Monthly Archives: April 2012
In a short yet poignant column in the Washington Post Robert J. Samuelson questions the typical assumption that the problem with Congress is that it is too beholden to money. Instead, he suggests, its problem is that it is too beholden to the masses, including the poor, but especially the middle class. Politicians are crippled by their fear of us, the voters.
Despite the antics of academics, media, and leftie pastors like Jim Wallis, and despite the complaints of Occupy Wall Street, the poor have not done so poorly in recent decades:
Recently, Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, testified before the House Budget Committee on the growth of the 10-largest “means tested” federal programs that serve people who qualify by various definitions of poverty. Here’s what Haskins reported: From 1980 to 2011, annual spending on these programs grew from $126 billion to $626 billion (all figures in inflation-adjusted “2011 dollars”); dividing this by the number of people below the government poverty line, spending went from $4,300 per poor person in 1980 to $13,000 in 2011. In 1962, spending per person in poverty was $516.
Of course, it must quickly be said that care for the poor is not the problem:
And programs for the poor pale beside middle-class transfers. The giants here are Social Security at $725 billion in 2011 and Medicare at $560 billion. Combine all this spending — programs for the poor, Social Security and Medicare — and the total is nearly $2.1 trillion. That was about 60 percent of 2011 non-interest federal spending of $3.4 trillion.
So the problem is not the rich and it is not the poor. It is not class warfare at all. The problem is you, the middle class, the vast majority of Americans. The media doesn’t talk about this because the media knows who are the audience on which it depends, and most in the media are themselves middle class. Still not convinced? After seeing how much the poor and the middle class receive, note how much the wealthy pay:
It’s true that their lobbyists and lawyers sometimes win lucrative tax breaks, subsidies or regulatory preferences. But as the spending numbers show, their influence is exaggerated, especially considering their tax burden. The richest fifth of Americans pay nearly 70 percent of federal taxes (included in this group, the richest 10 percent pay 55 percent), estimates the CBO.
One often hears liberals complain about how the poor are forgotten and marginalized, and one hears conservatives complain just as often about how the government over-taxes us and “steals” our own hard-earned money. But it is far too easy to pin the guilt on some nefarious villain. The real problem with American democracy, as Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Alexis de Tocqueville all warned, is the people’s inability to govern themselves:
More promises were made than can be kept without raising taxes, which — for the most part — were also subject to bipartisan promises against increases. Almost everyone agrees that massive budget deficits pose a long-term economic threat, though no can be precise about how or when the threat might emerge. A central question about our political system is whether, after decades of making more promises to more groups, it can withdraw some promises to minimize the threat.
So far, the answer is “no.” Political leaders don’t lead. They take the path of least resistance, which has been to do little except to find scapegoats — “the rich,” “special interests,” “liberals,” “conservatives” — that arouse their supporters’ angriest antagonisms. It helps explain polarization. This is really what Washington does. It’s a demoralizing commentary on the state of American democracy.
Were the philosophers right? Can people not govern themselves? Is America simply a shooting star, bright for a few centuries, then collapsing amid the inevitable tendencies of human nature?
As Christians I do think it is possible for us to believe in the ability of human beings who were created in the image of God to take dominion over the Creation to govern themselves. At the same time, this is sheer utopia if not accompanied by an understanding of the way in which human depravity renders that God-given ability so fragile. That’s why we have government in the first place. But if we are to continue our national experiment in using government to channel human beings’ God-given call to self-government, we need to recover perspective on what is so threatening to our common good. Samuelson’s article, I believe, sets us down that road.
Arguments are constantly being thrown around in the “worship wars.” Some are far better quality than others. Those that tend to be more helpful, regardless of what position they take, are those that get to the foundational issues: what is the nature of Scriptural authority over our worship, how should we apply it, how is Scripture’s authority at stake in our current debates? Those that are less helpful are those that appeal largely to some standard not generally accepted (such as historical tradition, or contemporary popularity and effectiveness), or those that fail to address the foundational issues.
