Monthly Archives: August 2012

Conservatives are wrong to say government has no obligation to care for the poor

I am not a fan of Jim Wallis’s understanding of the relation between Christianity and politics. In the name of fidelity to Jesus and to Scripture, Wallis often does little more than justify a hard left economic and political agenda. Though he is able to provide legitimate criticism of the Christian Right, his own program amounts to little more than a Christian Left.

Matt Hamilton points out some of the fallacies in Wallis’s understanding of the responsibility of government toward the poor. Responding to Wallis’s claim that “A budget shows who’s important, who’s not, what’s important, what’s not,” he writes,

At face value, this assertion may ring with the sound of truth, but it is very subtly deceptive….  [T]he responsibility of the government is limited and therefore there are things that are important to us not included in government budgets. For example, the government does not fund religious institutions like churches, mosques, or synagogues. That does not mean that religion is not important to Americans, it simply means that it is not the government’s responsibility to be funding religious institutions.

Amen to that. But then Hamilton goes on to make a claim that I think is downright dangerous.

Jesus gave the church the responsibility to take care of the poor, the widow, and the orphan, not the government. To prioritize the government’s coercive role in welfare is ultimately to support the government’s usurpation of a God-given responsibility to the church. If for no other reason why this distinction of roles exists, it is because only one being can be glorified when the poor and the needy are taken care of. Either that being will be God, or that being will be the government. If it is the latter, it can only lead to idolatry.

In contrast [to Wallis], here’s what I want pastors to say: “I will take the responsibility to lead my congregation in providing for the poor, the widows, and the orphans, rather than shirk that responsibility by passing it on to the impersonal idol of Big Government.” That would be following Jesus’ commands.

Now to be sure, Hamilton is correct to call out Wallis and others like him for pretending that everything Jesus said about care for the poor should be applied directly to the obligations of government. A healthy, classic, two kingdoms distinction would help to remind us that Jesus was proclaiming an ethic for the kingdom of God, an ethic attainable only in the community of disciples where the Spirit is at work, and an ethic only secondarily relevant to our understanding of the role of government.

That said, Hamilton’s argument goes a step forward. It argues not only that the church should care for the poor, but that it is the church’s unique role to care for the poor, and that government usurps that role when it takes steps to ensure the care of the poor. In other words, Hamilton is writing as if Jesus’ words apply exclusively to the church, such that whatever they command Christians to do by definition cannot apply to government. Consider this a version of the two kingdoms doctrine taken to the extreme. Hamilton seems to want to completely separate the ethics of the people of God from the ethics of human beings generally.

But is not the very purpose of Jesus’ teaching to demonstrate to human beings the way God would have us live? Is the church not to be a light to the world in order that the world might in some sense imitate that light? Is it really the case that Christians should take care of the poor – and all of the poor – while nonbelievers should not? And do political communities – political communities made up to a significant extent of Christians – have no obligations to their weakest members?

To be sure, we will never make our political communities into the kingdom of God. The church is indeed empowered to attain a greater level of righteousness than is the sword-bearing state. But that does not mean that the obligations of justice or of care for the poor and the weak have no relevance to the state. The state is also appointed by God, responsible to defend the weak against those who would do evil – including the evil of refusing the poor their God-given rights. Christians who know that they will be judged based on how they care for the poor cannot imagine that they are permitted to leave that responsibility out of their minds when they enter into political office and consider how a community ought to be structured. Government is not outside the scope of morality or the authority of God’s law.

Even natural law, as Calvin argued, teaches us that all human beings are brothers and are therefore obligated to care for one another. As Mitt Romney said in his acceptance speech last night, “That America, that united America, will uphold the constellation of rights that were endowed by our Creator, and codified in our Constitution. That united America will care for the poor and the sick, will honor and respect the elderly, and will give a helping hand to those in need.”

Conservatives are right to point out the abuse to which many in the Left put Scripture. They are right to insist that fulfilling our responsibilities toward the poor does not equate supporting Marxism, socialism, or the modern welfare state. And they do us all a service by emphasizing that government best helps the poor when it promotes economic growth, rather than redistribution of wealth.

But conservatives must be careful not to abuse Scripture in service of the agenda of the Right either. Scripture clearly calls government to enforce basic justice for the poor, and nothing that Jesus said suggests this obligation is restricted to the church, or that it is somehow made the church’s unique responsibility. Let’s not let our politics cloud our faithfulness to Scripture.

