The Progressive Churches of Christ: A Little Hauerwas, Part 1

progressiveFor those paying very close attention, I’ve been following the neo-Anabaptist playbook in suggesting the importance of the sacraments and community within the local congregation.

Likely the outstanding spokesman for this point of view is Stanley Hauerwas, who has an annoying way of seeing things contrary to evangelical convention. He makes us see the weaknesses of what we often perceive as strengths.

For example, Hauerwas says,

I have great admiration for evangelicals for no other reason than they just bring such great energy to the faith and I admire that. But one of the great problems of Evangelical life in America is evangelicals think they have a relationship with God that they go to church to have expressed but church is a secondary phenomenon to their personal relationship and I think that’s to get it exactly backwards: that the Christian faith is [mediated] faith. It only comes through the witness of others as embodied in the church. So I should never trust my presumption that I know what my relationship with God is separate from how that is expressed through words and sacrament in the church. So evangelicals, I’m afraid, often times, with what appears to be very conservative religious convictions, make the church a secondary phenomenon to their assumed faith and I think that’s making it very hard to maintain disciplined congregations.’

He’s right, isn’t he? Don’t we see our personal relationship with God as much more important than our relationship through the church. We shop for congregations, hoping to find one that suits our personal needs. The needs of the church therefore must bend to the needs of the individual. The church is there to support the individual in his personal relationship with God.

And he’s right that the result is a lack of discipline. That is, church leaders have little real authority because the members see themselves as consumers of religious services, and if the leaders make them unhappy, they’ll just buy their religious services from another congregation down the road. There is little real commitment to the congregation, and hence community formation is very often imaginary.

Hauerwas sees evangelicalism as dying as a result of its relentless pursuit of novelty —

I think evangelicalism is destined to die of its own success and it will go the way of mainstream Protestantism because there’s just—it depends far too much on charismatic pastors, and charisma will only take you so far. Evangelicalism is constantly under the burden of re-inventing the wheel and you just get tired. For example, I’m a big advocate of Morning Prayer. I love Morning Prayer. We do the same thing every morning. We don’t have to make it up. We know we’re going to say these prayers. We know we’re going to join in reading of the psalm. We’re going to have these Scripture readings. I mean, there’s much to be said for Christianity as repetition and I think evangelicalism doesn’t have enough repetition in a way that will form Christians to survive in a world that constantly tempts us to always think we have to do something new.

Would you rather be part of a congregation with a brilliant preacher who speaks to your heart but is going to get hired away, or fall into sin, or retire, or die before your walk on earth is over — or a congregation devoted to timeless rituals and readings and prayers?

It’s not that you have to choose, but that we should be getting tired of changing congregations to have the hot new preacher or hot new worship leader. We’re turning churches into retail purveyors of religious goods and services rather than timeless places where we find both community and God and prayer and broken bread. You see, it doesn’t have to be focused on the sermon and the brilliant lesson. It could be focused on people who love each other and love God so much that they find their relationship with God among a certain group of fellow believers.

Hauerwas also argues for group Bible study —

I do think that [Hegel] made the comment at one time, “Christians arose in the morning and said their prayers. Now they read the newspaper.” Of course, that’s changing too. They probably look at their smartphone now. But I think that the fundamental habits of the faith have been in decline and that leaves us with insufficient resources to sustain our lives as Christians in a world in which we find ourselves. I think, again, it has to do with the loss of fundamental practices, such as reading the Bible, but reading the Bible, I don’t trust necessarily to me as an individual. I need to read the Bible with other people. And that has pretty much been lost. Let me say in that regard that one of the other things that worries me about evangelicalism is I’m afraid it’s got the Bible and now, and exactly how it is that you reconnect evangelical life with the great Catholic traditions, I think is part of the challenges for the future because you need to read the [Fathers] reading Scripture as part of our common life if we are to sustain a sense that we don’t get to make Christianity up. We receive it through the lives of those who have gone before and that just becomes crucial for us to be able to survive in which we find ourselves.

In short, Bible study is not an individual discipline. It’s something we do with others, including others long dead. The Fathers are alive in Christ in heaven, and they still speak to us through their writings — as do the great Reformers and the Restoration Movement leaders. We have to get over the notion that we are the first people ever to read their Bibles or that any one of us is competent by himself to interpret the text.

One of the great failings of the most conservative members of the Churches of Christ is to refuse to read anything written outside their narrow fellowship — and so they recycle the same errors and flawed readings without correction. When we open ourselves to read outside of our little circles, we open ourselves not only to correction but to insights we’d never have have found on our own. A little humility would do a lot for our Bible study.

[to be continued]


About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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4 Responses to The Progressive Churches of Christ: A Little Hauerwas, Part 1

  1. Richard says:


  2. Jim H says:

    Absolutely true!! If you have bible studies available from other denominations (BSF, seminaries, neighborhood study groups, Walk to Emmaus) go attend some of them periodically. You will be stretched, and you will discover how narrow the focus of your bible study may be.

  3. John Randy Royse says:

    It was always ironic to me that the only Martin Luther quote I ever heard growing up was when he condemned instrumental music. Same for any church father…..

    We do need to get expand our horizon(s). Not to validate our existing beliefs, but to honestly seek where the Spirit has worked in other people. This is not a new situation, but one the early church faced as documented in Acts 15. We need to share the victories and learn from the mistakes of all who have searched for God.

    But we need to remember we are with those ‘cloud of witnesses’ even now as we muddle our way around the heavenly Zion (Heb 12:22). We are brethren, not because of our works, but because of God’s redemptive accomplishment through our brother Jesus and His great love for us all…..

    John Randy Royse

  4. laymond says:

    We are supposed to follow the example Jesus set for us.

    Mat 16:24 Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

    If at the end we can truly repeat what Jesus said , I believe we will be alright.

    Jhn 17:4 I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do.

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