The Tares Among the Wheat
A Short Satire About Some of the Strange People Who Are Drawn to Different Types of Churches
|Someone wrote: “I
have a friend who is a pastor in the Baptist church and is constantly
having to settle and referee petty squabbles in his church between
crybabies of all ages. It’s totally unbelievable! If I told you some of
the silly, immature petty stuff that he has to listen you’d throw me off
this list for lying.”
To which I responded.
Sadly, such stuff knows no denominational boundaries. Having been licensed to preach back in 1965, and having been the pastor of Grace since 1975, I’ve seen a lot wackiness and had ridiculous demands made on me many times. Years ago I determined that I would balance a biblical and blunt pulpit ministry with trying to accommodate people pretty much in every other area, which means that sometimes I have allowed myself to be used by people to the detriment of my family. With certain types of folk, that doesn’t work anyway, and they eventually hit the road looking for greener pastors. After all, hurting people are looking for something, and until they find their basic need met in the Lord Jesus Christ, they are going to continue their search for the perfect church—one where they are the center of attention. Since the Fall, we all have a deep-seated, latent need to be worshipped.
Different denominations and ecclesiastical traditions appeal to different types of hurting or angry people. As a pastor friend of mine once said, “Reformed churches attract neurotics; Charismatic churches attract psychotics.” So pastors in different traditions sometimes have to deal with different types of “sick” people. A man with psychotic hallucinations wouldn’t get the time of day at a stereotypical anti-Charismatic church, but the folks down the street aren’t about to reject what may be a prophet of God: “What if God really did come in the form of a talking squirrel named Rocky?” On the other hand, an uptight fellow who flunked Toilet Training 101, and who uses his smattering of theological knowledge to cover up his sins and insecurity, probably won’t receive a warm welcome at the Sweet Radical Apostolic Fellowship, but he’ll make elder or deacon fast at the Olevianus Reformed Presbyterian Church.
I realize that I am painting with rather broad strokes in the above paragraph, drawing a picture that, hopefully, no church is completely like, also one can substitute almost any anti-Charismatic or anti-Pentecostal congregation for the Olevianus Reformed Presbyterian Church (such as, the King James Memorial, Pre-Tribulation Rapture, Teetotaler, Independent Baptist Church.), and the churches named will still be on opposite ends of the ecclesiastical spectrum; I chose the name Olevianus Reformed Presbyterian Church because it is an exaggeration of my own denominational tradition. Happily, I know of no church that is completely like either, because most churches are somewhere in between. And I chose names, which I hope are not used by real churches. Yet, there is far more reality to my little satire than one may imagine.
Back in seminary days, often the first question students asked each other was what the other fellow’s denomination was—kind of like men in bars asking each other which ball team the other pulls for. There was this older student who used to answer, “Sweet Radical Holiness.” He was actually an ordained Presbyterian minister and gave this answer as a gag. In a way it was a way of keeping people as arms’ length, because his wife had recently died, and he had asked his presbytery to relieve him of his pastorate so he could work on an advanced degree, giving himself time to reflect and rebuild before going back into the active ministry. But his trick answer was a two-edged sword, because modern day Presbyterian churches tend to be the opposite: neither sweet, nor radical, and not very committed to holiness—certainly not within the Holiness tradition, which they often view with contempt. I took my friend’s imaginary denomination and moved it beyond the Holiness tradition into its stepchild, Pentecostalism.
Sweetness characterizes my fictional Pentecostal church. There are virtues found among many Pentecostals, not the least of which is the openness that they sometimes show to needy people, an openness not often seen within the churches of the Reformed tradition. People have to hide their sins in Pentecostal / Charismatic churches, too, but they don’t have to in the beginning: here the homosexual, drunkard or adulterer can come with honesty and be loved and set free. Not so in many Reformed / Presbyterian churches, there, all too often, messy problems need to be kept secret, even at the outset. I realize I am speaking stereotypically, and there are many wonderful exceptions.
Not only is the ambience of this stereotypical Pentecostal or Charismatic church sweet and accepting, it is radical. Not being jaded by ecclesiastical and worldly knowledge, these folk take the Bible at face value: “If the Bible says we can raise the dead, we can raise the dead—open up that casket, Brother.” And, you know, God may sometimes respond to such simple faith by actually doing a miracle.
I called this church Apostolic. In denominations that have bishops, such as the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches, they view themselves as apostolic in the sense that they believe that an original apostle of Christ ordained someone, who in turn ordained someone, on and on, down to the current bishops of the church; this is called apostolic succession. In Baptist, Reformed and Presbyterian and similar churches, apostolic refers to the doctrine of the apostles; they view themselves as apostolic, because they believe they teach what the apostles taught. In the Pentecostal tradition, apostolic has to do with practice; they believe they do what the apostles did: speak in tongues, heal the sick, and so on. Each group makes a point that it is apostolic in distinction to the others. So that word is sometimes part of the name of a local Pentecostal church.
Finally, I called this imaginary Pentecostal / Charismatic church a fellowship, underscoring its rejection of the institutional church with its structures and traditions. Not only is this church anti-creedal, it wants to distance itself from the whole “pitiful” Church scene.
At the other end of the spectrum from the Sweet Radical Apostolic Fellowship is the Olevianus Reformed Presbyterian Church. I made up the name as a way of satirizing how certain churches sometimes use obscure jargon, seemingly oblivious to how we are perceived by outsiders. (Caspar Olevianus and Zacharius Ursinus wrote the Heidelberg Catechism in 1563, a fact not known to many within Reformed tradition, much less to the rest of the Christian world.) It is noble to remember the heroes of the faith who have long since been forgotten by their heirs, but it can also be a mark of intellectual pride, especially when it involves esoteric knowledge. One can find that the marks of the ORPC are found in other anti-Charismatic churches, too.
