It began with Scott Culpepper attacking the American syncretism of “Christianity”. An important discussion but one that left out a key detail. As Cyprian noted, “one cannot have God as Father who does not have the Church as mother.” Christianity, however understood, must come with an ecclesial structure; the problem with American syncretists may not be their thinking but their lack of groundedness in the Church.
Enter reader RLG who complains
It’s the church that has gotten Christianity into so much trouble, from the beginning to the present. The Jewish mentality was, you weren’t a true Jew unless you belonged to the Jewish community. And Jesus, certainly, did not support such a concept. How many verses can we quote that suggests that a Christian believe and be a member of the church and he/she will be saved? How many can we quote that suggests, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved? It’s kinda like saying, you need a marriage certificate to really be married.
Contrary to this, the question is whether we can live separately, apart from each other; we are constituted as social beings. Individual commitment stands as part of an ongoing life of the community. Not only are we linked to each other in the present, but we are those who also remember; memory and imagination connects us across time. So we read a Calvin, an Aquinas, an Augustine in part as our contemporary even as we understand them to be distant — this is what empathy, imagination and memory produce. And if we’re honest, we also understand how our current life has been shaped by this remembered past.
Christianity then is not some sort of free-floating, perhaps Kantian entity, but an embodied reality. We start there.
Here’s where Scot is correct. The Christianity is always deeply permeated by cultural assumptions. Always. The Church, tacitly or explicitly functions as a counterbalance to this cultural capture; thus, we cannot speak about Christianity without speaking about the form that Christianity takes. (Note also, the idea that we can drop the label — apart from its rhetorical impossibility — belies the fact that even in disobedience we remain with our identity; it’s much stickier than that.)
And while Scripture may not prescribe the exact nature of this community, there is no doubt that we exist together, linked, a church. Take the vine and branches in John; consider Psalms, “I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the House of the Lord” (and all the Psalms of Ascent); consult Hebrews where we are not to forsake the gathering together. Or simply consider the plural when Paul addresses his letters. It’s all there. We belong together, and that shared life informs and on occasion challenges the cultural form of faith we understand as Christianity.
The counter to a syncretistic American Christianity is not a countering piece of theology, but a better church.