Cars, Vows, and the Death of the Church

Greg Strand – January 12, 2016 2 Comments

If you were asked the question, “what is the most important date in church history?,” how would you respond?

On the one hand, it would be important to ask a follow up question related to what, i.e., the most important date for what? The propagation of the gospel? Technological advancement? Missionary outreach? The church? And yet on the other hand, regardless of the specific what, even in any of those areas just listed there are numerous options that would vie for the preeminent place.

Carl Trueman identifies his vote for the most Important date in church history: the invention of the automobile. The reason? It changed the way the people viewed church. They could drive by a number of good, godly Evangelical churches on the way to their personal preferred church. It changed the way the church is structured and how she operates. It also made living out the covenant within the community, especially when it comes to accountability and discipline, almost impossible, since those in that setting simply leave.

It’s always interesting to see, every now and then on a webpage or something, “the most important date in church history.” I would say the most important date in church history – I think it was 1909, when Henry Ford designed his model-T. I think the invention of the motor car is probably the most significant event in church history, because it utterly transforms how the church operates. You can have your reformations, you can have your medieval church piety, but once people can jump in a car, and drive outside of their community to a church elsewhere, everything changes. Church discipline is almost impossible in the era of the automobile, because we live anonymous lives, and we have the ability to run away when our church comes after us.

In another piece, On Cars, Vows and the Slow Death of the Church, Trueman delineates further what he means by the automobile’s effect on the church.

The thing that is killing the church today is surely the car.   In the olden days (and no, for anybody under twenty, I am not talking about the 80s here but rather a hundred or so years ago and beyond), mobility was limited.   If you crossed the local priest or minister, you could be in trouble because there might be no way you could go to the next town or village for worship on the Lord’s Day.  So church discipline could actually mean something: sooner or later you had no choice but to face up to your responsibilities to the church officers.

Yes, the pre-automobile systems of church discipline were abused (
Silas Marner
anyone?). Is that a surprise?  They were staffed by sinful human beings.  But at least they stood a theoretical chance of working and, indeed, proved remarkably effective in many instances.

Today, I have even had friends who left their wives, took up with someone else, fled church discipline and, guess what?, found a church that would take them in as members in good standing.  Today, unlike the olden days (teenagers: in case you’ve already forgotten, for definition of ‘olden times’ see above), they can simply jump into their car and drive and drive and keep driving until they find a church that will accept them.  And if they drive far enough, they always find such a place.  Trust me.  They always do.  There is always some place that either does not know them or simply does not care what they have done.

. . . church shopping is one of the things that is weakening Christianity; but that is not simply a function of general consumerism; it is the result of the opportunity provided by the automobile. The thing that allows many of us to attend church is also that which is eroding the power of our membership vows.

Of course, membership vows are as solemn and as binding as ordination vows. The average member is no less bound by them to the church than I am as a minister. But the car makes them seem so much more negotiable. We have come to believe that even God can be dodged when we are behind the wheel.

I have said to students at Westminster more times than I can remember: the church has never really come to terms with the invention of the internal combustion engine.

I confess that although I do not agree with most of the Roman Catholic Church’s view of ecclesiology, I do like their notion of a parish (and some other Protestant denominations will also refer to ministry in local churches in this way). What that means is that since this is the local church in this specific geographical area, that is considered the parish. This gives a location to the church, those who live in this geographical area are considered a part of that church, and the leaders know those in the community for whom they are responsible for pastoral care.

I reiterate – I do not agree with the RCC notion of ecclesiology. But I also confess there is something healthy to the notion of a parish, viz., those who live in a certain community, go to an Evangelical church in that community.

What often happens today is, as noted above, people will drive out of the community, drive by a number of other Evangelical churches, on their way to their preferred local church, based on the preaching, the programs, the friends, etc. I think there is something amiss as one thinks about and approaches church in this manner.

How do you think about this? What effect has the car had on the church? What are other issues that have either positive or negative effects on the church? How do we respond to them?

