Category Archives: Christian liberty

Should Christians “obey the law”?

My series of posts on the law during the past few weeks (starting here) have sparked some healthy and welcome discussion in various places. I’ve already addressed some of the questions that arise regarding the third use of the law, Jesus’ teaching about the law in the Sermon on the Mount, and the use of the Ten Commandments in Christian worship. Here I want to address a fourth follow-up question. Here’s how one questioner put it:

It would seem to me problematic, however, to say that Christians are not bound in any sense to obey the law – for instance, breaking the commandments against murder or theft would clearly be a sin for a Christian. So, while the focus of the Christian life is not obedience to the law, surely obedience to the law is a necessary part of the Christian life. Thus, my question is whether it is appropriate to speak of Christians being bound by, or obeying the law in any sense?

It’s an excellent question, one made all the more difficult to answer by declarations like this from the Apostle Paul:

Or do you not know, brothers and sisters – for I am speaking to those who know the law – that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? … But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit. (Romans 7:1, 6)

Let me start by saying that the primary object of our obedience is God, not the law. Run a word search on the word ‘obey’ in the New Testament and you will find this to be the case. Still, it is also the case that we are to obey God’s commandments. Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments,” (John 14:15), and the Apostle John writes, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:2-3)

The question is, does the New Testament equate God’s commandments with the law? James comes the closest to doing so when he writes that a person who commits adultery or murder becomes a “transgressor of the law,” and he says that “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10-11). At first glance this seems to run directly contrary to the way Paul consistently talks about the law. For instance, in Galatians Paul uses precisely the same point to emphasize that Christians are not under the law. “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:3-4).

Did James support the Judaizers? Did he somehow renege on his support for the decision of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), over which he presided, that the Gentiles were not bound to observe the whole law? That is highly doubtful, and in fact, James’s argument in his letter suggests greater nuance than at first meets the eye. For James does not typically refer to the law without qualification. Rather, as he puts it in James 2:12, Christians are to “speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.”

It’s hard to know exactly what James means to accomplish by adding the phrase “of liberty,” because he does not explain his use of the term. But it seems likely that either 1) he uses the term to remind us that we are not in fact under the law nor bound by all of its decrees, but only by some of them (i.e., the Ten Commandments), or 2) he is using the phrase to remind us that we are subject to the law in a non-covenantal way, a free way, along the lines of what the Reformed tradition has traditionally meant by the third use of the law. I think the latter is more likely.

So where does this leave us? It suggests that when Christians read the law we come to it in a spirit of liberty – of freedom from the law – but nevertheless with a heavy dose of respect, since the law remains profitable for correction, rebuke, instruction, etc. (2 Timothy 3:16). In other words, we still learn from it something about God’s will, what Christian theology has traditionally called God’s “moral law.” And given that we are called to obey God’s will, we are called to obey his will wherever it is revealed, including in that law as it is rightly interpreted through Christ. That’s what it would mean to speak rightly of obeying God’s law, and that’s why we can say that when we murder, or commit adultery, we transgress the law. The point is not that we are now under the law once again, but that we have transgressed against its teaching regarding the will of God.

Is this how the New Testament ordinarily speaks? No, and that should give us great caution. I believe there is tremendous value in using the language the New Testament tends to use and approaching ethics the way the New Testament tends to approach ethics. Still, as long as we understand what we are saying, there is no reason why we could not speak this way. My chief concern is that we often do not understand what we are saying, and that even when we do, our hearers do not.

There is, then, a right way to incorporate the Ten Commandments into our preaching according to the third use of the law, which is why I, for instance, will be preaching this Sunday on the sixth commandment, You shall not murder, through the lens of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:21-26. Christ came to fulfill the law and it is the moral substance of the law as fulfilled in Christ that God is writing on our hearts by his Spirit (Hebrews 8:10). David Murray captures this way of approaching the Ten Commandments in his recent blog post on the Ten Pleasures. Christians come to the law in a spirit of liberty, delighting to obey God’s will as revealed there, and as interpreted in light of Christ. That’s how we fulfill the law.

Do Christians Understand the Third Use of the Law?

Whenever I say that conformity to Jesus is the appropriate paradigm for the Christian life (i.e., Christian ethics), not the law, I typically hear the objection that I am forgetting the third use of the law. The typical proof-text offered for the third use of the law is 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

The concept of the third use of the law was first articulated by the Lutheran theologian Philip Melanchthon (although the spirit of it is found already in Martin Luther), but it was through Calvin that it became so important to the Reformed tradition. Calvin distinguished between three uses of the law:

  1. the pedagogical use of the law, which is to teach human beings that they are sinners under a curse, and so prepare them for the gospel
  2. the civil use of the law, which is to order the life of human society, with the civil government’s use of the sword if necessary
  3. the spiritual use of the law, which is to teach and exhort those who are no longer under the law (i.e., Christians) what righteousness looks like

Calvin argued that in its proper sense the Old Testament law served primarily to fulfill the first use of the law, the pedagogical use, to teach people their sin and drive them to Christ. But he argued that for Christians, who have received the gospel, been justified, and are no longer under the law (Romans 6:14), the third use, the spiritual use, becomes primary.

Most Reformed Christians understand this, I think, but what I fear many do not understand is how this spiritual use actually works. Many Christians seem to think the third use of the law means that once we have believed the gospel we are placed right back under the law again. Christ has forgiven our sins and given us his Spirit, so now we can get back to following the law. It’s a paradigm of law-gospel-law. Sometimes these same Christians continue to view the law as the one eternal covenant that God has made with his people. For them, the Christian life doesn’t look very different from the life of an Old Testament Israelite. True, we know about Jesus, and we have the Spirit in a greater measure than they did, but the basic form and content of the Christian life is not very different from that of a faithful Israelite.

The problem with this perspective is that it fails to grasp the fact that for Israelites the first use of the law was the primary one. As Paul explains in Galatians 3, the Israelites were under the law as a tutor to lead them to Christ. It was to teach them their sin and drive them to a savior. Israelites were under the law because they were subject to its curses and obligated to perform its sacrifices in order to be right with God. When Israelites heard the Ten Commandments, they heard it as a statement of their covenantal relationship with God:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image … for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

This is what some theologians have called the “works principle” of the law, but which we might more accurately refer to as its covenantal or legal force. It is the principle that those who are under the law must do the works of the law in order to receive its blessing and avoid its curse. This is what Paul was talking about when he wrote in Galatians 3:10,12 that “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ … But the law is not of faith, rather, ‘The one who does them shall live by them.'” To be “under the law” for Paul is to be subject to it in this covenantal or legal way.

