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Learning to Let Go: Towards a Church that Doesn’t Need to Control Everyone and Everything

About the Author
David Wagschal

A New Ecclesiology for a New Millennium? Part One

Christians are addicted to control.

It’s an extraordinary phenomenon. Those of us who’ve been in the church our whole lives may not even notice it, but Christians have this idea that we should control not only people’s ideas, beliefs, and religious practices – which, reluctantly, we might expect – but also their bodies, their relationships, and their politics. In its more extreme forms our desire to control can extend to manners, language, diet, emotions, even minute details of clothes and appearances. Look around a bit and you’ll see it everywhere. We’ve somehow gotten it into our heads that, to be Christian, we must control almost everyone and everything around us: society, morality, culture, politics – the list goes on.

It really is a compulsion – a “passion” in the classical sense of that word. Almost everywhere you look you can find Christians visibly upset and angry when we lose control of any aspect of our society, whether it be shopping on Sundays, marriage, gender roles, or procreation. We’re convinced we should be in the driving seat, and we’re greatly bothered when we discover we’re not. Today, of course, as Christianity loses the control it once had, we tend to be upset a whole lot… (Is it just me, or is anger one of Christianity’s chief “public emotions” today?)

The concern for control is closely connected to another major preoccupation: authority. In order to maintain control, we’ve had to establish a strong culture of authority and obedience. Indeed, historically, Christians have spent a huge amount of time and energy developing the legal and symbolic framework for the efficient exercise of authority – hierarchies, constitutions, polities, ideals and lifestyles of “obedience”, etc.

Today, however, all of this comes off as pretty weird, because our society as a whole no longer values or even tolerates this desire for totalizing control – especially not in institutional forms, and especially not in the religio-cultural sphere. Even in the churches themselves this dissonance can be easily felt. How many pastors discover that they have to spend a bizarre amount of energy shedding the old clerical image in order to minister effectively to people? Or that the institutional structures hurt as much as help?

So why are we Christians sunk so deep into this stuff? Does it serve any purpose?

Historically, the “why” is answered easily enough. This “culture of control” is a vestige of the Greco-Roman world, for which Christianity serves as one of the last reservoirs. Greco-Roman civilization was all about control and authority: virtue and truth were identified with the total control and ordering of the cosmos, the state, the city, the family, and the self by divinely guided and appointed authorities. It was pretty much second nature to the ancient world to integrate tightly everything from your ultimate ideas about being to how you tie your sandals – and to have this whole micromanaged by some quasi-divine authority to achieve a perfect, uniform polity. So that’s no mystery.

But why are we still perpetuating this dead world today?

Bad Theology? What?! No!

Here I think the answer is simple, if unpopular: we’ve got our theology wrong. I know, no one wants to believe this. We all want to believe our theology is right, but our practice is wrong. We never want to really consider that we might have gotten a few core things wrong – and possibly for centuries.

But I think it’s pretty obvious that we have.

Our basic compulsion to control comes from one simple mistake – the mistake, the primordial error, the Devil’s great lie: we think salvation depends upon us. In our heart of hearts we are convinced of this. Nature, reason, everything points in this direction. To be saved we must have the right disposition, knowledge, behaviour, social mores, whatever. And we easily extend this beyond ourselves: to our families, to our communities, to our society, to the world. And so, with great fear, and even desperation, we are driven – by the threat of losing salvation, God’s love, the Kingdom, everything – to seek the control over ourselves and our societies as much as possible, in every detail, in order to assure salvation. We must mold everyone and everything into some type of “saveable” form. We must create the Kingdom of God here.

This error has many pleasant guises: it’s a theology of “transformation”, of nature being perfected by grace, of deification, of the “permeation” of life with Christ. From the Puritans to the Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox to the Pentecostals, everyone has their version. In fact, we all end up with this theology. It’s pretty much human theology. And it’s wrong.

