One election away from…what?

A timely word for evangelicals and progressives

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A word of warning to evangelical Christians

At a recent event President Trump warned that we evangelicals are “one election away from losing everything.” Doubling down, he added that should the GOP lose in the November election evangelicals ought to expect that violence will be perpetrated against us. To say that this sort of political speech is unusual requires a memory longer than the last two years during which time such exaggerated and inflammatory discourse has, alas, become par for the political course. 

Reformed theologian Michael Horton has rightly objected to the President’s fear-mongering reminding believers that we ought not to put our trust in chariots, princes, or anything other than our God. You can read his Christianity Today article here. One paragraph offers a concise summary of Horton’s point:

…[T]he church does not preach the gospel at the pleasure of any administration or decline to preach it at another administration’s displeasure. We preach at Christ’s pleasure. And we don’t make his policies but communicate them. It’s not when we’re fed to lions that we lose everything; it’s when we preach another gospel. “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matt. 16:26).

[emphasis mine]

Horton continues:

Something tremendous is at stake here: whether evangelical Christians place their faith more in Caesar and his kingdom than in Christ and his reign. On that one, we do have everything to lose—this November and every other election cycle. When we seek special political favors for the church, we communicate to the masses that Christ’s kingdom is just another demographic in the US electorate.

As a Evangelical Presbyterian minister, I hold some opinions that are profoundly offensive to many whose beliefs are not shaped by the Bible and the church’s interpretive tradition in the same way mine are.

To wit:

  • I reject the notion that humanity is justified by God in any manner other than through the free gift of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ by which our sins are counted his and his righteousness is counted ours.
  • I reject that marriage as an ecclesial act may be defined in a manner contrary to the witness of Scripture. Marriage is exclusively the union of a man and a woman in the sight of God and in the context of a congregation (see point number one). I do not object to the state enforcing such a view because this view is not exclusively rooted in revelation, but in the natural law.
  • I reject no fault divorce as contrary to the teaching of the New Testament and that divorce ought only to happen with the advice and consent of the Session of a person’s congregation.
  • I affirm that the practice of homosexual sex is contrary to the teaching of Scripture and disqualifies a person from church membership and church office. Homosexual orientation is not a gift of God, but a result of the fall as is transgenderism.

You get the idea. The whole world might stand against these views, but so long as my conscience is captive to the Word of God my views are unlikely to change. I find no reason to cloak these views or to dissemble them. Life’s too short.

Furthermore, I don’t particularly need the government to protect these views neither do I need popular opinion on my side. I would be a fool to believe that a GOP majority will somehow safeguard my views.

A word of warning to progressives

It seems to me that evangelicals are not alone in needing to center our faith in God rather than the civil magistrate. The last year has created something of a crisis of confidence among Christians who call themselves progressive or justice-oriented. I know of one author who has not returned to church since the election of Donald Trump because he views the church as complicit in the evil of a democratic election. This is imprudent. If a single election can make or break your faith–evangelical, progressive or any other tribe–then I question the authenticity of your faith in the first place.

Progressive Christians are equally guilty of ceding faith to the temporal realm. Let’s not kid ourselves that this is a uniquely evangelical problem. It’s not. There’s more than enough guilt to be shared.

Please move the statue

I have little sympathy with the sort of person who finds it necessary to topple a statue in order to make a point. It is, simply put, an act of criminal damage and the sort of thing decent people don’t engage in. By all means protest, but let’s avoid violence.

At the same time, it’s not difficult to understand the frustration surrounding statues dedicated to the memory of the Confederate dead.

Across our land there are multiple peoples whose reason for being in the United States is irrevocably tied to their forceable abduction from their homeland, conversion (legally) into chattel (personal property), and subsequent abuse and systematic dehumanization and disenfranchisement.

And with the North Carolina General Assembly somehow disconnected with reality, its difficult to imagine them taking any sort of leadership on unifying the state in any meaningful way.

I have no wish to dishonor the memory of the war dead, of the Civil War or any war. Confederate soldiers fought for their state, for their principles, and they offered the ultimate sacrifice for them.

This is true of both sides in every major conflict.  The cause may have been wrong, misled, or immoral, but it is a small person who cannot honor one who laid their life down for it.

I come from a line of soldiers, and though not one myself, am keenly aware of the importance of honoring sacrifice.

One of my forefathers has fought for the Crown in most of the conflicts of the Twentieth Century–from Dublin to the Transvaal, from Jakarta to Aden. In many of these instances Her Majesty’s forces were engaging in force for the purpose of keeping peace around the Empire. The exception being World War II.

There are those who might look upon monuments to their memory as a different Silent Sam. On one level, of course, they’d be right. At the same time, it’s easy to be indignant from a distance of centuries.

Should the statue be moved? Yes.

