Chris Gerhz is a good historian and generally thoughtful about a number of matters (even when you disagree), but his piece about the virtues of mainline Protestantism is an indication of how thin the ties… More
If you think about Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians as the church equivalent of PanAm Airlines and Sears & Robuck, you may have a point. Denominations have been in decline numerically for some time just like the blue chip businesses of the 1950s. Some of that is a function of the mainline’s problem with message — are they a church, an NGO, or a wing of the Democratic Party? Some of it is a function of conservatives perhaps being too zealous about what makes their denomination distinct — the OPC is the denomination Jesus founded!! But much of it comes from not understanding the point of being connected to other congregations and using those ties to organize larger ministry endeavors (e.g., evangelism, missions, education, ecumenism). A pastor in a small town may find that the congregation in which he ministers is sufficient to carry out its work, and that denominational expectations and funding is a restriction.
At the same time, the work of independent congregations has to be difficult. Where do you find trained pastors if yours retires? What about pension funds for pastors? What about supporting foreign missionaries? If someone proposes a joint-worship service among local churches, how does an independent church decide whether to participate? Denominational committees help with a lot of the activity that goes beyond a congregation. In other words, a local congregation has trouble functioning as its own denomination. This is especially true when it comes to planting churches. From where do you acquire the funds to support a like-minded ministry until it is self-sustaining?
Networks appear to be the current remedy. These are the new sources of venture capital (apparently) for church start ups. It seems to be a case of financing the church the way entrepreneurs find patrons for businesses in Silicon Valley.
Apostles Church (three separate congregations) in New York City seems to be an example of the new world of ecclesiastical entrepreneurship. One of its pastors, John Starke, used to write for The Gospel Coalition, and since these churches are in New York City, Ground Zero of urban ministry for urban ministries, you might think Apostles might be a partner with both the Gospel Coalition and Redeemer City-to-City. As it turns out two of the three Apostles’ congregations do show up as partners. But not with Apostles Downtown. That raises a question of how much the three Apostles congregations are in full partnership with each other. But since they are urban and in NYC, it seems odd that Redeemer is not a partner.
Instead, the churches have ties to these networks:
Send North America: Our strategy is simple and straightforward. We believe that the Church is God’s plan—you are God’s plan—to reach North America and the nations with the hope of the gospel.
As a part of the Southern Baptist Convention, the North American Mission Board is here to help local churches send the hope of the gospel across North America in two primary ways: compassion ministry and church planting.
Hope For New York: Our vision is a New York City in which all people experience spiritual, social, and economic flourishing through the demonstration of Christ’s love.
Our mission is to mobilize volunteer and financial resources to support non-profit organizations serving the poor and marginalized in New York City.
Sojourn Network: …by offering the pastors in our network a strong vision of planting, growing, and multiplying healthy churches and by providing them with thorough leadership assessment, funding for new churches and staff, coaching, training, renewal, and resources, we can best steward their gifts for the benefit and renewal of their local congregations.
Since 2011, our aim at Sojourn Network has been to provide the care and support necessary for our pastors to lead their churches with strength and joy – and to finish ministry well.
Of course, other networks have been around for a while. Willow Creek is now long in the tooth and struggles, I imagine, after revelations about its founder, Bill Hybels and guru, Gilbert Bilzikian. Acts 29 is also about as old as Redeemer NYC and its founder, Mark Driscoll, has had Trumpian moments.
But if someone wanted to plant a church, the prospects never appear to have been better. Lots of energy, money, and people are starting churches and finding funding outside the denominations, whether small or large. But what gives these networks an identity? Can you substitute Sojourn for Methodist, Acts 29 for Episcopalian, Redeemer City-to-City for Presbyterian? As tired or as broad as the older denominational names have become, they have direct reference to a specific historical moment and a distinct set of ideas and practices. What is a network other than a mechanism for funding churches and consoling psychologically damaged church planters?
Tim Keller once said of churches that:
promote cooperation between individuals and the kind of associational life that is necessary for human happiness and social success. Without informal shared trust, things are more litigious and combative. Life is much better when neighbors pull for each other, help each other, collaborate together. But this kind of “social capital” is very difficult to generate through public policy. Governments cannot duplicate the effect of religion as a source of shared values.
