Is God Holding Back Urbanist Presbyterians?

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.

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So You Don’t like Cultural Marxism, How Does Social Gospel Work Then?

Carl Trueman is not convinced that #woke Christians are cultural Marxists. That is to give them too much credit:

Christians enamored with social transformation and who bristle at any notion that the gospel is more to do with things above than things below, would do well to ask whether they’re allowing the tastes of this culture-is-always-political world to intrude inappropriately on their own theology. To deny the pre-political, to focus on institutions, to condemn anyone whose church isn’t constantly addressing the latest fad of the 24-hour news cycle as somehow sinning—that is to mimic the world’s values, the world’s practices, and the world’s cheap outrage. In fact, calling that kind of behavior cultural Marxism is to flatter it far too highly, implying a sophistication that half-baked cheap shots simply do not possess.

I’m not so sure that some of the current “social” ministry among social justice Christians is distinct from cultural Marxism. After all, Trueman’s essay concedes that Marx has won:

We live in Marx’s world—a world where the cultural imagination is gripped by the idea that everything is political. Silence in today’s climate on any issue by anybody in any institution is unacceptable, for to take no political stand on anything in our world is in fact to take a political stand—a stand for the status quo.

Heck, cultural Marxism may be simply the air we breath, even another lever in the systemic powers that oppress, a force on the order of climate change. Who can withstand that great intellectual tsunami?

But if we must abandon the charge of cultural Marxism, that’s fine. Another is just as handy and even more accurate. It is the Social Gospel. Washington Gladden was the granddaddy of social ministry and he wrote many books and essays about the Social Gospel.

Does this sound familiar?

Every department of human life – the families, the schools, amusements, art, business, politics, industry, national politics, international relations – will be governed by the Christian law and controlled by Christian influences. When we are bidden to seek first the kingdom of God, we are bidden to set our hearts on this great commission; to keep this always before us as the object of our endeavors; to be satisfied with nothing less than this. The complete Christianization of all life is what we pray and work for, when we work and pray for the coming of the kingdom of heaven. (Applied Christianity 1894)

If only Gladden had used the adverb, gospelly.

The Sweet Spot of Reformedish Kingdom Theology (or why 2k looks R)

At World Magazine, Scott Allen knows that the Social Gospel and contemporary Social Justice Gospel are problems:

Advocates of the social gospel believed the church should be engaged in the culture, fighting against injustice and working to uplift the impoverished and downtrodden—all admirable goals. The problem was they unwittingly allowed secular assumptions to inform their theology of cultural engagement. Their profoundly un-Biblical mindset is nicely captured in this quote from social gospel advocate, journalist Horace Greeley:

“The heart of man is not depraved … his passions do not prompt to wrong doing, and do not therefore by their actions, produce evil. Evil flows only from social [inequality]. Give [people] full scope, free play, a perfect and complete development, and universal happiness must be the result. … Create a new form of Society in which this shall be possible … then you will have the perfect Society; then you will have the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Similar problems bedevil today’s social justice warriors.

Today, evangelical advocates of social justice similarly want to fight against injustice and engage in the culture. But like the earlier social gospel advocates, they too have unwittingly allowed their theology of justice to be contaminated, this time by un-Biblical postmodern and neo-Marxist ideas, leading a group of evangelicals to come together in opposition to this view.

The conflict has been simmering for some time but is now out in the open with the release of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel supported by John MacArthur, Douglas Wilson, Voddie Baucham, and others.

The statement’s authors are concerned that the social justice movement in the broader culture has crept into the church. Social justice is the preferred descriptor of a movement on the far left that even left-leaning culture watchers such as Jonathan Haidt, Camille Paglia, and Jordan Peterson now identify as a pseudo-religion. This false religion now dominates the humanities departments of universities in the United States, as well as the entertainment and media industries, and increasingly the board rooms of major corporations like Google and Nike. It works hand in glove with the sexual revolution, as it shares the same ideological roots in Romanticism, postmodernism, and Marxism. It has no place for such essential Biblical virtues as grace, mercy, and forgiveness, replacing these with grievance, offense, incivility, and retribution. Its branches are political correctness, identity politics, multiculturalism, and intersectionality. It is incompatible with the United States’ constitutional, republican form of government, and such fundamental goods as due process. Its bitter fruit is the breakdown of civil society.

