This material from the Kuyper Foundation: Post Office Box 2, Taunton, Somerset, England, TA1 4ZD, www.kuyper.org
(Any bold in the quote is mine.)
Since the original version of this essay was first published in April 2000 I have become convinced that the subject with which it deals is at the heart of an issue of much greater importance, namely the need for further reformation of the Church. The fossilisation of the Church’s social life into a regime of set rituals controlled and performed by a professional priesthood was a major declension of the Church from the pattern set by the doctrine and example of the Lord Jesus Christ himself in his earthly ministry and the practice of the apostolic Church. This declension has had a serious impact on the mission of the Church. Nor is it a problem that is confined to the Episcopal Churches. Protestant Churches have also suffered from the corrupting effects of the same kind of ideology. The differences between Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches with regard to this particular issue have often boiled down to little more than terminology and fancy dress.
The destruction and fossilization of Christian social life goes a good ways further to pump up secularization than anything the State does.
Conversely, the growth and re-invigoration of Christian society – including the end of controlling specialists ruling over the Lord’s Supper and Baptism – will do more for the health of Christian society, assemblies, and congregations than any number of votes for Republicans or Conservatives.
As a social order the Church did not develop under this re- gime in a natural, i.e. biblically informed, way. After the apostolic age those aspects of the life of the Church as a social order that survived and flourished eventually metamorphosed into monastic orders under the influence of spiritual ideals that were alien to the Christian faith as understood in terms of a biblical world-view. According to R. L. Cole:
“The most potent of the forces antagonistic to the Agape arose, however, within the Church itself [sic]. The fourth and fifth centuries were the age of the monastic ideal in the Church. It began in the East, but speedily, under Jerome’s example principally, found firm footing in Western Christendom. There is no doubt that the monastic spirit was unfavourable to the Agape. The notion propagated was that if there were to be common meals they should be held inside the bounds of the inner brotherhood of monks; if charity was to be controlled and administered, who could do so like those who had renounced the world and its gains? . . . It is much more than a coincidence that the rise of Monasticism and the fall of the Agape synchronize. There is a causal link between the two facts.
We have also to remember that the same period as saw the rise of Monasticism saw also the birth of a deep interest in the ritual of the Church. The earliest of the great cathedrals were being built, service-books were being produced, and a new sense of fitness and arrangement in public worship was developing. It was only to be expected that people would soon get to recognize the incongruity between the Agape and ceremonial worship. The archaic simplicity of the Love-feast was irreconcilable with the solemn splendour and the stately offices of a Gothic or Byzantine building.72“
This had a detrimental effect on the wider Church since, as Gerhard Uhlhorn pointed out, it had been on the agape feasts especially that the family-like unity of the Church had been impressed.73
This is not to condemn the life and work of the monasteries completely. It is widely acknowledged that the monasteries preserved learning and by so doing contributed significantly to the development of Western civilisation. But they also preserved much of the life of the Church as a social order; yet they did so in a corrupt form that denied a basic God-given aspect of human nature (sexuality) and that therefore denied the divinely-ordained life of the family as the basic unit of Christian social order. The mediaeval Church rejected the family as the basic unit of the Christian social order and replaced it with the monasteries; the secular Church then became a mere cult controlled by the official priesthood, which maintained its power by means that directly conflicted with the command of the Lord Jesus Christ himself (Mt. 20:25–28). This had a significant impact on how the Church lived as the wider family of God; the result was that the Church came to function as a principality rather than as a nation (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9). Again, this is not to say that the Church did not have a decisive and ameliorative effect on the development of Western civilisation. Much good can be found in the influence of the mediaeval Church on society.74 But it does mean that this influence fell far short of what it should have been, and must be in future if the Great Commission is to be fulfilled.
