Monthly Archives: July 2012

Gospel-centered Christian Obedience: Recovering the Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount was the most significant sermon Jesus preached. Recorded at length in Matthew 5-7, its teachings are echoed and summarized extensively throughout Luke’s gospel, as well as in the rest of the New Testament. According to some scholars, the Sermon on the Mount was the most cited text of Scripture in the first few centuries of the Christian church.

And yet, it did not take long for the Sermon on the Mount to fall on hard times. As Christians rose to positions of responsibility in the military and government of the Roman Empire, they struggled to see how Christ’s ethical instruction could practically be carried out. Turn the other cheek in the face of those murdering your families and communities? No society can function this way. Abstain from all anger or lust? A beautiful ideal, but ultimately impossible. Store up treasures in heaven and not on earth by selling your possessions and giving them to the poor? Surely this is only an ideal possible for those who are particularly dedicated to the kingdom of God.

In the Middle Ages the church came to view significant parts of the Sermon on the Mount as spiritual counsels or ethical ideals that were binding only on the clergy and those who committed themselves to monasteries. For people who actually lived in the world, however, the commandments were significantly relaxed. During the Reformation the Protestant reformers attacked Rome for teaching that the Sermon on the Mount was not binding on all Christians, but even some Protestants tended to view the Sermon as embodying ethical ideals that Christians could never attain to in practice. Some argued that it pertains to Christians as individuals but not to communities. Others suggested that it is particularly concerned with our attitudes, not our actions.

One of the results of this confusion regarding the Sermon on the Mount was that Christians have tended to emphasize the Ten Commandments as the central text of Christian ethics. After all, if Jesus is simply echoing Moses, and if what Jesus said is so hard, why not go back to the (better and clearer?) source? The Law can be a comforting solution for Christians bewildered by the radical nature of the good news of the kingdom.

In their fascinating Christian ethics text book Kingdom Ethics Glen Stassen and David Gushee seek to restore the Sermon on the Mount to its place of centrality in Christian ethics. I haven’t yet read the whole book, and of what I have read, there are certain aspects that are troubling. Stassen and Gushee exalt the gospels above the rest of the New Testament in a way that is problematic if we are to receive the apostles as the ambassadors of Christ, I think, and at times the way in which they address certain ethical issues seems weak, too influenced by contemporary cultural trends.

That said, I have learned a tremendous amount from this book, and what I have learned starts from its assessment of a basic problem in Christian ethics, as well as its approach to addressing that problem. Stassen and Gushee write,

Here is the problem. Christian churches across the theological and confessional spectrum, and Christian ethics as an academic discipline that serves the churches, are often guilty of evading Jesus, the cornerstone and center of the Christian faith. Specifically, the teachings and practices of Jesus – especially the largest block of his teachings, the Sermon on the Mount – are routinely ignored or misinterpreted in the preaching and teaching ministry of the churches and in Christian scholarship in ethics. This evasion of the concrete teachings of Jesus has seriously malformed Christian moral practices, moral beliefs and moral witness. Jesus taught that the test of our discipleship is whether we act on his teachings, whether we ‘put into practice’ his words. This is what it means to ‘buil[d our] house on the rock’ (Mt 7:24).

What is at stake here? Nothing less than the question of who is in fact the Lord of the church. “When Jesus’ way of discipleship is thinned down, marginalized or avoided, then churches and Christians lose their antibodies against infection by secular ideologies that manipulate Christians into serving the purposes of some other lord.”

Their purpose in the book, and their consistent emphasis, is therefore on the teachings and practices of Jesus. And their goal is to “recover the Sermon on the Mount for Christian ethics.”

Jesus taught that as his disciples obey him and practice what he taught and lived, they participate in the reign of God that Jesus inaugurated during his earthly ministry and that will reach its climax when he comes again. So we are attempting to write an introduction to Christian ethics that focuses unremittingly on Jesus Christ, the inaugurator of the kingdom of God.

Focus on the teachings and example of Jesus? Emphasizing the Sermon on the Mount with its gospel of the kingdom? An intriguing idea. Who’d have thought this might be the way forward for Christians seeking to follow their Lord.

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Is it really antinomian to ground our standards of modesty in the Gospel?

I have to admit, I had no idea when I wrote my recent post warning against legalism in our standards and judgments regarding women’s modesty that it would be read by so many people, nor that it would be interpreted as a scandalous defense of relativism at best, immodesty at worst. Some people thought I was arguing against an article in which a woman explained why she liked wearing skirts most of the time. Another person thought I was saying that women should be free to show their breasts. A few people were worried that I didn’t suggest my own concrete standards for modesty, presumably to be imposed upon others, as if my wife and I do not think carefully through the principles that will guide what my wife will wear.