So what about letting the church be the church or looking to the spirituality of the church as an alternative? Not gonna happen.

Rather than calling the church back to an orthodox Biblical approach to justice and cultural engagement, Johnson and others like him appear to be making the same mistakes as the earlier fundamentalists. They are calling into question the importance of cultural engagement and justice ministry as a distraction and a second-tier activity. The problem with social justice is not its passion to engage the culture and fight for justice. The problem is all the un-Biblical ideology that comes packed in the social justice Trojan horse.

We should not repeat this tragic mistake again. The crying need today, as it was in the early 20th century, is to recover a Biblical, orthodox approach to justice and cultural engagement championed by Wilberforce, Carey, and Carmichael. Un-Biblical ideas have to be exposed and rejected, replaced by a uniquely Christian and Biblical approach to social and cultural transformation that is gospel-centered, and known for its grace, forgiveness, and civility. One that treats all people as unique individuals, not mouthpieces of identity groups. One that understands that evil is rooted in fallen human hearts, and not in capitalism, white supremacy, or the patriarchy. One that sees people as free, responsible, accountable moral agents and not as victims or oppressors.

Nowhere does Allen actually make a biblical case for cultural engagement, apparently the key notion for maintaining the church’s influence. Of course, the best way to read and study the Bible is not by going to a Bible-on-line website and doing a word search. But this is our world. And a quick search for “engage” at the ESV website (I know, awfully close to Gospel Allies’ bunkers) yields only three results, one of which includes the end of Philippians 1:

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For cit has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

What if being culturally engaged was not about being on the right side of social and political reforms, with the banner of Christ held high, but about suffering through and enduring an evil age (Gal 1:4). I understand that when Jesus said, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19), he sounded a tad fundamentalist. But if Jesus can sound that way, why can’t those who profess to follow him?

Why #Woke Christianity Won’t Last

If social psychologists are right about the need for friends, family, and colleagues to sustain a person’s beliefs, then the results from a new Pew survey might give the social justice Christians pause:

Politically conservative Americans are more likely than liberals to find meaning in religion, while liberals find more meaning in creativity and causes than do conservatives. Spirituality and faith are commonly mentioned by very conservative Americans as imbuing their lives with meaning and fulfillment; 38% cite it in response to the open-ended question, compared with just 8% of very liberal Americans – a difference that holds even when controlling for religious affiliation. By contrast, the closed-ended question finds that very liberal Americans are especially likely to derive “a great deal” of meaning from arts or crafts (34%) and social and political causes (30%), compared with rates of 20% and 12% among very conservative Americans.

In other words, the number of believers in the socially concerned world of MeToo, NeverTrump, and BlackLivesMatter is arguably small. It’s a free country and no one is saying that leftists and progressives have to be religious. But if you wind up finding meaning in those circles, you won’t find much encouragement for faith. What is likely the case is that you’ll encounter hostility to faith, especially of a conservative Protestant variety.

Maybe #woke evangelicals can console themselves that they are a niche market and will persevere as a special case of committed believers who are also on the left side of politics. Chances are, though, as other results from Pew suggest, that if these #woke believers remain religious it will not be as evangelical.

Many evangelicals find meaning in faith, while atheists often find it in activities and finances. Spirituality and religious faith are particularly meaningful for evangelical Protestants, 43% of whom mention religion-related topics in the open-ended question. Among members of the historically black Protestant tradition, 32% mention faith and spirituality, as do 18% of mainline Protestants and 16% of Catholics. Evangelical Protestants’ focus on religious faith also emerges in the closed-ended survey: 65% say it provides “a great deal” of meaning in their lives, compared with 36% for the full sample. At the other end of the spectrum, atheists are more likely than Christians to mention finances (37%), and activities and hobbies (32%), including travel (13%), as things that make their lives meaningful. Atheists tend to have relatively high levels of education and income, but these patterns hold even when controlling for socioeconomic status.