The Aquila Report has posted an article on worship written by John Payne, a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America, where these debates are particularly poignant and where a lot is currently at stake. In many ways I appreciate Payne’s argument. I would probably share his views on almost every practical question at stake, and most of what I am about to say is consistent with one of Payne’s basic complaints:
Isn’t it true that in many cases the reading and preaching of Scripture, the careful administration of the sacraments and substantial seasons of prayer have been crowded out by lengthy announcements, personal testimonies, and extended segments of music and praise?
However, I am concerned that Payne provides insufficient attention to the real “crisis” underlying the worship wars in the PCA, and that is the nature of Scriptural authority regarding worship. In short, there is a lack of consensus within the PCA on the nature of biblical authority in worship. The result is that traditionalists appeal to tradition and progressives appeal to contemporary effectiveness and there is no basis of common ground for any sort of agreement.
Let me try to illustrate my argument briefly. I will be sure to return to various aspects of it in future posts, to flesh it out more fully.
It is commonly noted that the fundamental Reformed contribution to the doctrine of worship, represented by figures such as John Calvin, was the argument that our worship is to be regulated entirely by Scripture. This is generally viewed as meaning that we must find warrant for everything we want to do, somewhere in the Bible (i.e., see John Frame’s influential book). But in fact, Calvin’s (and most of the Reformed tradition’s) point was much more specific than that. Calvin (like the church fathers) believed our worship is to be regulated by the New Testament. We are not to look at the Old Testament’s temple worship, illustrated in the historical books and in the psalms, for worship ideas for the new covenant church. Our authority for the new covenant church is the New Testament. In our worship we are to commit ourselves to practicing what the Lord commands, and nothing else.
In reality, many today who think they are Reformed in their views of worship really hold views that in the 16th and 17th Centuries would have been viewed as Lutheran or Anglican. It is not that the Lutherans and Anglicans said we can do whatever we want in worship, as is commonly thought. It is simply that they had a less strict understanding of what sort of Scriptural warrant was necessary, appealing freely to the Old Testament or to biblical principles of edification. In contrast, the Reformed usually threw out the instruments of the medieval church and limited their singing to psalms and other Scriptural texts.
Why does the difference matter? So many aspects of worship under such heated dispute today – musical instruments, choirs, liturgical dancing, etc. – are entirely based on Old Testament texts. They are not even mentioned in the New Testament. What does that suggest? These matters are entirely irrelevant to New Testament worship. They are not commanded by God. They are part of the Old Testament ceremonial law that has been abrogated by Christ.
What we should really be focusing on is those things highlighted in the New Testament as the focus of the early church: preaching, the sacraments, fellowship (including of material possessions), and prayer, according to the classic list in Acts 2:42. Note how little singing is spoken of in New Testament discussions of worship. It is clearly commanded (Colossians 3:16-17; Ephesians 5:18-21), but it does not make the list of basic things the church was doing. Singing seems to have been a means of doing other things; it was not its own element.
In fact, singing (and music generally) is a classic example of how by losing the focus of Scripture our worship debates have gotten entirely off track. We argue over what music instruments to use and how they should be played, even though the significance of instruments is entirely a function of the Old Testament. Instruments don’t matter. We argue over what kinds of songs to sing, failing to make use of Paul’s clear guidance that the content of our songs should be the Word of Christ (Scripture!) and that they should serve as a means of teaching and encouragement. We dominate our services with singing, forcing pastors to keep their sermons down to 20 minutes (a week!), and to keep their prayers short. We hold the Lord’s Supper once a month at best, even though unlike singing the Lord’s Supper is a basic element of worship.
What should Reformed worship be all about? We should gather each week to hear the preaching of the Word, to pray to our God, to break bread, and to fellowship together in song and in the sharing of our possessions. Nothing else really matters. Just like the medieval church, with which the reformers broke, we can fill our worship with all kinds of things based on human wisdom. Instruments, images, art, architecture, vestments, candles, on and on. These things are merely distractions to the real drama of worship as outlined in the New Testament. Returning to that standard would go a long way in restoring our worship to Scriptural integrity.
