Saturday, July 29, 2006

"This Day and Age" and the Church

Recently, NC State Superior Court Judge Benjamin Alford ruled a 201 year old law banning cohabitation unconstitutional, saying the law violated the plaintiff's constitutional right to liberty. He cited the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down a Texas sodomy law.

"The Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas stands for the proposition that the government has no business regulating relationships between two consenting adults in the privacy of their own home," Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina, said in a statement.

She added that "the idea that the government would criminalize people's choice to live together out of wedlock in this day and age defies logic and common sense."

As a churchman, this caught my eye because of the explicit condemnation of moral and biblical reasoning. If, as Ms. Rudinger put it, such laws "in this day and age defies logic and common sense" then the great mass of moral and religious people are by definition relics and misfits to say the least. This dismissive disdain for religious reasoning in the public square appeared prominently in the Vermont and Massachussets court rulings that established so-called domestic partnerships and gay marriage, respectively. Barack Obama's approach is certainly more "respectful" and smooth sounding, but it is essentially the same position.

Preaching against certain sins falls under hate speech bans in a handful of countries that disdain biblical morality. I wonder how long before that's the explicit effort in this country, which prides itself on free speech (except when it topples the personal and "private" baals of sexual immorality)? Given a recent statement by a group of 250 radical pro-homosexual activists, the attempt may be just around the corner.

But this post isn't meant to be a lament of political and judicial current events. I'm interested in the state of the church--not so much in terms of its mobilization against the ruling in NC or others like it. Rather, I'm interested to know whether the American church is sufficiently prepared to suffer for righteousness' sake.

Perhaps the greatest defect in American theology is its rather anemic understanding of suffering. The church is comfortable materially and generally on easy terms with the world. She will count suffering for doing something stupid a real cross, but will she rejoice at being counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus, for doing good, for living godly in Christ Jesus? Will she preach the truth even when the tide of public opinion and jurisprudence turns swiftly against her?

For now, such a turn seems a remote possibility. But when the prophets of our age say "peace, peace," perhaps we should beware of the sudden travail likely to befall us. Jennifer Rudinger, like many people these days, justifies her position with one vague reason: "this day and age." Well, that's not really a reason. It's an ad hominem paint ball designed to splatter all those who aren't cool enough to get with the times. To enter the era with the rest of the enlightened.

Insert the phrase "this day and age" into any argument against the Scriptures, Jesus and the church and voila! Most of us in most of our churches find ourselves on the dark side of a rhetorical mountain, exiled to the land of antiquated ideas with people who have no real societal contribution to make even if we could somehow scale the linguistic cliff the phrase is used to erect. We're contained, marginalized, and dismissed with one meager phrase.

We could use better apologetic skills in the public square. We certainly need more godly men and women serving in positions of public stewardship and influence. And we should exercise every appropriate right of citizenship. But should those things fail and Christians are branded public enemy #1, will we stand and suffer whatever befalls us?

Peter boasted that he would not deny the Lord even if it meant his death. He denied the Lord three times before the rooster crowed. Peter's life is recorded for our instruction. We should not think more highly of ourselves than is warranted. We're far more like Peter than we think. Wouldn't it be wise for us to pray now, before we're in a pinch, that the Lord would give us grace to stand even when its unpopular, illegal, and deadly?


Pastor Scott said...

As a pastor in North Carolina, this certainly caught my attention. I'm afraid that those of us in the "Bible Belt" of American have lulled ourselves to sleep. I think you are right, the turn is coming and many in the church will not be ready for it. May God forgive me for my lack of repentance over my on sin and may He bring me to my knees to prepare for what is coming.

R.G. said...

You raise some important questions about the church's willingness to suffer physically or politically for the Kingdom of God.

However, I would have to say that there is a fairly large contingent of Christians who are very vocal about issues of sexual morality, particularly as it pertains to homosexuality. Perhaps we also need to ask, can we address these issues in a spirit of love and be as adamant about the sins of structural poverty and aggressive militarism, which tends to be advocated by those who identify themselves as Christian?

FellowElder said...

You raise worthy questions in many regards. The difficulty in the questions, however, is that they tend toward two additional problems: (1) a social gospel orientation, which historically has resulted in "another gospel which is no gospel at all." So, I'd be concerned about how this question (in practice, not inherently) impinges upon the preaching of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone. (2) The questions tend to become rather vague, at least in terms of how you define both key concepts and the persons who need to repent of these sins. For example, poverty (not to mention structural poverty) is a fairly relative construct. The extent to which it's useful depends on how you define the measure and where you are located. And then, exactly who is to repent of such sins or suffer in opposition to such sins? Assuming you could define them well, I'm not sure how it translates into specific, biblical Christian action or that the Scriptures define poverty or "militarism" as sin (keeping in mind, for example, that Jesus was poor by the standard of the Law and that Rom. 13 provides nation-states with the ability to protect themselves).