Well, don’t denominations create associations where networks create websites and podcasts? So why start a network when you are in a denomination? And why start a church planting network when you are in a denomination that has an agency devoted to church planting — called, Home Missions?
Yuval Levin recently wrote about the decline in institutional life in the United States. Some of this owes to businesses or political parties or churches where executives or officers abuse power and betray trust. But Levin adds a wrinkle. It is those people who use institutions to advance their para-institutional endeavors:
What stands out about our era in particular is a distinct kind of institutional dereliction — a failure even to attempt to form trustworthy people, and a tendency to think of institutions not as molds of character and behavior but as platforms for performance and prominence.
In one arena after another, we find people who should be insiders formed by institutions acting like outsiders performing on institutions. Many members of Congress now use their positions not to advance legislation but to express and act out the frustrations of their core constituencies. Rather than work through the institution, they use it as a stage to elevate themselves, raise their profiles and perform for the cameras in the reality show of our unceasing culture war.
President Trump clearly does the same thing. Rather than embodying the presidency and acting from within it, he sees it as the latest, highest stage for his lifelong one-man show. And he frequently uses it as he used some of the stages he commanded before he was elected: to complain about the government, as if he were not its chief executive.
The pattern is rampant in the professional world. Check in on Twitter right now, and you’ll find countless journalists, for instance, leveraging the hard-earned reputations of the institutions they work for to build their personal brands outside of those institutions’ structures of editing and verification — leaving the public unsure of just why professional reporters should be trusted. The same too often happens in the sciences, in law and in other professions meant to offer expertise.
Or consider the academy, which is valued for its emphasis on the pursuit of truth through learning and teaching but which now too often serves as a stage for political morality plays enacted precisely by abjuring both. Look at many prominent establishments of American religion and you’ll find institutions intended to change hearts and save souls frequently used instead as yet more stages for livid political theater — not so much forming those within as giving them an outlet.
Artists and athletes often behave this way too, using reputations earned within institutional frameworks as platforms for building a profile outside them. When he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the former Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg implored fellow players to remember “that learning how to bunt and hit-and-run and turning two is more important than knowing where to find the little red light on the dugout camera.” When vital institutions across American life fail to produce people who remember that, they become much harder to trust.
I cannot prove it but I have a pretty good sense that this is what is happening with networks in relation to denominations. We see pastors and denominational leaders working outside denominational structures in networks. They use their denominational standing to generate interest in an activity and alliance outside the denomination. This is not simply a function of the parachurch sort of replicating what the church does in forms of preaching- and teaching-like activities. This is supplying funding for congregational startups that could very well be part of a denomination’s church-planting effort.
Denominations are by no means above criticism. But how do you start a network even while you belong to a denomination? If the federal government had any regulatory power over religion, this would be high on the list of investigations.
In the fine print of church teaching (via the church’s lay apologists), being Protestant is inferior to being Roman Catholic. Jimmy Akin explains that Protestants are partial Christians:
the Catholic understanding is that Protestants are our brothers and sisters in Christ. So all Christians who profess faith in Christ and who are properly baptized are Christians and were put into a relationship with Jesus that Scripture describes in terms of being members of his Body. Different people have different degrees or forms of incorporation into His Body, though. And the goal is for everyone to be fully incorporated into Jesus, so we’re united with Him in the most ways possible. So that includes things like having the fullness of the Christian faith, understanding and accepting all of Jesus’s teachings. It also includes things like receiving all of the Sacraments that he would have us receive. Not just baptism, but the other Sacraments as well, and in the Catholic view there are seven sacraments.
It also includes being fully united with His Church, because Jesus said, “I will build my Church–” singular, not plural– “and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” So Jesus established a Church in the first century, and it’s continued down to the present day. And we also know that that Church is a visible Church, because he gave it leaders, like Saint Peter and the other Apostles, and the other ministers that they appointed to lead the Church in their absence, and so there has been a single visible communion of believers in Jesus that’s existed all the way from the first century to today.
