As I explained in my last post, I was christened in a United Methodist church in upstate New York. When we moved to Scottsdale in the 1960s, we found a wonderful Wesleyan Methodist church by the name of Our Heritage. It was pastored by a man of some renown, the Reverend Robert C. Girard. Reverend Girard, unbeknownst to me as a child, was a Big Deal. He authored two very popular books, Brethren, Hang Loose, and Brethren, Hang Together. Brethren, Hang Loose became required reading in seminary courses, and was republished by Christianity Today in the same volume with works by Billy Graham and Francis Schaeffer. Reverend Girard was a nationally known figure. As I said, I understood none of this. I knew the man as “Pastor Bob,” and what I remember most about him was that his wife found out that she was going to have another baby (their daughter, Charity) when she went to the doctor thinking she was having a gallbladder attack, leading me to develop some rather peculiar notions on the subject of where babies come from… but, I digress.
I was on fire for the Lord as a pre-teen, and asked Pastor Bob to “re-baptize” me, fearing that my infant baptism had not been valid because it was not a “believer’s baptism.” He obliged, and to this day I can close my eyes and relive the feel of the water swooshing closed over my head as I was fully immersed in the baptismal tank, waiting for what seemed like an eternity until Pastor Bob saw fit to pull me back to the surface, and carefully climbing the steps out of the tank with my robes clinging to me like suckerfish. I remember riding the church bus with my youth group to a Billy Graham crusade. I remember Pastor Bob teaching the children’s choir to sing Silent Night for the Christmas pageant.
We moved to another part of town in the early 1970s and began attending the then modestly sized Scottsdale Bible Church. Gradually I forgot about Our Heritage as I forgot the other details of my childhood, probably not uttering Pastor Bob’s name again for another 15 years until a Methodist missionary in Taiwan discovered that I had attended a Wesleyan Methodist church in Scottsdale in the early 1970s. He inquired who the pastor was. “Robert Girard,” I told him. His mouth dropped open. “You sat under the teaching of Robert Girard?!” he exclaimed excitedly and rather loudly. That was when the adult “me” first realized that Pastor Bob had indeed been a Big Deal.
Imagine my surprise when, about 15 years after that, I tried to google my old church, Our Heritage. No hits. I was stumped – I had expected it to still be right there on Granite Reef Road, or perhaps in some new location, having expanded to mega-church proportions over the years as Scottsdale Bible had. Instead, it seemed to be… gone.
I found the explanation for the disappearance of Our Heritage when I found a used copy of a third book authored by Pastor Bob called When the Vision Has Vanished. In it he chronicles the events of 1978, when he and the deacons of the church felt led by the Holy Spirit to give the church building back to the denomination and split the thriving congregation into informal house-church groups, in imitation of the first Christians. Within months, Our Heritage had ceased to exist, as the former members drifted off into other churches, reduced, as Pastor Bob put it, to “a scattered flock.”
What had possessed him to try such an experiment?
From an Evangelical perspective, it’s not impossible to understand. Most Evangelical churches give at least lip service to their goal of becoming an “Acts Chapter 2” or “New Testament” church. The Church of Christ denomination actually claims to be the restoration of the New Testament church. This concept is the natural extension of the Reformers’ goal of returning the church to its former pristine state, an imaginary era which supposedly existed before Catholicism gilded the lily. Modern-day Evangelicals, however, not only want to divest the church of Catholic tendencies; they want to divest the church of the Reformers’ tendencies, in other words, no liturgy, no vestments, no formal prayers, no perceived “stuffiness.” After all, they reason, if the Holy Spirit is inspiring worship, it must be fresh, and spontaneous, and new. As every Evangelical KNOWS, there was no such thing as liturgy in the 1st-century church!
From an Evangelical viewpoint, what Pastor Bob tried to do when he established home churches was pretty radical, but not unthinkable. In his explanation of what went wrong with the home church experiment, he informs us that the pastoral team was relying on “the practical authority of Scripture to lead the church.” Based on this, he searched the Scriptures for “principles we could pull out,” and lists 11 of them, including the principle that the church is Christ’s people who are alive in Him, gathering around the Person of Jesus Christ their Head, dependent on the Holy Spirit. The reality of the royal priesthood of believers was central to his views on leadership. Believers are led by leaders chosen from among them, and meet for the purpose of maturing in Christ, which includes learning to love fellow believers in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Evangelism will occur as a natural outgrowth of all this.
