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‘The Underground Church’: Wendy Dackson


The Underground Church, by Robin Meyers.

Jossey-Bass, 2012.  288 pages, $24. 95


Robin Meyers is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, a liberal American denomination.  This is one of a small number of Christian denominations in the United States that do not necessarily adhere to the letter of the historic creeds.  Meyers indicates (although does not explicitly claim) that this may be in part due to a rejection of the Constantinian compromise which made the Church the ‘official’ religion of the Roman Empire, and thus caused its collusion in the Empire’s corruption.  The main point of the book is that the Church began its life as a subversive movement, and to reclaim its authenticity it should return to its ‘underground’ origins—adapted, of course, for the contemporary (and probably implicitly, American) situation.  As in a number of other recent books (notably Ken Howard’s Paradoxy:  Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them), the author emphasizes the need to move beyond the liberal/conservative boundaries that mark  one congregation or denomination off from another, and even cause divisions within denominations and congregations.  He admits that he is making some gross generalizations—that ‘conservatives’ tend to equate religious faith with assent to verbal formulae about God, and that ‘liberals’ tend to emphasize practices and social action when they speak about the role of religion in their lives.

Meyers identifies the single most urgent reason for a reclaiming of the Church as ‘underground’:  nobody expects anything important to happen in church any more.  “Every Sunday morning, countless people wake up with both a desire to go to church and a gnawing sense that it won’t be worth it.”  In a culture where it is safe and respectable to go to church, nothing much happens there.  While the church was still a persecuted, illegal sect, something happened in the secret gatherings that was life-giving and made it worth the risk of freedom and even life.  Now that church participation is a respectable, even expected, part of life, it has become ‘for the most part, dull and dishonest’.  We are not hearing vital truths from the pulpit, and we are not challenging ‘deep and destructive illusions by which we are living unsustainable lives’.  Prophetic speech in church would be treated ‘as if a wild animal had suddenly wandered into the sancturary.’

What would it take to return to the pre-Constantinian, ‘underground’ subversive Church?  It would mean far less emphasis on doctrine and more on practices (with a special emphasis on hospitality).  Meyers argues for more openness to the other (especially in terms of setting minimal requirements for receiving communion), but also a higher level of commitment (in terms of more rigorous requirements for baptism, and sacrificial financial giving to the church).  There is a particular criticism of the Constantinian compromise in terms of Christian support for the military (which, for Meyers, trickles down even to contemporary enthusiasm for contact sport).

Like many other current books lamenting the current state of church (Diana Butler Bass’s Christianity after Religion comes to mind), I am on board for about a third to a half of the book.  I think Meyers has made a more or less accurate diagnosis of the state of the church in terms of in-fighting, preaching, and ill-advised priorities concerning resources.  I think he is right in his assessment that the churches are not connecting with what really matters to most people—we still have passions and commitments, but they are not anything we encounter in the nave on a Sunday morning.  (This was also the subject of a recent blog post on Episcopal Cafe).


However, it breaks down for me at the point where it becomes an unreflective anti-Constantinian diatribe (beginning around chapter 4).  Although Meyers complains that the church has, to its detriment, become tainted with Empire values (and the new ‘Empire’ is the United States), he also claims that it is supposed to be the yeast in the ‘three measures of flour’ (Matthew 13:33)—and he identifies that flour with the Empire.  But how could the church have leavened the Empire (and he points out that ‘leaven’, in the first century CE, was a taint) unless it had been taken in, even hidden in that Empire?  At some level, the Church had to become intimately involved with the Empire to do that—not to maintain some kind of separate purity.  And although Meyers (along with others) decry the Church’s having taken on Empire values (hierarchical structures, accumulation of wealth and earthly power), he seems to ignore that the Church has had some leavening effect on society.  Stephen Pinker, in his Better Angels of our Nature:  Why Violence has Declined, makes this very case in that things like just war theory and proportionality (which temper the effects of violence) are ideas and practices that would not have existed apart from the Church’s interactions with the Empire.


Meyers’ book is worth reading, and there are many points, especially early on, that will likely resonate with those of us who are dissatisfied with ‘church-as-it-is’.  But the Church was never meant to be primarily for its own benefit; it was meant to transform the world.  I am not sure how an uncritical anti-Constantinianism contributes to that.

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