What is crucial to understand is that when Calvin said that the third use of the law is the primary use for Christians he was sharply distinguishing it from this legal sense. As he puts it in the Institutes, “the law is not now acting toward us as a rigorous enforcement officer who is not satisfied unless the requirements are met. But in this perfection to which it exhorts us, the law points out the goal toward which throughout life we are to strive” (2.7.13).

In short, Christians are no longer under the law in a legal or covenantal sense. We are no longer subject to its penalties should we fail to measure up to its standards. It cannot be enforced against us. In that sense, we don’t even experience it as a law anymore. Whenever we read it, or hear it read, we need to translate it in light of what Christ has done. Christ is now the primary paradigm for our life, not the law.

Where the third use comes in, however, is in its ongoing role for education and exhortation, as Calvin explains in Institutes 2.7.12. We are not be under the law in a covenantal or legal sense anymore, but we can still learn from it and be exhorted by it. When we study the law in light of its fulfillment in Christ, it helps us understand the righteousness to which God has called us. Although we are thankful that it is no longer a “burden” that weighs upon us (Acts 15:10), we are free to peruse its stipulations to understand better why Jesus had to come, what he accomplished, and what he continues to accomplish in us by his Spirit. We are free to read its stories and hear its curses and blessings from a safe distance, using them to spur us on to greater conformity to Christ.

That’s why Paul could be emphatic throughout his writings that Christians are no longer under the law, and yet still say to Timothy that all of Scripture, including the law, remains profitable for Christians’ instruction.

What Paul did not say to Timothy is that Christians are once again under the law. What he did not say is that the Christian life consists in law-keeping. On the contrary, he insisted that he was “not myself under the law,” though he was “under the law of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:20-21). Paul is emphatic throughout his writings that the Christian life consists not in a return to the law but in spiritual union with Christ (in whom the law is fulfilled) and conformity to Christ’s image (by which the law is fulfilled). To continue to make the law the paradigm for the Christian life is to dwell upon the shadow rather than the substance (Colossians 2:17). It is akin to requiring circumcision rather than baptism, or to modeling our worship after the temple sacrificial system rather than Christ’s instruction in the new covenant. As Paul puts it so clearly in Romans 7:6:

But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.

Making the Christian Life Good News Again: Freedom From the Law

I once heard the pastor of a Presbyterian church in Atlanta proclaim from his pulpit that “the essence of the Christian life consists in one word: lawkeeping.” It was a statement that reflected that pastor’s consistent emphasis in his ministry, and over time it devastated his congregation. I am yet to meet another pastor who agrees with the claim that the essence of the Christian life consists in lawkeeping.

And yet, I find the spirit of the claim reflected in sermons, books, and online articles over and over again: The heart of the Christian life is obedience to God’s law. The purpose of our justification is sanctification to God’s law. Christians need not fear putting God’s law at the heart and center of our lives because now that we have been saved, we can obey that law out of heartfelt desire rather than out of fear.

Now, let me be clear. There is an element of truth to all of these statements if they are understood correctly. Jeremiah promised that in the new covenant God would write his law on his people’s hearts (Jeremiah 31), and Jesus told his disciples, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

The problem with the constant emphasis on the law, however, is that too many Christians utterly fail to grasp the way in which the law points toward and is fulfilled in Jesus. And no, I’m not talking about the way in which the law points toward and is fulfilled in Jesus as far as our justification is concerned. I think most Reformed Christians get that. I’m talking about the way in which the law points toward and is fulfilled in Jesus as the perfect revelation of God’s moral character and will.

Jesus, not the law, is the ultimate expression of God’s will for humanity. Jesus embodies what it means to be a true human being. In his character and virtues we see what true human flourishing looks like. We see the sort of love and sacrificial service that creates genuine communion. We see the mercy and justice that brings reconciliation. We see the piety and patience that testifies to peace with God.

The New Testament pounds away at this theme so often it continues to baffle me that so many Christians miss it. On the one hand, some Christians worry that shifting our emphasis from the law to Christ constitutes some sort of antinomianism (lawlessness). On the other hand, some Christians fail to grasp just how thorough of a transformation the gospel calls us to, as individuals and communities, as the Spirit makes us like Jesus.

Take a look at a passage like 2 Corinthians 3, on which I heard an excellent sermon by Tom Groelsema just yesterday. Paul explains in vivid language how we are no longer under the law written on tablets of stone, what Paul calls the “ministry of death,” a covenant whose glory was terrifying even as it was ultimately fleeting. Rather, we have received the far more glorious ministry of the Spirit, the Spirit who gives us freedom as he transforms us, not according to the law, but into the likeness of Jesus. For “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all … beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).

This is just one passage, but the New Testament pounds at this theme over and over. We could literally cite dozens of statements. We might as well declare that our prooftext is the entire New Testament. So why do so many Christians – and so many Christian pastors – miss it? Why does the “so what?” portion of so many Christian sermons sound like a return to the law? Why do so many Christians reduce their engagement with nonbelievers to witnessing to the law?

We are living in a time when most of our neighbors, coworkers, and fellow citizens no longer receive Christian moral teaching – especially when it pertains to matters revolving around sexuality – as conducive of a good life. When they hear Christians talk about life they primarily hear a message about arbitrary rules and judgment. God’s wrath is upon us because we have disobeyed his law, they hear, and only believing in Jesus can save us so that we can get back to the business of obeying his (seemingly arbitrary) law once again. The narrative starts with law and ends with law, and though there is some profound talk about Jesus and grace in the middle, it’s not with Jesus that this story usually ends.

People don’t become Christians because they fall in love with the Ten Commandments.

If we expect nonbelievers to hear the gospel as good news once again we need to recover our focus on Christ from the beginning to the end of our message. The Christian life does not consist in a story of law-gospel-law. We aren’t saved simply so that we can be placed back under the law once again. And the essence of the Christian life and of Christian witness does not consist in a witness to God’s law. The misery of sin need not have any dominance over us because we are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). We can experience the fruit of the Spirit through “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control,” because “against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23). We can walk in faith, hope, and love, rather than according to the desires of the flesh, which “keep you from doing the things you want to do,” because “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (5:18).

