This is part two of the interview David Strain conducted with mmmmeeeeeEEEEE:
Here’s the second installment. There’s more to come. Enjoy…..
1. Is there a connection between 19th century revival/revivalism and the kind of socio-political agendas often advocated by both the Christian Right and Left today?
Definitely. Many evangelicals and Reformed do not understand that the kind of evangelical activism they now promote or perform was first part of the Second Great Awakening – the bad one. Not only was Finney interested in converting people, but he also wanted a righteous and just society. Evangelicals responded by forming a ton of voluntary societies that did in many respects transform American society (if you were not a member of the Whig or Republican parties, you may not have appreciated all of these reforms.)
So the Second no-so-great Awakening drove a wedge between Protestants, those with a high view of the church (Episcopalians, Lutherans, and some Old School Presbyterians) and those with a low view of the church and a high view of America. The ethno-cultural school of political historians has produced a body of literature on these ecclesial differences, and this work has actually informed my own writing on confessional Protestantism. The term “confessional” itself comes from political history and it stands for high church Protestants who are less concerned about social and political matters compared to the eternal realities of the gospel.
One other historical reference worthy of comment here is that the Second not-so-great Awakening was really the soil from which the Social Gospel sprung. I sometimes wonder why today’s “conservative” evangelicals are so willing to repeat the efforts and arguments that “liberal” Protestants were making a hundred years ago. Also, if you look at the books written by leaders of the religious right, people like Falwell and Ralph Reed, you see the Second not-so-great Awakening cited as a model or inspiration for contemporary political activism.
As the kids used to say, “What’s up with that?”
2. Should the church tell people how to vote for specific candidates, based on issues like abortion or gay marriage?
Definitely not. The church may and should speak to all the laws of the Decalogue, including the sixth and the seventh. Why the first four don’t receive more attention is anyone’s guess – could it be that social activism makes matters like worship and the Sabbath less important? But beyond explaining what God’s word requires, the church needs to let members apply them in their lives according to the callings and consciences. I mean, would anyone want the church to tell members never to eat meat offered to idols? It looks to me that if Christian liberty applies to the affects of idolatry, it also applies to electoral politics and the legislators voted into office.
3. Does the church have a prophetic voice, challenging sin wherever it finds it, even in politics and culture?
It depends what you mean. Expounding and teaching God’s word does involve challenging sin, obviously. But what people often mean is they want the church to apply the truths of the word to specific circumstances. I actually think this stems from a desire for the church to be relevant, to be doing something important. If the church is the place where the kingdom of grace is advancing, I don’t see why cleaning up pockets of cultural crime in the United States is more relevant than that. So people need to see how amazing the work of the church is, and how trivial, ephemeral, and fading the affairs of politics and culture are in comparison. But even so, the church has a prophetic voice simply by proclaiming the whole counsel of God. I wonder if people who say the church needs to be a prophetic voice actually appreciate that a minister standing in the pulpit each Sunday is representing the prophetic office of Christ.
4. Is there a place for para-church agencies and what are the boundaries of legitimate para-church work?
There has to be a place for the parachurch because the church can’t run everything. So everything that is not the church is parachurch.
The real question is parachurch agencies that engage in religious work. I don’t think a hard rule exists here except in those areas of evangelism and missions, work that the church is to oversee directly. But when it comes to educational endeavors, publishing, flexibility is in order
5. How do you respond to those who believe that the work of the church is to ‘transform society’ or to ‘bring in the Kingdom’?
First, I say that the coming of the kingdom is not evident in transforming society. As I’ve said, the church through word, sacrament, and discipline, is advancing the kingdom of grace, which is hastening the kingdom of glory (I’m using the language of the Shorter Catechism here). And because the church is not called to transform society – she already has enough on her plate – then she is not called to transform society. Individual Christians in their vocations are called to a host of tasks that do, I guess, contribute to social transformation. (I don’t like that language because it has a progressive political valence that I oppose for political and cultural reasons – both libertarian and localist and at times agrarian.) But the church doesn’t transform society nor should she as an institution (in distinction from her members’ callings).
This doesn’t mean that some of the aspects of social transformation, such as government, policy, and legislation are unimportant or “worldly.” They are worldly but in the good sense of the created order and the way that God superintends this world. Society is a good thing and Christians as citizens or in other capacities should be dutiful in their obligations to neighbors and magistrates. But social transformation is not where the kingdom of Christ happens.
6. If cultural transformation isn’t the church’s work, what is?
The work of the church is word, sacrament, prayer, discipline, catechesis, diaconal care and fellowship. It is not sexy and it does not generally attract headlines. But these are God’s ordained means for building his kingdom.