Justin Taylor – not just Internet, but free Internet

Responding to Tim Challies’ article on the role the Internet in the rise of the New Calvinism Justin Taylor offers a further point about the use of the Internet.

1. Not Just Internet, but Free Internet

One commenter on my original post made this observation regarding Piper and Desiring God:

It’s not just that Desiring God and John Piper were trumpeting the Biblical doctrines associated with the rise of the new Calvinism – it’s also the fact that they were aggressively disseminating them for free. To access such a wealth of resources and to not have to even register as a subscriber spoke volumes of the generosity and grace of the God they were proclaiming.

I think this is right. From the beginning (in the mid-90s) Desiring God had a “whatever you can afford” policy. There was also a decision to get everything possible—from sermons to articles to books to videos to audio—online for free. To see some of the theological and ministry rationale behind this, see Jon Bloom and John Piper’s booklet, “Money, Markets, and Ministry: Giving and Selling in the Mission of Desiring God.”

The second phase of this was an article by Matt Perman urging other ministries to “Make It Free.” Key to Perman’s argument was that it’s not enough to be free. Resources must also be easily accessible without registration or subscription. The difficulty of this is that it’s hard to pay one’s overhead and to pay the extensive bills to make this sort of thing happen at a significant level. (On this, see Nathan Bingham’s important reminder.) It means ministries must shift from a revenue model to a donor model. But Perman’s piece became a catalyst for other ministries following suit.

I think Taylor is right on the money here. It is a terrible turn-off when you go online to listen to a pastor’s preaching of the gospel and find that you have to pay for it. We need to make the treasures of God’s grace as free and accessible as we can.

“The great crime decline continues. No one is sure why” – The Economist

Why is crime declining in the United States, especially violent crime (38% decline since 1992)? For years Christian Right warriors like Jerry Falwell pointed to rising crime rates as the direct result of America’s abandonment of God and Christianity. Do falling crime rates suggest that America is becoming more faithful to God?

What makes the statistics all the more surprising is that crime has continued to fall in the difficult economic years since 2008, defying expectations and predictions. Liberals should be just as surprised as Christian conservatives. Is it possible that increasing income and economic hope is not the only way to reduce crime?

The Economist notes the various theories:

Everything from the removal of lead from petrol to the increased prescription of psychiatric drugs has been credited with the decline. A controversial theory proposed in 2001 by two academics, Steven Levitt (of “Freakonomics” fame) and John Donohue, which attributed half the previous decade’s drop in crime to the legalisation of abortion in the 1970s, still has fans. Today there is growing interest in the role of video games and social-media technologies in providing young men, who are responsible for the lion’s share of violent crimes, with alternative ways to spend their time.

Other analysts look to structural or demographic explanations. Jack Levin, a criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston, acknowledges the success of policing strategies, but notes that an ageing society like the United States should expect to experience less violent crime. Immigration also matters, he says: studies have repeatedly shown that cities with large immigrant populations experience lower rates of violent crime.

Then there is the awkward issue of incarceration. America continues to lock up a scandalously large number of its people: around 1% of the adult population is behind bars at any time. But, says Mr Levin, “the relationship between the incarceration rate and the violent-crime rate is not very strong.” New York has not followed the national mania for imprisonment, and yet the decline in its crime has been among the most impressive. Indeed, in states with a particular fondness for imprisoning citizens, such as California, the policy may have done more harm than good…

However we explain it, of course, this is great news for America. But it still makes one wonder, what’s going on? And what does this phenomena do to liberal theories about the relation between economics and crime, or to Christian Right theories about immorality and the decline of America?


The Importance of the Internet for the Church: Tim Challies on the New Calvinism

I’ve written in the past on the dangers and problems that the Internet poses for the church. Internet forums give expression to conflict and division that would otherwise be unknown or at least kept under the surface of church life. The Internet makes it easy to create virtual communities of Christians that have no expression in real, physical life.

For these and related reasons some people think Christian thinkers and scholars should just stay off the Internet. Pastors should focus on their congregations, professors should focus on their students, and scholars should focus on their books and articles.

But in a recent post at his blog Tim Challies highlights the great good that the Internet can achieve if Christians can figure out how to use it productively and constructively. Indeed, this medium is so important that Christians cannot afford not to use it to the best of their collective ability.

The example of Internet success that Challies provides pertains to the movement widely known as “New Calvinism.”

