Majestic Protests from a Magisterial Protestant; or, someone needs to harass Don Miller some more, so it might as well be me

Since I wrote that post about Don Miller and his dislike for church, I’ve received messages from several different people asking me to clarify my positions, give them more thoughts on Miller, and even (awesomely) absolve them for skipping church. (I don’t know what to say to that last one, except I’m not His Holiness the Parson.)

Don Miller also posted a follow-up blog (which I actually linked to in my previous piece, but didn’t really address), in which he makes an interesting point:

Your church likely looks nothing like the church in the book of Acts…The church in America, in other words, is a product of a school-like system mingled with best business practices and is quickly moving toward entertainment-like institutions.

And, tortured prose aside, he’s tragically right about that. As I admitted in a recent post, the evangelical church has been treating itself as nothing more than an advertisement for Jesus for far too long. And if you’re already buying the product, you don’t need to see the ads.

But the thing is, I’m not an evangelical. Not exactly, anyway. I’m a Lutheran who was raised Presbyterian, which means I’ve spent my entire life as something technically called a “magisterial Protestant,” which is sort of like being an evangelical, and sort of like being a Catholic, with a big, steamy helping of ambiguity piled on top of the whole mess. Essentially, it means that I’m obligated not to believe in the Catholic Magisterium (or, for that matter, the Orthodox Magisterium), but still obligated to believe in magisterium (that is to say, a generic Church authority), specifically, the one of my synod and/or presbytery and/or conference and/or local congregation.

It’s confusing. Or, at least it is to Catholics and evangelicals (and probably to evangelical Catholics).

What it means is that I’ll agree with evangelicals that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone. But it also means that I take the whole of the Gospel accounts seriously, and large chunks of them only make sense if you read them with the understanding that Jesus is not just wandering around in Palestine saying a lot of catchy stuff like some sort of Jewish Buddha, but is actively building a Church. Jesus gives real authority to the Church, including the authority to baptize (Matt. 28:19), the authority to excommunicate (Matt. 16:19), the authority to celebrate the Eucharist (Mark 6:37), and the authority to forgive sins (John 20:23).

The upshot of this is that I don’t go to church primarily to learn stuff, or to connect with God emotionally. Those often happen — no one likes a good sermon or a good euphoria more than I do — but in the most fundamental sense, I’m there to receive the things that only the Church can give me: absolution from my sins and the flesh and blood of Christ. In this sense, what Miller says about “connecting with God” outside of church makes about as much sense to me as “I don’t go to the grocery store anymore; I feel much closer to Billy-Bob the Grocer when I’m talking to him on the phone.” Even if it’s true, you’re missing the point, dude.

And you’re starving.

Catholics do a much better job than Protestants of making the distinction between the Church and the Mass — that is, the difference between the Body of those who follow Christ and the ordinary means through which that Body is nourished. We Protestants, though, talk about both being a “member of the church” and also “going to church,” as if those two things were somehow equivalent. (Lutherans sometimes refer to “going to church” as “attending the Divine Service,” but that doesn’t do much aside from confusing absolutely everybody.) In reality, they’re separate things in the same way that being alive and eating are. There’s no way to stay alive without eating, and there’s no point in eating if you’re not alive (unless you’re a zombie, which in this metaphor is probably a…Unitarian? or something?). The one supports the other, but they’re not equivalent.

The problem with the Protestant tradition is that we are far too focused on being not-Catholic to read the Scriptures honestly. We deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the saving power of baptism because Catholics believe that stuff, and Catholics are icky. We deny that anyone can hold authority because we’re all fans of democracy. We deny there’s any value in the Tradition because we take sola scriptura a little too literally. 

All that is to say, in our efforts as Protestants to be as not-Catholic as possible, we’ve practically defined the Church out of existence — and we shouldn’t be surprised at all when people decide to walk away from such a hollow shell. If forgiveness is not to be found in the Church, and Christ is not to be found in the Host, then what purpose does the Church serve, exactly? It’s not a rhetorical question; it’s one that we should all be asking ourselves. We Protestant-types like to think of ourselves as reading the Bible seriously, so we all need to think hard about what the magisterial passages (like the ones I’ve alluded to) mean, exactly. Until that happens, we can expect to continue doing what Protestants have always done best: fragment and fragment some more.



The following is required reading for the course (at my school-like system mingled with best business practices that is quickly moving toward entertainment-like institutions):

Radio, Rats, B.F. Skinner (Pandora): a descent into madness

What Christians Can Learn from the “Atheist Megachurch”

Equality is Medicine, Not Food.