I have clearly touched a nerve here, and I am grateful for the very many of you who indicated your appreciation for my defense of Christian liberty. Christian liberty is absolutely essential to the gospel. Is it really the case that one cannot raise warnings about legalism, and seek to point people to the importance of focusing on the gospel, on the heart, and on the virtues and practices that flow from a sanctified heart, without being considered an antinomian? Perhaps it is the case. Jesus was widely judged to be an antinomian, a friend of prostitutes and drunkards. As Paul reported in Romans 3:8, he was charged by some with saying, why not do evil that good may come? And Paul called this “slander.”

Certainly the fullest response to my post appeared today by Rebecca VanDoodewaard on The Christian Pundit. And yet, like so many others, VanDoodewaard seems to assume that because I was criticizing legalism that means I was defending antinomianism. The reality is, I agree wholeheartedly with her basic argument, which seems to be summarized in the following paragraph:

There are some biblical standards for Christian women, and each family and couple must have their own dress code in order to help daughters, wives, and yes, sons and husbands, to walk in a manner worthy of their calling, open to the local church’s teaching and leading on this issue. That is not legalism. And though Scripture does indeed place the burden of not lusting on men, that does not give us ladies leave to bare what we want.

Yes, I agree with this, and I thought I made that quite clear in my article. But the purpose of my post was not to construct standards and principles and rules for modesty. The point was to warn against legalism. And here it is important to make a clarification about how I am using the term legalism because clearly people are using that term in different ways. VanDoodewaard defines legalism as “the belief that we can merit favor with God by our own actions.” That is certainly one form of legalism, but that is not the only form. Legalism also happens when, out of our concern to protect genuine righteousness, we take our own human rules and laws, which we have necessarily worked out as guides for our own life, and we judge others on the basis of them, turning the commandments of men into the law of God. This was a fundamental part of the error of the Pharisees, and it is a basic denial of the Christian liberty that we are given by nothing less than the gospel itself. Note, I am not saying that devising standards of dress is legalistic. I am not even saying that devising strict standards of dress is legalistic. I am simply saying that assuming that your standards are God’s standards – unless they are actually revealed to us in Scripture – and therefore imposing them upon others self-righteously is legalistic.

VanDoodewaard seems to agree with this (though she does not understand that this is what I am arguing), because in much of her article she seeks to articulate some basic standards from Scripture. So what does she prove? She shows that according to Scripture women should not display parts of the body Scripture associates with sexuality, including their breasts. On the other hand, she points out that we have no right to judge one another in terms of other parts of the body, because beyond these basic biblical principles Christian wisdom is required.

So if you feel that showing your knees is immodest, you are free to cover them, but if your conscience is not bound in this area, then you are free to wear clothes that do not hide your knees. We can’t make rules for each other where Scripture is silent, but are free to follow our own consciences.

But if you are paying close attention, is it not clear at this point that VanDoodewaard has established very little about the contemporary discussions over modesty in her appeal to this basic biblical standard? All she has proven conclusively is that women should never appear in public wearing any less than a modest two-piece swimsuit or bikini. Everything else, she seems to be arguing, is in the realm of Christian wisdom, though we should err on the side of caution. And I strongly doubt that there is any serious Christian who would disagree with her basic position here. I certainly would not. And I would hope that Christian women would generally wear far more than seems to be demanded by this basic biblical standard. But the fact is, the “more” that they should wear, according to the biblical standard of decency and moderation, is not outlined for us in Scripture, it is to a significant extent influenced by our culturally influenced minds (including what does or does not provoke us sexually), and it is therefore an area in which we should be very careful  not to judge one another.

For all of her rhetoric in criticizing my article, VanDoodewaard’s position is not really different from mine. For that reason, I wish she would have written her article with a little bit more charity, paying a little bit more attention to what I was actually saying, rather than portraying it in the worst possible light. She points out that I noted the problem that one can always be stricter than the next person, but she entirely ignores the fact that I said that there is a problem on the other side as well. To quote myself, I wrote, “On the other hand, once one opens the door to Christian wisdom and liberty, where do you stop? In some cultures women freely show their breasts, even in church. Even in Victorian England it was suitable to show significant cleavage but not your ankles.”

For some reason VanDoodewaard suggests that I was presenting these examples as “a viable cultural option.” She writes, “referencing the Victorians to prove that showing some breast is a culturally relevant option is an untenable argument.” Of course, as a quick gland at my article will demonstrate, I was not arguing that Victorian modesty is a culturally relevant option. I was citing the Victorians as an example of why people are tempted to turn to legalism as a way to avoid the seeming relativism of Christian wisdom. In my view the Victorian view of modesty is no more of a valid option today than are Muslim burqas.

