Tag Archives: Church

“America at the Crossroads” (a review)

This past Sunday Pastor Robert Jeffress, a prominent and controversial Southern Baptist pastor invited conservative political commentator Sean Hannity to speak at his church on Sunday morning, paired with his own sermon titled “America at the Crossroads.” Instead of reading commentary about the event, I first listened to both the sermon and the interview with Sean Hannity. Here’s my own take on the message:

The Sunday event was controversial before Jeffress or Hannity said a word. The whole setup was problematic to begin with. Hannity is a political commentator and Jeffress invited him to a worship service. Not only that, but Hannity is a partisan. He isn’t exactly known for his even-handedness. Now, I am not one of those who believe that pastors should never talk about politics (as I discussed in this post), but (1) I view the worship service as a sacred event, specially set aside for worship (and allegiance) to God, and (2) it’s not hard to see how the Hannity interview would distract from both that worship and the task of gospel proclamation.

I’m not sure which came first in the service, the interview or the sermon, but I listened to the sermon first so I’ll start there.

First let me say that there was nothing particularly theologically objectionable in “America at the Crossroads.” (I struggle to admit it but) Jeffress and I are probably really close in our interpretation of Scripture. Where we disagree, as we’ll see, is in our interpretation in what is wrong with America and how to fix it.

A Coming Implosion

Jeffress starts the sermon with the story of the demolition of their old church building (to make room for the new one). It started with a series of explosions around the base of the building, followed by a pause, and then the sudden implosion. America, Jeffress said, had already experienced the explosions and we are now merely living in the pause before the coming implosion.

What are those explosions? Jeffress pointed to three Supreme Court decisions, the first which took prayer out of the schools, the second which legalized abortion, and the third which legalized gay marriage. The first was one of a series of events which took Christianity out of the public sphere, the second sanctioned murder, and the third undermines the most foundational of institutions, marriage.

What are we to do? Is there any hope for America? Jeffress argues that the duty of Christians now is to be salt in the world. How can we be salt? We need to get out of the salt shaker and influence the political process. We need to vote for representatives who will reverse the direction our nation has taken. In doing so, we will love our neighbor by ensuring that civil government does its role of restraining evil and, in doing so, avoids the coming implosion.

Jeffress ends the sermon by saying that it’s also important to help people come to faith, to turn America around one person at a time.

The problem and the solution – good vs evil

Except for the bit at the end, Jeffress identified both the problem and the solution in America to be political. We’re where we’re at because of a series of political decisions. Therefore, the solution is also political, the election of leaders who will reverse those decisions and get our country back on track.

This allows Jeffress to frame the 2016 election as good vs evil (I’m not exaggerating here, he specifically said that if there was one thing you should take out of the message it was that elections are a battle between good and evil.) On the one side you had Trump who opposed abortion. On the other side you had Clinton, who supported it in all its forms. Through this lens Trump is the force for good and Clinton the force for evil. The choice was clear.

Has Jeffress rightly identified the problem?

But what if the problems we face aren’t primarily political? I’ve become convinced that our problems are deeper than mere politics, but that they spring up from a long-secularizing culture. (For a recent account of this cultural decline see the first couple chapters of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option). Furthermore, the church should have acted in a counter-cultural “salty” way but, instead, has itself faced the same secularizing cultural creep as the rest of the nation. We’ve become both a nation and a church of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deists”, embracing a shallow faith. We’ve wrapped up many cultural narratives in religious garb and called it Christianity. Our political condition is, in part, a function of that cultural decline and the failure of the church to remain faithful to the full gospel.

If the problems are more broadly cultural, both outside and inside the church, then the solution won’t be political, at least it won’t be primarily political. Like Jeffress, I agree that the solution will be for the church to be “salt” in the world, but I interpret that salt with a different emphasis. To be the salt the church will need to recapture the primacy of the gospel, it will need to reignited with a fire for evangelism, it will need to re-evaluate the way it has been influenced by cultural narratives that are opposed to the way of Christ.

My perspective on 2016 and beyond.

