More Than Structure

“I cannot tell, by examining these parallel liturgies, which tradition contains prayer to graven images. I cannot tell, by examining these liturgies, which ones allow the service to be led by a lesbian minister. In short, by looking at these liturgies, I cannot tell whether God accepts them as ‘acceptable worship’ or not. But whether or not God receives us in our offered worship is the central thing. In a line up of skeletons, I cannot tell which one was the tattooed biker moll and which one was the Junior Miss princess” (Against the Church, pp. 14-15).

Theology That Bites Back



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  • Matthew N. Petersen

    I don’t have the book, and perhaps you address this there, but do you deal with the objection that you’re sounding Donatist?

  • Brian G. Daigle

    The tattooed biker moll is the one with the wider hips.

  • David Douglas

    For the sake of those like me who don’t have time do more than skim definitions from Wikipedia, could you flesh out your specific objection.  It has been said numerous times that you are less than clear in your arguments.  This post is no exception, in my mind at least.  You clearly have a concern and you are clearly reluctant to say that your concern is valid, all to the good.  But what you give with that attitude you take away with the vague passive form raising your concern (the objection—by whom-or who…sounding like–how and where exactly).

    It seems pretty straightforward takeaway in th text above that liturgy alone, biblical or no, is not the sine qua non of true worship.

  • Matthew N. Petersen

    David: I wasn’t talking to you, though. The Donasts said that the Church is defined by moral purity. St. Augustine responded that that is false, the Church is defined sacramentally, and though moral purity is important, and although we should seek to have moral leadership, the validity of the community is not a result of moral purity, but of sacramental connection to Christ. Pr. Wilson’s position here seems to be that it is the moral purity that is centrally important not the sacramental connection to Christ–or more specifically, not what we say to Christ, and what He says back to us, or perhaps that what we say to Christ and what He says back to us is not actually what we say to each other, but something to be looked through to the real. That doesn’t mean that his position is Donatist, but it does mean that superficially it looks Donatist. Hence the question if he answers that objection.

  • Douglas Wilson

    Matt, no, I don’t spend any time in the book distancing myself from Donatism, although I would be happy to do so. A person baptized by a reprobate minister is still baptized. Moral purity is not necessary to make a church. It is necessary to keep the church from being spewed out of Christ’s mouth.

  • David Douglas

    First, you might not be talking to me but you are talking in a forum where people are listening.  And you are asking a question, publicly, about how Doug would answer an objection (proximately by you), that his material might belong to under the catagory of heresy.  So, I do think you might consider how and what you say a bit more carefully than if you were in a private conversation.  Secondly, accepting your explanation, I’m still at a bit of a loss.  It’s only a passage from a book but forcing the my conclusion into your context, I’d say Doug denys (here) none of what you say, but is more concerned that we not think it a good or adequate thing to be a bunch of dead and damned people sacramentally joined to God.  Also, you can’t say everything, all the time.  Just my 2%.

  • Matthew N. Petersen

    Pr. Wilson: I’m not sure what you mean by “spewed out of his mouth” then. I would think that it would mean “ceasing to be a church”, or “being completely destroyed”. But if the second definition, some of the churches you are objecting to have been around for more than a thousand years, and show no signs of dying out–that is, they haven’t been spewed out of His mouth. So the second option doesn’t make sense to me. But you seem to deny the first option here, and from what I’m gathering from these quotes (I may be mistaken), is that it’s more the first option. So I’m still confused.

  • Kevin Foflygen


    We all must grant that there is the possibility of “spewing” in some sense, whether that sense is Pr. Wilson’s sense or not.  Since Pr. Wilson did not expand on what he meant, I think a fair reading would be to take his answer as an allusion to Rev 3:14ff.  There the spewing is the result of lukewarmness, which in context is defined as a failure to recognize one’s own natural condition as “wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked” (v. 17).  I say “natural” condition, because Jesus counsels the lukewarm to buy of him “gold tried in the fire” and “white raiment” and “eyesalve” (v. 18), suggesting a failure of the Laodicean’s faith.  I take “gold tried in the fire” as a reference to a lively faith (cf. 1 Pet 1:7) and “white raiment” as a reference to the the righteousness of Christ imputed to and worked in his saints (cf. Rev 7:14, 19:8) and “eyesalve” as a reference to the illumination of the Spirit.  All of these have very much to do with faith per se.  Therefore, to be lukewarm is to be forgetful of the object of our faith, and therefore to fail in zeal and repentance (v. 19).

    A church that is so forgetful and unrepentant will be spewed out of Christ’s mouth.  Whatever that means, it is not desirable.  It at least entails a breaking of communion, according to verse 20, if not complete apostasy, as verse 21 would imply.  A spewed out church might retain certain forms of Christian worship, but fail to please the Lord by them.  This may sound Donatistic, but “He that hath an ear, let him hear what THE SPIRIT saith unto the churches” (v. 22).

    Moreover, this is nothing new.  It is a constant theme in the book of Isaiah, for instance, that the Lord was displeased with Israel’s worship–not with her failure to keep the forms, but with her failure to do so in faith.  Paul also says as much:

    “But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone; as it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.” (Rom 9:31-33)

    Note: This is in the context of Paul’s grappling with the reality of Israel’s apostasy.  Later on, in Ch. 11, he will warn the Roman Christians of falling into the same condemnation.

    In short, Scripture is full of warnings and examples to the effect that formal obedience without faith results, not only in the final condemnation of the unbelieving individual, but also in God’s withdrawal from and judgment of the whole congregation.

    And if this is true of formal obedience to God’s ordained sacramental system, then how much more is it true of our man-made liturgies!  Pr. Wilson is absolutely correct that we cannot judge the health of a church by its liturgy.  We do not believe our liturgies to be sacramental, except to the extent that they subserve the Word and Sacrament of Christ.  But even if they were sacramental, it is the very nature of a sacrament that it presents to our senses what the Word of promise presents to our faith.  If the word of scripture is to us “precept upon precept, precept upon precept”, then the Word of Life will be to us a stumbling block and a snare (Isa 28:13), and the covenant signs will be to us a “covenant with death” (v. 15)–a vain attempt at self-salvation.  “And your covenant with death shall be disannulled, and your agreement with hell shall not stand; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, then ye shall be trodden down by it.” (v. 18)  Get that: the mockery of a covenant observed by those who feigned obedience to Yahweh was “disannulled” by him.  Their “circumcision is made uncircumcision.” (Rom 2:25)  Their baptism was made unbaptism.  Their communion was made uncommunion.  Their smells and bells and crossings and genuflections and vestments and orders and relics and icons were made unsmells, unbells, etc., etc.

    There is no disagreement with Augustine here (not that he is our canon).  Augustine merely insisted that the efficacy of the word and sacraments did not depend on the sincerity of the minister.  I agree.  I further agree with Augustine that their effect does depend on the faith of the recipient, which bears on the present discussion.  In the absence of the Word of God, there is no faith with which to receive the sacraments properly.

  • Matthew N. Petersen

    Kevin: Thanks for the thoughtful response. I’ll try to take time to respond to it, though, it will take a considerable amount of time to formulate a response. :P Again, though, challenging me like that is a good thing, and I appreciate it.