This freedom is what the Christian life is all about. It’s what so many of our family members, neighbors, and coworkers so desperately need to hear, because from beginning to end, it is truly good news.

Why is the Gospel ‘Good News’?

One of the reasons why many Christians are struggling to determine the appropriate response to America’s affirmation of homosexuality – and why some are even arguing that the church should embrace homosexual practice – is that they grasp that the Gospel is supposed to be good news. The Gospel is supposed to be liberating. The Gospel brings salvation, not judgment.

How can Christians, who are supposed to represent good news, be identified with a political and cultural position that is associated with animus and bigotry? What has gone wrong? Is the traditional Christian position on homosexuality misguided? Even if we assume that the world is wrong to denigrate this traditional position as one of animus or bigotry, surely no Christian can be comfortable with this state of affairs. No Christian can take lightly the fact that the Christian witness is being interpreted primarily as one of judgment.

I realize that some Christians think we solve this problem if we simply distinguish between politics and the church. Then we can oppose gay marriage at the political level while showing love and grace at the personal level. But what about our churches? Increasingly it is not just the mainline churches who want to welcome those practicing homosexuality to the Lord’s Table; prominent evangelicals are moving in this direction too. The reality is that the angst Christians have experienced dealing with homosexuality at the political level is nothing compared to the angst they ought to feel witnessing to the Gospel’s implications for sexuality at the personal level, and in the church.

At a time such as this we need to remind ourselves why our witness regarding homosexuality needs to be rooted in the Gospel, not just the law, and we need to wrestle more deeply with why the Gospel is ‘Good News.’ Too often Christians have assumed that by standing for what the law says about sexuality they are fulfilling their obligation to witness to Christ. They have imagined that opposing gay marriage in and of itself is standing for the Truth, capital T. And then they wonder why gays, lesbians, and various liberals do not see the graciousness of the Gospel.

Christian witness is not fundamentally about standing up for the law. Nonbelievers don’t need us for that. That is what the conscience is for. The law is written on human hearts (Romans 1-2).

What nonbelievers need Christians for is their witness to the Gospel. What men and women who practice homosexuality need to receive from Christians is a clear sense of how in the world the Gospel is Good News, not just for the righteous, but for gays and lesbians.

But how can a message that rejects a person’s very identity be received as Good News? This question lies at the heart of the anxiety many Christians feel about the church’s response to gays and lesbians.

What is the Gospel? Stated most simply, it is the good news that because he loves the world infinitely, God has sent his only Son to take the world’s sorrow upon himself, in order that the world might be saved from sin, oppression, and death. He accomplished this through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, reconciling all things to himself, such that all who call on the name of the Lord might be saved. Now Jesus has sent his Spirit to lead men, women, and children to faith in order that they might receive the forgiveness of their sins, empowerment for a life of love and justice, and the promise of life in the coming kingdom of God.

This is fundamentally a message of liberation. When Jesus first preached this Gospel of the Kingdom he proclaimed it in the form of blessings on those who found themselves on the underside of history. It is an approach that much of the contemporary church has long forgotten but that we would do well to recover. (We tell ourselves that the beatitudes of Matthew and Luke are purely ‘spiritual,’ which seems to mean that they don’t really mean what they say.)

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied…. (Matthew 5:3-6)

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. (Luke 6:20-21)

Does the church preach this Gospel today? Is this the message for which we are known?

We live in a world in which the masses who do not believe the Gospel are desperately trying to make meaning for themselves. Women and men pour their energies into all manner of ambition, sensuality, self-righteousness, and idolatry (the buzz words are success, self-expression, affirmation, and fulfillment) because they think that they can find happiness in the pursuit of these things. As time hurtles by, reducing all of us to decay and death in a series of accidents without meaning, people existentially cling to their autonomy as the only means of attaining some small measure of happiness. The opportunities for pleasure and fulfillment seem endless, but the enterprise is ultimately futile, the sheer weight of expectations crushing our accomplishments, relationships, and manufactured identities.

This is a scenario ripe for good news.

True, there are some people who are so invested in this futility that they will consistently reject the Gospel. Their minds are too darkened by the present age to see good news when it is staring them in the face. But there are many others who grasp that their deepest desires cannot be fulfilled by this world, that it cannot liberate them from the powers and failures that oppress them.

What Christians need to communicate to these children of God, many of whom are gay and lesbian, is that the Gospel brings with it complete salvation: not just the forgiveness of sins, not just the end of homosexual practices, not just personal affirmation, but complete salvation, the fulfillment of every purpose and desire for which we were created in the God who is love. It clears away our inadequacy and guilt by paying the price of sin, it tears down our pride and self-righteousness by filling us with love for our neighbors, and it ends our need to manufacture and fulfill our own identity by identifying our purpose in faithful response to the love of God.

Yes, the way in this life will be hard. It will require tremendous self-denial on the part of gay and straight alike. In the short term we have nothing to offer but that a person deny herself, take up her cross, and follow Christ. But while this is a hard way, it is also a fulfilling way because it is the way of Truth. In the long run it is easy and light because it leads to Life. And in the end, that is what many people so desperately desire. That is why the Gospel is Good News. Let’s show it to them.

Should Government Enforce the Law of God? Christian Humility and the Limits of Politics

Christian political activists from across the political spectrum sometimes speak and act as if Christians should brook no compromise with the state on the particular issue with which they are concerned. Whether the issue is sustenance for the poor, protection for the unborn, the punishment of what scripture calls sexual immorality, or something else, the argument is made that on this point there can be no compromise: A Christian cannot vote for a libertarian or a Tea party candidate, or for a pro-choice politician, or for a politician who supports gay rights, etc. So the argument runs. I suppose we are all supposed to write in our favored names, be it Jim Wallis, Pat Robertson, or Doug Wilson.

It is certainly true that when it comes to proclamation and witness Christians should preach the whole will of God. As Timothy P. Jackson points out, no faithful Christian would willingly sacrifice fidelity to God to her own political or personal interests. We are disciples of Christ first and foremost. A Christian pastor is obligated prophetically to proclaim the whole word of God.

