Friday, June 07, 2024

Too Hot to Handle: Evolving Christianity

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Billions of blue, blistering barnacles ...

Erik Jones asks the question “Was Christianity Designed to Evolve?

Tom: Now, Jones is Church of God, the Sabbath-keeping sect out of Texas that originated with Herbert Armstrong, so we’re certainly not going to find ourselves in agreement with their particular emphasis on law-keeping and Jewish holy days, a hint of which bleeds into Jones’ article.

We will also be unsurprised to find Jones’ answer to his own question is a resounding ‘No’.

That said, Immanuel Can, his article does a good job of reinforcing a particular theme you and I have been beating for a while now. His thesis is that the Christianity of today — even what is often referred to by its adherents as “New Testament Christianity” — is very far removed indeed from the faith taught by the apostles.

Christianity has changed both doctrinally and functionally.

Changed or Evolved?

Now there’s little value in making a statement like that without giving concrete examples, is there? Can you think of some ways in which modern Christianity has changed from apostolic Christianity, IC?

Immanuel Can: I notice the wording in the article starts with “has Christianity evolved”, and yet your paraphrase asks “has Christianity changed”. This observation may seem niggling, but I need to know which you really wish to start with. It really is going to make a difference to how I answer. Bear with me, if you will.

Tom: I was really just thinking of what the differences might be as opposed to examining exactly how we got here, but you make a good point. Let’s say “evolved” to start, but I’m curious how you’d frame the distinction.

IC: “Evolved” is a loaded word. It implies, “developed from a lower state to a higher one”. “Changed” is neutral: change can be good or bad, improvement or decline. But “evolution” suggests the idea that whatever is going on now is better than in the past, and perhaps even that whatever might go on tomorrow will be better than today.

So it changes the question considerably. I needed to know if you were asking me if today’s Christianity was better, or merely different.

Tom: Ah, you’ve got me there. Erik Jones uses “evolved”, and I’ve followed him down the garden path. The actual dictionary definition of “evolve” contrasts “simple” and “complex” rather than “lower” and “higher”; less information as opposed to more information, without regard to whether that information improves the organism or organization. But you’re right: there is a common assumption that being more complex necessarily entails an improvement of some sort, and I disagree with that. Certainly the church has gotten a GREAT deal more complex, but none of that is by way of improvement.

Whatever Happened to Simplicity?

Let’s stick with the way I asked the question then: Can you think of some ways in which modern Christianity has changed compared to apostolic Christianity?

IC: Well, simplicity. There is a great deal of complexity to running modern churches. And in a second sense we’ve lost simplicity: we’re not very clear on the goals of our gathering anymore.

Secondly, worship. We don’t really do it much anymore. Most of us don’t even know what it really is: and sadly, that includes a lot of elders, teachers and “pastors”.

Thirdly, relationship to the world. The early church was persecuted; but in the West, while we are not exactly celebrated we have still become guilty of making a lot of concessions to our culture’s values anyway.

What have you got, Tom?

Barnacles by the Ton

Tom: Well said. If the church were a sailboat, she’d be sinking from the weight of the barnacles on the hull. You mention a loss of simplicity. What does that mean practically? Well, communally-owned buildings and their associated mortgage debt and compliance issues, gymnasiums, furniture and maintenance concerns. Then there’s charitable status, tax deductions, “worship leaders”, formal payment arrangements for servants of the church, committees, religious titles, altars, pulpits, pews, hymnbooks, the division of the church meeting into multiple meetings with distinct purposes, the demographic ‘tiering’ of the church, baptisteries, seminaries, parachurch organizations ...

None of this existed in the New Testament church. Some, like the taking of titles, the recording of charitable donations and the assumption of debt, are glaringly obvious departures from the faith. Others, like the physical buildings, are merely deviations from recorded church practice. Still others, it may well be argued, are morally neutral and provide us with benefits the early church didn’t have. But whatever the perceived benefits may be, each modification to the original model has fundamentally altered the nature and dynamics of gathering in the name of Jesus Christ.