This was the primary lens by which I viewed the 2016 election. Through this lens I saw the election not between good and evil, but between evil in different forms. Trump had the right position on abortion, but it was still hard for me to view him as pro-life in any sort of broad sense. Instead, his words and actions demonstrated again and again that he was a fool, in the biblical sense, and thus unfit for authority, especially this highest position of authority. I saw broad evangelical support for Trump as a step backwards both for the culture and for the faithfulness of the church. By aligning ourselves with such a troubled man, I worried that we (as the church) were both damaging our witness and compromising our moral standards.

I don’t write this to take another shot at Trump, but to show how drastically different Jeffress and I understand both the problem and the solution. For Jeffress the political problem required a political solution, i.e., Trump. For me, both Trump and Clinton were symptoms of the cultural/church problem and the solution was to disentangle ourselves from the whole mess, either by opting out or selecting a different candidate altogether. This is, of course, my interpretation, and a minority one at that. My conscience is clear, but so are the consciences of others who, like Jeffress, saw the world differently (Or, who had the same concerns I did but still felt an obligation to oppose Clinton’s extreme abortion position by voting for Trump.) I’m not here to judge, but to lend my voice to the community as a whole.

Be the Salt.

Pastor Jeffress says we should be the salt of the earth. I agree. But that includes a lot more than political engagement. It means, first, obedience to Christ and with it, love for neighbor. It means inner transformation. It means gospel distinctiveness. It means participation within the local church. Political engagement plays a role, but we need to be wary of overplaying that one task. I’m not against talking about political issues from the pulpit. Christ is Lord over all and it’s the task of Christians to see how the Lordship of Christ affects all areas of life. But we can never let politics eclipse the rest. It must always be seen within and under the broader context of discipleship. My fear is that a sermon like “America at the Crossroads” will give the wrong impression, even if it’s not what Jeffress intends, that discipleship means fighting the liberals and retaking political power and that a successful church is one that mobilizes voters towards that end.

What’s wrong with the Hannity interview

If you want some good analysis on the interview, I recommend to you this article by Rod Dreher. Dreher says it better than I but basically Hannity says that he rejects the Roman Catholic view of the Papal Authority because he believes that the authority Jesus was describing to Peter came from God speaking directly into Peter’s heart. Hannity goes on to say that he sees this personal/private revelation as God speaking to our consciences. Hannity himself tries to listen to this voice, which he equates to the voice of the Holy Spirit, to guide his spiritual life. It might be possible to read this as nothing more than “the Holy Spirit convicts me of sin” but given that he tied it to Peter’s authority it sounds a lot more like he’s saying “my conscience is the basis for spiritual authority in my life.” That’s not the Christian teaching on the matter – Protestant or Catholic. The conscience matters, but it’s not authoritative. Of course, Dreher admits, Hannity’s is the default position of many Christians in our country. Jeffress leaves Hannity’s statement uncorrected.

Conclusion

I share many of the same concerns of Jeffress. I’m worried that our nation is in moral decline and that the church is unprepared for the future. But, I’m also worried that continuing to entangle ourselves in partisan politics is a step in the wrong direction. We need to engage politically as one way to love our neighbors, but we need to be cautious. We need to keep the main things the main things: worship of God, faithfulness to Christ, and proclamation of the gospel.

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Book Review: The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher

The “benedict option” has been an influential idea in certain sectors of Christian culture for a while now, even before Rod Dreher made it into a book. So, despite my interest in how Christianity relates to the broader world and culture, it’s a little surprising that I only now got around to it.

For those unfamiliar, the basic concept behind The Benedict Option is that America culture is becoming less Christian. Additionally, some Christian beliefs, especially regarding marriage and sexuality, are becoming especially unpopular. The question for Dreher is this: How do we respond to this trend? How can Christians be faithful to Christ in an increasingly post-Christian country?

Dreher does not give a prescription for “getting back” to the old days when Christianity dominated the culture or the political landscape. He sees the election of Donald Trump, while possibly staying the tide of more formal animosity, as ultimately a symptom of bigger cultural problems. His answers are not political, at least not in the American political sense.

Instead, Dreher’s emphasis is on forming thick communities of faith which will be able to withstand the strong winds of secular culture. This means that the church will need to get back to a more faithful version of itself, to escape the hold of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and be the church.

Dreher begins with a history lesson: Where are we and how did we get here? He paints a bleak picture of a culture increasingly post-Christian and a church increasingly influenced by secularism. The time to act is now, if we can have eyes to see and the will to act.

