There is Therefore Now Some Condemnation for Those who Are in Christ Jesus

Feel good moments are not part of the feng shui of Old School Presbyterianism. For that reason, I can empathize with some who viewed the video of Botham Jean’s expression of forgiveness to Amber Guyger as too sentimental and its viral circulation as sappily predictable.

Still, I am having trouble understanding Christians who have argued that Christianity is more than forgiveness because social (read racial) justice is still really important. According to Dorena Williamson:

Listening to the entire Jean family offers us a fuller picture of Christianity. In their words and posture towards Guyger and the criminal justice system, we hear calls for both forgiveness and justice. But if we elevate the words of one family member at the expense of another, we run the risk of distorting the gospel.

That way of putting makes you wonder if what social justice Christians really want is purgatory, a place where you go to burn off your temporal sins even though your spiritual ones are forgiven.

Williamson says people inspired by Botham need to listen to his mother. But what about the apostle Paul? He did write, after all:

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Is it anachronistic to think that not even racism could separate someone who trusts in Christ from God and redemption through his son? Or is racism the unpardonable sin?

Of course, Paul also wrote about justice. Five chapters later, he made this point:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

What Paul does not say is that punishment by the governing authorities can separate Christians from the love of God.

Forgiveness trumps social justice, then. Even the Coen brothers understood this in O Brother, Where Art Thou:

…religion and politics, at least by the light of one strand of Christianity, have different standards and scope. The state’s purpose is justice and, according to any number of New Testament writers, the magistrate is well equipped with physical penalties to accomplish it. The church’s purpose is mercy and is similarly furnished with such means as preaching and the sacraments to pursue its redemptive tasks. To confuse the two is to misconstrue the bad cop (the state) and the good cop (the church). The difference is really not that hard to grasp, except perhaps for those believers who would like the church to have the trappings of the state and for citizens who would like politics to fill some spiritual void. Even run of the mill ex-cons, like Ulysses Everett McGill, the scheming ring-leader of the escaped prisoners in the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” could see that his colleagues’ conversions would have no effect on their legal predicament as escaped convicts. When Pete and Delmar both appealed to their baptism in a muddy river as the basis for a general absolution, Everett responded, “That’s not the issue . . . .. Even if it did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi is more hardnosed.” (A Secular Faith, 123)

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Constantine as Mr. Rogers

Remember when Presbyterians used to confess this about the civil magistrate?

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 hath 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 ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath 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. (Confession of Faith 23.3)

Of course, imagining Donald Trump presiding over the General Assembly of the PCA might prompt chuckles (moderating debate with Roberts’ Rules, winding up the woke commissioners, Trump supporters’ embarrassment). But even giving “good” presidents this kind of power is precisely why American Presbyterians revised the Confession (at least one reason). The Congregationalist, Barack Obama moderating a General Assembly? The United Methodist, George W. Bush? The Roman Catholic, John F. Kennedy? I don’t think so!

But even in a secular United States, Americans have trouble abandoning the idea of a president’s moral authority. Even those who believe in total depravity struggle with expecting too much of POTUS. Here’s one fairly recent foray into the topic of presidents’ morality at National Public Radio. Surprise, it started with St. Abe:

While Americans often take the idea of the president as a moral leader for granted, Barbara Perry, a presidential historian in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, says she has traced this concept back to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1863.

The North and South were divided in the middle of the Civil War, and Lincoln sought to bring the country together by pointing to our common heritage, Perry says.

“He points to the fact that our common heritage is that our forefathers came upon this continent and created a new nation, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” Perry tells NPR’s Audie Cornish. “To me it is the ultimate presidential speech of unification, grief, calming — but also uplifting and inspirational.”

What exactly is moral about social unity, grief over soldiers’ deaths, calm reassurance, uplift, and inspiration? That’s a pretty low bar (not low enough for Trump).

