Carl Henry and being baptist

Carl Henry and being baptist

I’m reading through a little book Carl Henry wrote during the Reagan years, titled The Christian Mindset in a Secular Society. He writes something here that I felt I must share. It’s about the relationship between the Church and the State. Henry suggests that the church’s job is about more than personal evangelism. Like an occupying army, he suggests the church is to be “light and salt in a darkening and decaying society,” (p. 39). He then writes this (p. 40):

Speaking as a Baptist, should we do as Henry suggests? Should we “insist” on applying Christian ethical absolutes to national life? What is disturbing is that Henry suggests pluralism is a sham. It’s true that somebody’s values will be advanced in any piece of legislation, policy, or administrative rule. It’s also true that a key mark of the Baptist ethos is that we wish government to leave everyone alone so we can all worship as we see fit, without interference or sanction. Baptists believe this because any coercion, any outward pressure, any legal compulsion to “make” someone a Christian is both (1) a waste of time, because it won’t work, and (2) spiritual abuse. So, Baptists have not historically sought or wanted State sanction for religious activities.

Henry was a Baptist. That makes his negative remarks about pluralism (and more recent culture war moves by more modern Baptists) so puzzling. Baptists should not desire State sanction or approval for any religious speech or act, because this would implicitly or explicitly force other faith groups to accept Christian moral values. Baptists recognize that the precedent of State sanction might smile on Christians today, but what about tomorrow? We’re all for State-sponsored approval as long as it favors us. But, what if it doesn’t?

Henry continues:

Henry has doubled down. While I admit I’m not sure how to square (1) my Baptist convictions against State sanction for religion in any form, with (2) my desire to see Christ’s values advocated for in the public square, I insist that Henry’s comments here are not Baptistic in the slightest. His reasoning appears to go like this:

  1. This country was founded on Christian principles
  2. and it ain’t very Christian anymore
  3. so we gotta advocate for Christianity in our national life as part of our Gospel mission

This is incorrect. However, it’s complicated. Behold the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

See https://constitution.congress.gov/constitution/

You can’t establish a religion, can’t prohibit exercise of religion, and you can’t stop public religious speech. So much is clear. But, it’s also true that the Constitution (and its Amendments) came about in a Christian-ish milieu. The Constitution Annotated, the official “living” government publication providing context for the origin and interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, notes this:

Probably at the time of the adoption of the constitution and of the amendment to it, now under consideration, the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state, so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience, and the freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation.8 The object, then, of the religion clauses in this view was not to prevent general governmental encouragement of religion, of Christianity, but to prevent religious persecution and to prevent a national establishment

The Constitution Annotated, Amendment 1.1.1, Historical Background on Religion Clauses

So, it’s apparent that while America did not have an official State church, its implicit atmosphere was broadly Christian. We can see, then, why Carl Henry and others frame the Church/State relationship the way they do. Are they wrong to do so?

I fear they are indeed wrong. This does not mean I believe Christians should withdraw from society and ignore the moral problems of the day. It also does not mean Christians ought to wed themselves to a particular party, like so many barnacles to a ship. But, these are topics for another time.

I can say, however, that I don’t believe Henry’s approach here can be called Baptist.

Telling the Better Story: Christians and “Pride Month”

Telling the Better Story: Christians and “Pride Month”

Introduction[1]

Fade in on the little town of Bomont, presumably in rural Illinois. At a pulpit in a small local church is the Reverend Shaw Moore. He’s fond of crazed pastoral rants against dancing. You may recognize him—he’s the angry pastor-dad from Footloose.

There are still some Reverend Shaw’s around—less than there used to be, but still plenty everywhere. He epitomizes the wrong way to think about the sexual and gender confusion in our society.

What should Christians think about Pride Month?

This article is not about “why it’s wrong.” It’s not a list of “unstoppable” answers to “destroy” the opposition. Instead, it’s a proposal for a better way to think about these issues. It proceeds in five stages:

  1. A snapshot of reality in 2022—a quick assessment for the church
  2. Stories or scripts … and you
  3. The LGBTQ script
  4. The Christian script
  5. What should Christians think about Pride Month?

Where We Are—A Frank Assessment of Reality in 2022

I’ll share three snapshots of the reality of life in the West, in 2022. These are not crazed stories from dark corners on the web. They’re from mainstream news outlets:

Trans people are … cathedrals?

The first anecdote is a short video from Middle Church, in New York City. This church has a pastor on staff who boasts in his bio that he won the seminary drag contest. The video’s thesis is that “trans people are cathedrals.”[2] Like cathedrals, trans people are always in flux, always being remodeled, expanded, contracted—being restored. And like cathedrals, the narrator intones, trans bodies are sacred, holy spaces.  

Sarah and Dickie

In Dusseldorf, there lives a 23-year-old woman named Sarah Rodo, who wishes to marry her toy Boeing 737, which she’s named “Dicki” (for reasons about which I dare not speculate).[3] One news article features Sarah clad in lingerie, bathed in a deep red light, cradling Dickie in her arms. The caption notes, “Sarah says she is particularly attracted to Dicki’s face, wings and engine.”[4]

Sweet Miku

Thirdly, I present a Japanese man who has married a plush doll depicting a fictional anime character:[5]

… life with Miku, he argues, has advantages over being with a human partner: She’s always there for him, she’ll never betray him, and he’ll never have to see her get ill or die. Mr. Kondo sees himself as part of a growing movement of people who identify as ‘fictosexuals.’

What does this reality mean?

It means people increasingly have no idea what Christianity is or what it means—it’s parallel to us recoiling at Sarah and poor Dickie! And, because nothing is more personal than sex or felt identity, this means there will only be increasing confusion and anger at Christians as we oppose the sexual redefinitions entrenched in our society. So, we need to explain the Christian story to them like they know and understand nothing—because they probably don’t. We need more than, “Jesus loves you, and has a wonderful plan for your life.” That means nothing to many people, today.

If that is the case, then I suggest three wrong approaches that will likely have to die, especially regarding sexual ethics, because of this reality:

First: a retail (“come to me”) evangelism model is weak, and it always has been.

The “if we have the event at the church building, they will come!” mindset needs to die. If you are in the rural or semi-urban Midwest or South, this may not apply.

Second, the death of the confrontational model.

Because of the cultural disconnect between Christ and culture, “one off” evangelistic encounters are likely not enough by themselves to be successful[6]—the “gap” is too much! Could one conversation with Sarah (the plane girl) convince you to initiate a sexual relationship with a toy plane? That’s the “gap” you’re dealing with, in some cases. This gap will only grow!

Salvation is a cultivating process[7] (e.g. parable of the sower, Mt 13:3-8—see also the Rainer model[8]), so relationships and roles are important. When you have a relationship with people, you earn the right to speak truth. In this cultivation cycle, you don’t always know your role—you’re likely a waystation on the person’s spiritual trajectory.   

Third, lots of law, but little or no grace.

This is Rev Shaw’s way. The vibe is not evangelism, but disgust and distance. You change your statement of faith to “keep the gays away.” You amend your by-laws so “they” can’t “force you” to use your church building in a way you disapprove. The goal is isolation from “those people.” This is the default model in many traditional churches—usually led by older pastors from a different era

So, we need something more—we need to “tell the better story.”  Accordingly, there are at least two wrong attitudes that achieve nothing that we ought to throw overboard:

First, don’t be full of anger and outrage.  

This common attitude is directly opposite to what the parable of the weeds and the wheat tell us (Mt 13:24ff).[9] In that parable, the field is the world. Jesus likens the kingdom situation to this world. What’s the situation? The world is a mess—a mixed bag. Good wheat is intermingled with the weeds. The kingdom’s servants ask whether they ought to go pull the weeds up. Jesus says no—wait until the end, and the angels will harvest the field appropriately. Until then, this world will remain a mess.

This false model assumes:

  • The world should be a pure world—a Christian world,
  • But, it ain’t like that,
  • So, that makes us mad,
  • So, we wage a crusade to “take America back” for God.

This is a lie. The true model, from the parable, is that this world is and will remain very messy. So, sexual and gender confusion reign. Big surprise! The second wrong attitude is just as deadly:

Second, don’t be warm Jello.