A Wrestling Match Over the Resurrection

Chris Gehrz thinks a belief in the resurrection will produce activist evangelicals (maybe even social justice types):

What would happen if evangelicals let the reality of the resurrection penetrate into our hearts and give us the vitality and power of Christ’s victory over death?

First, it would cause us to value life all the more. Yet many “pro-life” evangelicals seem to care little when their preferred presidential administration closes this country to those seeking refuge from war and gang violence. Or when it ignores the deaths of thousands of Americans in Puerto Rico. Or when it leaves unaddressed (or worsens) problems with health care, drug abuse, poverty, and climate change that threaten the lives of millions.

Second, a living orthodoxy of resurrection would leave us evangelicals more hopeful and less fearful. Instead, as I observed in our book, “The same people who argue most strenuously for the historicity of the resurrection can seem the least likely to live as if Jesus Christ has actually conquered the grave.”

The resurrection as the basis for social policy and legislation — I have not seen that one before. But Gehrz thinks this corresponds with what Paul says in 1 Cor 15:58: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

That is not the way I typically think about the resurrection, especially after what Paul writes just before that verse:

… flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

Instead of turning Christians into transformationalistizationers of culture, the reality of death and the hope of the resurrection would seem to teach believers that this world is inconsequential to the world to come, that as Paul writes elsewhere, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” We may not labor in vain. But we die and we receive glory, and that puts the affairs of this life in a different perspective, as it seemed to for Paul:

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor 4)

Gerhz even seems to agree with this when he writes, “a lived belief in literal resurrection should lessen our fear of both literal and metaphorical death.” If true, then it would less our fears of inequality and injustice since Christians will have a life to come.

But by trying to appropriate the resurrection for social justice, Gehrz seems to be guilty of what Paul warned against:

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Christian teaching on salvation transcends the politics and economics, which likely explains why Paul had so little to say about the social injustice of the Roman Empire. Christianity is an otherworldly faith because Christians await the resurrection of the dead when Christ returns.

Does this mean Christians should eschew politics of only vote for Republicans? Probably not on politics, it’s a free church when it comes to the ballot box. Which is to say that Christians have all sorts of material for sorting out the social and political problems that come with a fallen world.

We don’t need to baptize them in the miracles of redemption.

MLK and 2K

Matt Tuininga observes how convenient 2k is for someone who wants to distance their politics from their faith:

Recent evidence indicates that two kingdoms theology explains why some Christians, such as Christian Right pastor Robert Jeffress, support Donald Trump and the Republican Party. As David R. Brockman warns in the Texas Observer, Jeffress “has deployed Two Kingdoms thinking repeatedly since the presidential election” to justify his support for Donald Trump. If you believe Christianity requires that Christians support the Democratic party, that should be deeply concerning.

But wait. Recent evidence also indicates that two kingdoms theology explains why some Christians, such as Andrew White, candidate for governor of Texas, are Democrats. As Larry Ball warns in the Aquila Report, White’s approach “is deduced from what is called two-kingdom theology.” If you believe Christianity requires that Christians support the Republican party, that should be deeply concerning.

These articles advance arguments I have repeatedly heard from the lips of Reformed theologians and pastors. One highly esteemed Reformed scholar told me he is convinced that two kingdoms theology is on the rise because it gives Christians an excuse to support the Republican party despite its unChristian tendencies on poverty and race. Two kingdoms advocates, he believes, are crypto-Republicans. At the same time, numerous pastors have told me they are convinced that two kingdoms theology is on the rise because it gives Christians an excuse to support the Democratic party despite its unChristian positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. Two kingdoms advocates, it turns out, are crypto-Democrats.