The Internet has allowed people to find community based on common interest—a new kind of community that transcends any geographic boundary. It used to be that people of common interest could only find others who shared their interests within a limited geographic area. The Internet has forever changed this and this is true in any field, whether it pertains to vocation, hobby, sports, religion or anything else…

The New Calvinism is a distinctly twenty-first century, digital-era development. It is the Internet in general, and social media in particular, that first tied the movement together and that have since drawn people in. Where there may have been only five or six Calvinists in a church of several hundred, when they went online they found a whole community of people who believed just what they believed. This dispelled much of the sense of isolation and gave them a corporate identity. People have often remarked that the Christian blogosphere is dominated by Calvinists and I believe this is exactly why—because in those early days of blogging it was the outliers who were looking for community they did not have in their local church fellowships.

Over time there was an inevitable shift so that the Internet was no longer merely tying together those who had long held to Calvinistic doctrine, but it also became the medium through which others were introduced to this stream of theology. What at first simply tied people together now drew new people in.

Of course, there are reasons to criticize the development known as the New Calvinism. It is not perfect, having created its own challenges to the unity and ecclesiology of the church, as well as to important Reformed doctrines like infant baptism. But overall one cannot help but be pleased at the surge of a movement that is so gospel- and Christ-centered.

Old school ecclesiological types sometimes bemoan the fact that 21st Century developments in Christianity are passing by the older confessional denominations and churches. The North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council includes denominations totaling probably less than 500,000 Christians, roughly 0.2% of the population of the United States and Canada. If you want to be discouraged about the recent history of the confessional Reformed tradition, compare that total to the percentage Presbyterians and Congregationalists made up of early colonial America.

What is our problem? I’m not capable of answering that enormously complicated question here, but I do wonder if Challies’ blog post points to at least one part of the solution. Maybe we need to figure out how to use the Internet?

How do you know if your zeal for your cause is genuine zeal for God?

History is full of examples of people who were so zealous for the honor or glory of God that they justified great evil in the name of advancing that honor and glory. Christian crusaders killed Muslims by the thousands to defend the holy land from the pagan horde. Catholic inquisitors tried and executed numerous Protestants to purify the church from heresy. Scottish and English Protestants waged war against one another and against their Catholic neighbors with sometimes horrifying brutality all in the name of establishing and preserving a godly commonwealth.

Of course, one could think of numerous less violent examples of the misguided nature of religious zealotry, examples ranging from the self-righteous legalism of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day to the Protestant fundamentalism of the 20th Century, both of which tended to raise their own moral practices concerning food, drink, dress, gender relations and more, to the level of the law of God himself. Today the same zeal for God sometimes translates into the strident activism that seeks through politics to reestablish America’s Christian character.

Much of this kind of zeal has been recognized by the zealots themselves, or at least by their heirs, as misguided at best, and as outright evil at worst. But it is easy to judge the sins of the past. The question is, how do we know if our own zeal for God is real? How do we discern if we are simply using it to justify our own agendas, evil intentions or judgmental attitudes? As Paul notes in Romans 10, it is possible to have a zeal for God that is not according to righteousness.

Of course, there are numerous possible answers to this question, and many of them contain an element of truth. Are the practices justified by your zeal Scriptural? Do they tend to point people to the gospel, or to the law of God? But it seems to me that the most important test of whether our zeal for God is genuine is whether it expresses itself and stems itself in genuine love for the people around us according the example of Jesus, whether our brothers and sisters in the church, our neighbors, or our enemies. Simply put, are you more zealous for your conception of God, or for the practices you believe he demands, then you are for the people whom God has placed in your lives? Have you fallen into the error of thinking that you can love God while acting unjustly toward the person created in his image? Does your zeal express itself in arrogance or judgment, or is it a communication of the love of Christ?

The New Testament teaches this principle in numerous places. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus calls his disciples to love not only their brothers and sisters and neighbors but even to love their enemies. The expression of this, he says, is prayer and the giving of good gifts, in imitation of our Father in heaven who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). He calls his followers to avoid worshiping God until they have first reconciled with one another, abstaining from judgment and division (Matthew 5:21-26). He demands that Christians take responsibility for the sin of their own hearts rather than judge the failings of others (Matthew 5:27-30; 7:1-5).