“The president is not always successful in the persuasion, in terms of policy outcomes,” Perry says, “but if he can be successful in at least calming and soothing the nation and showing us a way forward — that someday perhaps we will reach the policy point, as we did with President Kennedy and the ’64 Civil Rights Act — he will have been successful.”

So what, ultimately, is the responsibility of a president in critical moments? Perry says the president primarily serves to comfort the American people in times of crisis. We look to the president as a father figure.

“The president is the very first symbol of American government that children comprehend,” she says. “The president, especially in the modern era, comes into our homes — first by radio, then television, now through all sorts of electronic gadgetry — and so we think of him as part of our life. And that’s why it’s so important for him to model the proper behavior for us.”

The only way this makes sense for Christians is to have two standards, one for Christians, another for citizens. The United States relies on conduct that is outwardly moral in some sense. But that is a far cry from the Confession:

Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and others; yet because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith, nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word, nor to a right end, the glory of God; they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God. (Confession of Faith, 13.7)

A president’s moral authority, accordingly, should proceed from true faith, obedience to God’s word, and an aim to give God the glory.

And yet, we have many Americans who expect presidents to be moral at a time when Christians have been “engaged” in politics in a direct way for at least a generation. You might think that a Christian perspective would reduce expectations for a presidential morality. It is exactly the reverse. Many American who have made a living by flouting conventional standards (think Hollywood celebrities) now have no trouble echoing Jerry Falwell, Sr.

If only Mencken were alive to see this show.

A Federal Department of Sanctification?

Pastor Anyabwile is back to the pursuit of social justice with a series of posts, the most recent of which renders those not active in opposition to racism as complicit with previous generations’ sins:

The actual debate is about the extent to which the sins of previous generations still mark this generation, and, if so, whether people today will acknowledge and repent of it. What is in dispute is whether a mere claim to not being guilty of certain sins constitutes either repentance or innocence when the sins in view actually require active opposition and when we may be unaware of some sins (Ps. 19:12; 1 Cor. 4:4). The life the gospel produces ought to be actively anti-racist, anti-oppression, anti-family destruction, and so on.

How could Anyabwile leave out sexism and misogyny, or climate change? How can any American stand on that great day of judgment for sins covered in the national press?

One of his posts includes the point, not very controversial, that the gospel involves renovation of the Christian’s moral life:

…historically and at present we have an evangelical Christian church generally failing at the ethical half of the faith. That failure results from little teaching and inadequate understanding of gospel ethics, especially as it relates to the practice of justice on a range of issues.

The conservative and Reformed evangelical church receives a heavy dose of gospel doctrine (appropriately so) but not nearly enough discipleship in gospel duty. Its witness is being hurt by the latter (duty), not the former (doctrine). Or, to use Paul’s words to Timothy, there’s need for the church to “closely watch its life and doctrine.”

The social justice “debate” appears to me as a kind of spiritual and intellectual dissonance caused by some quarters of the church awakening to the ethical demands of God while other quarters resist that awakening or perceived excesses in it. From my vantage point, Christians pursuing justice are attempting to hold together evangel and ethic in renewed ways as they apply biblical texts and appropriate history. (I stress Christians here because I am not defending and am not a part of the large number of non-Christian things traveling beneath the banner of “social justice.”) To put it simply: Some Christians are trying to grow in their understanding and pursuit of Bible- and gospel-informed justice, while some other Christians are invested in protecting the gospel from threats they believe they see. My critique of the latter is that they appear to be severing evangel from ethic.

Here’s maybe not the but a thing: ethics is not justice. Ethics may not even be sanctification. But if social justice and supporting reform of the criminal justice system (which is desirable) is a form of sanctification, the good pastor has engaged in some serious baiting and switching.

Truth be told, the United States has a Department of Justice that is involved in much more than ethics:

To enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law; to ensure public safety against threats foreign and domestic; to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime; to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior; and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.