The fullness of Rome has a lot to do with history — the apostles, the apostles’ successors, and the apostles Christ founded.
Not even Protestantism’s benefits can measure up to Rome’s antiquity:
[Protestants] still share many elements of grace, and have many wonderful aspects about them; they they honor Scripture, they may have a slight difference about, you know, what some of the books of the Bible should be, but they still honor God’s Word, they believe in Jesus, they believe in the Holy Trinity, they have a valid Sacrament of Baptism, and they have a lot of elements of grace and sanctification.
At the same time, we have to acknowledge that, you know, there are some differences between Protestants and Catholics, and from a Catholic perspective, those differences aren’t a good thing, … “What if someone knowingly refuses to accept something that Jesus willed us to have?”
If someone knew that the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus and that He wanted all of his followers to be united to it, and they said, “You know, I’m just not going to do that. I know Jesus wants me to do it, I know that he prayed for Christian unity on the night of the Last Supper, I know that’s a high on his priority list, but I’m just not going to do that,” well, then you’d have to question whether that person actually has a saving relationship with God, because he’s turning his back on something that’s fundamental and very important to Jesus, and therefore it looks, at least from outward appearances, like he’s cutting himself off from the means of grace that Jesus gave us. And so that person would be in spiritual jeopardy.
Is there salvation outside the Roman Catholic Church? The answer seems to be, yes, as long as either you don’t believe Rome is the church Jesus founded or you don’t know there’s no salvation outside the church. Knowledge (or ignorance) of the church is key as Akin claims:
You could have someone who, let’s say, was raised in a Protestant community, may have heard that Catholics believed Jesus founded the Catholic Church, but they don’t KNOW that; that hasn’t been proven to them, they haven’t seen sufficient evidence for that, and so through no fault of their own, they’ve never joined the Catholic Church–but they would if they knew that this was Jesus’s Church.
I know a lot of people who are in the Protestant community who would say, “Oh yeah, if I was convinced the Catholic Church was the one founded by Jesus, I would join it today.” Well, that person is not deliberately cutting himself off from from what Jesus would have him experience. He’s open to what Jesus would have him experience, and he’s already experiencing many elements of grace and sanctification. But he’s not deliberately refusing to do something he knows Jesus wants him to do. And so that person, even though they haven’t been fully incorporated into the Catholic Church, they’re still in a saving relationship with God. And so, if someone is not Catholic, through no fault of their own, but they’re otherwise responding to God’s grace, then they’ll be saved.
So the real question of salvation for Protestants is their knowledge of and degree of hostility to the Roman Catholic Church. A pious Protestant who hasn’t given much thought to Rome is apparently in a state of grace.
But if a person, whether they’re Catholic or not, refuses to do something of fundamental importance, like it could be not joining the Catholic Church, could be leaving, it could be any number of other grave things, like go out and commit murder or adultery; well, you’re deliberately defying the will of Christ in a fundamental matter there, and that will result in you being lost unless you repent. So everybody, both Protestant and Catholic, needs to be open to the grace that God wants us to have, and needs to be willing to respond to the call of Christ in all of these very fundamental matters.
The openness goes only one way though. Roman Catholics do not need to be open to the grace that is available in Protestant churches to be saved. For a Roman Catholic, salvation depends on the church. (Which is why a website can describe how to become Roman Catholic without ever mentioning Jesus Christ).
So many alliances and networks, so little church discipline:
The roots of the Sojourn Network go back to the early 2000s, where Sojourn was invited to join Acts 29, a diverse global family of church-planting churches. Mike Cosper and other members of Sojourn participated in boot camps and events, using this experience of brotherhood and curiosity to influence the development of the Sojourn Network.
With extreme diversity consisting of multi-city and multi-campus churches to conservative Presbyterian churches, Acts 29 was dealing with a lot of tension due to the different views on what it means to be a church and a real community. In efforts to relieve the tension, Acts 29 began the transition from regional affiliated networks to infinity affiliated networks.
Soon realizing that Sojourn was the only network who chose to make the change to an infinity network, Acts 29 inspired them to go out and start something new. It was an exciting time for everyone to see new networks growing and moving forward in new directions.