Sunday is the day that Christians around the world gather for worship and fellowship in remembrance of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. For me, Sunday is a day in which my ordinary work stops and I don’t bother reading much of the news. As a result, blogging on Sundays will be a little bit different.
Each Sunday morning (with few exceptions, I hope) I will write a brief comment on the Gospel. These comments will vary in scope and content, at times dealing with the Gospel itself, at times the relation of the Gospel to some part of the Church’s life and witness. But their broader purpose will be keep reminding myself, and my readers, of what should always be front and center in our thoughts and actions.
There is a very good reason for this. Inevitably as I write about various controversies, delve into politics or evaluate events, the Gospel itself can recede from view, even if my whole purpose is to think about these matters in its light. No doubt those of you who graciously yet faithfully read my blog will disagree with me from time to time, sometimes strongly. I will be wrong sometimes, though obviously I will never try to be. Stepping back once a week and looking at the big picture will help remind us why we listen to each other, and why we need to keep humility. We are all the sinners, saved by Christ, seeking to do our best to reflect and act on what that means in our lives.
Today, the first Sunday in the history of this blog, Christian in America, I simply want to step back and remember the history and the calling that has made us Christians in America in the first place. The word Gospel means good news, and in our minds we should think of it as just that: an almost “too good to be true” report about real events that have changed the course of history. We find our identity in those events, and thus we think of ourselves first and foremost as Christians. Our highest loyalty is to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and our most basic calling is to testify in our lives and words to who he is, what he has done, and what it means for the world. This we do whether we tell others about the Gospel or whether we seek to promote our neighbors welfare in our common secular affairs.
What is the basic Gospel? It is that in love God sent his own son into this world as a human being. Though he was the final king in the dynasty of David, he came not in triumph and judgment on Israel’s enemies, but in mercy and compassion. As a result of God’s love, Jesus died to pay the price of sin, not only for our sins, but for the sins of the whole world. God then raised him in proof that despite his seeming defeat Jesus had won the victory. All that Jesus said about the kingdom of God, and all the love that he demonstrated in his life, is the future of the world, and of humanity. Those who place their faith in him, and therefore find their identity in him, become a part of that future. Those who do not will face their king when he returns to judge the world with perfect justice, holding everyone accountable for what they have done. For human beings struggling in a world of injustice, disease, disappointment, and death, it is good news indeed to know that such struggles are not our destiny. For human beings destined to face the judgment of a just God, it is good news to know that we can be forgiven.
In all that I write on this blog I try to reflect this reality. Jesus is the future of the world. The purpose of the Church is to lead men, women, and children to turn from injustice and to find their salvation in him. Whether by proclaiming the Gospel in our worship and church life, or by promoting the immediate welfare of our neighbors and communities in this life, we witness to the good that God has in store for his world.
Although they tend to be much more conservative than American or European Christians, African Christians face difficulties of a much more terrifying sort.
In Nigeria, the Islamist terrorist organization Boko Haram has been escalating its violence in recent months. Violence between Muslims and Christians has been a regular occurrence over the past few years, and things don’t seem to be getting any better. Christianity Today reports:
Church leaders in Nigeria are sharply divided over how to react to a surge in violent attacks against Christians and churches in the country’s Muslim-majority north.
Hundreds of Christians have been killed and churches burnt in regular attacks launched this year by Fulani herdsmen in Jos and members of the Boko Haram terrorist sect in Kaduna, Borno, and Niger states….
The steady attacks have thrown the Christian community into opposing camps. While some continue to advocate for calm and prayer, others are now urging Christians to defend themselves.
Things are difficult in Nigeria, but in Sudan, which like Nigeria is divided between a Muslim north (now Sudan) and a Christian south (now South Sudan), they may be on the brink of disaster.