But ultimately, I think your question possibly confounds the kingdom of God (as I was trying to discuss in the original post) with the kingdom of this world (poverty, militarism, etc.). I could be misreading you here, but you seem to pose this question as a "counter" to the question I raised of suffering for the kingdom's sake. Am I misreading you here?

R.G. said...

On the first "problem" that we raise, I will say that the gospel is inherently social, as well as personal. When Jesus reads the Scripture and says that He is anointed to preach the gospel to the poor, He is not just talking about spiritual poverty, based on the theological and social context of the time; he is also speaking to the oppressive material realities of life under Roman colonialism. The biblical references which address social and political issues are manifold and can not be read as an addendum to the faith. They are integral to it.

I was general, because these conversations can get rather lengthy. Sin is both individual and collective, which is why God says the sins of the fathers are often visited upon the children and in the Old Testament we see the nation being called to repentence. The principalities and powers that Paul speaks of operate through socio-economic and political systems that human agents help to maintain. If there are unjust elements within the social structure of a society, those who are conscious of their complicity should repent and work towards a more righteous order. The fact that the vast majority of the millions of poor people in the United States work, is the most obvious testimony that despite the virtues of this country, it is far from the Kingdom that Jesus preached about and embodied.

Hopefully, you can see that in no way do I confound the Kingdom of God with the kingdom of this world. Quite the contrary. It is interesting that Pontius Pilate, acting on behalf of the Roman empire, crucified Christ to avoid another Jewish uprising. It was the politically expedient thing to do.

Though we may consider violence and war to be a necessary evil in our world we can not say that Jesus endorses that political option. If it were only used to protect innocent people and not to promote the economic interests of nation-states or to react disproportionately in the name of self-defense we would have a much more peaceful world. These are issues that the church must address. The salvation of the individual is intricately tied to that of the community and society. So, I agree that the Christian is called to suffer for the sake of the Kingdom, but the Kingdom is much broader than what is often assumed.

FellowElder said...

Hey Rod,
Good to hear from you. Charlotte is one of my favorite cities. Add a little Lexington-styled barbecue somewhere in the city and it's one of the best sourthern cities going! IMHO.

A couple reactions to your last comments. If there is any disagreement between us, I think it's a matter of degree and not categorical. So for example, you write:

"I will say that the gospel is inherently social, as well as personal. When Jesus reads the Scripture and says that He is anointed to preach the gospel to the poor, He is not just talking about spiritual poverty, based on the theological and social context of the time; he is also speaking to the oppressive material realities of life under Roman colonialism. The biblical references which address social and political issues are manifold and can not be read as an addendum to the faith. They are integral to it."

In my reading of Rauschenbush and Gladden, Cone and Thurman, and others, the emphasis they place on "social sins" and "social evil" seem well beyond the emphasis Jesus and the scriptures give these issues. That's not to say I think Jesus or the Bible gives social justice short shrift. It is to say that the question the Lord asks seems to set the order and emphasis, "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and to lose his soul?" All is lost if a man is not converted to Christ; not much of eternal importance is lost if we fail to remedy education, health care, etc (as important as those things are to this life!).

So, when you say, "The salvation of the individual is intricately tied to that of the community and society," I'm concerned you're overstating the case and conditioning salvation on something the Bible never conditions it on. We're all called to repent and believe, not to join the community protest. We're called to do justice and walk humbly before God, but our salvation is intricately tied to the Cross, not the community.

When I read most of the proponents of the social gospel mentioned above, they seem to lack a good basis in biblical theology, understanding the continuity and discontinuity of the Old and New Covenants, the major themes and storylines of scripture. They seem to like their favorite passages having to do with justice, but they miss the heart of the New Covenant in significant ways.

I agree that the kingdom is "much broader than what is often assumed." But it seems to me that advocates of the social gospel make it much less that what is typically assumed by rooting it so deeply in temporal concerns, and those viewed from a particular vantage point.

R.G. said...

Thank you for your thoughtful response. I look forward to future dialog. As far as continuity, God's concern for the poor is consistent between Old and New Testament and becomes clearer in the ministry of Christ and the early church. In Matthew, Christ says "In so much as you have done for the least of these, my brethren, you have done unto me." In Acts 2 and 4 we see the wealthier members of the community of believer's share their resources with the less fortunate so that no one lacked for anything. This is done according to the leading of the Holy Spirit after Pentecost.

As it pertains to the social dimensions of the gospel (I reject the term "social gospel") the primary discontinuity seems to be that the time of war as a viable theo-political option in God's Kingdom, is over and with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ we are to enter into a new era of peace. We have the power to do so if we would only believe and live as if Christ truly is our Lord and Savior.

