The Problem of Righteousness (8)

Eph+2+8-9The Reformed Christian Solution

This blog series has attempted to explore the proper place of righteousness in our Christian lives and the secular culture.  Central to this discussion is how our motives impact the outward manifestation of righteousness. Is our intent to place ourselves above someone else? Or, do we seek to advance healing and wholeness in this fallen world? Do we usurp God’s role as the only true judge, or, do we testify to His redeeming love through the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

We touched on other important issues including the purpose and use of Biblical standards of righteousness, calibration of our responses to the people and situations that call for judgement and the unavoidable conflicts that will occur as we live out our faith.

Not surprisingly my mind turns to the central theological doctrine of justification through faith alone as the lens through which to understand Christian righteousness. I’ve become convinced that this doctrine’s diminution is central to much that vexes the modern church. This is particularly relevant to the misunderstanding of righteousness that can lead to a judgmental Christianity. Following are some brief thoughts as to why.

To begin, just what is this doctrine? Though there are many statements from which to choose, I’ll go with John Calvin’s (emphasis added).

Scripture, when it treats of justification by faith, leads us in a very different direction. Turning away our view from our own works, it bids us look only to the mercy of God and the perfection of Christ. … when, by the intercession of Christ, he [the fallen human] obtains the pardon of his sins, and is justified; and, though renewed by the Spirit of God, considers that, instead of leaning on his own works, he must look solely to the righteousness which is treasured up for him in Christ.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (3.11.16)

The most powerful contemporary doctrine of justification in the modern Western church is often called “Semi-Pelagianism” (another related term is “Arminianism”). R.C. Sproul explains this doctrine as follows in “The Pelagian Captivity of the Church” (yes, this is a repeat, but it’s essential to this discussion, emphasis added).

sproul

R. C. Sproul

Semi-Pelagianism said this: … While we are so fallen that we can’t be saved without grace, we are not so fallen that we don’t have the ability to accept or reject the grace when it’s offered to us. … There remains in the core of our being an island of righteousness that remains untouched by the fall. It’s out of that little island of righteousness, that little parcel of goodness that is still intact in the soul or in the will that is the determinative difference between heaven and hell. It’s that little island that must be exercised when God does his thousand steps of reaching out to us, but in the final analysis it’s that one step that we take that determines whether we go to heaven or hell — whether we exercise that little righteousness that is in the core of our being or whether we don’t.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I joyfully accept justification by faith alone and reject Semi-Pelagianism / Arminianism. There’s so much that could be said, but I’ll focus on some implications for self-righteous Christianity.

If we believe that our salvation depends on having, or not, that sufficient “island of righteousness” on which all depends, then it becomes a matter of the utmost importance to find it within ourselves. The tragic truth is that we most often seek to prove its existence by comparison with others. This makes sense, since the island’s presence should manifest itself in our visible actions, and, the larger is this island the more likely that it can be found to be sufficient for our salvation. So, off we go, quietly or openly comparing ourselves to others. If we can find someone “worse” than ourselves then we feel a bit more confident. However, if we find someone else “better” we begin to wonder if our island is indeed sufficient. We also often begin to examine this “better” person with great interest, looking for faults and failings that might “bring them down a notch.”

This dynamic leads to destructive competition between Christians, a sense of superiority over non-Christians and a narcissistic focus on ourselves. It also leads to habitual acts of petty, self-serving judgement, as we seek prove righteousness in ourselves and its lack in others.

However, justification by grace alone frees us from all this. Our focus shifts from morbid scrutiny of ourselves and others to the wondrous love of God. By trusting fully in God’s grace, we find in ourselves the desire to obey and serve Him. We also can live in confidence that God’s sovereign grace to us cannot be thwarted or removed.

luther-grace-alone

Martin Luther

It’s a terrible blow to our pride to confess that no “island of righteousness” exists in ourself. However, in my experience, justification by faith alone is both joyful and freeing. I am no longer bound to others through competition, but rather can hope for God’s grace to all. When I fail and falter, I need not fear for my eternal fate, but can trust that God will complete His good work in me.