Later Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for presenting their own religious or moral rules as the doctrines of God (Matthew 15:1-20), a tendency that led them to emphasize these rules rather than “justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). Luke records Jesus as declaring to the disciples, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For … I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:25-27).

The gospel and writings of John emphasize the same point, stressing especially the importance of conformity to the example of Jesus. In John 13 Jesus performs the actions of a lowly servant by washing the feet of his disciples. This action is not intended as a display of his own uniquely messianic calling as the one sent by the God who “so loved the world,” he makes quite clear. Rather, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:14-16).

Later Jesus explains this teaching in the form of a new commandment: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). The call to imitate Jesus, in fact, goes beyond service and even to the point of suffering. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13). Those who say they love God but do not love their brothers and sisters are liars (1 John 4:20).

Of course, we could pile up passage upon passage, exhortation upon exhortation. The New Testament is clear that Christians demonstrate their love and zeal for God primarily through their love for one another in conformity to the example of Jesus. But Paul sums it all up quite nicely in Philippians 2:5-8:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Reformed types are often critical of the old “What would Jesus do?” bracelets because, as they point out, we are not Jesus and aren’t called to perform his messianic mission. We should focus on obeying God’s law, they say, because that’s what Jesus did.

But perhaps we should not be quite so hasty. In the passages above it is not simply God’s moral law we are called to fulfill. It is the example of Jesus. It is not simply Jesus’ obedience to God’s law that we are required to follow. It is Jesus’ unique display of love, service, and sacrifice. “What would Jesus do?” may not be such a bad question after all.

As Christians we often get in feisty debates or fall into conflict with one another over various moral, practical or doctrinal issues. We wage great moral, cultural and political campaigns that lead others to criticize us. But if we want to test whether our own zeal in these struggles is actually a genuine zeal for God, we might want to ask ourselves, does my zeal translate into love and sacrificial service after the example of Jesus, or does it look more like the domination and lordship characteristic of the world? Or to put it another way, do I care more about the abstract principle or practice at stake, or about the actual person, made in the image of God,with whom I am disagreeing, and whom I am called to serve? Remember, the servant is not greater than his master.

Is complementarianism more important than infant baptism? Thoughts from Carl Trueman

In a a very thoughtful post at the Reformation 21 blog Carl Trueman warns us against allowing the culture wars to skew our priorities when it comes to faithful theology and practice. Simply put, he asks why some conservative Christians assume that barring church offices to women is more important than insisting on a faithful practice of the sacrament of baptism or of the Lord’s Supper.

To be sure, Trueman is aware that many conservatives regard the issue of women’s ordination as a test case for whether or not someone accepts the authority of Scripture. In fact, he admits that in many cases this judgment is appropriate. However, he warns us that not all those who advocate opening the offices of the church to women do so because they reject the authority of Scripture. As Trueman puts it,

I have indeed come across those who argue for women’s ordination on the grounds that Paul was simply wrong; but I have also met those who think we have simply moved on from Paul’s time, that he was right then but that his teaching cannot be applied directly to the twenty-first century context.  Further, I have met those who profess to hold to inerrancy and who  think that the relevant texts are authoritative but that the complementarian understanding of them is wrong.  The latter two classes of people seem to me to be raising primarily hermeneutical issues; and the last group in particular does not seem, on the face of it, to be advocating a necessarily low view of scripture in the typical sense of the phrase.   Indeed, I see no reason why one could not be an egalitarian and an inerrantist.  And if it is a hermeneutical difference, how does one decide that this particular difference among inerrantists is more egregious than, say, those between Baptists and Paedobaptists or Dispensationalists and Amillennialists?

To be sure, Trueman is not advocating women’s ordination. He notes that he is part of a denomination (the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) that opposes women’s ordination and affirms infant baptism. But he notes that far too often Evangelicals are winning to downplay fundamental disagreements about baptism or the Lord’s Supper, while allowing no compromise on the issue of women’s ordination. At best, he suggests, this indicates that their priorities are somewhat skewed.

It is interesting to consider Trueman’s point in light of what John Calvin said about when Christians may leave a church. For Calvin a Christian could only separate from a church if that church was failing to preach the gospel or improperly administering the sacraments. On all other questions – whether of discipline, church order, or worship – Christians were to endure differences while maintaining unity. His main concern was quite evident. Calvin believed the unity of the church is grounded in the gospel and in nothing else. The sacraments were non-negotiable because they related directly to the proclamation of the gospel.

