How Broad Can Confessional Presbyterians Be?

The subject of confessionalism in relation to the Gospel Coalition has again come up, this time with a charitable defense of the organization from Ligon Duncan. The article that elicited this response is not at issue here.  I have not read it nor is that as pertinent as what Duncan says about confessionalism:

None of us are a part of TGC because we don’t care about our ministerial vows or because we don’t really believe our Confession.

We are a part of TGC because TGC beautifully promotes certain important things in the wider Christian and evangelical world that are needed, vital, true, good, right, timely, healthful, and which are also perfectly consistent with our own confessional theological commitments, so we want to be a part and a help. We also think that we have a thing or two to learn from our non-Presbyterian friends in TGC that “sweetly comport” with our vows and our church’s doctrine and practice. And we love the friendship and fellowship we enjoy with like-minded brethren from and ministering in settings denominationally different from our own, but committed to the same big things.

Just as Charles Hodge of Princeton (not one shy of his confessional Presbyterian commitments), for similar reasons, was happy to participate in the Evangelical Alliance in the nineteenth century, so also I am happy to participate in TGC.

This is an important historical matter that deserves more attention. What was the relationship of Hodge’s Old School Presbyterianism to interdenominational endeavors like the Evangelical Alliance? And how did Hodge’s own opposition to the 1869 reunion of the Old and New School churches relate to endeavors like the Evangelical Alliance?

One way of answering that question is to notice that the sorts of cooperation in which mainline Protestants engaged after the Civil War, with the 1869 Presbyterian reunion paving the way, fueled ecumenical and social gospel endeavors that produced conservative opposition in the 1920s and 1930s. The Evangelical Alliance was the Moral Majority of its day, wanting immigrants to conform to Protestant norms, opposed to Romanism and communism (for starters), and it provided the vehicle for Protestants to unite to defend a Christian America. Those ecumenical impulses eventually produced the Federal Council of Churches in 1908 and the Plan for Organic Union in 1920, a proposal that would have united all mainline Protestants into one national church — the way Canadian Protestants at roughly the same time formed the United Church of Canada (1925).

What the period of interdenominational cooperation meant for Presbyterians was a 1903 revision of the Confession of Faith. That revision enabled the PCUSA to receive the Cumberland Presbyterians. Revision softened the Confession’s Calvinism to make room for a body that had left the church almost one hundred years earlier over objections to election and limited atonement. Presbyterians going along for the ecumenical ride included the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, J. Ross Stevenson, who presented the Plan for Organic Union to the 1920 General Assembly. J. Gresham Machen was a first-time commissioner to that Assembly and Princeton’s faculty’s opposition to that plan was start of a denomination wide controversy that forced the 1929 reorganization of Princeton Seminary (to make it tolerant of diversity) and the simultaneous founding of Westminster Seminary.

According to Lefferts Loetscher, who wrote a book with a title that frightened conservatives in the PCUSA and the PCUS, The Broadening Church (1954), the reunion of Old and New School in 1869 touched off developments that saw the PCUSA recover its historic breadth:

Once again in 1869, as in 1758, the Presbyterian Church was restoring unity not by resolving its differences, but by ignoring and absorbing them. Men who had been denounced as “heretics” in 1837 and who had professed no change of theological viewpoint in the interim were welcomed in 1869 as honored brethren. The result was, of course, that the theological base of the Church (especially of the former Old School branch of the Church) was broadened and the meaning of its subscription formula further relaxed. The gentlemen’s agreement of 1869 to tolerate divergent types of Calvinism meant that clear-cut definitions of Calvinism would not be enforceable in the reunited Church, and that it would be increasingly difficult to protect historic Calvinism against variations that might undermine its essential character. (8)

No one actually doubts whether the Old and New Schools were liberal. By almost every measure, both sides would come out as evangelical today (especially if you don’t apply the category of confessionalism). And yet, the breadth necessary for combining both sides also made room for a range of theological ideas that spawned liberalism.

In other words, breadth is not a good thing. Broadening churches are usually ones that become liberal.