But the way of escaping the polar options of legalism and antinomianism is not to focus on rules, nor is it legalistically to impose our own rules on others. It is to focus on what both Scripture and the gospel focus on, the heart. It is to recognize that the gospel takes the human heart, lustily focused on its own selfish desires and idolatry, and reorients it by the power of the Holy Spirit to concentrate on demonstrating love for others. It leads men to stop viewing women as objects for their own satisfaction, blaming them for their own problems of lust, and it leads women to dress in a way that highlights the beauty God has given them without provoking the sexual desire of others. It leads both men and women to devote their lives to compassion, encouragement, and the practice of forgiveness, while refraining from judging others in areas in which God has given them liberty.

Van Doodewaard offers up the following excellent conclusion:

We must be careful to dress in a way that does not inflame lust in the men who will see us, both out of love for them and because we are caring for our bodies as temples of the Spirit. But we do not have to dress is a way that prevents the most lecherous man around from lusting – someone determined to lust regardless of clothing is not our responsibility.

This is precisely what I argued in my own conclusion:

Again, the point is not that women should wear whatever they want without thought to modesty, or that they should dress provocatively. The point is that we should be very careful not to make arbitrary external rules our obsession, rather than the heart and the actions that stem from it, and that we should be careful not to fall into the trap of implicitly viewing women and their bodies as evils that are to be avoided or hidden. As a virtue of the gospel, modesty calls us to sanctify our hearts even as we celebrate that what God has made, including women created in his image, is very good.

Do Christian people really disagree with this?

What’s Wrong with the “Biblical Patriarchy” movement?

While I’m at it, Rachel Miller has another great post on her blog (an older one), again dealing with a reactionary stance gaining traction among Christians as a result of feminism and cultural decay. Here she shows that what passes among some conservative Christians as a defense of biblical gender roles is just as influenced by cultural trends (in this case older, more traditionalist ones) as is egalitarianism. What I particularly like is her demonstration that authoritarianism is not Christian headship, and that the suggestion that women are intellectually or mentally inferior (and so need to be directed) is contrary to the equality that men and women hold in Christ. As Miller illustrates her point,

The question was raised by a young husband and father: should a husband tell his wife how to vote? I was floored by the question, not so much by the topic itself, but by the underlying assumptions. A wife is assumed to need direction in how to vote. She’s assumed to be rebellious in her choices. She’s assumed to have inferior abilities. Her husband is assumed to have an authority that includes directing her even in this matter.

My thought was that if a wife is voting for a morally bad candidate and can’t be trusted to make a wise and godly choice, there are much bigger problems in the marriage than whether or not her husband has the right to dictate her voting choices.

According to my understanding of Complementarianism, a husband and wife will discuss and make decisions together. A husband will appreciate the insight his wife can give him, and a wife will appreciate the insight her husband can give her. This is the Biblical picture of help-meets.

A wife is called to submit to her husband as the church is to Christ, but it is equally important to emphasize that a husband is called to serve and lay down his life for his wife as did Christ for the church. The gentiles lord it over one another, but the Christian model of leadership is service. You should go and read Miller’s whole post.

How to keep our hearts pure: the power of the gospel

There has been a lot of discussion this week – on this blog and elsewhere – about women’s modesty, about what is appropriate for women to wear and what is not appropriate for women to wear. One thing is quite clear. Jesus warns Christian men against looking at a woman with lustful intent, and he tells them to do whatever it takes to ensure that their eyes and their hands are not causing them to sin. At the same time, he reminds his followers that sexual immorality and covetousness come from the heart, and they cannot be put to death even by destroying every external stimulus in our lives. We could gouge out our eyes and cut off our limbs and we would still be lust-driven creatures.

Unless, of course, we are transformed by the power of God according to the image of Christ. In Colossians 3 Paul gives us a sense of how it is that we can “put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” By holding fast to Christ we “put off the old self with its practices” and we “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”

What does this mean in daily life? It means devoting ourselves to Christ by holding fast to him and to his word in worship. It means loving one another as Christ loved us, so putting the welfare of others before our own selfish desires. In short, it means devoting ourselves to practices that enable us to “put on then … compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

This should be our focus. What we wear is important, but it is only important insofar as it reflects our hearts and our desire to love one another as Christ loved us. If we put do indeed hold fast to Christ, ensuring that whatever we do “in word or deed” is in love for one another, we begin to learn what it means to please God. If this is our mindset, we can be quite confident that modesty and purity of heart will certainly follow.

