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Churchianity or Christianity part 6: Retreatism, Pietism, Churchianity, and the recovery of Christianity

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Asserting that Christians need to develop a cultural theology grounded in the Bible, Dr. Joseph Boot has addressed what he calls 'Churchianity' in a series of articles for Christian Concern. Here in the final instalment of this series, he draws an important distinction between piety and pietism and warns of the consequences of Christians retreating from exhibiting and enacting God's Word in the public sphere. Boot calls for a recovery of faith and practice that permeates every element of our society.  

Piety is an important quality of the Christian life. It denotes reverence toward God and sincere devotion. But pietism is the tendency to restrict the meaning of the Christian life to personal devotional disciplines and inward spiritual growth. Pietism, which has so afflicted all stripes of modern evangelicalism, was a movement beginning in German Lutheranism, with theological foundations in medieval thought, that quickly spread to the English-speaking world. The pietists tended to see biblical orthodoxy as dead religion and boasted a more spiritual faith focused on the new birth and various devotional exercises. Emphasis was laid on emotion and feeling because doctrine was considered dry and intellectual. There are significant evangelical church movements today that won’t sing hymns for this very same reason – they are allegedly too intellectual and get in the way of emotional engagement with God.

All dualism since Ockham, and especially as expressed in pietism, has had the cultural effect of weakening the church and strengthening the state. With its retreat inward, pietism was completely unable to combat the forces of the Enlightenment, just as Lutheranism was found powerless with the rise of the Third Reich. The Enlightenment perspective saw the state, not the church, as the truly universal institution; the church was the area of private faith, whereas the state was the realm of reason. The state would therefore assert itself as the new arbiter of order. Given pietism’s primary concern for ‘spiritual life,’ it did not contest this claim. The same is true of modern evangelical pietism. It has allowed the state to move into and control most of life, and we have given up the majority of that ground uncontested. While on the one hand emphasising the church and spiritual life, pietism actually allows the church to become an essentially peripheral institution, irrelevant to life in the world.

Pietism also typically derides pleasure in life and the world, viewing this present world as comparatively unimportant. Pietists often refused to enjoy good food, marital sex, beauty and indeed life’s many joys, with clear parallels to medieval asceticism. Out of such a distorted view of reality pacifistic ideals also emerged, according to which being killed by thugs assaulting you in the street or being slain by invading military forces is preferable to killing one of the attackers, since the pietist knows he is going to heaven but the hoodlum may not know Christ and would therefore go to hell. This kind of pious sentimentality is commonplace in today’s evangelicalism, where God’s law is neither known, nor regarded as important. The salvation of individuals from hell is seen as the preeminent concern for the pietist, not the glory, justice and kingdom rule of God. From its inception pietism was implicitly antinomian, seeing no place for God’s law-Word. And yet, modern pietistic evangelicalism is divided up into numerous groups, denominations and communions all too ready to condemn one another for not being holy or spiritual enough, too charismatic or too reformed and doctrinal, rather than focusing on bringing every area of life and thought into captivity to Christ.

An immediate offspring of this dualism and pietism is retreatism. Modern churchianity seems to overlook many of the clear demands of Scripture. In Matthew 10:8 we are told, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” In 1 Corinthians 6 the believers are told to establish courts of arbitration to judge God’s people in terms of God’s Word. We also see the believers in Acts caring for the poor, widows, and orphans. The early church quickly launched hospitals, care homes for abandoned children, schools, homes for the elderly without families, and much else besides. It was not a church in retreat from the world, but an organic body determined to live out the life of the kingdom, teaching and discipling all the nations in terms of everything Christ commanded. Long before the church was permitted to own buildings for worship, it had established a variety of institutions to meet needs. R. J. Rushdoony incisively commented:

"The personal impulse, and theologically grounded faith, that we have an obligation under God to minister to human needs, to bring every area of life under Christ’s dominion and God’s law, and the duty to make God’s earth His kingdom, all this has been abandoned as the church has retreated into the position of a mystery religion or cult. All the world is surrendered to evil, and only a little corner, the church and the people in it, represent Christ’s domain. How will Christ the king treat a church that hands His world over to His enemies? … It is amazing how many people there are who actually believe they are holier and purer because they have surrendered one area after another to Christ’s enemies."[1]

Because the church institute is rightly limited in its role and jurisdiction in the Christian life and human society, whenever and wherever an unscriptural dualism reigns, where artificial divisions of nature and grace, law and gospel, creation and redemption are propounded, God and his Word become theoretically imprisoned in the church and Christ’s reign is faithlessly limited to one sphere of life.