Wanting to put more resources to the church planting mission, Mike Cosper and Daniel Montgomery set out to find a leader with a passion to coach and mentor church planters. The ideal candidate had to be devoted to the local ministry while pioneering the network simultaneously. Finally, they discovered Brian Howard, a member of Acts 29 and a church planter in Southern California looking spend more time on church planting and working with planters.
After joining Sojourn, Brian not only served as a pastor, but he helped launch the East campus and the J Town campus, evolving the network’s vision. Dave Owens first joined the Sojourn Network in 2011 as Brian’s administrative assistant. Though his experience as an assistant was humbling and transforming, Dave knew his passion lied with planting churches and helping other planters.
Defining the vision
With several leadership transitions redefining the network’s mission, the Sojourn board of directors wanted to focus on crafting lasting values and a vision for the future.
Many church planters believe a network can only be a head or hands network, meaning the focus is either to take time to ensure beliefs are lined up or to just get it done. The Sojourn Network questioned this status quo and wanted to bring both soul and a healthy posture back to ministry. With this value, Sojourn became known as the place where church planters came to be healthy, quickly shifting the network’s grand visions of planting thousands of churches to simply helping church planters recover from spiritual warfare and disillusionment. Mike recognized many church planters were burnt out, working as both a pastor and a planter. Sojourn realized this was not a sustainable or healthy path. Knowing Sojourn would take a few years to take off, the members focused on holistic renewal to prepare church planters for multiplication, growth and outward energy, driving passion for church planting.
At this time, Sojourn started to look inward for inspiration to develop the vision and values. Sojourn ran the 930 art center, a diverse, artistic place from wood carving to videography to skateboarding. This culture around art, music and literature helped the network realize the ultimate goal is transforming communities and lives.
As God continued to send creative and artistic people to Sojourn, the network understood their culture flows from creative contextualization coupled with health and wholeness. Praying for the lord to lead the way, Sojourn found themselves defining a vision based on sustainable, healthy growth.
This may be the most challenging paragraph:
With extreme diversity consisting of multi-city and multi-campus churches to conservative Presbyterian churches, Acts 29 was dealing with a lot of tension due to the different views on what it means to be a church and a real community. In efforts to relieve the tension, Acts 29 began the transition from regional affiliated networks to infinity affiliated networks.
What is an affiliated network as opposed to an allied network?
What is an infinity network as opposed to a finite network?
What is wrong with Redeemer NYC that it has not solved the “extreme diversity consisting of multi-city and multi-campus churches to conservative Presbyterian churches”?
H. L. Mencken remarked that Calvinism was in his “cabinet of horrors” but little removed from cannibalism. If you are alphabetizing horrors and putting them on a shelf in alphabetical order, Mencken’s observation makes sense. What he did not mention is that alphabetizing items that scare means that Catholicism would also near cannibalism in Mencken’s cabinet. And here the connections are greater than mere spacial proximity. Roman Catholics regularly need to answer the charge that if the bread and wine in the Mass become the actual body and blood of Jesus, then aren’t participants engaging in cannibalism?
Here’s one response:
The brilliant medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas examined the philosophical issues and conundrums elicited by the belief in transubstantiation. Most interestingly, Aquinas addressed the confession of an earlier theologian, Berengarius of Tours, who was forced to assert that Christ’s bones were truly crushed by teeth when laypeople received the consecrated host during Holy Communion. To this very literal interpretation, Aquinas responded that “Christ’s very body is not broken” but only “under the sacramental species.”
In other words, Christ’s presence is real and bodily, but this real and bodily presence is not to be understood as the same as Christ’s real and bodily presence as a historical being like you and me. Under the species of bread and wine, as Paul VI made clear, Christ “is present whole and entire in His physical ‘reality,’ corporeally present, although not in the manner in which bodies are in a place.” We Catholics aren’t cannibals – not exactly, anyway.
Since a bloodstained Eucharistic host would presumably be quite easy to fake, it’s more common to see the Catholic Church distance itself from such claims, rather than naively endorse them. But there is something about Christ’s real, bodily presence that Catholics see as particularly comforting in an age such as ours: Jesus might be hidden, but he is present among us nonetheless.