Does President Obama stand in the tradition of the Puritans?

There are a number of people in this country, most of them conservatives of various stripes, who think that the key ideals and commitments that make President Barack Obama tick are foreign both to this country and to the Christian religion. A very small number of these people – it must be said – are suspicious because of the president’s racial identity. Some of them also think Obama is really a foreigner – that he was not really born in the United States. But many of them think that regardless of the president’s race or place of birth, he is guided by European or even third world socialism, and that he has never entirely escaped the Islamic heritage of his father.

In a recent post at Via Meadia, Walter Russell Mead points out how misguided are these judgments of our president. Obama, he argues, is far more a product of liberal New England, with its Puritan past, than he is of anything foreign:

He was educated at the Hawaiian equivalent of a New England prep school, and spent his formative years in the Ivies. He has much more in common with Harvard-educated technocrats like McGeorge Bundy than with African freedom fighters and third world socialists of the 1970s.

President Obama’s vision of a strong central government leading the people along the paths of truth and righteousness has “New England” stamped all over it. Puritan Boston believed in a powerful government whose duty was to promote moral behavior and punish the immoral; by 1800 many of the Puritan descendants were turning Unitarian and modernist, but while they lost their love of Christian doctrine they never abandoned their faith in the Godly Commonwealth and the duty of the virtuous to make the rest of the world behave. The New England mind has been open to insights and ideas that come from the third world ever since Henry David Thoreau and his fellow Transcendentalists read the Hindu scriptures in translation, but Obama is no more of a Muslim or an African socialist than Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Hindu.

One of the reasons this comment resonated with me is that I had just been reading from the introduction to the great Puritan Richard Baxter’s A Holy Commonwealth. Baxter was a leading Puritan supporter of the Cromwell regime in mid-17th Century England, and he was one of those who believed that under Cromwell England could be turned into a genuine theocracy, a holy commonwealth. In the introduction to his book William Lamont writes,

Baxter, reared on English Protestant reverence for a magistrate-led Reformation, was not blind to its defects. Coleridge, steeped in Baxter’s thought, offered his own ‘National Church’ in 1829, which was based not on what the Reformation was but on what it should have been. That ‘should have been’ was the theme of Edward VI’s ‘Commonwealth’ preachers: social justice, new schools and universities, a Welfare State, hospitals, ministerial discipline over Church members; the programme in fact that Baxter outlined to similarly minded correspondents throughout the 1650s. (Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. xvi.)

This transformational heritage of Puritanism and even of the Reformation also appears in Martin Bucer’s De Regno Christi (The Kingdom of Christ), a book that was written and dedicated to Edward VI a century before Baxter wrote his book.

The point is not that the Puritans were wrong to seek to transform society according to standards of justice (I don’t think they were), nor is it that Baxter was misguided in thinking that the English  nation could be turned into a mirror image of the godly English church (though I think he was). The point is that the government-centered, religiously motivated approach to transforming society that President Obama recognizes has far more precedent in America’s Puritan and Protestant past than most conservatives would like to admit. Liberalism, after all, is also a product of the western world.

None of this means that it is good, or that Obama’s vision for America is the right one. But it does mean that we should be honest about our own history and about the president’s fidelity to core ideals and commitments of that legacy. It doesn’t do anyone any good to pretend that certain people or ideals have no right to be part of the discussion, or even part of the country. It doesn’t advance our cause when we haughtily assume that we alone bear on our shoulders the legacy of the past.

Is women’s modesty the new legalism among Christians?

Contemporary America is one of the most sexualized cultures in the history of the world. Sex is everywhere, no matter how hard you try to avoid it, and the objectification of women in virtually every form of media is a commonplace. In this context, it is easy to see why many Christians react by placing tremendous stress on women’s modesty, not only in principle, but in terms of a system of rules and practices designed to cover and obscure the skin and curves of a woman’s body. In certain conservative circles the rhetorical and moral condemnation of those women who do not conform to the strict (and sometimes arbitrary) standards of others is quite intense. In many ways it is analogous to the fundamentalist approach that Christians took toward alcohol in the early twentieth century. The cultural problems caused by drunkedness and strong liquor were tragic and required a response, but the response of many Christians was more legalistic than realistic, more about control than about the gospel.

Of course, the problem with an issue like modesty is that one can always take a stricter, more modest position than the next person. Person A says women should always wear skirts, never pants. Person B says women’s skirts should always extend below the knees. Person C says women should never show their ankles or hair. Person D says why not just put on a burqa? Men don’t lust after women in burqas (or do they?). On the other hand, once one opens the door to Christian wisdom and liberty, where do you stop? In some cultures women freely show their breasts, even in church. Even in Victorian England it was suitable to show significant cleavage but not your ankles.