The problem is not simply a religious divide, although that clearly plays a role. As in Nigeria, oil is at the heart of the matter. The Economist states:
Over the past nine months the two Sudanese successor states were supposed to find a way to divide up such things as oil revenues, border posts and the rights of people living on one side of the border who wish to be citizens on the other. Both sides made outsized demands and engaged in extreme brinkmanship. New sparks flew when the south announced plans to build a pipeline to the Indian Ocean, through Kenya to the south-east, which would cut the north out of most of the oil trade. Militias, often proxies of the old rump state or the new southern one, attacked each other.
In Nigeria the problem is partially a corrupt government that is unable and unwilling to privatize oil production and turn its benefits towards sustainable growth. In Sudan foolish government actions are also behind the conflict.
On balance, the north has been more obstructive than the south. For years it has repeatedly acted in bad faith, loth even to contemplate independence for the south. But more recently it is the south that has been reckless, sending its troops to capture the Heglig oilfield, which lies clearly to the north of the border. This has turned niggling animosity into a conventional battle for territory. The north recaptured its lost land on April 20th, killing hundreds in the process and bombing a market near the southern town of Bentiu on April 23rd.
If this doesn’t highlight the great blessing that is good, just government, nothing does. As Americans we should not complain; we have it quite good indeed.
What is particularly worrisome is that like other recent African wars, this one could easily spread. Given that my brother is about to fly his family to Uganda to serve as a missionary, this is concerning:
As well as causing untold misery in the Sudans, an all-out conflict could suck in other countries. Uganda’s government has threatened to help South Sudan against the north, which it suspects of funding a Ugandan terror group, the Lord’s Resistance Army. Other governments in the region are keenly aware that the Sudans sit on a fault-line between Muslims and Christians that cuts from east to west across the continent, reaching volatile Nigeria and beyond.
Groups like the BarnabasAid are following events closely, noting that an Islamist mob recently torched a church and a Bible school in the northern capital of Khartoum. The United States, China, and other countries have an interest in maintaining peace, but events in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and elsewhere suggest there is only so much the international community can do. It is clear that our brothers and sisters desperately need our prayers.
Whether intentionally or not, the Aquila Report is again following a bit of a theme. Two of the world’s major denominations are facing tensions in which a significant factor is the increasing divergence between conservative African Christians and liberal white American Christians. The United Methodist Church is a broad tent indeed, but it appears as if the conservative faction is growing, both due to the non-American contingent and to growth in the Bible Belt. The Religion News Service describes the dynamic:
The homosexuality debate dates to 1972, when a phrase calling homosexual activity “incompatible with Christian teaching” was added to the Book of Discipline, which contains the denomination’s laws and doctrines. The UMC also bans noncelibate gay clergy and same-sex marriage.
The UMC’s long and painful membership decline in the U.S. looms over the debate, as church leaders search for ways to reverse the decades-long drop.
Gay rights activists argue that the UMC must become more inclusive to attract young Americans who view the sexuality prohibitions as hypocritical. Conservatives counter that only churches that hold fast to traditional doctrines are growing.
There is no question that the conservatives are right on this point. While it is true that young Americans in general are increasingly accepting of homosexuality, that is not the case for young Evangelical Americans, as two scholars from Baylor University recently demonstrated in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Furthermore, whether due to the compelling power of standing for something or due to the tendency of conservatives to have more children, conservative denominations have moved well past the liberal Mainline denominations in numbers in the past few decades. Even at a place like Emory University, in my experience, far more young Christians are willing to self-identify as Evangelicals than as liberals.
In addition to the Methodists, there is a move within the Anglican tradition to reduce the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury and increase the authority of the broader church, especially as it is found in Africa. The Telegraph writes:
A coalition of bishops and leaders from Africa, the Americas and Australasia said it was time for a “radical shift” in how the church is structured away from models of the “British Empire”.
They criticised what they called “revisionist attempts” to abandon basic doctrines on issues such as homosexuality and “turn Christianity merely into a movement for social betterment” during Dr Williams’s tenure….
