You’ve Been Invited To A [Fill In The Blank]: Should You Go?

Introduction
As the culture descends further into post-Christianity and even the memory of Christianity fades in the minds of most Westerners, Christians will find themselves facing many of the same questions faced by the Christians of the first and second centuries. Many of us are probably finding ourselves in a circumstance where we’re being invited to attending homosexual weddings, the ordination of persons who are not biblically qualified for office, a cultic/pagan/non-Christian ritual, or some other event that is equally problematic.

How should we respond? There are two things that we must do: communicate our genuine love for those involved and our resolute commitment to honor Christ and his Word in every circumstance Let’s start with the latter. How do we honor Christ in a difficult circumstance, when by saying “No” we may seem to be unloving and thus perhaps judgmental, uncharitable, and even unchristian? The answer is that if we act on biblical principles we honor Christ even when it is painful to do so.

As Christians we are free to do a great number of things. In Galatians 5:1 Paul wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1 ESV).” To the Colossians, who were being falsely taught and thus tempted to the spiritual bondage of man-made rules (Col 2), e.g., “do not touch, do not taste…” the Apostle Paul re-asserted the Christian’s liberty to enjoy God’s good creation within the bounds of his law, in the freedom of the gospel. In 1Corinthians 8, Paul defended the Christian’s freedom to eat meat offered to idols, even when others think that we should not. Nevertheless, there are things we are not free to do. We are not free to do things that may cause a brother or sister stumble back into paganism, unbelief, or into gross sin. Some believers understand that pagan gods and idols are nothing but figments of the imagination.

Not all, however, possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do (1 Corinthians 8:7–8 revised from the ESV)

We are also free not to eat if the exercise of the freedom to eat will cause a brother or sister to stumble. We are free to eat until that eating becomes a competing communion. The moment our pagan host says, “We offered this to the gods” then we must say, “Thank you for your kind invitation but I cannot participate.”

Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are cone body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that fan idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (1Cor 10:14–22; ESV)

Believers are already in communion with the Lord. Just as the Israelites (infants and adults) were baptized into Moses, and just as they communed in the wilderness between redemption and the promised land, so we have been identified with Christ and are sojourning between redemption and consummation (1Cor 10:1–13). So, too, we’ve been initiated into Christ’s covenant community (the visible church), identified with his death in baptism. We’ve made profession of faith and have eaten his ascended, proper and natural body and blood (John 6:53; Belgic Confession Art. 35) by the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, through faith. Our loyalties have been bought with a price. Therefore we honor God with our bodies (1Cor 6:20).

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved (1 Corinthians 10:23-33 ESV).

As Paul says, we are free from the opinions of men and from bondage to the same but we are not free to damage brothers and sisters by leading them back into sin and we are not free to participate in rituals which rival those instituted by Christ. On this principle Reformed folk have historically refused to participate in the Masonic Lodge and related and parallel societies, their youth auxiliaries and the like. On this principle Reformed folk have refused to commune in a Roman Catholic mass (see Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 80).

Paul is clear that it’s not that we must withdraw from the world (1Cor 5:10) but there are limits to our freedoms. We cannot participate in a competing religious ceremony or communion.

Whether attending an ordination service constitutes participating in a competing communion is a judgment call but it’s hard to attend such ceremonies (e.g., a homosexual wedding) without signaling approval. If something is really wrong then to do it is to act against truth and conscience. We know that the Apostle Paul would not participate in a meal in which the host said, in effect, this meal is no longer purely common, it is a religious meal.” Would he attend the ordination of a homosexual male or of a female of any sexual orientation? Uncomfortable as it makes late moderns (and, according to surveys, Millennials in particular), the Apostle Paul categorized both homosexual orientation and behavior as sin. It’s hard to imagine that he would sanction a homosexual wedding with his presence—not because he was a prude but because his conscience is bound to the Word of God. Arguably, the same is true for the question of the ordination of females. There are writers whose work I really like, outstanding female scholars who are also ordained ministers. I appreciate and value their persons and their work without endorsing their ordination or their defense of the ordinate of females. Try as they may, the advocates of the ordination of females to the ministry have not been able to make 1Timothy 2 disappear from Holy Scripture:

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve… (1 Timothy 2:12-13 ESV).

Steve Baugh has effectively refuted the argument that Paul was responding to a particular kind of feminism in Ephesus—with the consequence that Paul’s prohibition in 1Timothy 2:12–13 no longer applies today. As my dear friend Don Treick always says, “It’s in the Bible.” Indeed, as a practical matter, life would be easier if it wasn’t but it is and it’s there for a reason and this is one of those pressure points that will continue to cause friction between Christians and the broader culture. If we allow 1Timothy 2 to be swept away for the sake of getting along, then the rest of Scripture must necessarily go by the boards.

As the liberals long ago caved in and evangelicals have conceded the ordination of females, those who resist will be regarded with even great suspicion: “What’s wrong with you? Why won’t you go along with the program?” At that point, it’s clear that the real issue is no longer: what is the truth, what does Scripture teach, how has the church historically understood this passage, what do we confess? Now the question is why some stubborn folks won’t conform. That’s exactly the challenge faced by the early Christians in the 2nd century. As in the martyrdom of Polycarp, the Romans weren’t typically asking Christians to believe that Caesar is a god but. They were only asking us to say that he is. They weren’t typically asking us to stop believing in Jesus. They were only asking us to renounce Christ outwardly. They were asking us to conform outwardly. Those who refused paid for it with blood. We’re not there yet but we don’t have to look far to see it, do we?

According to 1John 4, there is a connection between words and what they signify. They signify spiritual realities with spiritual consequences. Therefore there are limits to what we may say and sometimes we are called upon to confess the faith in the face of moral and theological error, even when it is uncomfortable to do so.

How To Disagree Without Being Disagreeable
Above we considered the problem created by movement of the prevailing culture away from Christian-theistic assumptions and the associated descent of the culture into neo-paganism. How do Christians respond to the pressure to conform to social and religious events and other gatherings that are contrary to Christian ethics? The first thing we must do is to understand the antithesis between belief and unbelief and when we must stand on and assert that antithesis. The second question before us is how to respond when we find ourselves in a state of confession, i.e., when our non-Christian friends, relatives, co-workers, or others ask us to or even seek to require us to do that which the moral law of God does not permit.

We are not the first believers to face these questions and challenges. The first Christians faced them in the first several centuries after the ascension of Christ and well beyond as Christianity moved beyond the Mediterranean to Western Europe, where it again came into contact with paganism. We did not always navigate these seas well. Sometimes we assimilated pagan ideas and practices into our theology, piety, and practice. Sometimes this happened in the attempt to communicate the gospel to pagans and sometimes it happened out of desire to be accepted by pagans, as a way of minimizing the friction between Christianity and paganism.

After Scripture, which we considered in part 1, one of the more helpful guides to these question is the Treatise to Diognetus. This document was written sometime in the mid-2nd century (c. 150AD) by an author who called himself simply “the disciple” (Mathetes) Scholars disagree about who the author probably was but my favorite suggestion, defended brilliantly by Charles Hill, is that it was most likely Polycarp. Whoever “the disciple” was he gives us a wonderful pattern for engaging our non-Christian friends, neighbors, relatives, and even civil authorities in a winsome way. Like Christians in northern Nigeria, throughout the Middle East, and the Far East the Christians of the 2nd century were under increasing pressure to conform to the prevailing paganism and sometimes that pressure to conform came from the pointy end of a sword. In his appeal for toleration Mathetes wrote the following:

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life…For while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. The live in their own countries but only as nonresidents, they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted.

In this passage (from chapter 5) Mathetes does two things: He acknowledges that we do, in fact, have things in common with unbelievers and he asserts the anthesis, i.e., the reality that, when it comes to ultimate matters, Christians have loyalties and commitments that transcend our commitments to this world.

Notice his rhetorical strategy. He did not appeal first to the antithesis, that which separates Christians from non-Christians but to that which we have in common. One mistake that new Christians (or sometimes those who have newly discovered the Reformed confession) is the temptation to deny that Christians and non-Christians have anything in common whatever. This is understandable. When we first come to faith we see how blind, how ignorant we were, that we lived in moral and spiritual darkness. Now that, by God’s free, sovereign favor, we see what we were and what we are and who Christ is and who he is to us—our Savior and the Lord of all!—it’s tempting to think that we no longer have anything in common with our unbelieving past or our unbelieving friends, relatives, or co-workers. That’s not true. We do. Both of us, believers and unbelievers alike, continue to live in God’s world together. In that respect nothing has really changed. What has changed is that, by God’s free favor in Christ, by the work of the Spirit in us, by which we were granted new life, we now see things differently but Christ was Lord all along. Our coming to new life and faith and union with Christ did not make Lord. He was. We just see it now. We were God’s image bearers before we came to faith—even though the image was defaced and we were busily trying to deny that reality and to suppress the knowledge of God that all image bearers carry (Gen 2). Our non-Christian friends et al are also image bearers. They are in rebellion to the Lord but that rebellion doesn’t change the facts. It just adds to the chaos and confusion of this world.

Because we share a common, shared status as image bearers, because believers and unbelievers live together under God’s general providence (he makes the rain to fall on believers and unbelievers alike; Matt 5). Recently, in San Diego County, we endured some unseasonable wildfires. Many acres have been burned so far but, thanks to God, relatively few homes or businesses have burned. Did God spare only Christians? No. He spared Christians and non-Christians and likely both Christians and non-Christians lost homes. We live in God’s world together. We stop at the same traffic lights. We experience the same weather. We eat the same food. We were the same clothes (although we may we them a bit differently sometimes). We speak the same language. We drive the same cars. We use the same phones. We obey the same laws.

So, as we try to communicate to our non-Christians friends why we cannot join them in their celebration, we should be sure to begin with that which unites us, which we have in common. One of the the things that has always irritated non-Christians most about Christians is that it has seemed to them that we have nothing whatever in common with them, that we are “special,” that we are exempt from this affairs of this world. From those places where we must separate from the world or distinguish ourselves from it, unbelievers sometimes (perhaps often) infer that we do so because we are intrinsically better than they, that we think that God loves us (and not them) because we are good and hates them because they are bad. This is because the natural impulse is to relate to God on the basis of works (being good). We were made to relate to God on the basis of works (Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 6, 9). We confess that we “were made in righteous and true holiness that we might rightly know our Creator, heartily love with him” and, upon completing the probation, “live with him in eternal blessedness” because we had obeyed what the Belgic Confession (ch. 14) calls “the commandment of life.”

Unfortunately, sometimes those who profess the Christian faith give unbelievers reason to think that is how the world works, that we really do relate to God on the basis of our personal obedience when the truth is quite opposite: after the fall we are accepted only and ever on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness earned for us and imputed to us and received through faith (resting, trusting) alone.

Of course unbelievers may be misinterpreting our assertion of the fundamental spiritual (and consequently epistemic) difference between believers and non-believers as a claim that we have nothing in common. Perhaps, however, we have unintentionally given the impression that we have nothing in common? Sometimes Christians (and even some in the Reformed community) sometimes speak about the antithesis in a way that gives that impression.

