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The Danger of Christian Primitivism

While writing my previous article that praised the virtues of Christian primitivism and its capacity to spark church renewal, it occurred to me that it would be appropriate to address the inherent dangers of Christian primitivism.  Simply put, Christian primitivism is an ideological viewpoint that attempts to restore Christianity to the original structures and practices of the New Testament Church because it is believed that the Church has strayed from its own foundation over the years. From my perspective, there are four main dangers associated with practicing a primitive form of church: (1) pride in one’s own Christian experience, (2) devaluing the experience of other Christians, (3) a sectarian spirit, and (4) heterodoxy. Even though there may be good reasons for adopting a New Testament approach to church structures and practices, one should proceed with caution, self-awareness, charity, and humility.

The Danger of Heterodoxy

Even though Christian primitivism often leads to the renewal and revitalization of the universal church, the same primitive spirit can be responsible for producing heterodox movements. For example, heterodox groups such as the Latter-Day Saints believe that they have restored the church to its primitive roots. According to Mormons, after the death of the last Apostles the church fell into a time of Great Apostasy until Joseph Smith restored the true church and re-established a Quorum of Twelve Apostles. Smith’s efforts began in response to his desire to join the true church of Christ. He supposedly learned in a vision that no true church existed, and that God had chosen him to restore the New Testament Church.  However, from the perspective of the majority of orthodox Christians, Joseph Smith strayed into heterodoxy and left behind the True Church in his effort to restore the primitive church.

Even today primitivist movements sprout up claiming to restore the church to its true New Testament roots. This past summer, a student brought to my attention a local movement of hyper-dispensationalists that believe they practice the original faith as rightly understood by the Apostle Paul.1 They do not practice water baptism because that was John’s baptism. Instead they only practice baptism in the Spirit. They do not pray the Lord’s Prayer because that prayer belongs to an era that precedes the current era of grace. My student gave me a brochure from the church explaining why it is “good news” that Christians don’t have to pray the Lord’s Prayer. In the Lord’s Prayer, forgiveness from God is contingent on forgiving others. From their perspective, that is not grace. The true “good news,” as they see it, is that one can be forgiven without forgiving. While this viewpoint might seem to highlight the scandal of God’s grace, it is foolish to relegate the teachings of Christ himself to a bygone era.  Christianity, if nothing else, is a way of living firmly rooted in following Jesus Christ as the Risen Lord. The life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the core essence of the faith. To reject the teachings of Christ is to undermine the foundation of the entire faith. When my student showed me the brochure, I was incredibly blunt with him. I told him that this primitive movement had strayed so far from historic orthodoxy that it could no longer properly be considered a Christian church in my judgment. In the attempt to restore the primitive church, one can run the risk of abandoning the Body of Christ.

Sectarianism: A Pandora’s Box

While not always leading to heterodoxy, Christian primitivism runs the risk of falling into sectarianism and schism. This is why noted primitivists such as Martin Luther or John Wesley did not actively seek to leave their church of origin or establish a new denomination. However, the spirit of primitivism seems to inevitably pull in the direction of sectarianism. By its own logic, primitivism engrains the mindset that only our particular expression of the church is faithful to the “true church” of the New Testament. This creates an inevitably tension with the larger church body and schism becomes inevitable. Once schism begins, it begets more and more division. Even though Wesley never intended to leave the Church of England, his revival movement has produced Methodist, Nazarene, Wesleyan, Holiness, and Pentecostal churches. The primitivist mindset is unavoidably sectarian, and over time becomes a kind of Pandora’s Box.