Of course, recent controversies, from Russia to Missouri, have shown how flawed the execution of justice can be. But that’s the nature of society and justice in a fallen world. Heck, not even sanctification is entire in this life for the individual Christian.

So why does Pastor Anyabwile continue to talk about social justice in ways that indicate he is a Christian nationalist, that is, someone who thinks the United States should meet, not Jewish, Muslim, or Mormon norms for social life, but Christian ones?

Why not separate the church from the federal government and talk about ways to eliminate racism from national institutions on political grounds, rather than trying to turn political reform into the third use of the law?

Hypocrites All

Has anyone wondered what Bible #woke Christians read?

14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me. (Phil 2)

It gets worse if you think that suffering is actually part and parcel of flourishing for Christians.

Have The Weak and Strong Turned into the Righteous and the Wicked?

Some churches, in effect, make adherence to the Republican party platform a litmus test for Christian orthodoxy. Most black people are not Republican, so political differences can create barriers to belonging.

If churches want to improve the way they teach their members about race, they should start by examining their understanding of the term.

Ask church leaders to define the words “race” and “racism.” Oftentimes there are as many different answers as there are people answering. The key here is to move beyond a narrow concept of racism as only an interpersonal phenomenon. Christians must acknowledge the ways race operates on systemic and institutional levels. Developing a shared language and definitions is a key to improving racial responsiveness.

Lots of imperatives there, but substituting orthodoxy on race for conformity on political affiliation is hardly in keeping with what Paul commanded in Romans 14:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God;

Maybe the way around this call to forbearance (even tolerance) is to say that Donald Trump is simply evil. If so, then it would be doubly odd to condemn a chief sinner when Jesus hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors, and other deplorables. Since when does following Jesus mean imitating what he will do when he returns on Judgment Day?

One point to remember about the weak and the strong is that it allows for Christians to feel superior. Some are strong, others weak. Not sure how you turn that into some form of egalitarianism. The strong can handle more than the weak, and so have a better grasp of the gospel than those who form certain kinds of legalism.

So if the supremacy of the strong is a biblical idea, what is so bad with talking about some groups being better than others? Is it really so bad (when so many do it) to believe in the supremacy of the educated? American society in most middling to upper institutions runs on the premise that someone who is educated beyond high school will be a better employee, student, leader, manager than someone with less education. That is not hatred (though it can turn into it) of the uneducated. It is a recognition (perhaps debatable) that education is generally a good preparation for lots of human activities.

The point of the weak and the strong in Paul’s epistle seems to be to recognize difference but not let that be the basis for exclusion or cliques in the church.

I understand that people who moved in religious right circles did not handle their (self-understood) superiority very well. But I don’t think the social justice Protestants are setting a great example. If Paul can say “chill” about activities that some Christians deemed sinful, when did the new set of apostles arrive to declare that Paul’s instructions have hit their expiration date?

How to Bring Harmony between Woke Christians and Christian Nationalists

Find passages from Scripture that neither can preach while maintaining their social media postures.

Here are some examples:

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Pet 2)

Even if Peter were not aware of intersectionality, he seems to allow that businesses, schools, governments, attitudes, even economic status function as restraints on our freedom. Either way, we’re supposed to submit and not rebel. That might also apply to Parliament and the British monarchy way back in 1776.

Paul at times set the bar higher than Peter:

9 Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12)

One lesson from that challenge is don’t kvetch! Don’t complain about taxes or the king. And don’t anathematize groups of people that you think have privilege or are bigoted.

In fact, how could you ever square such passages with a declaration of war against an existing government or with Twitter outrage that castigates entire classes of people based on the news cycle? In other words, how do American believers become so comfortable with an American exceptionalism that either idolizes or vilifies the United States and its government?