It is true that modernity has given rise to issues that Calvin could not have anticipated, and that the church needs to take very seriously the modernist challenge to the authority of the creation order, natural law, and Scriptural teachings regarding the vocations of men and women. But as I think Trueman implies, we need to distinguish between the radical rejection of creation and Scriptural authority represented by some egalitarians, and genuine disagreements about the implications of gender differences for church order and practice. In short, we should not pretend that these latter disagreements are more important than the gospel itself.

In an age when the church is increasingly politicized and in which the culture wars between liberals and conservatives are coming more and more to dominate everything that Christians do or think, Trueman’s reminders are worth considering.

Let’s stop the anti-Mormon talk: our call is to serve our neighbors, not to lord it over them

In an article on the Aquila Report on Saturday Jason Cunningham made a case as to why Christians should not vote for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Throughout his piece Cunningham makes numerous assumptions that dictate his ultimate conclusion, but we need to question these assumptions.

For instnace, Cunningham writes,

Leaving aside the fact that by any historical definition Romney is not a “conservative,” or why we would want to ‘conserve’ any aspect of the political environment today …

Cunningham claims to leave aside these questions but the very fact that he raises the latter one is astonishing. Does Cunningham really think there is no aspect of the political environment today that is worth preserving? Does he really think that Romney stands for nothing positive? Presumably not. Presumably this statement just reflects rhetorical frustration with Romney and the conservative movement today. On the other hand, perhaps Cunningham’s criteria for assessing American politics is what is the problem here:

… the political environment of the moment does not set our standard for leadership, God does. Why do we look to Scripture for our standard of leadership both in home and church but leave civil government to pragmatics and compromise?  Said another way, we eagerly support candidates for political office that would be easily dismissed and disqualified in other institutions.

We look to Scripture for our standard of leadership in the church because the church is ordained by God and derives its authority from Scripture. But things get complicated when we consider the family or the state, institutions grounded in creation and in the Noahic Covenant, not in Scripture. To be sure, Scripture teaches standards of justice and righteousness for leadership in the family and the state. But while these standards are rarely met, we do not exclude from institutional leadership those who fail perfectly to meet them.

For instance, Scripture calls a husband to serve his wife and to sacrifice himself for her after the example of Christ and his love for the church. No nonbeliever can meet this standard. But we do not as a result say that nonbelievers may not marry. In fact, we encourage them to marry, both for their sake and for the sake of our society. The alternative would be nothing less than disastrous socially, economically, and morally.

The state is really not so different. Scripture calls a political ruler to submit himself or herself to Christ’s lordship, and to serve their people in a manner consistent with justice and righteousness. But no person perfectly meets this standard, and certainly no nonbeliever can meet this standard. Should we therefore say that nonbelievers cannot hold political office? Was the constitution wrong to declare that there should be no religious test for such office?

Cunningham would respond here by distinguishing what God may bring about by his providence and what Christians should support:

There is a big difference between God using wicked pagan rulers for His purposes and God’s people ‘asking’ for one by casting their vote for a known pagan, anti-Christ worshipper. The prophet Habakkuk was incredulous at the thought of God using the Babylonians to punish them but it appears in the case of America, we are self-consciously asking God for Babylon to rule over us. The only place we find Israel asking for a king is in their disobedience and lack of faith by wanting to be ‘like the other nations’. Peace and freedom are by-products of obedience, faithfulness, and repentance, and these will not be accomplished by asking God to give us Cyrus over Nebuchadnezzar.

It is obvious here that Cunningham views America as being in a situation analogous to ancient Israel, and he therefore expects us to evaluate our leadership on the same basis as an Israelite was supposed to evaluate his or her leadership: the Torah. He seems to think that the goal of Christians should be to establish our own political nation in which nonbelievers are excluded from positions of political authority. As he puts it,

If Christians demanded more from their candidates and withheld their votes from those that do not seek to uphold righteousness according to God’s law, the bar would be raised and the doors opened for true Christian statesmen to take office.

But is the gospel call upon Christians really to take over the nations, working hard to ensure that only we attain positions of political power, or is it to serve them, witnessing to the love of Christ by seeking the welfare of our neighbors in the city in which we live? As Jesus himself said, “The kings of the nations exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:25-26). Paul describes pagan civil government as appointed by God for our “good,” to carry out wrath on those who do wrong. He commands Christians to pray for those in political office, “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2). Peter reminds Christians that their obligations to “every human institution” are fulfilled in the call to serve, using our freedom as an opportunity for service, and keeping our conduct honorable such that we will not be a scandal to the nations, but that they will rather glorify God for our good works (1 Peter 2:12-17).