However, all is not necessarily doom and gloom for sectarian movements. Scholars of church history have observed what is commonly known as the church-sect typology. This means that throughout history, the church has existed in both institutional and hierarchical forms as well as in organic and egalitarian forms. Even though these two forms of church appear diametrically opposed, they are connected to each other in a mutually reinforcing cycle. Institutional forms of the church preserve the doctrines and maintain the faith through times of decline and spiritual apathy. At the same time, institutional forms run the risk of becoming lifeless and rooted in rote tradition. Then, along comes a sectarian renewal movement that breathes new life into the structures of the church and challenges believers to lead a more active and disciplined Christian life. These sectarian movements subsequently force the institutional church to adapt and make changes. Then, ironically enough, given enough time the sect will grow and develop into a new church body that will inevitably produce more sects down the line. When looking at the topic from this angle, it suggests that churches and sects both need each other and benefit in some ways from each other.

Church Snobs

Even if a primitivist mindset does not result in either heterodoxy or schism, it runs the risk of producing a spiritual pride and arrogance that may be the greatest danger of all. As I stated above, primitivism engrains the idea that our church practices the original way. By correlation, this subtly reinforces the idea that I am a true Christian because I belong to a church that follows the true way. This sense of superiority of one’s own church and one’s own practice, inevitably results in judgmentalism. If my church is best, then what does that say about all other churches? If I practice the faith the true way, then what does that say about all other Christians who practice differently than me? This type of spiritual pride has two layers. One, a high estimation of myself, and, two, a devaluing of other Christians. In short, Christian primitivism runs the risk of producing church snobs.

Many people are familiar with the idea of coffee snobs. These are people who believe that the masses often settle for middle-of-the-road enjoyment. The masses like coffee that is the least offensive to the most amount of palates.  Therefore, you get coffee with a vague sense of slightly bitter and burnt nuttiness and a hint of chocolate. Coffee snobs quickly learn that there is a rich spectrum of complex flavors to explore– fruity, savory, earthy, buttery, toffee, jam, honey, and many more. In their enthusiasm for their new experiences, snobs cannot help but disparage the preferences of the masses. If you drink a single origin roast from Counter Culture coffee, you most certainly scoff at Folger’s house roast and all those who enjoy its bland and lifeless flavor. In some ways, the personal enjoyment of snobs is enhanced by the esoteric knowledge that others are missing out on a much more sophisticated coffee drinking experience.

Unfortunately, the same phenomenon happens with churches. We value our own church experiences so highly, that it is hard for us not to pass a value judgment on other churches and other Christians. While this air of snobbery can be found in any type of church, there seems to be an even greater risk in a house church or a primitivist movement. When you practice church in a way that you believe is very similar to the first Christians in Jerusalem,2 it is hard not to devalue other expressions of church. In other words, it is hard for folks in a house church not to subconsciously believe that they are drinking Counter Culture, and everyone else is settling for Folger’s.

What is the solution to this snobbery? One, members of a house church need to humble themselves and recognize that if they are not on guard they can easily stray into bizarre and heterodox beliefs. Two, all Christians would do well to recognize that the body of Christ is a beautifully diverse phenomenon. There is enough space in the body for both churches and sects, and each one plays a vital role in the overall life of the Church Universal. Lastly, all Christians should deeply value their own worship experiences and their own communities of faith without devaluing the experiences of others. There are many different palates in the Body of Christ, and there is a wide range of flavors to suit all different tastes.


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Jarrett Dickey

Jarrett Dickey

Jarrett is a bi-vocational house church pastor and adjunct faculty member. He teaches classes at several local colleges in the areas of religion and humanities. In addition to teaching, Jarrett is the assistant pastor of a house church, where he helps with preaching, teaching, worship leading, and discipleship. Jarrett married his high school sweetheart, Hannah, in 2005, and they now have four small children. Jarrett holds a bachelor of science degree in biology from Ohio Northern University and a master of divinity degree from Emory University, Candler School of Theology. His hobbies include guitar, hiking, bird watching, crossword puzzles, sports, reading, and writing. You can follow him on Twitter @jarrett_dickey.

  • Greg Herr

    Over breakfast this morn with a good bud from church (both of us papists and former evangelicals, with some house/small church histories) were discussing something related to this.

