(Apostolic Succession for Newbies, Episode One)
Have you noticed the creeping narcissism in the evangelical church?
Perhaps you have noticed it in the architecture as churches have been remade into the image of the places the world gathers: Foyers into coffeehouses, sanctuaries into concert halls, altars into comedy club stages. Candles and incense replaced with light shows and fog machines borrowed from the nightclub scene.
Perhaps you have noticed it in the songs we sing. The self-referential lyrics (count how often “me” and “I” appear)…the way the act of our worshipping becomes the subject rather than God…how few of our songs are about the nature and glory of God.)
Perhaps you have noticed it in the felt-needs orientation of our preaching – With topics chosen by focus group and slickly marketed: “Come for our series, ‘Awesome Christian Sex!’” Or the way the preaching of the word of God has been reduced to a mere interruption in the song service (joining announcements and the offering.)
Surely you couldn’t help but notice it in Victoria Osteen’s recent exhortation, “You don’t worship for God. You worship for yourself.” Oh, she was criticized her for it, but is this not a message we too are subtly sending? Perhaps Ms. Osteen is just more honest about it?
Where did this start?
The great strength of evangelicalism is a desire to reach people where they are with the Good News of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, without a great deal of both self-awareness and self-discipline, our charisms tend to become our curses. As with most problems, our creeping narcissism is an unanticipated consequence – the end result in our culture of 5 centuries of the B-side of Reformers reclamation of the Bible from “ex cathedra” (infallible interpretation by the papacy). “Sola scriptura” (the scriptures alone), was the rallying cry. Unfortunately, as “sola scriptura” is popularly articulated today, we no longer need a church at all, we are each capable, called even, to be our own sole interpreters of scripture – the Bible is “self-authenticating, clear to the rational reader, its own interpreter of itself, and sufficient of itself to be the final authority of doctrine.”  In other words, each individual’s head is the ultimate standard…and, just like that, the idea of the “priesthood of the believer” has been elevated to a de facto “papacy of the believer.” No wonder we have 40,000 denominations…and no wonder an increasing number people are choosing to stay home from them. After all, if I am my own pope, then I am my own church…which, come to think of it, comes pretty close to making me my own “god.”
Regrettably, this is a wholesale corruption of what the Reformers actually taught. Calvin, Luther, and Cranmer each have notebooks filled with quotations from the early church fathers. Chris Armstrong, editor of Christian History Magazine, writes, “The Reformation is an argument not just about the Bible but about the early Christian fathers, whom the Protestants wanted to claim…you look and you see it everywhere. The Reformers use the Fathers all over the place…Calvin read Augustine…Luther read Jerome. The index of Calvin’s Institutes is filled with an enormous number of quotations from the Fathers. And in the first preface to that work Calvin did his best to show his teachings were in complete harmony with the Fathers. The Protestants…were keen to have ancestors. They knew that innovation was another word for heresy. ‘Ours is the ancient tradition,’ they said. ‘The innovations were introduced in the Middle Ages!’ They issued anthologies of the Fathers to show the Fathers had taught what the Reformers were teaching.” You see, the magisterium, the gathered wisdom of bishops interpreting the scriptures under the lineage of the tradition was not their problem. In fact, they went to great lengths to prove specifically that their teaching was the Fathers!
But alas, we have jettisoned the Reformers’ actual belief in the wisdom of the church’s teachers, whose interpretation was expected to stand in the tradition of the early Fathers. The mess of pottage we have traded it for is a disembodied sound bit. Disengaged from the Reformers reliance on the Fathers, we have what can be cynically referred to as “solo scriptura” – my private interpretation. And when “solo scriptura” is combined with American individualism and allowed to simmer with post-modern “truthiness,” we get a toxic soup of the dystopic self. We then feed this soup to a generation reared as the centers of the universe, then wonder that they are consumed with self. How could they not be?
…when “solo scriptura” is combined with American individualism and allowed to simmer with post-modern “truthiness,” we get a toxic soup of the dystopic self. We then feed this soup to a generation reared as the centers of the universe, then wonder that they are consumed with self. How could they not be?
The church has consumed “me” like a diet of high-fructose corn syrup. It tasted so good going down, that we did not notice that we grew both addicted to the taste and unable to roll over in our spiritual flabbiness. Worse, the poison has so clogged our synapses that we are unable even to remember what rigorous, healthy spiritual activity was once like.
Pastors have given up expecting meaningful commitment, service, or faithfulness from congregations. I remember suggesting to a pastor of a church of 3500 how transformative it would be to their community if they assembled 350 groups of 10 to meet and read and pray the Bible together in a year. I was stunned when the pastor said, “We have 3500 who attend, but we only have about 50 who are with us.”
I am no longer stunned. I have watched how anything that smacks of commitment is sold on its potential to “bless.” This has now extended to our giving. Perry Noble’s church is offering a 90-day money back guarantee on tithing. Seriously! Giving in order to get. It seems that every week contemporary mega-evangelicalism offers a new narcissistic low-water mark. And just like that, the commodification and monetization of the church is complete.
Where did we think “nothing but you and a Bible” was going to end? Where did we think that reshaping the church after our cultural preferences would lead?
Have you noticed the creeping narcissism? Do you have examples of your own? Do you see a way out?
Next Week: Part 2- Conciliarity: The Early Church’s balance between “rule by the man” (A secular idea adopted by Rome) and “rule by the book” (an Islamic idea adopted by Protestants).
 To be fair, mainliners have had this for years, but it plays out in different ways.