The criteria by which we are to evaluate political candidates are not found in the Old Testament laws concerning Israel. They are found in the call of the New Testament to serve our neighbors by seeking their good. If we have the opportunity to choose political rulers, we should choose those who will do justice for all, enabling all to live in peace and quiet.

Under certain circumstances, this might involve voting for Christians. But in other circumstances, it is possible that a non-Christian might achieve these ends more effectively. The point is, we should choose the candidate who is most likely to contribute to justice and peace. Refusing to vote for any candidate who is not perfect hardly serves this end. It leads, rather, to political apathy and division. Christians who insist that they will only participate in the political process if they can choose godly Christian leaders are not displaying an attitude of love and service to their neighbors. They are displaying the desire to lord it over them.

Cunningham asks, “Why do we look to Scripture for our standard of leadership both in home and church but leave civil government to pragmatics and compromise?” We are open to pragmatics and compromise in political affairs because love for our neighbors demands this openness. A servant does not insist on his own way. Rather, a servant pays attention to the “political circumstances of the moment” and seeks to emulate the way of God by serving his neighbor in a manner appropriate to those circumstances.

There may be perfectly good reasons not to vote for Mitt Romney in November. But the fact that he is a Mormon is not one of them.

Traveling in Canada, my grandparents, and Rexall Place

I’m not posting as much these few days but my blogging vacation is for a good cause. On Monday I piled my wife and kids in a rental car and headed up to Canada so that they could meet my two grandmothers for the first time, see some of my extended family, and discover the land from which I came so long ago (I was born in Alberta and lived in British Columbia until age 5).

I am so grateful to both of my grandmothers (and their husbands, neither of whom are now living) for the legacy of faith and wisdom that they passed on to my parents, who in turn passed on that legacy to me. My paternal grandmother (Grandma) is 97 and has seen so much. She is still mentally quite sharp and nicely beat us at several board games while we were with her. My maternal grandmother (Oma) is 83 and has experienced numerous painful tragedies during her years. Despite complications from a  severe head injury she sustained in a car accident approximately 15 years ago, I am grateful to God that she remembered me and was able to enjoy seeing my wife children.

Aside from the priceless treasure of meeting the women to whom I and my family owe so much, one of the great highlights of the trip was our little pilgrimage to Rexall Place, the place where the Edmonton Oilers play and the building in which Wayne Gretzky and his teammates made so much history. A friendly security guard gave us a tour of the building, and we were able to stand in the middle of the rink and look up at the banners and retired jerseys, as well as sit on the Oilers bench. It is amazing how small and intimate that building is compared to other NHL stadiums. It is the only old-school hockey arena left in the NHL, and the Oilers won’t be playing there for much longer.

The drives have been long and the visits short; I think we are all quite exhausted. But it has been good to honor those who deserve so much honor, while adding in the fun of showing my son where the Oilers play. I’ll return to blogging on Monday.

The Mess of Politics: Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good

Controversy over two incredibly hot-button issues has spread over the Internet in the past few days, in one instance pertaining to the remarks of a prominent Republican senate candidate (and graduate of Covenant Seminary, the official seminary of the Presbyterian Church in America), and in another (less known) incident pertaining to the remarks of a prominent Reformed theologian. While in many ways the two instances are quite different, the controversies associated with each highlights a deeper reason for contention within Reformed and Evangelical circles: disagreement about where the line is between a moral stance that cannot be compromised and a prudential concession necessary in service of a higher good.

The first instance, the remarks of Missouri Congressman Todd Akin regarding “legitimate rape,” arises out of a longstanding tension within the pro-life movement. Should pro-life activists in general, and the Republican Party in particular, advocate the abolition of all abortions without exception, or does it make sense for Republicans to press instead for a policy that would ban all abortions except in cases of rape or incest? Should those in politics press for the gold standard of justice, at the expense perhaps of failure, or should they press for something less than perfect, though something ultimately achievable and far better than the status quo?