He then moves onto the solution, starting with the St. Benedict. Benedict is the hero of this story because, as civilization was crumbling around him, he formed a community of monks who continued both the preservation of the faith and the fruits of Western civilization. The monks, and monastic life, are featured prominently in this book. Our homes, Dreher says, can become miniature monasteries with all the practices therein: order, prayer, work, and asceticism, hospitality, and balance. The rest of the book is an expansion on this theme.

Three chapters stood out to me: “Education and Christian Formation”, “Eros and the New Christian Counterculture”, and “Man and the Machine.” Each chapter, for a certain audience, is bound to be provocative.

In “Education and Christian Formation” he argues Christians should enroll their kids in Christian schools, specifically Classical Christian Schools, or to homeschool their kids while participating with some kind of Classical Christian school partnership. He arrives at this conclusion, first, because he sees education as central to Christian formation and central to the formation of the communities he envisions. He looks to minority religious Jews in this regard. Second, he notes that right after parents, peers are the most influential group in a young person’s life. Add onto that the fact that many American schools are overtly secular and Dreher arrives at the following provocative conclusion: “The rationale [that we have to keep our kids in public schools to be a witness] begins to sound like a rationalization. It brings to mind a father who tosses his child into a whitewater river in hopes that she’ll save another drowning child” (157). So, why Classical Christian schools? Classical education approaches education from a different perspective. It focuses not on just adding a Bible class, but on integrating all disciplines of education under Christ himself (plus it has an emphasis on Western civilization, which Dreher is a fan of).

In “Eros and the New Christian Counterculture” Dreher talks about how Christian communities can respond to the sexual revolution. First, he says we shouldn’t compromise just to try to “keep” the younger generation in church. Those who are accepting the secular view of sex aren’t becoming part of liberal churches, they are leaving church altogether. Second, we need to affirm a positive and wholistic view of sexuality. Third, we need to support unmarried people. Fourth, we need to fight pornography with everything we have.

Finally, “Man and the Machine” addresses the Christian community’s response to technology. Dreher, of course, notes the negative uses of technology – such as rampant pornography among younger and younger teenagers. But he goes further and addresses the technological mindset, the mindset that judges everything by whether we can do something rather than whether we should do it. To that end he argues that technology is not morally neutral, but has the power to reinforce a scattered and impulsive life. How should we respond: Go on regular digital fasts, work with your hands, take the smartphones away from your kids.

Dreher concludes with two images of floods. In one, Christian communities are little arks, weathering the storm of a crumbling culture. In the other, the flood waters are redemptive, sweeping away the old so that when the waters recede new life can spring up. He concludes with this more positive image of the church, retaining its life and saltiness so that it can once again bring life to the world.

Review

Agree or disagree with some of Dreher’s points above, his book is worth a read and his arguments are worth considering. I agree that one of our primary strategies during this time is the formation of Christian communities, to refocus our attention and energies on faithfully being the church. I’m not sure I share as bleak a picture of the world as Dreher, but time will yet tell who is right.

I also think this book is worth balancing with another book which covers a similar set of topics: This is our Time by Trevin Wax. The thesis of Wax’s book is that we should get to know our cultures deepest desires and then show how those desires are fulfilled only in Christ. Take technology: We’re drawn to social media because we want to be known and liked. But social media only disappoints. We show ourselves, but only versions of ourselves. We are liked, but only superficially. But God knows us fully and loves us fully. Our desires – given expression in our use of technology – are only fulfilled in Christ. Wax, then, sees the same sorts of problems that Dreher does, though his book offers a more outward focused way of dealing with them.

That’s not to say these two books are mutually exclusive. Both have important things to say. There is a worthwhile balancing effect. Also, The Benedict Option is not insular. He does give a nod to the importance of hospitality and of welcoming others into the community. His emphasis, though, is primarily on preservation.

All in all, this is an important book. I hope you’ll read it and consider its arguments.
Book Recommendations
The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation

This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel

What is required for reconciliation?

Two Sundays ago my message on Ephesians 2:11-22 was about how Christ breaks down the walls of hostility between us and God, and between us and other people – seen most clearly in the unification of Jews and Gentiles in the Church – but with broader implications.