Sounds inspiring on paper, but as Pastor Bob tells it, in practice it was a mess. His flourishing congregation disintegrated, his ministerial credentials were pulled, and Our Heritage Wesleyan Methodist Church ceased to exist. Pastor Bob cited a “lack of commitment to unity” as a big factor in the collapse of the congregation. But what could have caused such a lack of commitment in an obviously on-fire-for-Jesus environment?
The problem here, I believe, is the same one that plagues Evangelicalism at large, the belief that Jesus established a Bible, and died to have a personal relationship with me. Artificially grafted onto this foundational belief is the recognition that Jesus also has a personal relationship with millions of others, and that these believers are truly our brothers and sisters, but with the underlying understanding that none of those siblings of ours should be allowed to get in between me and Jesus. In other words, for all the lip service, the Church is subtracted from the equation. In everyday Evangelical terms, it means dwindling participation in Sunday services as thousands of people ask themselves, “Why do I need to go to church if Jesus established a Bible, and died to have a personal relationship with me? I can read the Bible for myself on Sunday morning, and the Bible never prescribes a binding amount of involvement with those brothers and sisters of mine….” While Evangelicals do know that Christians are “the body of Christ,” this understanding is in a practical sense underdeveloped. The term “the body of Christ” is often abused, as when popular author Henry Blackaby teaches that the local church is “a body with Christ as the Head” (and Christ has how many bodies???). The Evangelical concept of the Body of Christ, as in “This is My Body,” is even shakier. This Body of Christ, the Holy Eucharist, is proclaimed by Catholics to be “the source and summit of the Christian life,” – “O sacrament of devotion! O sign of unity! O bond of charity!” in St. Augustine’s words. If one is seeking for the mysterious cause of a “lack of commitment to unity,” they need seek no further. The Real Presence is the cement holding the Church together. If one cannot understanding the literal meaning of the Eucharist as “the Body of Christ,” one will not be able to adequately grasp the ramifications of the Church as “the body of Christ.” For all the “fundamentals” that Pastor Bob pulled from Scripture, a fundamental misunderstanding of the body of Christ led to disaster.
“The demise of the church seems certain evidence that we missed some fundamental truths” confesses Pastor Bob poignantly. This could be the sad last confession of Evangelicalism. Pastor Bob was doing the best that an Evangelical knows how – he was relying on “the practical authority of Scripture to lead the church.” In doing so, he missed the authority of the Church. Missing the truth that Jesus established His Church (Mt. 16:17), that He built it on the foundation of the apostles (Mt. 16:19, Mt. 18:18, Lk. 10:16, 1 Jn 4:6), that the apostles passed on their God-given authority to the men they ordained (Acts 1:15-26, Acts 6:6, 2 Cor 10:6, 2 Thess 3:14, 2 Tim 1:6, 2 Tim 2:2, 2 Tim 4:1-2, Titus 2:15) and that this Church can count on Jesus’ irrevocable promise that the gates of hell will never prevail against His beloved (Mt 16:18) means missing the “authority” part of the equation. As St. Paul explained:
So Christ Himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip His people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Eph 4: 12-13
That is the Church, but that Church is not on the radar of Christians such as I once was. We KNEW the Catholic Church was a man-made religion, and so we made up all kinds of churches to take her place. Thus the one thing that could make possible all the fervent longings of an Evangelical’s heart is rejected out-of-hand, while all else conceivable is ventured in hopes of recreating what Jesus started and then allowed to fail. This Church that we sought was no farther than a few blocks down the street, and yet tragically light-years distant from our comprehension.
When exposed to authentic Catholic teaching, Evangelicals can and do convert. I am living proof of that. Evangelicals have a God-shaped vacuum in their hearts in the exact dimensions of the Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Why then did it take 45 years before I was ever exposed to authentic Catholic teaching? Why do committed Evangelicals have nothing but hearsay and rumors on which to base their concept of Catholicism? Why do good, good men like Pastor Bob end up writing books entitled When the Vision Has Vanished?
You tell me.
On the memorial of St. Joseph of Arimathea
Deo omnis gloria!