Selah

Bill Clinton: In Red, White, and Especially Blue

This is how objections to presidential immorality sounded twenty-one years ago (from the October 1998 edition of the Nicotine Theological Journal):

Of the several disadvantages of growing up in a fundamentalist home, one was the ability of my father to detect off-color humor a mile away. (Sure, the promoters of family values would see this as a virtue. But, then again, they are the ones responsible for the Family Channel where firm parental guidance is little different from parental naivete.) I can remember those rare nights when for some reason my brother had been sufficiently well-behaved to merit staying up late – it also needs to be added that it was Friday night. And then around 11:30 we would gain access into the sophisticated adult world of “The Tonight Show” and hear the urbane (to us) humor of Johnny Carson. We would listen to Fred McMahon announce the evening’s guests and cherish the prospects of seeing Buddy Rich or Don Rickles.

BUT WE KNEW ONE OBSTACLE lay in the way of our making it past midnight. It was Carson’s monologue. If Johnny went blue – the showbiz vernacular for telling dirty jokes – then we knew dad would get up from his recliner and turn the TV off, thus forcing an abrupt end to the quality time around the tube. Sometimes Carson’s allusions to parts of the female anatomy would be tame enough to keep our father in his seat – he no doubt enjoyed Carson and wanted to see the same guests that we did. (By the way, it helped if dad fell asleep. But there would be hell to pay if he woke up to a dirty joke. And could you be really sure that he was asleep?) But in those cases where the jokes were only a shade blue, the pressure I felt was even greater than if Carson had gone ahead and told a crude one-liner. I couldn’t stand not knowing when my father would turn off the TV. And so, in some cases I would be the one to make the first move. It wasn’t because I objected to the humor, nor was it even a case of trying to protect my innocent dad from the dirty jokes that I had come to hear at school (often repeated from “The Tonight Show”). Instead, it was simply a desire to end my misery. I could not bear hearing off color jokes in my dad’s presence. If I laughed I would certainly disappoint if not anger him. If I didn’t then why bother watching?

MEMORIES OF MY YOUTHFUL late night discomfort have come back to me over the past eight months, first as a trickle, and now as a virtual geyser, as the sordid and tawdry details of our President and his intern have absorbed the nation and its media. Through it all I know that my aging fundamentalist parents sit glued to the TV, not because they are so interested in Bill Clinton’s sex life (though as registered Republicans these incidents have no doubt confirmed their prejudices). Rather, it is their habit to watch at least ninety minutes of news each night, first the local variety at 6:00, then the national edition at 6:30 – I think they still watch Peter Jennings, who has had his own intern problems, because their local news of choice comes from the ABC affiliate and they don’t have remote control. Then, they finish off the day with a dose of local news at 11:00, complete with that evening’s murders, fires, and woes of the Major League Baseball’s closest franchise.

THROUGH IT ALL, MY DEAR, devout conservative independent Baptist parents have had to hear about parts of the human body and sexual positions that had Johnny Carson ever mentioned my dad would have likely not only turned off the TV, but put it out by the curb for the next trash pick-up. I feel this obligation to go home at certain times of the evening so I can be there to turn off my parents’ TV. Many people have talked about how parents are going to explain the President’s actions to their children. But what about former fundamentalists like me? Who is going to explain it to our parents? I want to protect my parents from the evening news which is now pornographic. They don’t need to know about oral sex or stained cocktail dresses. Their lives, innocent though they may have been, would have been complete without such carnal knowledge. And this is the source of my complaint against our President. His sexual life is his business, though I can see its repercussions for the body politic and his ability to govern. But do my parents have to know? Couldn’t he have thought about all those fundamentalists out there who had never dreamed that sexual desire could take such bodily form?

Now, part of the problem may be mine. I could be suffering from the same naivete that Hamlet exhibited when he denied that his mother was a sexual creature. In other words, I may think my parents so sexually innocent that I can’t conceive of their sexual intimacy, let alone the fact that they did produce two sons. They both grew up on farms and probably know a lot more about sex than I can ever fathom. Still, if they felt the obligation to protect me from Johnny going blue, I feel a similar responsibility to protect them from Bill Clinton, who should be turning red.