So Roman Catholics are not literal about Christ’s presence. It is not the actual body of the ascended Christ that is present in the Mass. It is a spiritual presence with some physical aspects.
Another author answered the question this way:
Many people miss the mark with regard to the faith because they make the mistake of applying terms in a human way to God who is infinite. We could speak of Mormons who claim God, the Father, has a physical body because the Scriptures speak of God’s “back parts,” in Exodus, or “the hand of Lord,” the “eyes of the Lord,” etc. You’ve probably heard the classic rejoinder to these Mormon claims: “Psalm 91 refers to God’s ‘feathers and wings’. Does this mean God is some sort of bird?”
The error here, of course, is rooted in interpreting texts that were not intended to be used in a strict, literal sense, as if they were. “Back parts” have to mean “back parts,” right?…
When it gets down to brass tacks, the nay-sayers who reject the Eucharist, and most specifically, those who accuse us Catholics of cannibalism because we say we “consume” the Lord in the Eucharist, body, blood, soul, and divinity, fail to understand what we actually mean by consuming the Lord. They end up objecting just as the unbelieving “Jews” of John 6:52, who said, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
If you are thinking about a cannibalistic blood-meal, he can’t. But if you understand, as Jesus said, “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail, the words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life,” then you understand. The Eucharist represents a miracle confected by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Christ’s presence in the Supper is essentially spiritual. Again, it is not the literal body and blood. That would be cannibalism. Instead, it is a spiritual body and blood.
How exactly is that different from Reformed Protestants who claim the real presence of Christ in the Supper?
Q. 96. What is the Lord’s supper?
A. The Lord’s supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine according to Christ’s appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.
The news of Julius Kim’s appointment as president of the Gospel Coalition should put the organization’s sometime fascination with Anglicanism in perspective — Anglophilia runs deep in Americans (as does venerating the Founders many of whom were Anglican).
Worthwhile to recall is that when TGC aired differences over church polity, they did not include a brief for episcopacy. Instead, it was mainly a choice between Presbyterians and Congregationalists (read Baptists).
On the Presbyterian side were Kevin DeYoung and Mark Jones. DeYoung wrote in defense of the office of elder:
I hold to the Presbyterian position because of the overall New Testament teaching about eldership. The office of eldership is one of teaching and authority (1 Tim. 5:17), which is why the position is reserved for qualified men (1 Tim. 2:11-12; 3:1-7). Elder-pastors are given by Christ to be overseers and shepherds of the flock of God (Acts 20:28, Eph. 4:11). The leaders in Hebrews 13:17 who must watch over the souls of God’s people are almost certainly elders. We know from 1 Peter 5:2-3 that elders must exercise gracious oversight in the church. They are the under-shepherds serving and representing Christ, our Chief Shepherd and Overseer (1 Peter 1:25; 5:4). It is, therefore, everywhere in keeping with a biblical theology of eldership to have the elders of the church exercising the authority of the keys through preaching and discipline. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how the elders are to shepherd, govern, and protect as the New Testament commands if the final authority rests with the congregation and not with the officers who represent Christ in their midst.
Jones dug in with presbytery:
Despite what you may think, Presbyterian ecclesiology is not primarily defined by churches governed by elders, but by churches governed by presbyteries. Presbyteries can encompass the elders of a local church, a regional church, and what is termed a “general assembly.” This view is established from the oneness of the visible church. Based on the sufficiency of Scripture, Presbyterians hold that the church is governed jure divino (by divine right). There are certain fixed principles in the government of the church. We hold that Christ has blessed the church with the Scriptures, church officers, and sacraments. In doing so, Christ has “ordained therein his system of doctrine, government, discipline, and worship, all of which are either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary inference may be deduced therefrom” (Presbyterian Church in America Book of Church Order).
While there is much that Presbyterians and classic congregationalists can agree on, nevertheless, against the congregationalist view, Presbyterians affirm the authority of presbyteries beyond the local church. That’s the crux of the issue between Presbyterians and congregationalists: authority.