So why is an organization that tolerates a diversity of “evangelical” convictions going to avoid that problems that usually surface when you recognize you need to be broader than your own communion is? The answer is not that the Gospel Coalition is going liberal. But an objection to the Gospel Coalition is that it does not have built in transparent mechanisms for identifying and disciplining liberalism.

And here are a couple ways that the Coalition’s breadth could collide with my own Presbyterian confessionalism. If I am a member of the Council and an officer in a confessional Presbyterian church, and my communion has a controversy over someone ordained who does not affirm the doctrine of limited atonement, will I receive support for my opposition to this erroneous officer from my friends and colleagues at TGC? Or what about the Federal Vision? If my church decides that Federal Vision is a dangerous set of teachings that need to be opposed, will my friends and colleagues at TGC support my church in its decision? Will people who write for Gospel Coalition even be clear about the covenant theology that is clearly taught in the Confession of Faith? Or will some of them think that my communion is too narrow in its understanding of Reformed Protestantism? Will they think that the proper response should be one to include a breadth of views in denominations because that is the norm for the Coalition? I could well imagine feeling some pressure to weigh matters before a presbytery or Assembly with my peers in the Coalition in mind? Will I disappoint them? Maybe that’s the wrong way of asking the question. What if they don’t care about the affairs of my communion the way I do? (Why should they care since they are not members or officers of my denomination?)

These are real dilemmas for anyone who has subscribed the Confession and Catechisms and been ordained in a Presbyterian communion while also belonging to an evangelical organization with standards different from the church. They are concerns that have been around for almost 160 years. The Gospel Coalition has not brought an end to church history.

How Did it Become So Easy to Get Out of a United Church?

In the United States, we put “the union” in USA. We are as much a republic as France, though we are still in our first iteration (some say Lincoln started our second republic) and the French are up to five. But in a few weeks, POTUS will deliver not “The State of the Republic” but “The State of the Union.” Union matters in part because the Civil War was so traumatic (and deadly). To consider separating from the U.S. is tantamount to the sin of schism. And yet Scotland can hold a referendum on leaving the UK or Britain can do the same to vote on leaving the European UNION! and no one fights a war to protect such unions, maybe because no one like an Abraham Lincoln was around to call these political arrangements “perpetual.”

The effects of political union on Christianity in the United States has been huge. Soon after the Civil War the Old and New School Presbyterian churches in the north reunited, with a large part of the rationale coming from imitating the Union. That merger launched a wave of ecumenical affiliations and networks that resulted in the Federal Council of Churches (1908) and a proposal to unite all Protestant communions in one United Church of the United States (comparable to the United Church of Canada). “United” has been a common part of Protestant church names, Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Presbyterian Church in the United States, United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, the United Churches of Christ, the United Reformed Churches, and the United Methodist Church.

Now comes word that the Methodists are about to break apart into two denominations, one traditionalist (at least about marriage and sex) and one progressive (at least about marriage and sex). All it takes these days is a vote. No theological battles, no warring pamphlets. No one has even mentioned the s-word of schism. Although, Episcopalians still do not look favorably on leaving the Anglican communion.

If J. Gresham Machen had tried that back in the 1920s, he would (and did) have faced charges of disloyalty, unfaithfulness, and disobedience. In fact, when he called for a separation of conservatives and liberals, it was as if he had suggested Social Security should be privatized:

whether or not liberals are Christians, it is at any rate perfectly clear that liberalism is not Christianity. And that being the case, it is highly undesirable that liberalism and Christianity should continue to be propagated within the bounds of the same organization. A separation between the two parties in the Church is the crying need of the hour.

Many indeed are seeking to avoid the separation. Why, they say, may not brethren dwell together in unity? The Church, we are told, has room both for liberals and for conservatives. The conservatives may be allowed to remain if they will keep trifling matters in the background and attend chiefly to “the weightier matters of the law.” And among the things thus designated as “trifling” is found the Cross of Christ, as a really vicarious atonement for sin.

Such obscuration of the issue attests a really astonishing narrowness on the part of the liberal preacher. (Christianity and Liberalism)

Something is changing out there. The old liberal internationalist order is breaking up. The election of Donald Trump was one sign, Brexit was another. The change also is having effects on the ecclesiastical world.

