Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Church: Quantitatively Olympian or Qualitatively Christian?

Today we continue our reflections on The Subversion of Christianity by Jacques Ellul (trans. Geoffrey Bromiley; Eerdmans, 1986). Today we also continue to reflect on the subversion of the Church through success; that is, on the corruption of the Church through its pursuit of growth in power, people, and property.
By the 300s, the Church began to suffer permanently from subversion through success. With it came an alliance with elites in other social groups and an overwhelming number of people. With it the Church became a mass institution rather than remaining the small, distinct, faithful witness that Jesus had called it to be.
“Jesus told his disciples that they were a little flock. All his comparisons tend to show that the disciples will necessarily be small in number and weak: the leaven in the dough, the salt in the soup, the sheep among wolves, [etc.] Jesus does not seem to have had a vision of a…triumphal church encircling the globe. He always depicts for us a secret force that modifies things from within, that acts spiritually, that shows us community, unable to be anything else but community” (35).
The Church became quantitatively gigantic but qualitatively microscopic. It became qualitatively Olympian rather than remaining Christian. “How can masses of this kind conceivably be organized as a community? How can they conceivably have a faith that is personal, profound, militant, and enlightened? How can they conceivably abandon their ancient [Olympian] prejudices and lifestyles and beliefs?” (35). They can’t.
Jacques emphasizes an insight made by the theologian Soren Kierkegaard of Copenhagen. Soren noted that all organized Olympian groups increase in power and significance with an increase in members and means. In unexpected contrast, the faithful witness of the Church qualitatively decreases as its numbers increase. When everyone becomes a Christian, then no faithful witness to Jesus remains. “In Christendom there is not the slightest idea of what Christianity is” (36).
Beginning in the 300s, the Church became an organized Olympian group dedicated to growth in power, people, and property. “The words and teachings of priests and bishops were blindly accepted. People attempted to live their lives in some conformity with the commands that were given by the church and that very quickly became pure and simple morality” (36).
Being a Christian became something distinct from being a faithful witness to Jesus. To be a Christian, one simply had to be baptized and join a church. To be a faithful witness, one had to have a “living, committed, personal faith” and “to keep up the great movement of inner and outer freedom” (36) accomplished already in Jesus.
The apostle Paul made statements like “Everything is lawful” and “You are free—be free.” These words could only be understood by a small number of people reading the Bible, praying, and being community together. Once the Church chose to pursue the Olympian goal of growth, and so allowed Olympians to join the Church, these Olympians could not be left “completely free to choose their way of life and decide their own conduct” (37). They had to be controlled.
To control increasing numbers of Olympian members required an increasing number of leaders. The more numerous the priests became, “the more sacred and complex [their] authority had to be” (37).
But then the increasing number of needed priests became a problem. “They could not be trained seriously. The depth of their faith could not be verified. Their aptitude for directing believers and teaching biblical truth correctly remained in doubt. Ecclesiastical superiors were thus necessary to supervise, control, and instruct the priests. The glorious freedom that is in Christ could not be tolerated. It was replaced by clear and strict commandments” (37).

Copyright © 2015 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.