Of course the Reformation brought a much needed correction to many of the abuses of the mediaeval Church. But it did not go nearly far enough, and naturally retained much from the Church’s mediaeval past. At the Reformation the Church took a great step forward, but she also stepped backwards in some respects. The Reformed Churches abandoned the monasteries, and with good reason, but they failed to realise the potential of the life of the Church as a social order, which had been preserved, albeit in an inadequate and corrupted form, in the monasteries. For example, the welfare role of the mediaeval Church, which was largely concentrated in the monasteries, was neglected by the Reformed Churches, not entirely, but sufficiently enough to create a vacuum that the modern idolatrous secular State has in our own age filled, and it was neglected largely because the importance of the life of the Church as a social order was not sufficiently understood and prioritised by the heirs of the Reformation. Nor did the Reformed Churches abandon centralised bureaucratic control of the Church by a professional clergy that remained focused, for the most part, on prioritising the Church’s ritualised cultic activities as the essence of the life of the Church.
72 Love-Feasts: A History of the Christian Agape (London: Charles H. Kelley, 1916), p. 254f.
73 Christian Charity in the Ancient Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883), p. 252.
If God’s people don’t do the job God commanded, then expect the God-haters — forever alert to any and every opportunity to extend the impersonal, uncaring power of uniformed men with badges and guns — to step in.
We need a different society to rise up. Something not grounded on lies, envy, bureaucracy, force, and stolen wealth.
We are the only ones who will build it.
The modern Church in Britain had two official “decades of evangelism” in the second half of the twentieth century. Yet the Church still continues to decline. And she does so because she does not understand her mission. The gospel she preaches is a truncated gospel devoid of the vi- sion necessary to breach the impasse, which can only be overcome by a recognition and acceptance of the truth that the Church is meant to be a social order, and not only a social order, but the true social order, the true society, that must grow until it displaces and then replaces the false and idolatrous social orders of men. For this to happen the Church must embrace a new reformation that will clear away the accretions of false doctrine and practice that continue to vitiate her life as a social order and impede her mission to the world. Only by doing this shall the Church be able to overcome the world and flourish, and as a consequence disciple the nations to Christ.
In order to obey Jesus Christ and disciple the world, we must ourselves conform to the commands of Christ.
Among other things, this means the rebirth of fellowship as the heart of worship, an end to the priesthoods.
The claim that the agape feasts of the early Church tended to degenerate into occasions of riotous excess is frequently met with in both primary and secondary sources. That there were abuses on occasion is undeniable, as even the New Testament indicates. That these abuses were one of the main reasons for the eventual obsolescence of the agape feasts is a claim that should not be taken at face value. The early Church quickly came under the influence of an extreme spirit of asceticism the origin of which is not to be found in the Bible but in the pagan religious world-view of the age. This kind of asceticism was the way of life chosen by many of the “spiritual” virtuosi who became leaders and teachers of the Church, and as it has been pointed out, ascetically constituted minds frequently took offence at the agape feasts.75
75 Gerhard Uhlhorn, op. cit., p. 252f.
And now, we get to the super-spiritual Christian types who hates feasts and disdains fellowship. See if you can detect any difference between this personality type and the Pharisees.
Clement of Alexandra is a good example of this ascetic ideal. He seems to have had a particular aversion to enjoying his food and says of those who do that “They have not yet learned that God has provided for His creatures (man I mean) food and drink, for sustenance, not for pleasure.”76 He complains that “There is no limit to epicurism among men. For it has driven them to sweetmeats, and honey-cakes, and sugar-plums; inventing a multitude of desserts, hunting after all manner of dishes. A man like this seems to me to be all jaw, and nothing else.” Besides being a vegetarian and generally a minimalist in all matters culinary he seems to have had a particular obsession with the evils of sauces (or soups)…
Clement nicely sums up his abhorrence of the pleasures of food in the following way: “We must therefore reject different varieties [of food—SCP], which engender various mischiefs, such as a depraved habit of body and disorders of the stomach, the taste being vitiated by an unhappy art—that of cookery, and the useless art of making pastry.”77 Not surprisingly wine comes under the same condemnation: “I therefore admire those who have adopted an austere life, and who are fond of water, the medicine of temperance, and flee as far as possible from wine, shunning it as they would the danger of fire.”78
Clement viewed all human desires in the same negative way. “Our ideal” he says “is not to experience desire at all . . . We should do nothing from desire . . . A man who marries for the sake of begetting children must practice continence so that it is not desire which he feels for his wife.”79 Origen, Clement’s student and successor at the Catechetical School in Alexandria, took this kind of reasoning to its logical conclusion and castrated himself.80 And yet this kind of attitude to the human appetites and desires cannot be found in Scripture. “Delight thyself also in the Lord” says the Psalmist “and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart” (Ps. 37:4). Scripture does not teach that human desire per ser is sinful or to be avoided. It is only the unlawful fulfilment or unlawful objects of desire that are condemned in Scripture. The Bible is certainly not a manual of asceticism; the enjoyment of lawful sexual relationships and feasting are both encouraged in Scripture. “Let thy fountain be blessed: and rejoice with the wife of thy youth. Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love” (Pr. 5:18–19). In the Old Testament the Hebrews are commanded to feast three times each year in Jerusalem, using a portion of their tithe for this purpose (Dt. 14:23).