Doing Politics as a Presbyterian Has Always been Rough

From Michael Winship’s Hot Protestants (on the Presbyterian predicament after regicide and at the beginning of Oliver Cromwell’s government):

Some Presbyterians . . . focused their hope for reformation on their beheaded king’s nineteen-yer-old son Charles, in exile in the Netherlands. It was true that young Charles was a carousing, womanizing, anti-puritan, but to Presbyterians viewing him through rose-tinted glasses, all that this ungodliness meant was that their uncrowned but lawful sovereign was in the hands of evil counselors, like his father Charles I, his grandfather James I, and Elizabeth I had been. It was these counselors who kept him from recognizing puritanism’s truth. Presbyterians regarded themselves as bound by the Solemn League and Covenant to try to separate their prince from these wicked influences and get him into the safe hands of the covenanted Scots. More realistic Presbyterians recognized that this sow’s ear of a teenaged reprobate could not be transformed into a godly silk purse and that to think otherwise was in itself ungodly. The Scots, meanwhile, were horrified at the execution of their monarch Charles I by an army of English lawless heretics. The Scottish government immediately recognized this son as Charles II, king of Great Britain, Ireland, and France. But the Scots told him they would let him return to his kingdom of Scotland only on one heavy condition: Charles would have to sear to the Solemn League and Covenant. (141)

Makes President Trump look like a piece of cake.

When Congregationalists Were Woke (150 years ago)

Observations about the Boston Council of Congregationalists in 1865:

Even mild and bespectacled Alonzo Quint, who had just returned from service as a Union army chaplain, burst out in protest during a discussion of the civil rights of rebels, declaring them “uncommonly stupid and ignorant” and “unfit to come back and be trusted with a vote.” Quint let fly again at the delegation from Great Britain, who were present at the council. Still deeply angry over British support for the Confederacy, and egged on by hisses from other delegates, he denounced them as “always ready to follow the powerful, and always read to crush the weak,” “robbing in India [and] plundering in Ireland.”

Sometimes bitterness boiled over. A report on evangelization in the South prompted Samuel Pomeroy, who was both a Republican senator from Kansas and president of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, to declare that it would suit him better “if we spoke out a little more plainly about hanging somebody.” When the delegates responded with applause, Pomeroy pressed on: “I am very willing to mingle our justice with mercy to the common people of the South . . . but it does seem to me it is time somebody was hung.” Pausing for yet another round of applause, he further advised that “some wholesome hanging, I think, would have settled this question in the minds of the American people long ago; and I do not believe that a convention, even of this character, composed largely of clergymen, — men who love forgiveness and mercy, — would not be harmed if it adopted a little stiffer resolution on this question.” (Margaret Bendroth, The Last Puritans, 55)

This makes Thabiti Anyabwile look restrained.

The Politics of Scholarship on Evangelicalism

John Turner provides relief for those tired of the complaint about evangelical hypocrisy in voting for Donald Trump:

American evangelicals, white and otherwise, are far more interested in charity and evangelism than they are in politics. As Kidd comments, “charitable action is a more constant attribute of evangelicals than Republican political engagement is.” He then concludes, “we should not define evangelicalism by the 81 percent.” Rather, “being an evangelical entails certain beliefs, practices, and spiritual experiences.” For Kidd, voting for Donald Trump is tangential rather than central to the reality of most American evangelicals.

Two thoughts. 81%! Kidd suggests that pundits and scholars are hampered by definitional confusion about the definition of evangelical. Pollsters count many people as evangelical who would not define themselves that way. Still, 81%! I think Fitzgerald is correct. It’s not just that most nominal evangelicals voted Trump. Most committed, church-going white evangelicals did so as well. In fact, the more frequently people attended church, the more likely they were to vote Trump. This is one reason I attend a Presbyterian church. There’s no midweek worship, and you can be in and out in a shade more than an hour on Sundays. This inoculates me against Trump-voting. I won’t spend more time in church until after he leaves office, just in case. Hopefully he’ll be gone by the end of January 2020, and I can safely worship more frequently.

