Three Contemporary Heresies
Holy Scripture teaches that there are three basic, God-ordained institutions in human society: the family, the church and the state. Before man’s fall into sin these three existed as one, for there is a sense in which we can say that Adam and Eve before the fall were not only a family (as the first husband and wife), but also a “church” (as God’s covenant people), and a “state” (a self-governed civil society existing to promote and protect the common good of its members). But with the entrance of sin into the world it became necessary to separate these creational functions or aspects of human social life into three separate-yet-related institutions. This was necessary in order to prevent the human race in its fallen condition from plunging into total chaos and anarchy, and also in order to maintain some semblence of external peace and order within human society. In this post-fall situation all people ordinarily belong as members of a family and as citizens of a state, but only some belong in addition to that spiritual society of God’s professing covenant people known as the church. Many contemporary errors and heresies stem from either blurring the distinctions between these institutions or ignoring the connections between them.
Three heresies exist today which are related to these three basic institutions of human society, heresies which may be labelled as follows: statism, familialism, and ecclesiasticism.
Let’s start with statism. This is not an unfamiliar term, especially in contemporary political discourse. By “statism” I mean not simply the desire for a bigger, more centralized, more bureaucratic and controlling civil government (although that would be included under the umbrella of statism). Rather, by “statism” I mean an over-reliance on the civil government and its leaders. A “statist” civil government is one which manifests a messianic consciousness and sets itself up as a “savior” to its people, promising its citizens not only civil order and military protection from outside aggressors who threaten national security, but cradle-to-grave security and the peace of mind that is suppose to go along with such security. Statism is messianic in its pretensions, utopian in its orientation, and pharisaical in that statists seem to believe that the ills of human society can be adequately addressed simply by passing more laws and adding new regulations. You are a “statist” if you are trusting in the government to provide you with that which only God and the God-ordained institutions of family and church can provide you with (for example, a sense of belonging, peace of mind, a sense of meaning and purpose, and being part of something that is bigger and more significant than just yourself). The fact is that Scripture presents civil government not as a utopian institution with messianic powers to accomplish social salvation, but rather as an institution designed by God simply torestrain criminal evildoers and civil unrighteousness. For example, passages like Romans 13 indicate that the civil government promotes civil righteousness and good order in society by restraining and punishing the criminal element in society. As an institution of external restraint, the civil government has a very limited role, and thus was never intended to be the utopian, messianic institution that statists imagine it to be. Whenever a civil government oversteps its God-ordained bounds and tries to take upon itself functions that God has committed to either the family or the church, then all kinds of mischief and harm follow.
Politically-conservative Christians may read the above paragraph and think that I am speaking exclusively of political liberals. It is certainly true that much of contemporary political liberalism is “statist” in its orientation and manifestations. However, I would also contend that there is a spirit of “statism” even amongst many politically-conservative evangelical Christians as well. How many evangelicals in America there are who place their trust in the political process and place their hopes for the future in the results of the next election cycle. How many conservative, Bible-believing churches there are that have been all but secularized and politicized by the Americanist heresy (which confuses American patriotism and evangelical spirituality). How many evangelicals there are who seem to think that the progress of God’s kingdom in this world hinges upon getting the right people elected to public office and getting the right laws passed. Certainly there is a place for political activism in the Christian life, but when Christians put their trust in politics and politicians they show themselves to be statist in their orientation, even if they hold to political principles which promote smaller government, free market capitalism, and individual liberties. The heresy of statism is alive and well in the institutional church — both in the liberal and conservative wings of the church.
The next heresy I want to address is what I call familialism. This is a heresy where everything in society is centered upon the family. Certainly I have no argument with the position that the family is the basic, foundational institution of society. Attempts to change the definition of marriage and the family are indeed a threat to God-ordained social order and natural law (properly conceived), and as such the church in its preaching and teaching should bear testimony to what God’s Word teaches about marriage and the family and should expose the sinfulness of attempts to redefine marriage and the family. However, while the family is vitally important and central in God’s providential purposes among mankind, at the same time it is possible to so over-emphasize the family’s importance that the institution of the family becomes an idol. The fact is that the human family is temporary. It was designed to be temporary. Husbands and wives eventually pass away. Children grow up, leave the home, and (in many cases) get married and start their own family units. There will be no marriage or natural family life in heaven. The family is a temporary, creational, common grace institution that will be done away with in the eschaton. Thus to so exalt the family and family life to the extent of neglecting one’s God-given obligations to either church or state is a heresy.
