“Loyalty and respect not present in any other kind of social criticism.”  

Christian scholar

Christian academics occupy a very lonely space.

We are not entirely trusted, and often looked upon with suspicion, by our faith communities.

We are also not entirely trusted, and often looked upon with suspicion, by the academic communities we inhabit.

Some Christian intellectuals have chosen to simply abandon the academic community and write within the community of the Church.  Others have chosen to pursue academic lives within the guild and keep their faith private.  But if one is to take seriously her or his intellectual calling in both spaces, companions are few.

I have written about this tension often here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  It is a part of my intellectual life that I cannot shake.  It has returned again this month as I have been teaching in my church.  As I was preparing for my last class, I read this passage in Glenn Tinder’s The Political Meaning of Christianity:

One must keep a measure of critical distance even from the Church.  The Church in history is not the Kingdom of God, and the alienation inherent in living as a destined member of the Kingdom of God, within history, is inescapable.  One can only give such alienation moral and spiritual form by using it as the basis for prophetic relationship with the world around. And the Church is part of the world around.  Hence, it is subject to prophetic criticism and appraisal.

On the other hand, however, to criticize and appraise the Church prophetically is to be aware that the Church is distinct from the world around even though part of it.  The Church, as envisioned by faith, is essentially different from any other institution.  Hence, critical independence of the Church is different from the critical independence that may characterize an individual’s relationship to other social groups.  Strictures on the historical Church can be true and justified only when originating, consciously or not, in the eschatological Church.  To say, as I have, that the Church provokes spiritual pride, is fallible, and is more social than communal does not presuppose merely standards of a kind any social critic might apply but also faith in what the Church will be at the end of time.  When prophetic hope establishes critical distance between the individual and the Church, that distance lies within the Church, and an individual who opposes the Church as it is can be justified only if called into opposition by the Church as it is destined to be.

Underlying prophetic criticism of the Church, therefore, is a loyalty and respect not present in any other kind of social criticism…[The Church] requires our respect for the actual even when our criticisms of it are severe.  Again, we see that a Christian’s relationship with the Church is analogous to his relationship with individuals. We respect individuals in their destinies; yet we respect them in their present actuality, too, and do this without denying their fallenness.  In similar fashion, personal independence of the Church is authentically prophetic only as a paradoxical form of loyalty to the church.

I think we can sum-up of Tinder’s complex language with a sentence from the last paragraph: “Underlying prophetic criticism of the Church…is a loyalty and respect not present in any other kind of social criticism.”

I want to explore this idea more in the coming years, perhaps in writing.

3 thoughts on ““Loyalty and respect not present in any other kind of social criticism.”  

  1. I think the foundational principle understanding upon which we must build here is that the Church is not only different from any other institution, it is not an institution at all. Scripture tells us that the Church is the body of Christ on earth. It is an organic being. Its living cells are all the believers everywhere in the world. Its lifeblood is the ministry and working of the Holy Spirit. Its head is Christ.

    Any — ANY — institution that we refer to here on earth as “a church” or “the church” is not really “the Church,” but is instead a man-made entity constructed out of our need for administrative or structural coherence and continuity. As such, it is entirely reasonable and right, when needed and when appropriate, to prophetically criticize any such man-made entity, since any institution constructed by fallible and fallen people will of necessity itself be fallible and fallen.

    An (unfortunately) all-true-real-life illustration to convey my point: for a time I attended a church that ran into some significant problems and divisions which were not always handled well. A lot of people raised concerns, some legitimate, some probably not. In an effort to settle down the rising level of criticism, the pastor actually made something like the following statement from the pulpit: “The Bible says that the church is the spotless bride of Christ, and so anyone who says anything negative about the church is clearly absolutely wrong and is in violation of Scripture.” I could not believe these words were said. It was either an intentional misrepresentation, or an unintentional fundamental misunderstanding of Scripture, either of which possibilities was alarming. It essentially equated “the Church” as defined in Scripture with “the church” that was the local organization to which we belonged. The pastor’s statement started with “the Church” as defined in Scripture and then swapped in “the church” meaning the local organization, and applied a biblical truth about the first to the second. Entirely wrong and fallacious.

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