Ecclesiastical Networkionalism

If you think about Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians as the church equivalent of PanAm Airlines and Sears & Robuck, you may have a point. Denominations have been in decline numerically for some time just like the blue chip businesses of the 1950s. Some of that is a function of the mainline’s problem with message — are they a church, an NGO, or a wing of the Democratic Party? Some of it is a function of conservatives perhaps being too zealous about what makes their denomination distinct — the OPC is the denomination Jesus founded!! But much of it comes from not understanding the point of being connected to other congregations and using those ties to organize larger ministry endeavors (e.g., evangelism, missions, education, ecumenism). A pastor in a small town may find that the congregation in which he ministers is sufficient to carry out its work, and that denominational expectations and funding is a restriction.

At the same time, the work of independent congregations has to be difficult. Where do you find trained pastors if yours retires? What about pension funds for pastors? What about supporting foreign missionaries? If someone proposes a joint-worship service among local churches, how does an independent church decide whether to participate? Denominational committees help with a lot of the activity that goes beyond a congregation. In other words, a local congregation has trouble functioning as its own denomination. This is especially true when it comes to planting churches. From where do you acquire the funds to support a like-minded ministry until it is self-sustaining?

Networks appear to be the current remedy. These are the new sources of venture capital (apparently) for church start ups. It seems to be a case of financing the church the way entrepreneurs find patrons for businesses in Silicon Valley.

Apostles Church (three separate congregations) in New York City seems to be an example of the new world of ecclesiastical entrepreneurship. One of its pastors, John Starke, used to write for The Gospel Coalition, and since these churches are in New York City, Ground Zero of urban ministry for urban ministries, you might think Apostles might be a partner with both the Gospel Coalition and Redeemer City-to-City. As it turns out two of the three Apostles’ congregations do show up as partners. But not with Apostles Downtown. That raises a question of how much the three Apostles congregations are in full partnership with each other. But since they are urban and in NYC, it seems odd that Redeemer is not a partner.

Instead, the churches have ties to these networks:

Send North America: Our strategy is simple and straightforward. We believe that the Church is God’s plan—you are God’s plan—to reach North America and the nations with the hope of the gospel.

As a part of the Southern Baptist Convention, the North American Mission Board is here to help local churches send the hope of the gospel across North America in two primary ways: compassion ministry and church planting.

Hope For New York: Our vision is a New York City in which all people experience spiritual, social, and economic flourishing through the demonstration of Christ’s love.

Our mission is to mobilize volunteer and financial resources to support non-profit organizations serving the poor and marginalized in New York City.

Sojourn Network: …by offering the pastors in our network a strong vision of planting, growing, and multiplying healthy churches and by providing them with thorough leadership assessment, funding for new churches and staff, coaching, training, renewal, and resources, we can best steward their gifts for the benefit and renewal of their local congregations.

Since 2011, our aim at Sojourn Network has been to provide the care and support necessary for our pastors to lead their churches with strength and joy – and to finish ministry well.

Of course, other networks have been around for a while. Willow Creek is now long in the tooth and struggles, I imagine, after revelations about its founder, Bill Hybels and guru, Gilbert Bilzikian. Acts 29 is also about as old as Redeemer NYC and its founder, Mark Driscoll, has had Trumpian moments.

But if someone wanted to plant a church, the prospects never appear to have been better. Lots of energy, money, and people are starting churches and finding funding outside the denominations, whether small or large. But what gives these networks an identity? Can you substitute Sojourn for Methodist, Acts 29 for Episcopalian, Redeemer City-to-City for Presbyterian? As tired or as broad as the older denominational names have become, they have direct reference to a specific historical moment and a distinct set of ideas and practices. What is a network other than a mechanism for funding churches and consoling psychologically damaged church planters?

Tim Keller once said of churches that:

promote cooperation between individuals and the kind of associational life that is necessary for human happiness and social success. Without informal shared trust, things are more litigious and combative. Life is much better when neighbors pull for each other, help each other, collaborate together. But this kind of “social capital” is very difficult to generate through public policy. Governments cannot duplicate the effect of religion as a source of shared values.