The second instance involves the suggestion of a Reformed theologian that a Christian might conceivably grant a place for civil unions to protect certain economic or civil rights, while adamantly opposing same-sex marriage or any dilution of the traditional institution of marriage. Should those concerned to defend traditional marriage, in other words, insist on the gold standard of no government recognition of homosexual relationships, at the risk of losing the whole struggle by virtue of alienating moderates, or should they concede the possibility of an institutional arrangement that is less than ideal in order to preserve what is most important, the sanctity of marriage?

There are some who are aghast at any suggestion that these are even open questions. Abortion is clearly unjust, and so we should only ever advocate policies that would ban it 100% of the time (except perhaps when it is necessary to save the life of the mother and the child would die anyway). Homosexuality is clearly evil and destructive, so we should never tolerate policies that even acknowledge the existence of homosexual relationships. To compromise on policy, for such people, is necessarily to compromise on principle.

Of course, there are others who find this mindset fearfully naive. Is it really the case that it is better not to win any ground at all on the abortion issue, then to achieve the passage of an abortion law that eliminates almost all abortion, while leaving certain unfortunate loopholes? Is it really true that it is better to lose the battle over marriage entirely than to have civil unions that grant certain economic or legal benefits to persons who are not married? What if those civil unions recognize partnerships regardless of whether they are sexual or not? What if they recognize close bonds between fathers and sons, or between two sisters, or even between roommates and friends who have no sexual relationship?

Then, of course, there are those who are sure in their opposition to homosexuality and to abortion, who even have strong opinions regarding the appropriate way for government to respond to these problems, and yet who acknowledge that however clear the moral principles may be, good Christians are bound to disagree regarding the various policy proposals available. In short, they recognize that policy is not the same thing as morality (though they are inextricably related), and that good Christians who agree on basic moral principles might legitimately disagree on the way in which those moral principles should be advanced or preserved in concrete policy.

Let me offer a simple example. In the antebellum South there was no support for the complete abolition of slavery. Even those who desired the abolition of slavery recognized that it was impossible because of economic constraints as well as of widespread public opinion. Nevertheless, in the early 19th Century various proposals were introduced calling for the gradual abolition of slavery, or for better laws preventing the abuse of slaves by their masters. Should Christians opposed to racial slavery have opposed these “gradual” laws because they were not perfect? Or should they have supported them because they made the situation better than it might otherwise be?

The problem with opposing compromises of this sort is that it often polarizes political debate to the point that makes genuine progress impossible. If the only options are abortion-on-demand or no abortion, this country is sure to remain committed to the former option. But if increased restrictions on abortion is a possible option, then we might move the debate in the right direction. Of course, the argument for civil unions is a bit different. It is hard to argue that civil unions move the homosexuality debate in the right direction, and at best adopting civil unions serves to prevent something worse from occurring. But it may well be the case that the vast majority of Americans would support preserving the traditional character of marriage if civil unions are made available to various other kinds of partnerships, including but not restricted to sexual relationships.

But my main point is that all of these decisions are about strategy and prudence, not principle. And it would be inappropriate for me to bind the conscience of another Christian (or of the church) in areas of prudence and wisdom. I may think my fellow Christian who insists on making the Republican Party platform reject all abortions without exception is naive politically, but I can hardly accuse him of being unfaithful to Christ if his conscience dictates his position. On the other hand, I may think my fellow Christian who is open to the establishment of civil unions is misguided about the implications of such an establishment, but if he is clear in his opposition to homosexuality and in his support for traditional marriage, yet maintains his support for civil unions for various economic or related reasons, I can hardly judge his position as being out of line with fidelity to Christianity.

What we need to be clear on, as Christians, is that often our disagreements are about policy or politics, strategy or circumstances, and not about theology or fidelity to Christ. We need to be careful not to judge one another when this is the case.

Christians have never called for women to wear burqas, have they?

When I wrote my posts about women’s modesty a few weeks ago (here and here) I made the point that although immodesty conducive of sexual immorality is a very real danger facing Christians today, legalism is just as grave of a danger. I suggested that Christians who are rigid and dogmatic in their insistence that women cover up certain parts of the body are in danger of falling into just the sort of attitude that Muslims hold who require women to wear burqas.

The reason why I said this was that some of these Christians speak as if the only principle of modesty is that women should cover up and obscure their beauty and sexuality so that men will not lust after them. And while some Christians limit this to the parts of the body covered by a two-piece swimsuit, others extend it further, speaking about the knees, the ankles, any curves, the neck, and even the hair. In short, if this is the only principle guiding our practice of modesty, there is no rational or logical reason why women shouldn’t wear burqas all the time. Consider my argument a sort of “slippery slope” argument.

