Understanding Conservative Christianity, Part 5

In The Nick of Time
Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

The Rejection of Innovation

We have looked at three characteristics of conservative Christianity, and this fourth characteristic puts us halfway through the list. It is this: Conservative Christians attempt to preserve those elements of church teaching, worship, and order that are revealed in the New Testament, without addition or diminution. To put it negatively, conservative Christians refuse to participate in ecclesiastical innovation and tinkering. We have no liberty to remove any element that the New Testament prescribes, and we have no right to introduce new elements on our own authority.

If God has not asked us to present a particular thing as part of our worship, then we have no reason to think that it will please Him. If we are not offering it to please Him, however, then we are by definition offering it to please men—either ourselves or others. In that case we must remember the Lord’s teaching in Matthew 6. When we engage in a spiritual activity in order to please men, we never please God. In fact, offering what God does not command is the essence of idolatry, because it is literally self worship (or, as Paul puts it in Col. 2:23, “will worship”).

If our pleasure rather than God’s pleasure becomes the test for acceptable worship, then all limits are gone. Who knows what may please the next worshipper? Of course, someone will suggest that we will be restrained by good taste and an informed sense of judgment. But no one who looks at today’s evangelicalism can take this caveat seriously.

When did God require a barking revival? When did He ever ask the Bride of Christ to vomit in the Savior’s name? When did He authorize the exhibition of kitsch (even if evangelicals label it art), or a display of weightlifting strength, or demonstration of martial-arts prowess within the church of Jesus Christ? Where did he indicate that He would be pleased to have us replace preaching with ecclesiastical theater? Who hath required this at our hand?

There is nothing wrong with lifting weights in a gym. There is nothing wrong with vomiting when you have a virus. There is nothing wrong with an art exhibition (real art, mind you) in a gallery. The moment we introduce these activities into the church—the moment we treat them as legitimate worship or service—however, we have crossed the line into idolatry.

Furthermore, if we object to the tinkering of the present, we also must not overlook the tinkering of the past. When Luther could no longer stand the tinkering of his day, he raised a protest that turned into a Reformation. He recognized that the hawking of indulgences, the cult of the saints, the putative authority of popes and councils, and the notion of semi-merit were all forms of tinkering, and he rejected them. Zwingli and Calvin went even further in seeking to rid the churches of unauthorized elements. They sought to conserve a true worship as commanded by God, not a worship invented by human hands and governed by human appetites.

A truly conservative Christian objects to all innovation in worship. He rejects new innovations, and he also rejects old ones. To a true conservative, an innovation that can be traced to the second or third century is still an innovation, and he determines to purge it from the church. This is the only genuinely conservative approach.

Anglicans, Romanists, and the Eastern Orthodox love to depict themselves as the only really conservative Christians, inasmuch as they retain elements that evangelicals rejected in the Protestant Reformation. If, however, the mark of conservative Christianity is the determination to reject all innovation, then these divisions of Christendom must be ranked among the least conservative, for they have added the most to the simplicity of the gospel and the purity of the apostolic tradition. Their peculiar doctrines, forms, and liturgies are largely the inventions of earlier generations of worship tinkerers.

He is not most conservative whose innovations are oldest, but rather whose innovations are fewer.

For a truly conservative churchman, the test for adopting a doctrine or an element of worship is not its antiquity, but its apostolicity. Only through His apostles has the Lord Jesus revealed the nature, purpose, ministry, and order of His church. Additions to the Christian patrimony are not Christian. They are by definition idolatrous and therefore pagan. Neither long use nor apparent utility will render them worthy of conservation.

Some will object that the apostles left an oral tradition in addition to their writing. Indeed, the apostles did leave such a tradition. During the period when that oral tradition was held intact, it was essential for distinguishing apostolic Scriptures from non-authoritative writings that appeared without apostolic authorization. Once the canon of Scripture had been recognized, however, the churches proved unable to distinguish their memory of the apostles from merely human inventions, and whatever apostolic tradition remained was corrupted beyond recognition. Only in the New Testament has the genuine apostolic tradition been preserved. Therefore, only those practices, customs, forms, orders, prohibitions, prescriptions, methods, and teachings that are required by the New Testament may be adopted by truly conservative churches.

My argument loses nothing by recognizing that we enjoy considerable latitude in implementing the circumstances of worship. We are told that the church must gather, but we are not given specific instruction about the place and time of gathering. We are told to speak and strum to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, but we are not told whether that involves congregational hymns, choral specials, or small ensembles, nor are we told whether we ought to do anthems, chorales, oratorios, or folk hymns. Within the prescribed elements, we must exercise judgment about what circumstances will most effectively promote the thing that Christ requires us to do. The necessary choice of circumstances, however, is very different than the invention of new elements.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, within the greater part of American Christianity, the church is no longer the church. It has taken the form of social clubs in which members wear the trappings of their religion much as a Shriner wears his fez. It has taken the shape of therapy groups for the curing of addictions, obsessions, and co-dependencies, but without a sense of the profound offense of sin. It has taken the shape of pep rallies in which Jesus is treated as a rock star or a sports celebrity. It has taken the shape of trinket shops filled with bric-a-brac like WWJD bracelets and Precious Moments® figurines. It has taken the shape of a Purpose-Driven® ecclesiastical vaudeville in which people on a stage pretend to be having spiritual experiences.

American Christians have chosen those practices and even doctrines that appeal most to themselves. The result is that what passes for church in America today is an insipid religious pretense that lacks the power to command souls or transform lives, let alone to challenge the unsaved world with respect to issues of sin, righteousness, and judgment. We are left with a shallow religiosity in which more and more people are won to less and less Christianity. With increasingly rare exceptions, the institutional church in America is not a bride.

The church does not belong to us. It belongs to Christ. He is its Head and its Lord. It is His household. Within His household, only He has the right to say what ought to be done. A genuinely conservative Christianity will reject the pretense of innovation and cling faithfully to the apostolic tradition as it is preserved in Scripture alone.


Abraham Cowley (1618-1667)

The Holy Book like the Eighth Sphere, does shine
With thousand lights of truth divine:
So numberless the stars, that to the eye
It makes but all one galaxy:—
Yet Reason must assist too, for in seas
So vast and dangerous as these,
Our course by stars above we cannot know,
Without the compass too below.

Though Reason cannot through Faith’s mysteries see,
It sees that there and such they be;
Leads to Heaven’s-door, and there does humbly keep,
And there through chinks and key-holes peep.
Though it, like Moses, by a sad command
Must not come into the Holy Land,
Yet thither it infallibly does guide,
And from afar ‘tis all descried.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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