Well, don’t denominations create associations where networks create websites and podcasts? So why start a network when you are in a denomination? And why start a church planting network when you are in a denomination that has an agency devoted to church planting — called, Home Missions?

Yuval Levin recently wrote about the decline in institutional life in the United States. Some of this owes to businesses or political parties or churches where executives or officers abuse power and betray trust. But Levin adds a wrinkle. It is those people who use institutions to advance their para-institutional endeavors:

What stands out about our era in particular is a distinct kind of institutional dereliction — a failure even to attempt to form trustworthy people, and a tendency to think of institutions not as molds of character and behavior but as platforms for performance and prominence.

In one arena after another, we find people who should be insiders formed by institutions acting like outsiders performing on institutions. Many members of Congress now use their positions not to advance legislation but to express and act out the frustrations of their core constituencies. Rather than work through the institution, they use it as a stage to elevate themselves, raise their profiles and perform for the cameras in the reality show of our unceasing culture war.

President Trump clearly does the same thing. Rather than embodying the presidency and acting from within it, he sees it as the latest, highest stage for his lifelong one-man show. And he frequently uses it as he used some of the stages he commanded before he was elected: to complain about the government, as if he were not its chief executive.

The pattern is rampant in the professional world. Check in on Twitter right now, and you’ll find countless journalists, for instance, leveraging the hard-earned reputations of the institutions they work for to build their personal brands outside of those institutions’ structures of editing and verification — leaving the public unsure of just why professional reporters should be trusted. The same too often happens in the sciences, in law and in other professions meant to offer expertise.

Or consider the academy, which is valued for its emphasis on the pursuit of truth through learning and teaching but which now too often serves as a stage for political morality plays enacted precisely by abjuring both. Look at many prominent establishments of American religion and you’ll find institutions intended to change hearts and save souls frequently used instead as yet more stages for livid political theater — not so much forming those within as giving them an outlet.

Artists and athletes often behave this way too, using reputations earned within institutional frameworks as platforms for building a profile outside them. When he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the former Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg implored fellow players to remember “that learning how to bunt and hit-and-run and turning two is more important than knowing where to find the little red light on the dugout camera.” When vital institutions across American life fail to produce people who remember that, they become much harder to trust.

I cannot prove it but I have a pretty good sense that this is what is happening with networks in relation to denominations. We see pastors and denominational leaders working outside denominational structures in networks. They use their denominational standing to generate interest in an activity and alliance outside the denomination. This is not simply a function of the parachurch sort of replicating what the church does in forms of preaching- and teaching-like activities. This is supplying funding for congregational startups that could very well be part of a denomination’s church-planting effort.

Denominations are by no means above criticism. But how do you start a network even while you belong to a denomination? If the federal government had any regulatory power over religion, this would be high on the list of investigations.

Interpreting the Hebrew Bible at Harvard Divinity School

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.

Presbyterian Sex

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.

Yowza!

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?

The Death of Evangelicalism

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

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

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

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

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

To her credit, Bruenig understands that.

Timelines and Bloodlines

It turns out that the shift along racial lines among evangelical and Reformed Protestants is remarkably recent. Some have objected to seeing 2014 as the turning point, but Jemar Tisby seems to provide the smoking gun:

remembering Brown on the five-year anniversary of his killing would be incomplete without acknowledging the impact that this tragedy had on race relations within American evangelicalism.

I know how that day and the subsequent events affected my faith and my relation to those who I once thought of as my spiritual family.

Six days after Brown’s killing, I wrote for the first time publicly about my traumatic encounters with the police.

Every black man I know has harrowing stories of being pulled over, searched, handcuffed or even held at gunpoint. When I encouraged readers to “pause to consider the level and extent of injustice that many blacks have experienced at the hands of law enforcement officers,” the responses disclosed a deep divide.