The meeting of leaders of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans comes amid growing warnings of a split over issues such as homosexuality.
It is the first such meeting since 2008 when more than 200 bishops boycotted the official Lambeth Conference in protest at the presence of bishops from the US Episcopal Church, which had consecrated the first openly gay Anglican bishop.
As the article points out of the 77 million members of the worldwide Anglican Communion, 36 million are found in Kenya and Nigeria alone. Clearly the global face of Anglicanism, like that of Methodism, is changing. We should no longer associate those labels with Mainline liberalism.
It is not just Africans who tend to be more conservative than white American Christians. Although white Evangelicals do not often realize it due to the partisan political divide, studies show that black American Christians tend to be more orthodox in their basic theology than do their white counterparts. Blacks played a crucial role in California’s passing of Proposition 8, establishing traditional marriage, a few years ago, and black Protestants were some of the strongest opponents of same-sex marriage in Maryland.
Indeed, exciting things are happening in the black evangelical community. Just a few weeks ago in Atlanta more than 1,000 young men gathered for a conference on biblical manhood to listen to the likes of Reformed preacher Tony Carter, as Christianity Today notes.
I have often heard white Christians (particularly older ones) bemoan how “things are getting bad these days – we must be in the end times.” There are certainly cultural trends to be disappointed about, but often that sentiment reflects a white West-centered perspective on what is really going on in the world. In so many ways and in so many places, orthodox Christianity is thriving, and liberal Christianity is withering on the vine.
Many Evangelicals are not very familiar with Catholic social teaching, though they do tend to like conservative Catholic leaders like Republican Congressman Paul Ryan. It is worth paying attention to what makes Catholic conservatives like Ryan tick, as well as to what brings them criticism from left-leaning Catholics.
Ryan describes the way in which Catholic theology shaped his budget plan here. Particularly noteworthy is his appeal to two very important principles of Catholic social thought, generally endorsed by both conservatives and liberals.
On the principle of subsidiarity:
Ryan said that the principle of subsidiarity — a notion, rooted in Catholic social teaching, that decisions are best made at most local level available — guided his thinking on budget planning.
“To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society … where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good,” Ryan said.
And on the preferential option for the poor:
The Wisconsin Republican said that he also drew on Catholic teachings regarding concern for the poor, and his interpretation of how that translated into government policy.
“[T]he preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenets of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life, help people get out of poverty out onto life of independence,” said Ryan.
As the article says, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, has praised Ryan for his attention to Catholic teaching. On the other hand, Joe Knippenberg points out the top bishop in the USCCB committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development disagrees.
This debate within the Catholic tradition is an old one, involving Catholic theology and politics at the highest level. It is one that Evangelicals would do well to pay attention to, both because there is tremendous Christian wisdom in the Catholic social teachings that have been articulated over the years and because the struggle of the Catholic Church to resist politicization and polarization in terms of right and left is illustrative of the challenges to being Christian in America. I will certainly return to these matters in future posts.
When a leading spokesman of the largest denomination criticizes the way in which prominent African American leaders have handled the Trayvon Martin shooting. When students complain that the largest college has invited a Mormon candidate for president to speak on its campus. When the pastor of the largest church draws more than 40,000 people to hear him speak largely because he packages a positive message without talking about sin or the Gospel.
Gospel believing churches, pastors, and individual Christians have to work so hard to get their simple message about Jesus Christ to the world. The mainstream media will not do it for us. Far too often we spend our time and energy focusing on the miniscule issues that divide our sub-traditions or on transforming America socially and politically rather than on proclaiming that message and witnessing to its power in our lives together. I hope (though I am not entirely optimistic), that most people can see the real drama through the clutter.
One of the reasons why it is worthwhile to pay attention to history is because we discover people who think in ways entirely counter-intuitive to us. It serves as a reminder that our assumptions are not obvious, and that our most basic claims need to be justified.
