I will be in Orlando next week for pleasure and in Ann Arbor the following week for business, likely unplugged during both. Maybe I will peak into the can if I get access to a computer somewhere. My wife can attest to my absolute inability at romance, but she knows right well just how hopelessly and sometimes embarrassingly sentimental I am. Some say such is a mark of a true conservative. That may be, but I tend to think I am just a nostalgic person. So while in Ann Arbor I plan on going to central campus, buying a pack of Djarums and taking a stroll down memory lane—otherwise known as Oakland Avenue, through the Law Library, through the Quad and up to the sixth floor stacks. While I am out, here are some thoughts about parochialism…
Under his post about WTS, I gave Darryl Hart high kudos for his point but then also asked him a question: already agreeing that narrow Reformed parochialism is not a four-letter phrase whatsoever, what might bad parochialism look like? It must exist, since every thing good seems to have a bad version. By the end of the exchange, he simply wanted to know just what I was complaining about. Either I wasn’t aware that I was complaining or we missed each other. Probably both, knowing human nature and what happens to it when cramming into a halo scan box.
To give him a break, my question really arises from a conversation I have had with a prospective candidate to fill our own pulpit (who has since been routed from the list of candidates). Randy Blacketer, it seems to me, is on the exact right side of the FOS issue. And during a conversation with him about it specifically, I had expressed to him generally the sentiment that I was glad not to be a parochial denominationalist since I am no fan of my own. His response was to reiterate the theme he had preached when candidating: stay in the boat. The sermon was really quite good. The point of his exegesis of Matthew 14:25-33 was that Peter showed little faith, not when he began to sink into the waters as is traditionally understood, but when he told the Lord to stay put while he came out to Him. Peter wanted to transcend his humanity and the experience everyone else in the boat has to endure. It was something a fully persuaded high-Church Calvinist with an organic view of the Church and a theology of the Cross could sink his teeth into. But his rather pointed, albeit not un-pastoral, response regarding my view of the CRC struck me as odd.
True enough, on the one hand, we institutional types have very little patience for the wide spread and deeply-seated anti-institutionalism in our cult and culture. I, for one, eschew even the slightest mistaking of high opinions for high views (which I think is one of the things belying this FOS issue in the CRC). It is not at all enough to see denomination as merely a polite and civil way of doing the Church’s business. It is not at all enough to view denomination as simply a flavor within the more general project of manifest-Christianity. It is altogether wrong, in these ways, to emphasize the Church triumphant and invisible over against Her being militant and visible. These views of the Church are parallels to Biblicist views of Scripture. That is, just as the confessional forms are ways of “doing the Bible,” our institutions of denomination are ways of “doing the Church.” (I might even comport denomination under the broader term “the Reformed expression,” insofar as these former agencies are ways of doing the latter expression which we all agree is the most faithful biblical witness on earth.) They are entirely necessary and good instruments for the visible church in this millennial age and ought not to be in any way begrudged. It should be clear that I don’t take my denominational affiliation lightly at all. In a word, it matters.
But that said, just as there is a difference between high, low and infallible views of the confessions, there seems a difference between a high view of denomination versus either a low (e.g. Broad Evangelical) or an infallible one (e.g. Romanist). “There is no salvation outside the Church,” and “my denomination, right or wrong” seem like aphorisms born of different stock. One seems more American than Christian. I can live with the Church right or wrong. Indeed, I think I must and can do no other. But, denomination? Really? What happens when a denomination begins to drift and shows no viable signs of return? What happens when, as I think seems the case with my CRC, amongst many other things, a lot of what fortifies its project is what fortifies the phenomenon of Christian day schooling: a way to perpetuate a particular cultural and ethnic endeavor under the auspices of religion?
Maybe I have to try and answer my own question. Here goes. It seems to me that bad parochialism is that which at once maintains some form of what good, theological and cultic parochialism it once had but really makes that which is social or cultural its whet stone, or mixes the two. It conflates denomination with Church the way one might confuse faith with a work. Like the committee that is just one too many, it exists and functions for its own sake. Begrudging genuine assessment of a denomination which may imply the contemplation of “divorcing her quietly,” bad parochialism seems either quick to keep members at virtually all costs or keep them from others in the same way.
If that seems too dicey and fraught maybe something simpler could help: it may be bad parochialism when it throws year-long one-hundred-fifty birthday parties for itself.