Finally, I’m well aware that the above comments may cause discomfort to my brothers and sisters in Christ who hold Semi-Pelagian / Arminian views. My expectation is not that you must agree with my point of view. Rather, I simply ask that you read, consider, pray and contemplate. You must judge for yourself if this is an accurate statement of Scripture’s teaching. If you disagree, then let’s continue the discussion in good will and trust.

For, I stand squarely with Charles Spurgeon:

I believe there are multitudes of men who cannot see these truths, or, at least, cannot see them in the way in which we put them, who nevertheless have received Christ as their Saviour, and are as dear to the heart of the God of grace as the soundest Calvinist in or out of Heaven.

This is the understanding of righteousness that, if reclaimed by the Church and compellingly communicated to our society, can free us from self-righteousness that is driving our nation towards dissolution.

Amen.

A New Reformation (4)

New-Reformation-ComponentsSeven Components of a New Reformation (Part 3)

This post completes the summaries.

7. Transformed church governance

It appears that every form of church governance, from highly hierarchical (e.g., Catholic) to highly democratic (e.g., Congregational) and everything in-between has been corrupted by secular ideology.  Nor does it seem likely that any established denomination will agree to change their existing form of governance.

Obviously I’m in no position to comment on denominations beyond the PCUSA.  However, significant light can be shed by this experience to suggest some general conclusions.

The fundamental point about the demise of the PCUSA is that it was an act of “murder” as opposed to “suicide.”  By these (shocking I expect) metaphors I mean that the rank and file members resisted the apostasy of the leadership for decades.  In fact, it appears that it was only by subversion of the governance process that the leadership was able to gain the upper hand.  The “fingerprint” of this betrayal can be seen in the following figure.

Church-Membership-Loss

The 2006 Subversion

Note that from 1999 through 2006 the number of churches “dismissed” (i.e., exited the denomination) was negligible. Over this same time period we see a general increase in the number of members lost. However, in 2008 the number of dismissed churches and lost members became significantly worse than the general trend would lead one to expect.  Did anything happen in the PCUSA to cause this or was it simply random variation?  It was the former.

Here is the report of a pastor on the 2006 General Assembly that tells the tale (emphasis added).

A number of years ago our denomination’s constitution was amended to limit ordination to those who are faithful in marriage, which is between one man and one woman, or chaste in singleness. This wording was approved by a majority of the regional bodies, and re-approved twice by larger majorities each time. At the time it was added it was not a new limitation, but made explicit an understanding that had historically been practiced within the denomination (and for that matter in nearly all Christian denominations).

What made the PUP Report unconscionable was that it amends the denominational constitution by an unconstitutional process. It by-passed the regional bodies whose approval is required by the constitution itself. It is as though the U. S. Constitution were to be amended by a simple majority vote of Congress, by-passing the states. Advocates of the ordination of ineligible people, unable to change the constitution, proposed to “interpret” it by altering the meaning of the phrase “shall not” so that it from now on it means “may.” A prohibition was changed by interpretation into permission, because the advocates of change could not muster the votes to pass an amendment.

If you think that this description is a partisan distortion, note that it was confirmed by a national news source.

Like other mainline Protestant groups, Presbyterians have been debating for decades how they should interpret Scripture on salvation, truth, sexuality and other issues.

But tensions erupted after a June 2006 meeting, when delegates granted new leeway in some cases for congregations and regional presbyteries to sidestep a church requirement that clergy and lay officers limit sex to man-woman marriage.

Note that this subversion of church governance occurred after the “wording [on sexual requirements for leadership] was approved by a majority of the regional bodies, and re-approved twice by larger majorities each time.”  The conclusion is unavoidable, that being the elite leadership chose to use corrupt means to get their way in direct contradiction of the denomination’s clear and legitimate will.

Illegitimate Victory

The loss of membership that followed the 2006 coup eventually allowed the Progressives to gain the upper hand.  Here’s how I have previously described this process.