At the same time, I think we as historians err if we define evangelicalism – or our interests in evangelicalism – by that political statistic. Evangelicalism is not a political movement. Most churches that one might reasonably categorize as evangelical are not especially political, let alone hyper-partisan. Rather, those evangelical churches focus on weekly worship, small-group Bible studies, support for missions, and all sorts of other activities that rarely catch the attention of pundits.

Evangelicalism is primarily a phenomenon of religion. That makes sense.

But what did the emergence of the religious right during the Reagan era do to the scholarship on evangelicalism? And would anyone care about evangelicalism (if such a thing exists en mass) if not for politics?

In 1978, when Ernest R. Sandeen and Frederick Hale compiled an annotated bibliography on religious history, American Religion and Philosophy, evangelicalism did not even register an entry in the subject index, and the title index contained only four books or articles. By the early 1990s, when Butler felt he was drowning in a sea of born-again historiography, evangelicalism not only claimed more space in standard reference works but had grown to need its own. In 1990, Joel Carpenter and Edith Blumhofer produced the first bibliography exclusively on evangelicalism, Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism: A Guide to the Sources; and Norris Magnuson enlarged the corpus with American Evangelicalism: An Annotated Bibliography (1990), which he supplemented in 1996 with a second volume, American Evangelicalism II: First Bibliographical Supplement, 1990–1996. Reference works may not be the best guide to a subject’s popularity, but they do help to confirm that, during the last quarter of the twentieth century, evangelical Christianity went from merely a footnote in the fundamentalist controversy to a threat to the preeminence of mainline Protestantism.

The new scholarship on evangelicalism is clearly related to the surge of born-again involvement in electoral politics. Had the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons not emerged throughout the 1980s and 1990s as politically powerful, most non-evangelical academics would have had few reasons to care about the development and legacy of revivals, biblical inerrancy, the second coming of Christ, or the events of the first chapter of Genesis. Christine Heyrman conceded in Southern Cross (1997) that “Evangelicalism’s complex beginnings in the early South would probably claim the curiosity of only a small circle of historians were it not for the fact that this legacy now shapes the character of conservative Protestant churches in every region of the United States.” Despite the boost the Protestant Right gave to students of evangelicalism, born-again historians have remained remarkably silent on politics, let alone evangelicalism’s assumed default political perspective, conservatism.

So as much as I want to agree with Turner, I continue to think that the world of evangelical higher learning and scholarship would not exist if not for a wider public wanting to know something about the politics of those odd people with Jesus in their bosoms.

The Death of Evangelicalism

At the end of her longish piece on evangelicals and politics in Texas, Elizabeth Bruenig asks this:

Is there a way to reverse hostilities between the two cultures in a way that might provoke a truce? It is hard to see. Is it even possible to return to a style of evangelical politics that favored “family values” candidates and a Billy Graham-like engagement with the world, all with an eye toward revival and persuasion? It is hard to imagine.

Or was a truly evangelical politics — with an eye toward cultural transformation — less effective than the defensive evangelical politics of today, which seems focused on achieving protective accommodations against a broader, more liberal national culture? Was the former always destined to collapse into the latter? And will the evangelical politics of the post-Bush era continue to favor the rise of figures such as Trump, who are willing to dispense with any hint of personal Christian virtue while promising to pause the decline of evangelical fortunes — whatever it takes? And if hostilities can’t be reduced and a detente can’t be reached, are the evangelicals who foretell the apocalypse really wrong?

The either/or implied in these questions, a religion of transformation, one that would make America great because Christian, versus a religion at odds with the culture but looking for non-mainstream ways of preserving it (the Benedict option as it were), is what the leaders of Big Evangelicalism had not at all considered. The Tim Kellers, Russell Moores, and Al Mohlers of the world really did seem to think that Protestants could find some help or encouragement from cultural engagement with political leaders. They also seemed to think that the rest of the Protestant world was on board. They had no idea that some American Protestants saw engagement as fruitless, and possibly only beneficial for those who had access to the engaged.

