Friday, July 06, 2007

Protesting protestantism

There's something I love about irony.

If you ask an evangelical protestant Christian why they are not Catholic, they'll probably have a short list of things that they perceive as being somehow wrong with the Catholic Church. Now, I don't have a source for much of what I'm going to say here, only personal experience from having now lived a fair portion of my life among Protestants, you'll just have to take my word for it if you're not in the same sorts of social circles in which I tend to find myself.

What's wrong with the Catholic Church? Well, it tends to boil down to authority. Maybe it's an American thing, since the U.S. is a country that was largely founded on the rejection of supposed divine authority, but there is this feeling that it is clearly wrong to have a person (a.k.a. The Pope, or maybe your local priest) who tells you what to think when it comes to spiritual matters. The Church (I'll henceforth use a capital "C" when referring to the Catholic Church) apparently has all these rules that you have to follow. The Bible has a specific meaning that the Church teaches; worship is done in a style that the Church dictates; communion, baptism and various other rituals are carried out with a specified liturgy the Church prescribes; etc. Sure, there are other issues, but aside from a few deeper theological issues that most people don't really fully understand anyway, most of it boils down to the fact that rather than a free church in which we all are equals and exist on the same level, the Church has this complicated hierarchy of authority figures that dictate every aspect of your faith life.

The irony in this all is that in the end, most of our evangelical protestant churches have discarded this sort of structured hierarchy in return for a hidden, more vaguely-defined one. Even early on in my experience as a Christian, the first church I ever attended had special meetings to welcome newcomers into their congregation. I actually remember very little about those classes except for one thing that I thought odd at the time. The pastor who was running the class repeatedly informed us, in an odd manner that seemed proudly sly, that "At this church..." (subtle dramatic pause) "...we don't wear ties!" Apparently having grown up in a much more formal church, this guy was very interested in this fact, and seemed to be sure that everyone else would be as well. Big whoop, right?

Yet, there was something about this that in a way he never admitted, perhaps least of all to himself, was indeed a big deal. At the time, I always suspected that the fact that he even brought it up implied that it was a big deal to him. I thought, "You know, I wonder if he'd prefer to wear a tie anyway?" Maybe that's it, and maybe it's one of the smallest examples of the sort of thing I'm talking about. Sure, he doesn't have to wear a tie, but I suspect that although it's not written down anywhere, it is the case that he is not allowed to wear a tie. Not that this is solely a church thing; I've worked in offices with relaxed dress policies, and people tend to give you dirty looks if you show up wearing a tie.

But the institutionalization doesn't stop with an unstated dress code, people talk about how more traditional churches have rituals and liturgy, and sing old traditional songs. At our church, we have once again our own unstated liturgical service, and it's one that's similar to every evangelical church I've attended in my dozen or so years as a Christian.

At the appointed time for church to start, the worship leader will get up on the stage with the band, take his guitar and welcome everyone to church. He will welcome everyone to stand, which is not expressly required, but everyone with the exception of a few elderly people and those in wheelchairs will do so. Most people will show up five to ten minutes later, perhaps as much as twenty minutes if they have children. Around this time, the band will pause and an associate pastor or perhaps a deacon will walk onto the stage. He will welcome everyone again, compliment the band, and invite everyone to sit down. A short speech will be given about upcoming events, the need for more volunteers in children's ministry, and an admonition to visitors not to give money for the offering, but merely fill out a visitor card and drop it on the bag. He says a short prayer, and the band plays a song while the ushers pass the offering bags around. Everyone is asked to stand again, one more song is played, the worship leader asks everyone to shake hands with their neighbor, and everyone sits down as the senior pastor takes the stage and the band exits. The sermon opens with a bad joke or perhaps a humorous movie clip on the screen. Everyone pulls out their sermon notes, which consist of three bullet points with a missing word or phrase to fill in. After about forty-five minutes of talking, the pastor apologizes for his sermon being "so long", wraps it up and excuses everyone. People with children pick them up; every child has a craft project in a white paper sack with a Bible verse sticker on it. People mill about on the patio eating donuts if it's an a.m. service, cookies if it's p.m., and either way there is also coffee, juice and water.