In his classic Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis writes,

The Christian rule of chastity must not be confused with the social rule of ‘modesty’ (in one sense of that word); i.e., propriety, or decency. The social rule of propriety lays down how much of the human body should be displayed and what subjects can be referred to, and in what words, according to the customs of a given social circle. Thus, while the rule of chastity is the same for all Christians at all times, the rule of propriety changes. A girl in the Pacific islands wearing hardly any clothes and a Victorian lady completely covered in clothes might both be equally ‘modest,’ proper, or decent, according to the standards of their own societies: and both, for all we could tell by their dress, might be equally chaste (or unchaste)…. When people break the rule of propriety current in their own time and place, if they do so in order to excite lust in themselves or others, then they are offending against chastity. But if they break it through ignorance or carelessness they are guilty only of bad manners. When, as so often happens, they break it defiantly in order to shock or embarrass others, they are not necessarily being unchaste, but they are being uncharitable. (83-84)

Often lost in all of this is that when the New Testament talks about modesty it is always concerned about women who put too much emphasis on their clothing, jewelry, and hair, forgetting that what it means to be a Christian woman is about godly actions that stem from the heart, not about what one wears. If anything, Paul’s writings show that he was concerned about wealthy women drawing too much attention to themselves through their physical adornment. Throughout much of human history, and one sees this in the descriptions of the adulterous woman in Proverbs as well, sexual immodesty had to do with the kind of clothing and makeup a person put on to draw attention to herself, not with the showing of skin. And Jesus puts the burden of preventing lustful thoughts on Christian men, not on Christian women.

I am not saying women should dress provocatively, or that it is acceptable for them to show as much skin as possible. I am suggesting that there is nothing inherently immodest about showing the skin on most parts of the human body or about wearing clothing that accentuates certain curves. As Christians we should be careful not to commit the Muslim mistake of thinking that we need to hide a woman’s body in order to make life easier for men, or that feminine beauty is something that we should flee from and avoid rather than celebrate and enjoy. The problem is with the human heart (lust) and the actions that spring from it (sexual immorality and adultery), as Jesus made quite clear to the Pharisees who were prone to their own forms of legalism. It is not with women, or with the bodies that God has given to them.

One of the most helpful set of posts I have seen on this is by Rachel Miller at her blog, A Daughter of the Reformation. As Miller writes, responding to a post on another blog praising the merits of women wearing skirts,

Skirts are not inherently more modest than pants. Modesty is much more an issue of the heart than simply what a woman wears. A skirt can easily be provocative, and it’s not hard to be modest in pants, or shorts, or even a swimsuit. And, there is a real danger for many women to become self-righteous over their choice of clothing.

Miller illustrates her point with a clever set of pictures. The link in the quote leads to a more substantive post she wrote on the issue. There she writes,

In reading the Scripture verses that deal with modesty and clothing, I noticed something. First, I noticed that Scripture gives very little by way of specifics as to what modest clothing looks like. Second, I noticed that Scripture speaks more about what might be termed “inner beauty.” (Again, I want to be clear that I am not disagreeing with those who see the need to address the practical issues related to dressing with modesty.)

Noting the relevant biblical passages, she goes on with reference to 1 Timothy 2:8-10,

While we could certainly get into a debate about whether women should braid their hair or wear jewelry, I think the point Paul is making here is that godly women should not worry so much about their outward appearance, but they should concern themselves with living godly lives. Our love for God and His love for us should make us care more about what He thinks of us and less about what the world around us thinks.

This is a very freeing concept. Women and girls who know that they are loved by God, not for anything they’ve done or anything they are, but solely because He has chosen to love them, are freed from the constant struggle for acceptance by the world.

One might add that it frees Christian women from the constant scrutiny of those to the right of them on the modesty spectrum.

Here again the comments of C.S. Lewis are helpful:

I do not think that a very strict or fussy standard of propriety [i.e., modesty] is any proof of chastity or any help to it, and I therefore regard the great relaxation and simplifying of the rule which has taken place in my own lifetime as a good thing. At its present stage, however, it has this inconvenience, that people of different ages and different types do not all acknowledge the same standard, and we hardly know where we are. While this confusion lasts I think that old, or old-fashioned, people should be very careful not to assume that young or ’emancipated’ people are corrupt whenever they are (by the old standard) improper; and, in return, that young people should not call their elders prudes or puritans because they do not easily adopt the new standard. A real desire to believe all the good you can of others and to make others as comfortable as you can will solve most of the problems. (84)

Again, the point is not that women should wear whatever they want without thought to modesty, or that they should dress provocatively. The point is that we should be very careful not to make arbitrary external rules our obsession, rather than the heart and the actions that stem from it, and that we should be careful not to fall into the trap of implicitly viewing women and their bodies as evils that are to be avoided or hidden. As a virtue of the gospel, modesty calls us to sanctify our hearts even as we celebrate that what God has made, including women created in his image, is very good.

