Friday, December 11, 2009

Jonathan Edwards as a failed pastor

By way of Jared Wilson to Grateful To the Dead this is a piece by Chris Armstrong on Jonathan Edwards getting kicked out of his church for advocating a strict position on closed communion. This is not the sort of thing that we could ever imagine happening in a megachurch today. Of course this sort of thing would never happen in churches where there was not any change in the administration of communion. Certainly Catholics and Orthodox would not run into this situation. Catholics have become famous for covering up sexually abusive priests and Orthodox have their own skeletons and all three streams have a virulent history of anti-Semitism that some dispensationalists think their views prevent ... but clearly I digress.

Edwards ran afoul of members in his flock who didn't like the stricter, older standard for participating in communion Puritan churches employed. Eventually the battle led to his being ousted from his church for wanting closed eucharist and he went to do missions work among American Indians. I just find this fascinating and since I have the George Marsden biography on Edwards on my floor (as I don't have enough bookshelves just yet for the books I own) I may have to consult it soon.

Recent history for evangelical Protestants does not suggest that the leader of a prominent church would get the boot from his congregation over something ostensibly as simple and clear-cut as closed communion. A pastor who departs from his leadership position in a Protestant church NOW probably does so because he was discovered to have been taking illegal drugs and hiring a male prostitute (Ted Haggard); or for having an affair with one of his administrative aids (Todd Bentley); or perhaps for being accused of misappropriating the tax identification number of another church (R. C. Sproul Jr). In fact without getting particularly detailed Edwards' ouster was not as simple as the mere issue of closed communion.

People who espouse ideas or oppose ideas attach immense personal emotional weight to those ideas. People who are complementarians really think, more or less (in many cases) that the whole of the Gospel stands or falls on their one pet doctrine. People who think that the whole Gospel of Christ is lost if we lose double imputation are making one aspect of teaching so central that if it is not emphasized enough (never mind disputed) then anyone who doesn't champion the cause as that person does is the enemy.

As I have complained many times elsewhere, there have been more than a few Christians I have known who have championed the absurd foolishness of "courtship" as though it were a doctrine on part with hypostatic union and were actually far more concerned with the former than the latter even when they were not living lives that indicated they were even dating or courting or wished to do any of the above. The teaching, however, became useful in informally declaring anathema on people they already disliked on other grounds. I have grown weary of people who fool themselves into thinking arguing about these sorts of things is a matter of principle and standing up for Christianity when it is being Corinthian in an unusually petty way.

But at the end of things Edwards managed to move into doing something else. Being ousted from his church was not finally a failure. This perhaps more than anything else is what I am talking to myself about, that there come points when you will fail. Edwards failed. He could be considered to have failed at the right time for the right reasons but it does not seem as though we live in a cultural setting where a pastor would be encouraged to look to the life of Jonathan Edwards and say that you, too, should be willing to be a failure in the same way that Edwards was. If you speak up for just behavior and just speech and are hammered for it and you have failed is that a failure? It might not be--that failure (whatever it costs you) may be the greatest victory you have in your life. It is better to lose the right battle for the health of your soul and the cause of Christ than to win the wrong battle for the sake of your success. Reconciling yourself to failure can be the most important step forward possible.

1 comment:

Chris Armstrong said...

A wonderful reflection. Thank you.