Tisby goes on to talk about the criticism that he and other African-American evangelicals for questioning police brutality. He then observes:

Black Christians like me and many others began a “quiet exodus” from white evangelical congregations and organizations. We distanced ourselves both relationally and ideologically from a brand of Christianity that
seemed to revel in whiteness.

Now, after this quiet exodus, we find ourselves wandering in a sort of wilderness. Some are rediscovering the black church tradition and moving in that direction for healing and solidarity. Others, often by necessity, have remained in white evangelical spaces but with a new degree of caution. Some of us still don’t have a faith community to call home.

In sum:

Brown and Ferguson highlighted that when it comes to some parts of conservative evangelicalism, whiteness is not a bug, it’s a feature.

Who can judge another’s personal experience? I do not doubt that 2014 was traumatic for Tisby and many African-Americans, though I still don’t see the issue of police brutality as simply indicative of a black-white divide in the United States. In the hyphenated world in which all Christians live, it seems possible to support in general the functions of the police and oppose racism. In other words, opposition to racism should not be synonymous with hostility to law enforcement. I could well imagine, for instance, someone supporting Robert Mueller’s investigation (part of law enforcement) of the 2016 presidential election and detesting racism.

What is a problem, though, is to write a book with a tone of exasperation that white Christians just don’t get it. Not only does Tisby in his book fault white Christians for being tone deaf to race today. He adds that this is the way it has always been. The white church has been racist and always oblivious.

But if it took 2014 for an African-American Christian to see the problem, might not Tisby also have empathy for those who are five years late?

Meanwhile, to John Piper’s credit, his book on racism came out in 2011. He did not need cops in Ferguson, Missouri to see what Tisby saw three years later. Here is how Collin Hansen reviewed Piper’s book:

Tim Keller writes in his foreword that conservative evangelicals “seem to have become more indifferent to the sin of racism during my lifetime” (11). That would indeed be a major problem, since conservative evangelicals have been responsible for so much of the institutional racism of the last 60 or so years. Piper saw racism in the form of Southern segregation. The church of his youth voted in 1962 to ban blacks from attending services. His mother, however, opposed this motion. Piper’s experience explains the burden for writing this book, in which he argues, “Only Jesus can bring the bloodlines of race into the single bloodline of the cross and give us peace” (14). No political platform, lecture series, listening session, or economic program can cure what ails us. Nothing but the blood of Jesus can wash away our sin and make our diverse society whole again. Sadly, white Christians have so often perpetuated racism that we’ve largely lost the moral authority to help our neighbors confront and overcome this sin.

Bloodlines opens with a brief recap of racial history in the United States focused on the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and his masterful writing, particularly “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” This historical jaunt may indicate Piper anticipates a youthful readership who did not live through these events. Or maybe he believes the race problem is worse than ever. He writes, “There are probably more vicious white supremacists in America today than there were in 1968” (27).

Either way, no one can argue the church has made sufficient progress on race. Sunday mornings remain largely self-segregated. But Piper sells himself short as a credible leader when it comes to racial reconciliation. He and his church have made commendable and costly investments to live out what they profess about the gospel that unites Jews and Gentiles. I would have gladly read much more than a few appendix pages on Bethlehem’s experience of trial and error. We need theology that exalts the work of Jesus, and we also need examples from churches that have enjoyed God’s gracious favor in the form of racial diversity and harmony.

With Keller and Piper alert to the problem of racism in white Protestant circles in 2011, Tisby’s dating of the racial rift is curious. It is hard to believe he was not reading Keller and Piper.

Fun With Numbers

Would it surprise readers to learn that Tim Keller and I, according to the intersectionality meter, enjoy more privilege than 96 percent of the rest of Americans? Would it also surprise anyone that Tim Keller and I have more privilege than Donald Trump? Because if you move the slider on Christianity from Christian to Not Christian (sorry Donald), your oppression footprint decreases, from a 5 to a 14, which means Trump has more privilege than 88 percent other Americans. Throw in income, with differences for religion, and here his how the picture changes: Trump (rich) 11, me (moderate) 5, Keller (more than me), 4. So in the intersectionality sweepstakes, Tim Keller has more privilege than Donald Trump and I. (And since Keller and I are Christians, that may make both of us Christian nationalists.)