[Note: the C.S. Lewis quotes have been added to the original version of this post]

The Wishful Thinking of the Neo-Anabaptists: could government avoid using the sword?

In my doctoral program at Emory University I have come into contact with many graduate students who consider themselves pacifists. Some of these individuals consider themselves liberals, but many more self-identify as Evangelicals. The most prominent Christian ethicist in the academy today is a sharp critic of liberalism as well as of the Christian Right, and although he is no ordinary Evangelical he is highly influential among Evangelical students and scholars. He also happens to be a strong defender of the Anabaptist tradition of nonviolence, which he learned from the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, and he is the leading representative of the school of thought many have taken to calling Neo-Anabaptism.

Why is it Neo-Anabaptism? Over at the blog of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) Mark Tooley explains,

A consistent pacifism, aligned with Anabaptist tradition, would disavow all interest in government, as Mennonites and their brethren in past times typically did.   They refused to serve in the military, or in any form of government.  They usually did not dispute that government was God ordained.  Nor did they criticize others’ involvement in it.  They largely lived as separatists, accepting the government without trying to influences its policies.

Modern day neo-Anabaptists are less consistent.  They adamantly reject, for themselves and for everybody else, all “violence” and force, disputing the civil authorities’ vocation especially for military action.  Often they are vaguer about domestic police.

Tooley goes on to point out some of the absurdity of the Neo-Anabaptist position, noting how odd it is for someone who opposes coercion to support the government’s coercive suppression of the right to bear arms.

In my experience in the academy Tooley’s critique here is spot-on. Virtually all of my pacifist friends insist that while war is wrong, and even the violent suppression of criminals is wrong, the basic functions and work of government do not depend on these immoral practices. Both Yoder and Hauerwas, in various places, suggest that it is a myth that civil government depends at all on violent coercion, or on the use of the sword. They use this basic claim to defend various forms of involvement of Christians in civil government. Yet as Tooley writes,

All government is premised on force.  Every government everywhere, at all times, if it has any power, will dispatch armed individuals to apprehend any persons who violate its laws and, ultimately, detain them in places surrounded by armed individuals empowered by lethal force.

In that sense the basic flaw of Neo-Anabaptism is its wishful thinking. The early Anabaptists may have condemned the involvement of Christians in violence, but while they recognized that civil government is outside of the perfection of Christ, virtually all of them insisted that it was nevertheless legitimate, ordained by God, and had the right to use force. They never suggested that the basic functions of government could proceed without such coercive force. And as a result, they usually abstained entirely from involvement in the work of civil government.

In fact, early Anabaptism relied heavily on its insistence that all of life should be interpreted through the lens of the conflict between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of Satan. There was no room for compromise in this conflict, and therefore while Christians could recognize God-ordained purposes for the state, they could not participate in its methods.

Although it is often forgotten in contemporary debates, Calvin articulated the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine in part to demonstrate the problem with Anabaptist views of the state. While he agreed with the Anabaptists that churches should discipline Christians to ensure that they live consistent with God’s moral law, and while he agreed that the kingdom of God becomes increasingly manifest in the life of the church even in this age, he utterly rejected the idea that the kingdom could be realized to the point that civil government would not be both necessary and good. Because he recognized that Christians still live in the present age, and that God still orders the present age morally, he argued that Christians function in two kingdoms, the spiritual kingdom and the political kingdom. In their vocations in the latter, including political and civil vocations, they might sometimes do things that will never take place in the kingdom of God – such as take up the sword.

One of the reasons why many of my own professors at Emory are interested in my project on the two kingdoms doctrine is because they recognize that the two principal trajectories dominant in academic Christian ethics – the first being that of the social gospel and liberation theology, the second being that of Neo-Anabaptism – fail to take seriously the character of Christian life as lived between two ages. Both the liberals and the Neo-Anabaptists abandon realism at key points in order to stress the immanence of the kingdom of God. There is a desperate need for a new ethical paradigm, and the resources in the Reformed tradition for this new paradigm, particularly in its two kingdoms doctrine, are impressive.