    We suggested that the ‘nature’ of discussion between, say, a Protestant/Evangelical and an unchurched person, with the Evangelical endeavoring to present the Faith in a compelling way, is two individuals talking to each other, with the end point at the Person (or, each person, perhaps, if each is attempting to persuade the other).

    Makes sense.

    We then compared it to a Catholic and a Protestant in dialogue. And while it certainly is two individuals speaking to each other, both, Lord willing in their most winsome-yet-compelling ways, making compelling arguments, the Catholic is speaking to a Person as an end point, whereas, in reality, the Evangelical is speaking to a Church (the Catholic Church to be precise).

    To imagine this I pointed “behind” me to attempt to describe how that works. I hope that isn’t too confusing, but it’s just one of the differences that is often very hard to describe. The Catholic is tethered to the Church which is the conduit of the gospel, and while certainly also an individual Person, is *both* absorbed into the whole with its authority and connectedness to the ancient faith, and a ‘representative component’ of it.

    Any of that make sense?

    • Greg,

      I think you lost me a bit there. But, if I am hearing you correctly, it seems like you are getting at the issue of authority. For the Protestant the theological and moral authority is the Bible. However, the Bible is always interpreted in light of the individual conscience. So, in some sense, the authority of a Protestant is himself or herself (as they believe they understand God). However, when talking with a Catholic, they will appeal to the authority of the Church and the tradition of biblical interpretation. In short, you have an individualistic viewpoint vs. a collectivist viewpoint?

      However, when you talk with most Protestants, they still locate themselves within a particular tradition (theological stream, denomination, local church, etc.). So in some ways you aren’t just talking one-on-one with a Protestant either. In my neck of the woods, if I talk with a Protestant about the Bible, I find that I am inevitably talking with that person plus the entirety of the Calvinist theological tradition! So maybe the difference is that Catholics are more explicit about their appeal to an interpretative community and tradition than Protestants typically are?

      • Greg Herr

        Certainly, yes, authority.

        You said it better than I did. And you are very, very close. This is why it’s hard to describe.

        (It may be—and I’m really not sure—that it’s only by experience ‘swimming’ in a Catholic ocean that this can be gotten at intuitively).

        But yes, you’re very close.

        My experience, both as an Evangelical, and in speaking with good friends who are (of any particular persuasion), is that while they speak out of a tradition or heritage, they also (forgive me, but) *routinely* jettison that tradition if/when they disagree with elements of it. In recent conversations, they prefer to not engage with the Bible as it reads too, which (for this Baptist :>) is very disconcerting!

        That disagreement (or agreement), based on the individual’s understanding, which includes the ancient record (Fathers, councils), ultimately means the person may hold to what he wants to hold, and disregard what he wants to disregard. That disconnect informs that whole connection (or disconnection) to the ancient (primitive) church, and allows a selective and partial mosaic to be constructed, leaving the individual tethered not to a tradition or the Bible, but to himself as the ‘end point’ for authority.

        We papists don’t (really) have that luxury.

        To wit, an atheist a few days ago: “’I am an unredeemed and unredeemable atheist’….What I most admire about the Catholic Church…is its certainty. A profound rationalist like me ought to have the Catholic Church at the far end of his spectrum, but it is nearer to my beliefs than other churches and that is because of its certainty, which is its true strength and why it has survived.” [Source: http://www.thetablet.co.uk/features/2/9557/outside-in-english-have-always-viewed-catholics-as-different-labour-party-stalwart-roy-hattersley-tells-the-tablet ]

        What happens with Catholics is that they will, indeed, dispute or simply not believe, Church doctrine (bummer for us), but the reality is that it doesn’t *really* change the doctrine for the individual Catholic, even if they want it to, even if they live contrary to it.

        The doctrine (and its connectivity to the ancient/primitive church/councils) stands, with the individual Catholic being like a tether ball, swinging either more closely, or further, from that centerpoint.