Elders have authority given to them in the Bible. They should be obeyed. The problem is whether that paragraph says all there is to say about church power. If church members are to vote on their elders, and if church members have a right to vote in excommunication (which many Reformed divines, particularly some notable Dutch divines, argued for), then we must say that there is some church power in the congregation as a whole. But that does not by any means argue against the unique role of elders and the fact that the Bible commands churches to submit to their elders. Nor does this mean that people are mini-elders arbitrarily deciding when and where they actually submit to their leaders. If a church feels a tension there, then that is actually a good thing. The reformed divines certainly did….
It is true some congregationalists fear elders because of the tyranny of the few, but on the other hand some presbyterians fear members involvement because of the anarchy of the many. But fear never leads to good polity. The question really comes down to this: Did Christ give any share of church power to the congregation? If so, then we must account for it.
Again, no brief for bishops. The world of New Calvinism seems to have little room for the rule by one in the palace of the church. It may owe to church history like this.
Quotations from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” suggest he may have:
One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
After all, most roads in the West lead not merely to Rome but to Vatican City.
Jake Meador addresses the question of whether to support impeachment of President Trump on the basis of the Decalogue (as the Christianity Today editorial did implicitly). After all, if you argue that Trump lied and broke the 9th commandment, what about other presidents who were not exactly truthful about intelligence and wars?
He goes on to say that the Ten Commandments are the basis of Protestant political reflection:
First, the Ten Commandments are central to traditional Protestant political theology. Indeed, the Reformed political theorist Johannes Althusius says that you destroy all possibility of symbiotic human community if you remove the Ten Commandments from public life. (In as much as many of our arguments about symbiotic communal life today depend on structuring our economy in such ways that human selfishness is ingeniously twisted to promote mutual material prosperity, I think Althusius is almost certainly correct.)
Likewise, many early Protestants, Melanchthon included, would argue that the Ten Commandments are simply a distillation of the Natural Law and so to remove the Ten Commandments from all consideration in public life is to render public life lawless; it is to make the norms of public life equivalent to the wishes of the powerful, who have the ability to wield the power of government to their own ends and who, apart from the law, have no mechanism to limit their power. This, of course, is an echo of Augustine’s much-cited line when he says that kingdoms without justice are but little robberies. Given the state of our republic, I, once again, find this line of thought highly persuasive. Therefore, any attempts to push the Ten Commandments to the center of Protestant political thought is quite welcome, for it is an attempt to return Protestantism to its historical roots.
… The magistrate’s responsibility is to preserve the peace of society through protecting the good and punishing the bad. So while I might sin in my inner life through impure thoughts, coveting, or some other vice, these things are not crimes, properly speaking, because they are strictly internal; if these thoughts are externalized in my conduct then they could become subject to civil law.
But what about the sins of the First Table that, as Protestant political theology teaches, magistrates are supposed to enforce? Don’t people remember the original Westminster Confession?
The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he has authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordainances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he has power to call synods, to be present at them and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God. (23.3)
For Rose Ann Farrell, 74, from Florida, the claim rang true. “I really believe he was sent to us,” she said. “From one to ten, he’s a ten. He lives in a Christian world and we needed a strong Christian, somebody who is not afraid. He speaks for us, has the guts and courage to speak what we want to say. His actions, his intentions, are Christian.”
But is it such a good idea to enforce the First Table of the law on Muslims and Mormons?
Plus, why do Protestants concerned about public life so often reduce the Decalogue to the Second Table? That was not the way old Protestant political theology had it. Not only did the First Table restrict religious expression and worship, but the magistrate — maybe someone like Barack Obama — was supposed to enforce worship and morality. It doesn’t get much older for Protestant political theory than Calvin:
no man has discoursed of the duty of magistrates, the enacting of laws, and the common weal, without beginning with religion and divine worship. Thus all have confessed that no polity can be successfully established unless piety be its first care, and that those laws are absurd which disregard the rights of God, and consult only for men. Seeing then that among philosophers religion holds the first place, and that the same thing has always been observed with the universal consent of nations, Christian princes and magistrates may be ashamed of their heartlessness if they make it not their care. We have already shown that this office is specially assigned them by God, and indeed it is right that they exert themselves in asserting and defending the honour of him whose vicegerents they are, and by whose favour they rule. Hence in Scripture holy kings are especially praised for restoring the worship of God when corrupted or overthrown, or for taking care that religion flourished under them in purity and safety. (Institutes, IV, 20. 9)
I understand Meador wants to promote the common good and to do so as a self-conscious Protestant. I don’t understand, though, in a nation that prizes freedom — even religious freedom — how that common good is going to come from the Decalogue if the whole of it is in view.