Our world is marked by hostility and hatred, by pride and division, and by false ideologies. The past couple of weeks have made that once again blatantly obvious. My Facebook feed has erupted with “hot takes,” and while I’m sure I could add a few of my own (regarding racism, the alt-right, violence in general, the danger of unhealthy backlash, etc.), and that they would have some value, I don’t think there’s anything I haven’t said before.

Instead, I want to look at the pre-requisites for reconciliation – for breaking down the “walls of hostility” in our world – in any and all circumstances. Here’s an uncomprehensive list:

Truth: I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read recently that I agreed with in spirit but which undermined their cause (and mine) by communicating in a misleading way. So much commentary that I read today plays fast and loose with the facts, overstates things, and leaves out important details. Rhetoric gets more “likes” than truth, but it only garners applause from those who already agree. If we’re going to commit ourselves to being peacemakers then we need to commit ourselves to speaking the truth, even when that truth doesn’t fit our narrative.

Seeking truth also means calling out sin. Reconciliation can’t happen until sin is exposed. Without that, reconciliation will be superficial.

Love: Our truth-seeking and truth-speaking should be done with love. Love means that we truly desire the best for others and then take action to secure that good. It’s not so hard to love people like us. Jesus calls us to love even our enemies. And reconciliation is only needed when there are enemies involved.

Crossing boundaries: The sort of love needed for reconciliation, then, is not just brotherly love, but love across boundaries. Reconciliation won’t occur when people remain within their bubbles. If we only listen to and interact with people like us, we’ll feel justified in our opinions, but will only contribute to a more divided world. We need fewer people screaming at each other (though, there’s a place for public, peaceful, passionate advocacy) and more people who build bridges.

Humility: Pride is the enemy of bridge building. Pride is the mother of division. The second I place myself above my neighbor we are divided. I’m not arguing that everyone is the same, or that all sins are morally equivalent (President Trump’s morally equivalency argument was as sloppy as it was dangerous). But, we must admit that fundamentally we stand at the same level. If we can humble ourselves, we can begin to seek reconciliation. Until then, we’ll only seek to win.

Confession: The child of humility is confession. I confess my failure to speak the truth on many occasions. I confess my silence when I should have spoken, and my speech when I should have remained silent. I confess that I talk more about love than I act on it. I confess that I have failed to cross boundaries and find plenty of comfort remaining in my own insular community. I confess that even as I write this I am struggling with pride.

If we are to speak the truth about sin, we better speak the truth about our own sin. Speaking the truth about your own sin is called confession. And almost all of us have something to confess.

Justice: But sometimes it’s more black and white. Sometimes there’s the oppressor and the oppressed. In that case, we need more than love, humility, and confession, we need justice. Wrongs cannot be overlooked, they need to be set right. To the extent that there are injustices, those injustices cannot be left to continue, but should be exposed (truth) and dismantled (justice). Continuing injustice will only create more occasions for division and hatred. Again, peacemaking without justice leads to superficial reconciliation.

Mercy: And yet, a level of mercy is required. Why? First, because we all sin. If we fail to show mercy to others, we shouldn’t expect it to come back to us when we need it most. Second, because in our quest for justice we often overstep our bounds into the realm of vengeance. We need an attitude of mercy to temper the devils within us that make the backlash worse than the original offense. We’re tempted to return a slap with a punch. Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek. We’re tempted to return injustice with further injustice. Jesus tells us to go the second mile.

Jesus and Reconciliation:

All these ideas come together in Jesus. Jesus not only spoke the truth. He is the truth. He called out sin like no other, and his death on the cross exposes just how evil mankind can be. Yet Jesus loved the world so much so that he died for the world. He didn’t just tell us to love his enemies, he died for us while we were his enemies. His love crossed boundaries – the greatest boundary of all, that of Creator to created. His ministry crossed boundaries – between Jew and Samaritan, between men and women, between the “clean” and the “unclean.” He was humble, even though he didn’t need to be. He was God incarnate, yet washed his disciples’ feet. His death enabled both justice and mercy to be met in a single event. In it God could be just – since sin was atoned for – and he could show mercy by justifying many – since the penalty of their sin was removed.

The only one that doesn’t apply is confession. He had no sin to confess, yet took on the sins of the world. Yet his love leads us to confession since it shows us just how far we fall short.

