Sunday, January 05, 2020

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

I didn't know that for the first 1500 years of church history, everyone saw it as the literal body and blood of Christ. And it wasn't until 500 years ago that someone popularized the thought that it's just a symbol and nothing more.

It was at that same time that for the first time someone put a pulpit in the front of the gathering. Because before that it was always the body and blood of Christ that was central to the gatherings. For 1500 years it was never one guy and his pulpit being the center of the church. It was the body and blood of Christ, and even the leaders just saw themselves as partakers.

Because the church is more divided than at anytime in history…and for a thousand years there was just one church. We're so used to growing up in a time when literally there are over 30,000 Christian denominations right now. Yet for the first thousand years there was just one. 

What's interesting is that communion was at the center of the room every time they gathered. And it wasn't a pulpit where a guy preached.

There was something about taking communion out of the center of the church and replace it a gifted speaker. But the Body itself needs to be back in the center of the church. 

1. Francis Chan is a wonderful Christian leader. To some degree this is an extension of what he's been thinking and saying for years. He's a celebrity preacher who's conflicted about his success. He feels guilty about being the center of attention. It's a dilemma that he constantly struggles with. 

2. I'm always struck by the fallacious appeal to circular consensus. If people are only taught one thing, then that's what they're apt to believe. If they're not exposed to alternatives, then that fosters groupthink. If they don't have access to the primary sources, if theological dissent is punished, then what they believe is likely to echo what they were taught. That's what happens when the flow of information is tightly controlled. There's nothing probative, nothing of evidentiary value, about that sociological phenomenon. It creates no presumption that the status quo is true. It's no different from the fact that most Buddhists hail from Buddhist cultures, Muslims from Muslim cultures, Hindus from Hindu cultures. That so many people are impressed by appeal to circular consensus reflects a lack of critical discernment.

3. The reason the Renaissance and Reformation spawned theological diversity, contributing to the breakup of the medieval synthesis, is because it provided a marketplace of ideas. Back when there was a state religion and national churches, when the Cuius regio, eius religio policy was the rule, when the religious establishment had a monopoly, that deliberately cultivated and reinforced status quo thinking because theological competition was banned. But when access to the primary sources expanded, when literacy expanded, when the educated class expanded, when the laity would read whatever the clergy could read, that challenged the status quo, that challenged the preexisting consensus. 

4. Pastor Chan confuses church architecture with original Christian worship. The first Christians didn't worship in churches, in the sense of buildings designed for Christian worship. They worshipped out of doors or in private homes. The development of church architecture had to await the legal stabilization of the Christian faith. 

5. In liturgical churches, the Eucharist is separated from the life of the body. Separated from celebrants gathered in corporate fellowship and worship. In liturgical churches, the Host or reserved sacrament often occupies the tabernacle in a deserted church. So the centrality of the Eucharist is depersonalized and detached from the living worshipping community. An architectural centrality in an empty sanctuary. 

According to the Real Presence, Jesus is present in the consecrated communion elements even if the entire human race went extinct. There'd be no Christians on earth. The whole planet would be a cemetery. But Jesus remains present in the tabernacle. It's an idiosyncratic concept of communion where the "body and blood of Christ" is said to be found in abandoned churches, after all the worshipers were wiped out by the neutron bombs, leaving buildings and physical remains intact. A communion of skeletons. 

6. And during a communion service, it isn't just the altar or communion table that's front and center. The theology of the real presence necessitates the priesthood. So it's one or more priests (and acolytes) front and center. 

7. Was the eucharist central to NT worship? Consider Paul's classic statement: "When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up" (1 Cor 14:26). Doesn't seem like any one thing is central to the worship service. The worship service includes a celebration of the eucharist (1 Cor 11), but Paul doesn't rank that above other activities. 

8. Then we're treated to the fiction of the undivided church. Before the Photian schism, there was just one church. Everyone attended the same church. Really? 

With all due respect, Pastor Chan needs to think more deeply about his ecclesiology. There was never one institutional church. There were local and regional churches, often embroiled in turf wars. Does Pastor Chan seriously think that before the Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated the pope, there was just one church, the one church, and his action made the difference? Does Pastor Chan think that's what makes there to be one church? One undivided church? Is the unity of Christ's church determined by the actions of popes and ecumenical patriarchs? Are the actions of Greek Orthodox bishops and Roman Catholic bishops constitutive of the church as a unity or disunity? 