These and other issues will be addressed this January at our Theology Conference as we focus on The Doctrine of the Church. You can register here. Come as a leadership team/staff, since this will be an excellent Conference to learn together and then to discuss together.

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

2 responses to Cars, Vows, and the Death of the Church

  1. Greg, thanks as always for your “strand”; it is much appreciated. As you know I spent the better part of the last 6 years working on Church discipline and division. We as Church members find it way too easy to remove ourselves from under spiritual counsel of leadership that differs from ours. In my community one can simply walk out the back door, and be worshipping, or even teaching in a pastoral capacity at another church within weeks or even days. It hurts the Church, it hurts me, and I am sure it grieves our Lord. Ouch!

    It is an interesting position that the invention of the automobile is the most important date in church history, and indeed it has merit, and great metaphorical navigation. I would offer that inevitably it goes back even a little bit further; that it is the condition of the hardened heart of man that fuels that automobile. What often drives us to go another direction is that not-yet-softened-portion of our will to the heart of God for the Bride of Christ; the automobile is only the vehicle which transports us to our own desired destination of self. Again, ouch!

    I know of no greater entreaty for the Church than the heart of Christ in John 17:

    John 17:1   Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, 2 even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. 3 “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. 4 “I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. 5 “Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.

    John 17:6   “I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. 7 “Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You; 8 for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me. 9 “I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours; 10 and all things that are Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 “I am no longer in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are. 12 “While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled. 13 “But now I come to You; and these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves. 14 “I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 15 “I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. 16 “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 17 “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. 18 “As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. 19 “For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.

    John 17:20   “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; 21 that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. 22 “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; 23 I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me. 24 “Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.

    John 17:25   “O righteous Father, although the world has not known You, yet I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me; 26 and I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.”

    Blessings to you, and I look forward to the conference next week.

    • It is great to hear from you, Kelly. I look forward to seeing you next week at the Theology Conference.

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I appreciate your thoughts. You have spent much time over the course of the past few years on this important issue. I find that many/most Evangelicals give attention to soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, and very little thought to the ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church.

      However, as you note, this is not a new or recent phenomenon. Although the invention of the automobile brought great blessing, it also brought some challenges.

      The answer given by Trueman probably surprised a number of people. That is sort of who Carl Trueman is. But the automobile has had a profound impact on the way people consider church and church life. This is not to suggest we go back to horse and buggy day, as if that would solve the problem created by the automobile.

      Remember, even in the early church, it was necessary for Paul to remind the Corinthians of this vital truth: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor. 1:10-13).

      So even here there was a party spirit, following one’s preferred teacher. And note well Paul’s response: ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church, is grounded in Christology, the person and work of Christ. In this midst of these questions about church, we must hear Paul’s words, asked as a question, assuming a negative response, making a strong statement: “Is Christ divided?”

      There is a parallel in the here and now with how people consider church and attendance and membership. For example, have you ever heard someone say, “I go to Pastor [fill in the blank] church?” Often they follow the lead of the pastor who refers to where he serves as “my church.” What does that evidence? I would never refer to the church where I served as pastor as “my church.” It is not “my church.” I get why people say that. They identify with it and are a part of it. But there is no reference in the Bible to the church as “my” apart from the lips of the Lord Jesus Christ: “I will build my church “ (Matt. 16:18). This is Christ’s church, people are purchased with his blood (Acts 20:28), of which he is the Lord (1 Cor. 12:3; Phil. 2:9-11) and Head (Eph. 1:22-23; 4:15; Col. 1:18; 2:19). Thus, I would only and always refer to this as the church where I serve as the pastor. It was intentional to address a vital truth about Christ, the church, and my role in it. As an aside, it was also why I would not refer to myself as a shepherd, even though it would be fitting to do so. Instead, I would refer to Christ alone as the Chief Shepherd, and I referred to myself as the undershepherd (1 Pet. 5:1-5).

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