In the early years of the Reformation there was a debate about the relation between the Christian justified by faith and the law of the Old Testament. Christians offered different paradigms to make sense of that relationship, and Martin Luther himself said that while the Christian is not bound to the Mosaic Law, the Ten Commandments should nevertheless be preached in the churches and taught to children in order to teach people their guilt and lead them to Christ. This alarmed some who saw the preaching of the law as works-righteousness.
The Decalog belongs in the courthouse, not in the pulpit. All those who are occupied with Moses are bound to got o the devil. To the gallows with Moses!
It is hard to imagine a claim that grates more harshly on the typical assumptions of Americans (both Christian and otherwise) regarding the relationship between church, state, and the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments do not belong in the church!? They are fundamentally political?! In contrast to such claims, in our time it is (some of) the Evangelicals who want to keep the Ten Commandments in the courthouse, and (some of) the secular elites arguing that they should be kept out.
Agricola’s claim hardly represents the mainstream Reformation, of course. But it does point to the fact that many leading reformers viewed the Ten Commandments as integral to government and law (as they were, and have been, in the western tradition), and yet as needing careful theological qualification in the way in which they were preached in the churches. Christians were not viewed, strictly speaking, as being under the law, although it served to guide them in terms of how to obey God, given that all Scripture is profitable for correction and instruction (2 Timothy 3:16). On the other hand, one of the primary purposes of the law was to restrain those not led by the Gospel to act justly. This was the law’s civil use.
What would the Reformers think about American law and the American courts? Would they see the wisdom grounded in experience of separating church and state? I think the Reformers were wrong to assume that government should enforce all of the Ten Commandments (particularly the first four), although I do not think the Reformed tradition has always faced up to why, theologically, they were wrong. On the other hand, it seems to me that commandments 5-9 (protecting life, marriage, property, legal testimony, and the authority of parents over children) deserve greater recognition in our legal system. At the very least, it is worth remembering that whatever may be the flaws of John Agricola’s claim regarding the place of the law in the church, the Ten Commandments have been foundational to the western legal tradition. One need not confuse church and state to recognize this fact, and to fear the danger of abandoning them wholesale.
There is controversy in Germany about a campaign by a fundamentalist Islamic group to distribute the Koran freely to the public. Apparently 300,000 Korans have been distributed already. Politicians and media are publicly condemning the campaign. The issue, they say, is not the distribution of religious literature; the Gideons distribute 2,000 Bibles a day. The problem is that the group distributing the Korans is a fundamentalist group known for its hateful rhetoric. The Economist states:
There is nothing wrong with distributing religious texts, said Günter Krings, a Christian Democrat member of the Bundestag, but this “aggressive action” disturbs religious peace. Salafism would replace the “sovereignty of the people” with a theocratic state, declared North Rhine-Westphalia’s interior minister, Ralf Jäger.
This is quite interesting. Five hundred years ago in the same country – during the Reformation – many political leaders and theologians justified religious persecution on just these grounds of preserving peace and order. Such argumentation was particularly effective relative to the Anabaptists, who were associated, sometimes fairly, more often not, with the Peasants Revolt of the mid 1520s. The Anabaptists were also criticized for wanting to establish a theocratic state, in that case based on the Mosaic Law. Their suppression was almost always in the name of peace and order. The welfare of the commonwealth demanded the suppression of dangerous teaching. Thousands were killed on the basis of this argument.
Of course, the government is not persecuting the Salafis in Germany today; times have indeed changed quite a bit. But this is all a reminder that the issues of the 16th Century, of church and state, religious liberty, and the relation between religion and peace and order, are still very much with us. No one now, and no one in the 16th Century, believed that government could regulate the conscience, or one’s private beliefs. That is a caricature of arguments for religious persecution, a caricature that made it easy for people like John Locke to reject such arguments. In reality, religion has always been persecuted in the name of peace and order. What is at stake is the right of people to practice their religion publicly and institutionally.
Both in Germany and in America religious liberty and its meaning is hotly debated today. Knowing our tragic history on this point will help us to remember why this matters so much.