Critics of the two kingdoms need to take seriously the major alternatives out there. For years Christian ethics has been dominated by the social gospel and liberation theology. Now it is becoming dominated by Neo-Anabaptism. Is returning to the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine really such a bad way to help us avoid these two options?

Clarifying the relation of the two kingdoms doctrine to neo-Calvinism

A person who recently listened to my lecture on the two kingdoms doctrine communicated the concern to me that in the question and answer session I was insufficiently clear that not all neo-Calvinists find the two kingdoms doctrine problematic. If you have listened to the lecture, a member of the audience asked me why some people find the two kingdoms doctrine so worrisome. I responded (in part) by suggesting that some neo-Calvinists, particularly the more radical types, are influenced by liberal Protestant and even Hegelian notions of the way in which all of life is transformed into the kingdom of God, to the point that they abandon the Christian notion of secularity, or of the distinction between the present age and the age to come.

To be sure, I should have been more clear. There are many people who consider themselves neo-Calvinists who do not share the radical critique of the two kingdoms doctrine, and who themselves are committed to it in its basic points. In fact, depending on how you define the term, many two kingdoms advocates are themselves neo-Calvinists, in the sense that they share Abraham Kuyper’s emphasis on Christ’s lordship over all of life, they embrace his understanding of common grace, and they wholeheartedly appreciate his understanding of sphere sovereignty. I would include myself in this group.

From my perspective the two kingdoms doctrine offers a clarification to the best of neo-Calvinism (or of Kuyper) rather than a rejection. This clarification is necessary precisely to avoid some of the missteps made by various neo-Calvinists over the years, particularly those I referred to in my lecture as the more radical types. It helps to remind people that although Christians are to serve Christ as their king in every area of life, that does not make every area of that life “kingdom activity,” nor does it make every area of life equally eternal. There are some things that do pass away (Luke 20; 1 Corinthians 7) even though Christians are to do everything that they do as unto the Lord (Ephesians 5-6) because all things exist and are reconciled in Christ (Colossians 1). Many neo-Calvinists get this, and in that sense they themselves hold to the basic two kingdoms doctrine.

Unfortunately, however, much of this debate is really a matter of arguing over application of shared doctrine at best (a form of argument that is necessary but that often obscures a more basic unity regarding foundational issues among the disputants), and posturing at worst. But it is important to be clear. And so for my part I want to clarify that the two kingdoms doctrine is not at odds with the best versions of neo-Calvinism; indeed, as David VanDrunen demonstrated in his Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, in fundamental respects Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck themselves endorsed the essential features of the doctrine.

Hopefully clarity on this question will help many people to get past their fears of the two kingdoms doctrine as something radically new and innovative, while helping them to see at the same time that the neo-Calvinist legacy has not been unmitigated good. We must testify to the lordship of Christ over all of life while at the same time distinguishing between the secular affairs of this age and the kingdom of God itself. Surely we can all agree on that, right?

Can an Islamist society respect Christian liberty? The ambivalence of Christians in Syria

A few weeks ago I noted that many Christians, both in the country and outside of it, were supporting the Assad regime in Syria. According to The Economist this is beginning to change.

Keen to portray the uprising as a sectarian insurrection by extreme elements of the Sunni Muslim majority posing a vicious threat to minorities, Mr Assad has often wheeled out bishops and nuns to express devotion to his regime and to condemn supposed foreign interference. Yet they do not carry their flocks with them.

Amounting to about 10% of the country’s 23m people, Syria’s Christians increasingly, if still often privately, express sympathy for the opposition. In battered cities, behind closed doors in living rooms cluttered with statues of the Virgin Mary, many grumble about the bloody crackdown. Christians and Muslims often attend funerals together for the victims of government violence, such as Basil Shehadeh, a young Christian film-maker recently killed in Homs, Syria’s third city. Christians are well represented in the political opposition. The Syrian National Council, a group mainly of exiles, includes several. The “local co-ordination committees”, as activists’ cells are known, contain numerous Christians. A church-based group ferries medicine around the country to help the victims of repression.

Of course, this does not mean Syrian Christians are unaware of the dangers of an Islamist regime.

On social networks Christians send each other cartoons of women draped in the veil and men with bushy beards as harbingers of the new Syria. “I’d rather have this regime than chaos or Islamists,” says a teacher in Bab Touma, a Christian quarter of Damascus, proudly pointing to his scantily clad female family members.

While the revolutions going on in the Middle East certainly increase religious freedom for Muslims, the same is not always the case for Christians. Muslim men in Egypt can now sport beards and Muslim women are beginning to wear burqas, but Christians are worried. As events in Tunisia make clear, freedom of expression for Muslims is often accompanied by the repression of those not committed to Islamic standards of modesty or blasphemy.

