Those were the days.
Seeing the looks on Ben Preston and Craig Lynn’s faces last week while recording a session on J. Gresham Machen, I worried not only that American indelicacy had run up against Irish sensitivities, but also that the Orthodox Presbyterian habit of being opinionated had offended the moderate sense of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland ministers.
As it happens, while waiting for a meeting with staff at Union College (Ireland’s equivalent of Princeton Theological Seminary), I found a copy of the Presbyterian Herald, the Irish equivalent of New Horizons. I read an article about church attendance that I am not sure could have been published in the OPC’s magazine. The author wrote this:
Christian ought to be encouraging of and encouraged by para-church organisations which seek to spread the gospel. Being committed to such enterprises, however, before the local church is idolatry, for God will not share the glory of his church with another (Isaiah 42:8).
Membership of and support for para-church organisations, whether mission agencies, evangelicist bands or cultural/religious institutions must all come after commitment to the local church and never before.
Imagine what American Protestantism would look like if The Gospel Coalition adopted that set of priorities.
Churches have specific associations with bodies of water. This Lutheran Church Missouri Synod writer claims the Mississippi (but I wonder if Mark Twain would let him not to mention what Lutherans in Germany might think about rivers in the United States):
A lot of evangelicals are swimming these days. They’re slipping on their metaphorical fins and masks and churning their way across bodies of water to emerge on the other shore as members of a different faith community. Those that move from evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism are said to swim the Tiber; those that become Orthodox swim the Bosporus.
Reasons for their aquatic activities vary. Some like the art and architecture associated with the ancient faiths. Some like the ceremonial aspects–the liturgies, the veneration of icons, the Eucharist. Some like the history that oozes from Catholicism and Orthodoxy, a history that travels through great saints of yesteryear–through Augustine, Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nazianzus–but goes largely forgotten in contemporary evangelicalism. . . .
But evangelicals interested in “swimming” to a different tradition should consider traversing a body of water much closer to home: the Mississippi River, on which is located St. Louis, Missouri, and the headquarters of the premier conservative Lutheran church body in America, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
This raises at least one question: what body of water should Presbyterians identify with for their denominational affiliation?
American Presbyterians would likely claim the Delaware River since the first presbytery and General Assembly met in Philadelphia. But the Chesapeake might also apply since some of the earliest congregations settled by Ulster Presbyterians were in Maryland.
European Presbyterians, if the look to Geneva, probably invoke Lake Geneva.
The Scots likely think about the Firth of Forth (I was thinking it was a Fifth) given the estuary’s proximity to Edinburgh.
The Irish? They may have the hardest time attracting converts if crossing the North Sea is necessary for being a Presbyterian in Northern Ireland. I’m not sure swimming the Belfast Lough is any less challenging.
Heck, we were even kicking and bellyaching back in Rome’s post-Vatican II glory days (from the forum, “We Protest,” a series of reflections on the legacy of John Paul II in the October, 2005 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal):
The Pastor with the Funny Hat
With the passing of John Paul II Protestants might be able to breathe a sigh of relief. For at least fifteen years, the papacy, through John Paul’s skillful handling of his responsibilities, has emerged as arguably the most prominent voice opposing the sins of modernity. As the veteran evangelical apologist, Norman Geisler, put it, John Paul stood up to the three main foes of evangelicalism, namely, “relativism, pluralism, and naturalism.” The best evidence of this opposition was the pope’s defense of the culture of life, which in the words of Southern Baptist theologian, Timothy George, “provided a moral impetus that [evangelicals] didn’t have internally within our community.” The papacy’s understanding of the sacredness of human life, its teaching on sexual ethics, in addition to any number of other declarations or encyclicals affirming the absolute truth of Christianity, made Roman Catholicism an attractive option for young (and sometimes old) Protestants in search of a church that would stand up for the truth, for what Francis Schaeffer used to call “true truth.” While mainline Protestant denominations descended farther into the abyss of moral relativism thanks to their fear of giving offense, and while evangelicals floundered about trying to find hipper ways to super-size their churches, John Paul II was a popular figure, seemingly approachable like the affectionate grandfather, who also refused to equivocate on some of the most important fronts of the culture war.
