07 November 2015

Baptist Polity, The American Flag and Idols in Worship

A local Baptist Church recently and perhaps unknowingly called a Calvinist to occupy their pulpit. He's a good man and I've enjoyed conversing with him. To my very pleasant surprise he also revealed to me that he had removed the 'flags' from the front of the auditorium. The flags of course would refer to the American and so-called Christian flags that are almost ubiquitous in American Churches.

His position is not quite my own but is nevertheless one I can appreciate. Unlike me he would still consider himself to be patriotic and politically minded. It goes without saying he would identify with the Right-wing of American politics.

So why remove the flags? Because as one committed to Scripture he realizes they simply do not belong. His position is one I commonly associate with the people in the Church of Christ denomination. While they're patriotic they realize such expressions do not belong in worship. Christian worship should not be tied to nation or tribe and expressions of appreciation for anyone or anything but God alone would border on idolatry.

They would feel the same with regard to Christmas. While most of them keep and celebrate the holiday, they recognize that it has no precedent in Scripture and there's certainly no instructions or mandate regarding it. Just as they would rightly reject candles, vestments and musical instruments, they also reject the introduction of man-made holy days.

That said, in terms of the culture, most of them (perhaps inconsistently) will erect trees in their homes and go along with most of the cultural norms.

There's a similarity or at least an understanding in these positions with that which I advocate but of course I would argue for a much more extensively thought out and applied position that leads to the rejection of these things part and parcel.

The Baptist pastor I mentioned was well intentioned but I was hardly surprised when he met some opposition. During a recent administrative meeting the issue was raised and voices called for their return. One elderly gentleman apparently argued 'There are veterans here', as if that somehow determines what we do in worship.

Sadly the pastor lost the argument and because Baptist polity has borrowed from American democracy rather than the norms provided in Scripture they actually defeated him by vote. The flags are restored.

Though some protest vociferously when you identify their patriotism as a form of idolatry, this instance couldn't make it any clearer. That's exactly what it is.

These same folks if attending an Evangelical church in France or China would be surprised and offended to find their national flags placed in the front of the auditorium. They would find it odious to sing nationalistic songs... even if they made vague references to deity.

And they would be right to be offended.

The primary argument against the flags is rooted in the New Testament itself. Secondarily we might appeal to the Early Church and laugh at the absurd notion that Christians would have placed Roman or even Persian banners in a place of prominence while they gathered to worship.

'But America is a Christian nation', someone will surely say.

I'll say it again. That has to be addressed on two fronts.

1. The Doctrinal Claim. Scripture will quickly deal with that. They will  find no support in the Apostolic witness of the New Testament nor their witness with regard to the Old and how it should be applied in our New Covenant context. The Scriptures not only fail to support such a notion, they are explicitly against it.

2. The Historical Claim. Did the Founders specifically create a Christian country? The answer on that point is an unequivocal 'no'. In fact it can be easily demonstrated that they were specifically breaking with the Constantinian tradition. The United States was the first nation in the Western tradition since the Dark Ages to eschew a specifically 'Christian' (in reality Constantinian) polity. While we cannot embrace patriotic feelings and commitments the US break with Constantine and Charlemagne is something to be thankful for.

Only be redefining the term Christian can we possibly apply it to society. While the Founders were not in any way hostile to Social Christianity, they did not in any way mean to construct a Christian state. Some were overtly hostile to the content of Scripture and historical Christian doctrine. That said, they were amenable enough to the idea that Christianity was the dominant and de facto religion of the land. But in their minds the Enlightenment ideals expressed in the Declaration and Constitution were most certainly supreme.

As far as a Christian culture, we can debate what the means until the sun comes up tomorrow. And yet once again, the New Testament defines these concepts and the historical argument not only fails the Biblical test, it is pretty dubious historically. Even if the Founders had established America as an explicitly Christian nation, they would have been wrong to do so.