The best way forward is for the Arab world to figure out a way to respect pluralism and religious liberty while avoiding the pitfalls of both radical secularism and radical Islamism. Christians in the west have long made the distinction between morality (and religion) and politics, while never entirely separating the two. And the reality is that even most Muslims who live in the United States have adapted to the American version of secularity. The question remains, will majority Muslim countries find a way to do the same?

Kevin DeYoung: does immorality always have a victim?

In a very thoughtful post at the Gospel Coalition Kevin DeYoung, a pastor in the Reformed Church of America (RCA), points out the difficulty that Evangelicals have convincing the broader culture of the immorality of actions that do not seem to have a victim. The problem is with our society generally, DeYoung suggests. We tend to think that an action is only immoral if it has an immediate victim.

To be sure, Americans are not always consistent on this point. “Think of spanking or speed limits or prohibiting harmful substances. Some victimless crimes are still crimes, and sometimes insisting on the right thing produces ‘victims.’” But in general, and especially when matters of sexual immorality are in view, Americans default to their ordinary tendency. If you are not hurting someone, we won’t stop you from doing what you want to do.

DeYoung notes two basic points in response to this pervasive approach to morality. First, he points out that Christians need to do a far better job exploring the effects that sinful actions have on others.

[W]e must do more to show the long term consequences of seemingly innocent behavior. This is not a call to play the victim card but to do our homework. The sexual revolution of the 1960s seemed like a good idea at the time. But now we know that communities were made weaker, women have not been made happier, and children have been put at greater risk. Just because everyone seems happy with the sin right now doesn’t mean people won’t suffer in the long term. Just look at no-fault divorce.

Second, he notes that not all crimes have victims per say.

While oppression is always sin, sin cannot be defined solely as oppression. Sin is lawlessness (I John 3:4). An action is morally praiseworthy or blameworthy based on God’s standard. This definition will not be accepted by many, for God has largely been removed from our culture’s definition of evil. But try we must. The culture war is not the point except to the degree that God is the point. And our God rests too inconsequentially upon our country and our churches. The world needs to see the true nature of sin as God-defiant. Only then will it know the true nature of our sin-defiant Savior.

I entirely agree with DeYoung on both points but I have to admit that a little clarification would be helpful in terms of whether we are talking about civil law or about basic morality. DeYoung’s discussion is about morality in general but many of his examples come from the realm of civil law or from political controversies. The fact is that when it comes to civil law it is important for us to show that actions have an unjust effect on other people if we want the government to condemn those actions. The whole purpose of government is to enable us to live together in peace and basic justice. Government should not and is not capable of making us moral before God or worthy of the kingdom. On the other hand, we should never pretend that the civil law is exhaustive of morality. To paraphrase with a twist one character from O Brother Where Art Thou, you may be right with the state of Mississippi, but God is a little more hard-nosed (the actual line in the movie pertains to the gospel, not the law: “Even if that did put you square with the Lord [Delmar’s baptism], the State of Mississippi’s a little more hard-nosed.”).

The way that Reformed theology classically dealt with this point was to distinguish between the first and third uses of the law on the one hand, and the second use of the law on the other (note, here I am using John Calvin’s numbering; others put the uses in a different order). The first use of the law places the sinful human being before God’s absolute standard and demonstrates to that person how unworthy he or she is to attain to the blessing of the kingdom. The third use of the law teaches the regenerate human being how to conform to that same standard having been made worthy of the kingdom. Both of these uses emphasize the relation of a person before God, both in terms of outward actions and in terms of the heart. This is what DeYoung is getting at in his second point above.

But the civil law is different. It does not judge a person according to the standard of the eternal kingdom of God, but according to the needs of human society in the passing present evil age. It does not consider the heart; it is merely interested in outward actions. If such actions cannot be demonstrated to bring concrete harm to others, government has no interest in prohibiting them. Government prohibits things like murder, theft, and adultery, not sins like lust, covetousness, or hypocrisy.

Am I splitting hairs here? I don’t think so. I agree with virtually every point DeYoung makes in his post but it is still unclear at the end of that post whether his concern is about what government does or whether it is about the Christian witness to the moral law of God for the sake of the gospel. Given that DeYoung’s basic question is about how concerned we should be to determine whether or not immorality always has a victim, and given the fundamental role that question plays in the distinction between the civil use of the law and the other uses of the law, I would think keeping the difference between politics and morality straight is important. In our ridiculously politicized society, Christians could afford some clarity on this point.

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