Townsend Levitt

Why Calvinism Matters

When you need a check on virtue signaling (also known as brummagem moral grounds), where do turn but to Calvin or Mencken? The following (by a Dutch-American Reformed Protestant turned Roman Catholic, of all things) is a warning about reading charity as a sign of virtue:

Growing up Calvinist, we took great pride in our doctrines, and none more so than the idea of the total depravity of man. Even if we could take comfort in irresistible grace, we never lost our sense that we were sinful by nature and to the core. Regardless of our many merits, which we were ashamed to admit, we were but worms in the eyes of God.

One way to view the doctrine is that we are incapable of doing good without divine help. I am interested here, however, in the idea that everything we do is touched in some sense by our depravity.

Maybe another way of saying this is that everything we do, short of attaining the kind of theosis emphasized in Eastern Christianity, bears the stains of selfishness and the full range of human vices. Naturally, none of us like to believe this about ourselves. We like to think we are good, moral people. So a lot of time our actions carry an accompaniment of performance: we convince ourselves we are good when other people treat us as if we are so. We need their validation. Doing “good deeds” requires the recognition of others as a way of reinforcing our sense that we are good persons.

In Robert Penn Warren’s novel All The King’s Men, the central character, Jack Burden, is directed by the main political figure, Willie Stark, to dig up dirt on a political opponent. Responding to Jack’s protestations that there will be nothing to find, that the man in question is clean and can’t be intimidated, Wille responds: “Man is conceived in sin and born into corruption, from the didie to the shroud.” That is to say: every person who has walked this earth has something in their past, or in their present, that they are carrying around in shame, because that is the sort of creatures we are.

Surely this is part of what Madison meant when he said that government is the greatest of all reflections on human nature, and that whatever else is true of human beings, we are not angels. Nothing we do is untouched by our depravity.

…My point is not that human beings are incapable of doing good, nor that they are never what they claim to be. Rather, it’s to reemphasize that our actions are typically touched and tainted by self-interest, by hypocrisy, by a need to be thought well of. Thus, action must be attended by confession.

I’m not suggesting only religions which have ritualized confessions produce persons capable of doing good. I’m suggesting that moral action has as part of its equation serious introspection. Why am I doing this? Who benefits? How genuinely concerned am I about the well-being of the person who receives my help? How much does it matter to me that my acts receive recognition from others? Am I motivated by love? Power? My own sense of my superior knowledge?

There are no shortcuts on introspection, there is no cheap grace, and there is no “letting yourself off the hook” by convincing yourself that you are, after all, “doing good.”

If sinfulness still resides in worthwhile endeavors, imagine the dirt attached to hedonism.

What Transformed Churches Used to Look Like

Over at Front Porch Republic I posted some reflections on the urge for contemporary Christians to hope for and try to implement “radical” Christianity. It strikes me that such radicalism is at the heart of #woke Christians’ deep and abiding resentment of the fall’s effects on human institutions, not to mention its influence on humans.

Roger Olson is also surprised by the turn that some evangelicals are taking in their awakened state. And he also remembers what used to characterize a transformed Christian culture. Hint, it was not radical:

“The Christianity of my youth is gone; I don’t find it anywhere.” I have thought that to myself but been afraid to say it to anyone. I had to agree with him. We both grew up in and began our ministries within the “heart” of American conservative Protestant, evangelical Christianity. We both have taught at several Christian institutions of higher education and we both have traveled much—speaking to Christian audiences both inside and outside of churches. We have both written books published by evangelical Christian publishers. We both have our finger on the “pulse” of contemporary American evangelical Protestant Christianity and we both grew up in and began our ministries in what that used to be. We are both dismayed at how it has changed.

We were not talking about “drums on the platform used during worship.” We were not talking about styles of dress or hair or anything like that. We were talking about substance.