But, you may say, these other parts of the body clearly are not sexual. We should simply follow the strict principle that what is sexual should be obscured, and what is not sexual may be shown.

The problem with this is that it is based on the false premise that certain parts of the body are sexual, whereas others are not, and it ignores the power of culture in shaping our perceptions of what parts of the body are sexual and what parts are not.

Underlying much of the concern of my critics, however, was the sense that legalism is not a danger we should be worried about. No Christians have ever said women should wear burqas, right?

Wrong. Not only have many Christians throughout the centuries stressed that women ought to cover themselves up in a way analogous to what Muslim cultures stress today, but this was common teaching in Jesus’ day, about the time when in the Sermon on the Mount he emphasized that the burden of guilt for lust falls on the one who is lusting in his heart, not on the woman after whom he is lusting.

As one scholar writes,

It is true that Jesus’ attitude toward women is different from that reported about many rabbis. According to them one must avoid unnecessary contact with women … One is not to speak unnecessarily with a woman, not even with one’s own wife. One is not to walk behind a woman on the street, not to greet her, not to be served by a woman, not to be alone with another woman, because even a woman’s voice and hair are lewd. Naturally one should not look at a woman, not even at an unmarried woman, because by doing so one is in danger. These Jewish statements are part of an increasing tendency in that day to exclude women from public life, including religious life. (Luz, Matthew 1-7, p. 246; emphasis added)

Note that in that day even the hair and voice of a woman was considered to be sexual. The same was the case in much of the broader Greek culture of the day. In contrast to this, Jesus included women among his most devoted followers, associated with prostitutes, and even allowed one such woman to wipe his feet with her hair. The early church boasted of certain female prophets, although this was not the regular order, and it permitted women occasionally to prophecy or pray publicly as long as they wore proper coverings (coverings designed to affirm the headship of a husband over his wife, not the need to obscure a woman’s hair) (1 Corinthians 11).

But did Christians ever fall into the sort of legalism of which the Pharisees were guilty? They certainly did. One excellent example is that of Tertullian. You can find his writings on women’s modesty here, but here I will simply quote from  Kent Brower’s scholarly summary.

In his treatise On the Apparel of Women, he begins by saying that proper Christian women should ‘go about in humble garb, and rather to affect meanness of appearance, walking about as Eve mourning and repentant, in order that by every garb of penitence she might the more fully expiate that which she derives from Eve – the ignominy, I mean, of the first sin and the odium (attaching to her as the cause) of human perdition.’ Christian women, therefore, should not only abstain from enhancing their beauty through apparel, ‘but that of even natural grace must be obliterated by concealment and negligence, as equally dangerous to the glances of (the beholder’s) eyes.’

He also puts together a lengthy case for the veiling of virgins. He writes, ‘Arabia’s heathen females will be your judges, who cover not only the head, but also the face also, so entirely, that they are content with one eye free, to enjoy rather half the light than to prostitute the entire face.’ In Tertullian’s mind, this was not a matter of personal opinion. Rather, it is the consequence of a revelation from the Lord. Again he writes, ‘To us the Lord has, even by revelations, measured the space for the veil to extend over. For a certain sister of ours was thus addressed by an angel, beating her neck, as if in applause: “Elegant neck, and deservedly bare! It is well for you to unveil yourself from the head right down to the loins, lest withal this freedom of your neck profit you not!”‘ (Brower, “Jesus and the Lustful Eye: Glancing at Matthew 5:28,” EQ 76:4 (2004), 307-308.

Christians are not immune to legalism, they are not immune to the tendency to shift the burden of the male heart to the woman’s body, and no, they are not even immune to the appeal of the burqa. But this is not the way of the gospel.

As Halee Gray Scott bemoans on the Her.meneutics Christianity Today blog,

In Christian circles, the conversation centers on modesty and accountability rather than on how to become the type of person for whom sexual indiscretions and perversions are but sickening substitutes for the pleasures of real intimacy…. Along with teaching behavioral modifications like modesty in clothing and fidelity in marriage, Christians need to emphasize the spiritual transformations of whole persons, men and women alike, into the likeness of Christ.

That’s what makes the Christian approach to modesty different. We need to make sure that in our attitude toward dress it is the gospel to which we are bearing witness, not simply the depravity of our hearts.

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