But that doesn’t mean civil government should enforce the whole will and word of God, as the great Christian theologians from Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin have all recognized. Unlike Judaism or Islam, Christianity offers no divine blueprint for politics. It sharply delineates the kingdom of Christ from political authority, the restorative ministry of the gospel from the limited preservative power of civil government, and divine law from human law. To put it another way, Christian theologians distinguish the perfect standard of God’s natural moral law from the way in which Christians, in service to their neighbors, apply that law to politics according to the virtues of love and prudence (not to be mistaken for self-serving pragmatism). As Jacques Ellul put it,

“Our task, therefore, is not to determine what law with a Christian content is; rather, it is to find out what the lordship of Jesus Christ means for law (law as it exists), and what function God has assigned to law.”

All of this may sound an awful lot like moral relativism. Wouldn’t it be best simply to advocate the implementation of the law of God, come what may? In fact, John Calvin pointed out, even the law of God itself, the Torah, limited the civil enforcement of God’s will to what sinful human beings could be expected to fulfill. Its severity was relaxed due to the hardness of human hearts, and it even regulated unjust practices in order to minimize their destructive consequences.

OK, you might think, we all know that civil government can’t enforce certain laws, such as the prohibition of coveting, or lust, and that Israel’s laws tolerated things like slavery. But surely government must enforce the big prohibitions, like the ones against murder, adultery, or theft, without compromise. In fact, Calvin recognized the limits of Israel’s civil law even here. The prototypical case was the Torah’s law of divorce, which Jesus himself said is ordinarily unjust even though Moses tolerated and regulated it due to the hardness of human hearts. But Calvin extended the principle to a myriad of other laws in the Torah, including laws that tolerated adultery, murder, and the abuse of slaves, that he believed failed to measure up to the standards of God’s natural law. These include:

  • the law that permitted men to enslave and force into marriage women captured in war (Commentary on Deuteronomy 21:10)
  • the law that minimized the penalty for a man who committed adultery with a slave (Commentary on Leviticus 19:20-22)
  • the law that permitted soldiers to murder prisoners of war (Commentary on Deuteronomy 20:12)
  • the law that permitted a man to sell his daughter into slavery (Commentary on Exodus 21:7-11)
  • the law that permitted a slave to divorce his wife in order to attain his freedom (Commentary on Exodus 21:1)
  • the law that minimized the penalty for slave-owners who mistreated their slaves (Commentary on Exodus 21:26)
  • the law that tolerated and regulated polygamy (Commentary on Leviticus 18:18)

In all of these cases Calvin argues that although the conduct in question was patently unjust, God nevertheless tolerated it due to the hardness of human hearts, and even provided for its regulation in Israel’s civil law. His point is not to defend these laws. On the contrary, Calvin is more than willing to suggest that the Torah’s civil laws can and should be improved upon by in the laws of nations. The objective is not to seek the lowest common denominator, but to recognize that there are limits on what the state can do and should try to do. While the gospel may accomplish what is impossible for human beings, politics remains the art of the possible.

All of this suggests that many Christians would do well to reconsider their dogmatism when it comes to contemporary American politics. The questions facing citizens and politicians alike are complex. It is no easy matter to determine what forms of injustice or immorality government should tolerate, let alone how it should regulate them to minimize abuse. It is not always easy to determine which politicians hold their convictions about the limits of law in good faith.

Christians desperately seek certainty in these matters, but when it comes to politics certainty is a luxury. Here we do not have a clear divine blueprint for law or policy. Here we are in the arena of the virtues of love, prudence, and humility, which each person must seek to put on, in conformity to the image of Christ, as best she can, in good conscience.

In the meantime, Christians must remember that what the state is able to accomplish is not the limit of what human beings are expected to fulfill, let alone what the church should proclaim. Christ demands perfect justice and holiness from all human beings, in every area of life, and it is to that standard that he will hold us all accountable when he comes to judge the living and the dead. “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Why Democracy Needs Christianity

I’m currently teaching Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as part of a course designed to familiarize students with some of the leading ideas and figures that have shaped western civilization. The scope of the class is sweeping, but it provides the opportunity to compare three broad perspectives that have shaped the West: the Greek (i.e., Aristotle); the Christian (i.e., Augustine, Aquinas, etc.); and the Enlightenment (i.e., Locke, Rousseau, etc.).

In a time when many assume that the teachings of Christianity can be jettisoned by western society without much loss to a liberal, democratic society, I think students are somewhat surprised to discover just how thoroughly religious and elitist was Aristotle’s vision of society. Along with Socrates and Plato, Aristotle was the leading pagan philosopher before Christianity came on the scene; his work on the good life, on ethics, and on politics represents some of the best the Greeks had to offer.

Take, for instance, Aristotle’s conviction that for human beings all things are to be directed towards one ultimate Good, that Good being happiness. Aristotle is by no means unique in his judgment that since ‘man’ is a social animal, and the city is greater than the individual, the science or discipline of the Good must be that of politics. The purpose of politics is to educate and train human beings in the virtues necessary to attain to the Good. Laws are measured by the degree to which they command virtue and forbid vice.

All of this may seem true to a certain extent. But my students – college sophomores – are quick to point out that if virtue and the good life are so important, it hardly makes sense to hand over their direction to the political authorities. Who is a politician, let alone a philosopher, to decide what is the good life, to tell me how to educate my children, to guide me in following the appropriate virtues? The modern instinct, in short, is to argue that if something is so important, that is precisely why it should not be subject to political control.

Aristotle’s ethics appear all the more troubling when it becomes evident just how elitist it is. Aristotle’s virtues presuppose a level of education and wealth that, as my students point out, seems utopian. But of course, Aristotle was not a utopian, and he did not think the ethics he was outlining was for the masses, the ‘slavish’ and the ‘bestial.’ On the contrary, Aristotle’s ethics was designed for that small sliver of human beings at the top of society, the citizens. The entire way of life of these citizens, their ability to study wisdom or to participate in politics, depended on the vast majority of human beings working for them as slaves. The latter were not expected to participate in any full sense in the good life.

It’s not that Aristotle was trying to justify oppression or the greed of the powerful. On the contrary, his virtues of liberality and magnificence outline the generosity and public devotion of the (wealthy) virtuous man. This man is not too concerned about acquiring wealth. He avoids shady trades like commerce and usury. His wealth – ideally self-sustaining – is simply a means to the end of doing good to others. The virtuous man will be paternalistic and do good to his inferiors – women, slaves, etc. Prudence never leads one to act unjustly.