Tuininga’s solution is to let the church be the church:

It’s time for the church to be the church. If you are sick and tired of the politicization of the church – if you are eager to see the church faithfully witness to the kingdom and its righteousness as it applies to every area of life, without compromise to any political party – then two kingdoms theology is for you.

Wouldn’t the same point apply to Martin Luther King, Jr.? Why can’t King simply be a pastor who preached the gospel or a political activist who worked with political officials to overturn unconstitutional arrangements? Why turn him into the model of Christian activism? Is Tuininga willing to take on the recent depictions of King that blur 2K?

According to Gary Dorien:

Any reading that minimizes King’s upbringing or graduate education misconstrues him, which is what happens when scholars fail to credit the black social gospel tradition he embraced. King was nurtured in the piety and idioms of an urban, middle-class, black Baptist family and congregation. He absorbed the evangelical piety and social concerns preached by his father. He got a more intellectual version of both things when he studied at Morehouse College, where Mays influenced him, and then at Crozer Seminary in Pennsylvania, where the prominent Baptist preacher and writer J. Pius Barbour was his pastor. At Crozer and Boston University, King adopted a socialist version of social gospel theology and a personalist version of post-Kantian idealistic philosophy, and he acquired a conflicted attraction to Gandhian nonviolence. Throughout his movement career King was committed to democratic socialism, personalist theological liberalism, and Gandhian nonviolence. He fashioned these perspectives into the most compelling public theology of the twentieth century, mobilizing religious and political communities that had almost no history of working together.

Imagine pointing out Jerry Falwell’s (senior) theological pedigree and not objecting to the sectarian or illiberal nature of his political activism.

Or consider Michael Sean Winter’s benediction of King:

King was a great civil rights leader because he was both a great American and a genuine Christian prophet, not the other way round. A prophet does not simply point to some future of his or her own imagining. A prophet calls a people to return to their truest selves in order that they may return to a righteous path.

King did not tell the American people to stop being American. He told them to be true to the ideals that they claimed had shaped our national founding. His message was subversive of the ways those ideals had been betrayed, not of the ideals themselves. King evidenced none of the hatred of America that has marred the politics of the left since his death.

When Robert Jeffress makes such claims about Donald Trump most people object, but is it because Jeffress confuses the kingdoms or because he backed an immoral public figure?

Tuininga actually knows that King’s theology violated 2k:

My concern, however, is to encourage evangelicals to wrestle with King’s determination to allow the Gospel to shape Christians’ civic and political engagement. To be sure, we must take care not to conflate the two. King himself did often conflate the kingdom of Christ and temporal politics in his rhetoric, I believe, as did the broader trajectory of mainline clerical activism that took its inspiration from him in following decades. We cannot use political means to establish the kingdom of God, nor should we confuse the liberation that comes through Christ with the justice that can be accomplished through politics.

That means that baptizing King’s politics as manifestations of the kingdom of God is just as flawed as baptizing Donald Trump’s person or policies.

All Political Sermons are Bad

In the spirit of J. Gresham Machen, remember that if you don’t mix religion and politics, you don’t have to perform the contortions that allow you to affirm Civil Rights legislation (as a work of God) and oppose Prohibition (not as a work of God even though Protestants did think it was a work of God). Just keep politics out of the church.

But that’s not what Christians do.

And American Presbyterians have been guilty for a long time before liberal Protestants went all in on the Social Gospel. Mark Tooley reminds:

This week I studied at the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania, a fort dating to the 1700s, when President George Washington led an army there in route to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion. Farmers in western Pennsylvania had revolted against the authority of the new republic to tax the whiskey they distilled from grain otherwise expensive to ship from their remote frontier.

Quickly realizing this threat to the new nation’s cohesion, Washington in 1794 summoned the militias from Pennsylvania and nearby states into an army of 13,000 that he personally led against the rebellion. At an evening celebration of greeting for the President and his army, the town of Carlisle illumined a special proclamation simply declaring: “The Reign of the Laws.”

