I have witnessed the strength of this stance firsthand and believe conservative churches could learn a great deal from these “older” mainline churches.

But the fact remains, non-voluntary church structures cannot work well in a secular society where freedom and free choice are respected as high values. The mainline churches, especially on the Protestant side, seek to embrace more and more voluntarism in their everyday practice but they do this with varying degrees of success. On the whole many of them have caved in to the moral views that they have witnessed in the secular world. This has been done in the name of reformation but it often has little to do with biblical reformation. It tends, rather, to line up more with their all encompassing attempts to embrace secularity while trying to retain some kind of Christian confession.

For Catholics this is different, though the same social dynamics are at work here as well. Think of it this way – the Catholic Church clearly teaches against artificial birth control and abortion. Yet the overwhelming majority of Catholics in America practice artificial birth control and have abortions at a rate similar to the national average. The Catholic Church has not officially embraced secularism, quite the opposite. But the large majority of American Catholics have gone against the teaching of their church in their actual practice. In effect, they are living as voluntarists even though their church is structurally a non-voluntarist expression.

 

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