There is a most profound difference between believers and unbelievers. It is the difference between spiritual blindness and sight, between spiritual life and death. The only reason the dead come to life (Ezek 37) and the blind are made to see (Matt 11) is free, sovereign Spirit of God who raises the dead and grants sight to the blind. The dead have no prior claim on God and he does not give sight to the blind because of any quality in them or even because of the quality of their faith. Therefore, we must not ever ascribe the difference to anything but God’s free favor and sovereign good pleasure.

Nevertheless, as humans made in the image of God, as fellow sinners as judged by the law of God, as fellow recipients of God’s general providence and mercy by which he gives gifts and restrains evil, we do have genuine areas of community and as we try to articulate our differences and our convictions we do well to begin with those things we have in common.

How To Communicate Our Differences
So far we have looked at Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians about the limits of their ability to relate to non-Christians and his defense of Christian freedom in the same. We have also looked at the defense of the faith by a certain Disciple (Mathetes) c. 150AD as part of which he explained briefly what Christians have in common with non-Christians and what they do not. In this final part of the series we will consider how this early Christian articulated the spiritual, theological, and moral antithesis to his non-Christian neighbors.

As we try to explain to our non-Christian friends, neighbors, and loved ones why we cannot join them in their event, as I tried to explain in part 2, we need to by express the antithesis that exists between belief and unbelief. Paul says:

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,

“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
Therefore go out from their midst,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
then I will welcome you,
and I will be a father to you,
and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.”

(2 Corinthians 6:16&ndsah;18 ESV)

Before we express the antithesis we need to try to communicate our genuine appreciation for those who have offered to include in a significant event in their lives. Though they know, in their conscience (Rom 1–2), that God is and there is something wrong and that they are ultimately accountable to God they are also busily suppressing that knowledge. They do live in real darkness (Eph 2). Their affections are misdirected and confused. They, as we before God graciously gave us new life and opened our eyes, hate God and do not want to submit to his creational order and moral law. Yet, as image bearers, in the general providence of God, they can be genuinely kind and none of us is as evil as we might otherwise be without the restraining hand of God.

We need to say to those who’ve included us in their lives, “We love you. We care for you as a fellow image bearer and as a friend/neighbor/co-worker/family member. We genuinely appreciate your invitation to participate in [fill in the blank]. We appreciate how important this event is to you and how important it is to you to have your friends and loved ones present.” It would be good to articulate what it is in particular about your non-Christian friend that you value—as I’ve mentioned before, we ought to value folk not just for their potential to become Christians, for then they become mere notches on one’s evangelistic belt—but rather we ought to love them for what they are (fellow image bearers) and who they are to us.

We have good warrant for thinking and speaking this way. God loves sinners. Jesus, God the Son incarnate, loved sinners—the very sinners, for whom he came to obey, die, and for whose justification he was raise. He loved those who turned on him in a mob, the same mob that shouted for Bar-Abbas out of spite.

After we have expressed our affection for those who’ve sought to include us in their lives in this way, we should also explain why we cannot participate. It is not because we are morally superior or without sin but because we are not our own. We’ve been bought with a price (1Cor 6). We may be relatively autonomous with respect to civil authorities and others in this world but relative to God we are servants, we are slaves. We are to “have this mind” in us that Christ Jesus had (Phil 2). Even if we might otherwise be minded to it, because we have been purchased with the precious blood of Christ (1Pet 1:19) there are limits, there are things we may not do.

Mathetes wrote:

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life…For while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. The live in their own countries but only as nonresidents, they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted.

The limits of our participation in are determined by our dual citizenship. We are free to do a great many things but insofar as our heavenly citizenship (Phil 3:20) limits us there simply are things we cannot do. As Americans (or where ever the reader might be) we love our country but we love another country, a heavenly city-state (Gal 4) even more and we are ambassadors from that place to this. We must live before our unbelieving friends, neighbors, and relatives as if we represent the heavenly kingdom because we do. The Ambassador for Whatevertania might like to appear before the president in flip-flops and sunglasses but he dare not because he is, with respect to his office, a public person. So it is with us. We live fully in this place and time, under the Lordship of Christ but as Mathetes says, our heavenly citizenship prevents us from sharing our wives, from putting our (unborn and born) children to death, and from indulging in sexual immorality and from sanctioning that which is contrary to the creational pattern—a pattern which is binding upon all image bearers.

During the course of this brief series some correspondents have written to ask about Christian liberty in these matters. Yes, of course, there is liberty (1Cor 6:12) but that liberty is circumscribed by God’s moral law and when not limited by law it is limited by wisdom. Even if, under God’s law, you might believe yourself to be free to do this or that you should still ask yourself: “is it wise? Is it profitable?” I understand the temptation to react to legalism but not all limits are legalism.

We Are Not Polishing Brass On A Sinking Ship

More than 30 years ago, when I first came into contact with Reformed theology, piety, and practice (the Reformed confession broadly defined), I also came into contact with a movement within the Reformed world known as “Christian Reconstructionism” and its child “theonomy.” In those days, as we discussed and argued eschatological views (mainly a version of postmillennialism that looks forward to the gradual Christianizing of the world prior to the return of Christ and amillennialism, that anticipates both periods of spiritual prosperity and famine prior to Christ’s return but which doesn’t typically anticipate global Christianization) one of the objections that my Reconstructionist/theonomic friends, who tended to hold the postmillennial view, made against amillennial (and anti-Reconstructionist/theonomic) position is that it reduced the role of the Christian in the world to  polishing brass on a sinking ship.” The image, of course, is meant to symbolize futility. The phrase is widely attributed (following Gary North’s attribution) to the late Dispensational radio preacher, J. Vernon McGee (1904–88). Though deceased for 25 years, his voice lives online and on the air. A search of the Through the Bible site doesn’t show the expression but it captures the way many evangelicals came to see their role in the world.

The dominant eschatology (view of last things) among American evangelicals and fundamentalists, in the 19th and 20th centuries, was a form of premillennialism that anticipated the imminent return of Christ over a series of events including a secret rapture, in which believers would be taken bodily from the earth—made famous in the Left Behind songs (“Larry Norman’s, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready”) books, and movies, a tribulation, and Christ’s earthly millennial reign in Jerusalem. Since Christ was soon to return and Christians were to be delivered from the earth, cultural engagement came to be regarded as futile. This view of Christian cultural engagement was further reinforced by a view of God that suggested that God is selectively sovereign or that his in his ability to control events is limited by the exercise of the human will. Associated with these views was a sort of quasi-Manichean dualism that thought of the world as subject to two competing powers, God and Satan. Much of the world, including daily life, was regarded as subject to Satan and even inherently evil. The material world was with suspicion and sense experience was likewise suspect. Finally, these views were associated with a view of the OT that regarded it not only as expired but as practically irrelevant to Christian theology and living. There developed among groups holding these ideas a strong dichotomy between the Old and New Testaments.

The reader who has some familiarity with the history of ideas will recognize the influences of a few ancient Christian heresies and even pagan ideas in this complex of ideas. It was the Gnostics (c. mid-2nd century AD) who taught that the created, material world was inherently evil, that the god of the OT was a demiurge, a demi-god who is utterly distinct from the God of love of the NT. The Gnostics were a Christian heresy, who appropriated Christian ideas but re-defined them and re-contextualized them under the strong influence of pagan Greek notions. Behind them lie the influence of Plato’s skepticism about the reliability of our senses and a general suspicion of the created world. Where the Christians taught that God is not only the Creator and sustainer of all that is, the Manichaeans (3rd century AD), divided the world into competing principles, good and evil (dualism). Where Christianity taught that creation was inherently good, because God is good and he made it so, the Platonic traditions (middle and neo-Platonism) taught a sort of continuum of being, a hierarchy wherein the material world is less good because it has less being) and the immaterial world is better because it has more being. These ideas were incorporated into medieval theology to various degrees, finding expression in the Albigensian movement, to which the Western church responded strongly in the 13th century.

Nevertheless, for reasons that cannot be described in a brief blog post, this complex of ideas came to be regarded even as standard Christian orthodoxy among evangelicals and fundamentalists by the turn of the 20th century. Even though the church has always been divided on the question of the millennium, until very recently, the doctrine of the pre-tribulational, premillennial return of Christ were a touchstone of Christian orthodoxy in evangelical institutions and churches. Until the 1970s, with a few notable exceptions (e.g., Carl Henry and the early Christianity Today) fundamentalist and evangelical cultural engagement consisted of warning parishioners about the dangers of “the world” which was code for booze, cigarettes, movies, and dancing. Evangelicals and fundamentalists, with the liberals, supported the 18th Amendment (establishing prohibition of the sale of alcohol; 1920) but otherwise they tended to regard engagement with broader social concerns (e.g., racism, poverty) as someone else’s business.

In the 1970s evangelicals and fundamentalists, the line between which began to blur, emerged from their social and political isolation. In reaction to the “sinking ship” mentality, some fundamentalists and evangelicals rejected many of the distinctive views with which they had been raised and they embraced aspects of the Reformed theology and piety but they brought with them their old ethos. They transferred the old Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC) from cards and films to the correct application of the Mosaic civil law and the coming transformation of the culture through Christian political action (via Christian reconstruction). The rise of this group, emerging from the mainline PCUSA in the 1950s, gave former dualists a way to think about culture. Pessimism became optimism. World flight became dominion.

There are alternatives to both world flight and Reconstruction/theonomy. One alternative is the somewhat milder version of social transformation offered by the (usually amillennial) neo-Kuyperians (followers of Abraham Kuyper), the relations to Kuyper himself (Kuyper v the neo-Kuyperians) and to the older Reformed tradition are disputed. The attraction of some versions of neo-Kuyperianism is that they affirm God’s sovereignty over all thing and they seek to integrate faith and life, to work out a coherent Christian view of the world (worldview). Whether the neo-Kuyperians have achieved their vision of a distinctly Christian view of every human activity is open to question but the desire to recognize Christ’s lordship over all things and to seek to interpret reality through the lenses of Scripture is commendable.

Another approach to accounting for Christ’s lordship over all of life has come to be self-described as the “Two-Kingdoms” theory. Its leading proponents argue that it is faithful to Abraham Kuyper’s vision (as distinct from that of the neo-Kuyperians) by recognizing both that which, under God’s sovereign providence, is common to Christians and non-Christians (common grace; Dutch, Gemeene Gratie), while recognizing the fundamental distinction between belief and unbelief, which Kuyper called the “antithesis.” There is a believing, biblical, obedient, Christian interpretation of reality, a way of looking at things (Weltanschauung) which is at odds with the non-Christian view of things. At the level antithesis, believers and pagans, are irreconcilably opposed. This approach, however, in its best expressions, seeks to account for both that which is common to all humans, under God’s sovereignty, as bearers of the divine image, and that which is not, and to account for the distinct ways or the distinct spheres in which God administers his good providence in the world.

Just as it was possible, however, for ex-evangelicals fleeing the world-flight of fundamentalism, to run straight into the arms of Christian dominionism, so too, it’s possible for ex-evangelicals, fleeing the Christian triumphalism of post-1976 evangelicalism to flee to the arms of a kind of over-realized eschatology and world-flight.