Such a poignant and wonderful exclamation: “The Reign of the Laws.” The people saluted Washington, but they, like he, did not place their faith in his personal rule but in impartial law as the antidote to anarchy.

While in Carlisle Washington worshiped at the stone Presbyterian church, which I visited, and where he heard Dr. Robert Davidson preach “A Sermon on the Freedom and Happiness of the United States of America.” Washington described it in his diary: “Went to the Presbyterian meeting and heard Dr. Davidson preach a political sermon, recommendations of order and good government and the excellence of that of the United States.”

Washington’s summary was fair and succinct, but the sermon merits elaboration, both for illustrating how Christians in early America viewed God’s purposes for their nation, and for modeling, at least in part, how we today might view government, justice and nationhood providentially.

The sermon is based on King David’s question in 2 Samuel 7:23: “And what one nation in the earth is like Thy people, even like Israel?” Pastor Davidson warned against being “carried away by the spirit of the times, to substitute mere political harangues in the place of the Gospel of Christ,” recalling, per Proverbs 27:34, that “righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is a reproach to any people.” And he noted the “duties of citizens are not to be considered as topics foreign to the Gospel” as the “Gospel views man in every condition in which man can be placed.”

Davidson heralded the “great goodness of God to our own state and nation in particular; our high and many privileges, the gratitude due from us to God for them; and the wise improvement which we ought to make of them.” As a national comparison, Davidson recalled:

The history of the Jewish nation, if read with suitable views, and especially in order to gain an acquaintance with the ways of God to men, would be one of the most instructive that could merit our attention. …We see how much superior, in point of privileges, the Jewish nation was, to all the other nations around them.

As God had showed unmerited and unprecedented favor to the Hebrew nation, Davidson urged considering the “great goodness of the Divine Being to our state and nation in particular; – our high privileges; the gratitude which we owe to God for them…” And he recalled:

This part of the New World presented itself as a place of refuge for those who wished to enjoy religious and civil freedom, unmolested, and to the greatest extent. They hoped that here they could worship God according to their consciences, and would be at a secure distance from all the insults of tyranny.

After reciting the British oppressions precipitating the American Revolution, Davidson declared the new independent nation had the “freest and best form of civil government, which could be learned from the wisdom and experience of ages,” and that with “all the imperfections” still “is one of the most free and excellent under the sun.”

Of the American republic, Davidson further rhapsodized:

This is a government, which all the real friends of freedom in the old world appear to admire; and under the wings of which the oppressed of every nation would wish to take refuge. Here is liberty and equality, according to the just acceptation of those favorite terms; liberty, civil and religious to the utmost extent that they can be, where there is any government at all; and an equality of rights, or provision made for the equal protection of the lives and properties of all. That all men should be equal, as to abilities, station, authority, and wealth, is absolutely, in the present state of things, impossible. But where every citizen has a voice in making the laws, or in choosing those who make them, and is equally under their protection, – there is equality.

I for one (why not five) am convinced that modernism did not begin with adapting Christianity to biology, higher criticism, or immigration reform. It began when Christians, like Pastor Davidson, started to adapt Christianity to modern nations like the United States. Once you start making the Bible say things it doesn’t, it’s hard to stop.

Would Keller Be Even Welcome in the PCA?

What an odd question, but this group of Presbyterian women might help Princeton Seminary administrators not feel so bad about the kerfuffle over Keller and the Kuyper Prize:

Meanwhile, Todd Pruitt has found another sign of harmonic convergence between women on both sides of the mainstream/sideline Presbyterian divide. Pastor Pruitt writes this:

If you listen to the podcast what you will hear is typical boilerplate liberation theology which is fundamentally unbiblical and incompatible with the gospel and the church’s mission. Sadly this has been allowed a foothold in the PCA. Some of us have been warning about it, apparently to no avail. It is nothing more than the latest incarnation of the social gospel which ironically destroys the gospel by replacing it with something else.