Still, we are left with the unalterable conviction that Aristotle’s vision of society gives far too much authority to the politicians and describes the common good with far too much deference to the elites. In contrast to this it is fascinating to observe how Christianity was such a game-changer in the ancient world. Here is a religion that declares that every individual’s unqualified religious loyalty is to a man crucified and allegedly raised from the dead in Palestine. No Caesar or governor has the right or authority to dictate how a person worships or what a person teaches concerning the truth. Christians, as individuals and as congregations called out from the world, will follow their convictions regarding the good life no matter what the king or the city decrees.

It is no wonder that many sociologists and historians have found in Christianity the origin of the separation of church and state. Politics is no longer the ultimate, authoritative discipline, let alone the ultimate reference point for true community. Civil governments are merely temporal authorities with a limited, secular task.

But that’s not all. In the midst of a world whose philosophers and moralists speak only to the elites, and in which citizenship is a matter only for the few, the apostles of Christ address wives as well as husbands, children as well as parents, slaves as well as masters. They describe these socially unequal relationships in terms of equal obligations to mutual Christlike service and submission, declaring them to be eschatologically null and void ‘in Christ Jesus.’ They describe every Christian, slave or free, male or female, Jew or Greek, as being a citizen in the one city that matters.

It is no wonder that many historians and sociologists have found in Christianity the origin of a meaningful concept of the individual, not to mention the seed of the idea of individual human rights. Each person, regardless of social status, now has the obligation of a direct, responsible allegiance to Jesus Christ. Each believer has an important place as a citizen in Christ’s body, possessing an inalienable Christian liberty.

The early church was a long way from modern political liberalism, of course, and the two are not the same thing. Political liberalism – the tradition of democracy and human rights – has been successfully transmitted to thoroughly pagan societies like Japan. But there should be no doubt that Christianity laid the intellectual foundations that made modern political liberalism possible. And there is also good reason to be skeptical of claims that Christianity can be entirely jettisoned without undermining political liberalism itself. As my friend Tim Jackson likes to say, political liberalism may not be ‘Christianity translated into politics’ but it is certainly the ‘stepchild of Christianity.’ If you’re in doubt about that, go read Aristotle.

Do Men Necessarily Lust? Christianity Today’s Response to Jessica Rey

Jessica Rey’s “Evolution of the Swimsuit” video has been making its rounds on the Internet over the past couple weeks. It is an interesting video, worth watching if you have the time and are a woman, a husband, a father of daughters, or otherwise interested in the subject. I’m loath to write more on the modesty issue at this point (see here and here), but a piece of data Rey summarized – and the way she used it – caught my attention. Towards the end of the video, describing a neurological study of the male brain (the participants were Princeton University students), Rey states the following:

Brain scans revealed that when men are shown pictures of scantily clad women, the region of the brain associated with tools, such as screw drivers and hammers, lit up. Some men showed zero brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that lights up when one ponders another person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions.

Rey’s argument was that since science shows that men respond to a woman in a bikini by viewing her as an object, women should not wear bikinis. The point, she argued, is not that the female body is problematic, but that a woman should dress in a way that graces her body with dignity and honor.

The latter point is, of course, true. And what follows is not a defense of the bikini, let alone a suggestion that women should wear bikinis. That question is a distraction from the real issues.

Two things bothered me about Rey’s presentation. First, I worry about the assumption that a woman’s dignity somehow depends on how she is viewed by a sexually charged male college student. Somehow I doubt that your average Princeton male would view women any less differently if they all suddenly started wearing one-piece swimsuits to the beach. As Christianity Today blogger Caryn Rivadeneira puts it,

Those who are “worried” about the male reaction to the female form need to remember that men will still find women in conservative, one-piece, adorable Jessica Rey swimsuits sexy, while not every woman in a bikini will be a turn-on. There’s no hard-and-fast-rule for how we guard our beach bods from the male gaze. And I’m not sure there should be.

As I’ve said before, one person will always find a “more modest” approach than the next. There’s a whole spectrum of opinions and positions out there, and imagining that we can find a place from which to be dogmatic merely introduces the ugly specter of legalism. This promotes just the sort of self-righteous moralism that inevitably obscures the gospel and alienates the kind of outsiders to whom we should be most sympathetic and who most desperately need our love and respect as they are.

More importantly, however, I found highly problematic Rey’s assumption that men are mere machines, unable to control the response of their brains to scantily clad women. Just as a woman is not a mere object, so a man is not a mere machine. The response of the brain to a particular image is not innate, but shaped by a person’s culture, context, and character. In an excellent set of responses to Rey’s video on Christianity Today’s her.meneutics blog, Sharon Hodde Miller writes of the study Rey cites,

These findings are significant, but they also beg an important question: Why do men perceive women’s bodies this way? Scientific findings show that the brain is essentially plastic. It can be shaped and formed and changed by our environments. This means that not all neurological responses are hardwired. Some are conditioned.

In the case of women’s bodies, it’s very possible that men have been conditioned by culture to have a Pavlovian response. Just as dogs grew conditioned to be stimulated by the ring of a bell, our culture has trained men to respond in certain ways to the sight of a female body. This conditioning becomes most apparent in comparison with non-Western cultures, where modesty standards differ….

Undoubtedly, Rey brought attention to important data. When men associate the female body with objects, not just theoretically but neurologically, we can be sure that our culture is sick. However, additional neurological research points to a societal dysfunction that runs far deeper than bikinis. When men associate the imago dei in women with an inanimate tool, then a more comprehensive restoration is in order, one that promotes theological correction, cultural healing, and renewed vision. To this end, we need to dig a bit deeper.

This is exactly right. I worry very much that in our obsession with what other people wear and what other people do, many Christians are entirely missing the fact that a gospel-centered, Christ-centered life is rooted in the virtues of the heart. Out of the heart come lust and sexual immorality, Jesus taught us, and it is the heart that must be changed.