The recovery of Christianity

If the church institute is identified simplistically with the body of Christ and with the kingdom of God, then clearly the rule of Christ is only possible over that single institute. Moreover the gospel itself becomes wholly church-oriented – saving people for heaven and safety within the worshipping community until Christ returns.

But Christianity, the true gospel of the kingdom, cannot be locked up within a single institution any more than it can be corralled into the enclosure of individual salvation from the consequences of sin. For salvation, which implies total wholeness and restoration, is also deliverance from the power and corruption of sin. The scope of salvation is as broad as the scope of the Fall. Clearly then the faith of the gospel is centred in Christ himself, not an institution. This is why we are called Christians and our faith Christianity, not churchianity. As Willem Ouweneel has pointed out in his criticism of Daryl Hart:

"As long as we do not see the difference between the calling of the church [institute] and the calling of individual Christians, we will not make any progress in these things. For instance Hart tells us that the Bible “is the guide for church life,” and not “for political life.” This is a fundamental mistake. The Bible is the guide for Christian life, which is a far wider notion than just church life. Would Hart deny that the Bible is a guide for Christian husbands and Christian wives, and for Christian parents and Christian children? And why not for Christian employers and Christian employees (cf. Eph. 5:25-6:9)? And why not for Christian politicians, or Christian businesspersons? … The Bible is our starting point for developing a Christian worldview in which we investigate the creation ordinances for marriages, families, schools, companies, and so on…; for non-church life we do not rely only on reason and prudence, as he (following good scholastic traditions) asserts, but on scripture, as well as a Christian worldview rooted in scripture…. The church is not the “special community that renders worship to God.” Christians render worship to God at all times, in all circumstances."[2]

In so much of the evangelical community today churchism and churchianity have replaced Christianity. In Christianity, believers are living out, applying and asserting the Lordship and salvation-victory of Christ for every area of life, rooted in the scriptures.

The gospel is the wisdom and power of God according to the Bible, for Christ is the wisdom, the glory and power of God made manifest. His kingdom and rule is unlimited and extends over all the cosmos – of things visible and invisible, in this age and the one to come (See Col. 1; Eph. 1). Such wisdom in Christ and the gospel cannot be restricted to the church institute any more than the meaning of the reconciliation of all things to God can be limited to the soul of individual believers. God’s wisdom is for all people and nations and it is being manifest to all for the good of all. Surely the manifestation of this wisdom and grace must be the deepest desire of every Christian who loves the Lord with all his being. Seerveld asks the pertinent question:

"How can you live openly in this world, God’s cosmonomic theatre of wonder, while the (common) graciously preserved unbelievers revel in music and drama, painting, poetry and dance, with a riot of color, a deafening sound raised in praise to themselves and their false gods, how can you live here openly and be silent?  Are you satisfied with bedlam for God?  Where is our concert of freshly composed, holy stringed music?  Our jubilant dance of praise to the Lord?  What penetrating drama have our hands made? … Human existence is not absurd: we glory in the image of God!  The world is not a curse: it is good creation, struggling under sin toward final deliverance…we as a Christian community must serve up the new wine."[3]

The time has come to be done with the retreatist, pietistic and syncretistic gospel of churchianity that has led to the radical decay of our culture, the collapse of the Christian calling and the impotence of a politicised church. A new generation of Christians must, in the power of the Holy Spirit, take up the task afresh of being Christian lords in the development of creation and direction of culture as Christ Jesus intends.  For this we need true grace and wisdom not only in our churches but in our marriages and families, schools and civic associations, universities and businesses, political parties and guilds. We need the truth of the Christian gospel to permeate family, church and state and every sphere of life as leaven through a loaf. We must boldly proclaim and apply, in detail, the wisdom of God for all domains of life, regarding not only the way of personal salvation, but for the entirety of our lives for the reconciliation of all things to God. Only in this way will the gospel be unhindered and the wisdom and renewing power of God be effectively released again in our time.

Read Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4 and Part 5.

[1]Willem J. Ouweneel, The World Is Christ’s: A Critique of Two Kingdoms Theology (Toronto: Ezra Press, 2017), 260.

[2]Seerveld, Christian Critique, 21-22.

[3]R. J. Rushdoony, An Informed Faith: The Position Papers of R. J. Rushdoony (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2017), 385