The Parish vs. The Congregation

I finally got around to reading The Screwtape Letters last week.  I know, I know: I’m a little tardy on a classic of Christian literature.  But what a great little read!  Compact, concise, and filled with insightful theology.

One chapter struck me as particularly relevant to today’s church scene–70 years later, halfway around the globe–here in the United States.  I grew up in a congregational, rather than parochial, model and took it for granted as the way you conducted yourself as a Christian: you find a congregation that fits you (or that has suited your family for multiple generations) and worship there; and if the church makes you mad or displeases you, then you move on.  This is, of course, different than the parish model practiced by Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians: all Catholics/Orthodox in a geographical area are part of a parish, centered around a parish church; and you have two choices regarding the matter: take it or leave it.

In Letter XVI Uncle Screwtape, while advising his nephew Wormwood on better attacking his newly converted “patient” about worship attendance, says, “if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.”  Which pretty much sums up the central problem with competing, denominational churches in America today: what believers thought was a process of seeking a more faithful and pure church is actually–in Lewis’ slant (and I believe he’s right)–succumbing to the temptations of the Evil One.

Screwtape continues:

The reasons are obvious.  In the first place the parochial organisation should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy [that is, God] desires.  The congregational principle, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction.  In the second place, the search for a “suitable” church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil…So pray bestir yourself and send this fool the round of the neighbouring churches as soon as possible.

I’m not sure how we can ever shove all the various party spirits back into the box, but this certainly illustrates the strength of the compulsory parish over the freely-chosen congregation.


If your patient can’t be kept out of the Church, he ought at least to be violently attached to some party within it.  I don’t mean on really doctrinal issues; about those, the more lukewarm he is the better.  And it isn’t the doctrines on which we chiefly depend for producing malice…All the purely indifferent things–candles and clothes and what not–are an admiral ground for our activities.

Amen, Jack.  Truly said.


3 thoughts on “The Parish vs. The Congregation

  1. A good book indeed, good comments as well

    Machen’s “Christianity & Liberalism” is a great short read as well

    Denominationally, one needs to consider at one point they are being yoked with unbelievers. How far gone does it need to be? Is there a last straw? Or is it unity at all costs, even if that cost is the gospel itself?

  2. Of course, the advantage of congregationalism/denominationalism is that one can leave a worshiping body without leaving Christianity, as is understood by parochialism.

    Jeremy, you are poking at a difficult question–one to which there isn’t an easy answer. Mainline Protestantism, especially the PCUSA, is a good example of how faithful Christians will have to decide when unity must be abandoned for purity. But does splitting into yet another organization achieve anything? The whole struggle is a symptom associated with the fragmented, denominational system we have. Like I said, I don’t know how we would ever put the partisan spirits back in the box to achieve greater unity (short of Jesus’ return). I’m not saying that we should put up with institutionalized sin, nor that we should strive for unity at all costs. I can only affirm that unity is what Jesus prayed for, and that purity is essential to the integrity of the Christian message.

  3. God is certainly speaking to me lately, and you are one of his instruments. Thank you for this posting.

    I am a member of PCUSA, and this is the very matter I am struggling with. Do I go or do I stay? Both decisions seem to feed into Screwtape’s evil plans. The question is where is God calling me, and those like me? By staying, can we be the light, the leaven, that restores the church to both purity and unity? There are many voices that say there is no hope, that this cannot be achieved without giving these people over to their choices. Too often they sound like Sadducees & Pharisees, or like Screwtape trying to disguise himself as Jesus. I just picture him laughing as we struggle down here, and I pray for God’s peace and discernment as I move through the mire.

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