This fits what Keller himself has even admitted.

Keller acknowledged white privilege and ways he’s benefited from it, but with his characteristic wit he added, “I’m not going to feel sorry for myself because that is a very white thing to do.”

Or:

John [Piper] and I are both old enough to remember the complicity of evangelical churches and institutions with the systemic racism in the US before the civil rights movement. I took my first church in a small town in the South in the early 1970s. The courts had recently ruled that the whites-only public swimming pool, operated by the town with taxpayers’ money, had to be integrated. So what did the town do? It shut the pool down completely, and the white people of the town opened a new private swimming pool and club, which of course, did not have to admit racial minorities. Because I was a young pastor, our family was often invited to swim there, and swim we did, not really cognizant of what the pool represented.

Here’s some more fun with numbers. What does minority and majority populations mean without nationalism? The world’s total population is 7.7 billion. The United States’ population is roughly 330 million. That means Americans (third in total behind China and India) are 4 percent of the world’s population. In majority/minority statistics, that looks decidedly like a minority.

But I get it with power and wealth Americans look a lot bigger and wealthier than the rest of the world’s peoples. Doesn’t some of that size and power extend to minorities within the United States, such that Amish or Armenian-Americans in the United States have more power and wealth than people living in Nigeria or Guiana?

And what about minority groups not based on race or ethnicity but on religion? Are members of the Presbyterian Church in America — roughly 350,000 — a minority compared to Japanese-Americans at 1.4 million, or Korean-Americans, or Chinese-Americans at almost 5 million? Can ethnicity and wealth simply turn those numbers around so that a denomination that is 7 percent the size of Chinese-Americans has the same sort of privilege as — well — Tim Keller?

And don’t even get me started on how flawed Asian-American is as a category?

However you slice it, the numbers only make sense if you start with the United States and its population, which makes you some kind of nationalist.

The Missional Church in Free Fall?

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.

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Rob Bell as Drag Queen

Talk about click bait. But if a drag queen could provoke Sorhab Ahmari to go digitally postal on David French-ism, the once-upon-a-time emergent church poster boy seems to have prompted Christianity Today’s editor, Mark Galli, to question the logic of the missional church:

I was interviewing Rob Bell for Christianity Today about his book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians. He wrote something in the book that surprised me (imagine that, Rob Bell saying something surprising). So I asked him to clarify himself: “What to you is the purpose of the church?”

“The purpose of the church,” he replied, “is to make the world a better place.” That’s what he had said in the book, and that’s the statement that puzzled me. I frankly couldn’t believe he had said that in front of God and everybody. But as I thought about it, I realized that Bell had expressed precisely the current zeitgeist of the American church. I was less concerned about Bell than I was about the church.

Galli goes on to link Bell’s view first to Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel (without mentioning cultural Marxism!) and then to Leslie Newbiggin who has inspired a certain Presbyterian church in mid-town Manhattan:

Wilbert Shenk’s summary of Newbigin is what many of his readers have taken away:

… we are being called to reclaim the church for its missionary purpose. … Mission is often treated as a stepchild or, even worse, in some cases an orphan. That is to say, traditional ecclesiology has had no place for mission. Yet the church was instituted by Jesus Christ to be a sign of God’s reign and the means of witnessing to that reign throughout the world. The church that refuses to accept its missionary purpose is a deformed church. … We are being called to reclaim the church for its missionary purpose in relation to modern Western culture.