The old evangelical “paradigm,” the one that began around 1950, is done. Stick a fork in it. What will emerge is not at all clear. But after Trump as POTUS, it is easier for many to see that the Reagans, Bushes, and Obamas of the political class were no more interested in the cultural engagers than the real-estate tycoon turned POTUS is. The Religious Right’s aims were so many fumes left over from mainline Protestantism’s cultural engagement. It is now time to think about Protestantism on the cultural margins.

To her credit, Bruenig understands that.

Thank You, Lord, I’m Not a Christian-Identity Christian

Can the social justice warriors tell the difference between John MacArthur and Louis Beam? I was not aware of Mr. Beam until I listened to a remarkable discussion of Katherine Belew’s book, Bring the War Home at bloggingheadstv. Nor was I aware of a statement about social justice from Founders Ministries until I saw Ryan Burton King’s explanation of why he could not sign it (which I saw somehow through the blur of retweets).

Beam was a Vietnam veteran who became a prominent figure, so I’ve learned, in paramilitary, Christian identity, and the Klan. Belew makes the point about a fairly large — between 5,000 and 250,000 — network of white nationalists that connected people like Beam to Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber.

MacArthur, of course, is that famous pastor who is the Jerry Falwell of California minus the politics. In fact, MacArthur is taking heat for not calling the church to get behind movements and networks that resist the intersectional dynamics of racism, sexism, economic exploitation, heteronormativity — I’m tapped out — and a whole lot more.

Listening to the podcast which I highly recommend, I couldn’t help but wonder if the folks who accuse the United States of harboring white nationalism can actually tell the difference (or make distinctions) between the KKK and the OPC, or if it is a case of either you’er for us or you’re against us and if you’re against us then you are antithetically (thank you Abraham Kuyper) on the side, intentionally opposed to us? I for one would think that anyone with antennae for social justice who owns a home would rather have John MacArthur as a neighbor than a guy like Beam who stockpiled guns, trained terrorists, and who did not exactly respect the rule of law.

I also wonder if those alarmed by the direction in the United States since the presidential election of 2016 can do the math and recognize that 81% of evangelicals (maybe 60 million) is a lot larger than the 250,000 who may traffic in Christian Identity networks. That might sound scary except when your remember that if — and I say if though apocalypticism seems to be one potential tie — if the two groups overlap, then 59,750,000 evangelicals are not part of white nationalist organizations. (Thank the Lord for Geerhardus Vos and amillennialism.)

One last thought, around the 31 minute mark, Robert Wright wondered how such a small group of terrorists could ever think they would take down the most powerful nation on God’s green earth. That made me wonder how Christian transformationalists could ever think they could redeem New York City. Is there a connection between transformationalism and Christian Identity?

Nah.

A Kinder Gentler Theocracy

Peter Leithart returns to the case for theocracy:

If theocracy means “the rule of priests” or involves the absorption of civil order into religious institutions, Christianity has been chary toward the idea. In fact, Christianity can be credited with introducing the distinction between religion and politics into a world where the two were fused in what Francis Oakley calls “sacral kingship.” Civil authority, Augustine insisted, belongs to the saeculum, the time between the kingdom’s coming and its consummation. The Church alone is the sacred and eternal society.

Still, there’s something disingenuous about the denials. The Church has often interfered with civil authority, sometimes calling brutal rulers to account and standing up for the weak, sometimes shamefully providing cover for the brutes. As Pierre Manent has noted, Christianity simultaneously frees “secular” society and demands that all human life conform to the will of God.

That might make sense if the Bible actually spoke to all of life or if Bible readers didn’t have to interpret it. But where exactly is the freedom that Paul commends in 1 Corinthians 8 (meat offered to idols) to be found in Manent’s view of divine rule?

And to spiritualize Christ’s kingdom? That’s dangerous.

Christians sometimes flinch from the political import of these claims. We nervously spiritualize, we frantically privatize. “Jesus is Lord” is translated into “Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior”—somewhat, as Ken Myers likes to put it, like a “personal trainer.” Jesus’s kingdom is said to be a “spiritual kingdom” that leaves Caesar’s realm pretty much intact.

