Archive for the 'SCFPHON' Category

Doing Church

February 29, 2012

As part of the SCFPHON series (Stop Clive From Playing Heroes of Newerth), I will be updating my blog a lot more. Basically every time I get an urge to play, I’ll update my blog instead.

There are procedural laws and then there are substantive laws.  Procedural laws govern how a certain process will be carried out by whom, using which steps and measures.  For example, a procedural law for filing a patent might state that you must have all your claims in one sentence, or that you will have 60 days to respond to an office action.  (I could be wrong on that…. but you get the point).  A substantive law embodies the actual meaty portions of the law.  A patent cannot, for example, be over a mathematical equation or an abstract idea.

But the dichotomy of the procedural and the substantive reaches beyond law.  (This isn’t truly a dichotomy.  But I’ll get to this later.)  This dichotomy can help us to analyze the way we think about church, for instance.  Like any institution, church consists of people.  Church is, after all, just a group of believers.  I heard recently that the simplest formulation of the church is where two or more are gathered in Christ’s name.  While this may be taking the verse in Matthews out of context (that chapter was, after all, about reconciliation between believers before coming to worship), I’d have to agree with the formulation on the grounds that in Acts we see several instances of small group of people meeting together to do what can only be described as church activities.

How does the procedural / substantive dichotomy inform us about the way we should understand church?  Substantively, there are many differences of sincerely held beliefs among any two individual believers.  Where two or more are gathered in Christ’s name there will be doctrinal differences.  And this could be a good thing, because the differences help us to recognize the blind spots in our individual faiths.  The far more dangerous alternative to having and discussing our doctrinal differences is to have no faith to disagree about, with a veneer of silence assumed as approval or loving tolerance.

There is one source of substantive limitations that stems from the fact that we are living couple thousand years after Christ: this world has pretty much seen every kind of heresies already.  All the new teachings are actually the tired old heresies.  The devil was never original; even his first lie was a derivation.  This “witness of the heretics,” as Chesterton termed it in The Everlasting Man, really does a good job of guarding us against any old lies that are masquerading as new teachings.  These heresies inform us to determine what not to believe in; they help us in determining the metes and bounds to our Christian faith.

So there is some baseline agreement to the core of the substantive beliefs.  And of course, believers can organize themselves into denominations when they feel that certain other baseline agreements ought or ought not to be included.  (And throughout the church history, there are periods of time when the number of limitations have waxed or waned.)  With this baseline agreement at a given body of believers, a church, what are the procedural methods that ought to be used?  Are there any limitations at all on the type of procedural methods that can be used to “do” church?  Or does anything go, as long as you’re sincere about it?

The answer is, I think, yes, there are procedural limitations on how you do church based on the substantive doctrinal beliefs.  For example, take the sacraments.  One of the things that was common in every first generation Korean immigrant church I’ve been to, is that during communion they serve unleavened bread and grape juice.  Not to be too harsh on my people, but this illustrates the legalism that they are seemingly unaware of.  They use unleavened bread because it is commanded in the old testament but grape juice because alcohol is frowned upon by the society at large as sinful.  They go by the literal interpretation of the bible (which isn’t the problem) unless our cultural taboos contradicts the said interpretation.  Granted, contradictions between our understanding of the bible and the social norm will inevitably happen, for the Gospel critiques and corrects all fallenness.  But how do you deal with these contradictions?  Silently deferring to the social norms or attitudes while in other areas following the un-examined, un-critical literal interpretations out of laziness?  How does our substantive doctrinal belief about the nature, the purpose of the Lord’s Supper inform us in the way we do administer and partake of this sacrament?  If we understood that the Lord’s Supper is to be done in rememberance of Christ, and not to follow arbitrary forms, then we will not create even more unnecessary procedural limitations.  There is to be bread and wine.  There is to be remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice.  And that’s about it.  No need for guys with white gloves.

But, the argument may be made that while some procedural limitations are not necessary (in other words effectuated by the substantive doctrinal beliefs), perhaps some of these procedural limitations encourage or are salubrious in aiding the believer to adopt or continue in their substantive doctrinal beliefs.  Again, the answer goes back to the substantive belief itself; are we encouraging the correct belief?  But most Christians are sincere in their beliefs; and while sincerity does not equate to accuracy, does our sincerity at least justify our decisions on enforcing certain procedural limitations?

No, it is not our sincerity that is the main issue, but again, the substantive doctrine itself that places the procedural limitations on which procedures should or should not be used.  Our substantive doctrinal beliefs on justification should inform us of the relative unimportance of the sincerity compared to the belief itself.  If you believe, for instance, that you are saved based on the sincerity of your belief, and not totally and wholly on Christ, then you will think anything goes at church as long as you’re sincere about it.  But no, we are not accept as long as we are sincere.  You can be sincere and be totally mistaken.  The younger prodigal son was not accepted because he repented the right way.  He was accepted because his father accepted him and ran out to greet him and longed for him to return home.  It is sheer grace.  The younger prodigal son had no idea of what this grace was; he just wanted to be like one of his father’s slaves.  He came back with fear for he did not know of his father’s love.  So no, God does not accept us because of the sincerity of our repentance.  God does not accept us because of us; God accepts us because of Himself.  This means, then, not every procedure in the church goes because we’re sincere about it; sincerity is not the litmus test for truth.  The procedure does matter, but it doesn’t matter as much as the substantive beliefs.  What’s more, the procedures should reflect and encourage our substantive beliefs.

This foregoing example illustrates that the procedural and substantive dichotomy was a false one; there are things that is both procedural and substantive.  The very core of the Christian faith, that all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved, is both substantive and procedural.  Jesus Christ is the only way.  Through this truth, we can critique the “Sinner’s Prayer”; yes all the elements are biblical, but it is not the only prayer or procedure.  Yes, you can stand up and come up to the front or raise your hand, but if you’re missing the substance of it, following the man-made procedure that is only meant to imitate (or sometimes, unfortunately, artificially induce) the actual spiritual process, cannot save you.

What about house churches? Or the emerging churches?  Or Pentecostalism?  The substance of your belief should inform and critique all such procedural limitations.  (For even the call for less procedure is itself a procedure.)  Granted, house churches in particular are sometimes necessary because of the oppressive regimes under which they operate.  But nevertheless, how should the substantial doctrinal beliefs inform those house churches, or inform us in the US or other religiously free countries with regards to house churches?  That might be the topic of SCFPHON part 2.