Rey’s study certainly shows us that Christians should be counter-cultural. But the appropriate way to be counter-cultural is not to insist on a set of abstract, outward rules and regulations to which Christians conform, making them “different” from the world in a variety of arbitrary ways (let alone to shift men’s burdens to women, enforcing arbitrary restrictions on their dress that inevitably communicate their denigration rather than affirmation). The appropriate way to be counter-cultural is to conform, as a body of believers, to a new humanity (Jesus), characterized by new virtues (such as love, patience, self-control). Our starting point cannot be that since males lust after women as a matter of scientific fact, women must buck up and cover up or they are guilty of “causing” their male counterparts to sin. Our starting point, rather, must be that all human beings are created bodily in the image of God, and that in place of the temptation to lust after and use one another as objects, we need to learn to delight in and respect one another as embodied persons.

That’s why the New Testament does not give us a dress code, no matter how hard some conservatives try to find one in its pages. You’d be better off searching the rabbinic code of the Pharisees. The New Testament, in contrast, calls us not to attract attention to outward appearance with all sorts of adornment and apparel, but to focus on doing the sort of good works that reflect the virtues to which we are called (i.e., modesty) (1 Timothy 2:9-10). That’s why Paul, rather than commanding people to cover up and avoid interaction, writes,

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5)

What’s at stake in all of this is the gospel. Pluralism and secularization, with all the sins that come attached to them, are hitting the church like a tsunami right now. Conservative Christians are clinging to the instincts and intuitions they know best, seeking to justify them from Scripture, yet without necessarily letting Scripture shape their attitudes and practices. The danger of a new wave of inward-looking legalism is very real.

The only solution is to remember that the whole point of the Christian life is to conform to the image of Jesus, putting on the virtues of this new man and turning in service and self-sacrifice to our neighbors. Our actions and practices should prompt others to ask us for a reason for the hope that is within us. But when the world sees our fearful, defensive churches, will they see Pharisees, or will they see the Savior who was associated with prostitutes and sinners?

Public Justice for the Poor: A Response to Timothy Terrell

At Economics for Everybody, R.C. Sproul Jr.’s website for “Applying Biblical Principles to Work, Wealth, and the World,” Timothy Terrell has written a three part response (here, here, and here to my discussion of the relation between property rights and the rights of the poor (here, here, and here). Terrell agrees with my criticism of the sort of libertarianism that views government taxation as theft, but he rejects my argument that the Christian political theological tradition recognizes that the poor have rights to basic necessities enforceable by civil government. He sums up my argument as follows:

[I]f the poor have not received sufficient charity from those who are able to give, the civil magistrate should (as a last resort, he grants) tax them and transfer the proceeds to the needy.

In fact, I believe the (deserving) poor have the right to sustenance as a matter of justice, not simply of charity. Further, I would view redistributive welfare policies as merely one possible means of the government’s enforcing this element of justice, and not by any stretch the best means. My argument (despite Terrell’s suggestion on this point) is not that government should usurp the role of civil society, but that it should ensure that at a most basic level, civil society is operating justly.

Terrell repeatedly declares that my arguments are those of the “political left” or “Christian left,” seemingly assuming that this will render my argument illegitimate for his typical readers. But his readiness to wave flags and call us to our partisan allegiances, in contrast to my attempt to think through the perspective of the pre-Enlightenment Christian tradition, leads him to ignore the actual substance of that argument.

For instance, Terrell rightly insists that simply because someone has a duty to do something does not mean that government has the authority to enforce that duty. This is a distinction I have made repeatedly on this blog. The difference between the moral law and the civil law is foundational to political liberty, religious liberty, and Christian liberty alike. Yet Terrell seems to assume that this distinction in and of itself proves that government has no obligation to protect the rights of the poor to have their basic necessities met. He writes,

If “justice” is about making sure that rights are protected, we should be careful in thinking about who has a right to what. Are all rights to be enforceable by the sword of the civil magistrate? …

Where do those responsibilities end? Does the civil magistrate have power to enforce (with the sword) every positive duty of families and churches?

While a person with the ability to give has a moral obligation to do so, this is different from a poor person having a legal right to the assets of a rich person.

Of course, I agree. But this is not an argument, it is simply a statement of principles. Terrell goes on,

So, even if those with means to give charitably do not do so, this is a long way from showing that the civil magistrate has a right to extract wealth from them by force and transfer it to the poor. As R.C. Sproul, Jr. has pointed out in another post, true compassion is done voluntarily, with one’s own resources, not resources forcibly extracted from others. Unfortunately, the twisting of the terms “justice” and “protection” clouds this truth, as wealth transfers become (in the Left’s view) just another part of the civil magistrate’s legitimate pursuit of “justice” or “protection” for the poor.

Here Terrell is stating his position but he is not really making an argument. He is refusing to admit that the poor have rights to basic sustenance or that the obligation of others to assist the poor is a matter of justice, insisting on describing it as charity. His basis for this refusal seems to be Sproul’s point that true compassion is voluntary, not coerced. But of course we are not talking about true compassion, but about public justice. A comment on the nature of true compassion tells us nothing more about the form that the civil law should take than does the teaching of Jesus that truly refraining from murder requires loving our neighbor from the heart. Morality and civil law, as Terrell has pointed out, are not the same thing. Pointing to what Scripture says about poor relief and compassion in the church and in the sanctified lives of believers is insufficient when we are discussing the obligations of the state.

Terrell falls into the same confusion when he discusses Calvin’s position. Appealing to Calvin’s commentary on the Law he writes, “Calvin indicates that giving to the poor is to remain a voluntary act, not coerced by anyone.” Terrell rightly comments that Calvin rejected the position he associated with the Anabaptists, which called for the abolition of property, because Calvin believed Christians are to hold all things in common as a matter of voluntary fellowship, not as a matter of civil law. Yet he oddly assumes that this means Calvin thought the government had no obligation to use public property to assist the poor. Here he quotes François Dermange, who argues that Calvin

explicitly distinguishes this religious interpretation of justice from legal and political justice. God summons consciences to appear before his judgment seat, not before an earthly judge, and hence one must say that this law is ‘spiritual.’

So now Terrell does appeal to the distinction between true justice and political justice in order to say that the government should not ensure that the needs of the poor are met. Care for the poor is a matter of conscience, not of public order. Yet here he misses Calvin’s distinction between the virtue of Christian poor relief and the outward political order of poor relief. This despite his own admission that in Calvin’s Geneva the civil government funded and regulated not only the work of the church, but the tasks of education and poor relief as well. Calvin clearly supported Geneva’s policy: In his commentary on Isaiah 49:23 and in a sermon on Deuteronomy 15:11-15 he explicitly called government to use public funds to establish poor-houses, hospitals, and schools.