Above I sketched briefly, in broad strokes, why and how many American evangelicals came to see cultural engagement as fruitless. According to scholars of American evangelicalism, the world-flight that marked fundamentalism and evangelicalism began to shift after World War II. Carl Henry’s call to re-engage the culture is symbolic of the shift. Thirty years later, after Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, it seemed as if everyone was “born again.” Through the 1980s the Moral Majority and other like organizations announced plans to “take back America,” wherein the neo-evangelicals would take their place once again in a place of influence in the culture. Jimmy Carter had proved a disappointment, but with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 it seemed as if the campaign was succeeding. During the next 12 years of the Reagan and G. H. W. Bush administrations it seemed as if the Republican Party might indeed be the evangelical church at prayer. In their success, however, were planted seeds of future discontent and reaction.

In the same post-World War II culture that saw the re-engagement of fundamentalism (Henry’s term) with the culture also saw a growing influence of neo-Kuyperianism in the broader evangelical world. Those evangelicals who lacked a grammar and categories to account for cultural engagement found it in the way Kuyper had been appropriated. By the 1980s “worldview” was a buzzword. During the 1980s evangelicals had also turned to the theonomy and Christian reconstruction movements for inspiration and intellectual leadership. Those two sources of engagement, neo-Kuyperianism and theonomy/reconstructionism, both tended to speak in triumphalist terms relative to the future and relative to the broader, largely non-Christian culture. Supported by their postmillennialism, theonomy/reconstructionism looked forward to a future Christian “dominion“ through the gradual leavening of the culture by Christian cultural and political influence. In their own way, in contrast to the culturally pessimistic Dispensational versions of pre-millennialism, the neo-Kuyperians also looked optimistically at the future. They spoke of “transforming” the culture and “redeeming” the culture.

Nevertheless, Washington and American culture more broadly proved to be harder to reform than some, perhaps many, evangelicals had anticipated. Just as evangelicals (including, for the sake of this discussion, theonomists/reconstructionists, and neo-Kuyperians of various sorts) were positioned close to the levers of political and cultural influence, the culture squirted, as it were, through their collective fingers. During the Reagan administration broadcasting was deregulated, cable television exploded in popularity, and suddenly the sources of cultural influence were not three broadcast networks but a growing number of cable outlets that were not subject to the same sorts of regulations that had governed the broadcast stations. Radio stations, which once aired a considerable amount of religious programming as part of their “public affairs” commitment dumped it in favor of revenue-producing commercial programming. The market for media became increasingly fragmented. Then, came public access to the Internet in the early 90s. The speed at which media sources proliferated, at which niche marketing became the norm, increased exponentially so that today, just as the Big 3 (or 4) broadcast networks no longer set the agenda for television, not longer do two newspapers (The New York Times and the Washington Post) set the agenda for print (as it were) journalism.

Thus, the “Christian Right” did not achieve much of what it had hoped. 20 years after the inauguration of Jimmy Carter, another Southern Democrat was in the White House and he was seeking to reverse the Reagan Revolution. A series of scandals, his impeachment (does anyone remember that a president was impeached in our lifetime?) and opposition by a Republican House of Representatives slowed his momentum in his second term. The 9/11 attacks plunged the West into a long war with a hard-to-find, religiously motivated enemy that, for some—perhaps unfairly—cast doubt on very idea of social engagement fueled by a deeply held religious rejection of Modernity.

Those born after the first Reagan inaugural have grown up assuming the post-Reagan prosperity as a given but they’ve also grown up with a president who did not have sex with “that woman” (even when it turned out he had) and who wanted to deconstruct the verb “is.” They’ve grown up under the specter of 9/11. The city shining on a hill had lost some of its luster. The decades of religious scandals and embarrassments (Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy, Robert Tilton, Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn ad nauseam) had diminished the credibility of the evangelical project of Christian cultural renewal. The parents and grandparents of the Millennials (18–34) have been ambivalent about late modernity. Mom works because they like the new standard of living but she feels guilty about it. Many of their friends are divorced, so heterosexual marriage hasn’t fared well during the very period when evangelical political-cultural influence was at its height. The children and grandchildren of the Baby Boomers seem largely to accept a high divorce rate among heterosexuals and homosexual marriage as inevitable and even as a good thing. As a group, the Millennials tend toward subjectivism. Even the true believers, the theonomists/reconstructionists seem to have given up their original program of cultural transformation through direct political action (Rushdoony’s followers). Instead, they’ve turned to a program of cultural transformation through sacerdotalism, via their theology of baptismal election-union-justification etc ostentatiously self-glossed as  “The Federal Vision.” Jerry Falwell spins in his grave. Despite the evangelical rhetoric of triumph, renewal, and transformation, the culture today seems largely dominated by low-information voters who are more like Snooki than Groen van Prinsterer (1801–76).

There were cracks in the intellectual foundation of the post-WWII evangelical social re-engagement. The evangelical appropriation of Kuyper was thin. It borrowed bits of his vocabulary without his theology and especially without his ecclesiology (doctrine of the church and sacraments). Fuller Seminary isn’t the Free University of Amsterdam. The American evangelicals weren’t much interested in the antithesis and common grace as much as they were in practical, political, cultural, and social outcomes. Where, for Kuyper, “worldview” had referred to a comprehensive interpretation of the meaning of God’s world in light of God’s Word as understood and confessed by the Reformed churches, it became, among American evangelicals, a fairly shallow cliché, a symbol that stood of evangelical-Republican politics and a return to the Eisenhower years. It’s not an accident that Happy Days was one of the more popular TV shows of the 1970s.

It is one thing, however, to write of “redeeming” culture but it is another thing to justify that way of speaking from Scripture and the Christian tradition. Biblically, “to redeem” is to purchase from slavery or to deliver from bondage. Where does Scripture speak of the redemption of the arts or commerce? It does not. According to Scripture we have been redeemed from the curse of the law. Believers have been redeemed from lawlessness and we have been redeemed from transgressions.

It is difficult to see how speaking of redeeming or “taking back” culture doesn’t imply the very sort of dualism against which the neo-Kuyperians and theonomists/reconstructionists were reacting. If someone removes food from my plate, I might reach across the table to take it back. It was mine, then it was lost, then it was recovered. That’s simply not true if we’re speaking of God’s sovereign providence. Nothing has been removed from his control and dominion. Christ was Lord when the West (at least nominally) recognized him under Christendom. He was Lord when the Enlightenment rebelled against him and he is Lord now that most of the culture, most of the time, seems completely ignorant of him.

Of course, what is usually intended by the verbs “to redeem” and “to take back“ is actually something like “to acknowledge Christ’s Lordship over all things.” Where or among whom should Christians expect to see the Lordship of Christ openly acknowledged? Did the apostles expect Herod, Pilate, Claudius, Nero, or Domitian to acknowledge Christ the Lord as a matter of their office? Nothing about Romans 13 even hints that only those are truly God’s civil ministers who acknowledge Christ as Lord.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

The great difficulty, however, is that most of the time evangelicals haven’t been thinking principally in biblical or confessional Reformed categories but in Constantinian categories. Consider the prevalence of the imagery and ethos of the crusades among evangelicals. It is so deeply engrained in our way of looking at the broader culture, the non-Christian culture, that, particularly in reaction to the cultural rebellion of the 1960s and the sexual hedonism of the 1970s, we adopted a crusade stance without even realizing it. How many Christian organizations continue to use the image of crusading? Campus Crusade for Christ may now be Cru but it’s just an abbreviation. How often has post-WWII Christian cultural engagement been cast as a crusade? Do a Google search using the terms “Christian,” “school,” and “crusaders.”1 In turn, the renewed adoption of the “crusade” provoked a renewed, if more sophisticated, sort of world flight.

So, the question persists: Is there a way for Christians to engage the culture that gets us off the whipsaw of world-flight (monasticism, Anabaptism, pietism) and dominion/transformation (Christendom, theonomy/reconstruction, neo-Kuyperianism)?

So far I have sketched the basis for evangelical rejection of political/cultural-engagement. I have also briefly outlined the transformational-theonomic-reconstructionist reaction. Next I want to address three theological errors and their practical consequences.

First, however, let’s establish a biblical-theological foundation for the discussion. In Genesis 1 and in John 1 God’s Word teaches unequivocally that God sovereignly spoke creation into existence by the power of his Word and that everything that has come into being did so through the personal agency of God the Son, the Word of God. Creation was an act of the Triune God. The Holy Spirit hovered over the face of the deep. God spoke into nothing and made all that is. That same Triune God exercises the same sovereign power in sustaining and governing creation. Creation has always been and shall always be utterly dependent and contingent upon the sovereign providence of the Triune God. There is no basis in Scripture for thinking that, after the act of creating that God retreated from his sovereign control over all things. This means that he is sovereign when bridges collapse and when bombs explode. We also understand that God exercises his sovereignty through human agents and other second causes. He operates with and through the free choices that human beings make. God is always in control and humans are always morally responsible for their free acts. He flooded the world that then was (Gen 6–9). He hardened Pharaoh’s heart and, in turn, he hardened his own heart. He led the Israelites through the Red Sea on dry ground (Ex 14). The Holy Spirit came in sovereign power, not in contingency. According to Psalm 2, God rules the nations the nations with a rod of iron (Ps 2). Civil rulers are his servants (Rom 13), in their sphere, just as ecclesiastical ministers are God’s servants in their sphere (Eph 3:7; Col 1:25). God’s Word is sufficient for all that it intends to do.

For these reasons, the church universal (catholic) confesses “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth” (Apostles’ Creed). In our Heidelberg Catechism Q. 27 we confess,

27. What do you understand by the providence of God?

The almighty, everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were by His hand, He upholds heaven and earth with all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things come not by chance, but by His Fatherly hand.

We also understand that God administers his sovereign control over all things in different spheres. The church does not administer civil law or justice and the state does not administer the means of grace. We understood that during the Reformation, even under the influence of Constantinianism. From the Reformed tradition we have always understood that, in God’s providence, there are aspects of life that believers and unbelievers have in common. All humans, believers and unbelievers alike, eat, drink, sleep, travel, and conduct business together. Nevertheless, there is an antithesis between the way believers and unbelievers interpret God’s world. Believers understand that the blessings we receive from God’s hand are not the result of chaos and chance. Believers acknowledge that the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps 19:1).

Because creation and everything in it was created by God, is upheld by God (Acts 17) it all belongs to God by right, even when rebellious creatures refuse to acknowledge him (Rom 1:21). Further, God the Son incarnate, through whom all things came into being, who upholds and governs all things (Ps 2; Acts 2:36; 10:36; 1Cor 8:6; Eph 4:8. NB: Jesus is called Lord about 95 times in the NT). He came announcing the Kingdom God (Mark 1:15), not a radically democratic cooperative. A kingdom is a hierarchy. The king rules and the people obey. That’s the nature of a kingdom.

In light of these basic Christian truths then we can address three errors that distort the Christian engagement with the broader culture.

  • The notion that Christ is not actually sovereign over all things but he will be at some later point.
  • To affirm Christ’s present dominion over all things but to ignore the movement of redemptive history so that post-canonical civil rulers are regarded as if they were canonical, Israelite kings fulfilling a role in redemptive history.
  • To conclude that, because Christ administers his dominion in multiple spheres that somehow we cannot speak from God’s Word to every area of life.