Deviate from the above in any way, and the congregation will freak out. I had a pastor whose wife was a ballet instructor, and at one service, during the music phase, some dancers came out on stage and did a little routine. In principle, there's nothing wrong with this, but departing from routine was bizarre, and a few people got up and left.

Now, there's nothing wrong with routine actually. Like I said above, these things happen in the secular world, too. What about the deeper issues of theology? Surely those are the real vital ones, right? In the Church, if the Pope says things are a certain way, then that's the way they are, and supposedly, that's bad to have a single person driving and defining faith for a large group of other people.

First of all, it has to be understood, as I myself did not understand until a few years ago, that the Pope's every word is not somehow law on par with scripture. At times, the Pope does choose to speak with such authority, but most of the time, he's a lot like a senior pastor of a worldwide church, simply being there to guide and teach like any Protestant pastor would do.

Second of all, who says our little local churches are so different? When my pastor stands up at the lectern on a Sunday morning and says "Jesus is trying to say such-and-such through this passage of scripture," is it at all appropriate or acceptable for me to stand up at my seat in the congregation and say, "Excuse me, but I disagree with your interpretation?" Of course not (in general: as I have mentioned elsewhere, my church does a yearly "open mike" service where anyone can ask the pastor any question they want), that would be incredibly out of the norm; the church would sooner stop serving coffee on the patio!

Lastly, there are a few things to be said about this. Most churches, including my own, have a "statement of faith" which is a document which outlines our theological position. Anyone who wants to join the church has to read the document and sign a statement saying that they agree with it and will not oppose it within the church. While it may seem to some to be a shade totalitarian, it makes sense that you would have such an instrument to foster unity in the church. If you don't agree with it before you join, why would you want to join? If you come to an understanding that disagrees with it after joining, why would you want to stay? At the same time, if you have a question about an issue, there is no rule against discussing it with a pastor or fellow member of the congregation, only against actively opposing it from within the church.

Many things that I have said here in my blog would shock numerous people at my church, (many drop their jaw at the mention that I'm a registered Democrat, which I think is the least of my issues) although I don't keep the existence of this blog a secret; I don't think anyone from my church reads it. If I were to say some of the things I have said in this blog at any sort of official church meeting, I think it's possible I might lose my membership, I'm not sure, but I think it would be fair, actually. Still, I have the right to say whatever I want outside of church, and the thing of it is, that doesn't make me any different from Catholics. In truth, you'd be hard-pressed to find a Catholic that has complete and undying devotion to the Pope; most I have met admire and respect him, but also have occasional issues on which they respectfully disagree with him.

Is the pastor of a church just a little Pope? Sure, we Protestants recognize that the pastorate and the laity are two categories of people between whom God makes no strong distinction. At the church picnic, he's just another guy you josh around with, chat about work, play frisbee with, etc. But on Sunday morning, he's the one standing on the stage, telling everyone what the Bible means, and while you may share the same theological position as he does, you're not going to take his place on the stage Sunday morning as easily as you took his place in line for the hot dogs Saturday afternoon. While the board of elders (or whatever) can have him replaced if necessary, in a very real way, while he is in office, the pastor is the church.


marauder said...

It seems to me that relatively few evangelicals are going to take issue with papal autority per se, nor with the tradition of the Catholic Church.

In my experience evangelicals object to the veneration of the saints, particularly Mary; and to a lesser extent, the Apochrypha, which books are not included in the Protestant canon.

Still, I like your thoughts on evangelical tradition and liturgy. It is very strong and deeply ingrained, isn't it?

Liadan said...

As to the statement of faith-- you may want to stay in a church whose doctrinal statement you diverge from because the congregation itself, the community aspect of the church, is appealing to you on its own merits.

Not that I've ever been lucky enough to experience this, but I'm told it does happen occasionally. :)

Brucker said...

I do like my current church due to the fact that I think as a group they are much more introspective than most churches. As I've commented here and elsewhere, no church is going to be completely open-minded, and that's really a good thing in many ways.