In our quest to “listen,” we forget God really does have something to say about sexual ethics—and has a message of liberation from wrong ideas and desires.

What’s Your Story?

Everyone has a “story” or a “script” that shapes their view of the world. The filter thru which they interpret things, understand themselves, and their place and role in the world. It answers the “big questions” of life. This “script” also answers more immediate, practical questions:

  • Who do I love?
  • Who can I love?
  • What is a man?
  • What is a woman?
  • How do I know who am I?
  • What’s expected of me and how do I live up to it?

So, the Japanese guy who married a doll has a story.

Sarah Rodo, the plane girl, has a story.

People confused by their gender have a story.

People confused about their sexual feelings have a story.

You may not like it or understand it, but they each have a script that they’ve made up or adopted that makes their choices “make sense” to them and gives them an identity.

Mark Yarhouse, a Christian psychologist out of Wheaton College who specializes in sexual and gender issues, identifies three stages for identity:[10]

  1. Dilemma. My experiences and feelings are not what’s “normal” or “expected.”
  2. Development. The business of finding, sorting, and weighing answers to these dilemmas.
  3. Synthesis. Your solution to the problem—you figure out “who you are” and come to some conclusions.

How you sort all this out depends on what “script” or “story” you find most persuasive about life. Like actors with their scripts for their roles, our “script” gives us our cues, tells us our lines, and lets us know what’s expected of us—“this is your part, this is your role, and this is how we expect you to play it.”

For example, in some generic flavors of American culture today:

  • A 19-year-old boy can’t come back to live at home, because that would make him a loser. But, a girl of the same age can come home without stigma.
  • A man who sleeps around is a hero, but a woman who does the same is morally bankrupt.
  • A man “should” like hunting, fishing, shooting guns, and grilling. A woman “should” like Hobby Lobby, journaling, and Lifetime movies.

None of these are biblically mandated, but they’re real, they’re out there, and they’re “the script” many of us accept as “the way things are.” We learned the script at home, at school, from friends, from family, from experience. They’re baked into everything. The key tell is that these scripts are more felt or implied, than explained.

We have “lines” for sexual feelings + gender, too—but what if these roles don’t fit you very well? Someone’s gonna hand them a new script, a different script—one that claims to “explain” their feelings. It’ll either be the world’s script—the LGBTQ script—or it’ll be Christ’s script. Or it’ll be both. But someone’s gonna hand them a script.

The LGBTQ Script[11]

The LGBTQ community has a script to hand to confused people.[12] I present to you the Gingerbread Person:

Here’s a precis of the LGTBQ script:

  1. Your feelings are natural, good, and healthy.
  2. You need to discover “who you are,” and working out your true “gender identity”[13] is the key to your self-discovery.
  3. Your sexual attractions and/or inner feelings about your gender are the core of who you are as a person—it’s your identity!
  4. So, your sexual behavior and/or gender expression is the fruit of your identity.
  5. The only way you can be “true to yourself” is to live out that identity before the world

This is a very powerful script. If you’re a confused 15-year-old girl, what do you think she’ll find more compelling?

  1. Embrace sexual attractions or inner feelings to “discover who you really are?”
  2. Or, a guy with a “Footloose preacher” vibe: “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!”

The Better Story

Taking a strictly defensive “Alamo approach”[14] is the wrong way to respond. This includes (but is not limited to) sermons from Leviticus, amendments to the doctrinal statement to “protect” the church, and anger and rage a la Rev. Shaw.

The right way is to tell a different story; a better story! Identity is not about  feelings as the pathway to self-discovery, but a choice about love and loyalty—will you follow your feelings or will you follow God?

What does God’s story say about identity? The best synopsis is from 1 Peter 2:9-11:

  1. You can be a part of something infinitely larger than yourself.
  2. Part of a chosen people.
  3. Part a royal priesthood to show and tell God’s story of love to the world.
  4. A citizen of a holy nation—one that transcends any nationalist loyalties from the here and now.
  5. Part of God’s special possession to tell about His mercy and love.

God came to rescue us from ourselves, give us a new name, a new family, a new heart, a new mind, and a better tomorrow. This identity is part of a story:

  1. God is making a community,
  2. thru Jesus the King,
  3. for His coming kingdom

You think the bible’s story is about salvation? Covenant? Kingdom? Promise? No—all these are waypoints in aid of something fundamentally simpler—a community, a restoration of the fellowship we were made to have with God and with each other.

This story has at least three plot moves:

  1. Creation. God made everything, and He made it good.
  2. Fall. Our first parents ruined it all, when Satan deceived them.  
  3. Rescue. God’s plan to fix the mess, thru Jesus the King.

What place does Jesus offer us in this story?

  1. Identity—join me!
  2. Peace—reconciliation!
  3. Purpose—to be royal priests!
  4. Renovation—to remodel our hearts and minds to mirror His!

Tell the Better Story

Think with me, now—isn’t this such a different story than the LGBTQ script? Isn’t it such a better response than to only circle the wagons and preach angry sermons from Leviticus 18?

There is a concept in military strategy called “peer competitor,” which refers to an evenly matched geo-political foe. For example, China is a near peer competitor with the USA and some believe they will likely outmatch us within one or two generations.  

The Footloose preacher is not a peer competitor to the LGBTQ script. He’s a babe in the woods, ranting at the sky—an artifact from very different era. He isn’t interested in telling the better story—only in the “purity” of his tribe.

But, the Christian story is more than a “peer competitor” to the LGBTQ script. It’s an alternative story—a better story. So, churches and their people must tell that story, persuade, make people think, beg them to see Jesus and His love.

We must give people real answers to real questions about a sexual or gender script that don’t feel they fit into very well. Basically, we need to tell the better story—the Gospel story.

For the sermon from this material, you can find the audio version here:

You can watch the sermon here:


[1] See also my sermon of the same title from 26 June 2022 at https://youtu.be/rSkL0WWhbDs.

[2] See “Trans Cathedrals: Beauty in Becoming,” (23 June 2022) on Middle Church’s (https://www.middlechurch.org/) YouTube channel at: https://youtu.be/_jy1YnrGK54.

“Cathedrals are trans bodies—beautiful and holy in every inch and in every moment of existence. They are beautiful and holy when they are first built, and beautiful when they are altered and edited, and they are beautiful and holy in the midst of that change. Even engulfed in scaffolding, even in the midst of a collapse. And their holiness and beauty is reflected in the lives of trans people—who do not only mimic the form of Christ on the cross but contain in their bodies the holiness of creation”

[3] Liam Coleman, “ AIR YOU JOKING? I’m turned on by planes and one day want to marry my toy Boeing,” The U.S. Sun. 30 May 2022. https://www.the-sun.com/news/5455665/turned-on-planes-marry/.

[4] See https://nypost.com/2022/05/31/woman-sexually-attracted-to-planes-wants-to-marry-toy-boeing/. This is a re-print of The U.S. Sun’s article, but it contains an additional photograph with the caption which I quoted. 

[5] Ben Dooley and Hisako Ueno, “This Man Married a Fictional Character. He’d Like You to Hear Him Out,” New York Times. 24 April 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/24/business/akihiko-kondo-fictional-character-relationships.html.  

[6] “Many Christians learned a mechanical, aggressive approach to evangelism. We attended workshops and read books based on techniques developed by people who have the gift of evangelism. That is the problem. When those of us who are not gifted evangelists muster up the courage to try these techniques, the results are usually disappointing—which makes us feel guilty and often offends others. We begin to think of ourselves as substandard disciples who are simply not able to share our faith. Although we want to see friends and colleagues come to Christ, we stop trying out of fear and frustration.

The problem is one of perspective, not inability. We tend to think of evangelism as an event, a point in time when we explain the gospel message and individuals put their faith in Jesus on the spot. Done!” (Bill Peel and Walt Larrimore, Workplace Grace: Becoming a Spiritual Influence at Work (Longview: LeTourneau Press, 2014; Kindle ed.), KL 196).

[7] Peel and Larrimore, Workplace Grace, KL 258.  

