Loving the Wineskins More than the Wine

The Church is the body of believers, and only God knows for certain who is and is not part of that body.  This body was historically divided into the Church Militant, consisting of those believers who dwell on earth and are at war with Satan and the world, and the Church Triumphant, which has safely passed out of this life to enjoy, or at least anticipate with assurance, the life of the world to come.

 Because it is at war, the Church Militant requires weapons and fortifications, and these instruments and implements are what many people think of when they hear the word “Church.”   These instruments and implements include buildings, such as cathedrals and little white “god boxes” in the depths of the piney woods.  They include rites like holy communion or singing the benediction.  They include programs like vacation Bible school and mission trips to foreign lands.  They include private devotions like reading a daily portion of scripture, reciting the Rosary, or saying prayers before bedtime.  They include the bureaucracies, both global and local, that plan, direct, and fund these instruments and implements, and that are (or ought to be) the executive branch of the Church Militant.

Because the Church Militant is at war, the only purpose of these instruments and implements is to aid the Church Militant in this war, and this aid can be broken into three parts.

  • To prevent extinction of the Church Militant.  Because members of the Church Militant are constantly graduating to the Church Triumphant, it is necessary to replace these graduates, especially by retaining the children of the faithful through youth ministries, and also by recruiting new members through missionary outreach.
  • To prevent demoralization in the Church Militant.  Because members of the Church Militant are constantly assailed by temptations, doubts, and the creeping mildew of spiritual apathy, it is necessary to succor and fortify their faith with effective teaching, and to periodically revive their faith with inspiring celebration.
  • To prevent heresy in the Church Militant.  Because the heresies of false teachers are at all times working to divide, confuse, and undermine the Church Militant, it is necessary to explain the errors of these heresies, and also to expel unrepentant Jezebels and their deluded disciples.

* * * * *

The Anglican divine Richard Hooker called these implements and instruments the “polity” of the Church, and in his magistral Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594) defended the implements and instruments of the established Church of England against the lustrations of the iconoclastic Puritans.  We would say policy where Hooker said polity, since the polity of the Anglican Church was simply the “form of ordering its public affairs.”  The Puritans said that the Church of England would not be pure until the public affairs of the Church were ordered exactly like those of the primitive Church described in scripture.  Hooker answered that the Church was bound by scripture in matters of faith, and that in matters of polity could not require what scripture forbade, or forbid what scripture required; but that the Church was otherwise free to order its affairs in any way it found “convenient.”

Thus, for example,

“What man is there of understanding, unto whom it is not manifest how the way of providing for the clergy by tithes, the device of almshouses for the poor, the sorting out of the people into their several parishes, together with sundry other things which the Apostles’ time could not have, (being now established,) are much more convenient and fit for the Church of Christ, than if the same should be taken away for conformity’s sake with the ancientest and first times” (Preface, 4.4).

So the Church Militant had considerable freedom to innovate in matters of polity, which is to say the form of ordering its public affairs, although it was bound to preserve all matters of faith in their primitive purity.  And when exercising this freedom, Hooker tells us that the church should choose the polity or form that is “convenient,” which for Hooker meant fit, suitable, or opportune.

Convenient did not mean easy, but rather meant the best, most practical, most effective (or least destructive) way of doing things under the circumstances.

Because innovations in polity tended to disturb the Church Militant, Hooker wrote that they should only be made when changed circumstances made innovation necessary.  Because the faithful were accustomed to worship in buildings graced by steeples, for example, and because scripture nowhere forbade worshiping in buildings graced by steeples, it would be inconvenient to comply with the Puritan demand for unsteepled meeting houses.  Thus Hooker’s doctrine of convenience is in many instances profoundly conservative.

“In these things, whereof the scripture appointeth no certainty, the uses of the people of God or the ordinances of our fathers must serve for the law” (2.11.15).

This line may be translated without loss of meaning into the modern dictum, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But Hooker’s doctrine that convenience should guide the Church Militant in “inessentials” entails the corollary dictum, “If it is broke, replace it with something new.”  Whether or not church buildings had steeples was ultimately a matter of “indifference” because scripture is absolutely silent on the matter of ecclesiastical architecture; but since steeples were customary and there were no practical objections to steeples, worship in steepled churches should remain ecclesiastical polity.

But if steeples became for some reason inconvenient (impractical, ineffective), the Church Militant should not idolize steeples.

* * * * *

The essence of idolatry (which is the same as superstition) is to treat a convenient matter of polity as if it is an essential matter of faith.  It is to treat a wineskin as if it were the wine.  And by wineskin I of course mean all the implements and instruments with which the Church Militant has, over the years, in various ways, sought to prevent its own defeat by extinction, demoralization and heresy.  To adapt a phrase, idolatry is is to,

“Pity the plumage and forget the dying bird.”

Idolization of wineskins (or “plumage”) is the essence of idolatry and superstition.  Stated less poetically, idolization is the error of treating means as ends and thus mistaking the tools for the task.  Here is how Hooker described it:

“Superstition is, when things are either abhorred or observed with a zealous or fearful, but erroneous, relation to God” (5.3.2).

When Hooker says that the relations to God are “erroneous,” he means that “things” that are matters of polity and convenience are erroneously treated as things that are matters of faith.  Wineskins, whose only value lies in their capacity to hold, preserve, and dispense wine, are regarded with a “zeal” and “fear” that properly belong to the wine itself.  And where this ends, as we all should know, is in senile doting and jealous quarreling over cracked and tattered wineskins.

4 thoughts on “Loving the Wineskins More than the Wine

  1. So Hooker probably would aruge a pope was convenient at one point but no longer. Sedes just can’t admit that. They want to hang on to the pope all while denuing there has been a pope since Pius 9.

    • Hooker opposed Rome as strongly as he opposed the Puritans, but he clearly implies that many Roman Catholic “superstitions” were matters of polity that were being wrongly treated as matters of faith. I’m quite sure Hooker would have said that a pope was neither required or forbidden by scripture, and that the question of a pope was therefore a practical question of convenience. Did the pope solve more problems than he created, or create more problems than he solved.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.