The Church and Reconciliation:

And we fall so short. The church is the reconciled community. As followers of Jesus we are well positioned to lead the way in truth, love, boundary-crossing, humility, confession, justice, and mercy. But too often we (I) take a back seat. I wish I could make this last paragraph more positive. I’m not sure I can.

I would be nearly hopeless, if it weren’t for a few facts: 1) The Church has always been flawed, yet we are redeemed, and God continually works in his people for renewal. He’s doing a work now, even if unseen. 2) God’s Word is true. He has given us a task, and will be faithful to complete that task in us. 3) Our hope extends beyond this world and this age. It is this future which pulls us forward. We pray together: Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. God is faithful to answer that prayer. And we must be faithful to His call to be a reconciled community which proclaims and demonstrates his reconciliation before the watching world.

13 Trust Building Behaviors – Applied to Church Life

In my secular job I am part of a “Trust Team.” Our job is to identify behaviors which increase and decrease trust within the department – and then take steps to reduce the former and encourage the latter. Part of the exercise of this group has been to read through The Speed of Trust by Stephen R. Covey. Covey identifies 13 Behaviors which, when consistently done, increase trust in an organization or any social unit. In this post, I will attempt to see how these behaviors apply to church life, particularly to church leadership. The best I can do is sketch them out. I would be interested in your own experiences and insights in the comments below, or on Facebook.

#1 Talk Straight: “Tell the truth and leave the right impression” and balance it all with tact. Like many of the behaviors on the list, there’s a direct correlation to Scripture here: Speak the truth in love. This one easily applies to every personal interaction. Don’t be a jerk, but usually there’s no reason to beat around the bush. We build trust when we consistently talk straight. We undermine it when we code our words and force people to read between the lines.

#2 Demonstrate Respect: In other words, apply the Golden Rule. Christians have an additional theological basis for this. All people are created in the image of God. And, all believers have been equipped to build up the church. We respect others because of who they are, who they are in Christ, and because they have been gifted by God.

#3 Create Transparency: In regards to our finances– our books are open. In regards to our child protection policy – never a secret. If you want to know something that is going on at church, we’ll be as open as we can be.

#4 Right Wrongs: This means acknowledging failures, apologizing for them, and then making it right. There’s a powerful story told in our church. In the past – well before I arrived – the church was marred by conflict, particularly directed at a string of pastors with very short tenures. Then there was a season of healing wherein the remaining church members sought to make things right with those pastors with whom they had had conflict. This humility laid a foundation for greater love and unity.

#5 Show Loyalty: Covey gives two examples of showing loyalty: 1) Give credit to others whenever you can. 2) Speak about others as if they were present. This reminds me of the biblical model of conflict resolution in the church. In the case of conflict, go directly to the person with whom you have conflict. To smear them behind their back undermines trust not only with that person, but also with the person you’re smearing them to.

#6 Deliver Results: The first five behaviors focused on character – the foundation of trust – but Covey also argues the capabilities are necessary for there to be trust. The best way to prove that you have the capabilities to be trusted is to deliver results, to do what you say you are going to do, to accomplish your goal. It’s possible to be too results driven, but sometimes we forget that results still matter. We have a task to do and we should aim to be effective at that task.

#7 Get Better: I would submit that there’s a certain level of “godly discontent” that comes with leadership, even church leadership. Those who serve in the church should strive to hone their skills and their character. And the church as a whole can consistently ask the question – how can we better love God and our neighbors? It’s OK to acknowledge a gap between where you are and where you want to be.

#8 Confront Reality: Sometimes realities are hard to confront, but we need to do it. As a preacher, this means acknowledging head on hard passages of Scripture. Other times it may mean acknowledging difficult budgets or systemic sin. Christianity has all the tools necessary to handle the most difficult of realities. Jesus conquered sin and death!

#9 Clarify Expectations: I see a failure to clarify expectations consistently lead to failures in my engineering job, but this one applies to church work, too. It’s especially important when working with volunteers. Let them know what is expected of them, don’t leave them guessing. The same clarity is needed when constructing a shared vision, or giving applications in a sermon.

#10 Practice Accountability: Accountability is an important part of discipleship. Some people even have “accountability partners” or “accountability groups.” In regards to building trust, Covey stresses we need to hold ourselves and others accountable to poor results. We need to take responsibility for our actions, and hold people accountable for theirs.