Instead of character, the virtues recommended by the Founders, God’s law, or deviations from it, what about war, American workers, and U.S. involvement in the Middle East?
Like a certain percentage of his voters, I had supported Trump in great part because he challenged the Bush, Cheneyite Republican conventional foreign policy wisdom. Trump wasn’t an active Iraq war opponent, and his social milieu in New York was hawkish, but he was clearly lukewarm when prompted by Howard Stern in 2002 to tout the pending invasion of Iraq. In a 2008 interview with Wolf Blitzer, he wondered why Nancy Pelosi hadn’t sought to impeach George W. Bush for lying the country into war with Iraq. He began calling the Iraq war a big fat mistake, most notably in a debate before the 2016 South Carolina primary, perhaps the nation’s most hawkish state. He won that primary, and later the nomination, establishing that pro-war views were no longer necessarily majoritarian in the GOP. His messaging was mixed, ambiguous, perhaps intentionally, perhaps instinctively.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get along with Russia?” he said, a sentiment I shared. He seemed implicitly to acknowledge that the bipartisan policy of trying to expand NATO up to the Russia’s borders and fomenting pro-Western coups in Russia’s neighbors was perilous and self-defeating. But he came across as tough and hawkish too. He praised tough generals and said he would “bomb the shit out of ISIS.” But since ISIS was a genuine enemy, then actively recruiting and training terrorists to kill civilians inside Western countries, hawkishness seemed altogether appropriate. A certain Jacksonian bluster about killing America’s enemies seemed an appropriate way to steer the Republican foreign policy away from neoconservatism and back towards realism….
There was an argument during the last campaign, expressed most notably by Michael Brendan Dougherty, that the worst possible thing for those who wanted a different kind of American conservatism—an end to stupid wars in the Mideast, a more controlled immigration flow, an industrial policy that valued something other than cheap goods and “free trade”—might be a victory for Donald Trump, who campaigned for all of these things. Whether he believed in them or not, Trump recognized that this is what many voters wanted, that this was an open political lane to run in, an untapped yearning. I think, to an extent, he did believe in them, but had no idea, no real plan how to bring them about.
Faced with unrelenting hostility from the Democrats, the media and the permanent class of Beltway bureaucrats which began before he took office, and no real base in the organized Republican Party, he floundered. No wall was built. No immigration legislation was passed. No grand and necessary Rockefellian infrastructure initiatives were initiated. He has hired to key positions Beltway types who had nothing but contempt for him, and they have led him down well worn paths. One of those paths leads to a major war with Iran, an obsessively pursued project of the neoconservatives since long before 9/11.
Of course, to think like this means not taking your cues from the Bible or God’s law (directly anyway). It means thinking less like the way you think a person who believes in Jesus should think than using your academic training, professional experience, insights from experts (who are usually not using w-w). In other words, explicit Christian thinking may be a road block to what’s best for the nation and the world politically and economically. But it does seem to let you think you are doing what Jesus would do when in fact by God’s providence Jesus is using non-Christian policy experts and wicked rulers to get things done.
When Barack Obama was the most Christian POTUS in US history:
I am also intrigued by the way this speech is saturated with Christian theology and Biblical references (including multiple references to Jesus Christ). I have said this before, but if we evaluate Obama’s faith in the same way that we evaluate the faith of the Founding Fathers (in terms of references to God, Jesus, the Bible, etc… in public addresses), then Obama may just be the most Christian president in American history. For example, he has mentioned Jesus Christ dozens of times more than George Washington, who only mentioned him once or twice (depending on how you count).