At his death, several pundits and journalists assessed the way in which John Paul II changed the face of Christianity around the world, improved the health of Roman Catholicism in the United States, and fundamentally altered the relations between Protestants and Roman Catholics, at least in America. Seldom mentioned is how little the Vatican changed during the deceased pope’s tenure and how much the surrounding situation did, thus significantly altering perceptions of the pope and his accomplishments. Back in 1979 during the pope’s first visit to the United States, evangelicals were still worked up about the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, even having the Roman Catholic conservative, William F. Buckley, give the opening address at one of the assemblies of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. The Bible was then thought to be the bulwark against relativism, materialism, and atheism, and its cultural significance was such that a prominent conservative spokesman, even from the wrong church, could offer encouraging words to conservative evangelicals.
But in the quarter of a century since then, the Bible seems to have run out of gas for Protestants as an authoritative guide to truth. Instead, the imposing voice of one person in a high-profile office (which happens to be in Vatican City) appears to be more effective in countering the drift of secularism and relativism. After all, the Bible’s truth can be fairly relative depending on the eye of the beholder. Much harder is it for one person to equivocate. This has always been the dilemma of Protestantism – its tendency to speak in multiple and conflicting voices compared to the relative unity of the papacy (some of us still remember church history lectures on the difficulties of Avignon and Rome). Before, Protestants would band together in either the National Association of Evangelicals or the National Council of Churches to try to achieve clarity. Today, the conservative ones seem to be willing to rely on the extraordinary ability and connections of the bishop of Rome.
Yet, for all of John Paul II”s gifted use of his bully pulpit, was he opposing secularism and relativism any more than my local Orthodox Presbyterian pastor? My minister has been no less clear over the course of his ten-year (and still counting) tenure in denouncing relativism and secularism. Nor was he any less forthright in condemning sexual immodesty or immorality. In fact, if anyone in our congregation had slept around or received (or performed) an abortion, discipline would definitely have followed. My pastor may not have had Continental philosophy informing his sermons or speeches at session, presbytery, or General Assembly meetings, but this may have made him even more accessible and clear than John Paul II.
Equally important to consider is whether the pope’s courage in opposing relativism, secularism and sexual license was any more effective than my pastor’s. To be sure, the local Orthodox Presbyterian minister never attracts the front pages of the New York, London, Paris, Rome or even Glenside, Pa. dailies. But that may be a blessing. It may also be a lesson that the much vaunted Roman Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity teaches. That idea says that authorities of higher rank should not do what is necessary for lesser authorities to perform. This is partly an argument, for instance, against a federal welfare system that is inefficient, impersonal, and creates a culture of dependence by either upending the work of local charities and government social programs, or by taking over duties that families and individuals themselves should perform.
The doctrine of subsidiarity, likewise, should warn against becoming dependent on the worldwide, highly orchestrated statements of one church official when what is needed is the week-in-week-out teaching and counsel of local pastors who minister to their flocks. Indeed, it is ironic to this Protestant that many young evangelicals convert to Rome because of the pope’s moral stature and careful reflection and yet find themselves in parishes and dioceses where the application of his moral teaching is very often lacking. Without wanting to beat a proud denominational breast, it does seem probable that any number of small, insignificant and seemingly sectarian denominations like the OPC or the Presbyterian Church in America or the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod or the Reformed Episcopal Church (to try to be ecumenical) are more disciplined in their sexual practices than American Roman Catholics despite those Protestant denominations’ meager public statements or formal teachings. This is not to say that John Paul II’s encyclicals are without merit – far from it. But the point stands that an encyclical is only as effective as the willingness of the local priest or bishop to apply such truth.
Golfers have a saying that you drive for show and putt for dough, which is the duffer’s way of saying that the church universal may be great on paper but is only as faithful as the local church. John Paul II used his powers as the head of the Roman Catholic church to raise the visibility of the universal church’s power and wisdom. Seldom noticed is the unintended consequence of making local clergy, church members and even Protestants dependent on a universal voice when what is most needed is the fidelity of local clergy and church members. The Protestant Reformation was partly a reaction by local churches against religious dependence on Rome. If only evangelicals were more concerned about their ecclesiological heritage and the difficult responsibilities it includes than they seem to be in seeking encouragement and affirmation from a pastor who is as far removed from their churches as Tiger Woods’ drives are from mine.