[8] Thom S. Rainer, The Unchurched Next Door: Understanding Faith Stages as Keys to Sharing Your Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003; Kindle ed.), KL 863. 

[9] See my sermon, “Cosmic Risk—The Parable of the Weeds.” 03 April 2022. https://youtu.be/RcBJnM9da1I?t=3251

[10] Mark Yarhouse, Homosexuality and the Christian (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010), p. 46.

[11] The approach here is inspired most directly by Yarhouse, Homosexuality and the Christian, ch. 2. A good deal of what follows is from his work.   

[12] See, for example, the latest discussion of the Gingerbread Person at https://www.genderbread.org/. See also the Gender Unicorn for a similar discussion, at https://transstudent.org/gender/.

[13] See “What is Gender Dysphoria?” at https://psychiatry.org/Patients-Families/Gender-Dysphoria/What-Is-Gender-Dysphoria

[14] See my article “Christ, Culture, and the Church,” EccentricFundamentalist.com. 06 June 2022.  https://eccentricfundamentalist.com/2022/06/06/christ-culture-and-the-church/.

Christ, Culture, and the Church

Christ, Culture, and the Church

This world is a mess. A few decades ago, Carl F.H. Henry wrote: “The West has lost its moral and epistemic compass bearings. It has no shared criterion for judging whether human beings are moving up or down, standing still, or merely on the move only God knows where.”[1] In the absence of a Biblical world-explanation, Henry argued, “[t]he search for an alternative model is beset with confusion, and Western society drifts indecisively toward chaos. Secular scholars seem unable to tell us where we are.”[2]

This is surely correct, even if (32 years hence) it prompts an eye roll and a muttered, “yeah, no kidding!” from the reader. My burden is to suggest what local churches ought to think about this situation—what we ought to do about it, what our posture towards this world ought to be.

First, I’ll define “culture” so we begin on the same page. Second, I’ll sketch[3] three helpful paradigms. The first is from the 1950s, the second from 1994, and the third from 2006. Each tries to answer this same question, in its own context. Each is inspired by the first. Finally, I’ll sketch out my own approach and confess with which paradigm my sympathies lie.

What is Culture?

The term “culture” means the distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviors, and way of life for a particular nation or people.[4] H. Richard Niebuhr suggests “culture” is a synonym for “civilization” or what biblical writers called “the world.”[5] In turn, the definition of “civilization” brings us back round to where we began: “the society, culture, and way of life of a particular area.”[6]

Niebuhr—Christ and Culture

H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous book began life as a series of lectures in which he sought to consider the “double wrestle of the church with its Lord and with the cultural society with which it lives in symbiosis …”[7] Niebuhr’s writing sparkles with an academic vibe. He doesn’t write as a churchman confronting urgent problems, but as a scholar reclining in his armchair, puffing on his pipe, staring into an ethereal distance. There’s nothing wrong with academics, of course—I only mean that his discussion is dispassionate and abstract.

He lays out a five-fold taxonomy of how the church ought to relate to culture:

  1. Christ against culture. The church is always in opposition. There is a war footing. Christ is opposed to this world, its culture, and He calls us to come out from the world and be separate.[8]
  2. Christ of culture. He guides civilization to its utopian goal of brotherhood and value. Christ “confirms what is best in the past, and guides the process of civilization to its proper goal.”[9] There is no antagonism.
  3. Christ above culture. Only thru salvation will Christ lead us to utopia.[10]
  4. Christ andculture in paradox. We must obey both authorities in this life while we endure and wait for Jesus. There is duality and tension here that is admittedly a bit schizophrenic—many people are likely here.[11]
  5. Christ transforms culture. This is a conversionist position. Jesus is a leaven that works on society from inside out, spearheading the Gospel all about.[12] There is a positive view of culture—”a sort of Jesus will fix it now” feel.[13]  

Bloesch—Responding to Reality

Donald Bloesch was a longtime professor of systematic theology at Dubuque Theological Seminary, in Iowa. In the inaugural tome of his seven-volume systematic, he described four possible responses to modernity.[14] His approach is practical, more “real,” and less theoretical than Niebuhr’s. He is less discussing a theory of Christ v. culture, and more describing how Christians choose to respond to the world as it is.

Here is Boesch’s typology, with some free paraphrasing from me. Not each response will contain all the traits, but the “feel” will be familiar:

  1. Restoration. There is a more insular focus on “rebuilding the walls” of the church. A “clear and hold” the line against the world ethos. A Christian counterculture mindset may produce a ghettoized outlook. There is impatience with dialogue with “the enemy.” Apologetics is largely defensive, to assure insiders they have “the truth.” There may be a scholastic fidelity to creeds, and a sectarian emphasis on the purity of a particular church. Empirical rationalism or fideism may be present.[15]
  2. Accommodation. We must update and revise the faith to reach people. We ought to forge a theology that can gain support from and connect with culture. This is essentially Niebuhr’s “Christ of culture.” Bloesch notes “the Christ it upholds is drawn from and shaped by the cultural ethos more than by the biblical revelation.”[16] This is traditional liberal theology. I would put Schleiermacher here, and perhaps some of Rauschenbusch and radical feminist theology like that of Rosemary Reuther, which locates authority in experience.[17]
  3. Correlation: This is a mediating, “Christ above culture” approach. Apologetics prepares the way for theology, and Christ will eventually reconcile culture with Himself. “[I]nstead of categorically repudiating worldly wisdom, they endeavor to assimilate it in a Christian world view or faith perspective.”[18]
  4. Confrontation. This is Bloesch’s position. It focuses on the antithesis between faith and culture. Its goal is conversion to the kingdom of God. The Gospel confronts and calls us to defect to God. It’s more about proclamation than apologetics—a “Christ transforming culture”-ish approach. The kingdom is leaven in the world, changing it from within. It is “not an apologetic that leaves the fortress of faith to engage in struggle with the world on its own terrain but an apologetic that finds its security precisely in the fortress of faith and calls the world to unconditional surrender by acknowledging the authority of the fortress of faith over its own domain.”[19]

Keller—All/And

Tim Keller re-shaped Neibuhr’s categories, helpfully critiqued each, and didn’t settle on either model.[20] Each of us, he suggested, is likely attracted to aspects of different models based on our gifts. We ought to treat these models and their attributes like a buffet—picking and choosing strategies based on our cultural moments and context.[21]

Here is Keller’s taxonomy:

  1. Transformationalist. We engage culture through an emphasis on pursuing our own vocations from a Christian worldview.[22]
  2. Relevance. “The animating idea behind the Relevance model is that God’s Spirit is at work in the culture to further his kingdom.”[23] This is Niebuhr’s “Christ of culture” and “Christ above culture.”
  3. Countercultural. The church is a, well … countercultural alternative society opposed to the world.
  4. Two kingdoms. “God rules all of creation through the ‘common kingdom’ in which people operate by natural revelation and the ‘redemptive kingdom’ in which Christians are ruled by special revelation.[24]
Keller, Center Church, p. 231.

My approach—Bloesch-ish

There is a reason why I defined “culture” at the outset. I’m skeptical that the distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviors, and ways of life for particular nations or peoples in Creation 1.0 will survive the jump to Creation 2.0. So, I don’t believe the church is called to “influence culture,” because this culture is scheduled to go up in flames. This doesn’t mean local churches must be isolationist. I don’t believe congregations exist to “influence culture,” but to push God’s counterculture into the public square as the ordained alternative. Supporting inner-city Gospel missions, crisis pregnancy centers, local schools (etc.) are not ends in and of themselves—they’re vehicles to show and tell God’s values and His Gospel to outsiders.

So, I’m largely unmoved by Keller’s framing (see his horizontal bar across the middle of the graphic), because “influencing culture” is not a goal. Getting people to defect from pagan culture and to God’s community is the goal. Churches must use innovative means to achieve that, motivated by love, compassion, and justice.