First, theologically considered, it does not matter how long one postpones Christ’s Lordship or to what point, whether a future millennial reign or during a future golden era ushered in by the global spread of the Christian faith. The Scriptures teach and the Reformed faith confesses that Christ is Lord presently and nothing happens apart from his sovereign decree. The great error in virtually every modernist account of the doctrine of God is that they make him part of the process of history. In one way or another God is said by modernists to “become.” The God of the Bible, of creation, providence, and redemption, who sovereignly raised Jesus from the dead, who sovereignly elects and reprobates (Rom 9; Eph 1–2), is not “becoming” or in process. The God of the Bible is. He says, “I am who I am (Ex 3:14). God is the only entity who can say “I AM.” The rest of us are creatures and we must all confess, there was when I was not. I am contingent. God is. He has always been. He shall always be. He isn’t becoming Lord. He is Lord. There is not a future time when, under the right conditions, he will become Lord. He is Lord right now. His kingdom is now. That the kingdom does not meet some expectations is not God’s problem. Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom and neither the Jews nor Pilate were impressed. Jesus didn’t much care.

Second, God established Israel to perform a unique, temporary role in the history of redemption. The function of the Israelite kings was not to establish a pattern for post-canonical, secular rulers. Their primary function was to point to Christ. Thus, we cannot read the history of the kings of Israel and Judah and then draw a straight line between them and post-canonical kings, whether Caesar or Charlemagne or the President of the United States. That is an abuse of Scripture, i.e., putting Scripture to a use for which it was never intended. Yes, it is certainly true that Christians, including Reformed Christians, have a long history of reading Scripture this way. It was a mistake. People read Scripture in a given context and that context, with all the assumption it entails, is a powerful influence on the way God’s people read Scripture at a given time. For about 1500 years the church read Scripture in the context of or under the influence of the Constantinian assumption, that the civil ruler, as God’s minister, is ordained by God to establish a church or to punish heretics. Exegetically and theologically those assumptions were in error. There is not a shred of evidence in the NT or in the way the NT teaches us to read the Old Covenant that intends to cause us to think that God intends for civil rulers, after the expiration and abrogation of the Israelite economy, to establish the church, enforce orthodoxy, or punish heretics. When the Psalms speak of the king (e.g., Ps 2), according to the NT (Acts 2) we’re to understand that king is Jesus and he is ruling now. Peter preached that “This Jesus whom you crucified, God has made him both Lord and Christ.” He isn’t becoming Lord. He doesn’t become Lord when we recognize him as such. He is Lord, now. He is ruling now. He was ruling when Herod, Pilate, and Nero plotted against believers. Peter interprets David’s life as a pointer to Christ’s life and present reign. He does not move from David to Jesus to Caesar. He stops with Jesus. Paul doesn’t move from the Israelite kings to Caesar in Romans 13. He grounds Caesar’s role in nature, not in redemption. It is the failure to distinguish these two spheres of God’s sovereign operation that contributes to this confusion.

Finally, there is a temptation among those who distinguish between the spheres in which God administers his sovereign rule, perhaps in reaction to the second error, to restrict unduly the ways in which God’s Word is applied to every sphere of life. To be sure, there are proper and improper applications of God’s Word. Sometimes one gets the impression that some think that because God is sovereign, and because I think God’s Word applies to a certain situation this way, anyone who disagrees with my application of Scripture is denying God’s sovereignty. Obviously that is a non sequitur. God is sovereign but your application of Scripture is not. There is a difference. There are limits on the sort so of things to which ministers should speak. Ministers are not ordinarily physicians or physicists. We are not called, in our office as ministers, to give medical advice or to speak authoritatively on the latest developments in physics. The law and the gospel were true under the pre-modern physics, under Newtonian physics, and under post-Newtonian physics. However many scientific revolutions have happened since the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople (I), the Nicene-Constantinoplitan Creed has not changed. Medicine has changed dramatically but the law and the gospel have not.

Rather, we should think and say that everything to which his Word intends to speak is a proper object of the ministry (proclamation and application) of the Word. We are called to preach the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:21). We are called to speak to cultural developments as God’s people are called to live out their faith in their daily lives. Faithful living will bring engagement with the broader, unbelieving culture. That intersection should raise questions. “The prevailing non-Christian culture says x, but the Scriptures and the faith say y. How should we respond? ” The application of God’s Word requires wisdom, patience, and care but we cannot shrink back from our vocation.

This is not a call for a Jihad (nor to turn the pulpit into a partisan political organ) against unbelievers or for an undue focus on their behavior—that’s like shooting ducks on the water—but where a passage speaks or necessarily implies (by good and necessary inference) a contrast between the biblical view and a pagan view of a matter, we shouldn’t hesitate to follow God’s Word where ever it leads. Consider, for example, the practice of abortion. I doubt the wisdom of a pro-life Sunday just as I doubt the observance of Mothers Day on the Sabbath. It is the Lord’s Day and it shouldn’t be co-opted by this or that interest. Nevertheless, a consistently Christian interpretation of reality (worldview) will yield a view of the inherent value of humans as image bearers. The prevailing pagan ideology and practice of abortion denies the humanity and image-bearing status of infant humans and thus sees no reason to protect them. There is a Christian view of humanity and there are pagan views of humanity. Those different views lead to different ethical systems and thence to different practices. When we come to a biblical text that speaks to the Christian view of humanity or to the inherent value of human life, we should speak to this issue. Now, we should do so carefully, recognizing that there may be those in the congregation who may have made serious mistakes (even sins) in their past. We trust that such are penitent but we should be as gracious with the grieving as we are firm with the impenitent. Nevertheless, ministers are called to serve the Word. We must go where the Word leads. We should refrain from carefully applying the Word because some might not like it.

This is God’s world. Christ has established his kingdom. He sustains everything by his providence and has established a mission representing his kingdom in the world. As kingdom citizens we are his emissaries to the world. As king he has spoken and interpreted all things. Christ is returning and he will bring his reign to consummation in glory. Until that moment, however, we are left to die to sin, live to Christ, and by his Spirit, read the Word with the church and to acknowledge his Lordship by serving him in every aspect of our lives, in each sphere, to his glory. We are not polishing brass on a sinking ship because the world is not a sinking ship. It is the theatre of his glory. We are serving Christ the King as his people, in the station to which he has called us. He is accomplishing his purposes. He will be glorified.

NOTES

  1. It’s interesting to observe, however, how frequently the Christian Coalition uses the crusade metaphor to describe its ideological opponents. In this case, the coalition isn’t describing itself as crusading entity but rather positioning itself as the victim of crusading.

Three Messages To Millennials: Marriage, Church, And Work

Marriage
On March 7, 2014, the Pew Research Center published the results of a new Survey:Millennials in Adulthood. Bradford Wilcox has a summary in the NRO. According to the study, Millennials have become disconnected from some basic institutions: marriage, church, and work—though not in exactly the same way in each instance. In response, I thought it might be helpful to address Millennials (aged 18–34) directly on these issues.

According to Pew (via Wilcox),

Only 26 percent of Millennials are married, a record low for their age group. By contrast, back in 1980, when they were the age that Millennials are now, 48 percent of Baby Boomers were married. The Millennial retreat from marriage is particularly worrisome because it hasn’t stopped many of them from having children. In 2012, 47 percent of births to Millennial women took place outside marriage, a troubling trend because such children are much more likely to end up in single-parent families that put them at higher risk of educational failure, poverty, and emotional distress.

Millennials seem to have given up on marriage. In their defense, a Millennial might argue, “We’re just being consistent. The Boomers showed us that marriage is a joke. They gave us “no-fault” divorce, the Gen-Xers were a half-way house and we’re consistent. We spent our youths shuttling between angry and disappointed parents. Why would we want that for ourselves and our children?” Fair enough. The Boomers could argue that their parents, “the Greatest Generation” (World War II) were trapped in cold, stifling marriages that made a mockery of true love and romance.” There’s probably some truth in that characterization but most of the (now aging) Boomers were raised in stable, two-parent households whose greatest mistake was spoiling their children in reaction to wartime deprivation. We could go back to the Dustbowl Generation and fault them for giving up on the fundamental convictions that undergirded the institution of marriage. The sins of one generation reverberate through history to the next and the next.

So, the Millennials are not entirely at fault. They are the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of previous generations who weakened the institution of marriage. Still, are the Millennials right to give up on marriage? No. Why? Because God instituted marriage for a reason. In this fallen world nothing will ever be perfect. One of the more basic reasons that we’ve lost faith in marriage as an institution is that we have been sold a bill of goods about what is possible in the life. The Christian faith has a vision of the future, of how things will be one day. We call that vision “eschatology” or “the doctrine of last things” or “of ultimate things.” Despite what you may have heard and read, this life is not the “ultimate thing.” This life is a penultimate (next to last) thing.

Modernity has offered us a series of competing visions of heaven on earth: Marxism (when the proletariat are in charge), Romanticism (when we’re all experiencing the most sublime experiences), and so on. They’re all cheap replacements for the Christian doctrine of judgment and glorification. The problem with these competing visions of the end is that they have inflated expectations about what is possible in this life. One advantage the older (pre-Boomer) generations had is that the tended to expect a little less from this world and so weren’t as easily disappointed. The life of the Dust Bowl generation was more like that of the Founding Fathers than it was like ours. They were still getting used to electricity. They likely couldn’t imagine a world where we expected a new pocket telephone-television-computer every 12 months. The computerized technological revolution has only fueled those visions of what is possible in this life that tend to make mundane, routine, and ordinary life seem inherently bound for failure.

So, why should you, Millennial, re-think your suspicion of the institution of marriage? That’s a fair question. The first part of the answer is, despite all the corruption and effects (and affects) of the fall, marriage is still a divine institution. It is built into the nature of things. Scripture says,

Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” …The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So Yahweh Elohim caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Yahweh Elohim had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (Genesis 2:18, 20–25; Revised from the ESV)

Marriage was instituted before the fall. Even before the fall it was not good for us to be alone. The human fall into sin brought with it deception, broken relationships, and pain but after the fall there was something else: mercy and grace. Though he did bring to pass the threatened curse for our covenant breaking (death) he also showed mercy in not destroying us. He showed mercy in restraining the effects of the fall. As bad as things have sometimes been in this world (e.g., the Black Death of the 14th century) they’ve never been as bad as they might be. God’s restraining mercies toward his rebellious creatures does make a difference.

As part of his restraining mercy, God continues to make marriage a good that men and women are intended to share. As a young Christian I once thought that marriage must only be for believers but a dear friend gently pointed out that heterosexual marriage (which should be redundant but must be made explicit in our confused age) is for all of God’s image bearers. Even to non-Christians marriage points back to the original state and to a future state. At its best, it is a witness that things have not always been this way and shall not always be as they are.

Beyond the restraint of evil, from which all humans benefit, he also showed undeserved favor to rebellious humans by promising deliverance from the judgment we had brought upon ourselves. We call that undeserved favor grace. God promised to pour out his last days (eschatological) wrath upon the child of the Eve and that child would conquer the Evil One, who, in God’s mysterious and all-wise and utterly good providence, had introduced corruption into the world (Gen 3:14–16).

The Apostle Paul, who himself was a widower, said that Christian marriage is a signpost to believers of the way Christ loves his church. Reflecting on the very institution of marriage that we saw in Genesis 2, Paul says:

This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband (Eph 5:32–33 ESV).

The second part of the answer is that, despite all appearances, marriage is still good. They are complicated and messy. Your own experience of your parents’ marriage may have been quite blessed or perhaps not. Whatever your experience you should be a little skeptical of the story the mass media has been telling about marriage and divorce. Things are bad but they aren’t quite as bad as they are made to seem on TV. There are good marriages out there. It’s not true that you have only a 50% chance of staying married. The statistical likelihood of your marriage surviving is much greater than 50% (here’s a summary).