But because they had jettisoned the Bible and Confessions, other means of achieving their ends had to be found.  Those means were abuse of the PCUSA’s rules, turning their democratic assumptions into cudgels by which to beat any opposition into submission.  This was accomplished by making life miserable for any majority that opposed their radical ends, and eventually, to drive them out of the church.

The result has been a PCUSA transformed from a Christian denomination to something completely foreign.

The elite Progressive strategic goal was always to deceive, discredit, demoralize and ultimately destroy any and all opposition from orthodox-minded Christians.

In this cruel goal they have succeeded.  Now they undisputedly control the PCUSA.  To accomplish this end they have made it into a theological laughing stock and a pathetic little appendage to the secular Progressive political machine.  And, having illegitimately achieved this position they now demand that those of us in opposition shut up or leave.

Lessons Learned

What lessons in church governance can we take from the appalling experience?  I suggest the following as a starting point for reform, once again with a focus on the PCUSA.

  1. A semi-permeant denominational bureaucracy, centered in our Presbyteries and General Assembly, was allowed to grow too powerful over the past fifty years or so.  They became the core, unstoppable force that sustained unwanted movements over the decades of theological/political warfare necessary to grind down opposition.  This class of nomenklatura has virtually no allegiance to Christianity as a lived faith and total allegiance to the diktats  of secular Progressive ideology.  Therefore, any reformed form of denominational governance must dissolve this power base and prevent its regrowth.
  2. As much as I love our historic (i.e., pre-1968) Confessions it must be admitted that they have proved ineffective as defensible boundaries for orthodox theology.  One obvious issue is their age, thus rendering their language almost incomprehensible to contemporary minds.  But a second major issue is their scope, comprehensiveness and number.  That is, they are so all-encompassing and complex, so many in number, that the core doctrines of Christianity become difficult to discern.  Thus, though they must not be lost, we need a simpler, clearer definition of orthodox Christian doctrine upon which to build a reformed church.
  3. Financial accountability must be reestablished between our governing and educational institutions and the laity.  Therefore, financial support must move from the current “Per-Capita” involuntary tax to a voluntary system of local church support.  By this means our institutions would have to “earn their keep” by demonstrating their effectiveness and efficiency.

Clearly the above ideas are short on implementation detail.  However, unless we identify the top-level goals of reformed governance the whole process can be easily derailed.

A New Reformation (3)

New-Reformation-ComponentsSeven Components of a New Reformation (Part 2)

This post continues the summaries began in the previous post.

4. Separation of theology and ideology

Over the past sixty years Christian theology has been fragmented into many ideology-driven paths.  For example we have feminist, liberation, queer, environmental, black, social gospel, pacifist, postmodern and many more.  These theologies explicitly embrace a human-derived ideology as their foundational organizing principle.

However, the invasion of ideology into Christian theology is far broader and deeper.  For, when we investigate the work of Mainline Protestant denominations we find an almost perfect correlation in time and focus area between theological output and secular Progressive ideology.  In fact it’s worse than that, because it is clearly secular Progressivism that sets the agenda for supposedly Christian denominational leaders.

This corruption of theology by human ideology has deeply undermined the credibility of Christianity, both for those inside and outside of the church.  Although there will always be different theologies, we must find our way back to arguing about what the Bible teaches rather than how to align theology with human ideological movements.

5. Social and cultural engagement

Some Christians have proposed social and cultural isolation as the model, the most prominent example being The Benedict Option.  While I too long for an ark into which to flee, the growth of the state in scope and power makes such a move impractical.  Yes, the secular barbarians may continue to leave the Amish alone.  But they will surely continue their assault on religious freedom with unabated vigor against the rest of the Church.