I don’t know Obama’s heart, but he sure understands Easter.
When President Trump is wicked and unfit:
what do the court evangelicals mean when they say “we didn’t need a preacher in the Oval Office?” They seem to be suggesting that they don’t need to have a person of Christian character in the office as long as he is delivering on Christian Right policy. The court evangelicals are essentially saying that Trump’s character–the lies, the misogyny, the narcissism, the demonization of enemies–don’t matter. “Sure he is a rough dude, and we don’t like some of his tweets, but look what he is doing for us!” Or “At least he’s not Hillary!” (Christians are not supposed to hate, but they sure hate Hillary).
The court evangelicals have every right to think about politics in this way. They are free to ignore Trump’s many indiscretions because he is delivering on the things they hold dear. But if they are going to take this route they need to stop appealing to the Founding Fathers. These framers of the Constitution understood that the leader of the United States needed to be a person of character.
So far a sliding scale. You can judge a president by affirmations of faith, sins against God’s law, an incapacity to put aside self-interest for the common good.
But don’t forget that none of this matters because the swamp is and always has been a swamp:
In his well-known guide to court life, 16th-century Italian courtier Baldesar Castiglione described the court as an “inherently immoral” place, a worldly venue “awash with dishonest, greedy, and highly competitive men.” One historian has described courtiers of the time as “opportunistic social ornaments”; another described them as “chameleons.”
The skills needed to thrive in the court, in short, are different from the virtues needed to lead a healthy Christian life or exercise spiritual leadership in the church. Most medieval courts had their share of clergy, bishops and other spiritual counselors, and historians agree that their behavior was indistinguishable from that of secular courtiers, whom Damiani described elsewhere as “ruthless, fawning flatterers” in a “theater of intrigue and villainy.”
If politics is truly immoral, why judge Trump for his wickedness? And why would you ever trust anyone else?
Colin Hansen makes an arresting admission in his piece about having grown up a Methodist and how he left the communion:
As a former United Methodist, I thank God for these friends and co-laborers in the gospel, even if I no longer share all their theological views. I recognize my spiritual debt. They were my family. They are my family.
I’m in no position to advise these people called Methodists. I forfeited that right when I left. And no one is asking for my advice, anyway. But I want my United Methodist friends to know something important. I did not leave because of your views on sexuality. By the time I left in the early 2000s I didn’t even realize you had been debating sexuality for decades. I left to find the theology of George Whitefield and Howell Harris that converted the Welsh, including my Daniel kin. I left to learn the spiritual disciplines that sustained the Wesleys amid their conflicts with established church leaders and quests to reform British society. I left to find the spiritual zeal that made my grandfather belt out the Methodist hymnal by heart as cancer ravaged his body.
I left the United Methodist Church to find Methodism.
Imagine if New Calvinists and Gospel Allies followed the same logic. “We do not belong to the PCA or the OPC or the URC, so we have no reason to offer you advice or criticism. By virtue of our not being members in your communion, we are in no place to tell you about Reformed Protestantism.”
Imagine too if those who associate or form alliances with New Calvinism — ahem — also followed what is implicit in Hansen’s understanding of membership. Imagine if a Presbyterian ally of the gospel said, “well, because I am a member of the PCA, even ordained in it, my first duties (PCA First) are to the denomination where I serve. That means, I might have to cut down on participating with non-Presbyterians. I might even reconsider my relationship to non-Presbyterians because we are merely allies, not fellow members of the same body.”
But I also noticed what Hansen did with Methodism. He did with it what he did with Calvinism. “I left the United Methodist Church to find Methodism.” The same goes for Gospel Allies. The identify less with Calvinist communions to find Calvinism.
And so, the problem of belonging to the church, the ministry of the church, ordination, and membership rears its head again. To parachurch or to church?
But Hansen did seem to acknowledge that not being a member of an institution means he loses standing for being heard by members of a denomination. That point also suggests that someone who is more involved in parachurch endeavors while belonging to a body of Christians also loses some of his or her standing for dialogue and instruction. As if.
After all, if borders between countries matter, if governments of nations matter, why shouldn’t the borders and polities of Christian communions also matter?