Monday 16 July 2018

Discerning God's will about obedience to a Christian Church

When I became a Christian, I had the idea that it was necessary to be a member of some specific church or another: that the Christian life is a church life: that a Christian's job is to be obedient to the True Church.

In other words, the institution came first, and it was my job (as a Christian) to be guided by that external authority. 

The burning question was which church I ought to join. And that I could not decide; because in every direction I turned, the further I went, I more I got a strong and increasing feeling that it was not for me; that it was wrong for m; often that it was actively-harmful to my Christian life. 

So, in the end, my main decision was a matter of whether (or not) to over-ride my intuition not to put myself under the authority of a specific church.

I eventually decided that this negative intuition was probably a divine guidance; and I have continued to believe-so since (which is now more than five years). The implication is that I do not acknowledge the spiritual authority of any church or denomination; but instead regard some of them as sometimes helpful, but sometimes harmful, institutions.

Some specific churches provide valuable Christian resources of direct relevance to my condition; and one of these I support financially and in other small ways. None provide anything that is of specific relevance to my normal Christian living; so I do not attend any church regularly, or engage with any socially.

Of course, I have no idea how other people's deepest intuitions are prompting them - and my own intuitive guidance may change at some point in the future; but the above describes the process by which I reached my current situation.

The only consistent advice I could give would be that there is no deeper validation that one's own strong and sustained intuitions about divine destiny as it applies to you, personally. That 'bottom line' conviction may lead you to subordinate your Christian life to an external authority; or it may not...


Chiu ChunLing said...

I think that divine intuition may lead us to treat a given set of teachers with more respect than to discard their teachings out of hand simply because we do not immediately see how every one of them accords with what the Spirit reveals to us personally.

However, it cannot demand that we subordinate our own personal witness of God to any external authority, especially a merely human one. This would logically contradict the essential claim that such a testimony must make in the first place.

Another human teacher may play the role of "John the Baptist", and say "this man is my superior in authority to reveal divine truth." By virtue of being experientially external to us, a human teacher may say without contradiction that they know some truths we do not but less than another human can teach us.

But if our own intuition of divine truth cannot claim to be sourced by a being categorically superior to all humans, then it cannot even claim to be distinct from our own mental expression of desires for self-justification. By saying "this human teacher is superior to me" it is logically including "because I'm just a figment of your imagination."

Which may be what the majority of communications people have believed to be from God actually were...I don't have any hard information on that either way. The point is, once your 'divine intuition' tells you that it is to be subordinated to what a human teacher says, it has effectively told you that it wasn't really from God in the first place.

Seijio Arakawa said...

As someone whose brain was tied in knots by assuming a single visible True Church, I agree. The whole thing became so confusing and inconsistent with the stated character of God who — whether harsh or kind — is obviously far more concerned with personal repentance and judging one’s own sins, than He is with intellectual constructions.... Intellectual efforts to discern the true Church has nothing to do with personal repentance and reflection on one’s flaws and everything to do with digging up and dissecting the flaws and extremely nasty disagreements between other people, many of them long dead, most of them quite virtuous in a relative sense and the kind of people you would prefer to study at their best in terms of personal piety — not at their worst in terms of arguing with each other! So it came down to my choice to trust one Church or another, made by my own discernment. But because the stricter Churches deny individual discernment, they deny the basis of my decision to trust them, and are thus guilty of an implicit Calvinism — I have no ability to repent unless God arranges things that I stumble on exactly the right Church and make the right decision without ever myself knowing whether my certainty is real or the product of a strong delusion. This type of self-forced belief was so different from the practical knowledge of the reality of God (which had just happened) that it became very easy to discount entirely.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Seijio - My experience has been similar.

Seijio Arakawa said...

I would correct one thing in my earlier comment — it’s not that strict Churches deny individual discernment, indeed they consider it a very important and deep skill, so important and deep that it can only be reliably employed after a decade or so of rigorous prayer and monastic practice, much less so by a layman, certainly not by the unbaptized.... So you see that discernment is recognized as important, but at the same time someone outside the Church may as well have no discernment at all.

Indeed if I poke at the assumptions of the earlier eras of the Church I can see how this understanding is at work. Expansion of the church was driven by preachers and missionaries, and the situation is described from the point of view of their agency to evangelize, not from the point of view of the converts. The people being evangelized are more like a passive material that can respond by being converted and joined to the Church, or turning away from it and being discarded... but all driven by missionary action. Indeed, if one converted a key person, say a king, that king could cause his entire nation to be converted and baptized... and it was assumed this was both possible and correct, and it was possible because everyone assumed things worked that way. Nowadays hoping for something like this (convert a king, then passively convert the entire nation) is not so much wrong as irrelevant.

This understanding fits with the pre-modern consciousness of the individual as being only a part of some collective... then conversion is the process of being torn from one collective (abandoning all prior ties to it in a way that would seem abrupt to even the most traditional of today’s Christians if done in the modern day) and becoming part of the supernatural collective of the Church. But this understanding is actually subtly incompatible with the modern atomized ‘individual seeker’ who is conscious of being outside the Truth, but also of having personal agency and intuition and of trying to use these things to find a way into the Truth. And indeed it was incompatible from the very first time there was a self-conscious individual seeker.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Seijio - That's well said. I would interpret this in terms of the development of human consciousness. Men are not The Same at all times and places.

That model of conversion was reasonable and appropriate at that time of history - it assumes a high degree of child-like immersion of the individual in the group; but is not so now when individual agency has differentiated, and each Man feels himself cut-off.