6 thoughts on “Majestic Protests from a Magisterial Protestant; or, someone needs to harass Don Miller some more, so it might as well be me

  1. hm, i appreciate this post and the heart behind it but as with everything i’ve read on why Don Miller is such a naughty naughty boy, i am yet to read something that comes close to convincing me… and don’t get me wrong – i absolutely love the church – my dad was a pastor [uh oh] and i pretty much grew up in the church and despite not particularly wanting to follow in his footsteps, studied as a primary school teacher and then completely worked and lived and ministered in the church in every kind of way imaginable [or a bunch at least] – i am currently working for a non-profit organisation but a few months ago started working part time at my local church where we have loved being a part of the community – i think Sunday church is amazing and good and fine and well…

    but i think the church is bigger than that – and i think you read my post on that: which was written while i was in South Africa recently and so didn’t have enough space and time to fully go through everything i wanted to say so maybe i will need to write some more soon… but i see the definition of church [as i think Don does to a similiar extent] at God’s people gathered to do God’s things – that seems to more fully describe Jesus’ ministry than once-a-week-in-a-building does and also Paul’s and also the early churches… as for not being fed well there is just so much more opportunity to be fed at home [with books, the internet. podcasts etc] than there is at a sunday service and when i was pastoring a vineyard church back in South Africa i would hope that people would use their week to be fed so that they came on Sundays to encourage and pray for and build up and serve [because feeding had already been taken care of]

    and more. but i just think church is so much bigger than simply those people meeting in that place at that specific time – and i think you do – and i think so does Don – i just think we aren’t hearing or completely ‘getting’ each other on this…

    but i love your heart and passion as i see it in this post and if i have to describe my passion in life i say ‘mobilising the church to live out what we say we believe’ – some of that happens inside the building but the majority of it happens outside of the walls of my local sunday meeting place for absolutely sure.

    and hopefully yours too
    keep on
    love brett fish

    • You’re absolutely right, Brett. Feeding can happen at home, on an everyday basis, and when people do come to church, they should be coming there to encourage and pray for and build up and serve each other (although hopefully more feeding is happening, too, because there can never be too much of that). But that’s the thing: you have to be there to do any of those things, and people who stay home (and I’m including myself in this because I miss church more often than I like to admit) can’t do any of those things. Because we aren’t there. The Body of Christ needs to meet together to build each other in faith and we should be doing that more often than once a week, but we are specifically called to do so once a week. When I miss church, I don’t just miss out on the opportunity to learn something or sing to God, I miss out on the opportunity to be built up and encouraged by those around me, and I deny them the opportunity to receive that benefit from me. You’re absolutely right that this is something that should be done in church, but it can’t be done in church if I don’t show up.

      I get what you’re saying about the church is larger than a once-a-week meeting, and yeah, it is. You’re absolutely right, but that in no way negates the importance of that once-a-week meeting, especially since the Bible tells us, in no uncertain terms, to have it. To gather together, in as large a body of believers as possible, for a time of fellowshipping with each other and meeting with God. Because that’s just the thing; if you read (and maybe you already have) Luke’s previous blog post you’ll see that he’s sure, and to a lesser extent (simply because I’m not familiar with Miller’s work) I’m sure that he does connect with God in his work and that is good for him spiritually. But I know where God promised to meet us, and commanded us to meet Him, and that’s in the bread and wine (or matza and grape juice, whatever) of communion. That’s what look was getting at here when he talks about being fed. Not that Miller isn’t getting any spiritual nourishment, that almost certainly isn’t true. But if he’s not going to church, where is he taking communion? And that’s one of the most important ways we as Christians can be spiritually nourished.

      If you have time, I highly recommend reading this article: (again, I’m assuming you haven’t already) because he goes a lot more in-depth with a lot of the things I tried to say here, he just says them a lot better than I do.

      • I hear you and imagine if we were face to face you might be surprised at how on the same page w are with a bunch of this stuff. I think where a lot of people are missing me on this – I can’t really speak for Don – is that I am suggesting all of the elements of the Sunday meeting but also suggesting that maybe they don’t have to be in what we call the church building for them to be seen as church. You speak about the importance of communion and yet the context of the original communion was a meal which we have in some ways reduced to a sip and a dip. I am suggesting maybe when people actually break the bread of a real live meal together and their conversation is centered around God and the things of the kingdom and where love is evident and there is invitation and even reaching out to the least of these in that moment, that maybe that is church and quite possibly a more real, relevant and effective version of it than much of what goes down in many church buildings on a Sunday.

  2. Pingback: Donald Miller Left Me Standing at the Altar, in More Ways Than One | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

  3. Pingback: Cults of Personality: I Promise I Only Talk About Steven Furtick a Little Bit in This | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

  4. Pingback: Links: 10 July 2015 | think hard, think well

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s