So, my framing is less “how do we influence culture” and more “how should we respond to culture.” Thus, I believe Bloesch’s discussion was more helpful. I have freely adapted and condensed his taxonomy and contextualized it for 2022. How should local churches respond to the disaster that is American culture? There are at least three different, contradictory ways Christians choose to answer that question:[25]

  1. The Alamo (defense). Fortify the walls, stock ammo, hunker down, and wait for Jesus. This is a defensive ethos—it’s about protecting the church. Even apologetics is less about engaging the enemy than about protecting Christians from being seduced by the Dark Side—like poor Kylo Ren. The mantra is to keep things pure and strong while we hold off “the enemy.” Despite protestations, it’s often less about evangelism and the Great Commission, and more about protecting church from danger. There is a pervasive “things ain’t like they used to be, and I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore” vibe at work.
  • Play-Dough. Accommodation to cultural tastes, with rationalizations. God is not a gendered being, feminine pronouns for Her are fine, Jesus has no sexual ethics, do what makes you feel good, faith is about feeling, not doctrine, “you do you.”  
  • Confrontation (offense). This perspective is less about “protecting the church,” and more about winsomely confronting the world employing various innovative means, and calling people to defect from Satan to Jesus.

It might be helpful to picture these three ways in simple pictures:

  1. The Alamo. Fade in on a castle with its doors barred, its drawbridge raised, its moat filled with hungry crocodiles, snipers on the parapets,[26] people sheltering inside, archers deploying, knights with swords at the ready, anxious to charge if the door is breached. The villages round about are the enemy—and they want to destroy your kids.
  2. Play-Dough. Focus in on the same castle. The folks are burning it down. They sift through the rubble and donate the stones to local nationals to build a shrine to a Veggie Goddess—who is really just Jesus by another name, anyway.   
  3. Confrontation. The castle is the church’s stronghold in an unholy land—an embassy to represent Christ to folks who want to know more, and at the same time a forward operating base to push His message into the world aggressively, forcefully … and engagingly. It wants local nationals to join the castle community.

Your view of “church v. culture” will shape your posture towards the world:

  1. Alamo: Focus on holiness for defensive purposes, so you’re not seduced by the Dark Side (like Vader). Emphasis on bible reading, bible interpretation, defending the faith. A relentless, perhaps even unwitting “insider” focus—resources emphasize being educated about “dangers” facing the church, protecting your children, etc.
  2. Confrontation. Pushing the message and implications of the Gospel outside the church’s walls—spiritual combat with a winning smile.

I fear many of us are tempted to adopt the Alamo ethos. There is a time and place for defense. But, we mustn’t forget offense—and we certainly can’t confuse belligerent defensiveness with that winning offense. For example, June is Pride Month:

  1. Alamo. We preach defensive sermons from Leviticus 18 and tell our congregation that “homosexuality is bad,” and distribute free books to the congregation explaining why transgenderism isn’t Scriptural.
  2. Confrontation. We record several short videos telling a better story than the “sex as identity” message so many people believe, then spend several hundred dollars advertising these videos on social media platforms in our local community, and invite comment and discussion.

I believe churches ought to err on the side of Confrontation, which is really just evangelism. It’s easy to stick with the Alamo ethos. I think we must do more.


[1] Carl F.H. Henry, Toward a Recovery of Christian Belief (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), p. 15.  

[2] Ibid, p. 16.  

[3] I cannot hope to do more than briefly sketch these approaches—consult the referenced works for more detail and do not assume my abbreviated discussion here captures all the nuance of each author’s position!

[4] Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “culture,” noun, 7a. March 2022. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/45746?rskey=Ztxhta&result=1&isAdvanced=false  

[5] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1951), p. 32.  

[6] New Oxford American Dictionary, s.v. “civilization,” 3, p. 317.  

[7] Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. xi.  

[8] Ibid, pp. 40-41. “That world appears as a realm under the power of evil; it is the region of darkness, into which the citizens of the kingdom of light must not enter; it is characterized by the prevalence in it of lies, hatred, and murder; it is the heir of Cain. It is a secular society, dominated by the ‘lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life,’ or, in Prof. Dodd’s translation of these phrases, it is ‘pagan society, with its sensuality, superficiality and pretentiousness, its materialism and its egoism.’ It is a culture that is concerned with temporal and passing values, whereas Christ has words of eternal life; it is a dying as well as a murderous order, for ‘the world passes away and the lust of it.’ It is dying, however, not only because it is concerned with temporal goods And contains the inner contradictions of hatred and lie, but also because Christ has come to destroy the works of the devil and because faith in him is the victory which overcomes the world. Hence the loyalty of the believer is directed entirely toward the new order, the new society and its Lord,” (Ibid, p. 48).

[9] Ibid, p. 41.  

[10] “… true culture is not possible unless beyond all human achievement, all human search for values, all human society, Christ enters into life from above with gifts which human aspiration has not envisioned and which human effort cannot attain unless he relates men to a supernatural society and a new value-center. Christ is, indeed, a Christ of culture, but he is also a Christ above culture,” (Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 42).

“These men are Christians not only in the sense that they count themselves believers in the Lord but also in the sense that they seek to maintain community with all other believers. Yet they seem equally at home in the community of culture. They feel no great tension between church and world, the social laws and the Gospel, the workings of divine grace and human effort, the ethics of salvation and the ethics of social conservation or progress,” (Ibid, p. 83).

[11] “Hence man is seen as subject to two moralities, and as a citizen of two worlds that are not only discontinuous with each other but largely opposed. In the polarity and tension of Christ and culture life must be lived precariously and sinfully in the hope of a justification which lies beyond history,” (Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 43).

[12] “Christ is seen as the converter of man in his culture and society, not apart from these, for there is no nature without culture and no turning of men from self and idols to God save in society,” (Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 43).

[13] “Hence the conversionist is less concerned with conservation of what has been given in creation, less with preparation for what will be given in a final redemption, than with the divine possibility of a present renewal,” (Ibid, p. 195).

[14] Boesch, Theology of Word & Spirit, pp. 252-272. 

[15] “A sectarian theology will do battle for the sake of the church or the elect, the gathered fellowship of true believers, not for the sake of the world for whom Christ died,” (Bloesch, Word & Spirit, p. 268). 

[16] Ibid, p. 257.  

[17] “If a symbol does not speak authentically to experience, it becomes dead or must be altered to provide a new meaning,” (Rosemary Reuther, Sexism and God-talk: Towards a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon, 1993), pp. 12-13).

[18] Bloesch, Word & Spirit, p. 262.  

[19] Bloesch, Word & Spirit, p. 271.

[20] Timothy Keller, Center Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), pp. 194-243.

[21] Ibid, p. 240.

[22] Ibid, p. 197.  

[23] Ibid, p. 202.  

[24] Ibid, p. 209.  

[25] This is adapted from Donald Bloesch’s discussion in A Theology of Word & Spirit (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), pp. 252-272. 

[26] I’m aware modern snipers didn’t exist in medieval times, but just go with it …

Against fear as a prism for Christian reality

Against fear as a prism for Christian reality

In American Christianity, fear has long been a popular way to frame reality. The real enemy is Satan, of course, but the form of the threat has changed throughout the decades. It’s difficult to discuss this with sufficient nuance, because Satan is the real enemy, and he is a crafty one, and his tactics do change with the times.

And yet … some flavors of American evangelicalism seem to frame reality by way of fear a bit too much. Or, a lot too much. A good deal of this is tied up with various flavors of conservative politics. This is not always religion as a cloak for crude nationalist impulses. It’s also because, as historian Jason Bivens notes, political activism by conservative evangelicals also arises “from specific religious convictions as these have been shaped by their tradition’s understandings of social and political change, understandings that they aim to transmit and promote,” (Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism [New York: OUP, 2008], p. 14).

John Fea, a Christian historian at Messiah College, discussed the phenomenon of “evangelical fear” in his 2018 book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Some may frown at that title, but I beg you to stay with me. Fea is describing a real phenomenon–the same one I have in mind. This phenomenon is that, for some American evangelicals, fear really is a vehicle for framing reality.

… this short history of evangelical fear is actually pretty long—going back to the very establishment of European settlement in America. The various fears that combined to drive white evangelical Christians into the arms of Donald Trump have deep roots in American history. Evangelicals’ fears that Barack Obama was a Muslim, and that as president he would violate the Second Amendment and take their guns away, echo—and are about as well founded as—early American evangelicals’ fears that Thomas Jefferson was going to seize believers’ Bibles. The Christian Right’s worries in the 1960s and 1970s that they might lose their segregated academies should take us back to the worries of white evangelicals who lived in the antebellum South. Contemporary efforts to declare America a Christian nation should remind us of similar attempts by fundamentalists a century ago.