The unity of the church is grounded in the headship of Christ, the agency of the Holy Spirit, and fidelity to God's word. The unity of the church is independent of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox authority structures. That's unless you buy into a particular ecclesiology which I doubt Pastor Chan subscribes to. Seems to me he's been taken in by some catchy, superficial slogans, without considering the theological paradigm in which those are embedded. And if he really is moving in that direction, then he's lost his bearings. 


  1. I believe that Chan is confused between an appropriate disparagement of the "cult of personality" and an inappropriate disparagement of the centrality of the Word (as God, as Incarnation, and as Revelation). Per 1 Corinthians 3, we are not to follow Paul (qua Paul) or Apollos (qua Apollos)...but Paul (or Apollos) as an imitator of Christ. Both Paul and Apollos are gifted speakers. And these gifts are not being downplayed. The gifts, however, are to be displayed for the glory of God alone and not for the honor of particular men.

    The Catholics have so lowered the status of the preacher that Catholics laity often turn to Protestant speakers to be fed spiritually. Is that deemed a healthy "unity of the body Catholic" phenomenon?

    Chan is right about one thing: Protestants have often devalued the significance of the Eucharist to the point of its becoming a throw-away event. Let's go through the motions and not attach much of an effort to it. In Covenanter Scotland, revivals often centered around the Eucharist. Though it wasn't done often, when it was done, it was done big...with a great deal of introspective preparation.

    The centrality of the Word is clearly furthered by mature leaders closeting themselves for 20 hours a week in the deep, prayerful study of Scripture. Chan has to know that. And to the extent that that genuinely happens, the conclusions that are propounded, when sifted together with others doing the same thing, become closer together, not farther apart.

    Catholics jettison theological purity for the sake of a superficial "unity." Protestants often jettison unity for a narrow and partisan stance on purity. They stay in their little cloisters and iron is never allowed to sharpen iron.

    Nevertheless, Evangelicals demonstrate far more unity in their "thousands of denominations"--more like 50, but why try to be honest?--than Roman Catholics are in their "one." And Evangelical communion tables are open to all other Evangelicals, which is the measure by which most Catholics evaluate unity. Not only that, but our purity, scrambled as it is, far outshines theirs.

  2. I hadn't seen the video before. When I read what Steve quoted, I thought he was quoting a highly ignorant or dishonest Roman Catholic apologist or somebody close to converting to Catholicism. If Chan hasn't left Evangelicalism or come close to it, then he sounds a lot like somebody who has.

    His claims about church history are deeply erroneous. See this article for a summary of the evidence that the earliest Christians didn't believe in a physical presence of Christ in the eucharist. Regarding patristic Christianity, see here and here. See, also, the material here on Irenaeus. One of the resources I cite in those posts, which can be accessed for free online, is Philip Schaff's church history. In it, he documents a wide variety of views of the eucharist during the patristic era and in later pre-Reformation church history. Chan's view of the history of eucharistic doctrine is very inaccurate.

    And if the eucharist was as central as Chan claims (and not just the eucharist, but the particular view of it he refers to), you have to wonder why the earliest opponents of Christianity seem so unaware of it. Not only do men like Trypho and Celsus seem unaware that they should have been so focused on the eucharist in their comments on Christianity, but so are the Christians who respond to them. The eucharist gets mentioned to some extent, but it doesn't have the role Chan suggests.

    Regarding unity, see here. On patristic and other pre-Reformation divisions involving Rome in particular, see here.

    There are many other posts in our archives addressing these issues.

  3. Something Chan's comments illustrate is that pastors need to study far more than scripture. They need to study philosophy, history, and other fields that will make them more aware of the Bible's context, their own context, how to reason with people, etc. For all the attention that some Evangelicals give to responding to Catholicism, such as in the Reformed circles Chan has moved in, there's an appalling neglect of church history and other extrabiblical material among Evangelicals. That includes leaders, like Chan. It's not just that people like Chan are so susceptible to being deceived by groups like Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. They're also highly susceptible to all kinds of deceptions related to theological liberalism, atheism, the paranormal, etc. See here regarding the problems with intellectual immaturity in modern Evangelicalism, especially with laymen, but also with leaders, like Chan.