#11 Listen First: Stephen Covey (the author’s father) is famous for saying – “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” In relationships, being understood is essential for trust, it’s also essential for giving good counsel (in church life, giving spiritual counsel). Failure to listen – either by not asking questions, or asking only to reply – will undermine trust.

#12 Keep Commitments: Covey refers to this as the “Big Kahuna” of all the trust behaviors. I agree. Failure to keep commitment undermines trust and consistently keeping them builds trust. We need to be careful about what commitments we make, and then stick to them. As an aside, this applies to more than just leaders. If you want your leadership to trust you as a member, keep your commitments in the small things and watch how you get opportunities for the bigger things. If you consistently fail to keep commitments, don’t be surprised when more opportunities don’t come your way.

#13 Extend Trust: Extending trust to others – when it is wise to do – is a good way to build trust. Trust those who are in charge of the ministries you’re not in charge of are doing their best. To some degree, this is founded on the same principles as “demonstrate respect.”

A low trust church will be ineffective for the gospel, it will be too marred by internal conflict, or too busy managing the costs of the low trust environment. A high trust church will be freed up to work on the tasks at hand. Lord, help us pursue relationships based on trust, and foster that trust for your glory!

Book Recommendation
The SPEED of TRUST: The One Thing That Changes Everything

Connecting the dots between service and spiritual growth

The focus in 1 Corinthians 12-14 (and the focus of tomorrow’s sermon) is the spiritual growth – the “edification” – of the congregation; not necessarily the spiritual growth of the individual. But it’s worth asking, how does using your spiritual gifts contribute to your own spiritual growth? Here are a few answers:

Understanding that all gifts have a source in God (12:4-6) – and not in ourselves – enables us to have the sort of humility necessary to kill our pride and follow God. That truth also enables us to respond in worship and gratitude, the hallmarks of Christian obedience.

By using our gifts for the purpose for which they are intended – the common good (12:7) – in a community where others are doing the same, we can be built up far more than we ever could be on our own. The sorts of gifts described here are not lost when they are used, but are multiplied. You are able to benefit not only from the gifts God has given you, but from the gifts God has given others.

By seeing that every gift has a role to play, and that the diversity within the body is essential to its proper working, we can move from the immature mindset of dependence, and the arrogant mindset of complete independence, to the mature mindset of interdependence. This mindset is essential because it corresponds both with the world in which we actually live, and the community in which God intends us to live. We can only truly recognize this reality when we actively participate by using our gifts.

Most importantly, though, the use of gifts to serve other people is how we put action to the command to love God and love our neighbor. Following Jesus in this way is the best way to grow into spiritual maturity and become more like Christ.

Communion service, November 8

communion

On Tuesday, November 8, at 8:00 pm, our church will be holding a special communion service. The purpose of this election day communion service is not to compete with the task of selecting our government leaders, but to put it in perspective.

Communion is an essential Christian practice which should be performed regularly. It is typically celebrated as part of a Sunday worship service. For our church, the meaning is the same in whatever context it is performed. It is a God-ordained way of memorializing and proclaiming the death of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. It is an occasion for confession and reconciliation. It is an opportunity to thank God for the body of Jesus which was broken and the blood that was spilled for us. But we have placed this communion service on this particular day and this particular time for a purpose – so that we can re-orient our hearts toward the eternal and re-prioritize our lives around the gospel, the good news of Jesus.

In a sense, there is a “confession of the election” and a “confession of the gospel.” By “confession” here I mean a statement of beliefs. In other words, when we think about an election we tend to hold to certain beliefs. Those beliefs are not always in line with the gospel. Sometimes they stand in opposition to it. Sometimes they simply need to be relativized in relation to it. Sometimes it is possible to hold both beliefs in tension. Sometimes the gospel undermines our false beliefs. One of the goals of the communion service is to proclaim the “confession of the gospel.” In the context of this particular day and time, this will necessarily be contrasted with the “confession of the election.” Allow me to elaborate:

The confession of the gospel is that we all must approach the cross with humility, confessing our sins, and our sins alone.  The confession of the election allows us to believe that ours is the side of righteousness and to look down on our political adversaries. Communion breaks down our pride and self-righteousness.