Believe Me (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), p. 97.

This fear informs how they view the world, how they interpret the news, what they think of folks with different politics than their own. It impacts evangelism and a local church’s public face. Too often, that public face is one of outrage or bitter sullenness–sentiments incongruous with the joy the Gospel ought to bring, and the optimism it should foster in one’s heart.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can be firm, but not angry. Realistic, but not afraid.

In this excerpt from a recent sermon, I chat a bit about this. I’m commenting specifically on the Acts 2:47: “they praised God and had favor with all the people.”

Sad about being fightin’ mad

Sad about being fightin’ mad

I’ve been slowly wending my way through Kenneth Latourette’s wonderful History of Christianity: Beginnings to 1500. I began the book at the year 500 A.D., finished it, and have now circled back to the beginning to fill in the gap. I came across this observation from him just this morning:

Christians know they should be united, but they often are not. Because we are what we are, the quarrels are often about secondary issues―disagreements over how to express Christianity. The disagreements are rarely about the trinity, the Gospel, two-nature Christology, or original sin. It’s a sad disconnect, and it’ll never go away as long as we’re east of Eden.

Recent circumstances in my congregation make me read Latourette’s comments with sadness. We’ve had six people leave our church in the past two months because we had a wedding as the worship service on a Sunday morning.

  • I was told it was blasphemous to “usurp” the “proper” worship service.
  • I was told it was a “poor testimony” to unbelievers to see a wedding on a Sunday morning.
  • I was criticized for allowing decorations to be put up which “covered the cross” behind the pulpit … even though that cross is only two years old, and for 37 years there was nothing on the wall behind the pulpit.
  • I was told it was wrong for me to move our Wednesday evening bible study and prayer meeting to another room inside the building so we could stage wedding decorations in a convenient place.
  • I was told I allowed the building to be made to “look like a bar” because there was subdued lighting.
  • One (now former) member told me she didn’t believe I had made “Godly decisions” and thus no longer trusted me.
  • Another (now former) member suggested that, because the folks who did the lighting had the word “dragon” in the company name, we had somehow colluded with Satan (cf. Rev 12).
  • One (now former) member pointed his finger at me angrily during a public meeting and said I was wrong to remove the American flag from the platform for the wedding. I now plan to never return that flag to the platform.
  • Another (now former) member said I did not preach the Gospel, and suggested I received poor training.
  • Another (now former) member suggested I was wrong to point out during a recent sermon that Bob Jones University has a legacy of evil racism, and that the university didn’t drop its inter-racial dating ban until 2000. He explained Bob Jones University “had reasons for those policies.”
  • I was heavily criticized for allowing the wedding party to hold a private reception inside the church building afterwards, during which time they danced. I was told I allowed the building to be desecrated.

In short, my decision to hold a wedding for two church members as the worship service on a Sunday morning has prompted an exodus of six people. In each case, I interpret the wedding as the “final straw” and the trigger for a decision which was inevitable. I attribute it to three factors; the first two are often intertwined but are not quite the same:

  1. I do not model an “America exceptionalism” brand of Christianity.
  2. I do not hold to a second-stage fundamentalist philosophy of ministry which sees holiness as synonymous with a culturally conditioned and scripturally suspect set of external behaviors.
  3. I believe a church which fails to plan and execute corporate evangelism is derelict in its duties. Results are God’s business, but the responsibility to spread the Gospel is ours. This is non-negotiable. Thus a church which is purely insular is a useless social organization. One (now former) member complained that I spoke about the Gospel too much.

Local churches will always struggle to “make real” Jesus’ heart for unity. For me, this is a particularly sad blow because one of our congregation’s three “platforms” is to build community and love one another. This is a frequent emphasis in my sermons and teachings. Unfortunately, it isn’t yet a reality in our congregation. Like many churches, ours is small. Morale will suffer. It ought not to be this way. It makes me so sad, because I don’t know what these people think Christianity is. What have they been doing all their lives? How many others (in my congregation and yours) think the same way?

Is natural law the answer?

Is natural law the answer?

This article was updated on 07 February 2021

When Christians consider whether and how to legislate morality, we’re immediately confronted with the fact we’re actually asking two questions:

  1. What should inform the content of public morality in an ideal sense? That is, setting present geo-political realities aside and focusing only on transcendent values, what is “the public good,” how can we know it, and to what extent should we advocate for it in the public square?
  2. How does the Church apply this public morality in real life, within the geo-political, pluralist realities that are the real world?

One way some Christians have answered the first question is to turn to natural law theory; specifically, a broadly Christian form of natural law. Is this a fruitful path?

What is natural law theory?

When we say, “natural law,” we mean it is “natural” in the sense that it reflects the nature, essence or intended form of something (X). “Law” refers to a normative dictum that explains what X, in light of its nature, should do in certain circumstances.1 This means human beings can (1) observe the nature and intended purpose of something, and (2) these observations form the basis for moral values and obligations.

So, to bring this down to earth, consider human beings. Natural law is our perception (even unwittingly) of the divine order within ourselves, by which we’re inclined to right action. We can observe ourselves, draw conclusions about our meaning and purpose, and so learn how we ought to behave. If you’re ever bored enough to read legal statutes, you’ll find that human laws are the result of a society’s reasoned application of general principles to particular cases for the common good. This is why even something so esoteric as the Washington State insurance code can proclaim:2

The business of insurance is one affected by the public interest, requiring that all persons be actuated by good faith, abstain from deception, and practice honesty and equity in all insurance matters.

It’s doubtful the Washington State legislature wittingly relied on natural law theory to craft this statute. Yet, there is an implicit appeal to such a law in that text. There is a public interest. Good faith can be known, defined, and it is “good,” (etc.). Indeed, some form of natural law must be the foundation for human law.3 Or else, we’re cast into the morass of subjectivism and individualism.

Christian natural law theory says scripture presupposes this divine ordering. David Haines and Andrew Fulford advance three propositions to express this idea:4

  1. there is an objective order to the universe;
  2. this order is objectively visible, there for all to see, “whether one is wearing the spectacles of Scripture or not;” and
  3. at least some unbelievers perceive this order.

They explain:

the very fact of divine creation seems to point towards what has been traditionally called natural law: the notion that there is, because of the divine intellect, a natural order within the created world by which each and every created being’s goodness can be objectively judged, both on the level of being (ontological goodness), and, for human-beings specifically, on the level of human action (moral goodness). Ontological goodness is the foundation of moral goodness.5

In one of his famous five “proofs” for God’s existence, Thomas Aquinas explained we can perceive God from the observable order of the world:6

We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

God, as it were, created everything as a carpenter plans and creates a piece of furniture.7 He sees an image in His mind’s eye, then executes that plan. Thus, God has a moral standard to which men are accountable, and His mind contains that “ideal” purpose and end of everything in His creation.

Scripture presupposes that this natural ordering and purpose exists. Here are but a few examples:8

  • Jesus’ so-called “Golden Rule” (Mt 7:12) presupposes that everyone, regardless of their spiritual state, acknowledges it is “good” to treat others equitably. This is as close to a universal moral good that one can get.
  • Deuteronomy 4:5-6. If the Israelites obey God’s laws, pagan nations “will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people,’” (Deut 4:6). If unbelievers can look at God’s objective “good” and appreciate it, like it, acknowledge, want it—then there must be an objective “good” to define human flourishing. It isn’t a social convention; it actually exists and can be seen, known, appreciated.
  • In creation, God pronounced it all “very good,” which surely means there is an objective “good” to this world.

How, then, can we know right and wrong?

Well, first we need to understand that everything, including men, women, boys and girls, is made by God for a specific purpose or end. An ear is made to hear. A sock is made to fit on your foot. A book is meant to be read. A car is meant to transport you to and fro.

