A while back, I heard a story about former Roman Catholic Pope, and New Testament scholar Joseph Ratzinger.
Shortly after Vatican II, Ratzinger accepted a position on the editorial board of a theological journal called Concilium. Concilium is Latin for (ecumenical) “Council”. The stated purpose of Concilium was “to perpetuate the spirit of Vatican II.”
But by the early 70’s, he resigned from the board. He did so because he believed that perpetuating the spirit of Councils is never a good idea.
Councils are usually contentious, anxiety ridden moments. During them, the entire church pauses its work to consider a serious theological question or heresy. But once such questions are resolved, the church is supposed to turn with relief from its Council, and get itself back to its work of “Christifying” the world.
The problem, according to Ratzinger, was that an elongated spirit of Concilium would prevent the church from turning back to its mission. Instead, it would be as if the church were stuck in that contentious, never-ending, anxiety-ridden moment. And if this happens, if a Council becomes the essence of the church, then we can’t get back to our mission. We would be hampered in directing our full efforts to preaching Christ and his Kingdom to the world. “What we don’t want,” Ratzinger argued, ‘is perpetual hand wringing.’*
Now, I am not a Roman Catholic (any more). I am a Presbyterian minister and a self described Neo-Evangelical. But even so, I think it would be wise for us Evangelicals to consider Ratzinger’s thoughts as they apply to American Neo-Evangelicalism and the current socio-historical situation that we find ourselves in.
Neo-Evangelicalism is a movement of Christians who seek to utilize a more moderate approach to social engagement than what our Fundamentalist counterparts employed to combat religious liberalism/modernism. At least, that’s what we were supposed to be. The original goal was to engage society in winsome social, religious and political programs so as to reach people for Christ. To that end, we built seminaries, established journals, and created popular magazines. We even put two self-identifying Neo-Evangelicals in the White House.
Even at its inception, Neo-Evangelicalism’s raison d’etre (reason for being) has been to fight. Our movement is specifically designed for cultural and theological combat. Therefore, there is a very real argument to be made that Neo-Evangelicalism is actually a kind of Protestant Ecumenical Council. It is galvanized movement of Christians whose driving purpose is to identify liberal heresy and fight against it wherever it may be found.
Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Christians in every era and place are called to be on guard against heresy and false teaching. Gatekeeping, in that sense, is an occupational hazard.
But here’s the problem.
It is one thing to uphold orthodoxy. It is quite another to be stuck in a perpetual Council mode. And this is where Cardinal Ratzinger can help us.
Councils are supposed to be momentary things. That’s why there have been so few of them. They are times when we “insiders” gather together to iron out serious challenges that threaten the church in whatever form we might find them.
But with Evangelicalism, it seems our “Concilium” began early in the 20th century and a whole century later, we still haven’t ended. This is the Protestant version of what Ratzinger was so worried about.
Why would Perpetual Council Mode be a problem?
There are a variety of reasons why this is bad. Perhaps in a future post, I’ll try to list and discuss some of them. But for now, given the medium, I’ll only list and discuss one…fear. One problem with PCM is that it can often create a kind of Christianity that is largely characterized (and motivated) by fear.
The #1 oft-repeated command in the Bible is ‘do not be afraid.’ Most likely, the reason for this is that wisdom and maturity are two of the most important attributes that God’s people need in order to function as Kingdom agents on this earth. There are so many instances in everyday life where we will be faced with situations where the most appropriate (re)actions are not fully spelled out in the Bible. To act properly, we will need to exercise Godly Wisdom that only arises out of Spiritual maturity.
But fear cripples those particular attributes and makes even the wisest and most mature of us grossly myopic. Whenever you are faced with a problem, there may be a myriad of options in front of you. But fear tends to reduce our field of vision to one of 2 options: fight or flight. It is not too difficult to see how problematic this can be.
PCM Christianity is too often characterized by hand wringing fear. One only needs to read a bunch of Phillip Yancey’s books (and writers of his ilk) to see how widespread the problem once was (and in many cases, still is).
On one hand, it’s completely understandable given that a Council is only called when a serious threat needs to be dealt with. And Liberalism is, in fact, a serious threat. But an atmosphere of fear will only lead to hegemony, where everyone looks and acts the same in some cookie cutter fashion, when we really need to be heading towards Shalom, which largely depends on difference to be blessing.
It will also cripple our sheep by giving them a religion too inept to help them navigate many current “sticky” issues, but leaves everyone too afraid to challenge the ineptness, too afraid to figure out problems on their own and even worse…if they really need to, too afraid to leave.