The confession of the gospel is that we as believers are fundamentally united in Jesus, through his reconciling work. The confession of the election allows us to believe that we fundamentally divided by political parties. Communion reminds us of our essential unity around the table.

The confession of the gospel is that Jesus conquered our greatest enemies of sin and death through his sacrifice on the cross. The confession of the election leads us to believe that victory can only be one through earthly power. Communion reminds us that the greatest victory ever performed was won through love and self-sacrifice.

The confession of the gospel is that God is sovereign and that it was through the sovereignty of God that Jesus died for our sins. The worst that man could ever do – killing the author of life – turned out to be the exact way in which God would atone for the sins of his enemies and bring about his perfect will. The confession of the election is that our futures depend on the will of man and that man stands in that decisive place, either for good or for evil. Communion reminds us that God is sovereign and that he will bring about ultimate good, no matter what path it takes to get there.

The confession of the gospel is that after Jesus’ death and humiliation he was raised and glorified. God raised Jesus up and place him the position of ultimate authority. There is one who reigns over the entire earth and to whom all other authorities are subject. The confession of the election is that authority rests in the government. Communion reminds us that Jesus is still the one with ultimate authority.

The confession of the gospel is that Jesus’ death instituted a new era in salvation history, allowing for a new relationship between God and his people. If we can speak of a time on which history turns that time was two-thousand years ago. It was the days of Jesus’ death and his resurrection. The confession of the election is that election day is the most important day in history. The narratives of the political activists frame November 8th as the day on which history turns. Communion reminds us that history has already turned and it turns along the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.

Finally, the confession of the gospel is that Jesus is coming again. We celebrate communion in anticipation of that future wedding banquet of the resurrection. We proclaim the Lord’s death, until he comes. The confession of the election is that – unless the people act in a particular way – all is lost. Communion reminds us that because God has already acted, all is already won. 

We invite you to join us.

Globalism/Nationalism, Church/Nation

Flags_of_the_World

One of the more interesting aspects of this election is the political and theological debate around questions of “nationalism” and “globalism.” Both of these words are used almost entirely in their derogatory sense and are put up as bogey men, as concepts of which we should be afraid – and when used in that sense we should. Most of the arguments I have seen are also simplistic and underdeveloped. Here’s my attempt to bring a little nuance (read: boredom) to the discussion.

First we need to “come to terms”. I’m going to use “nationalism” in a broad and non-derogatory sense, as “the desire for national achievement.” It goes without saying (though I’m saying it anyway) that I am against a “nationalism” which causes us to place nation above love of God or love of neighbor. I’m also going to use “globalism” in the same sort of broad sense, as “a concern for the entire world”, and not in the sense that global interests should always outweigh national or local interests. I’m going to parse each of these out more below but I wanted to state up front how I’m using the terms so that you don’t just write me off as an idolater.

Second, we need to clarify that we are going to be speaking about the interests and the roles of the nation as distinct from the interests and the roles of the Church (=universal Church, not institutional church). The two group’s interests and roles cannot be completely divorced from each other but they aren’t the same either. Speaking of “nationalism” in terms of the nation means something very different from “nationalism” in terms of the church. Confusing the two, and the roles of the two, will get us into lots of trouble. I will address each separately:

In regards to the nation

A government’s primary responsibility is to its own people and so, in that sense, I want my government to put “America first.” But that “America first” message is not without limits. While it is not required to treat non-citizens as citizens, it must still act justly towards them and treat them as people (and in the Christian sense, those who bear the image of the living God). This means that it still bears some – though more limited – responsibility to individuals of other nations. It seems to me that these obligations would include advocating for basic human rights such as the freedoms of life and religious expression and taking appropriate action when those basic freedoms are threatened, as in the case of genocide.

“Nation first” can be good call as long as it doesn’t mean “nation only” and as long as it is constrained by virtue. What was so frightening about Nazi Germany was that it was a nationalism that was unconstrained by virtue. It made the advancement of the nation the greatest good, at the expense of justice for all.