We both know what evangelical Protestant Christianity was like in terms of substance in the middle of the twentieth century—in America. We both know what it is like now. And to us, at least, the change of substance is so radical that we have trouble recognizing contemporary evangelical Protestant Christianity in America as in continuity with the religious form of life we both grew up in and began our ministries in.

Let me explain….

It’s actually difficult to know where to begin! Almost everything has changed substantially. But what I mean by “substantially” will only be revealed by my examples.

First, church was extended family; people knew each other and were involved in each other’s lives. There was no notion of “personal privacy” if you were a member of the church—except in the bathroom and (normally) bedroom. When the church was large, the Sunday School class was your extended family. If you were a member or regular attended and missed two Sundays in a row without explanation you could expect a visit from a pastor or Sunday School teacher. I could go on, but that should give you a taste of what I’m talking about.

Second, and following from “first,” home visitation was a big part of a pastor’s job. If the church was large this might be delegated to Sunday School teachers or others (e.g., elders or deacons). Also, hospital visitation was expected of pastors—even if they could not get to everyone every week (due to the size of the church and the city).

Third, evangelism and missions were central to church life. People had missionaries’ pictures at home and prayed for them as well as supported them financially. Many churches had “missionary barrels” where people put non-perishable items to send “overseas” for the missionaries. When the missionaries came “home on furlough” they traveled around speaking in churches and were expected to talk about conversions and church planting and building. “Transformative initiatives” were not enough; “winning lost souls to Jesus” was the common language and it was expected.

Following as part of “third” is that all evangelical churches had programs for training members to witness and evangelize. Everyone was expected to witness to their neighbors, co-workers, fellow students, etc.

Fourth, the worship space was treated as a place for reverence and respect. It was not “the auditorium” but “the sanctuary” and drinking beverages and eating food was absolutely forbidden. Every church had “ushers” part of whose job it was to speak to people who were not showing proper reverence and respect for the worship space—not so much because it was considered especially “holy” or “sacred” but because munching food and gulping beverages was distracting to others and just not proper during worship.

Fifth, most of the work of the church was performed by volunteer lay people instead of paid staff people. It was expected that every member would volunteer part of his or her time to do something for the church. Anyone who didn’t was considered a backslidden person in need of correction or even excommunication. There were excommunicated people who attended regularly, but they were not allowed to hold any positions of leadership and were the subjects of much prayer and visitation.

Sixth, Sunday was set aside as a time to be in church—morning and evening—and afternoons were devoted to rest, reading, visiting “folks” in their homes, etc. Normally, television was turned off on Sunday (unless possibly for religious programming in the morning while the family got ready for church or in the afternoon after the usually abundant Sunday noon dinner). People who did not spend most of Sunday at church were considered unspiritual and not given any kind of leadership in the church. (Of course exceptions were made for people who were for whatever reason not able to spend most of the day in church.)

Seventh, if a person attended church often (e.g.,with a “loved one”) but did not show any sign of interest in growing spiritually, he or she would be talked to and eventually asked to stop attending—if he or she was living a “sinful life.” That’s because children and youth would possibly assume that the person’s sinful lifestyle was acceptable.

Eighth, every evangelical church had occasional revivals—“protracted meetings” where people came every night of the week to hear music and preaching that was not “ordinary.” The focus was on both evangelism (“Bring your friends!”) and re-dedication or new consecration to the Lord. “Deeper life” or “higher life” was a major focus of evangelical churches with retreats, seminars, workshops, etc., that people were expected to attend.

Ninth, churches that “shut down” programs for the summer or for holidays were considered unspiritual. Summer, for example, was one of the most active times for evangelical churches with Vacation Bible Schools, “Backyard childrens’ clubs,” “Camps” and “Mission Trips”—usually to visit missionaries “on the field” in the countries where they were working for the Lord. Of course, only some people could go on these, but when the people who did go returned everyone was expected to come and listen to their stories about the missionaries and the people they were evangelizing and view their slides.