All of us struggle with pride, especially the less secure we are, but it has been my experience that two groups seem particularly full of folk who are proud of their intellectual or social position: the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians.
My father’s mother was once visiting with another woman, sitting on a park bench the way people used to do, thinking nothing of talking to strangers. In the course of the conversation, the subject of religion came up, and my grandmother discovered that the other woman was a Baptist. “A Baptist?” she responded, “You seem too good to be a Baptist.” That was in the early days of the twentieth century, when it was sometimes said of small towns, particularly in the South: the Presbyterians / Episcopalians owned it, the Methodists managed it and the Baptists worked it. That was back when Baptists didn’t have much money, and almost nobody knew anybody who was a Pentecostal. A far cry from today, but I think the elitist spirit is still there in the churches of the Presbyterian / Reformed tradition.
An acquaintance of mine, a Presbyterian minister, once said to me, “Presbyterianism is the thinking man’s religion.” It really is. For one thing, take the educational requirements: to be ordained, a person has to have completed college and seminary. That is a minimum of seven years, four for college and three for seminary, originally with three languages being required: Latin, Greek and Hebrew.
The educational requirement is probably one reason we lost the frontier to the Methodists and Baptists. In other churches a newly converted man who showed an aptitude for teaching could be apprenticed to a pastor and soon be ordained himself without ever having to quit his job and go off to school. Not so in the Reformed churches—think about it: at the time of the War for Independence, two-thirds of the colonists were, in some sense, Calvinistic. By the twenty-first century, Reformed people are a distinct minority, and the mainline Presbyterian Church is dying. But it is still a powerful and well-educated minority. And this only reinforces the intellectual pride; the epithet, the frozen chosen, is fitting in many ways.
Presbyterian / Reformed churches are sometimes not marked by sweetness but harshness, especially in those branches that have not jettisoned their historical theological base. Doctrine is the big thing, approached with the precision of an engineer. Here is what I mean. Let’s say that an engineer is going to build a bridge across the Mississippi River. He cannot afford to care what people think of him or how he comes across. “Hang it all, Man, we must be correct. I don’t care what you think. I’ll not have this bridge collapse because of your idiotic opinion. I have a moral obligation to ignore your ignorance.”
That is the one vital thing when it comes to building bridges of steel and concrete; it is different when it comes to the bridge between a holy God and sinful man. The gospel ministry is not only a science, it is an art, and the cure of souls is its great work. Knowing the Queen of the Sciences, theology, is vital, but kindness and gentleness are prerequisites, too. Augustine’s motto must ever be our own: “Fortiter in re, suaviter in modo.” (Strongly in deed, gently in manner.) Or, as Saint Paul put it, “Speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Tragically, all too few Reformed / Presbyterian churches are characterized by being suaviter in modo; instead of being sweet in their approach, they are too often harsh.
The rest of the name was designed to show that this church is concerned not only to be Presbyterian, but thoroughly so, emphasizing that it is more Reformed than other Presbyterian churches. Now, we should all seek to be as biblical as possible, but there is a Pharisaical kind of religion that substitutes theological precision for a vital, growing relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Often, this is marked by people’s demanding that others be more precise than the Bible itself.
Sound theology can sometimes become a fig leaf, covering up one’s failures, insecurities and sins, but so, too, can speaking in tongues or having a gigantic repertoire of Bible verses memorized. These hidden things are often moral and sexual in nature, analogous to what psychiatrists call Reaction Formation. My imaginary fellow with a smattering of Reformed theology and who quickly became an elder in the Olevianus Reformed Presbyterian Church is not a completely unknown specimen. Sadly, Reformed churches have leaders who molest children, but cover this with theological soundness. They are not unlike the apparently supernaturally gifted Pentecostal leader who is involved in homosexuality. I have counseled with men in both situations, as well as the adult child of a “non-denominational” minister, whose father regularly molested her in her early post-pubescent years, but the man was still as strict and legalistic as all get out with everybody.
So when I quoted my friend who said, “Reformed churches attract neurotics; Charismatic churches attract psychotics,” I am speaking of the differences in these two traditions and what draws one kind of sick person to one and not to the other. A kindly psychotic is accepted in my imaginary Charismatic church, but an obviously proud, mean-spirited man who drops his bit of theology here and there to impress others, does not impress anyone at the Sweet Radical Apostolic Fellowship. Sensing that, he moves on, eventually joining, then becoming an elder at the Olevianus Reformed Presbyterian Church or a deacon at the King James Memorial, Pre-Tribulation Rapture, Teetotaler, Independent Baptist Church.
“All moments of unhappiness in life are ultimately due
to a person’s experience of separation from God. A person who is in real
communion with God and with the Lord Jesus Christ is happy. It does not
matter whether he is in a dungeon, or whether he has his feet fast in the
stocks, or whether he is burning at the stake; he is still happy if he is
in communion with God. Is not that the experience of the saints down the
centuries? So the ultimate cause of any misery or lack of joy is
separation from God, and the one cause of separation from Him is self. And
self always means defiance of God; it always means that I put myself on
the throne instead of God, and therefore it is always something that
separates me from Him. Whenever we are unhappy it means that some way or
other we are looking at ourselves and thinking about ourselves, instead of
communing with God.”