The Christian Gospel is the wonderful reversal of this notion. The Christian Gospel is exactly the declaration that salvation is a work of God alone. Salvation is a simple, radical, completely unmerited gift. It is an act of pure love, with no reciprocity required or possible. Full stop. Absolutely nothing else to be said. Done.

The moment you add the slightest rider, the Good News is extinguished – and our need to control resurfaces. “Ah, perhaps we need at least to accept this Gospel for it to work?” “Maybe we need to do just a very little something, whatever is in our power, even if it is the smallest of things?” Or, as it is expressed most commonly today, “If we are not ‘participating’ and active in our salvation, are we not somehow valueless?” Reason, nature, and the Devil ceaselessly whisper such thoughts in our ear. Each is a small crack through which the flood of our passion for control will soon burst.

No. Salvation is truly a work of Christ alone. The Gospel is exactly the assurance that even though we never really accept God’s gifts, even though our greatest works are revealed as corrupt, even though we are never convinced that we have value simply as the object of God’s love, God nevertheless continually pours out upon us his total, invincible love and grace.

So the Christian Gospel is not the introduction of some new “divine law”, Jewish or Greek, which we need to “enforce”. It is simply the declaration of God’s radical grace!

Now, let’s ask ourselves: given that this is the Gospel, how exactly does this require us to control others?

Yup, that’s right! It doesn’t. Of course it doesn’t. It ultimately frees people from the compulsion to control.

So why do we do it? Because we always try to transform the Good News into a proclamation about us. We always try to pass off ourselves as somehow part of the Gospel. So the Gospel becomes our community (the church), or our interpretative-literary processes (the bible). For the historic mainstream of Christianity, the Gospel has become above all a philosophy in the ancient sense of the word, i.e., a comprehensive “way of life”. So our growth, training and “spiritual advancement” become part of the proclamation of the Good News itself. But in all these cases, since the very core of Christianity becomes intertwined with human behaviour and performance, it follows naturally that we must have some means of coercing and controlling that behaviour or performance. And so our contemporary crisis.

Don’t Be Dumb, David: Of Course We Have to Exercise Some Control!

Of course it will be objected that it is impossible to imagine any transmission of the Gospel message, or any type of Christian life, that does not involve some dynamics of power and control. Even the simplest and loosest Christian communities have power structures and institutional patterns. In fact, any type of human interaction involves some interplay of power. And surely we do need to live moral lives, and should strive to grow and improve ourselves – this requires at least self-control!

True. But the “golden key” is to always recall that these patterns are never themselves an essential element of the Gospel, nor, therefore, an essential element of the Christian identity. No patterns of control or domination are necessary for anyone’s salvation. These are only ever exercised on a secondary, human, secular level; no particular set can ever claim universality or ultimate significance. Christians will, at different times, struggle for certain ethical or political agendas, locally or globally, and rightfully so – and these will be, of course, inspired by their faith. But however important these activities are for us in this world, they do not bear on anyone’s fundamental identity as Christians. They are always human actions, not divine. This is why no particular church structure, and no “authorities”, are ever essential to Christianity. They are of this world, and can come and go.

As a result, Christians can collectively take a sigh of relief and let go of any real compulsion to control. There may be a hundred good reasons why we, as humans, need to control behaviour, exercise power, and build institutions – but worrying about anyone’s salvation is never one of them. There is thus never any truly Christian reason to control or dominate. Is someone not part of your church? Relax: as a Christian, you don’t need to worry that this will impact their salvation. It won’t. Is someone not behaving as you like? Relax: as a Christian, you know it doesn’t ultimately matter. However important these things may be to us in this world, ultimately, as a Christian, you know that the one essential thing – salvation, reconciliation with God — is neither in your hands nor theirs. The one thing that really matters in this world, the one thing that could truly compel us to control and dominate others, is the one thing that we can safely entrust entirely into God’s hands. This is a bit humbling, but what a relief!

Next post: Keeping It Real: Being Church without Feeling Fake and Awkward (and Maybe a Bit Embarrassed)

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Comments 5

  1. David, I very much agree with you on the need to “let go.” A couple questions though:

    This “culture of control” is a vestige of the Greco-Roman world, for which Christianity serves as one of the last reservoirs.