You can abuse the original design by using it in a way the designer didn’t foresee. For example, a neighbor of mine recently used his Jeep to prop up a section of fencing that had collapsed in his backyard. It “worked,” I guess, but it was crude. Why? Because the Jeep wasn’t designed to do that—it wasn’t its nature or raison d’être.

You could say there is a “fitness” and “unfitness” to everything, depending on its created purpose.

Thus fitness or unfitness may be affirmed, at every moment, of every object in existence, of the volition by which each object is controlled, and of every intelligent being, with regard to the exercise of his will toward or upon outward objects or his fellow-beings. Fitness and unfitness are the ultimate ideas that are involved in the terms right and wrong.9

So, consider marriage, children, government, attitudes towards elders, the sanctity of life, political society, political authorities—what are God’s purposes for these institutions? What is their nature? When you find that out—when you figure the ends for which God made them—then you have a secure base from which to understand and uphold these realities in the world.10

But, again, how can you figure out these ends? How can you know what they are?

Certainly, the Gospel of Jesus Christ gives one a new mind and a new heart, along with the illumination to understand divine revelation. Indeed, if God created a binding moral order, it seems He’d be remiss if He did not reveal Himself and this moral order to His creation.11

Not so fast?

However, natural law seems to not require this step. Instead, it asks one to reason from natural revelation—to extrapolate from the observable order to “think God’s thoughts after Him” in a whole host of modern contexts. Specifically, we can know right from wrong by considering various forms of the questions (1) what is the nature and purpose of the one doing the action,12 and (2) what is the purpose of the action, (3) what are the motivations behind the action, (4) what are the consequences, (5) what are the means by which we propose to accomplish this end, and (6) what are the circumstances surrounding the action?13

However, Haines and Fulford’s blanket assertion that when human beings observe human nature and draw conclusions about it, “we are thinking God’s thoughts after Him,” is not quite correct.14 Satan has thrown a dark cloak over people’s minds to “keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God,” (2 Cor 4:4). This a blindness to reality, including natural law, for which we must account. This means unbelievers will not always “see” the natural order flowing from a created order at all. Christians will usually have to do a three-step dance when pressing the reality of natural law; (1) it exists, (2) your sin stops you from seeing it in creation, and then (3) do you see it now?

Indeed, there are non-Christian theories about natural law predicated on secular bases. These contrasting theories “differ widely about what human nature is and, as a result, about the moral theory that can be derived from it.”15 Indeed, different schools of thought (even within Christian circles) disagree about the essence of human nature itself and, thus, the implications about the “ends” to be drawn from its nature. “Unless that picture can be firmly established in sufficient detail to warrant the moral inferences drawn from it, the theory as a whole will lack credibility.”16

So, for example, can we legitimately employ natural law theory to forbid birth control? After all, the reasoning goes, the “natural end” of marriage is procreation (or, is it!?), and birth control would impede this purpose, so it is morally wrong. It therefore seems that to be most persuasive, Christian natural law theory must function with some degree of abstraction.

Preliminary assessment

Nevertheless, does natural law theory provide the Church with a framework to understand the “public good” regarding legislation of morality in the public square? It does, but only obliquely. Simply put, why do Christians need natural law theory when they could just point to scripture? That, of course, is the rub—nobody wants to use scripture in the public square. Natural law theory, for all its promise, seems to be a method for reasoning “God’s way” while not actually pointing to anything God has said.  

Does it answer our second question? That is, does natural law theory help Christians “think God’s thoughts” via legislation in a pluralist society, in 2021? Haines and Fulford say it does:

The precisionists and the Anabaptists were wrong to deny that any just political order could be founded that did not submit to their own private and special revelation, since justice can be known from the wisdom in God’s creation.17

I am not yet convinced. To use just one example—people in the West simply do not acknowledge God’s justice or God’s objective order. Natural law theory appears to gravely underestimate the noetic effect of sin, which will inevitably prevent some people from agreeing with the specific implications of its general premises. In other words, while natural law theory supplies the Christian with some philosophical heft as a complement to a Reformed epistemology, I am not convinced it alone is a suitable vehicle for grounding moral values or legislation.  

I am very new to the concept of natural law theory, and perhaps I have misunderstood it here. But my assessment at this date is that it would be simpler to use scripture to advocate for God’s values in a pluralist society. In that respect, it reminds me of the debate between classical and presuppositional apologetics.


Notes

1 David Haines and Andrew Fulford, Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense (Lincoln: Davenant Press, 2017), pp. 4-5. 

2 Title 48, Revised Code of Washington; RCW 48.01.030. Emphasis added. 

3 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 8. 

4 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 51.

5 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. ii.

6 This is Thomas Aquinas’ “fifth way” of proving God’s existence from Summa Theologica, First Part, Q1 (“does God exist?”), A2.

7 “[T]he divine mind ‘contains,’ or is, the ideas of all created beings—what we call exemplar causes—in much the same way that the carpenter’s mind contains the idea of a finished table prior to beginning his work,” (Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 23).

8 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, pp. 52ff. 

9 Andrew Peabody, A Manual of Moral Philosophy (New York: Barnes, 1873), pp. 35-36. 

10 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, pp. 24-27. 

11 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 51. 

12 The Westminster Larger Catechism sums it up nicely when it says, “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy Him forever,” (Q1, A1).

13 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 38. 

14 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 44. 

15 Gerald Hughes, “Natural Law,” in Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, revised ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), p. 414.

16 Hughes, “Natural Law,” p. 414. 

17 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 111.  

Life matters

Life matters

Each year in January, our congregation celebrates the gift of life and focuses on some aspect of the sin of abortion in the United States. This year, we were honored to have the Executive Director of Options Pregnancy Clinic in Olympia, WA speak to our congregation:

I then followed with a short sermon challenging our congregation to look beyond a cardboard approach to the sin of abortion, and to consider what the Church’s attitude should be towards a people and society that celebrate abortion.

Is pluralism a dead end?

Is pluralism a dead end?

I have come to realize a defining issue for Christians is the Church’s relationship to the State, particularly in matters of morality. The Constitution is a pluralist document. It does not go “on the record” for or against one particular religion, though Christianity certainly loomed large in the philosophical and moral shaping of the founders by dint of their culture. Instead, it guarantees religious freedom of conscience for all.

That much isn’t too controversial. The controversy comes with this question: what moral values should therefore inform legislation?

Every piece of legislation, every value judgment by the State, comes from some objective or otherwise “authoritative” and recognized moral standard. The line that “we cannot legislate morality” is both true and false. It’s true in that we can’t change people’s hearts, but every criminal law on the books in local, State and Federal jurisdictions recognizes the deterrent value in having penalties to curb otherwise “immoral” actions (e.g. murder, sexual assault, etc.). As long as there was a broad, implicit consensus about the content of morality (in America’s case, a generic Christian-ish deism), then people could reasonably be on the same page. This is no longer the case.  

Morality is legislated all the time. It certainly was in Bostock v. Clayton County, this past summer—a decision akin to Roe v. Wade for the transgender issue. The difference is we have competing and antithetical moral value judgments in our society; judgments that come from very different philosophical worlds. In this sense, I’m not certain pluralism is really tenable. It seemed like it could be if people operated from a common moral and epistemological foundation, even something as generic as a Christian ceremonial deism. But, that isn’t the case today.

Consider this excerpt from the splendid book by Gaines M. Foster, Moral Reconstruction: Christian Lobbyists and the Federal Legislation of Morality, 1865-1920. He recounts what ensued after yet another attempt by Christian lobbyists to amend the Constitution to proclaim explicit allegiance to Jesus as King in 1896 (p. 109):

For me, this is a true puzzle. I am doing research right now for a short book about the evolution of sexual mores in American society by examining key U.S. Supreme Court decisions from Roe v. Wade to Bostock v. Clayton County. I plan to examine each decision, and the accompanying transcripts of oral arguments and legal briefs, and provide a succinct analysis from a conservative Christian perspective. Of course, this means I’ll immediately come up against the Church’s relationship to the State regarding moral legislation.