Tenth, every evangelical church had at least “Wednesday Bible Study” that usually met in the evening for at least an hour and any church member who did not attend was considered less than fully committed.

Eleventh, when evangelical Christians gathered for social fellowship with each other, whether in homes or at restaurants, wherever, they talked about “What Jesus is doing,” what they were learning from the Bible, reading Christian literature, their favorite radio preacher, or something spiritual and not only sports or politics or the weather. If they gathered in a home on Sunday afternoon, for example, they watched Billy Graham or Oral Roberts or Rex Humbard or some other evangelical Christian program (not football). Of course there were exceptions, but these fellowship gatherings of evangelical believers in homes were common and much of the “talk” was about religion, faith, God’s work in people’s lives, etc.

Twelfth, evangelical Christians had fairly high standards about entertainment. Many did not attend movies in movie theaters. If they did, they were highly selective about what ones they would attend (and let their children attend). Along with that, modesty in dress was expected—of both males and females. Most evangelical churches did not permit “mixed bathing” (boys and girls swimming together at camps or “lock ins” at the YMCA or YWCA). Young people were encouraged to listen only to Christian music on the local Christian radio station. Often they were given notes to take to school saying that they were not permitted to dance. Alternatives to “prom” were routinely planned by churches and local evangelical ministers’ associations. Such alternatives included (mostly) banquets to celebrate the coming commencement.

Thirteenth, Sunday sermons were expected to convict congregants and visitors of sin and “backsliding” and call them to new repentance and greater involvement in spiritual practices such as daily devotions, Bible reading, prayer and witnessing to the unsaved.

This was what I experienced as a yute. And it also explains why I found Reformed Protestantism more appealing and reassuring. I would certainly in my confessional and two-kingdom Protestant self construe church life and personal piety differently that Olson does.

At the same time, that older kind of evangelicalism (or fundamentalism) was earnestly otherworldly and congregational.

As much as the anti-liberal Christians out there, from Rod Dreher to Adrian Vermuele and N. T. Wright want to reject secularism and modern social forms, they don’t seem to have a place for the fairly thick glue of older congregational life and worship. Instead, they seem to prefer that the nation-state take on the attributes of a congregation (without of course all of the earnest striving to avoid worldliness). Meanwhile, the voices for social justice also seem not to notice how the protests and outrage distract from higher responsibilities (because more eternal) of fellowship, evangelism, discipleship, and worship. Again, part of the explanation seems to be an expectation that the world conform to the church or that the eschaton be immanentized.

I am not sure how to conclude other than to say, what the heck happened?

Baseball for Sabbatarians

With the completion of the 2018 season, an old article from the Nicotine Theological Journal (October 2007) on fans, pennant races, and keeping the Lord’s Day holy (and an excuse for an image of Mr. Utley):

NTJ Diarist: Day of Stress and Worry

It seems a distant memory now. But the last Lord’s Day of the 2007 Major League Baseball season created great conflict for the NTJ’s editors. Each of us grew up rooting for either the Mets or the Phillies. We are also committed to sanctifying the Sabbath. Consequently, the prospects of the Eastern Division’s title being settled on a day reserved for rest and worship generated considerable soul searching and much distraction by earthly and perishable things.

What follows is a confession of the editors’ unsuccessful efforts to keep September 30th holy. (The Phillies’ fan’s account is in bold for the victor’s emphasis.)

September 29, 4:35 pm: I was prepared to give up on the Metropolitans the night before. As their home losing streak extended to five games, they surrendered first place at last to the Phillies. Still I followed this afternoon’s game on the Internet, and, remarkably, John Maine came within a few outs of the first no-hitter in Mets history. The 13-0 shellacking of the hapless Marlins, combined with the Phillies loss, virtually wiped clean weeks of futility. We were tied again, and the Mets had their mojo back.