Our best hope is to reengage with the culture as unapologetic Christians.  We should not try to create our own ghettoized sub-culture, but rather invade the institutions of entertainment, ideas, information and education.  Yes, we will be hated and powerfully resisted.  However, we must hold fast to the promise that God has made through the Gospel.  I believe that throughout our institutions of cultural power there are people whose lives are empty of true hope and meaning.  With God’s providential power as our source of confidence we can unashamedly make our case for Christ in the most hostile of domains.  Even if we should fail in the near term, who can say what God will do in the long term with the fruits of this Christian cultural labor?

Through the Gospel we can offer true hope and renewal to a broken, darkened world.  Let’s go forth with that faith, hope and love as our shield and sword.

6. Christ centered ecumenicalism

There will always be theological and denominational differences among Christians.  However, if we can’t unite around a core set of beliefs we will continued to be divided and conquered by the secular world.  We will also continue to be undermined internally by false teachers who leverage the unavoidable fact of doctrinal disagreement into “anything goes” theologies that deny and contradict Christ’s Gospel.

Perhaps it is the two “ecumenical creeds,” those being the Apostles and Nicene around which we can attempt such a unification.  These creeds are already accepted by most denominations (I apologize to my Catholic and Orthodox friends for this generalized term).  The point here isn’t to limit Christianity to its lowest common denominator, but rather to agree on a common set of essential beliefs that sit at Christianity’s core.  By so doing we can find common ground upon which to fight back against the forces of secular tyranny and religious heresy that seeks to destroy Christianity.

A New Reformation (2)

New-Reformation-ComponentsSeven Components of a New Reformation (Part 1)

Were a “New Reformation” to occur, what would it seek to reform in Christianity?  Over the past four years I’ve explored in depth what appears to have gone wrong.  I could go on documenting the nature and causes of our crisis, but at some point a critic must turn to solutions.  In any case, I believe that enough has been disclosed, analyzed and discussed to enable a first cut at possible solutions.

In the figure heading this post I have listed the seven components that could guide the directions of a New Reformation.  They are only one man’s opinion.  I have surely left out important components.  Others may be found to be unnecessary or even counterproductive.  However, the point isn’t to get it absolutely right, but rather to get Christians thinking about the reforms necessary to address our current predicament.

I will provide short summaries to get the ball rolling.

1. Unity in Christ alone

The core issue that is driving our societal crisis is identity politics.  We have been shattered into warring factions along the lines of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, age, geography and culture by a political movement that benefits from the ensuing chaos.  The Church is internally roiled by this same dynamic.

Christianity offers the one alternative that unites believers — identity in Jesus Christ.  In Christ we all meet as sinners in need of His redemption.  In Christ we can be united by humility and thankfulness.  The newly reformed Church must openly and effectively offer this alternative in identity to our broken world.

2. Return to Biblical authority and theological orthodoxy

We have come to the point in the Mainline denominations at which our most highly credentialed theologians tell us that the Bible teaches things that are quite different than what the text actually says.  Nor do they stop at mere interpretive distortion, but boldly proceed on to atheism, heresy and apostasy.  In virtually all cases the motive appears to be the alignment of Biblical teaching with a secular Progressive political policy.

This situation has arisen in part due to an abuse of trust by our academics, clergy and theologians.  However, these abuses have become so common and obvious that we in the laity must accept responsibility for silently accepting what we know is false teaching.

There will never be total agreement on Biblical interpretation or theological doctrine.  However, unless a means can be found to more clearly delineate the boundary between credible and false Biblical interpretation / theology we will never extricate ourselves from the current chaotic, destructive environment.

3. Gospel focused preaching, education and evangelism

If we decide to place our identity within Christ then we must recommit ourselves to following Him.  Therefore, we must at the very least agree on what is at the core of His Gospel.  This by no means should restrict the work of understanding and applying the Gospel to our lives.  However, if we can’t even agree on what Christ’s Gospel is at its core then we will be condemned to unending chaos.

So, when I say “Gospel focused” I don’t mean to limit the scope of “preaching, education and evangelism” to the endless repetition of a rote statement.  I do hope that by agreeing on just what the core of Christ’s Gospel is we can more confidently and faithfully live out our calling as Christians.