Optionals and Essentials

IC: I think that the really lamentable part of all this is simply that the optional has taken over completely from the essential.

Tom: Would you like to elaborate on that?

IC: Well, a lot of what we do today is, perhaps, not evil in itself; it’s just optional. Hymnbooks, pews, choirs or PowerPoint presentations are not evil. They are okay to use, if they serve the main purposes of the gathering of the Lord’s people. But when they become the things we think of in connection with church — so, more important than commemorating Christ, or selecting edifying music, or prayer, or authentic fellowship — so that we start to forget our core mandate, then we’re in trouble. And the modern church has that problem in spades.

Tom: Agreed. That’s a problem. But there are also many optional things that change the dynamics of the church permanently in a very bad way. Pulpits and pews did that, in that they have, maybe unconsciously, undermined the priesthood of all believers for centuries. Baptisteries take what was intended to be a public individual testimony to the world and make it a private one for friends and family that has become confused with church membership. These things are not intrinsically wicked, but they subvert what is clearly the original intent. They produce unintended consequences that are anti-biblical. Unfortunately, these “optional” changes never seem to go away.

Pushing Back Against Cultural Evolution

IC: Right. Well, let’s see if we can find a positive here. What can we do about this … or do in response to it, anyway?

Tom: Well, this may seem trivial but I’d love to see us stop using the term “New Testament Christianity” to describe anything that’s going on in Christendom today. Step 1 in getting back to the truth is recognizing we don’t have it. Or at least that we don’t have it all, the way we think we do.

IC: Okay, Step 2: restore worship. There is no chance that any good will come to the church by forgetting her first job, namely to return to the Lord the honor and love he so abundantly merits. But if we begin to see him as central again, a lot of other things are going to become very obvious.

Tom: Step 3: start revisiting the scriptures to understand what the first churches believed and did. Understanding that is not some kind of foregone conclusion just because gazillions of books have been written on the subject. Many of those books, though quite beneficial in any number of ways, were written from the perspective of men with the governing assumptions of their day, and that will not do anymore. We need to reexamine scripture without ever losing sight of the fact that our culture is going to predispose us to many convenient assumptions and conclusions that, when we read carefully, are not really there. And the church was not designed to evolve into whatever form the world of its day prefers. We need to push back against that, whether or not it is popular. There are already plenty of churches caving in to the popular culture movements of our generation, and they’re not doing well, by and large. There is no need to create more of them.

Making Progress in Strong Winds

IC: Step 4: re-engage the world. That may sound odd, but the truth is that — to recycle your sailboat metaphor — the church makes steadiest progress in strong winds. We need to stop hiding in special buildings and get our hands really dirty again by actively helping to reach the world with the gospel, exhibiting it though the purity and mercy of Christ. That will put us in dynamic tension with the world, and thus drive our learning and obedience much harder. We’ll have to rely on the Lord every day, in very practical ways. That would be great for us … and, of course, a real blessing to the world.

Tom: Strangely, given that it was a Church of God guy that started us down this path, I don’t think celebrating a few more Jewish holidays is going to make or break us.

IC: No. I think we’d better focus on doing better the things that the Lord has actually called the church to do. Adding things — whether human institutions or Old Covenant holidays — isn’t the way to “evolve”.


  1. As a guest I don't really want to inject myself into your housekeeping chores except that households generally differ and can possibly also learn from each other. As a member of a Catholic household I would therefore point out that you are describing a situation that is intrinsically due to the formation of Protestantism and its focus away from the centrality of the adoration of the consubstantiated Christ in the Eucharist and communion. Those ALWAYS serve as the central focus of the Catholic mass (service) with the surrounding prayerful celebration being instructive and moving in a consistent and repeating yearly church cycle. Consequently there is never any confusion, lack of focus or need for questions concerning the purpose of the service. Any additional fellowship takes place following the central service in community halls and buildings. My suggestion for my Protestant fellow believers in Christ would therefore be something which you already have suggested yourselves previously, namely a re-emphasis on worship and a focus on the ceremonial breaking of the bread.

  2. Cannot argue with the re-emphasis on worship. Everything good follows from that.