6:45 pm: I have a bad feeling of foreboding as I go out for the annual progressive supper on our block in Philadelphia. Could it be that the Phillies’ rise to first place yesterday is only setting us up for an even more depressing defeat tomorrow, the perfect way to cap a season in which they achieved 10,000 losses? The team looked bad today in their 4-2 loss to Washington. Thankfully, the neighbors bring lots of wine and don’t talk much about sports. Avoidance mixed with a buzz is bliss.

September 30, 8:30 am: Does God hear the prayers of the not-so-righteous? I am hoping and praying for discipline to concentrate on today’s services and sermons. But I can’t help think how great it will be if the Phillies actually surpass the Mets and win the division. I am also hoping that the season ends today. A playoff game tomorrow will be agonizing.

10:30 am: A sermon on Christ the resurrected King prompts my mind to drift. Is it impious to employ the resurrection as a metaphor for this horrible month? Will the Mets’ September humiliation yield to their October exaltation? That’s an inviting way to frame the narrative, and it pleases me to imagine how it will silence the obnoxious swagger of Phillies fans.

11:40 am: The pastor is preaching from the Beatitudes and I am doing my best not to think about the game this afternoon. But the notion that those who mourn are blessed gives me a perfect retort to gloating Mets fans should they win. The mourning Phillies fans would seem to qualify as those deserving of the Lord’s blessing. Even so, such a benediction doesn’t bring needed consolation.

2:30 pm: Before an afternoon nap I need to return an email about an ecclesiastical matter, surely a work of necessity. The problem is that I must get to my webmail via my homepage, which is the web page of Sports Illustrated. I am careful to pass over it quickly with barely a glance. All I remember seeing is a reference to the “Miracle Mets.” Oh yeah. 1969 . . . 1986 . . . and now, 2007.

3:05 pm: It suddenly dawns on me: si.com did not refer to the “Miracle Mets.” It said something like, “Mets need a Miracle at Shea.” Hmm. That’s a strange way to overstate the challenge. All we need today is the ordinary providence of Beltran’s bat, Glavine’s arm, and Reyes’ speed. So why the miracle talk?

3:20 pm: Overcome with confusion, I go back to si.com, which now features a photo of a forlorn Tom Glavine. I read where the Marlins scored seven runs off the future Hall-of-Famer in the first inning. SEVEN: the number of fullness and completeness and, well, Sabbath. It’s over. There will be no miracle today. I sense no impulse to check the Phillies score.

4:20 pm: My wife and I are out on our Sabbath stroll through the neighborhood and I am searching for signs of the outcome of the game at Citizens Bank Park. I am worried. I see no little pennants mounted on cars to show allegiance to the victors. I also hear no shouts or honking of horns. The town is way too quiet. I am preparing to find another team for which to root – too bad the Eagles only play on the Lord’s Day.

5:25 pm: I am tempted to check the score at one of the baseball websites so that I can concentrate better during the evening service. I resist temptation.

6:40 pm: Godliness, the seminary intern instructs the flock in the evening sermon, is manifested in obedience to God’s command. I suppose that includes the fourth commandment. I fall under conviction and take at least a measure of comfort in considering that I will not face a trial like this next week. Not with the way the Jets are playing.

7:10 pm: I stand with the pastor at the back door to greet exiting worshipers. While talking to the pastor I learn that one of the families in the church was celebrating the Phillies’ win in such a lively manner that the pastor and his wife heard the revelry from a few doors down the street. I am stunned. The Phillies have at least tied for the division.

8:15 pm: I begin to pack for a trip, oddly enough, to Philadelphia. I cringe at the satisfaction my friends will enact. I flee, where I have in the past, to the Psalms: “You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us – a laughing stock among the peoples. All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.”

8:45 pm: I finally give in to temptation and check the Internet for scores. I justify this by observing that the sun is officially and Pharisaically down. There I read the staggering news that the Mets also lost. I can barely believe the results. The Phillies were 7 games out with two weeks to go. They did not merely make the playoffs as the wild card team, but won the division outright. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.