As I just noted, Newbigin’s theology is larger than this, but this is what has made a great impact on evangelical leaders. Perhaps the prime example is what’s called the missional movement. As with most movements, the very term itself is in dispute and comes to us in many colors. It is often combined with a fresh appreciation of kingdom theology, an attempt to let Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom of God become the hub of the wheel of our theology. We needn’t deny the many flavors of missional, or its obvious strengths, to grasp that for many pastors and theologians, the purpose of the church can be summarized like this (from a church blog I happened upon):

After Jesus was resurrected and after he had spent significant time schooling the nascent church, as He Himself had been sent, He sent His church on a mission, and sent the Holy Spirit to empower them for that task until the end of time, to the very ends of the earth. As Jesus was sent, and as the Spirit was sent, in like manner, the church has been sent. Therefore, the church exists missionally, sent by the triune God to carry out the mission of making disciples of all nations. Wherever the church exists, it exists for the sake of the world, as a sign and proclamation of the kingdom of God.

Given my travels and readings especially in the evangelical subculture, this strikes me as a near-perfect summary of an evangelically orthodox expression of much missional thinking today. For all its inspirational value—and this is not to be denied nor denigrated—in the end, it reduces the purpose of the church in the same way as does Rauschenbusch: “Wherever the church exists, it exists for the sake of the world.”

Let the reader answer: how is this any different from Redeemer’s mission statement?

The Redeemer family of churches and ministries exist to help build a great city for all people through a movement of the gospel that brings personal conversion, community formation, social justice, and cultural renewal to New York City and, through it, the world.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But if the editor of Christianity Today is thinking that missional Protestantism has set priorities for the church that are more transformational (and worldly) than they are doxological and evangelistic, someone in the home office may want to call a meeting.

Meanwhile, confessional Protestants who know how to distinguish between the church and the world (and have been doing so since at least the Second Pretty Good Awakening) did not need Rob Bell to understand what Galli has discovered.

David French is to Conservatism what Tim Keller is to Presbyterianism

This is a follow up and updates this in the light of even more chatter.

Sohrab’s Ahmari’s critique of French-ism, the outlook of the evangelical attorney and Iraq War veteran, David French (not to be confused with Moby), who writes for National Review was over the top. But it did capture a problem in French’s above-it-all-I-just-follow-the-Declaration-and-Constitution self-fashioning. That is one of putting convictions into practice and forming institutions to maintain them.

French says his outlook consists of:

“Frenchism” (is that a thing now?) contains two main components: zealous defense of the classical-liberal order (with a special emphasis on civil liberties) and zealous advocacy of fundamentally Christian and Burkean conservative principles. It’s not one or the other. It’s both. It’s the formulation that renders the government primarily responsible for safeguarding liberty, and the people primarily responsible for exercising that liberty for virtuous purposes. As John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

The problem is, as William F. Buckley saw when he founded National Review, that holding up the ideals of classical liberalism requires taking sides. You nominate candidates, vote in elections, and decide on laws and policy. You may believe in the Bible, by analogy, but you need to interpret it, write a creed, institute a polity, and decide who may be ordained to ecclesiastical office. Simply saying that you believe in the founding or in the Bible without taking a side politically or denominationally is to fly in a hot air balloon above the fray — except that you’re receiving a pay check from either a magazine that has for over fifty years been taking the movement conservative side of interpreting the founding or a denomination that has identified for forty years with a American conservative Presbyterian rendering of the Bible.

Both French and Keller don’t want to be partisan or extreme which is why they reach for the high-minded origins of either the U.S. or Christianity. They don’t want to fight alongside others. They may employ their own arguments either in court or as a public theologian but having the backs of others in a particular group is not the way they seem to carry it.

No Machen’s Warrior Children here.

This is why Rod Dreher sees Ahmari’s point, namely, that French positions himself above the clamor of division or controversy:

I concede that I’m more of a classical liberal than I thought I was, in that I resist a coercive political order. I am willing to tolerate certain things that I think of as morally harmful, for the greater good of maintaining liberty. Not all sins should be against the law. Again, though, there’s no clear way to know where and how to draw the line. Sohrab Ahmari uses Drag Queen Story Hour as a condensed symbol of the degrading things that contemporary liberalism forces on the public.

I am a thousand percent behind Ahmari in despising this stuff, and I am constantly mystified by how supine most American Christians are in the face of the aggressiveness of the LGBT movement and its allies, especially in Woke Capitalism. I am also a thousand percent with Ahmari in his general critique of how establishment conservatism tends to capitulate to cultural liberalism.