I have much to read on Christian political philosophy and natural law. But, right now, these are my thoughts:

  1. Every State must identify a foundation from whence it draws its ideas about morality. After all, we will always legislate someone’s morality. We should be honest about that.
  2. Pluralism is a chimera unless the people have some shared epistemological foundation from which to argue, even if that foundation is something as generic as a Christian-ish deism.
  3. The United States used to have such a generally shared foundation, but no longer does. So, the public square arguments about morality will continue to escalate.
  4. Therefore, I am not certain an ostensible pluralism is a viable way forward in today’s Western culture, where morality is largely determined by majority consensus.
  5. But, I am uncertain what a Christian response to this environment ought to be. Here is where the concept of soul liberty clashes with the imperative to advocate for future kingdom values. Should Christians, for example, really be “for” something God hates (e.g. drag queen “story hour”) in order to uphold pluralism and religious liberty for all?

I don’t have answers to any of this. It’s some measure of comfort to me that Gaines Foster, author of Moral Reconstruction, didn’t have the answer, either. He ends his book with this line:

The fundamental tension built into the moral polity of the early republic thus persists two centuries later: a democratic republic needs a moral citizenry but cannot force its citizens to be moral.

Moral Reconstruction, p. 234

Cuomo, COVID and the Notorious ACB

Cuomo, COVID and the Notorious ACB

Yesterday evening, the Supreme Court (“SCOTUS”) barred restrictions on religious services in New York that Gov. Cuomo had imposed to combat COVID-19. The vote was 5-4. If the late Justice Ginsburg were on the bench instead of Amy Barrett, it would have gone the other way.

This is not a permanent decision. Justice Kavanaugh explains:

Importantly, the Court’s orders today are not final decisions on the merits. Instead, the Court simply grants temporary injunctive relief until the Court of Appeals in December, and then this Court as appropriate, can more fully consider the merits.

Kavanaugh concurring opinion, p. 1.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, along with some Orthodox Jewish synagogues, asked for injunctive relief from Gov. Cuomo’s order that “imposes severe restrictions on attendance at religious services in areas classified as ‘red’ or ‘orange; zones. In red zones, no more than 10 persons may attend each religious service, and in orange zones, attendance is capped at 25,” (Decision, p. 1).

It has always been tricky to weigh religious freedom and the State’s legitimate authority to protect public health. In a recent article, I explained my own thoughts on this matter (for now, anyway) in my own context in WA State. This SCOTUS decision is very helpful because it crystallizes much of what I’ve been thinking for some time.

Strict neutrality. If you don’t treat religious institutions with strict neutrality, then a State will likely have a problem. You can’t single churches out for harsher treatment than other organizations:

In a red zone, while a synagogue or church may not admit more than 10 persons, businesses categorized as “essential” may admit as many people as they wish. And the list of “essential” businesses includes things such as acupuncture facilities, camp grounds, garages, as well as many whose services are not limited to those that can be regarded as essential, such as all plants manufacturing chemicals and microelectronics and all transportation facilities

Decision, p. 3.

What is the rhyme and reason for these determinations of “essential” vs. “non-essential?” I’m sure there is an alleged reason, and I’m also certain a binder exists even now in the State’s emergency management office that explains everything. I also know Gov. Cuomo made a moral distinction, a value judgement, when he drew those lines. A garage is more important to society than a church. This is not neutrality.

Irreparable harm. The decision notes:

There can be no question that the challenged restrictions, if enforced, will cause irreparable harm. ‘The loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.’ Elrod v. Burns, 427 U. S. 347, 373 (1976) (plurality opinion).

Decision, p. 5.

This is a point many Governors don’t understand and many Americans don’t understand. Religion is quaint, cute, mysterious and ultimately annoying to so many people today. They don’t understand it, so they don’t value it, and thus marijuana dispensaries are “essential” and houses of worship are not.

Public interest. Here, we have an especially compelling point.

But even in a pandemic,the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty. Before allowing this to occur, we have a duty to conduct a serious examination of the need for such a drastic measure.

Decision, pp. 5-6

Justice Gorsuch issued a concurring opinion in which his tone was sharp and he appeared more than a bit … miffed. He proclaims:

At the same time, the Governor has chosen to impose no capacity restrictions on certain businesses he considers “essential.” And it turns out the businesses the Governor considers essential include hardware stores, acupuncturists, and liquor stores. Bicycle repair shops, certain signage companies, accountants, lawyers, and insurance agents are all essential too. So, at least according to the Governor, it may be unsafe to go to church, but it is always fine to pickup another bottle of wine, shop for a new bike, or spend the afternoon exploring your distal points and meridians. Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?

Gorsuch concurring opinion, p. 2.

A liquor store and a wine shop are not analogous to a worship service, but I take his point. It’s a shame Gorsuch wasn’t similarly outraged in Bostock v. Clayton County. He continues:

The only explanation for treating religious places differently seems to be a judgment that what happens there just isn’t as “essential” as what happens in secular spaces. Indeed, the Governor is remarkably frank about this: In his judgment laundry and liquor, travel and tools, are all “essential” while traditional religious exercises are not. That is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids.

Ibid. Emphasis added.

Seemingly on a roll, Gorsuch now scales the heights of righteous indignation and observes:

In recent months, certain other Governors have issued similar edicts. At the flick of a pen, they have asserted the right to privilege restaurants, marijuana dispensaries, and casinos over churches, mosques, and temples. In far too many places, for far too long, our first freedom has fallen on deaf ears.

Ibid, pp. 2-3.

We cannot defer to Governor’s executive orders indefinitely, Gorsuch argues.

Even if the Constitution has taken a holiday during this pandemic, it cannot become a sabbatical

Ibid, p. 3.

Justice Kavanaugh echoes his colleague:

In red and orange zones, houses of worship must adhere to numerical caps of 10 and 25 people, respectively, but those caps do not apply to some secular buildings in the same neighborhoods.In a red zone, for example, a church or synagogue must ad-here to a 10-person attendance cap, while a grocery store, pet store, or big-box store down the street does not face the same restriction. In an orange zone, the discrimination against religion is even starker: Essential businesses and many non-essential businesses are subject to no attendance caps at all.

Kavanaugh concurring opinion, p. 2.

However, Kavanaugh goes further and insists States must explain why houses of worship are “excluded from that favored class” of businesses which can operate with fewer restrictions:

The State argues that it has not impermissibly discriminated against religion because some secular businesses such as movie theaters must remain closed and are thus treated less favorably than houses of worship. But under this Court’s precedents, it does not suffice for a State to point out that, as compared to houses of worship, some secular businesses are subject to similarly severe or even more severe restrictions.

Ibid.

To my knowledge, this point has not yet come up in a meaningful way in a COVID-19 context. This flips the entire script from “may I please stay open?” to “prove to me why I can’t stay open!” as follows:

  • Wrong: You can’t just say, “gyms are closed completely, while churches can stay open subject to restrictions, so there is no discrimination.” This isn’t good enough.
  • Right: Instead, you must say, “I know Walmart is open and the parking lot is always packed to the gills, but churches can’t do that because … (insert reasoning here).”

Thus, Kavanaugh tightens the screws:

Rather, once a State creates a favored class of businesses, as New York has done in this case, the State must justify why houses of worship are excluded from that favored class. Here, therefore, the State must justify imposing a 10-person or 25-person limit on houses of worship but not on favored secular businesses

Ibid, p. 3.

COVID is certainly dangerous, Kavanaugh admits. But the great danger, he warns, is if the judiciary continues to defer to the State. This cannot be:

But judicial deference in an emergency or a crisis does not mean wholesale judicial abdication, especially when important questions of religious discrimination, racial discrimination, free speech, or the like are raised. In light of the devastating pandemic, I do not doubt the State’s authority to impose tailored restrictions—even very strict restrictions—on attendance at religious services and secular gatherings alike. But the New York restrictions on houses of worship are not tailored to the circumstances given the First Amendment interests at stake.

Ibid, p. 3.

However, Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan disagree. They wish to continue to defer.

Thus, according to experts, the risk of transmission is higher when people are in close contact with one another for prolonged periods of time, particularly indoors or in other enclosed spaces. The nature of the epidemic, the spikes, the uncertainties, and the need for quick action, taken together, mean that the State has countervailing arguments based upon health, safety, and administrative considerations that must be balanced against the applicants’ First Amendment challenges.

