There is an intense debate on ecclesiology going on in Reconstructionist circles, but the rhetoric seems more intense than the substance in many cases.
In some ways this debate is similar to previous intramural debates within the community. In other ways it is not. One difference is that this time around we have platforms such as Facebook. Although social media is a great tool, it is also used too often as a means to throw loaded, attention-seeking, rhetorical bombs at your intellectual opponents.
It was on one of those bomb-dropping social media posts that something became very clear to me. Some “fire breathing” Christians were all out of fuel and left with only hot air. These sharks have lost their teeth. While these Reconstructionists are quite helpful in regards to many issues, on ecclesiology they lack any burn.
Thousands of words have been written and spoken on this topic: from Hodge, to Bavinck, to Rushdoony, to Chilton, to McDurmon, to Marinov. Much has been written on this topic. It is not a new discussion and the views held on the Church are not new. These links provide just a taste of what has been discussed.
The Catholicity of Christianity and The Church by Herman Bavinck deals with the Two Kingdom implications of conflating the universal Church with institutionality.
Systematic Theology Chapter Seven by RJ Rushdoony is an in-depth exploration of ecclesiology and authority. This volume is avoided at all costs by those who oppose Reconstructing ecclesiology according to God’s Word. A dangerous book for the best reasons.
Modern Presbyterianism and the Destruction of the Principle of Plurality of Elders by Bojidar Marinov tackles certain problems with modern Presbyterian polity while (ignored) defending Biblical eldership.
The Work of the Ecclesiastical Megalomania by David Chilton is a lecture given that discusses ecclesiological abuses AND the theological root of ecclesiological abuses within the Reconstructionist community. Within Chilton affirms Biblical eldership. This lecture was viciously assaulted and condemned. Some things haven’t changed.
Equivocation on “the church” and the church it’s destroyed by Joel McDurmon exposes the equivocating of Two-Kingdom Ecclesiology purveyor Kevin DeYoung, likewise exposing the same ecclesiology held by some Reconstructionists.
The Nature, Government and Function of the Church: A Reassessment by Stephen Perks offers a great reassessment of the nature of the Church.
This is but a small sample. Needless to say, much has been said.
So what do the latest critics of Reconstructing ecclesiology have to say? It would seem that many would have you believe that our views on ecclesiology are based on emotional responses to our own personal anecdotes and bad experiences in the institutional churches. It would seem we are obsessed with the exceptions and we miss the rule. The claim is that our feelings are hurt by bad experiences we have had in institutional churches and we therefore adopt positions that fit our experience.
Perhaps these articles, podcasts, and social media posts are written in response to some other Christian Reconstructionists that have earned the scorn of these institutional church defenders? Maybe there really are a handful of Church-hating rebels that scorn any thought of elders or fellowship? But no. They are talking about the Reconstructionists and Abolitionists that have been questioning the standard ecclesiological presuppositions of the modern Reformed Church. In fact, when asked for resources on ecclesiology that answer what I and others are saying, we are directed to articles that do not address our specific questions. But we are told they at the same time answer our objections. To be sure, these purveyors of ecclesiological stagnation promise more content in months or even years. This reminds me of the responses I’ve been promised in regard to my work on the Church Repent Project. I won’t hold my breath. They may publish something eventually, and I truly do hope they hit the right target next time. So far, however, they are aiming at the wrong people, with the wrong arguments, and seem to feel mightily proud about their friendly fire.
And this IS friendly fire. While many critics assure us they love and respect those they ridicule, they often then publically proclaim us to be cool-aid drinkers, piranhas, cultists, renegades, and lone rangers. While I am no stranger to plain language, let us have some honesty. I personally have no respect for men I think are (metaphorically) cool-aid drinkers, piranhas, and cult members. We probably should just pick one: either we respect them, or they’re dangerous cultists. This faux-politeness, this making all the required Christiany statements about men you have zero genuine respect for, was ably exposed by Stephen C. Perks:
Many of those who complain about insulting language are themselves guilty of being insulting but their insults are disguised in pious language, when this really amounts to nothing more than being two-faced, and Christians seem to be experts at this. I’d rather someone say to my face what he really thinks in language that is straight forward than couch it in pious language that is disingenuous or behind my back, and I actually think this is more Christian than all the pious hypocrisy and two-faced rubbish one gets in church.
These are the simple facts thus far. The vast majority of the Reconstructionist critics who are resisting Reconstructing ecclesiology either do not follow or do not care about the long, detailed, often-repeated, covenantal arguments put forward from men ranging from Rushdoony to Marinov to myself. It is not that they have addressed the arguments and failed, but that they have failed even to address the arguments.
Instead of dealing with the theological arguments that have been made again and again, they pretend as if we are simply whining about the mean pastor we once had. At least that is what they apparently want you to believe with some of their posts.
Instead of honestly engaging with the theology being discussed, these men instead ignore the arguments and paint those they wish to belittle as immature boys who just don’t like authority. Instead of refuting the scripture and sound Van Tillian philosophy that forms the basis of what I (and many others) are saying about the Church, these soundbite spewing critics distract their audiences from the meat of the arguments and cling onto what is easier for them to deal with: anecdotes and personal experiences. They make Facebook post after Facebook post misrepresenting what is being said and continuously fail to meaningfully engage with any correction.
Getting the actual point
When a Reconstructionist writes a good piece about Public Education, it is guaranteed that parents and teachers will comment “well, not my school.”
When modern American policing is critiqued, it is guaranteed that police, police families, and statists will comment “not the cops I know.”