The relevant distinction is not between charity (love) and justice, which in ordinary Scriptural usage have the same basic content (to love someone is to treat them justly; to treat someone justly is to treat them in accord with love; the justice/righteousness of the law is summarized in the command to love one’s neighbor). The relevant distinction is between the true or inward justice that arises from the heart and the minimal or outward public order of justice that the state is obligated to uphold. The right of the poor to have their minimal outward necessities met clearly falls under the latter. It is a distortion of Calvin’s (two kingdoms) distinction between spiritual and political righteousness to insist that it falls exclusively under the former.

The real question is on what basis Terrell and others claim that the government must force citizens to honor contracts and abstain from murdering one another, while insisting that it may not force those with surplus resources to meet the most basic needs of the poor. I understand how this argument arises from certain classical liberal (or libertarian) premises about the state. I do not believe it is consistent with Christian political theology.

But what of the slippery slope argument? If government has the obligation of making sure the most basic needs of the (deserving) poor are met, will this not lead to intrusive regulation of every part of our lives? One may as well push the slippery slope argument further. If government has the responsibility to enforce justice at all, how do we stop it from seeking to enforce all justice?

The solution, however, is not government abandoning its most basic responsibilities, out of fear that it will abuse its legitimate power. The solution is in the never-ending work of getting government power right, finding the appropriate balance between liberty and justice, the individual and the society, rights and responsibilities. We don’t have to go from one extreme to the other.

Keeping the Two Kingdoms in Perspective: Calvin on the spirituality of all of life

One of the crucial principles of a biblical two kingdoms doctrine is that the two kingdoms do not correspond to two realms or spheres into which life can be divided. Rather, they correspond to two ages (the present creation and the new creation) and to two governments (the word and Spirit and the sword) that overlap in daily life. Versions of the two kingdoms perspective that improperly emphasize a contrast of the internal and the external, or the soul and the body, run into problems with the New Testament diaconate. Versions of the perspective that place too much emphasis on the contrast between the institutional church and the rest of life find themselves in contradiction with the New Testament’s emphasis on the spiritual significance of all Christian activity.

One of the places in which Calvin makes this point most clearly is in his commentary on Galatians. He is commenting on Galatians 6:8-10, in which Paul writes:

For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.

Calvin notes that Paul’s exhortation demonstrates how Christians are constantly to conduct their lives with an eye to the future, or spiritual, implications of what they are doing. In the process, he makes three points that help clarify the sense in which this is true.

First, he defines sowing to the Spirit in terms of “the spiritual life, to which they are said to sow whose views are directed more to heaven than to earth, and whose life is regulated by the desire of reaching the kingdom of God.” Note here that when Calvin contrasts heaven and earth he is not contrasting the immaterial with the material, but rather the future kingdom with the present evil age. Christians, he emphasizes, are to do everything that they do with the coming kingdom in view.

Second, Calvin notes that actions can be spiritual in terms of their end, even while they are temporal (or secular) in terms of their outward form. He writes,

Those [spiritual] employments are denominated spiritual on account of their end, though in some respects they are external and relate to the body, as in the very case now under consideration of supporting pastors…. Let no man, from a wish to gather the fruit in this life, or before its proper time, deprive himself of the spiritual harvest. The desires of believers must be both supported and restrained by the exercise of hope and patience.

Clearly Calvin rejects any simplistic distinction between spiritual activities and earthly activities, not because he is uncomfortable saying some actions and things are temporal, but because he rejects the notion that Christians should engage these things without any reference to the coming kingdom. For Calvin, like contemporary two kingdoms advocates, treating temporal things as if they are ultimate is idolatry. But for Calvin, unlike some contemporary two kingdoms rhetoric, engaging temporal things as if they have no relation to the future kingdom at all is just as problematic. As Calvin puts it with reference to Christian liberty, many things are indeed indifferent (or adiaphora), but that does not mean Christians should use them indifferently. All Christian activity must be conducted to the glory of God and for the love and edification of one’s neighbor.

Third, Calvin emphasizes that the spiritual significance of our actions is more acute or defined in some instances than in others, but he notes that Paul nevertheless does extend his point to all actions of well-doing towards others.

Well-doing does not simply mean doing our duty, but the performance of acts of kindness, and it has a reference to men. We are instructed not to be weary in assisting our neighbors, in performing good offices, and in exercising generosity…. Since, therefore, God has set apart the whole of the present life for plowing and sowing, let us avail ourselves of the season … Beginning with liberality to ministers of the gospel, Paul now makes a wider application of his doctrine and exhorts us to do good to all men, but recommends to our particular regard the household of faith, or believers, because they belong to the same family with ourselves. This similitude is intended to excite us to that kind of communication which ought to be maintained among the members of one family. There are duties which we owe to all men arising out of a common nature, but the tie of a more sacred relationship, established by God himself, binds us to believers.

Don’t let the emphasis on service to those in the household of faith (one’s ‘immediate family’, so to speak) distract you from the more basic point. Calvin clearly believes that Christians are to conduct all of their affairs with an eye to the coming kingdom of Christ. This means using the things of this age not for one’s own temporary benefit, but for the edification of one’s neighbors. Temporal actions are spiritual for Christians both because they point to the justice of the coming kingdom and because they carry with them eternal rewards.

Getting this balance right is one of the most difficult, yet important tasks of the Christian life. People are constantly tempted to make their families, their jobs, or their politics ultimate; they want to speak of these things as if they are the stuff of the kingdom itself. On the other hand, the temptation to be reactionary, to simply belittle the relevance of the kingdom to these matters, is always present. Look through church history and you will find Christians erring on both sides in dangerous and tragic ways. Our goal should not simply be to avoid the particular mistake of someone else who gets it wrong; our goal should be to get the Christian life right.

Paternalism or Freedom: How being an American shapes your politics and your Christianity

Calvin’s Geneva had one of the most participatory political systems in 16th Century Europe. A substantive portion of the city’s population was able to vote in civic elections or on substantive policy changes. Elections were meaningful and could bring real change. For instance, it was through victory at the polls in 1555 that Calvin and his followers consolidated their hold over the city in a way that ensured the longstanding legacy of Calvin’s version of the Reformation.