God is good. Despite what you’ve been told, creation (though fallen) is good too. Marriage is one of those creational goods in which God intends for most of us to participate.1 I know you’re nervous. That’s okay. I know that most of your friends don’t seem interested in marriage. That’s unfortunate but they’re confused and misinformed. A million Frenchmen can be wrong. Your desire for sexual union with someone of the opposite sex is normal and it needs to be ordered in the divinely intended way.

Church
In the first part we looked at the some of the challenges Millennials face relative to marriage. According to the recent Pew Study, Millennials identify with organized religion at a lower rate than previous generations. To quote Billy Joel, they “didn’t start the fire,” as it were, but they have added to it. Millennial suspicion of the visible church is a part of the pattern we noted previously: suspicion of existing institutions generally.

Why should Millennials (and everyone else) value the visible church? Because God values the visible, institutional church. The prima facie biblical evidence is overwhelming. Our Lord Jesus said, in Matthew 18, “tell it to the church.” That instruction only makes sense relative to a visible covenant community. It was not possible to “tell it to” all believers everywhere. It is possible to make an announcement about church discipline to a congregation, an expression of the church catholic (universal).

We know that God values the visible, assembled church because he gathered Israel, whom, by his sovereign grace, he had saved from bondage in Egypt, at the foot of Sinai. Deuteronomy 9:10 says,

Yahweh gave to me the two tablets of stone written by the finger of God. On them were all the commandments Yahweh proclaimed to you on the mountain out of the fire, on the day of Ha Qahal (i.e., the assembly, See Deut 10:4; 18:16).

Ha Qahal is Hebrew for “the covenant assembly.” These were the people whom God had baptized, as it were, in the Red Sea, when he brought them through on dry ground (Ex 14:22). These were they whom Yahweh fed with quail (1Cor 10). In other words, the visible church is ancient. Sacraments are ancient. We could look at the church under Abraham, Noah, and even Adam before and after the fall. In other words, there has always been a visible people, assembled by the Lord himself, organized by God’s Word, with appointed visible signs and seals (sacraments).

Though it is widely thought that the early church was unstructured and purely spontaneous, that such is definition of “spiritual” is much more the product of assumption. When our Lord Jesus spoke of the ecclesia he was picking up on an ancient thread in Scripture. The New Testament speaks repeatedly to and about the visible, organized assembly where the Word is read, preached, and administered in the sacraments. I’ve summarized that data here. The church is a body but it is also organized and disciplined. Our Lord commissioned his disciples to represent him in official functions (Matt 28:18–20). At Pentecost, those disciples became apostles, with a special, unique endowment of the Holy Spirit and with the authority of Christ they established the offices of minister, elder, and deacon.

Americans are independent by inclination. Church growth experts tell new congregations to downplay their denominational identity in order to appeal to Americans, who tend to be suspicious of denominations. The corollary for individuals is the tendency of Americans to identify themselves as “spiritual” but to say that they are not interested in organized religion. American Christians like to be free agents but that isn’t the biblical view and it isn’t the historic Christian view.

When, in the Apostles’ Creed, Christians confess,

I believe the holy catholic church, the communion of the saints, the forgiveness of sins…

we are saying that the same Holy Spirit who hovered over the face of the deep, who hovers over the church (1 Peter 4) is still creating or re-creating a community of the redeemed. In the Heidelberg Catechism Reformed Christians confess:

That, out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, the Son of God, by His Spirit and Word, gathers, defends and preserves for Himself to everlasting life a chosen communion in the unity of the true faith; and that I am and forever shall remain a living member of the same.

In other words, in Scripture and in Christian theology there is no dichotomy between the Spiritual and the material (and the organized). Spontaneity might be fun and exciting but it isn’t inherently spiritual. It isn’t necessarily biblical. It is in these assemblies that we find the communion of the saints. Again, in the Heidelberg Catechism we confess:

What do you understand by the ‘communion of saints’?

First, that believers, one and all, as members of the Lord Jesus Christ, are partakers with Him in all His treasures and gifts; secondly, that each one must feel himself bound to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the advantage and welfare of other members.

Honesty compels us to admit that the visible churches have made great mistakes. Ministers have sinned. The assemblies are composed of sinners, of broken people. There are hypocrites in the visible church but Jesus spent considerable time with one of the greatest and most notorious hypocrites in human history: Judas Iscariot. We should not seek to be more holy than God the Son incarnate.

Are there grounds for being disappointed with the visible, organized church? Yes. Is there a reason to be connected to it anyway? Yes. We go back to our understanding of eschatology. Last time we saw that we’re in the in-between, penultimate time. The visible church is part of that in-between existence. Christ intends for us Christians to spend that time together, in congregations, hearing the Word read and preached, in praying and singing his Word in response, and in celebrating his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and future return in his appointed signs and seals.

Work
Above we looked at the way, according to a recent Pew Study, Millennials relate to the visible, institutional church. The third major topic is work. As Bradford Wilcox summarizes the results of the study he notes that 80% of those aged 24–29 are employed. Only 44% of those aged 18–29 are employed full-time. That latter number seems quite low. I’m not a social scientist and I don’t play one on the web (as an undergrad I used to social “science” when required but I was more interested in arguments than statistics). One study claims that Millennials are about four years behind the previous generation in reaching the same level of income. According to this study, one reason is that, even though they are nominally educated (i.e., they’ve gone through late-modern educational process) young men particularly have failed to develop the necessary skills to flourish in the workplace. Paul Solman claims

Millennials aren’t employed at lower rates because they’re lazy or bad at math; they’re the most educated generation ever. But they’re also the first generation to face the new demands for education and skill — and a bad economy, a much higher cliff to climb than previous generations.

Anecdotal evidence suggests to me that might be an overly optimistic assessment. The educational system has largely failed the Millennials. They have gone through the process but I doubt that they are as highly educated as Solman claims. Since the arrival of the modern, industrial age, many generations have had to adapt to changing conditions and market demands. There have been bad economies before, though this seems to be the worst post-Reagan economy by a longshot. I’m having flashbacks to the Carter years.

Vince Ginn is probably correct, however, that the job market is working against them. This is not the go-go 80s where young people can expect to find a good job easily upon graduation from college. They are competing for low-skill jobs once thought to be the domain of High School graduates or even High School dropouts. Millennials certainly face an uphill climb. Obamacare, rising college costs (and the resulting loan debt—many grads are now carrying the equivalent of a mortgage as they graduate from college),  apparently failed policies such as the Affordable Care Act, and a generally unsettled economy (which makes companies reluctant to take risks, to invest, to expand or to recover some of the workforce they laid off after the crash of ’07–’08) seem poised to make the economic future of Millennials darker than previous generations.

Even with all that, the Great Recession was not the Great Depression. This was a post-Reagan recession. The Malls remained relatively full. Yes, there were some empty shops but I recall recessions under Nixon-Carter-Reagan (’80–81) where there were empty shelves, empty stores, gas lines and the deprivation and poverty of the Great Depression was markedly worse than than anything we’ve experienced since.

One thing has changed, however, since the Great Depression: the work ethic. There are two great social changes afoot that will mark this generation. Homosexual marriage, which the Millennials generally support partly because it makes them feel enlightened and morally superior to support what they see as a cause of liberation (allowing people to do what they want). It seems like a pain-free way to say: follow your bliss. They don’t, however, seem to grasp the significance of what it means to re-define marriage in purely affective terms, without reference to nature. They will.

The second great social change that marks this generation is the legalization of pot. As an GenXer (you’re not a Boomer if you didn’t see Howdy Doody or if you can’t remember where you were when JFK was assassinated) raised with some Dustbowl economic values, I worry about what the legalization of weed signifies. Perhaps it means nothing but weed does nothing if not destroy one’s desire to work and accomplish. That’s not true for a glass of wine or even a beer—a six-pack maybe or a whole bottle of wine but now we’re not comparing apples with apples.

Recently we’ve had national leaders extolling the virtues of unemployment. We’ve heard national political figures sounding very much like Marx regarding the virtues of leisure. It wasn’t that long ago that mainstream politicians of both parties sounded very different. That they can now speak like Marx makes one think that there has been a fundamental cultural shift relative to work and it’s hard not to think that people (including Millennials) no longer view work as inherently good and valuable.

As I argued back in September, however, work is inherently good. God is a worker, a Creator. We were made in his image. We are given work to do in the garden even before the fall. Work is an important way in which we express our status as bearers of the divine image. Work continued after the fall, even if it became difficult and frustrating. When the Apostle Paul learned that some believers were quitting their jobs because they thought that Jesus was coming immediately, he told them to get back to work and that if they didn’t work, they shouldn’t eat.

Then there is the ancient biblical and Christian idea of vocation. Where the medieval and Roman churches tended to locate vocation only in the sacred, in Monasteries and in the call to ministry, the Protestants argued that every image bearer has a vocation, that secular work is not inherently defiled or defiling. It is just an honorable as sacred work. We’re called in Scripture to do our work to the glory of God and to the well-being of our neighbor.

All business people are not Gordon Gekko. Starting a business, selling a service or a product, meeting a need in the marketplace at a fair market price is a good thing. Business is noble, not evil. Investing and getting a return on that investment is a good thing. Being successful and employing others is a good thing. One of the fastest growing segments of our economy is the non-profit segment. That’s all well and good but who is going to fund all these non-profits? Business people. We can’t all work in non-profits and I say this as an employee of a non-profit. I’m deeply grateful to those business people who make it possible for me to do what I do at work and here at the HB.

I fear that the reaction to excess (real or perceived) is grounded not in a Christian evaluation of work and leisure but in a sort of Gnostic, docetic denial of human reality. As a largely urban and suburban culture, Americans don’t seem to understand clearly any more, e.g., from where food comes. They think it appears magically in the grocery. It doesn’t. A farmer risked his capital (money) to buy/rent land, to buy equipment and animals, to buy seed and materials. That farmer got out of bed (sometimes in awful weather), grew it, sold it, and a company processed it and turned it into food. People risked themselves and capital (money and resources) in order to produce it. So, of course, they aren’t going to give it away. They can’t even if they wanted to or they wouldn’t be able to continue growing food.

The same is true of something as apparently simple as a pencil.

All those people, through whom a pencil eventually comes into existence, are doing something valuable. That’s the way God made the world. Work is not greedy or money grubbing. It’s one of the reasons we exist, to fulfill our vocation, whatever it may be and to play our part, to the glory of God and the well-being of our neighbor.

NOTES

1. Singleness is a gift from God (1Cor 7:8) but it is the exception rather than the rule. If God has called you to singleness, then praise God. If not, praise God but please don’t confuse fear and uncertainty about the future for a call to singleness.

This essay first appeared in three parts on the Heidelblog in 2014.

The Cross And A Twofold Kingdom

This essay was originally published, in two parts, in 2014 on the Heidelblog.