    Concerning disunity being worse today than in the past, how likely is it that the situation would be otherwise if the Reformation hadn't occurred? There's also more disunity today than in the past among atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, philosophers, scientists, etc. That's something that goes with the passing of time. People have more time to think through issues, develop more advanced belief systems, etc. It's also related to developments in areas like technology and political freedom. Blaming disunity on the Reformation (or the division between East and West before the Reformation, for example) is simplistic. The cause of the disunity we see is multifaceted. And not all types of disunity are bad, nor are they all equally significant.

    1. Hi Jason,
      What reading would you recommend for church history against the claims of Rome (primary and secondary)?

    2. Hi Trent,

      Here's something I wrote several years ago about studying the church fathers, though it isn't focused on Roman Catholicism. And here's a collection of links to some of our material on Catholicism, organized by topic.


  4. The complete sermon is .
    I don't know why does not have the entire sermon. They only have 12 of his sermons presented and noted.

    Francis Chan is planning to leave Cornerstone Community Church of Simi Valley, California. He is not shy on loading up on what he thinks that church should improve on their Christian living. -----And then not being around to help them through it. Other church traditions ask that the pastor be quiet after they leave.

    1. Chan makes some good points in the video Highway dog has cited, but some of what Chan says is problematic as well. He starts out referring to how God has taught him a lot in the last month or two. And here he is referring to how he "began" studying early Christian views of the eucharist. Apparently, that research was something he did just recently. He says that he's not elevating early Christian practices to the level of scripture, but that we should at least consider what they said. It's about twelve minutes before the end of the video when he makes the comments quoted at the beginning of this thread.

      He ought to know enough about church history to not make such inaccurate claims. And when the inaccurate claims are so much in line with what's said by groups as large and influential as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, groups that teach a lot of significantly false doctrine and are so active in trying to draw away Evangelicals, the situation is even worse. I hope he's as open to correction as he suggests in the video and will correct what he's said.

      Since 1 Corinthians 11 comes up a lot in the video, I want to note that we've addressed the passage in many posts over the years. See Steve's material here and here, for example.

  5. In the sermon, he said that the Christians get together and concentrated on the sharing of the community, the teaching of the disciples, the praying together, some healing, and the communion of the Eucharist. Then he lets the other subjects that Christians did receive no mention, but concentrates on the sharing of the Communion. He also speaks of our right respect and commitment to the dangerous undertaking of having this Communion.----

    Like all of you, I have learned that God encourages me, a pitiful sinner, to come to the Eucharist as I come to Jesus Christ to petition for salvation and trusting Him.

  6. There's something obviously tendentious about associating the pulpit primarily with the preacher (rather than God's word), but associating the communion table primarily with the elements (rather than the minister or priest).

    And as Steve points out, Chan makes the schoolboy error (and even this is too much to grant) of conflating a single organisational hierarchy with a "united church". Is Roman Catholicism today also a "united church", then?

  7. Pastor Chan is a wonderful Christian, but he seems to lack the gift of contentment. There are two extremes. One is complacency. He certainly avoids that extreme. But the other extreme is to be a dabbler. Flitting from one thing to another. A little here, a little there. The failure to keep at one thing until it sticks. Having the fidelity and fortitude to keep working at the same thing, day in and day out, year in and year out, until it makes a difference.

    1. I think there is also something else. The internet can foster bad reading skills if you do not use it properly. If you are picking up your theology from the latest controversy or a blog post here, a tweet there, then your thinking is likely going to be a loosely connected jumble.

      I unfortunately first learned about "Calvanism" and "Armenism" by going out and following online debates. It would have been far better if I had sat down with R.C. Sproul's Chosen by God and read that first.

      At a foundational level, it is better to start with books and read them in a disciplined manner and then later go out on to the internet to either fill out lacunae, understand theologoumenon or more controversial issues.

  8. Has he not studied church history? There certainly were schisms in the early church. Besides that, there were certainly divisions otherwise people like Origen or Arius wouldn't have been able to flee one church for another.