    Can we really place all the blame for the culture of control on the Greco-Roman world? After all, we’re only 25 years removed from the end of communism in Eastern Europe and 70 years removed from the end of fascism in Western Europe. Would you trace these expressions of control to the Greco-Roman world rather than, say, the Enlightenment? The modern world has no shortage of systems of control.

    And more generally, isn’t this desire to control simply a part of our fallenness? Our egos need to control our lives and therefore everyone and everything around us.

    This error has many pleasant guises: it’s a theology of “transformation”, of nature being perfected by grace, of deification, of the “permeation” of life with Christ.

    I can see the connection in so far as the theology says that we must be transformed in order to be saved–but what if that transformation comes from our salvation and hearing the Gospel? Perhaps deification is exactly the result of learning to let go.

    Thank you!

    1. David Wagschal Post
      Author

      Dear Nicholas, Thanks for your comment (and sorry for my delay — busy, busy, recently).

      Your point is well taken. Of course I didn’t intend to imply that only Greco-Roman culture had an issue with control. This is a pervasive aspect of human sin, and is always crouching at the door. I simply mean that historically, the form and “version” of it that we most struggle with in the church today is very much its Greco-Roman incarnation.

      Having said that, I do think that the Greco-Roman version was particularly extreme and totalizing (ever read a Greco-Roman law code?). And I do think, if I’m honest, that our post-Enlightenment, post-20th C western world has to some extent shed some of the worst excesses of the routine totalitarianism of pre-modern societies, at least in the religio-cultural sphere — and the churches are making a terrible mistake to continue as surrogates for this older world. Here we need to be very careful about not falling into a morally dangerous historical relativism (and/or Romanticism). Let’s be totally clear: yes, “we’re all sinners”, sure, but very much of the ancient world was utterly horrific, and needs to be completely repudiated. And for the record, without any doubt I would prefer to live in a post-Enlightenment world than a pre!

      Your final point is articulating the classical Reformation paradigm for transformation: it’s part of “sanctification”, which is after, and totally separate from “justification”, which is salvation proper. Yes, I agree that making this distinction is key. However, we have to be ever and anon careful that we never sneak sanctification back into being somehow _essential_ for salvation.

      Thanks again — great comments.

      Best,
      David

  2. Thanks for your response, David!

    It’s interesting–I’ve been reading a book about Puritan society in early New England and I imagine their (to us, draconian-seeming) strictures were a lot like the Greco-Roman code you cite. I’d be really interested to hear your take on how this tendency resurfaced in Protestantism post-Luther. I think you may have mentioned it in passing once.

    Nicholas

    1. David Wagschal Post
      Author

      Hi Nicholas, Yes, in fact, the puritans are one of the groups that have been very much in my mind in writing these posts! They are a somewhat extreme example, of course. But I am certainly inclined to view the entire Calvinist/Reformed stream as very much the continuation of the imperial synthesis — the other side of the Catholic/Orthodox coin, if you will. All the core instincts and assumptions are there: the Gospel as a kind of new law, and very much about knowledge (vs. trust); faith and faithfulness combined; salvation as an ongoing process (de facto if not always de juro) and therefore salvation as about concrete transformation; Jesus as above all a kind of empowerer of our self-savlation (instead of the definitive accomplisher of our salvation); grace as an energy (vs. as a gift); huge emphasis on obedience; God as prototypically the sovereign judge (vs. the crucified Christ); etc, etc. I sketch some of these at http://www.underthesunblog.com/david-corner/so-wrong-for-so-long/. But the best “surface” indicator of this tradition is almost always in the politics: the constant drive to create the kingdom _here_, and consequently a huge privileging of moralilty in Christian discourse.

      Anyway, sometime I’ll try to flesh this out in full. Just finishing Calvin’s Institutes now… it’s amazing how it’s really just the old synthesis 2.0. But Luther — no, Luther is doing something quite different.

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