Spiritual Pollution, Part 11: Purity Logic Case #3, Worship

This post is going to be idiosyncratic given that I’m going to be reflecting on my experiences with the Churches of Christ. I hope some of what I have to say will generalize to other experiences in Christendom.

Today I’d like to reflect on another way purity logic complicates life in the church. This has to do with how purity metaphors structure worship practices in some churches.

I grew up in the Churches of Christ and still affiliate with the movement. For those of you unfamiliar with us, the Churches of Christ were a product of the American Restoration Movement. A guiding idea of this movement was the “restoration” of first-century patterns of church practice and organization. That is, churches from this movement attempted to go “back to the Bible” to discern how the “first-century church” went about its business. Early thinkers in this movement felt that they could clearly discern a “pattern” of practice in the pages of the NT and this “pattern” was then to be followed. Thus, the NT church would be “restored,” free of the ecclesial filigree that built up from the second-century on up to today.

This notion of “patternism” activated a kind of purity logic in the Churches of Christ that has been costly. Specifically, once the movement reached a general consensus on worship practice or church structure any deviation from the NT “pattern” was a failure. But more than a failure, a contaminant that polluted the whole thing.

For example, the Churches of Christ place a great deal of emphasis on correct worship practices. In this, the Churches of Christ are not unlike other churches or religious traditions who create sacred spaces where God is encountered. In the Churches of Christ, this sacred space, for better or worse, is the Sunday morning worship assembly. Now, given that the Sunday morning assembly is deemed to be a sacred space, it should come as no surprise that Churches of Christ have fought long and emotional battles about what is or is not an appropriate worship practice. In my youth, the heat of these debates both startled and disillusioned me. I could not understand why so much energy was devoted to fighting about such trivial things (e.g., Could we use a piano or not?). I now believe I understand why so much was at stake in that single hour on Sunday mornings. As a sacred time and space where God resided, that hour and place was ruled by the holiness impulse. Any deviations from established and ordained worship practices were, metaphorically and emotionally, understood to be potential spiritual pollutants. Thus, should that sacred space become contaminated, God would not enter the space to meet the worshipper. Debates concerning worship practices were, then, governed by a contamination “logic” where issues such as dose insensitivity (even small changes to worship format were significant and emotional issues) and negativity dominance (worship change was, by default, suspect) played a role. And, given that contamination “logic” isn’t wholly transparent to reason, these debates were often unproductive.

My point in bringing this example up is that when the purity metaphor structures a church issue the logic of purity sets up the debate in a particular way, often a way that is counter-productive. Recall, purity appraisals are either/or. Thus, its is hard to reach a middle-ground when purity structures the issue. Further, given the logic of dose insensitivity, small issues become BIG issues very quickly. In fact, given the purity structure, ALL ISSUES ARE BIG ISSUES. Thus, purity metaphors miss the truth that there really are "weightier matters of the law" and "things of first importance." And, finally, given the emotional reactions associated with purity logic, these debates are often very intense and emotional and, over the history of the Churches of Christ, this intesity has harmed many.

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