But French has the virtue of being virtuous, which is why Alan Jacobs sees the National Review correspondent as merely being a good Christian:

I disagree with David French about a lot of things — especially what I believe to be his sometimes uncritical support for American military action — but I admire him because he’s trying. He’s trying to “take every thought captive to Christ.” I believe that if you could demonstrate to David French that positions he holds are inconsistent with the Christian Gospel, he would change those positions accordingly. Among Christians invested in the political arena, that kind of integrity is dismayingly rare.

Hey, Dr. Jacobs! I try too. But the day I see you come alongside confessional Presbyterians and say, “they are simply trying to live out the Christian gospel” I’ll book a flight to Waco and buy you a drink.

But Jacob’s reaction is precisely the problem. To regard French’s politics as simply trying to be consistent with Christianity — aside from being a violation of two-kingdom theology — is to ignore that politics requires getting dirty and making compromises. It is not a place to pursue holiness and righteousness — though it is an occupation worthy of a vocation.

So, while David French takes his stand with Burke, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Jesus (as if those add up to anything coherent), French-ism is nowhere in Matthew Continetti’s breakdown of contemporary conservatism — trigger warning for #woke and Neo-Calvinist Christians who want their politics to come from either the prophets or the apostles:

The Jacksonians, Mead said, are individualist, suspicious of federal power, distrustful of foreign entanglement, opposed to taxation but supportive of government spending on the middle class, devoted to the Second Amendment, desire recognition, valorize military service, and believe in the hero who shapes his own destiny. Jacksonians are anti-monopolistic. They oppose special privileges and offices. “There are no necessary evils in government,” Jackson wrote in his veto message in 1832. “Its evils exist only in its abuses.”

…Reform conservatism began toward the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, with the publication of Yuval Levin’s “Putting Parents First” in The Weekly Standard in 2006 and of Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s Grand New Party in 2008. In 2009, Levin founded National Affairs, a quarterly devoted to serious examinations of public policy and political philosophy. Its aim is to nudge the Republican Party to adapt to changing social and economic conditions.

…Where the paleoconservatives distinguish themselves from the other camps is foreign policy. The paleos are noninterventionists who, all things being equal, would prefer that America radically reduce her overseas commitments. Though it’s probably not how he’d describe himself, the foremost paleo is Tucker Carlson, who offers a mix of traditional social values, suspicion of globalization, and noninterventionism every weekday on cable television.

…The Trump era has coincided with the formation of a coterie of writers who say that liberal modernity has become (or perhaps always was) inimical to human flourishing. One way to tell if you are reading a post-liberal is to see what they say about John Locke. If Locke is treated as an important and positive influence on the American founding, then you are dealing with just another American conservative. If Locke is identified as the font of the trans movement and same-sex marriage, then you may have encountered a post-liberal.

The post-liberals say that freedom has become a destructive end-in-itself. Economic freedom has brought about a global system of trade and finance that has outsourced jobs, shifted resources to the metropolitan coasts, and obscured its self-seeking under the veneer of social justice. Personal freedom has ended up in the mainstreaming of pornography, alcohol, drug, and gambling addiction, abortion, single-parent families, and the repression of orthodox religious practice and conscience.

For those keeping score at home, that’s Jacksonians, Reformocons, Paleocons, and Post-Liberal conservatives. None of them are “classical liberals.” History moves on and requires people to choose.

Apparently Calvin Did Not Receive the Neo-Calvinist Memo

Calls for a transformational, wholistic, and cosmic redemption do not die. In fact, whenever sin is readily apparent in the news, the need for a solution (or at least a response) from Christians generally involves an appeal to the gospel. What else do believers have? (Short answer: as created beings, they have a lot more — just think of all the subjects in a university or college course catalog and imagine saying after reading all that “the gospel is always the only answer to human hardship.”)