Breyer dissent, p. 4.

I suspect (but, of course, cannot prove) these Justices simply do not appreciate the importance of religious worship and are therefore incapable of adequately protecting it. I’m unmoved by stories about how Joe Biden (et al) have “deep Christian faith.” The Christian faith isn’t play-dough to be molded and appropriated by the owner. It’s objective. It has content. It has meaning. The ideologies of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris (and, for that matter, President Trump) largely do not comport with the Christian faith and message.

The dissenting justices continue:

We have previously recognized that courts must grant elected officials “broad” discretion when they “undertake to act in areas fraught with medical and scientific uncertainties.” That is because the “Constitution principally entrusts the safety and the health of the people to the politically accountable officials of the States.”

Breyer dissent, p. 5.

Sotomayor, in her own dissent, writes:

I see no justification for the Court’s change of heart, and I fear that granting applications such as the one filed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn (Diocese) will only exacerbate the Nation’s suffering

Sotomayor dissent, p. 1.

To her, the nature of religious activities make it more dangerous.

But JUSTICE GORSUCH does not even try to square his examples with the conditions medical experts tell us facilitate the spread of COVID–19: large groups of people gathering, speaking, and singing in close proximity indoors for extended periods of time

Ibid, p. 2.

Sotomayor epitomizes this deference to public health authorities. No sane person would deny these individuals have expertise. The dispute is over whether public health concerns can trump religious freedom, and if so for how long. Can, as Gorsuch quipped, the Constitution actually take a sabbatical? Sotomayor apparently believes it can:

Unlike religious services, which “have every one of th[ose] risk factors,” bike repair shops and liquor stores generally do not feature customers gathering inside to sing and speak together for an hour or more at a time. Id., at 7 (“Epidemiologists and physicians generally agree that religious services are among the riskiest activities”). Justices of this Court play a deadly game in second guessing the expert judgment of health officials about the environments in which a contagious virus, now infecting a million Americans each week, spreads most easily.

Sotomayor dissent, p. 3.

I wonder, then, why States do not issue edicts forbidding potlucks at Baptist churches because, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 655,381 Americans died from heart disease in 2018. One could marshal precisely the same public interest arguments for abolishing potlucks and communal meals at all houses of worship. Of course, that’s absurd. Why is COVID different, given the COVID death rate in 2020 (262,158) is only approximately 40% that of heart disease?

I can only see this continued judicial deference to the State as a sophisticated extension of the “stay safe at all costs” mindset that is so common, today. Sotomayor concludes thus:

Free religious exercise is one of our most treasured and jealously guarded constitutional rights. States may not discriminate against religious institutions, even when faced with a crisis as deadly as this one. But those principles are not at stake today. The Constitution does not forbid States from responding to public health crises through regulations that treat religious institutions equally or more favorably than comparable secular institutions, particularly when those regulations save lives

Sotomayor dissent, p. 5.

Predictably, Gov. Cuomo dismissed this injunction as a partisan political move by SCOTUS. However, the decision signals how the Court will likely rule on similar cases that come its way, and lower courts may well use these same arguments to rule in favor of houses of worship.

Legal experts said that despite the governor’s assertion that the decision was limited to parishes and other houses of worship in Brooklyn, the court’s ruling could be used to challenge and overturn other restrictions elsewhere. “The decision is applicable to people in similar situations,” said Norman Siegel, a constitutional lawyer and former leader of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “It’s applicable to any synagogue, any church, to any mosque, to any religious setting.”

Jesse McKinley and Liam Stack, “Cuomo Attacks Supreme Court’s Emboldened Majority Over Virus Ruling,” in New York Times (26 November 2020). Retrieved from https://nyti.ms/378Wmwp.

In its amicus brief to SCOTUS, the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission asked for clear guidance on how lower courts should weigh public interest and the free exercise of religion:

This Court’s guidance is needed, and, in its absence, the lower courts are left grasping for whatever they can find. Indeed, a search of Westlaw reveals that the concurring opinion in South Bay (declining to grant the requested injunction) has been cited 118 times in the past five-and-a-half months, leading to a hodge-podge of results across the United States and uncertainty as to what standard the lower courts should apply … It is time for the Court to weigh in and provide clear rules for lower courts struggling to resolve these questions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

ERLC amicus brief, p. 4. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/39gWDjp.

Well, SCOTUS did just that. Whatever else they may feel about his fitness for office, all people of faith owe President Trump a debt of gratitude for appointing Justice Barrett, a convictional and faithful Roman Catholic, to the Court. This decision is a wonderful victory for religious liberty, and I suspect 2021 will see many of these executive orders struck down State by State.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on …

Happy Thanksgiving.

Don’t be a turtle! Thoughts about Christians and the 2020 election

Don’t be a turtle! Thoughts about Christians and the 2020 election

As I write this, on Friday morning 06 November 2020, it appears as if Joe Biden will win the Presidency. For many Christians, this is discouraging news. He is an older man, weaker in mind and body than he used to be, and at risk of being manipulated by the more radical people in his entourage. In order to secure his party’s nomination, he was forced to agree to policy agendas at odds with the scripture’s teaching on some of the most basic issues of life; abortion, marriage, what it means to be male and female, and more.

And yet, if the electoral college votes continue to go his way, Joe Biden will be the 46th President of the United States. This didn’t happen by accident. God is not in heaven above, biting his fingernails, pulling for Georgia and Pennsylvania to finish their vote counts. God knows the vote counts. He determined them. The 1618 Belgic Confession of Faith explains scripture well when it says (Article 13):

his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner even when the devil and wicked men act unjustly.

The confession goes on:

And as to what he doth surpassing human understanding we will not curiously inquire into it further than our capacity will admit of; but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God which are hid from us, contenting ourselves that we are disciples of Christ.

If you’re demoralized and hopeless about the results of this election, know that God determined it. It’s His will. It doesn’t mean you have to like it, but you do have to accept it. Even Jesus told Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above,” (Jn 19:11). There’s a whole lot in that sentence. Pilate is only there because God wanted him there. Jesus knew that.

It’s the same with Barack Obama, Donald Trump … and perhaps Joe Biden.

So, how to react? Since at least the 1960s, evangelicals in America have often framed their engagement with the world as “cultural resistance.” This framing casts the Church as the brave underdog, manning the ramparts with spears, crossbows and swords, protecting the Bride of Christ against “the world.” It was an attitude of isolationism; of defensiveness. This is why, about a generation ago, so many churches hurriedly passed bylaw addendums that explicitly identified homosexual “marriage” as illegitimate, and declared that no same-sex “marriages” could occur in its facilities.

Mission accomplished? Not really.

It wasn’t about the Gospel. It wasn’t about engagement. It wasn’t about taking the message outside. The ethos was about resistance, about building higher walls to keep it all “out there,” to protect ourselves from “the liberals.”

As we consider a Joe Biden presidency and all the freight it’ll bring with it, the Church’s role is not to build higher walls or buy more guns. Christ doesn’t expect His Bride to hunker down and dig. He expects us to advance, to sally forth into this world with a message of rescue, reconciliation and hope.

The Church is a forward operating base in enemy territory. Our job isn’t to build a bunker and wait for the cavalry. It’s to advance, to march onward, to get outside the walls and advocate for Christ in this community. Think about these statements:

“We’ve got to take back our country!”vs.“Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life!”
“America has turned its back on God!”vs.“You’ll only find peace through Jesus Christ.”

The column on the left is framed from a perspective of cultural resistance, of defensiveness. It has no Gospel content. The column on the right is different. It’s the way the apostles preached. As we contemplate a Joe Biden presidency, the Church can’t retreat behind walls or use the same old tactics of cultural resistance. That isn’t evangelism; it’s isolationism.

Don’t give way to despair. Know God chose Joe Biden, and has a reason for doing it. Know He expects His Church to do its job and to advance onward with the Gospel. We can’t issue frightened cries from behind the castle walls. We can’t hide inside our shells like scared turtles. We have to go outside the fortress with the banner of the truth of the Gospel and tell people that old, old story. It isn’t about “taking back our country.” It’s about telling people about God’s country and God’s kingdom, so perhaps some of them might become citizens, too.