Word of Walter Kim’s appointment as the president of the National Association of Evangelicals could have an upside if Dr. Kim studied with Harvard’s Jon Levenson. The pastor at Trinity PCA in Charlottesville completed a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard, which would put him in the vicinity of Levenson, the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard, is one of the foremost voices in the study of Hebrew Scriptures. Heck, even Pete Enns studied with Levenson.
The positive influence from Levinson on Kim could be interpreting the Old Testament and not letting it become a proof text for social justice. Consider the following:
Liberation theology has long had a problem with Jewish particularism. Consider the liberationists’ penchant for interpreting the poor and oppressed as the beneficiaries of one of their favorite biblical events, the Exodus. That the God of Israel is especially concerned with the vulnerable and eager to protect them is exceedingly easy to document from the many biblical passages that enjoin Israel to show special solicitude for the sojourner, the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the (landless) Levite and that depict God as their special protector. Nor is it out of bounds to argue that such concern plays a role in the biblical account of the Exodus.
The problem is that what links the beneficiaries of God’s intervention in the Exodus is something very different: descent from a common ancestor. Those delivered from Pharaoh and his regime are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and it is explicitly God’s memory of his covenant with the patriarchs that galvanizes him into action in Egypt. Had the motivation instead been concern for the poor and oppressed, the story would have taken a very different shape. Not just Israel but all the slaves of Egypt would have been freed, and slavery, explicitly allowed in biblical law (including the possibility of lifetime enslavement in the case of foreign bondsmen), would have been abolished.
When the poor and oppressed replace the people Israel as the beneficiaries of the Exodus, an idea, or social norm, has replaced a flesh-and-blood people. It then becomes possible for any group that can be made to fit into that idea or to benefit from that social norm to be the new Jews. This is the replacement theology secularized, or supersessionism without the church—and it swiftly opens the door for the old anti-Judaism to reappear in a post-Christian culture—not in the mouths of theocratic reactionaries but in those of free-thinking progressives.
Imagine what that kind rigor would do to one of Kim’s colleagues’ handling of seeking the welfare of the city.
Imagine you are a Reformedish Protestant around the time of George W. Bush’s election. You have entered the world of Reformed Protestantism by way of the biblical theology (which leaned Federal) of Peter Leithart and James Jordan, you agree with a number of Doug Wilson’s critiques of modern America, and you became acquainted with the West and the Great Books again through Wilson’s Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning. Say you want a Reformed or Presbyterian church with a narrative that inspires, that connects with the sort of intellectual creativity that Leithart displays, that shows little of the wear and tear that afflicts most denominations in the United States whether sideline or mainline, and that connects with the larger history of the West, from Plato to Erasmus.
Where do you turn?
The OPC is too small and too theologically sectarian. The PCA suffers from similar problems among the TRs (Truly Reformed) and is blithely naive about modernity and urbanity on its progressive side. The ARP and the CRC are too ethnic and suffer from a measure of parochialism within their Scottish and Dutch traditions respectively. The same goes for the RPCNA which is even smaller than the OPC. The CREC might work but in 2000 that communion is only two years old, not the strongest case for a church with roots.
To your credit, you were enough of a Protestant not to find Roman Catholicism as a viable alternative.
The early English church, despite all the misconstruals of it by Anglo-Catholics, was Protestant and Reformed. The history of the 19th Anglo-Catholic attempt to deny this is a painful one for those who prize integrity of inquiry. The work of Peter Nockles and the more recent, and excellent, work of Jean-Louis Quantin, have shown how wrongheaded that 19th century orgy of wishful thinking really was. But this was proved back in the 19th c itself by Nathaniel Dimock, regarding sacramental theology, and regarding ecclesiology, by the American Bishop Charles McIlwaine, in his Roman, Oxford, and Anglican Divinity Compared.
