I am well aware that the Church must inevitably be a social structure, otherwise it would not exist. But in so far as it is a social structure, it belongs to the Prince of this world …
Simone Weil, Waiting For God, Letter II
In the western world, it has become all too easy to profess loyalty to an organization called the Church and subscribe to a doctrinal system labeled Christianity while simultaneously living by a set of assumptions directly opposed to the values of the Pilgrim life. Not only is this possible: on the whole, it has been the story of the Church as an institution for the past twenty centuries. And the Church has followed this course most readily whenever Christians have found themselves in a position of prosperity, ease, alliance, and comfortable affiliation with the surrounding culture and the powers that be.
Puritan preacher John Owen saw it happen in 17th century England. Prior to the English Civil War, the Puritans had been an ostracized and persecuted minority. Following that conflict, they experienced a dramatic reversal of fortune. With the overthrow of Charles I, they became the Ruling Party. They dominated Parliament and controlled the British government under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell. Naturally, this was a good thing for their pocketbooks, their public policy agenda, and their temporal securities. Economically, materially, and politically they were sitting on top of the world. But Owen understood all too well what they had lost:
“He that should see the prevailing party of these nations, many of those in rule, power, favour, with all their adherents, and remember that they were a colony of Puritans,—whose habitation was “in a low place,” as the prophet speaks of the city of God,—translated by a high hand to the mountains they now possess, cannot but wonder how soon they have forgot the customs, manners, ways, of their own old people, and are cast into the mould of them that went before them in the places whereunto they are translated.”
(Of Temptation, Chapter III)
“Prosperity,” concluded Owen, “hath slain the foolish and wounded the wise.” The Church of his day had taken the bait. It had exchanged the values of the Pilgrim Path for the glitter of dominion and success.
We are now grappling with a similar temptation. For hundreds of years the Christian community in the west – a community that began two millennia ago as a band of unpropertied sojourners and transients – has maintained strong vested interests in the structures of the kosmos. Today those interests appear to be slipping from our grasp. With each successive court battle, with each new piece of legislation, our hold upon the centers of influence seems to be waning. And as our mastery over the system declines and a sense of panic sets in, the impulse to seize the reins – to “reclaim our rights” and “take back the culture” – becomes increasingly urgent. In many instances it eclipses every other concern. We have forgotten what it means to live in the world as a colony of disinterested Pilgrims.
Somehow or other, we’ve got to get back on the right road.