But Geneva was no democracy. The magistrates of the city were responsible to enact and enforce policies that were for the good of the city but not necessarily reflective of anything like a popular will. One of their primary tasks was to guide the city in matters of religion, virtue, education, and health, to ensure that Geneva would be godly and that God would bless it. Within this mindset unconstrained public debate was not considered to be a good thing. Myriads of people were hauled before the Geneva council over the years to be rebuked or punished for their abuse of speech, whether against the city government or against the theology of its famous reformer. Heresy, blasphemy, false worship, and slander were all crimes regularly punished by the state.

From the perspective of virtually all early Reformed thinkers this made plenty of sense. Calvin and his contemporaries did indeed speak in terms of rights, and they had ideas of religious liberty and Christian freedom. But they had no concept of a right to do wrong. Freedom of religion meant the freedom to practice the true religion, while freedom of speech meant at best the freedom to speak in a way that promoted the welfare of the city or of the true religion.

Over the years the Reformed and the Puritans steadily moved closer towards the rights and freedoms we so value today. Puritan New England gradually loosened the ties between church and state, and it was there in Boston that the American Revolution began. But the Puritans and their heirs nevertheless maintained many of the assumptions about politics and freedom that once guided 16th Century Geneva. New England was the bastion of the Federalist Party that conceived of the future of America in terms of the rule of enlightened and virtuous elites chosen freely by a deferential public. This was the party of John Adams, under whom a Federalist Congress sought to curb the freedom of the press through the infamous legislation known as the Alien and Sedition Acts.

But post-Revolutionary America was no longer following the ideals of Puritan New England. In 1800 Thomas Jefferson’s election heralded a Republican revolution after the Revolution, a revolution that carried public opinion to its truly eminent place in American society and politics, insisting on political equality carried to its fullest logical extent. Jeffersonian democracy came to define America, sweeping the Federalist party and its outmoded understanding of politics into the dustbin of history.

In his magisterial history of the early American republic, Empire of Liberty, Gordon S Wood describes the way in which the debates about the Sedition Act and the freedom of the press changed America forever.

The Sedition Act of 1793 marked a crucial point in the development of the American idea of public opinion. Its passage provoked a debate that went far beyond the issue of freedom of speech or freedom of the press; it eventually involved the very nature of America’s intellectual life … and in the process it undermined the foundations of the elitist eighteenth century classical world on which the Founders had stood….

In the debate over the sedition law the Republican libertarian theorists … rejected both the old common law restrictions on the liberty of the press and the new legal recognition of the distinction between truth and falsity of opinion that the Federalists had incorporated into the Sedition Act. While the Federalists clung to the eighteenth century’s conception that ‘truths’ were constant and universal and capable of being discovered by enlightened and reasonable men, the Republican libertarians argued that opinions about government and governors were many and diverse and their truth could not be determined simply by individual judges and juries, no matter how reasonable such men were….

The Federalists were dumfounded. ‘How … could the rights of the people require a liberty to utter falsehood?’ they asked. ‘How could it be right to do wrong… People needed to know the ‘criterion by which we may determine with certainty, who are right, and who are wrong.'”

The Republicans, Wood points out, rejected the old assumption that the truth was the monopoly of the “educated and aristocratic few.” The elites used knowledge just as easily to manipulate and oppress as to guide and promote, Republicans reasoned, and freedom of speech and opinion was ultimately a far better means of promoting the truth than the restrictions of the past.

In making this argument Republicans frequently pointed to the relatively novel yet highly successful experiment in freedom of religion and religious diversity in the United States. If the Puritans and their Calvinist forbears had emphasized the truths of human depravity and the necessity of magisterial or clerical control over matters of education and opinion, Republican minded Christians were more likely to highlight the importance of freedom for religious liberty and genuine Christianity. If the dignity of human beings as made in the image of God was once seen as something the state should use all of its powers to promote in its subjects, now the dignity of human beings as made in the image of God was seen as the basis for a free citizenry to give guidance to the state.

Although the Republican vision for America was so successful that virtually no American would question its basic premises today, the old debates endure in more subtle form. Today, ironically, the conservatives are those often thought of as liberals, those who bemoan the decline of the old authoritative media embodied in the Big Three of NBC, ABC, and CBS nightly news, and those who insist on the promotion and maintenance of a centralized system of public education. The true liberals are those who are conservative on so many other issues, those who applaud the democratization of American media and promote charter schools and vouchers as a way of bringing liberty to public education. At the root of these public debates are continuing conflicts over the appropriate relation between educated, enlightened elites and the broader public.

A similar debate plays out in the church. On the one hand are those who want pastors and clergy to tell their parishioners exactly how to live, what to think, and how to vote. They want pastors to do much  more than simply teach Scripture and allow Christians individually and collectively to work out its implications for all of life. They want a church that carefully molds and enforces Christian public opinion and practice, and Christians who are obedient and mindful of the myriad of agreed-upon rules and commandments. On the other hand are those who wish their pastors would make sure that when they say “Thus sayeth the Lord” they are actually communicating the teaching of Scripture rather than their own “enlightened” opinion. The point of Christian discipleship, these people point out, is to form people who develop and practice wisdom and virtue by putting on the mind of Christ and conforming to the image of their Lord.

Of course, most thoughtful Americans and most thoughtful Christians realize that both ideas, carried to an extreme, are dangerous. Democratic equality and libertarian freedom are full of pitfalls, and it remains unclear whether or not American democracy can survive the people’s tendency to call government to do more for them than it can possibly do. Radical libertarian freedom in the area of sexual morality has spawned a social revolution whose costs are obvious but whose full tragedy remains to be determined.

On the other hand, virtually none of us would tolerate the sort of authoritarianism that was common fare in the churches and states of the past. We recognize that life is truly blessed when we have the freedom and equality to walk in the wisdom and virtue that God has given us, regardless of what our ‘betters’ may think. We are not eager to turn back the clock and abandon American democracy even as we continue to appreciate the decisive importance of solid education and the clear preaching and teaching of the word of Christ.

We are very much American Christians. That has its pitfalls, but in this respect at least, I think, it is a good thing.

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