Pietism vs. the “Imperial Church”

I’ll come back to our Pietism studies colloquium later today or tomorrow with a concluding set of reflections, but let me interrupt that series briefly to encourage its readers to look at something Jay Phelan wrote yesterday on his blog, Additional Markings. His post begins:

Jay PhelanI had reason again this week to be thankful that I am a Pietist.  For reasons buried deeply within Vatican paranoia the Roman Catholic Church decided to take aim on that most dangerous group of ecclesiastical miscreants and malcontents: American nuns.  The nuns were evidently spending too much time caring for the poor (which Rome acknowledged was admirable) and not enough time working against abortion and gay marriage.  I will leave it to Rome and the nuns to settle their differences, but I was struck once again by breath-taking power assumed by the Imperial Church.

Phelan goes on to stress that this “Imperial Church” — which he thinks “has been a plague on the people of God since almost the beginning” — can be found in many denominations, not just Roman Catholicism. Indeed, as the post continues, the principal examples he cites are Protestant: the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, whom he accuses of not only “squeezing the life out of their faithful critics” but of “lusting after official recognition and specious power in Washington, D.C.”; the “solemn, neo-reformed heresy hunters who sniff out the theological faults of others with a typically rigid intransigence insisting on the proper pronunciation of various theological Shibboleths, especially ‘penal substitutionary atonement'”; and those on the Protestant Left for whom “taking the Bible seriously is an embarrassing faux pas; suggesting that Israel may not be completely responsible for the problems in the Middle East will get you kicked out of the Social Justice clubhouse; and believing that people need to hear the good news and respond to Jesus’ offer of grace and forgiveness will get you branded a Fundamentalist.”

He doesn’t define “Imperial Church” here, but does give some hallmarks: love for “uniformity… agreement and cooperation… unquestioning obedience and feathers unruffled.” Whether Catholic or Protestant (or Orthodox, I wish he had added, especially given the history of that church in countries like Russia), creedal or non (see the SBC above), this “Imperial Church” has always sought to coopt or eliminate those Christian individuals and movements that are “spirit-fired, prophetic-inspired, charismatic free lances.”

Which brings us back to the Pietists — “my people,” says Phelan (who served for many years as dean of the seminary of the Evangelical Covenant Church, perhaps the most explicitly Pietist denomination in the United States) — whom he argues “saw through” the imperium of Rome and that of the state churches of Germany, England, and Scandinavia. And “the unofficial state churches of the United States.”

P.P. Waldenström
P.P. Waldenström (1838-1917), as painted by Carl Larsson

In broad strokes, I would tend to agree with Phelan’s critique of the “Imperial Church” — but also with one of the commenters on his blog, who found himself “Wondering if this is a reification of pietism independent of the actual history of institutions that claim pietism as their essence.” Without knowing exactly what the commenter had in mind, I would certainly hesitate to describe the (churchly) Pietists of late 17th/early 18th century Germany or their descendants in 19th century Sweden (forefathers of the Covenant Church) as having resolutely opposed the “Imperial Churches” of their places and times. While there was certainly friction between Spener, Francke, and the German state churches and then again between Rosenius, Waldenström (a member of the Swedish legislature for two decades), and the Church of Sweden (in whose government Waldenström was also active), I’m not sure I see in either movement an unflinching critique of the interplay between state and established church.

After all, these men were all heirs of Luther, in whose opinion God ordained two kingdoms or governments that had separate roles to play, but were not entirely isolated from each other. A failure to reject state churches and to set themselves apart from the structures of this world is certainly one of the reasons that the neo-Anabaptist scholar Robert Friedmann accused Pietists (too harshly, most now agree) of being overly comfortable and insufficiently Christ-like, a judgment that our keynote speaker at last Friday’s colloquium flirted with briefly, in semi-jokingly suggesting that Anabaptists were “Pietists with courage.”

(Of course, the Radical Pietists in Germany — and those in the Rosenian revival who became Baptists — did separate from state churches. But sectarianism has its own “imperial” tendencies. For example, Jonathan Strom noted in our Pietist Impulse book that the Radicals, in exalting the role of the charismatic, regenerate preacher, did not share in the egalitarianism of Spener’s understanding of the “common priesthood.” And one doesn’t have to look hard in Anabaptist history to find that those who are “spirited-fired, prophetic-inspired, charismatic free lances” have not always been welcomed by faith communities that prize communal interpretation of Scripture and church discipline — especially if the “free lances” were women challenging the traditional roles assigned them, a problem by no means unique to Anabaptist communities.)

All that said, however, I think that Phelan does point to several important dimensions of Pietism that still today might help one resist imperial attempts to coerce uniformity on non-essentials or to place obedience to a power of this world (even an ecclesial power) above obedience to the one Lord:

[Pietists] sought a living faith, founded in the Scriptures, in warm-hearted worship of God, and commitment to care for the poor, homeless, helpless and hopeless.  They were wary of creeds and confessions because they had seen them distorted into tools of control and considered them insufficiently rooted in the Bible.  They insisted that so-called “lay people” were also priests (following Luther, of course).   They had their faults.  They could be legalistic.  They could be simplistic.  They could be anti-intellectual.  They could be a pain in the neck.  But at their best they sought to bypass the Imperial Church with its stranglehold on God and find their way back to the “living water.”

At the same time, Phelan understands that “Pietism is messy. Organizing Pietists is like the proverbial herding of cats. So Pietist denominational leaders are always tempted to take their cues from the Imperial Church, to rein in their adventuresome or silence their irksome.” But (as we heard indirectly from the great Swedish-American Baptist historian Virgil Olson in our roundtable discussion last Friday afternoon), the Holy Spirit “will keep breaking through” whatever artifices we erect to tame the Word of God and rein in those who would speak it afresh.

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