It's rank idolatry for the Church to embrace this romanticised narrative and theologize it. America is confused with the Kingdom and many American sins (starting with the bloody rebellion that birthed it) are rationalised, justified and even glorified.

It was a sad and shameful episode for this local Baptist congregation. In addition it must be pointed out that it also demonstrates the unbiblical polity that most of these churches have adopted.

The Church of Jesus Christ is not a democracy. The New Testament establishes rule by a plurality of elders. This is not the Presbyterian system which is rooted in regional 'presbyteries' or synodical type bodies made up of clergy. In that system, the presence of ordained elders sent by the regional body or presbytery establishes and ratifies the existence of local congregations. This hierarchical system is as unbiblical as Episcopacy.

The New Testament polity is congregational but does not imagine congregations operating in isolation. They are united to each through the bond of Spirit and brotherly filiation... not institutional forms and bureaucracy. Denominations do not forge unity. In fact they create often unnecessary divisions. Their unity is artificial and in terms of the Church at large, rooted in schism.

What? Should each city have a hundred different congregations all acting independently with no bureaucracy to unite them? Yes. The bureaucracies have done nothing to unite them anyway. Get rid of institutionalised clericalism and denominations and at that point individual congregations would be liberated and able to work on a case-by-case basis with other congregations. They would have to evaluate them and decide what level of participation, fellowship and cooperation is possible.

'That's just chaos,' decries the Presbyterian hierarch. To which we respond it is the Spirit which brings unity... or not. While God uses Means to be sure, the Means are ordained by Scripture and are all Word-based. A polity rooted in Clerical Councils smacks more of Rome's claim to Apostolicity than it does of normative New Testament polity. It's worth saying again, the way in which Apostolic authority was exhibited and exercised in Acts 15 is obsolete. No ecclesiastical body can claim 'It seems good to us and the Holy Spirit' in issuing a declaration. Such a claim represents a categorical rejection of Sola Scriptura a claim Rome is happy to embrace.

Acts 15 is a normative and descriptive account of how the Apostolic Church dealt with doctrinal disputes. It is descriptive in the sense it cannot be exactly replicated. We have no Apostles. It is therefore not prescriptive nor was it given to create a new tier of ecclesiastical hierarchy vested with extra-congregational authority. Informal synods can most certainly be formed. It is denominations that prevent this from happening. These synods can issue declarations but they do not bear the weight or import of Apostolic authority.

The New Testament polity certainly calls for a plurality of elders. There is no office of 'pastor' to speak of. There are elders. Some indeed focus more on rule and others are perhaps more gifted in the realm of public teaching but the offices are the same. There is no hierarchy with the congregation, no 3-office position common in Presbyterianism. Elders are not clerics. They are neither prelates nor some kind of a spiritual aristocracy.

That said, elders serve a purpose. They are to shepherd the flock and it is they who are charged and called to teach the word to the people. When disputes arise, the elders are called to judge and adjudicate the dispute by interpreting Scripture. They are primarily to lead by example, but do have authority to discipline if it comes to that. It needs to be understood they are not lords or managers charged with regulating the minutiae of people's lives. Shepherding is not lordship. They are not spouses, parents or priestly mediators.

But the idea that everyone in the congregation has authority equal to the elders is as erroneous as the notion that the elders are some kind of aristocracy. Both forms in the end trump the authority of Scripture.

Beware of Presbyterian apologetics. They often caricature Congregationalism by attacking this unbiblical democratic form that is common in Evangelicalism while ignoring the other form of Congregationalism that's well rooted in history, even in their own Reformed tradition. They do well to ignore it, because only a Congregationalist can expose Presbyterianism for what it is... Episcopacy in but another form. John Milton spoke the truth.

That said we are with them in their criticism of this democratic style of Congregationalism. It's erroneous and this flag episode demonstrates this in all too clear a manner.

A great misdeed was done and it was facilitated by an unbiblical polity. The small minds of those committed more to American idealism than Biblical doctrine won the day. There are many lessons to be learned from this episode and it affords us several issues upon which we may reflect.


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