§

The cross atop Mt Soledad, in LaJolla has been in place since 1954 but it has been the subject of controversy and continuous and tortuous legal wrangling since at least 1989, when two atheists and the “Society of Separationists” sued in federal court claiming that the cross violates both the U.S. and state constitutions.1

The History of the Controversy
The Federal District Court for the Southern District of California ruled in favor of the complainants in 1991. The next year San Diego voters approved the sale of the land to the Mt Soledad Memorial Association, a private entity. The wrangling has continued unabated since. The ruling upheld by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit. The full appeals court re-affirmed it the next year. The San Diego City Council voted to sell the property to the Memorial Association but the federal court that originally heard the case ruled that the sale was unconstitutional according to the California constitution. The San Diego City Council again voted to sell the property to the highest bidder, the Memorial Association. This time the original court and a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit upheld the sale because the terms did not require the cross be kept but on appeal but another court ruled against the sale saying that the city gave the veterans group an advantage. In 2003, the Supreme Court declined to hear the city’s appeal. The next year San Diego voters rejected a proposal to sell the cross and the adjacent land to the highest bidder. Plans were made to move the cross to a nearby church. In 2005, a special election, citizens voted to donate the cross and land to the Federal Department of the Interior but a San Diego superior court ruled against the land transfer on the grounds that it is an unconstitutional aid to religion. In 2006, the original federal district court ordered the city to remove the cross but that order was blocked by US Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy and President Bush signed a law transferring the cross to the Defense Dept as a war memorial but several organizations challenged that law. The same year, a state appeals court overturned the superior court ruling. In 2008, the original federal district court (different judge, the original judge has retired) upheld the transfer to the Department of Defense on the grounds that the secular message outweighs the religious significance but that ruling was overturned, in 2011, by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit. The next year the Supreme Court refused to hear and appeal. This refusal essentially forced the original Federal District court to order the removal of the cross earlier this month. Of course, that ruling has been stayed because of an appeal by the Memorial Association. The publicity release does not specify to which court the appeal is being made but it would seem as if it must go to the 9th Circuit again and thence, the the USOC.

The Irony of the Cross
This is a remarkable history on several levels. The attempts to sell the land to a private party seem to be eminently sensible in principle but apparently bungled more than once. In Lemon v Kurtzman (1971) the court held:

  • “The statute must have a secular legislative purpose”
  • the “principal or primary effect” of the statute “must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion”
  • “the statute must not foster an excessive governmental entanglement with religion”

The court rulings against the sale reveal the weakness of the Lemon Test, which Justice Scalia has likened to a late-night ghoul. The attempts to sell the property were not obviously religious in nature. They didn’t, in themselves, advance religion and they didn’t foster excessive entanglement with religion except that the Lemon Test itself does nothing to forestall the endless series of complaints, judgments, and appeals.

Of course, the Lemon Test isn’t the Constitution. Remember, the establishment clause of the First Amendment says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….

cross-flag-signs-copyright-rscottclark

©R. Scott Clark 2013

It is reasonable to think that both Christians and non-Christians might not want to spend public funds on a massive (45-foot) Christian symbol but Michelle Malkin’s claim that the litigation against the cross represents a form a “cruciphobia” seems somewhat justified by the history of the case. By selling the property to a private interest, the problem of public entanglement with a Christian symbol would seem to be relieved but the complainants seem only to be satisfied with the destruction of the cross. This should trouble those Americans who value private property and freedom defined as the relative absence of governmental intrusion into our private lives. This should also trouble Americans who think that Christians may and should be active in the public square. It is one thing to argue, as I have done, that Christians should be relatively humble in their engagement in the public square. It is quite another, however, to say, in effect: “Get out, you don’t belong here.” We certainly do and there is nothing about the Christian faith or the public square that suggests that Christians must leave their faith at the door when they participate in public life. Christians vote. Christian pay taxes and are generally good citizens. Like everyone else, Christians have an interpretation of the meaning of reality. The Christian life is not a purely private matter. The faith entails a way of life, an ethic that has consequences for the way we live our lives in the public sphere.

With the American founders, historically Christians have believed that there is such a thing as nature—the Declaration does speak of “laws of nature and of nature’s God”—and there are divinely established norms revealed in nature (and therefore universally known) and in Scripture. When, for example, we appeal to nature against homosexual marriage, we’re not seeking a theocracy or imposing anything on anyone. Human beings are creatures. Therefore there are moral and physical limits to what we can and may do. If one think that all limits are purely human constructs then let him test that theory by jumping off a three-story building.  The Christians no more invented human biology and sexuality than we invented the laws of gravity. Christians (and more than a few non-Christians) are simply recognizing the nature of things. There are males and females. That is fact that no amount of deconstruction can undo.

Nevertheless, this Christian is ambivalent about the Mt Soledad Cross. The cross is an established, generic grave marker. Before that, of course, it was an early Christian symbol associated with Christian suffering, and in the high middle ages it became a symbol of the European reaction to Islamic aggression and more in the crusades, but before the Christian use of the cross, it was a symbol of Roman power and oppression, so it has had more than one use and more than one message. So, the Christian appropriation of the cross has always been complex. From the beginning our embrace of the cross was intentional and ironic. After all, our Savior was unjustly murdered by Romans on a cross and yet, through the cross, what humans intended for evil, God meant for the greatest possible good: the salvation of all his people and his own glory.

Thus, it was with no little irony that the message of the cross was featured in both Jesus’ and Paul’s preaching. Our Lord himself defined the Christian life, discipleship, by the cross:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24, ESV)

In characterizing the Christian life this way, he was foreshadowing something that the disciples would not understand until Pentecost. Sadly, these words have probably lost their shock value. When our Lord spoke them, however, they must have or should have struck like a thunderbolt. The Roman cross was a filthy, revolting sign of Roman political oppression and shame. That sense is reflected in Hebrews 12:2, when the pastor reminds his congregation, who were being tempted to turn away from Christ, that Jesus despised the shame of the cross. He did not despise the cross but rather he rejected the shame. He embraced the cross for our sake.

For Paul, the cross became a symbol of the power of Christ and his gospel. Through the cross, Paul wrote to the Colossians, God cancelled

the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:13-15, ESV)

The very thing that was meant to be instrument of destruction of Jesus and his followers became instead the symbol of salvation, hope, and new life. In its original context, however, we can can understand why those paleo-pagans whom Paul evangelized (in contrast to the neo-pagans whom we evangelize) considered the cross an offense:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Both Jews and the Greeks (the Stoics and the Epicureans) thought of religion as a means to power. The Christian message, however, was one of weakness. We worship a crucified Jew, who did nothing to prevent his execution; indeed he seemed to encourage it. The earliest post-apostolic critics of Christianity in the 2nd century mocked the Christians mercilessly for worshipping a crucified criminal. The Apostles taught Christians to live quiet and godly lives (1Tim 2:2). There is not even a suggestion that the apostles expected to transform Greco-Roman culture. They expected to suffer and prepared the Christians to suffer. The cross symbolized that relationship to the broader culture.

Secularizing The Cross To Save It
Christians and others understand instinctively (or through experience) that the increasingly neo-pagan culture in which we live is increasingly intolerant of Christianity. Part of this is due to ignorance—many Americans have had no meaningful experience of or education about Christianity. Take a poll on any major university campus about basic Christian doctrines and history and you will quickly find that the future decision-makers know nothing about Christianity. The only Christians they’ve ever seen have been on television and most of us would probably not select most televised Christians to do our PR for us.

It says something about where the culture is that the cross stood unmolested atop Mt Soledad from 1954 to 1989. That’s just about from the height of the Cold War to its end. During that period the church and Christianity were not as often prized for their intrinsic worth but rather for their social utility. The church and the faith were seen as bulwarks against an external atheistic menace. Meanwhile, back home, the culture (and too often the church with it) was grooming generations of atheists. What was only murmured in coffee houses in the 50s and 60s became outright hostility by the late 1980s.

One response by the defenders of the Mt Soledad cross, however well intended it be, has the effect of stripping the power of the cross by reducing it to a purely secular symbol. In order to save the cross they are removing its offense. Christians have good reason to worry about this strategy for saving the Mt Soledad cross.

Re-Scandalzing The Cross

In Galatians 5:11 Paul used some strong words for the Galatian Judaizers, those who would put believers back under the law (i.e., works) for acceptance with God. The Judaizers, he wrote, have “removed” the offense of the cross. They did so by attempting to add to it. If we are accepted by God for Christ’s sake and our obedience (even if that obedience is defined as “faith”) then, Paul says, Christ’s death has been made worthless. If the Judaizers think circumcision is so powerful then they should go the whole way and emasculate themselves. In our context, we could say to Judaizers of our day (e.g., the self-described Federal Visionists)  that if they think baptismal water is so powerful why don’t they drown themselves?

The point in the present discussion is that the cross should not be tidied up for the sake of its use in civil life. That is too great a cost for Christians to pay. If the cross may be used in public life without emptying it of its religious significance, then I am content to allow the cross to be used for civic or public purposes. If the Mt Soledad cross is destroyed then it is hard to see how the same logic will not result in the removal of crosses from public burial grounds everywhere and, after that, the removal of religious symbols from any public (tax-funded) space. Will churches no longer serve as polling places? Where will this logic lead?

I suspect that it may no longer be possible, if it ever was, to have a truly Christian cross with a secular use.  The attempt to drive Christians out of public life, whether through shaming (“how dare you say that x is sinful! You can’t say that!”) or in the name of tolerance, or through civil action (e.g., litigation) is symbolic of more than the declining fortunes of Christianity. It signifies the last death throes of Christendom. When the Mt Soledad cross went up it was not, as far as I know, controversial but it became controversial. The cross didn’t move but the culture moved around it, as it were, at its feet. Some interpret the present hostility toward Christians in the public square as payback for the hubris of the fundamentalist forays into politics in the 70s and 80s. There may be some truth in that. It is reasonable to ask why resistance to Christian symbols (whether the cross or the decalogue) seems so much more plausible today than it did in nearly 60 years ago. Another part of the explanation may lie in shifting demographics. Rural and putatively more religious parts of the country are declining and urban areas are growing. Urban areas tend to be less religious and diversity is given a higher value. In rural areas, conformity and religion are more highly valued.

In all events, the cross should remain offensive. When Paul and the rest of the apostles preached the scandalous cross, there was a cost associated with being a Christian. This is why Paul wrote, in Galatians 6:12 that those who “make a good showing in the flesh,” who “would force you to be circumcised” do so “in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ” (Galatians 6:12, ESV).

Our culture may not yet be so anti-Christian that we feel this hostility regularly but the advance shock waves are palpable. In other parts of the world, however, there are not mere rumors of hostility. The Christmas season just past saw the wholesale slaughter of Christians in Syria (warning: the link is to a news story with graphic images of Christian persecution). Christians are suffering in the Sudan, in Egypt, and, of course, in China and in many other parts of the world. The (formerly) Christian West seems largely indifferent to the global suffering of Christians. That is also probably an indicator of the spiritual state of the West. Why should neo-Pagans care about what is happening to a bizarre death cult—which is how the Christian faith appeared to some paleo-pagans in the 2nd century—on the other side of the globe? They have their own problems: their internet connection is really slow today.

That the cross remains controversial, however difficult it may make the lives of Christians after Christendom, is good thing. Let the cross be offensive for the reasons it should be offensive, rather than for the reasons it is too often offensive.