That’s a dangerous misreading of the gospel. As Hauerwas says, “‘Jesus is Lord’ is not my personal opinion” but “a determinative political claim.” Psalm 2 ends with an exhortation to kings and judges to acknowledge the Lord’s anointed as King of Kings. For political rulers, repentance means bowing to Jesus as a superior authority.

Even so, Leithart thinks that theocracy doesn’t need to be scary:

Christian theocracy bends politics toward compassion, mercy, and impartial justice. I don’t share Hauerwas’s pacifism, but he’s right that Christianity introduces a new politics of patience: “Christ, through the Holy Spirit, bestows upon his disciples the long-suffering patience necessary to resist any politics whose impatience makes coercion and violence the only and inevitable response to conflict.” Christian theocracy is premised on the persuasion that there is love deep down things. It reminds rulers that King Jesus is also Judge. It’s frightening mainly to thugs.

Actually, Christ’s rule should be scary to anyone who isn’t Christ’s. At the same time, if Christ’s rule over his people isn’t spiritual this side of the new heavens and new earth, the Shorter Catechism doesn’t make any sense:

Q. 26. How doth Christ execute the office of a king?
A. Christ executeth the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.

There you have the spirituality of the church and two kingdoms in a nut shell. Christ rules everything; nothing falls outside his authority. But Christ’s rule over the church is different over his enemies. He rules both. But for these two spiritual races to coexist during this interadvental age, Christ institutes the church for saving his people and the state to keep in check his enemies.

That’s not theocracy. It’s two kingdoms.

Where Pietists and Presbyterians Differ on Christian Freedom

Chris Gerhz preached a pretty (pretty pretty pretty) good sermon (though if he’s not ordained to preach I hope he only exhorted) on Christian freedom around the time of our Independence Day holiday. What was particularly good was his understanding of freedom as a spiritual reality:

Paul assumes that Christians will be persecuted by those in power… and yet remain free in Christ. Meanwhile, we Americans know how easy it is to live in political freedom… and yet be a slave to our worst impulses.

In his greeting, Paul wishes the Galatians the grace and peace of “the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (1:3-4). If God kept a record of our sins, the psalmist asks, “who could stand?” But with God “there is forgiveness” (Ps 130:3-4). In Christ we are free from sin, free from everything we think, say, do, and leave undone that keeps us enslaved to the powers of this world (Gal 4:3,8-9) and in rebellion against God.

That was a recurring theme for Paul, as he took Christianity farther and farther from the place where it was born. In Acts 13 he tells people in the city of Antioch — both “Israelites, and others who fear God” (v 16) — that through Jesus “forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (vv 38-39).

Before Christ, all we had to modify our behavior was law — and the carrots and sticks that come with following and breaking laws. But Paul teaches that the law cannot stop us from wanting to sin. Only faith in Christ can make us righteous in God’s eyes (Gal 2:16) and start to change our hearts from the inside out.

But some Jewish Christians — the so-called Judaizers — want Gentile converts to join them in continuing to honor the old laws — including the ancient one requiring men to be circumcised. Apparently they’ve persuaded some Christians in Galatia, because Paul says right away that he’s “astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6). If righteousness actually came through the law, “then Christ died for nothing” (2:21). “For in Christ Jesus,” he concludes. “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (5:6).

That’s not the end of the story; that’s just Paul’s argument to one church. We need to read the theology of Galatians 5 alongside the history of Acts 15. Paul returns to Jerusalem to make his case to the leaders of the church, including Peter, who agrees that the Judaizers are “putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear” (v 10).

The church decides: we are free, no longer staggering under the burden of laws that can never really release us from the slavery of sin, but accepted as God’s children, free heirs of his promises.

