Sunday, September 11, 2011

Unity and Purity 4: Apostasy, A Central Theme

In more recent times, it's often been the contention of splinter evangelical groups that the reason for standing apart from the institutional church or seceding as such is due to "apostasy" or the fact that institutional religion is dead or has "left" the true faith. Lovelace explores whether apostasy that is present within a denomination or institutionalized church group in and of itself is sufficient reason to "leave" and form another splinter group. Lovelace's contention is that the answer is "no." Why? Because "the recovery of apostate bodies" is "the central theme of the history of redemption" (Dynamicsp. 302). I think this is a challenging section of Lovelace's writing. While his book was written in 1979, he has a lot to say to us some thirty+ years later, especially in a day and age many have embraced the superiority of house churches and nondenominational churches and when Christians and people in general have viewed "institutional religion" with disdain. Throughout the history of the Bible, has God viewed such "institutional religion" with disdain?

The families that fall away from the Abrahamic covenant line and fan out to form the gentile world are not lost in total or perpetual apostasy. Each of them is recovered at least in part through the Messianic seed, including the apostate covenant line, since God has shut up all in disobedience that he might show mercy on all….

But along with the attribute of mercy, God’s faithfulness is also displayed in the history of the Old Covenant. Neither Judah nor Israel is ever left without religious cultus (institutional religion) by a secession of believing priests and prophets; these are always presented as gifts of God’s continuing love to his covenant nation to restore it from apostasy. The northern and southern kingdoms were scattered in the exile, but in the apostolic age the remnant returned to Palestine is evangelized and the Diaspora (the scattered Jews throughout) became the primary missionary target in the Mediterranean world. The congregations gathered out of Judaism became a system for the dispersion of the gospel throughout the Roman Empire. It is almost as though the Diaspora were a rail system laid down for the delivery of the gospel in the New Testament era….

It could be argued that in every age the message of the gospel should be brought ideally “to the Jew first,” to every institutional body with roots in the Judeo-Christian Lineage, no matter how great its current apostasy. Thus the ecclesiastical structures in any era would represent a rail system for the renewal of the interest and mission of God’s kingdom. On this assumption we would expect to find God reviving the church close to the main trunks of its historical development, rather than in the twigs and branches leading off from these through separations. And we have found this true in history, although happily when God sends renewal he revives the twigs as well as the trunk and the major branches.  Dynamicspp. 302-03

Lovelace's contention that renewal and the continuing expansion of the Kingdom of Christ may come primarily through "lost institutions" being recovered, reminds me of a friend who had grown up in a Presbyterian Church, in fact her father was the minister of that church; however, the church had in many ways strayed from the regenerative evangelical heartbeat of the true Gospel of Christ. Of course, when this woman came to Zion Church in Lincoln (a more "traditional" Presbyterian Church with evangelical life or as Lovelace says, with a "live orthodoxy") a while back when I was interning there, she came to see the beauty of the substance of the Gospel message she had come to embrace through a campus ministry, but now united again to some of the same institutional forms of the Presbyterian church of her youth. In other words, the institutional forms that she had been around her entire life had come alive once they were united to regenerative faith. I do wonder if this is the way God means to bring reformation, renewal and revival back to the American landscape, by reinvigorating churches that have previously strayed from the true faith. As Lovelace says:

Ministers who separate from impure churches alienate themselves, not only from the leadership structure they denounce, but also from the ongoing stream of lay people for which God intended them as gifts. These ministers should not be surprised to see repeated outpourings of the Spirit and fruitful reproduction of new leadership in the bodies they have left, because God is faithful to his covenant people in succeeding generations even if the present generation has gone whoring with false prophets. When the children of the most “liberal” churches are brought under the preaching of the central gospel, their response is often remarkably powerful both in depth and in numbers of converts, and the reason for this is the covenant faithfulness of God.  Dynamics, pp. 306

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