The English Church of Elizabeth, James, and Charles is, in some ways, a model of importance for own time. Reformed churches, their common mind constricted by familiarity only with Scots and English Presbyterianism, miss the riches of Reformed thought available in Richard Hooker, or Richard Field, or Lancelot Andrewes (just as they miss the riches available in the thought of German and French Reformed). Anglo-Catholic attempts to prove that the established church was somehow not really Protestant are attempts to deprive modern Protestants of useful heritage.
What is important to notice about this way of being Reformed is that it allowed you to occupy the catholic and moderate middle while also regarding the regulative principle as too Puritan and biblicist (and sectarian) and two-kingdom theology as a betrayal of the godly monarch (which allegedly made the English church tick until those rowdy Presbyterians and Puritans conspired to take down Charles I).
What is also striking about this line of argument about the American church scene at the beginning of the 21st century was that it was precisely the way priests and bishops who were part of the Anglican establishment saw Christianity in England:
The great innovation of Elizabeth’s reign was what we might term the internalization of anti-sectarian rhetoric, as anti-puritanism. In Edward’s reign that language had been used to associate the English church with the foreign reformed churches in the common defence of an emergent reformed orthodoxy. Now it was introjected, to precisely opposite effect, into the conduct of intra-Protestant debates between defenders of the ecclesiastical status quo and proponents of various styles and modes of further reformation. The central figure here was John Whitgift who, in an extended exchange with the leading presbyterian ideologue of the day, Thomas Cartwright, deployed the Edwardian version of the two extremes used to define the via media of the English church, popery and Anabaptism, to exclude, as he hoped, the likes of Cartwright and his ilk, from the charmed circle of English Protestant respectability. True to the spirit of his Edwardian forebears, Whitgift sought to assimilate Cartwright and his associates both to popery and to Anabaptism, using what he took to be their ultra-scripturalism and populism to associate them with the latter and what he took to be their clericalist opposition to the Royal Supremacy to associate them with the former.
Ostensibly a form of religious polemic, Whitgift’s anti-puritanism was also inherently political. It dealt with issues of governance and jurisdiction and stressed heavily the extent of direct royal authority over ecclesiastical affairs. In so doing it encoded within itself a set of (intensely monarchical) political values, defined against what he took to be the ‘popularity’ inscribed within presbyterian theory and puritan political practice. By popularity Whitgift mean a commitment to theories of government in which the role of the people was expanded. But he also used the term to refer to the political methods used by the supporters of the discipline to put their case to a variety of more or less popular publics through the pulpit and the press, and through the the circulation of manuscripts and of rumours and a variety of petitioning campaigns, some of them aimed at the parliament rather than at the prince. (Peter Lake, “Post-Reformation Politics, or On Not Looking for the Long-Term Causes of the English Civil War,” 28)
When Machen, Witherspoon, and Knox won’t do, turn to Whitgift and Hooker? In the United States, a country that made its name by rejecting Royal Supremacy?
It is an intellectually energetic way to find an alternative to American politics and the Reformed and Presbyterian churches that have persisted in the United States. But it is as arbitrary as thinking that the debates surrounding foreign missions and church government of Machen’s time are the terms by which Presbyterians in Australia ought to operate.
Decency and order come to mind but I am not sure you want to create a bumper sticker about how Presbyterians have sex.
Reading Emily Suzanne Johnson’s new book, This is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right (Oxford University Press), took me to quotations from Marabel Morgan’s Total Woman and Tim and Beverly LaHaye’s Act of Marriage. Morgan wrote in 1973:
For super sex tonight, respond eagerly to your husband’s advances. Don’t just endure. . . . He may enjoy making love even when you’re a limp dishrag, but if you’re eager, and love to make love, watch out! If you seduce him, there will be no words to describe his joy. Loving you will become sheer ecstasy. (75)
That’s not very graphic, but it’s way more explicit than anything that H. L. Mencken printed and that subsequently landed him in a Boston jail under the charge of publishing obscenity.
But the LaHayes discussed the subject in ways that likely forced parents to hide their book, Act of Marriage (1976), from adolescent boys:
The husband who would be a good lover will not advance too quickly but will learn to enjoy loveplay. He will not only wait until his wife is well-lubricated, but reserve his entrance until her inner lips are engorged with blood and swollen at least twice their normal size.