During the discussion the hosts dismiss the biblical pattern of male leadership within the church as nothing more than a manmade rule. They also mock those who uphold that biblical pattern and join that mockery with crude language. Keep in mind that these men and women are members of and serve in churches whose standards uphold those biblical patterns of leadership.

Near the very end of the podcast one of the hosts gives a brief nod of legitimacy to transgenderism. This is not surprising given the radical roots of their categories.

I will not labor over every problem with the content of this podcast. You will be able to hear for yourself if you choose. But be warned. It is very tedious. It is something that would be warmly received in the PC(USA) for sure. What is so troubling is that it is being received by some within the PCA. This will not end well. Experiments in the social gospel never end well.

If Tim Keller had done more to warn Presbyterian urbanists and Neo-Calvinists about the pitfalls of making the gospel social (and political or cultural), he might have shielded himself from recent controversy. That’s right. If he had done that, he’d never have been nominated for the Kuyper Prize.

Did Machen found Westminster Seminary for nothing!?!

How Theological Liberalism Wins

First, you have the traditionalists:

I think you can see Professor Esolen’s essay as reflecting the long-term concerns of one group, in particular: Catholic faculty members who share a particular vision of the college’s mission. They assume that our Catholic identity should be at the center of everything we do, and they look to the long history of Catholic tradition, including recent documents like Pope St. John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae, as crucial.

This group of faculty, in which I include myself, are worried. To put it simply, they don’t want to see Providence College join other religious universities who have moved away from their religious foundation. (Jim Burtchaell’s The Dying of the Light chronicles this phenomenon.)

Second, you have the social justice warriors:

Another group immediately involved here are some of the people who tend to fall on the margins in our community-and also those supporting them. They have serious concerns about systemic forms of exclusion. (And here, too, are a number of concerns that I myself share.)

They can see, for example, that Providence College’s 100-year history includes almost nothing of the African-American experience, or of Hispanic culture and tradition. In the last few years, the college has made a concerted effort to recruit more students, faculty, and staff from underrepresented groups, but frankly, it hasn’t always succeeded in offering needed support once they arrive.

For all those who are part of this second group, their frustrations are also part of a larger story: longstanding exclusion and unjust mistreatment of marginalized people. And, it’s important to say, some of these folks would also note that their concerns are prompted by Catholic commitments, beginning with a recognition of the dignity of every human being.

Third, you notice that tradition doesn’t get you satisfaction social justice.

Esolen’s essay was read as opposition to individuals, and, by extension, as disregard for the specific cultural realities they represent. Unfortunately, the essay’s polemical tone contributed to that reading, especially once the editor had framed the whole piece with a headline that was pure clickbait.

When a number of people voiced criticism of the essay, the president responded with his own critique in a campus-wide email, and the executive vice president reported the impact of the essay as “implicitly racist” in another campus-wide email. In the end, these official responses then confirmed fears of that first group of faculty that questioning the way that diversity is being conceived and pursued means you’ll be cut off at the knees.

Fourth, you see that lots of people outside the faith also want social justice.

Finally, you conclude either that those non-believers are really on the side of the faith, or that justice is as or more important than doctrine for real Christianity.

That means reversing what Paul wrote. Instead of “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied,” you now say, “If in Christ we have hope for resurrected life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

From What Machen Tried to Spare American Protestants

Walter McDougall reminds of the synergy between progressive theology and progressive politics:

Historians disagree on how to date and define the Progressive Era except to say it had everything to do with reform.[16] By the 1890s it was apparent that American institutions couldn’t cope with the modern problems thrown up by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, including corporate trusts, labor strife, corruption, big city machines, public health, women’s rights, and more. To elites in the academy, government, business, and the clergy it seemed the modern solution to those modern problems was scientific management by credentialed experts. As one scholar put it, “The Progressives believed in a … national government directing the destinies of the nation at home and abroad. They had little but contempt for the strict construction of conservative judges, who would restrict the power of the national government to act against social evils and to extend the blessings of democracy to less favored lands. The real enemy was particularism, state rights, limited government.”[17]

Note the words “believed in,” “contempt,” “social evils,” and “real enemy.” We think of Progressivism as a secular movement inspired by the natural and social sciences of that era. Why then does a language of faith and good vs. evil come so easily to the historian of Progressivism and why does it go unnoticed by most readers? The short answer is that secularism is a myth or, to put it another way, if you don’t believe in sectarian religion you will believe in some species of civil religion.