Clement’s condemnation of the enjoyment of food and of feasting is in stark contrast to the teaching of both the Old and New Testaments. The apostle Paul condemned this attitude of asceticism in no uncertain terms as a departure from the faith:
“Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; Speaking lies in hypocrisy having their conscience seared with a hot iron; Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer. (1 Tim. 4:1–5 cf. Rom. 14:1–4)”
76 Pædagogus (The Instructor), Bk II, Chpt. I (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II, p. 238a), my emphasis.
77 Ibid., passim (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II, pp. 237–242), my emphasis.
78 Ibid., Chpt. II (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II, p. 243a).
79 Cited in Gail Hawkes, Sex and Pleasure in Western Culture (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004), p. 50. This quotation is taken from Book III of The Stromata (III. vii.57–58), which the editors of The Ante-Nicene Fathers published only in Latin due to the sexual nature of the content.
80 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Bk VI, Chpt. viii, §1–4 (The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. I, p. 254af.).
There are those who obey God.
And, there are those who refuse to do so, in the name of a superior righteousness and holiness.
Superior to God’s righteousness and holiness in Scripture, the pious ones imply.
I weary of the traditions of men, standing above the commandments of God.
Time to topple some idols.
And idolatrous men, in Christian robes, giving heed to seducing spirits and the doctrines of devils.
Clement’s attitude towards the human desires and appetites was not a genuine expression of the Christian faith, but rather a corruption of the true faith—i.e. a Christianised version of the Alexandrian world-view that was endemic in the Graeco-Roman world. It is interesting that Clement, while on the one hand rejecting false Gnosticism, on the other hand identifies the Christian as the true Gnostic.81 Speaking of the Gnostics Archibald Robertson writes that “in their attempts at a comprehensive system of religious thought, grotesque and repellent as these attempts often were, they were in a sense the precursors of the great Alexandrian school; not only does Clement habitually use the term ‘Gnostic’ for the fully instructed Christian, but the theology which appears in its developed form in Origen is an endeavour to satisfy, on the basis of the Rule of Faith, the real needs which Gnosticism professed to meet, and to apply in a rational and purified form whatever genuinely philosophical ideas Gnosticism embodied.” In a footnote Robertson explains that “The fundamental difference was that between the esoteric Church of the Gnostics, and the esoteric perception of the meaning of the common faith, at which Clement and Origen aimed.”82 The dualistic world-view upon which Gnosticism was based pervades Clement’s religious outlook.
The ascetic dualism of men like Clement of Alexandria, of which there were many in the early Church, is thoroughly pagan and cannot be justified from Scripture, which teaches man to give thanks to God for the good things of this earth and to enjoy them as an act of worship. The Lord’s Supper is meant to be a feast celebrating our deliverance from sin by the Lord Jesus Christ, not an exercise in asceticism.
81 See The Stromata, or Miscellanies.
82 Regnum Dei: Eight Lectures on the Kingdom of God in the History of Christian Thought (London: Methuen and Co., 1901), p. 152.
When we get serious about obeying Christ – and not the traditions of men – then the road to divinely ordained victory beckons.