Morgan was some kind of fundamentalist, a graduate from Florida Bible College. The LaHayes were Southern Baptists (Tim is deceased, Beverly is still alive). That kind of discussion of sexual intimacy is not what I learned was fitting in the Baptist fundamentalist home and congregation in which I grew up.
Meanwhile, Tim and Kathy Keller arguably discussed briefly and more openly than I would care to do their sexual history, but the theme is restraint:
Kathy and I were virgins when we were married. Even in our day, that may have been a minority experience, but that meant that on our wedding night we were not in any position to try to entice or impress one another. All we were trying to do was to tenderly express with our bodies the oneness we had first begun feeling as friends and which had then grown stronger and deeper as we fell in love. Frankly, that night I was clumsy and awkward and fell asleep anxious and discouraged. Sex was frustrating at first. It was the frustration of an artist who has in his head a picture or a story but lacks the skills to express it. (Meaning of Marriage, 79-80)
That is still TMI for my own comfort. But it is a very different picture of sexual intimacy than what the fundamentalist Morgan and Baptist LaHayes presented.
Which raises the question: if you can be a Presbyterian in the bedroom, why not in worship?
Darren Dochuk’s new book, Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, continues his study of American Protestantism’s financial profile. A very simple way of putting his findings is to say that John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil financed mainline Protestant organizations and J. Howard Pew (and other small oilmen) sustained evangelical Protestantism. In his own words:
By the late 1940s, Howard was not only bitter about major oil’s global expansion at the cost of U.S. domestic production (and with Washington’s privileging of that trend), but also about how the Rockefellers were reshaping society with their mammoth charity. John D. Rockefeller Jr., and his sons were, by now, heading a multifaceted foundation that sought to provide humanitarianism and economic development on an international scale. In Pew’s mind, it was the Rockefellers’ brand of ecumenical, interdenominational and internationalist (“monopolistic”) Protestantism, and its prioritizing of science and structural reform over personal matters of the soul that was responsible for the nation’s secular slide. Determined to offset the Rockefellers’ modernistic gospel, in 1948 Pew helped his siblings incorporate the Pew Memorial Trust to “help meet human needs” through support of “education, social services, religion, health care and medical research,” then christened his own, the J. Howard Pew Freedom Trust, whose charge was even bolder: “to acquaint the American people with the values of a free market, the dangers of inflation, the paralyzing effects of government controls on the lives and activities of people” and “promote the recognition of the interdependence of Christianity and freedom.”
That stance in opposition to Protestant modernism and ecumenism prompted Pew to be a major backer of the neo-evangelicals (later just plain evangelicals) at institutions like Fuller, Christianity Today, Billy Graham (Inc.), and Gordon-Conwell:
the Pews rigorously protected personal liberty in theological terms. Howard continued that tradition in the Cold War years. While serving as chair of the National Lay Committee in the National Council of Churches, he agitated against the “collectivist” drift in Presbyterianism and America’s Protestant mainline.
He found another way to push back by funding pastors, seminaries and lobbies associated with “new evangelicalism,” the loosely coordinated movement that would lay the groundwork for the religious right. In one respect, new evangelicals sought simply to continue a fight against liberal “modernist” trends in American Protestantism and society that self-identified “fundamentalists” had waged in the previous half century. Thanks to the unmatched financial support of independent oilmen Lyman and Milton Stewart, the brother tandem at the helm of Union Oil Company of California (whose own hatred of the Rockefellers knew no bounds), fundamentalists had proved highly successful at constructing an alternative infrastructure of churches, missionary agencies and schools that resisted progressivism’s pull. Yet new evangelicals, unlike fundamentalists, wanted to engage rather than recoil from mainstream society—they sought to redeem it rather than run from it. The number of institutions within the new evangelical orb that would benefit from Pew’s millions would be spectacularly large, including illustrious representatives such as Christianity Today, the National Association of Evangelicals and evangelist Billy Graham. Graham and his friends were known to lean on the “big boys” of southwestern oil for financing, among them the superrich Sid Richardson and Hugh Roy Cullen. But J. Howard Pew was the biggest backer among them.