As Christians the Bible serves as our theological foundation and a point of departure which enables us to follow Christ with the aid of the Spirit from the text of the Scripture to the text of our world. Thank God those abolitionists and Civil Rights advocates (who were primarily Christians) realized that God desires for us to get a taste of salvation and the abundant life in the present and not just in eternity.

There are some of us who feel compelled to honor the prophetic tradition and strive for a greater dimension of God's kingdom on earth as it is heaven. Too many people are dieing not only spiritually, but physically and economically as well. We believe that the world must be healed through prayer and just policies.

FellowElder said...

I'm not trying to label you, bro., but so far your position sounds pretty party line "social gospel." The African-American church has a longer tradtion of what might be called the social gospel, well pre-dating Rauschenbush and others. For obvious historical reasons (slavery, etc.), that position was literally "do or die."

I'm not knocking that tradition, as I sit here an obvious heir to the efforts of those forebears. What I'm raising here is the question of whether or not those older formulations are useful or relevant and whether or not they've overstepped scriptural warrant. I'd argue they're less useful and relevant than assumed, and they depend on a rather general/loose interpretive approach for backing.

For example, you've pointed to the consistent witness of scripture that advocates justice for the poor. But you haven't nuanced that witness by putting it in its proper historical-redemptive context. Much of the OT instruction is addressed to a theocratic kingdom. But nowhere in the NT are we told that the CHURCH qua church is equivalent to theocratic Israel and therefore has the same nation-state responsibilities for pursuing public policy. We can see plenty of places where individual Christians are instructed to seek justice, and we see clearly that the church is to take care of the brethren (the poor IN THE CHURCH; the Acts 2 and 4 passage you reference), but we don't see a call for the church to be active as a body in political affairs. The apostle Paul is a great example of this. On the example issue you raise -- slavery (admitting all the caveats about differences between slavery in Paul's day and the transatlantic chattel system in the Carribean and U.S.) -- Paul doesn't instruct Christian en mass to oppose it politically, he calls an individual Christian to "do the right thing" and he instructs slaves to use every lawful advantage to seek freedom while also living a gospel-honoring life as a slave. That's a pretty far cry from some of the calls to contemporary justice I hear.

You wrote:
"There are some of us who feel compelled to honor the prophetic tradition and strive for a greater dimension of God's kingdom on earth as it is heaven. ... We believe that the world must be healed through prayer and just policies."

I want to honor the prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power as well. But the prophetic tradition almost always speaks ultimately to our standing before God, whether we know Him covenantally/savingly, whether our hearts are right before Him, and whether we worship Him as he prescribes. But even in that prophetic tradition, and in the NT witness, what we're told is not that we have any power to make the world a better place ("healed through prayer and just policies"), but that until Christ returns in judgment the love of many will wax cold and sin will proliferate. There is no Christian version of tikkun. There is "occupy until I come," "stand against the fiery darts of the enemy," and "he who overcomes shall be saved." We do those things first and foremost by proclaiming and living out the gospel, by following Christ in faith.

If that leads Christians of good conscience to take certain political actions, great. But it does not require those actions, and the kingdom of God does not wait for them. His kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven, and true peace will only be known by those who are in that kingdom by being in the Son through faith.

postmodernegro said...

Great discussion going on here! Glad to see brothers in dialogue over serious matters.

The interesting part of this discussion, for me at least (setting aside the social gospel thinkers and practitioners for a moment for they weren't the only ones who thought this way), is that it was in the Reformed tradition that I (I came out of a fundamentalist/evangelicalism ethos that is over-individualistic regarding its reading of the gospels and Paul) first learned about systemic sin. Reading the works of Kuyper (total system and worldview thinking) and Berkhoff (work on the powers that would later influence non-Reformed theologians such as Walter Wink and John Howard Yoder et al.) left me thinking that the Bible presents a view of sin as both social and personal.

As a matter of fact Hans Boersma, a Reformed theologian, JI Packer of chair of theology at Regent College, describes social sin this way:

"There has been a strong tendency in New Testament studies to demythologize and depersonalize the demonology of the New Testament. Within such an environment, it has been difficult to sustain the idea of a cosmic dualism between the powers of God and the powers of Satan. Also, the Enlightenment's emphasis on individual human autonomy and control has not been conducive to a theology that acknowledges the pevasive influence of demonic powers throughout the universe, affecting not just individuals but also relationships, communities, and the very structures of society."(Boersma, "Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross" p. 194)

It would seem that your leaning more towards personal/individual sin as opposed to finding a medium, if I am reading Boersma right, you are capitulating to the belief of the autonomous individualism of the Enlightenment.

Many Reformed theologians, such as Boersma, have acknowledged the New Testament witness regarding social or structural sin.