There are dangers on the side of “globalism” as well. Many fear the consolidation of power in global institutions and this fear is not entirely unfounded. While there is some good which global organizations can bring the tendency will always be for more and more centralization of power. Since power can be used for evil just as easily as it can be used for good (maybe more easily?) I want the power of these global institutions to be limited, specifically limited by the sovereignty of the individual nation. I don’t want my nation to give up its national sovereignty for the same reason that I don’t want national power to be centralized in Washington but distributed to States, counties, and cities, and that’s because I want a government which will not overstep its bounds.

Another issue that has come up is the economy. Here I find myself in a minority. I agree with the many economists who argue that access to markets is one of the most important ingredients to a strong economy. Therefore, I want my country to embrace a global economy and the trade deals that go along with that economy. I see open markets as a way of fostering peace and building global wealth, things which would be good both for the country (America first) and for the world, particularly the global poor. I am of the perspective that open markets (when constrained by virtue and justice) are one of the greatest tools for loving our neighbors.

Family Metaphor

Perhaps one of the best ways to understand this is to think about family dynamics. The responsibility of the father and mother is to take care of their family first. In most cases the bulk of their time, energy, and income will go to providing for the basic physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the family. A father or mother who spent an inordinate amount of time away from their family, or gave away income essential for the care of the family would be guilty of dereliction of duty. Also, parents shouldn’t abdicate their responsibility to some higher level organization – like a church, or a school, or the government.

But that doesn’t mean that parents should only concern themselves with their own family or their own children. Instead, they should lead their family in service towards others, give out of an abundance of resources and love out of an abundance of love. A family does not exist only for itself, but as an essential part of the broader society. A family with this outward focus actually helps itself, since in serving and caring for others outside of our circle we fulfill one of our reasons for existence.

I think this principle can be applied to governments as well. Governments have a primary responsibility to their own citizens, but they also exist within a global framework and need to engage that broader world responsibly and justly.

In Regards to the Church

The Church, as in those who have put their faith in Jesus for salvation, is transnational. It is cross-cultural. It is multi-lingual. It is made up of people from every nation, tongue, tribe, and people. This characteristic is central to its very identity. Because of this fact there will always be a tension between the “globalist” inclinations of the church and the “nationalistic” inclinations of the nation. This tension is healthy, and it shouldn’t be resolved either by the church separating itself entirely from – or wedding itself to – the life of the nation.

I am currently reading the Eric Metaxis Bonhoeffer biography and noticed that (one of the) most significant heresies of the German Christians (and opposed by Bonhoeffer and others) was that it embraced the idea of a “national church.” It willingly submitted itself to the authority of the State and to the nationalist interests of the State at a time when it should have been resisting. The problem in Germany wasn’t only that it contained an unconstrained nationalism, but that the German Christians embraced such a close relationship with that government.

That said, the church does not exist independently of other institutions, but is historically and nationally located. Christians have a dual citizenship. We are both heavenly and earthly citizens. As heavenly citizens we have responsibilities towards all within the church, wherever they are located which, on some occasions, would supersede our responsibilities to the State. For instance, Bonhoeffer recognized that he had responsibilities to Jewish Christians who the Reich barred from leadership in the German church. As heavenly citizens we also have the mission of evangelizing the nations, of showing love through both word and deed to those outside the faith wherever they may be found.

As earthly citizens we recognize the context in which God has placed us and that, too, confers responsibilities and duties. We are responsible towards our families. We are responsible towards our local church, our city, our state, our nation, and the rulers and authorities of that nation. In participating in politics we merely ask that the government do its God given task of being the government. In so doing we serve both the nation in which we live and the God who has placed us in that nation. It is appropriate for Christians to have a sense of patriotism so long as that patriotism is understood in terms of gratitude to God and responsibility and so long as patriotism does not lead to idolatry characterized by either misplaced trust or misplaced fear.

So where does this leave us in term of nationalism/globalism? Here are a few concluding thoughts.

First, there will always be some tension between the nationalistic goals of the nation and the more global mission of the church. We need to live within that tension, understanding our dual citizenship.

Second, our task is to love our neighbors, local and global. One way we love our neighbors is by asking the government to perform its role as government, which can rightly pursue the success of the nation so long as it does not inflict injustice on those in other nations.

Third, we can remember that we are part of the global kingdom of Christ and yet participate in very local and concrete settings. We can begin by serving those directly within our sphere of responsibility, while never forgetting that God has called the global church to a global mission.