The thing is, confessional Protestants fell between the cracks of categories like liberal and evangelical Protestants, but also sometimes drew fire from oilmen like Pew. (Machen actually preached at the union congregation in Seal Harbor, Maine, at the invitation of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the place where the Machens and Rockefellers worshiped while on vacation.)
When the OPC began, its original name was the Presbyterian Church of America (not to be confused with “in America”). That was a bridge too far (aside from the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions) for mainline Presbyterians. In 1935 while J. Gresham Machen and other board members belonged to the PCUSA, opposition to conservatives could use ecclesiastical courts. But once Machen was convicted of breaking church law and excommunicated, the only recourse to stop his efforts was the civil courts. And so, the PCUSA brought a civil suit against the new Presbyterian communion and asked the judge to force the new communion to change its name. Here was part of the PCUSA’s reasoning (humor warning):
It is impracticable and impossible for the plaintiff church to recover in damages what it has suffered and is likely to suffer from the aforesaid acts done and threatened to be done by and on behalf of the defendant church. The plaintiff church is powerless to prevent the resulting injury to its property and enterprises, or to avoid the resulting loss in donations and financial support which may be diverted from it, which injuries are immediate, continuous and irreparable, and incapable of computation or estimate. (Bill of Complaint, reprinted in Presbyterian Guardian, Sept. 12, 1936)
To put readers’ laughter in perspective, here are some figures to keep in mind for comparison between the PCUSA and the original OPC:
At its first General Assembly the [OPC] counted only thirty-four ministers, with roughly thirty congregations and 5,000 members. Funds were so scarce that the minutes of the first five General Assemblies do not even include financial reports. No doubt the ministers themselves bore most of the expenses of the denomination and its proceedings, with help from congregations. The only mention of finances at the third General Assembly, for example in 1937, was in connection with the costs for printing the minutes and agenda, and the budget of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. Printing costs were $137 and the receipts from churches and ministers were only $122, leaving a deficit of $15. Because the Committee on Home Missions was the only agency with a real budget, the delegates passed along the rest of the bill to Home Missions. But that committee was not exactly flush. Their expenses for the first year came to just short of $13,000, with receipts totaling a little more than $13,000. In fact, the Committee on Home Missions’ budget was the OPC’s denominational budget. In addition to picking up the expenses of printing the General Assembly’s minutes, the Committee also footed the bill for renting the hall where the Assembly met. Thus, by the end of its first year the OPC’s total assets, if the balance of the Committee on Home Missions’ bank account is any indication, were $221.54.
In contrast, the PCUSA’s wealth and stature were truly staggering. In their complaint against the OPC the officers of the mainline denomination listed their resources to show how much they had to lose if a new church came along with a similar name. The PCUSA had close to 9,000 congregations, with just under 2 million church members, and 9,800 ministers. The church had approximately 1,600 home missionaries with an annual budget of $2.5 million and trust funds totaling just over $33 million. The PCUSA’s efforts in foreign missions were also large. They counted 1,300 missionaries with an annual budget of $2.9 million and trust funds totaling a little more than $18 million.
The [OPC] did not even send out their first foreign missionaries until 1938 and then could only manage support for eight, a number figure that included wives. (DGH, “Why the OPC: The History behind the Name)
What does this have to do with big oil or J. Howard Pew? The first two names on the Bill of Complaint were:
THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA By (Sgd) HENRY B. MASTER, Moderator
TRUSTEES OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA By (Sgd) J. HOWARD Pew, President.
This does not mean that Pew was aiming for Machen and the OPC. He likely signed this complaint as part of his responsibilities as an elder in the PCUSA.
But, the man who funded so much of the neo-evangelical world, the friend of so-called conservative Protestants, was right there in the legal proceedings against other conservative Protestants, the ones who were the most Presbyterian of all the Protestants (minus the Covenanters, and Associate Reformed). And one reason that Pew might have favored Graham et al and not had much regard for Machen was the the latter’s understanding of the mission of the church was not going to abet the political and economic policies that Pew wanted the federal government to pursue. Graham and the neo-evangelicals, sorry Mark Galli, wanted to be evangelicalism for the nation. That earned them Pew’s support.