A New Reformation (1)

New-Reformation-GlassWhy We Need One

The Original Reformation

Before I address a new Reformation, a summary of the religious and social context for the original Reformation is necessary.  Here is the Encyclopedia Britannica’s.

The world of the late medieval Roman Catholic Church from which the 16th-century reformers emerged was a complex one. Over the centuries the church, particularly in the office of the papacy, had become deeply involved in the political life of western Europe. The resulting intrigues and political manipulations, combined with the church’s increasing power and wealth, contributed to the bankrupting of the church as a spiritual force. Abuses such as the sale of indulgences (or spiritual privileges) by the clergy and other charges of corruption undermined the church’s spiritual authority.

The Current Church Crisis

When I survey the political-spiritual situation in the Western Church today similarities with the 16th century Reformation are obvious.  Although the current Church has nowhere near the practical political power as did the medieval Roman Catholic, its subservience to secular political power is undeniable.  Anyone who has been following this blog will have been exposed to many examples within context of the PCUSA.  However, were I a member of the Episodical, Congregational, Methodist, or Evangelical Lutheran Church (among other Mainline denominations) the evidence for secular politics’ dominance would be of similar weight.

In the age of Trump we see the more conservative Evangelical churches embracing a man who just a decade ago would almost certainly have been rejected.  While I make no defense of President Trump’s morals, it takes a mountain of chutzpah for progressive Christians to criticize the politicization of Christianity by Evangelical leaders.  Some progressive Christians, upon seeing their strategy turned back on themselves, are beginning to recognize the danger of a Christianity captured by human ideology.  However, their voices are drowned out in the maelstrom of SJW Tweets and mob action.

This crisis is certainly not limited to the Protestant churches.  The positions of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on health care, poverty programs, human conflict, environmental policy and immigration are almost as inseparable from secular progressive cant as are those of the Mainline denominations.  However, they remain at odds with progressivism on abortion and religious freedom.  Thus the political situation is less certain.

However, it is in the area of sexual morality that the Catholic Church is experiencing an existential crisis.  As state Attorney Generals have become more aggressive in pursuing sexually deviant Catholic clergy it has become undeniable that there has been a longstanding, wide and deep coverup of pederasty.  This scandal directly involves Catholic leaders at the top of the hierarchy.  Potentially even Pope Francis has been credibly implicated in the protection of criminal clergy to advance the coverup.  Unless the Catholic Church fundamentally reforms we could be heading for a crisis on the order of the Protestant Reformation.

At the core of all these developments is a loss of spiritual authority that can be traced back to a substitution of human ideology for religious faith.  It appears that at some time in the last century many in the Christian clergy and laity concluded that, in effect, “God is indeed dead.”  However, they also realized that the institutional church yet wielded great moral power that could be put to “good” use.  When they looked around for a new moral compass they settled on secular progressive ideology.  This development is well summarized in An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America by Joseph Bottum.

Formed in the victory of civil rights activism, a new version of the social gospel movement became the default theology of church bureaucrats in the Mainline.  The churches “increasingly turned their attention to the drafting of social statements on a variety of contemporary problems,” as the religious historian Peter J. Thuesen has noted, and their statements “revealed a shared opinion among Mainline executives that the churches’ primary public role was social advocacy.”

As has been noted the Catholic Church is far down this path as well.  One can only guess as to where the more conservative Protestant churches are heading, though the polar opposite of the progressive denominations seems to be most likely.

As I recently wrote:

However, regardless of if we find ourselves in the Mainline Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox or Nondenominational branches we must seriously consider if our Christian testimony has been so corrupted by the poison of secular cults that it has been fundamentally compromised. My thought is that something akin to a new Reformation will be required for the Church to rise to this challenge. But, not my will be done, rather His.

I believe that only something on the order of a New Reformation has the power to extract the Western Christian Church from its current crisis.  Too many denominations and leaders have been corrupted by secular political power for anything less to do.

This isn’t a new idea.  But if my prayer can add to those of others seeking God’s intervention then let me not remain silent.