That’s fairly close to what the Confession of Faith says about Christian liberty:

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law. But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of. (20.1)

You might think that with that start, Gehrz is headed to an affirmation of the spirituality of the church. But you would be wrong:

But the kingdom he proclaimed isn’t just spiritual. We are free to proclaim a gospel that has consequences in this world. Freedom in Christ means that we are free to go forth in the name of the Messiah who was “anointed to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

Freedom in Christ is freedom to give freedom! To free those kept in the spiritual bondage of sin and the physical bondage of human trafficking, to free those mired in poverty and hunger, to free those oppressed for no reason other than who they are, what they think, or what they look like.

Free from sin, we are free to do what Paul says is the only thing that actually counts: “faith working in love” (or making our faith active in love).

For Presbyterians, though, freedom from the guilt and penalty of sin means submission to the powers that God has ordained. The gospel doesn’t lead to social activism or wars of independence; it nurtures living quiet and peaceful lives:

And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the church. (20.4)

And that’s a reason why Presbyterians should be a tad reluctant to hitch Christian notions of freedom to Independence-Day ideas about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Which Social Cause Is Right for Your Congregation (and Denomination)?

Forbes magazine has several tips for businesses to find the proper outlet for their social activism that may also be instructive for churches wanting to enter the social justice field.

1. Look in the mirror. When it comes to defining your social mission, start with your business mission. Increasingly, we find it helpful when these two are aligned from the start – even if your company makes widgets. Strategic leaders recognize that giving back can be baked right into your corporate DNA, such as with equity pledges, where companies offer a small percentage of their equity to nonprofits. Regardless of your organization’s structure, your business mission will help inform the most aligned direction to harness your corporate energies and offer the best opportunities for pro bono volunteering and other engagement.

2. Go on a listening tour. As you consider your mission and values, it’s important to get your employees involved so that they feel “heard.” Surveys are a common tool to cull employee interests around causes, including where many of them may already be volunteering and giving. Sure, you won’t be able to prioritize every cause, but you may be able to find patterns of common interests, which will help when it comes to increasing volunteer participation if you decide to pursue these causes. And even with the many causes that you don’t elevate to the corporate level, a volunteer platform will empower employees to pursue many different interests as a part of their volunteer work.

3. Do your research. When it comes to selecting specific nonprofits to ally with or support, tools like Charity Navigator provide insight into organizational history, financial health, accountability and transparency. Make sure that you do your due diligence in assessing how your company can make the biggest impact at the most minimal cost.

4. Get help. Experts in the field can serve as invaluable translators helping companies and nonprofits speak the same language, align expectations and goals and establish relationships destined for success. Guidance from a trusted expert in the nonprofit world can help steer your company to the cause area and nonprofit that is the best possible match.

Since confessional churches rely on word and sacrament, perhaps activism related to literacy, wheat farms, and grape growing is the best fit. Here‘s a story about wine cellar workers at Woodbridge who want to join the Teamsters. Perhaps your diaconate could help.

Also, the National Association of Wheat Growers has several items on its list of policies that might guide a session or diaconate’s thoughts about social justice.

Too bad, though, that cellar workers and wheat growers are not high on the list of causes that motivate millennials. The top five are:

Civil rights/racial discrimination 29%
Employment (job creation) (tie) 26%
Healthcare reform (tie) 26%
Climate change 21%
Immigration 19%
Education (K-12) 17%

The runners up:

Respondents also sited wages (15%), environment (14%), college/post-secondary education (13%), poverty and homelessness (13%), mental health and social services (12%), criminal justice reform (11%), women’s rights (10%), women’s health and reproductive issues (9%), early education (8%), sexual orientation-based rights (8%), and literacy (4%) as issues they care about.

That’s a boat load of activity for any single congregation. Even a denominational agency, like the Committee on Social Justice, would have a hard time meeting at most three times a year to give due attention and resources to all of these matters.

The encouraging news, though, is that millennials have a fairly low bar for what constitutes social activism:

Researchers also asked respondents what types of actions they take on behalf of the causes important to them. Voting topped the list, in order or priority, followed by signing a petition, no action, posting on social media, and changing purchase of products and services. Voting, researchers surmised, is seen as a vital form of activism; the survey found that nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of respondents said they had voted in the 2016 presidential election.

So, if your officers are voting, Tweeting, and posting on Facebook, they already have a social-justice ministry.