For those social justicey pastors who labor for the city, what’s wrong with this picture?
Observant Presbyterians are always part of gatherings at Rutgers Presbyterian Church. But much of the time, so are Roman Catholics and Jews, as well as a smattering of people who consider themselves vaguely spiritual. Valerie Oltarsh-McCarthy, who sat among the congregation listening to a Sunday sermon on the perils of genetically modified vegetables, is, in fact, an atheist.
“It’s something I never thought would happen,” she said of the bond she has forged with the church’s community, if not the tenets of its faith. She was drawn to the church, she said, by “something in the spirit of Rutgers and something in the spirit of the outside world.”
Katharine Butler, an artist, was lured into Rutgers when she walked by a sandwich board on the street advertising its environmental activism. Soon, she was involved in more traditional aspects of the church, too.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this, singing away and all the Jesus-y stuff,” she said. “It was wonderful to find a place larger than me, that’s involved in that and in the community and being of service. It’s nice to find a real community like that.”
Typically, the connective tissue of any congregation is an embrace of a shared faith.
Yet Rutgers, a relatively small church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has rejected that. Sharing a belief in God — any God at all — isn’t necessary. Instead, the community there has been cobbled together by a different code of convictions, pulled in by social justice efforts, activism against climate change, meal programs for the homeless and a task force to help refugee families.
Houses of worship — including Christian churches from a range of denominations, as well as synagogues — have positioned themselves as potent forces on progressive issues, promoting activism on social justice causes and inviting in the L.G.B.T.Q. community. But religious scholars said that Rutgers was reaching a new frontier where its social agenda in some ways overshadowed its religious one.
“Rutgers has periodically reinvented itself as the Upper West Side has gone through changes like this,” said James Hudnut-Beumler, a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University. “This isn’t the first reinvention. It is one of their more interesting ones.”
The approach at Rutgers reflects how spirituality has shifted in fundamental ways. Those who enter the unassuming brick-and-limestone sanctuary on West 73rd Street find a place for pancake breakfasts, fund-raisers, activism and developing ties to a neighborhood.
“People who otherwise feel marginalized or pushed out by regular congregations, more thoughtful people, say, or those who like to ask questions about faith, started to gather around our congregation,” said the Rev. Andrew Stehlik, the senior pastor at Rutgers.
“Not all of them are deeply interested in becoming yet another member of a denomination,” he added. “They are still coming and worshiping with us. We call them friends of the church. Often, they’re a substantial part of the worshiping community here.”
It seems that the worshiping community could use an injection of people. Mainline Protestant denominations like Presbyterianism have seen their followings diminish in recent years. (Leaders of the Presbyterian Church put out a news release in April announcing that fewer followers were leaving, declaring that they were “encouraged by the slowing trend downward.”)
To address shrinking congregations, some pastors are searching for new ways to use their churches and redefine what fellowship means. Churches have the space and the good will, after all, to commit to community works, social justice or arts and educational projects. And opening their doors in this way can bring in those looking for more than a Bible study class.
Some progressive Reformed and evangelicals are wont to insist that you can’t have the gospel without social justice.
But at churches like Rutgers Presbyterian, you do have social justice without the gospel. And this is not the Democratic Party. It’s a church.
So, where do you draw the line? At what point do you have too much God to be effectively social justice in your church’s orientation? If Rutgers’ pastors came on with the Westminster Confession, they might see unbelievers less inclined to participate in church activities. Or, when does social justice begin to impede God? If Rutgers’ pastors pastors came on with the Westminster Confession, they might see Presbyterians object to a broad church held together by left-wing activism.
Whatever the answer, a line exists. Or you can put churches on a spectrum. Either way, the gospel is not identical to social justice. Mainline Protestantism is example number one.