How Calvin Helps
Above I sketched the history and current legal status of the Mt Soledad Cross and I indicated some ambivalence about that use of the cross. On the one hand, it seems clear that some opposition to the cross is less about “separation of church and state” (given the attempts to privatize the land on which the cross sits) and more about an attempt to remove the cross from public view. This animus is symbolic of the broader attempt to marginalize Christian speech and action (and speech and actions by Christians) from the public square. If the cross is still scandalous, that is a good thing. On the other hand, it appears that the cost of saving the public display of the Mt Soledad cross (and other public uses of the cross and other Christian symbols) will be to secularize it to such a degree that the cross must be shorn of its Christian significance. This is too high a price for Christians to pay. If we must make the unhappy choice between retaining a purely secular Mt Soledad cross or removing a cross with Christian signification, then we should choose the latter

There is a way of thinking about this issue and others like it that I have found helpful. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion John Calvin (1509–64) wrote of God’s “twofold reign” or “double government” in the world:

Therefore, in order that none of us may stumble on that stone, let us first consider that there is a twofold government in man (duplex esse in homine regimen): one aspect is spiritual, whereby the conscience is instructed in piety and in reverencing God; the second is political, whereby man is educated for the duties of humanity and citizenship that must be maintained among men. These are usually called the “spiritual” and the “temporal” jurisdiction (not improper terms) by which is meant that the former sort of government pertains to the life of the soul, while the latter has to do with the concerns of the present life—not only with food and clothing but with laying down laws whereby a man may live his life among other men holily, honorably, and temperately. For the former resides in the inner mind, while the latter regulates only outward behavior. The one we may call the spiritual kingdom, the other, the political kingdom. Now these two, as we have divided them, must always be examined separately; and while one is being considered, we must call away and turn aside the mind from thinking about the other. There are in man, so to speak, two worlds, over which different kings and different laws have authority (1559 Institutes 3.19.15; Battles edition).

I understand that the term two kingdoms has become controversial. It seems to be as often misunderstood as it often used. Some critics suggest or claim explicitly that any distinction between one sphere and another in God’s providential rule over the world somehow diminishes his dominion. This way of thinking makes little sense to me. Others talk about “the two kingdoms” as if that phrase represented some monolithic analysis of Christ and culture. That too is quite false. Finally, some proponents of “two kingdoms” seem to think that it implies that Christians have no place or voice in the culture or political or common life of men. I reject this application of the distinction. To distinguish between two aspects of God’s kingdom is really just to ask a question: “How does God administer his sovereignty in this sphere?” It is one thing to ask a question, it is quite another to answer it and clearly, as people look for alternatives to early 20th-century neo-Calvinist approaches, they are arriving at different answers to the question.

One way forward might be two adopt a slightly different way of speaking about God’s sovereign rule over all things. We might do this on analogy with the traditional Reformed language about “the covenant” of God. Classic Reformed theologians frequently spoke about “the covenant” and then proceeded to distinguish clearly between the covenants of redemption (pactum salutis), works (foedus operum), and grace (foedus gratiae). They could speak of covenant and covenants, depending upon the context. There are moralistic versions of monocovenantal theology, e.g., those that conflate the covenants of works and grace but to speak of “one covenant” is not necessarily to subscribe the monocoventalism of the Shepherdites, the self-described Federal Visionists, et al.

I’m not sure when but sometime back it occurred to me that Calvin’s expression is duplex regimen is translated in the Battles edition as “twofold government.” That seems right. When we translate the phrase duplex gratia Dei, we use “twofold” or “double grace of God.” This phrase summarizes Calvin’s doctrine that God’s grace both justifies and sanctifies, that progressive sanctification is a consequence of definitive justification. On this see Cornel Venema’s fine work. Olevianus used the phrase duplex beneficium, which I usually translate “twofold” or “double benefit.” Thus, we should probably translate Calvin’s phrase “duplex regimen” as “double” or “twofold kingdom” or “twofold government.”

In this case, two distinguish, as Calvin did, between two spheres of God’s government in the world, is hardly to deny his lordship or the Christian’s place in the world. There is one God who administers his government in two distinct sphere. The context of Calvin’s use of the phrase is his discussion and defense of Christian liberty. There were three great threats to Christian freedom in the 16th century: Romanist legalism, which attempted to bind the Christian’s conscience with innumerable man-made rules and obligations (e.g., the church calendar, five false sacraments, and submission to the Roman bishop), libertinism, and spiritualism. The libertines wanted to use Reformation as an opportunity to throw off human government altogether. There were also religious radicals who thought that the nature of the new covenant is such and we are so guided by the Spirit now that we no longer have any need for human, civil government.

In 3.19.9 he wrote of the spirituality of Christian freedom, of its close connection to the freedom Christians have from the curse of the law. Under Rome, we had been placed under a man-made law. We were in a sort of Babylonian Captivity. Others, of course, were abusing their newly recovered Christian liberty as an occasion to sin. In 3.15.10 he complained about those who make a show of their liberty, as though unless others could see them using it, they were not truly free. In 3.19.11, he worked through the question of how we may exercise our liberty in Christ without causing offense (scandal) and how we should avoid being bound by the Pharisees (e.g., Romanist legalists), whom he described as “supercilious.” In 3.19.12 he discussed the relationship between Christian liberty and the weaker brother. Obviously, he was meditating on 1 Corinthians 8. In the next section he reinforced the normative character of the moral law, the law of love to God and neighbor, as the limit of Christian freedom. In 3.19.14 he described the freedom of the conscience as that which Christ has purchased with his blood. As we come to the section before us (3.19.15), then, it is clear that his chief interest has been to account for Christian liberty.

In 3.19.15, he begins with with a warning that Christian liberty does not mean that believers are free from human government. That was the error of the libertines and the radicals. We are, instead, he wrote, under a “duplex regimen,” one spiritual, which forms “the conscience to piety” and the other is “political” or civil. In this aspect of God’s reign in human affairs, we learn “civility” and “humanity.” Remember, one of the earliest criticisms of the Christians by the Greco-Roman pagans of the 2nd century was that they were uncivil and inhumane because they distinguished between adhering to civil law, so far as Scripture and conscience permitted, and their religion. For the pagans there was no distinction. A good Roman citizen offered sacrifices or poured out libations and swore fidelity to Caesar and the gods. To refuse the Roman cultus made one “inhumane” or a “hater of humanity.” So, Calvin wants to make clear that though Christians are not “of this world,” i.e., the source of their spiritual life is not of this world nevertheless, we are very much in this world and that, in both spheres, we live under the lordship of Christ.

Calvin distinguished between spiritual and temporal aspects of this twofold reign. The latter refers to “the life of the soul” and the former to “the present state.” We might say that one his historical and the other eschatological. Our civil, common life together with unbelievers has to do with this life. The civil, common sphere has to do with external conduct. Calvin was quite pointed that they must be considered separately. They are distinct spheres. The gospel does not free us from obligation to civil obedience and our civil obedience does not intrude on the realm of conscience before God. For Calvin, Christian freedom is bound up with this distinction.

He recognized that Paul, in Romans 13, connected our obedience in the civil sphere to conscience. He characterized this aspect of conscience as an “additional witness” or knowledge of the divine justice which exposes our sins. In 3.19.16 he explained that our works respect men but properly our conscience “regards God.” There is a broad sense in which conscience respects the magistrate but strictly it has respect to God alone. The laws that govern civil behavior affect our conscience insofar as we regard them as being from God and we are bound to them even if there is no one else about. Nevertheless, there is an spiritual and interior aspect to conscience over which the civil sphere has no say.

What are we to make of Calvin’s twofold distinction in God’s government of the world and how does it help us think about the Mt Soledad cross? The first inference I would draw is that Calvin was manifestly concerned to protect the liberty of the Christian conscience. One of the concerns I have had about some forms of neo-Calvinism is that there seems to be a relatively low regard for Christian liberty. Having applied the adjective Christian to whatever endeavor is at hand, some neo-Calvinists seem have little patience for dissent as if it is self-evident what the Christian view of x is or must be. In that regard, we should be careful that we do not fall back into the medieval and Roman pattern of obligating fellow Christians with rules and practices that are not “good and necessary” inferences from the Word of God. Beyond the scope of the explicit teaching of Scripture and “good and necessary” consequences, Christians are free to disagree. In this is so, then I think Christians may reach different conclusions about the Mt Soledad cross. Another way to put this is to say that I doubt that we may speak of “the Christian” view of the Mt Soledad cross.

Another inference we might draw is that the ambivalence expressed in part 1 is inherent in living in these two spheres of God’s government of the world. This Christian life is a semi-eschatological existence. The consummate state, the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God, has been inaugurated in the earth and is manifested institutionally in the visible church and Christians, as citizens of that eschatological kingdom live out their Christian lives as citizens of the kingdom wherever they are, as they fulfill their vocations in this world. Nevertheless, the consummation is not yet. We live cheek-by-jowl with unbelievers who, in civil terms, have as much right co-exist in the civil sphere as we do. Thus, in civil life, we will necessarily have to make compromises that we cannot make in the spiritual sphere.

Finally, we are free to work out life in the civil sphere differently than Calvin did. Christians are free to seek to return to the Constantinian settlement but Christians are also free to dissent from the quest to return to Constantinianism. That (Constantinianism, the medieval church-state complex) is a view that Christians have held. It’s also a historical fact that it is a view that Christians did not take before the 4th century. I agree with Abraham Kuyper. Constantinianism was a mistake. It is a possible implication of Christ’s lordship over all things but it is not a necessary inference. It is exceeding difficult to make a case for it from the New Testament. The main thing the New Testament writers (and early Christian writers in the second century) wanted from the magistrate was to be left alone to worship God in peace and to serve our neighbor without interference.

When we speak of “the Christian view” of p or q, we should probably restrict that use of the adjective “Christian” to those things that we confess together as churches. Yes, the Reformed and Presbyterian churches have confessed Constantinianism but since the 18th century and since the early 20th century, most have not. It is an area where confessional folk may agree to disagree.

Under God’s government, Christians live in two spheres simultaneously. Each of those spheres has respect to different aspects of our lives. The fact that there are two spheres will always produce tensions and uncertainties, as in the case of the Mt Soledad cross. However one thinks about this and other such issues, let us be as zealous as Calvin was to preserve the sanctity of the liberty of the Christian conscience whil, at the same time, guarding against the ever-present possibility of a hyper-spiritualism or libertinism that disregards our obligations to our fellow men under the second table of God’s moral law.

Postscript
Ben Sasse is a Reformed Christian who is presently campaigning for the U. S. Senate from Nebraska. In his campaign he is not making theocratic arguments but he is arguing from the founding principles articulated in the Declaration and Constitution. This approach presents an interesting, practical and concrete contrast with the theory espoused by some that the only proper way to engage civil life is from a “transformational” perspective.

UPDATE (8 April, 2014)

Here’s the latest on the legal status of the cross.

UPDATE July 24, 2015

Here is the latest on the legal status of the Mt Soledad cross. The property has been sold to a private group, which plans to maintain the memorial. Here is the local coverage.

NOTE

1. This summary relies on the chronology provided by the San Diego Union Tribune (linked above) with supplementary information drawn from a variety of sources.

