Yancy and the Church

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In a post I did a month or so ago, I wrote that I thought there was an element of bitterness in some of Phillip Yancy’s writing. Bitterness is perhaps the wrong word; unforgiveness may be a better, choice. In order to clarify the point I was trying to make I need to give you a little background.

Yancy grew up in the south in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, a time of tremendous social upheaval in that area of the country. It was the era of the Civil Rights movement and the fight of black people to obtain even the most basic rights accorded all Americans was, in many parts of the south, bitterly, even violently, resisted. Yancy grew up in Georgia, attending a church whose members formed a part of that resistance – Lester Maddox was a semi-regular speaker at Yancy’s church. Yancy describes this church in this way:

“One church I attended during the formative years in Georgia of the 1960’s presented a hermetically sealed view of the world. A sign out front proudly proclaimed our identity with words radiating from a many-pointed star: ‘New Testament, Blood-bought, Born-again, Premillennial, Dispensational, fundamental . . .’ Our little group of two hundred people had a corner on the truth, God’s truth, and everyone who disagreed with us was surely teetering on the edge of hell. Since my family lived in a mobile home on church property, I could never escape the enveloping cloud that blocked my vision and marked the borders of my world.”

Later, Yancy attended a Bible college that had strict rules concerning personal grooming and attire. Of this experience Yancy writes”

“Outside somewhere in the great world beyond, other students were demonstrating against the war in Vietnam, marching for civil rights on a bridge near Selma, Alabama, and gathering to celebrate love and peace at Woodstock, New York. Meanwhile we were preoccupied, mastering supralapsarianism and measuring skirts and hair.”

More recently, Yancy attended the final worship service of the church he grew up in. Yancy describes the thoughts going through his mind during the service as various folks described “how they met God through this church”:

“Listening to them, I imagined a procession of those not present, people like my brother, who had turned away from God in large part because of this church. I now viewed its contentious spirit with pity, whereas in adolescence it had pressed life and faith out of me. The church had now lost any power over me; its stinger held no more venom. But I kept reminding myself that I had nearly abandoned the Christian faith in reaction against this church, and I felt deep sympathy for those who had.”

These quotes come from Yancy’s book, Soul Suvivor, subtitled, How My Faith Survived the Church. The sub-title says a great deal.

Yancy was, rightly so, deeply affected by the duplicity of a church that would openly preach both racism and an arrogant, self-righteously dogmatic Christianity. Yet he seems to blame both the particular church he attended, and the church in general, for this hypocrisy; he seems unable to separate the two, much less to separate the church from those fallible, sinful, human beings who inevitable comprise its membership. And he has reacted against his view of “church” in many ways.

One is he seems to think it more important for young people to have been out practicing free love and doing drugs at Woodstock than to have been living an, albeit enforced, Christian life at a Bible college. His worldview has, I think, become somewhat PC, as I said in my previous post.

He has also reacted against what he calls “the church.” Yancy’s Christianity seems to be very much of the “Jesus and me” variety, with “the church” being a relatively unimportant, if not harmful, element of his faith. He seems to think the church is something to survive.

This view is, of course, not Catholic, nor is it very Scriptural.

The heart of the difficulty for Yancy is that he is very much imbued with the Protestant view of the church. For most Protestants the church is “invisible” and simply the imperfect union of all believers that will be realized in heaven once the Earth’s days have been completed and Christ has come again. For most Protestants, the church being “invisible” ends up meaning it is “unreal”, an ideal that may someday be realized but that here on earth means little more than a gathering place for Christians to share a meaningful worship experience. If the particular church they belong to has any particular theological leanings it is possible for the members, to be unconcerned, if not unaware, of what those leanings are or what they mean. Church is simply a place to go on Sunday mornings. (Caution, of necessity, Catholics need to understand that this is a very generalized picture of the Protestant conception of the idea of “church” – no definitive explanation of this idea can be given because there are so many possible Protestant definitions, one for each denomination, if not more. There is no central Protestant authority to define any theological doctrine.)

The Catholic Church teaches, with Scripture, that the Church is indeed very visible, the Body of Christ here on Earth. It is inspired by the Holy Spirit: “one, holy, Catholic, apostolic Church.” Its members are indeed fallible, we are all hypocrites, but we look to the church as the mediator of God’s grace in our lives. It is possible for us to be hurt, even scarred, by the actions of priests and bishops and fellow members, but it is the Church that offers healing from these things also. It is impossible for us to either reject Her or be rejected by Her; to do so would be to reject Christ.

Yancy does not have the benefit of this view of the Church and, perhaps, he feels consequences of being, in a sense, forced out of the church, alone and apart from this essential element of the Christian life. This sense of, what, rejection, isolation, seems to be present in much of what Yancy writes and is what I originally referred to as “bitterness.” Perhaps, if Yancy does feel isolated from the church, the term “bitterness” may not be all that far off.


I grew up in the South (N.C.) in the 50's and 60's and I recall as a Catechism student sitting on the porch of the home we used a our parish Church in Sanford and our priest leading us in singing "We Shall Overcome". My memory is completely contrary to Mr. Yancey's - the Church, if anything, broadened my perspective. It made me question and ultimately made me change.

I don't know if Yancey is bitter - I think he's honest enough to share his experiences, and offer hope to those who have experienced the same.As far as his omment on Woodstock goes,I thought his point wasnt that he wanted to indulge in free love, but that the church seemed to be irrelevant and uninterested in the culture of the time - civil rights was a good issue to uphold; supralapsarianism probably paled in comparison in relevance.

I don't know if Yancey is bitter - I think he's honest enough to share his experiences, and offer hope to those who have experienced the same. As far as his comment on Woodstock goes,I thought his point wasn't that he wanted to indulge in free love, but that the church seemed to be irrelevant and uninterested in the culture of the time - civil rights was a good issue to uphold; supralapsarianism probably paled in comparison in relevance. Catholic and Protestant alike have done much to harm the faith of others; Yancey speaks honestly to these people who have grown disillusioned with the people of God and yet hunger for God all the same.

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This page contains a single entry by Ron Moffat published on November 2, 2003 10:31 AM.

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