        • As a teacher of world religions, in the classroom I am fond of reminding students that religions have official teachings and people have their own personal beliefs. Of course, for the sake of simplicity, I have to stick mostly to official beliefs. Delving into the myriad of personal beliefs held by members of an official religion would leave us completely bogged down. So typically I just acknowledge the phenomenon for what is. Religions will teach what they will teach, and people will believe what they believe. I think that applies across the board, but that could especially be the case with a massive religious institution like the Catholic Church. Beliefs don’t always trickle down to the laity from the Pope.

          • Greg Herr

            Sounds right. Kinda begs the question, why split, then, if people will believe what they believe? Wouldn’t it make sense just to not worry too much about splitting off [‘Once schism begins, it begets more and more division.’] and just ignore the stuff one doesn’t believe?

            With Catholics, even the poorly catechized are generally aware that there are ‘official teachings’ which are binding (ie, the CCC). I haven’t come across Protestants who think of–to use an easy example–the Westminster Confession of Faith (or Concord, or Little Cat.)–as ‘official’ in the sense that it is binding.

            • Greg,

              You need to meet some of the Protestants I know then. Many of them treat their official statements of faith as extremely binding. Several examples:

              (1) Last semester I had a girl in class who was Missouri Synod Lutheran. She argued several times in class that Lutherans were not “Protestants.” She argued that Luther never left the Catholic Church, but that the Catholic Church left him. I think it is safe to assume that she finds the Book of Concord and other Lutheran confessions of faith as “binding.” In the course of one of our conversations, she admitted that other Lutheran denominations (i.e. ELCA) might not be truly Christian because they had departed from these historic confessions of faith.

              (2) Last semester I had a Southern Baptist pastor talk to my class. He argued that 3 things made a person an “evangelical Protestant” (which was code for “true Christian” in his mind). I can’t remember his points 2 and 3 because his point 1 was so prominent. You have to believe that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God to be an evangelical Protestant. He actually went out of his way to denounce Catholic and mainline Protestants as not truly Christian because they don’t believe the Bible. I would say that this pastor treats that belief as extremely binding. He also handed out a copy of the Baptist Faith and Message doctrinal statement.

              (3) I know younger reformed evangelicals who are doing reformed catechisms with their kids. Dinner conversation starts with the question, “What is the chief end of man?” So the historic confessions of the Calvinist tradition are still treated as binding in certain circles.

              As regards your point about schism, I think there are 2 things to say:

              (1) My student is right about Luther. He never intentionally pursued schism. Wesley never intentionally pursued schism from the Church of England either. Even with the best of intentions, even with a desire to maintain an institutional unity, schism can feel like an inevitability of history, not theology. Just think of the Great Schism between East and West. Most scholars maintain it would have happened inevitably for reasons of culture, language, politics, etc.

              (2) Catholics do have a wonderful ability to keep sects within the institution. The Catholic Orders are a good example of this (Franciscan, Dominican, etc.). They often practice a primitive way, but stay within the church. This contributes to renewal of the larger institution.

              • Greg Herr

                All fair, and yes, I have met those Christians too (I was one).

                Perhaps it would have been better to say—and unfortunately this tends to get caught in the vortex cycle issue of Authority—is that those Christians you and I have met have no ability to enforce their version of orthodoxy across more than their particular church (parish) or, in rare cases, association. If and when they do, splits are often the result. (Or, just attending a new church.)

                Your comment ‘Religions will teach what they will teach, and people will believe what they believe’ has played the dominant role. The outworking of that truism is observably distinguished with Protestants and the Catholic Church, however, with the former fragmented, and the latter not.

                And you’re right about the Catholic Church keeping in tension those with differing approaches (they’re not properly referred to as ‘sects’ tho—more correctly would be ‘charisms’, but I take your point).

                Good conversation.

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