Here’s one way of talking about Cosmic Redemptive Christianity:

CRC is a redemptive-historical view of the gospel. Tim Keller’s definition of the gospel is a great example. He defines it this way: “Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.” The difference is subtle but overwhelming in its implication for the black experience in America.

The key phrase here is “restores the creation.” [Great Commission Christianity] sadly does not include creation, the kingdom, or redemption as a necessary part of the gospel. Leaving out “creation” explains why GCC struggled to encourage Christian involvement in social issues.

I’d define the gospel by saying it is the good news of God’s saving work in Christ and the Spirit by which the powers of sin, death, and judgment are overcome and the life of the new creation is inaugurated, moving towards the glorification of the whole cosmos.

Here’s another:

As such, this Gospel message is indeed anemic as it does not properly answer to the nature of mankind, nor the restoration of all that is the image of God in man. If man as the image of God includes not only soul, righteousness, and immortality, but also his physical nature, his social relations, and even his proper habitation, then the message of redemption—i.e., renewal “after the image of him that created him”—must of necessity be, in Bradley’s words, “the good news of God’s saving work in Christ and the Spirit by which the powers of sin, death, and judgment are overcome and the life of the new creation is inaugurated, moving towards the glorification of the whole cosmos”; that is, something like “Cosmic Redemption Christianity.”

If the message of redemption includes anything less, then man is not being restored by the Gospel; but if we take seriously all that it means to be made in the image and likeness of the Triune God, then we must likewise take seriously all that is included in man’s redemption, and craft our mission and message accordingly.

Talk about setting expectations high.

That’s not exactly what Paul told the church in Corinth (who had a fair amount of troubles — wealth gap, incest, imperial injustice):

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Cor 5)

That’s a tad dualistic for some inclined to a cosmic gospel. But Calvin lays it on thick in his commentary on this passage:

The body, such as we now have it, he calls a house of tabernacle For as tabernacles [512] are constructed, for a temporary purpose, of slight materials, and without any firm foundation, and then shortly afterwards are thrown down, or fall of their own accord, so the mortal body is given to men as a frail hut, [513] to be inhabited by them for a few days. The same metaphor is made use of, also, by Peter in his Second Epistle, (2 Peter 1:13, 14,) and by Job, (Job 4:19,) when he calls it a house of clay. He places in contrast with this a building of perpetual duration. It is not certain, whether he means by this term a state of blessed immortality, which awaits believers after death, or the incorruptible and glorious body, such as it will be after the resurrection. In whichever of these senses it is taken, it will not be unsuitable; though I prefer to understand it as meaning, that the blessed condition of the soul after death is the commencement of this building, and the glory of the final resurrection is the consummation of it. . . .

As, however, it is natural for all animals to desire existence, how can it be, that believers are willing to cease to exist? The Apostle solves this question, when he says, that believers do not desire death for the sake of losing any thing, but as having regard to a better life. At the same time, the words express more than this. For he admits, that we have naturally an aversion to the quitting of this life, considered in itself, as no one willingly allows himself to be striped of his garments. Afterwards, however, he adds, that the natural horror of death is overcome by confidence; [515] as an individual will, without any reluctance, throw away a coarse, dirty, threadbare, and, in one word, tattered garment, with the view of his being arrayed in an elegant, handsome, new, and durable one.

Farther, he explains the metaphor by saying — that what is mortal may be destroyed [516] by life. For as flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, (1 Corinthians 15:50,) it is necessary, that what is corruptible in our nature should perish, in order that we may be thoroughly renewed, and restored to a state of perfection. On this account, our body is called a prison, in which we are confined.

Calvin could be wrong, though saying that about holy writ may take a little more chutzpah. Maybe Reformed Protestants misunderstood the gospel until Tim Keller started planting a church in New York City.

Or maybe, people who think about Great Commission Christianity are not shocked by sin and its consequences in this life because they look for a time and place when suffering will completely end. Meanwhile, the Cosmic Redemptive Christianity advocates are the ones who expect heaven to come down to earth and are endlessly frustrated if not enraged when it doesn’t happen.