When Libertarians and Reconstructionists critique the State, it is guaranteed that many good Republicans will comment “not my Senator.”
Here’s the problem with these all-too-common commenters and Reconstructionist critics. The anecdotes aren’t the point. They are evidence and they can be useful, but they have never been the proof. They have never been the point. What makes this case somewhat more difficult to endure is that our intramural critics readily see this error in these other cases just listed, but fail to see the very same error in themselves in this case.
The public education critic is not saying that every last public educator and administrator is a femi-nazi trying to turn your child into a tranny communist. He is presenting a concise Theological position on why the system is flawed and should be done away with. The anecdotes are the supporting material. They are the fruit of the failed system, but not the root of the problem.
The modern law enforcement critic is not saying that every last officer is a bloodthirsty maniac trying to execute every brown person. He is presenting a concise Theological position on why the system is flawed and should be done away with. The anecdotes are the supporting material. They are the fruit of the failed system, but not the root of the problem.
The American State critic is not saying that every last politician or government employee is trying to rob you, enslave you, and kill you. He is presenting a concise Theological position on why the system is flawed and should be done away with. The anecdotes are the supporting material. They are the fruit of the failed system, but not the root of the problem.
Likewise, the critic of the Ministerial Industrial Complex is not saying that every last elder is a megalomaniac trying to lord over you and keep you in your pew while you are commanded to tithe for his Lexus. He is presenting a concise Theological position as to why the system is flawed and should be done away with. The anecdotes are the supporting material. They are the fruit of the failed system, but not the root of the problem.
This distinction is not complex or difficult to understand, yet the rhetoric coming from those who defend the status-quo in American church polity seem to have missed it. They point out how anecdotes and exceptions don’t make a good argument, while they ignore the good argument that is being made. They point out that some fruit is good, while we spend the bulk of our time discussing the poison in the root.
Furthermore, the countless anecdotes of ecclesiological megalomania, apathy, and abuse we bring up and criticize are somehow regarded as evidence against our actual theological views. These real and hurtful experiences are used against the victims. Consider this intellectual pivot in other areas of life. It would be as if having your child taught about the goodness of Islam at the local Elementary School delegitimizes philosophical arguments against public education; as if being wrongfully beaten by law enforcement delegitimizes philosophical arguments against modern law enforcement institutions; and as if having your property stolen by eminent domain delegitimizes philosophical arguments against statism. When you have genuine victims, you don’t blame the victims for speaking out. If what we are saying about all of these issues is true, we should expect many victims, and thus we should expect many anecdotes as well. Although personal experiences can affect how we perceive ideas, those experiences do not in any way delegitimize the rational arguments being made.
The point in the ecclesiology argument
Instead of engaging with the argument being made about mandatory local church membership, these current critics moan and groan about how we allegedly hate local churches and authority. All the while, the vast majority of those who are critiquing the modern American Reformed polity themselves have Biblical and regular fellowship. For example, I am a member of a local fellowship and fully affirm the need for elders. The resistors of any ecclesiological reform perform some fancy sleight-of-hand and argue for the general goodness of regular fellowship while acting as if that is an argument for mandatory local church membership as narrowly defined by them. It is a classic Motte and Bailey fallacy. It is easy to defend the goodness of fellowship and elders, but far more difficult to defend the soteriological necessity of local church membership. It is easy to defend the Biblical necessity for submission and authority, but far more difficult to defend their loaded definitions for “submission” and “authority.” Instead of tearing into the meat, breathing some actual fire, and being plain honest, we are presented with the bait-and-switch.
Unfortunately, critics have responded to the ecclesiological views of Rushdoony with a scornful and mocking attitude. They mockingly call those who hold the traditional Reconstructionist view on the Church “deconstructionists” as if the views are a novelty. Jason Sanchez rightly points out:
Deconstruction almost always comes before Reconstruction.
It takes a remarkable level of naivety and delusion to think that ecclesiology is the untouchable subset of Theology that should remain statically in place while we apply covenantal thinking to all other realms of Theology. Furthermore, they pompously parade their views as the “real” Reconstructionist view while ignoring Rushdoony (of all people) among others.
Further, they construct a caricature of those they wish to vilify and marginalize, calling critics names like “lone rangers” and painting them as haters of authority. This caricature is neither accurate nor charitable. Sanchez is correct. When old wineskins are cracked and leaky, they should be thrown out.
Lastly, it is sad and incredibly difficult to combat, but the refusal to represent your intellectual opponents accurately and to engage their ideas rather than caricatures is a matter of honesty. It is a matter of righteousness. Although ideas like the ones discussed by Rushdoony and Marinov may be difficult to follow at times, and although a great deal of personal baggage may exist in these discussions, there should be real effort put into attempting rebuttals of what is being argued for.
When the name-calling and dishonesty is added on top of the confusion, things only get far worse. There is such thing as a confused and ignorant man, but when the ignorant is arrogant in his ignorance, relationships get damaged to the point that genuine discussion, and thus resolution, is impossible.
I’m not saying that every last person who disagrees with Rushdoony on ecclesiology is sinning because of the disagreement, but I am saying that those who go to great lengths to ignore what is being said and instead choose to focus on personalities and strawmen have repenting to do. Not just changing of ideas, but personal repenting.
Of course, the same prideful sin can creep up on any side of a debate, but it seems to be the norm for many. In some cases, it is not only the norm, but the only tool they have. When you’re all out of fuel, stop huffing and puffing. Enough hot air.