No disrespect while you hear the 'social gospel' saying these things and describing as 'no gospel'...I find it ironic that within your own tradition highly regarded Reformed theologians/scholars acknowledge their reality through the witness of scripture...sola scriptura.

As a Reformed brother I am interested in knowing your thoughts on Kuyper, Berkhof, Boersma, Wolterstorff, James K.A. Smith, Michael Horton, etc. who believe the bible teaches us that there is a structural and personal reality to sin...and the church is called to bear witness to the kingdom of God in the midst of 'both' of these realities?

Let's just keep it Reformed...we don't even have to go to the social gospellers.



FellowElder said...

Thanks for joining the chat. Let me try to respond as briefly as I can, and then suggest that perhaps one of us should do a post dedicated to this topic (I think this conversation, while worthwhile, has drifted from the post's question of whether or not the church is prepared and willing to suffer for righteousness' sake).

Having said that, could you send me (either here or by email) some specific references for the folks you mention? I'd be interested in revisiting some of them with this discussion in mind.

As for your comments/questions:
I don't think you're reading Boersma correctly, at least not judging from the quote you cited. I think all of us, Boersma included, understand that personal sin has social effects and implications. That's not in question, at least not in my mind. But Boersma draws a connection between "individual human autonomy" and "pervasive influence of demonic powers". He's interested to preserve some emphasis on demonic activity that has been ruled out or downplayed by NT scholars who "demythologize and depersonalize" NT demonology. In other words, his interest is defending the Bible's teaching and portrayal of supernatural and demonic activity, which is eroded by naturalistic assumptions. So, I don't think Boersma aids you much at all (at least not this quote).

Neither do I think I am "capitulating" to Enlighenment individualism. Here's my basic point:

Everywhere the scripture talks about entering into the kingdom, it does so by emphasizing the necessity of individuals repenting of their sins and trusting the sacrifice and lordship of Jesus. Nowhere in the NT witness (that I can think of) is there any call for groups to repent of group/social sins as a condition for entering the kingdom.

Structural injustices exist. No doubt. Personal sin has social consequences, and even contributes to an amassing or multiplication of sin. Certainly.

But at the root of it all are individuals who are sinners. "All (every individual) have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." And "no one comes to the Father except by Jesus." At the root of the gospel is a call for every individual to bow and confess that Jesus is Lord to the praise of God the Father. You can't have "social sins" unless there are scores of individuals who sin and are affected by sin. And you can't have a kingdom of God, unelss there are scores of individuals who repent and believe, thus entering the kingdom. The individual is fundamental, and every system of thought that obscures that (that loses balance as you put it), despite its best intentions, does harm to the clarion gospel call for every individual to repent and believe.

So, I'm not denying the social implications and realities. I've spent the better part of my secular career working on those issues at the state and national levels. I'm saying that those realities can distract and distort, historically it has done so (see Protestant liberalism), and without careful, intentional, fullsome articulation of the gospel as one addresses those issues, it's the gospel that suffers even as we rejoice of marginal and incremental "gains" in this world. It's better that the whole world "go to pot" (as my mother would say) and Christians faithfully call men to repent and believe, than for us to make well-intentioned efforts to reform society and lose that precious faith once and for all delivered to us.

Let me know whether you'd be interested in a post dedicated more fully to the topic.

Grace and peace.

Anonymous said...

I see Anthony is again referencing as many authors as possible to demonstrate how many books he has read. This is more about neediness than propagating truth, just like much of his blogging.
Anthony and Rod:

Rod wrote:

"Though we may consider violence and war to be a necessary evil in our world we can not say that Jesus endorses that political option. If it were only used to protect innocent people and not to promote the economic interests of nation-states or to react disproportionately in the name of self-defense we would have a much more peaceful world."

This sounds niave. How can you have a state without statecraft? Do you think the state will function without a blemish when neither the church or you have lived perfect lives.

Didn't Paul affirm the governmental powers and implicitly their authority to kill and to keep peace when writing:

first of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions. from Timothy


Titus 3:1

Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities...

Or Romans 13:1

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except by God, and those authorities taht exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incure judgement. for rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but bad.

So, why all this incendiary political talk? Is that the role of a Christian leader? No, you are caught up in a political movement veiled as Christianity. Moreover, you are off into an Anti-Christ movement. You are an Anti-Christ.

FellowElder said...

Welcome to the discussion. Thanks for the good references to Romans 13, etc. That's a good addition to the discussion, and I certainly agree with your general understanding of them.

And while you're welcome to contribute intensely and passionately, please avoid the ad hominems. Grace and peace,

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure the Christian Church can stand for righteousness under societal pressure. It seems that so many of our members who make up our churches are too involved in the immoral practices of our society that the church would lose its support. Inevitably it would be standing against its own members.