For a hundred years after 1789 Americans were not conscious of a potential conflict between their mostly Protestant faith and their civil faith because the former encouraged republican virtue and the latter ensured free exercise of religion. But under the stress of the Civil War and the onslaught of modernism (Charles Darwin first published in 1859) the main-line Protestant churches surrendered their prophetic role to the civil religion, surrendered their faith in an inerrant Bible, and surrendered cultural authority to … the Progressives! That is why, in the words of my colleague Bruce Kuklick, “We should associate Progressivism most with the rise of a more relaxed Protestantism in higher education after the Civil War.” Ivy League universities, new ones like Chicago, Johns Hopkins, and Stanford, and land-grant universities devoted themselves to secular research on the German model, and the knowledge generated in science and engineering, sociology, political science, and economics easily persuaded politicians that cultural authority must pass from the clergy to the intelligentsia, who knew how to “manage God’s universe for the benefit of mankind.”[18]

Progressives meant to break up capitalist concentrations of power and wealth, purge federal, state, and municipal governments of corruption, and protect and empower the people. We know their accomplishments including trust-busting, the Pure Food and Drug Act, civil service reform, the income tax, direct election of senators, the Federal Reserve bank, women’s suffrage, and Prohibition. But these were also the heyday of Jim Crow laws. There was no contradiction in that because the science and social science of that era endorsed racial hierarchy, Social Darwinism, and “the propriety of American imperialism.”[19]

What has all that to do with “a more relaxed Protestantism”? The answer lies in the parallel Social Gospel movement whose preachers imagined their modern spirituality was the counterpart to modern science. “The law of progress is the same in both,” said Lyman Abbott, whose “applied Christianity” blessed philanthropic cooperation with Progressive government. The Social Gospel dismissed the Augustinian distinction between the City of Man and City of God.[20] It stressed collective reform over personal salvation. It made peace with evolution, put its faith in progress, and imagined good government could perfect society over time. In Walter Rauschenbusch’s exultation, “The social gospel registers the fact that for the first time in history the spirit of Christianity form a working partnership with real social and psychological science.”[21]

The origins of liberal theology are legion: the rationalism of the Enlightenment, the “Higher Criticism” of the Bible, Darwinian evolution, discoveries in geology and paleontology that seemed to debunk the Genesis account of Creation, psychological theory that seemed to debunk the concept of sin, and technological wonders that seemed to leave nothing beyond mankind’s reach. In the intellectual universe of liberal pastors Christ ceased to be a redemptive messiah and became a prophet of social uplift. Some post-millennialists even believed America was called to build a literal heaven on earth in preparation for the Second Coming and thousand-year reign of the saints.

The American Civil Religion implications of the Progressive Social Gospel were profound.[22] The cross got confused with the flag, which preachers like Josiah Strong and politicians like Beveridge made into a veritable fetish. “We cannot retreat from any soil where Providence has unfurled our banner … for liberty and civilization are God’s promises fulfilled, and the flag must henceforth be the symbol and sign to all mankind.”[23] William Guthrie, a University of Chicago professor, even preached a “religion of Old Glory” and “evolutional view of good and evil,” even prophesying the Stars and Stripes would become “the flag of a Federation of Nations” and “the Ideal of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”[24]

In sum, the Social Gospel was the marriage bed wherein mainline Protestantism mated with the civil religion. Their offspring was a newly Progressive ACR that no longer preached virtue, prudence, humility, and self-reliance, and instead preached power, glory, pride, and paternalism at home and abroad.

Reading McDougall (and Machen) gives a new meaning to woke.