Dear Church Family,
As a senior in high school, I enlisted in the Army Reserve when I was just 17 years old. In fact, I remember my 18th birthday very well as it was the day that we were first issued our M-16’s. I was young and still learning the ways of the world; however, one thing that I figured out pretty quickly was the importance of blending in. Looking back, I can’t remember if someone gave me that advice or if I just learned it on my own, but not sticking out became a way of life for me in basic training.
One day, in the eighth and final week of basic training, we were cleaning our barracks and getting all of the things that needed to get done in preparation for our imminent graduation. Just going about my business buffing the floor, my drill sergeant called out to me, “Come here, private!” I obediently stopped what I was doing and ran to about six feet in front of this man who had personally trained me and about thirty other men for two months. I locked into the respectful position of parade rest, and said, “Yes, drill sergeant.”
My drill sergeant said, “What platoon are you in, private?”
“Your platoon, drill sergeant!” I said. I was sure to keep my expression flat, but inside I was beaming. I had blended in so well that my own drill sergeant didn’t even recognize me. Success!
This week, I was reminded of these experiences from my army basic training days of 27 years ago (I’ll pause for you to do the math – go ahead, it’s OK). I was reminded of these events as I read the lead article of the Sep/Oct 2015 issue of Modern Reformation by Andrew Deloach entitled, “The Good Shepherd and the Death of Autonomy.” DeLoach is an attorney, law professor, and elder in a Lutheran church in California. He writes:
Somewhere in the protracted frenzy of my preparation for the California bar exam, one of my professors gave a piece of indelible essay-writing advice: ‘Be a sheep! Don’t try to stand out. Don’t do things your own way. Stay with the herd.’ He meant, almost counterintuitively, that by avoiding the temptation to express my unique perspective and instead doing exactly what every other student was doing, mine would remain safely a part of the flock of passing answers. The advice (or something else) worked, and I now regularly pass it on to my own law students. There is something in this advice for the Christian church.
DeLoach goes on to make the application for the Christian in how, in both the Old and New Testaments, Christ is spoken of as our Shepherd and we – the church – are His sheep (Ezekiel 24:16; Psalm 23; John 10:14-15; Hebrews 13:20-21). Amidst a culture and a society that prides itself on celebrating individuality to the point of rebellion, obedience to the voice of the Good Shepherd such that we blend in and don’t stick out among the flock seems ludicrous, ignorant, and even enslaving.
But for those who hear the voice of Christ, and are known by Him, they follow their Shepherd (John 10:27). In this sense, sticking out, going against the flow, and not blending in would be a sign of disobedience and rebellion. We are not autonomous. As followers of Christ, we revel in our lack of autonomy! Unfortunately, this is not the case for many evangelicals today who equate an independent and autonomous spirit with spiritual growth and maturity. Again, DeLoach writes:
For if anything about evangelicalism remains constant, it is the emphasis on autonomy. We get this word from the combination of two Greek words, autos (self) and nomos (law). Autonomy is ‘self law’ – self-determination, self-governance, the capacity to decide and act for oneself. And these are precisely the attributes of American evangelical autonomos, which sets up individuals as laws unto themselves: freed of subjection to authority, unwilling to be bound to dependence on a shepherd.
Reflecting on the difference between American evangelicalism in which he grew up and the confessional Christianity that he has embraced, DeLoach points out how this transition was marked by a change from autonomos to submission (learning to be a sheep). DeLoach’s insights resonate with my experience as the pastor of a Reformed and confessional church; it deserves a lengthy quotation:
Converting to a church in the Reformation heritage demands a lengthy education in a new (ancient) religious vocabulary, but one always recognizes the language of autonomos:
“God spoke to me.”
“He laid it on my heart.”
“You can’t question what I felt—I experienced his presence!”
All the genetic traits of autonomos are there: the Bible as guidebook for living; the buffet-style theology; the focus on personal encounter with God; the sermons aimed at discovering life at its best; the therapeutic cheer. If the practice of “church shopping” is not entirely compelling evidence, consider the increasing frequency with which we see churches offer service shopping: Find a venue to suit your style! The Living Room (watched live from cozy couches), Video Café (an acoustic unplugged coffeehouse setting), or Soul Celebration (with spirit-filled gospel worship). These are the isolated assemblies of autonomians, busily taking selfies in a community-obsessed crowd. In effect, they have said, “I prefer to do church my own way,” finding that this is eminently “more flattering” to the self-esteem. Autonomians are proudly conscious of their autonomous personality. This leads, as it must, to a sort of personalized, trivialized cuius regio, eius religio (“Whose realm, his religion”). Hence the quite deliberate project of evangelical autonomos is authentic expression of the inner experience encountered in one’s own personal relationship with God, detached from the constraints of creeds, confessions, and doctrines. It is a scarcely restrained appetite for unmediated self-shepherding, which so often becomes an unbearably disguised self-sanctification.
While our historic creeds and confessions bind congregations to biblical boundaries constituted solely by Christ, evangelicalism constitutes itself in the absence of boundaries. The shepherds feed themselves on their own varied visions—uninterested in standing by the precedent of gospel and sacrament ministry—and direct the sheep through pious optimism and a catalog of procedures to feed on these visions. The sheep, otherwise free to roam, pursue every passion in any pasture that will feed them. They lose their appetite for the common possession of the church—fellowship, participation, koinonia in the body of Christ—and instead forage individually wherever their tastes may lead them. Without defense, the sheep are alone among thieves and wolves.
Of course, when it comes to our place in the world as Christians, we are called to stick out and be noticed – children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world (Philippians 2:15). But even as God calls us to shine (to stick out), He calls us to stick out through obedience, by doing all things without grumbling and disputing (Philippians 2:14).
We are tempted to think of our gathering for worship as an opportunity to express our own spirituality (autonomos), rather than as an opportunity to be shaped and formed by Christ and His word (submission). We are tempted to listen to the voice of autonomos, summarized in Emerson’s “Do not seek for things outside of yourself” or Polonius’ “This above all: to thine own self be true.” But, to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, we are called to stand firm in one spirit with those who are in Christ, striving together with one mind for the faith of the gospel (Philippians 1:27).
In the end, this is not slavery but true freedom – and true safety. As DeLoach writes in the conclusion of his article:
The cross is the death of autonomos, and with it all personal spirituality. The true church is found instead where crucified and risen Jesus is at the center of the flock, feeding it with his good pasture…As sheep of the Good Shepherd, we know that faith in the crucified and risen one is all we have going for us, and therefore we always remember that it is good to be a sheep! Giving up our autonomy, we lack nothing – for we are under the care of the Good Shepherd.
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch