I often wonder if a growing number of dedicated and well-taught Christians began to live a love-directed life with their neighbors what would happen to the churches of our land? America just may not see another great awakening. (I’ve been around revival movements for four decades-plus and I have to say we seem further from anything like true revival than ever.) Let’s face it, this republic may collapse much as ancient Rome did. But what would the City of God look like in the midst of such a major historical change? That is the question that ought to stir us as Christians, just as it did the famous Augustine of Hippo when he wrote about it in his time.
Having read Ross Douthat’s book, Bad Religion, and having commented on it here for several weeks now, I conclude today with his three positive prescriptions for what we can and should do to renew orthodox Christian faith and practice in America’s churches.
1. A renewed Christianity should be political but non-partisan.
This means that we should avoid the nationalist tendencies of Americanism that I wrote about yesterday. We should also resist the temptations that lead us to fall prey to quietism or indifferentism. There is no single model for Christian politics, no single party and, most certainly, no single person to lead us into the uncertain future. This means that principle must triumph over party and that no party should gain our devoted allegiance. We are Christians first. Everything else must be a distant second. Have we forgotten this simple truth, which was so central to the survival and ultimate triumph of Christianity in the past?
The approach Douthat suggests begins with heeding Jesus’ counsel to “remove the log from our own eye; and then you can see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Christians can disagree about economic policies, social programs and the ways our government seeks to solve urgent problems. (The Supreme Court’s decision on Health Care announced yesterday comes to mind today!) The libertarian and conservative must be on guard against those places where their often rigid individualism leads them to idolatry. They are legion and they are closely linked with the rise of the modern Christian right. Liberal Christians must be on guard against the ways that they promote solutions within a statist and growing government that can become inhumane and then give us gigantic power that could well be used for immoral ends. To quote Douthat, “
The problem is that we honestly have very few examples of what Douthat appeals to in these three corrective steps. He cites examples from our past, from leaders like the late evangelical Baptist Mark Hatfield, who was an ardent anti-war Republican and an outspoken environmentalist. On the Democratic side he cites the Catholic legislator Sargent Shriver, a strongly pro-life, Catholic Democrat. (He names a few contemporary pro-life Democrats but shows how their stance has often been muted by party powers and concerns.) The fact is obvious–we have very few such leaders today. It is to our great loss as a people. Serious attempts to find a middle way that allows for dissent and yet seeks to find consensus for governance is all too rare right now.
2. A renewed Christianity should be ecumenical and confessional.
I write about this subject more than any single topic of interest to me personally. This is why this blog is sub-titled: “The Reflections of a Missional-Ecumenist.” It is, as my friends well know, the specific burden of my life. Douthat rightly says that robust ecumenism cannot become a watered-down version of weak faith with no conviction and complete agreement. We can, indeed we must, have robust disagreements while we seek for new forms of Christian unity. C. S. Lewis, the man who coined the phrase “mere Christianity,” warned against allowing the word “mere” to become an alternative to the creeds of existing churches. We can do no less if we have a robust missional-ecumenism.
I am still amazed that people who hear me talk about my grand vision of a renewed Christianity rooted in unity and confessional orthodoxy cannot grasp what I mean. It is really not that complex an idea. Yet people react to my appeals for unity in various negative ways. They especially dislike the word ecumenism! I shall continue to answer their questions. I hope I will do so with patience and love. I will also explain my understanding as simply as I can. I am refreshed by the fact that Ross Douthat believes this vision is central to the future of Christianity in America.
3. A renewed Christianity should be both moralistic and holistic.
“No aspect of Christian faith is less appealing to contemporary sensibilities than the faith’s long list of ‘thou shalt nots,’ and no prohibition attracts more exasperation and contempt than the Christian view of chastity and sex” (Bad Religion, 288). But continued efforts to downplay the moral demands of Christian faith have re-contextualized Christian faith and practice beyond anything remotely like historic and confessional Christianity. “The Christian view of sexuality is more essential to the faith as a whole than many modern believers want to acknowledge. Like most Christian dogmas, from the identity of Christ to the doctrine of the Trinity, it doesn’t just rest on a literal reading of a few passages of Scripture, which can easily be revised or reinterpreted” (Bad Religion, 288).
The church’s stance on sexuality should be rooted in ancient and modern ideas both. Douthat accurately writes that this orthodox stance is, “the fruit of centuries’ worth of meditation and argument on the whole of the biblical narrative, from the creation of Adam and Eve to Jesus’ prohibition on divorce” (Bad Religion, 288). Yes, and we have changed this teaching rather radically, almost always (it seems to me) to our moral demise. This present debate did not begin in the last decade. Let those with eyes to see, truly see.
Yet so many of us who emphasize the sexual morality of the Bible, which has become an all too-easily politicized moral issue, can easily forget that there are seven deadly sins, not just one! What have we to say about avarice, gluttony and pride? The hypocrisy of our moral stance is so striking that multitudes of young Christians are now rethinking the entirety of our historic stance. If we continue down this path the Christian answer to questions of sexual morality will rightly be seem as “partial and hypocritical” when it turns its attention to the specific issue of homosexuality. It is, as Douthat reminds us, “the heterosexual divorce rate, the heterosexual retreat from marriage and the heterosexual out-of-wedlock birthrate that should command the most attention from Christian moralists” (Bad Religion, 289, italics are his not mine).
Ross Douthat concludes that religion and culture cannot live by instrumentality alone! “It is not enough for Americans to respect orthodox Christianity a bit more than they do at the present” (Bad Religion, 293). To make any real difference we must understand the faith and live it. Christian faith is not a means to an end (think instrumentality again), even the end of a great national revival. Douthat concludes, “It is an end unto itself.” If we would change America then we must begin by changing ourselves first. Then, and only then, can we intentionally labor to change our churches. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” There’s the place to begin again.
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Begin again, yes! I find, however, that the modern era is not so challenging, IF I let go of pride and nostalgic wish-dreams. I see no need to embrace the modern era or compromise with it. I see only the need to stand firm on the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ, who has fully equipped us for amazing life in this incredible generation. God never intended for His citizens to weave a thick moral fabric to keep the world out; never equipped His children to build 4 walls and live within them. He did open the way for each believer to be clothed with grace and live in the world, but not of it.
We will see some of the most astounding revivals of Christianity in this generation.
Getting to know my neighbors, listening to them, learning from them, loviing them where they are, throwing block parties, noticing when they need to borrow some wasp spray, etc., has gone a long way in building trust and openness in my neighborhood. This is a very simple thing to do, developing relationships with those who weedeat on your culdesac each Saturday morning, but it does move one’s Christian influence in a more significant direction than does only knowing those who sing on your pew each Sunday.
Brian, I concur with your comments except for the final sentence. We have no way of knowing if we will see “astounding revivals . . . in this generation.” There is a mystery about where God works and when. It is not for us to predict, or even suggest I think, what “will” happen but ours to obey and live well in his grace. I like your optimism but the truth is we just do not know what will happen other than that Christ will be the victor because he IS the victor!
I agree John. The reason I say we will see astounding revivals is because it is already happening. The revival here in Detroit is just beginning, and will look nothing like we’ve seen before, but it’s beginning. From my discussions, I find that what’s going on here in Detroit may not be happening elsewhere, which intrigues me greatly.
My point is to suggest that we leave to the historians to decide when a revival took place. In the middle of a movement we should be very cautious and circumspect about our claims. The tendency, when I am in something that I believe to be God’s working in grace, is to begin to speak about it as a great new thing. I’ve done it and I have ceased to do it with age and, I hope, some wisdom. I always get nervous, therefore, about our talk of God’s moving. We can calmly say, “It appears” or “It seems” but we just need to do out duty in his love and wait for his time and grace to reveal itself. I am referring to movements here, not the sense that we have of his peace and movement in our personal lives.
I’m always cautious about adding my “Amen” to what others claim to see as an evidence of revival. Neither do I discount it unless it is full of doctrinal chaos concerning the person and work of Christ and the importance of the church. “But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God” – Acts 5:39
Good advice John. I need to stop writing my own history and listen to Proverbs more! Still as an eternal pessimist I’m not sure how much more of Douthat’s writing I can take!
Good insight into yourself Brian. Pessimism and optimism are emotional states and outlooks, some of us are more one than the other and some share a little of both. The Christian is filled with HOPE, which is something very different. It is rooted in God’s grace and promises.
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“If we would change America then we must begin by changing ourselves first. Then, and only then, can we intentionally labor to change our churches.” This is true. Revival begins in ourselves. Changing America is in God’s hand.
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How Christian must come before Republican or Democrat in how we live as Americans.
Great series of reflections, John. Thanks.
It’s so true that we Christians like to pick on “particular sins.” I’ve often commented why Christians seem to be revolted and disgusted by homosexual sins, but seemingly not as much toward heterosexual sins and heterosexual immorality, which is far, far more prevalent.
Being a “missional” Christian, I remember that I’d often feel self-righteous toward “nominal” Christians, not realizing that I should be just as disgusted by my own self-righteousness.