I see no reason to destroy it, but to move to a different and less conspicuous place. And make sure to honor the sacrifices of others–those whose bodies and lives were taken from them and sold into slavery.

 

Why go to church?

Timothy Radcliffe, OP. Why Go to Church? The Drama of the Eucharist. New York: Continuum, 2008. 224pp. $16.95.

61vJ7YNS6AL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_I read Timothy Radcliffe’s book Why Go to Church? several years ago (probably 2012) in the company of some Anglicans (of the Anglo-Catholic persuasion). At the time, it felt like entering into a parallel universe where words like “church” and “communion” are used but seem to have different, even deeper, meaning than in common presbyterian parlance. While Radcliffe’s discussion is an interesting one, as a reformed evangelical I arrive at the same answer by a different and route.

Why go to church?

The question is an important one. And one that appears, at least by declines in church attendance across the country, to lack a culturally-compelling answer.

Two things have happened to bring Radcliffe’s question to mind once more. First, I’ve had children. Second, I no longer have regular parish duties.

In light of these new realities I find myself revisiting the question especially in light of what increasingly seems like the thin gruel of low church ecclesiology (which fails, in many respects, is a corruption of the lowest ecclesiological perspectives among the Protestant Reformers).

You might be wondering how having children and lacking parochial responsibilities have helped raised this question. 

First, children have a remarkable theological dexterity when it comes to trying to get out of going to church. Boil their questions down to their essence and you’ll discover that they’re really asking: what can I get a church that I can’t get elsewhere?  Yes, we could read the Bible together at home. Yes, we could take communion together. We could sing hymns. We could invite our small group over. We could do all of these things, to their way of thinking, without going to church.

Second, I’ve had more than a year off since I’ve regularly led worship. It’s amazing the things that seem necessary when you’re paid to do them. When you step into a different season of life it’s an opportunity to reevaluate why you do what you do. It’d be a lie to say that some weekends I don’t feel like going to church. I’ve got a thousand reasons and they’re likely the same as many of yours. No one is paying me to show up anymore–will I still show up?

To answer this simple question I could say that Scripture commands us not to forsake gathering for public worship (Hebrews 10:25). That’s true. I could say “there are no lone ranger Christians.” That’s also true. Let me skip to the end:

Through public worship–through common prayer, through the Word preached, and the sacraments received in faith resting on Christ’s righteousness alone–we receive grace that we cannot receive any other way. Charles Hodge refers to these “means of grace” as “channels” by which the Holy Spirit influences us toward holiness in union with Christ (Systematic Theology, 3:466).

If you want to remain rooted and established in Christ you must receive the grace of public worship. In its absence you will likely fall away from the faith.

 

 

Who is the real Thomas More?

John Guy, Thomas More: A Very Brief History. London: SPCK, 2018. 116pp. 

Will the real Thomas More please step forward?

Since the mid-Twentieth Century there have been at least two “Thomas Mores” vying for supremacy in the mind of the reading public. One is the principled, self-assured philosopher-kind of the A Man for All Seasons (1966). The other is the sneering sadistic zealot of Wolf Hall (2009). One is a saint, the other is very much, so to speak, a sinner.

John Guy–Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge–offers an eminently readable history of the enigmatic Thomas More, perhaps one of the most fascinating individuals in English history. In a quick 116 pages (TOC below) he whisks us through More’s life, death, and then explores his legacy and representation in modern literature.

The book begins, as it ought, by exploring some of the internal tensions that More himself seems to have experienced, beginning with his childhood. His story begins in the conflict between his desire for the cloister and his father’s desire for him, the chambers.

As the story unfolds, these two Thomases appear in conflict.

On the one hand, he is the renaissance man capable of writing the jovial, witty Utopia and carrying on a learned correspondence with his friend–that ultimate of renaissance men–Desiderius Erasmus. He is the capable theologian able to, at Henry VIII’s request, pen refutations of Luther’s doctrines. At the same time he appears to be at least savvy enough a politician to become Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor and to advance Henry’s agenda.

Without tracing More’s entire life, it seems (in Guy’s estimation) that there was a tipping point. A moment–not necessarily an instant–in which the theologian and author of Utopia won out over the political More. It would lead to his death.

Guy does a wonderful job of unwinding the threads of More’s self and offering a helpful topography of the religious and civil realities of Tudor England. A particularly unique contribution is his treatment of the reception of More in subsequent generations. He includes More’s successors who engaged in a successful campaign to rehabilitate More for a post-reformation society. I heartily commend it.

 

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements

Chronology

Part 1 – The History

  1. Shaping a mind
  2. Utopia
  3. The king’s servant
  4. The dissident

Part 2 – The Legacy

  1. More’s writings
  2. Thomas More in art
  3. Canonization
  4. The lure of fiction

Epilogue