 

SAET Interviews In Politics And Theology #10: R. Scott Clark

With regard to political action:  American Christians (particularly evangelicals) must get over the microwave mentality. We need to think more in terms of camp fires and cook outs. It takes a long time to make a decent meal outdoors and it might all go wrong . . . . If we substituted the camp fire for the microwave we might also be useful by becoming more critical of reigning cultural paradigms. For example, many American Christians are suburbanites. They make take the existence of suburbs for granted but should we? . . . . Christianity is not middle-class American suburbia nor is it neo-Romanticism about “the city.”  Where is the evangelical, missional passion for rural America?

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1. For those who are not familiar with your work, can you describe your contribution to the question of how the individual Christian and the Church relates to the State?

RSC: I doubt that I’ve made any contribution to this question. My interest is partly historical, partly biblical-exegetical, theological, and pastoral. I have an academic interest in the history of Reformed theology and ethics and particularly in the way the classical Reformed theologians (and confessional churches) understood creation, natural law, and the intersection between those categories and Reformed soteriology and understanding of redemptive history. As a pastor I have seen the damage done to the visible church by confusing the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this world.

2.  Richard Mouw and Carl F. H. Henry have suggested that the Church’s role is not coterminous with the responsibility possessed by individual believers.  Do you agree or disagree?

RSC: If I understand the question correctly, yes, I agree. What Christ has commissioned the visible church, as an institution, to do is one thing; and what he has commissioned the Christian to do is rather broader. This distinction goes back at least to the early Reformation’s doctrines of vocation and its distinction between the two kingdoms. It also has roots in St Augustine’s distinction between the two cities. Christians have a dual citizenship. St Paul says that we have a heavenly citizenship (Phil 3:20) but we also have an earthly citizenship (Rom 13:1-7). If we understand that the Israelite theocracy was fulfilled by Christ then we also understand that God has made no special covenant with any nation. The visible church is the Israel of God (Gal 6:16). The responsibility of the visible church is to be the principle representative of the kingdom of God (the heavenly kingdom) on the earth (Matt 16; Matt 18). Historically considered, the church as an institution has had very difficult time fulfilling the responsibilities given to her by our Lord: administration of Word, sacraments, and ecclesiastical discipline (Belgic Confession article 29).

Christians, however, as members of the common kingdom, under God’s sovereign rule, have civil responsibilities. They may form private associations (outside the visible church) to address social issues which are common to believers and non-believers. They may and should speak, as Christians, to social questions. Because we confess that, as Creator and Redeemer, Christ is Lord of all and because we seek to live out our faith daily in God’s good creation and active providence in the world, we cannot withdraw from it. The great error of “world flight” is that it denies the essential goodness of creation. The essential error of the theology of glory is that confuses heaven with earth. Confessional Protestants have a doctrine of vocation that calls the Christian to engage the God’s world to the benefit of his neighbor and the glory of God while always distinguishing this world from the world to come.

3.  Please identify for our readers two influential thinkers or political concepts to which you often respond (perhaps one positive, one negative)?

RSC: My politics have evolved considerably during my lifetime. I was raised a liberal (Humphrey) Democrat. I was catechized on the Sunday paper and local politics. When other children we in Sunday School I was putting up yard signs. In university I read political philosophy and the combination of Plato, Augustine, Calvin, and Hobbes led me to a sort of democratic socialism.  Herbert Schlossberg’s Idols for Destruction was helpful in alerting me to the theological errors (and cardinal sins) inherent in socialism. Plato (or neo-Platonism) is wrong. The Spirit-matter dualism is an error. It is not Paul’s (Holy) Spirit-flesh (sin) dualism. Jesus is true God and true man. It was Calvin’s doctrine of creation and natural law and the epistemological (common sense) realism of the Reformed orthodox that began to push me and my Augustinian view of sin in a more libertarian direction. Along the way I have been influenced, in different ways, by the early fathers (e.g., Ad Diognetum), Augustine,  Eric Voeglin, Hannah Arrendt, C. S. Lewis, W. F. Buckley, and Dorothy Sayers among others. From Reformed orthodoxy I learned the distinction between the covenants of works and grace. In theological terms, civil life, whether in local communities or in international relations,  is a covenant of works (“do this and live”) and not a covenant of grace. The administration of the covenant of grace (“for God so loved the world”) belongs to the visible church not to the magistrate.

4. How would you summarize the political responsibilities of the average American in the pew—that is, someone with voting rights, but little political capital, and little or no economic capital for political action?

RSC: In this world one either spends time or money (and sometimes both). Even when the latter is lacking there is a great deal that might be done on the local level and Christians are willing to get involved and spend the time. Political capital, like economic capital is accumulated over time. Local politics is about involvement and taking risks. American Christians (particularly evangelicals) must get over the microwave mentality. We need to think more in terms of camp fires and cook outs. It takes a long time to make a decent meal outdoors and it might all go wrong. It might not taste good but it’s necessary. If Christians involve themselves in the local school board or local council races or even on advisory committees these are inexpensive ways to become involved in local civil life.

If we substituted the camp fire for the microwave we might also be useful by becoming more critical of reigning cultural paradigms. For example, many American Christians are suburbanites. They make take the existence of suburbs for granted but should we? We are all creatures of a given time and place but being Christians gives us the opportunity to step outside our own time and place a bit and to see it more objectively, more critically. Christianity is not middle-class American suburbia nor is it neo-Romanticism about “the city.” God may be glorified in both places but he may also be glorified in rural settings. Where is the evangelical, missional passion for rural America? Re-engaging rural America will not happen quickly. It might take decades but there are opportunities all through the American Heartland for those who want to engage civil life on a micro-level with limited resources.

5.  How does Romans 13 help us understand the limits placed on the church and/or the individual believer in our engagement with political matters?

RSC: When I was in seminary I recall a fellow-student with theonomic inclinations dismissing Romans 13 as if it were insignificant. It seems to me that if one finds Romans 13 insufficient or insignificant for ones understanding of the Christian’s role in civil life then one is likely asking the wrong questions or beginning with the wrong assumptions. One should ask, “why do I find Romans 13 unsatisfactory?” Could it be that one is seeking outcomes or working with expectations that St Paul did not? Americans have invoked and abused Jesus’ teaching about   a “city shining on a hill” (Matt 5:14). The American colonies were not that city. Jesus is the light of the world and his Christians are the “light of the world” (Matt 5:14) by virtue of their union with him. It’s important to note, however, how Paul called us to be light in the world principally by living a “peaceful and quiet life” (1 Tim 2:2). That American Christians bristle at God’s calling Romans 13,  for submission to established authorities, says a great deal about the continuing influence of the revolutionary spirit. Paul clearly teaches at all authorities, even Nero, are instituted by God. This is why Calvin was so careful to stipulate that popular revolution is immoral, that it is the vocation of the “lesser magistrates” to hold civil rulers in check. Paul understood what he was saying. Christians suffered under Nero and they would suffer more grievously in centuries to come. I think the treatise Ad Diognetum (c. 155 AD possibly by Polycarp) is most a instructive application of Romans 13. His argument was that the Christians were false accused of being seditious. He responded (5:.1-11):

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life…For while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. The live in their own countries but only as nonresidents, they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted.

Would that the same could be said of us today.

6.  How do biblical books such as Deuteronomy and Proverbs help us to understand God’s perspective on politics?  Does the fact that they share political and ethical insights with other Ancient Near Eastern cultures (or that they offer critiques of those cultures and their political systems) influence your view of their relevance?

RSC: I think these are two distinct, if related, questions. The Westminster Divines (chapter 19) answered the first (regarding the contemporary application of Deuteronomy) by reminding us that there are three aspects to the Mosaic law: civil, ceremonial, and moral. The Decalogue (Deut 5) is a typological, Israelite, summary of the moral, creational law. It is permanent and it like the other two aspects of the Mosaic law (613 Mitzvoth) have been fulfilled by Christ. The divines, however, were at pains to point out that the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law have been fulfilled. What remains is the moral law, given in creation, that binds all people in all times. The “general equity” of the Mosaic civil law continues to be of use to us but we should understand, as your question suggests, that the Israelite civil law was not absolutely unique and thus though there are general principles to be discerned it is because those principles are grounded in creational (natural) justice which existed prior to Israel and which continue to bind civil magistrates two millennia after Christ fulfilled them. The principal function of the Pentateuch (Torah) generally is to point us to Christ. Only secondarily and indirectly does it provide guidance to contemporary civil life and even then only in general terms.

Proverbs is important for the civil life of the Christian because it was intended to serve as an introduction to wisdom, as a collection of maxims that, properly understood and skillfully applied, will result in benefit to the one who obeys them. Ultimately, of course, wisdom points to Christ, the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:18). Proximately, however, Christians as much as anyone need practical wisdom to live life “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:3). Inasmuch as evangelical political engagement has lacked a lot of wisdom for the last several decades one might say that we are much more in need of Proverbs (and perhaps Ecclesiastes and Job!) than we are Deuteronomy.

7.  Some political theologians note that Daniel simultaneously models service, critique, and a message of divine judgment.  Are all three of these to be implemented by believers?  Are they postures we should always exhibit, or are they more appropriate at some times than others?

RSC: Darryl Hart and David VanDrunen have both properly pointed us to Daniel as a good model for Christian social and political engagement. We are not in Canaan. We are in exile. Daniel did not seek to overturn the established social or civil order. He served God faithfully within it, within the limits established by God’s Word. This is how it has always been. When the magistrate called Daniel to transgress God’s law, Daniel refused and accepted the consequences. The paradox of Christian political influence is that it will most likely come not through the acquisition of power but by the quiet (and perhaps therefore conspicuous) adherence to God’s Word that transcends all political and civil authority.

8.  If a young church planter says to you, “In my social and cultural context, I need to avoid political topics.  This enables me to address the gospel without any baggage and has helped our church create a community of diverse perspectives centered on Christ and his work.  But am I doing the right thing?  Should I be bolder?”  How would you respond?  Which passages would you use as a resource for guiding his or her thinking?

RSC: Of course a church planter must be wise. He must know his setting, his limitations, but he  must also know and be faithful to the whole counsel of God. I doubt that any pastor is called to preach on “political” topics, depending upon how one defines political. Preaching Romans 13 or 1 Timothy 2 or 1 Peter 2:13-17 is not “political.” If it is true, as the Reformed have thought, that we live in two kingdoms simultaneously, then the preacher is called to proclaim the advent of God’s Kingdom in Christ (Mark 1:15), to call everyone everywhere to repentance and faith but he is also called to preach and teach God’s Word as it applies to our life as citizens of the creational kingdom, which we share with those who do not confess Christ. Christians want to know how they should conduct themselves at work, with the non-Christian co-workers, neighbors, and family and God’s Word speaks to those things. If the word “politics” refers to partisan politics, to calls to elect this candidate or to vote this way or that, then no preacher, let alone a church planter, should be speaking to those things that way from the pulpit. A minister is not called to be an emissary from the civil kingdom. There are plenty of those. He is called to serve as an ambassador from the Kingdom of God to this world and he is to announce the in-breaking of that kingdom, in Christ, in Word and sacrament, into this world.

9.  What is the best article or essay a young pastor could read on politics, political interpretation of Scripture, or political theology?  The best book?

RSC: Darryl Hart’s A Secular Faith and David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms are two excellent places to begin to think through these issues. Ken Myers’ Mars Hill Audio is indispensable for continuing to grow in this area.

– See more at: http://www.pastortheologians.com/saet-interviews-in-politics-and-theology-10-r-scott-clark/11/#sthash.pAdzZErY.dpuf