It started well seemingly with Tim Keller:
what makes a small group missional? A missional small group is not necessarily one that is doing some kind of specific evangelism program (though that is to be encouraged). Rather, (1) if its members love and talk positively about the city/neighborhood, (2) if they speak in language that is not filled with pious tribal or technical terms and phrases, nor with disdainful and embattled verbiage, (3) if in their Bible study they apply the gospel to the core concerns and stories of the people of the culture, (4) if they are obviously interested in and engaged with the literature, art and thought of the surrounding culture and can discuss it both appreciatively and critically, (5) if they exhibit deep concern for the poor, generosity with their money, purity and respect with regard to the opposite sex, and humility toward people of other races and cultures, and (6) if they do not bash other Christians and churches—then seekers and nonbelieving people will be invited and will come and stay as they explore spiritual issues.
That was 2001.
Then Kevin DeYoung raised objections even while trying not to offend the missionally minded:
(1) I am concerned that good behaviors are sometimes commended using the wrong categories. For example, many good deeds are promoted under the term “social justice” when I think “love your neighbor” is often a better category. Or, folks will talk about transforming the world, when I think being “a faithful presence in the world” is a better way to describe what we are trying to do and actually can do. Or, sometimes well meaning Christians talk about “building the kingdom” when actually the verbs associated with the kingdom are almost always passive (enter, receive, inherit). We’d do better to speak of living as citizens of the kingdom, rather than telling our people they build the kingdom.
(2) I am concerned that in our new found missional zeal we sometimes put hard “oughts” on Christians where there should be inviting “cans.” You ought to do something about human trafficking. You ought to do something about AIDS. You ought to do something about lack of good public education. When you say “ought” you imply that if the church does not tackle these problems we are being disobedient. It would be better to invite individual Christians in keeping with their gifts and calling to try to solve these problems rather than indicting the church for “not caring.”
(3) I am concerned that in all our passion for renewing the city or tackling social problems we run the risk of marginalizing the one thing that makes Christian mission Christian: namely, making disciples of Jesus Christ.
That was 2010.
Now comes Mark Galli with even more criticism (the fourth column in a series):
But it turns out that the church is not a very efficient institution for making a difference in the world. If you are passionate about feeding the hungry, for example, churches can help here and there. But if you really want to make a difference, really cut the numbers of the hungry and malnourished, it’s better to give your time to a government or nonprofit agency that specializes in such things.
The same is true whether we’re talking about sex trafficking, drug abuse, exploitation of labor, environmental degradation, and so forth. The church as church can make a donation, organize a committee, sponsor a food pantry, but it cannot really make a significant, lasting impact. It is not set up to do that. In fact, it has many other really important jobs to do.
It is called, for example, more than anything, to provide a time and place for the public worship of God and for people to participate in the sacraments/ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper—to meet God as we glorify him. It is also called to teach children, youth, and adults about who God is, as well as the shape and nature of the Christian life. It is a place where Christians gather to receive mutual encouragement and prayer. It’s the place where we learn to live into our destiny, to be holy and blameless in love, to the praise of God’s glory.
Galli adds that it is harder for a church to be simply a church than it is to be missional (even if the former is likely a lot less expensive):
But if you want to do something that is really hard, and if you want to push yourself to the limits, if you want to be constantly tested by love, if you want to live into your ultimate destiny—if you want to learn to be holy and blameless in love before God—there is no better place to do that than in the local church.
Many of us today rightly note the great defects in the church, most of which boil down to its superficiality. Because the church thinks it has to be missional, that it has to be a place where the world feels comfortable, it has dumbed down the preaching and the worship, so that in many quarters we have ended up with a common-denominator Christianity. It goes down easy, which is why it attracts so many and why many churches are growing. But it is a meal designed to stunt the growth of the people of God. And it is a way of church life that eventually burns people out, where people become exhausted trying to make the world a better place.
What if instead the church was a sanctuary, a place of rest and healing and life, where the fellowship of believers lived together in love, where we just learn to be holy and blameless in love before God? And what if, having encountered afresh some sort of beatific vision, we go out from church in our vocations and ministries, serving the unchurched neighbor and, by God’s grace, make a difference in their world?
You’d have thought Galli read Machen. You might have also thought that someone who taught at Westminster Theological Seminary had read Machen.