One manifestation of the heresy of familialism is to exalt the family above the church. The perceived needs of the family are exalted above the believer’s responsibility to Christ’s visible church. One example of this is the family that chooses a church based on whether it has an exciting youth program for the children. It seems that for many Christians in America today, the church exists to serve the family, and thus they will choose a church, not based on its official doctrinal position and worship, but based on whether it has “programs” available for the entire family (for example, youth group for the “kids,” ladies’ Bible study for mom, a men’s group for dad, etc.). Another manifestation of familialism is an over-emphasis on the “family-integrated church.” Lest the reader misunderstand, I am all for a “family-integrated church” if by that term is meant a church where families are welcomed and encouraged to worship together in the corporate assembly (rather than segregating the church into adult church and “children’s church” – a practice which I believe to be totally without biblical warrant). But it seems to me that some can so emphasize the “family-integrated church” paradigm that single people and people in broken and/or “dysfunctional” family situations can be made to feel ostracized or unwelcomed. The church itself is intended to be a manifestation of God’s forever family, the spiritual and eternal family of God – i.e., the Body of Christ. All true believers are part of that family, whether they are married, single, divorced or widowed, and none should be made to feel like they are second-class members of the church simply because they are either single or find themselves in a less-than-ideal family situation. Furthermore, it seems to me that some in the “family-integrated church” movement so stress the family that the church takes a back seat. Yes, I think we should be concerned to be a “family-integrated church” (in the legitimate, biblical sense), but I am also concerned that Christian families be “church-integrated families.” Too many Christian families today float from one church to another, often for very superficial and specious reasons. The importance of a long-term commitment to a local church (with all of its idiosyncracies and imperfections) and to the community of believers in such a church (with all of their flaws and shortcomings) seems to be off the radar-screen of such perpetual church-hopping, church-shopping families.
One of the most disturbing manifestations of the heresy of familialism is the practice of “family church.” It is my understanding that some professedly Christian families – perhaps because they have been unable to find a church in their area that they regard to be adequately “family integrated” – have given up going to church altogether. Instead they have “church” at home, with the father leading the family in worship. Certainly the Reformed churches have always promoted and encouraged the practice of family worship, but worship together as a family (as important as that is) is no substitute for the public assembly of the church (which includes multiple families and individuals gathered together in public assembly on the Lord’s Day). The “family church” heresy blurs the lines of distinction between the institution of the family (a natural, creational institution) and the institution of the church (a supernatural, redemptive institution). While it is true that in the covenant of grace the family unit is taken up into the administration of the covenant (for example, covenant children are to be baptized and raised in the nurture and admonition of the Lord), at the same time the family is not the church and the church is not the family. The father, as a father, has not been ordained by God to preach the Word, administer the sacraments, or exercise church discipline. Those are functions that God’s Word assigns to the Ministers and Elders of the church. By cutting themselves off from the public covenant assemblies of the church, those who practice “family church” sever themselves from connection to the Body of Christ, cut themselves off from the valid administration of the means of grace (Word and sacraments), and (in effect) excommunicate themselves from the visible church, “out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. XXV.II.). The practice of “family church” is a form of familialism which is deeply schismatic and sectarian. Those who practice “family church” to the exclusion of the public assembly of the visible church not only disobey clear Scriptural commands (for example, Hebrews 10:25), but put themselves and their children in grave spiritual danger and cause division in the church.
The final heresy I want to address is ecclesiasticism. This is a heresy that makes the visible church the be all and end all of human existence and the source of human salvation. Ecclesiasticism takes too far the Bible-based truth that there is no ordinary possibility of salvation outside the communion of the visible church. Those guilty of this heresy often seem to forget that it is not the church’s job to exalt itself, but to exalt Christ and His gospel of free, sovereign grace. Ecclesiasticists forget that the church does not save — only Christ saves. Yes, Christ has entrusted the ministry of Word and sacraments to His visible organized church; and, yes, Christ uses those means of grace to create and sustain saving faith in the hearts of elect sinners. But, again, it is Christ who saves sinners, not the church as such. Sinners are justified before God by faith in Christ alone, not by faith plus church membership (as important as it is for professing believers to unite in official membership in a visible church). Ecclesiasticism is found most prominently in those churches which hold to a sacerdotalist view of salvation — i.e., the notion that salvation is doled out by a human priesthood appointed and ordained by the church. While the historic Reformed faith has a high view of church and sacraments, the Reformed faith is not sacerdotalist (at least not in the Romanist or Eastern Orthodox sense). Ecclesiasticism was more prominent in the age of “Christendom,” when there was a closer alliance between church and state than there is today in our more “secular” arrangement. Nevertheless, ecclesiasticism is always a heresy that must be guarded against. In Reformed circles I believe ecclesiasticism has reared its ugly head in some manifestations of the so-called “Federal Vision” theology (which I regard, in its more consistent forms, to be a damning heresy). Of the three heresies mentioned in this blog post, I believe ecclesiasticism is the one that we in the OPC need to guard against the most. The OPC has historically held to a very “high church” view of the church and its ministry. On the whole the OPC swims against the flow of the low-church mindset of parachurchism and revivalism that prevail in contemporary evangelicalism, and rightly so! But while we defend the integrity and centrality of the visible church in God’s redemptive purposes, let us beware lest we fall into a neo-ecclesiasticism that would plunge us into a new dark age of sacerdotalism, ritualism and ecclesiastical priestcraft. The church exists to lift up and bear testimony to Christ and His gospel, not to exalt itself and its authority.
May our gracious God see fit to guard us against the heresies of statism, familialism, and ecclesiasticism. May He guide us along that narrow road that keeps in biblical balance both the distinctions and the connections between the family, the church and the state.