Saturday, September 15, 2012

Does Christianity Need to “Reclaim” Liberalism?

Episcopal priest, John Liebler seems to think so. In article in the Christian Post, Rev. Liebler talks about how his seminary training, deeply entrenched in liberal philosophy, resulted in a personal crisis of faith. However, thanks to a mentor, and a few good books, Rev. Liebler has recovered from his crisis, and today, he continues to serve in the pastorate. However, Liebler believes that Christianity needs to reclaim liberalism and his basis for thinking so is because Scripture teaches it. At a minimum, I applaud Liebler’s basic reason for his argument even if I reject his premise. According to Liberalism, oppression is wicked and needs to go. Human beings are the measure of all things and are autonomous creatures capable of determining their own course. This thinking, when mixed with Christianity attempts to use Scripture, where convenient, to condemn behaviors it finds distasteful. Liebler says that biblical liberalism is different. It is not autonomous. Biblical liberalism confesses and submits to the absolute authority of Scripture. This is a good thing. However, does social reform accomplish the mission of the goal? Is social reform included in the mission of the church? It is true that the church has accomplished temporal good when she engages in social causes and this is undeniable. I would never argue that the church cannot accomplish “good” when taking up social causes. I would argue that we are asking the wrong question which is itself, based on an assumption we have not proven.

William Wilberforce, by all accounts, a godly man, spent his life and energy extinguishing slavery in England. No one can argue that this was not a good, decent, and moral thing. Many people benefited from Wilberforce’s work, not the least of which was the English themselves. To understand how liberalism works in Christianity, we have put on our liberal thinking hats. Slavery is oppressive and immoral. Christianity is opposed to immorality. Where she can, the church should end immorality and help the helpless. Therefore, a Christian must engage in the rally to end slavery! In essence, not to do so would be immoral itself. This is how liberalism eventually takes hold of Christianity and utterly consumes her.

Another issue of liberalism is caring for the poor. Liebler implies that conservatism ignores certain biblical mandates regarding the poor. Regrettably, in some cases, he is right. Some conservatives are about as sympathetic to the poor as they are to mass murderers. Liberalism implies that we can eliminate the poor if everyone just did their part. In Christianity, the action is personal. The Christian does good to the poor as they have opportunity. In liberalism, that isn’t good enough. The goal is not to simply do good when the occasion arises. The goal is to eradicate the poor state so that it no longer exists. Scripture provides specific guidance for believers regarding the poor or those with worldly need. In the Hebrew text, the Jews were instructed to leave a portion of their crop up after harvest for the orphans and the widows. Throughout Scripture, the poor are mostly orphans and widows without families. They have no means by which to eat. The situation was remarkably different from what we see in most developed countries. Would eradication of the poor state be a good thing? I cannot think of a reason why it would not. Since it is a bad state for people to be in, Christians should get involved and help the helpless. Therefore, Christians should engage in the goal of eliminating poverty, or so goes the argument from Christian liberalism.

Human trafficking is an scourge that has been in existence now for hundreds and thousands of years. Trafficking women and children for the purpose of sex and salve labor continues to this day. These people are helpless victims trapped in a life where they are at the mercy of the merciless. What is the church doing to put a stop to this vile and immoral practice? In reality, she does very little. Every day a real human being with hope for the future becomes the victim of trafficking and their lives are radically altered forever. Since this is a grievous and immoral practice, the church ought to be engaged to put an end to it since the church’s duty is to transform the culture and end immorality and injustice wherever and whenever it can.

There are other social concerns that I have not covered. Take abortion for example. This is outright murder. A mother is murdering the person who depends on her most for his or her survival. In most cases, out of sheer convenience, mom murders her baby. Another issue is gay marriage. Is it oppressive to reject it or to accept it? What should the church be doing? Where does the imperative derive? What or who is the authority?

William Wilberforce put an end to slavery in England, and he did so by basing his morality on the Christian ethic. Suppose we eradicate poverty. Pretend we end abortion. Let’s say that because of the work of the church, not a single human being is ever trafficked again. What if homosexuality became a thing of the past? Would it be okay to stop there? The basis for ending these behaviors is the divine ethic. We should work to stop everything that Scripture condemns. After we address these “big stones,” I suppose we can move on to the smaller ones, like false religions, or lying, or adultery, or fornication. Fill in the blank. The question is not should the church work to end immorality? The question is “how” should the church work to influence social change?

Look at England today. She has long ago abandoned the Christ. Wilberforce’s good work remains long after his passing. However, is England a country whose heart seeks her God? Rather, England is a country who thinks of herself much like her own god. Wilberforce had a choice to preach the gospel or to enter politics. He chose the latter. And indeed, he accomplished some remarkable things. Still, I cannot help but wonder what he would have accomplished had he made a different decision.

How does the church influence the culture? How do social norms change as a result of the existence of the church? The only change that matters is eternal change. Suppose we take a murderer out of prison and send him off to seminary. Suppose he acquires all the skill necessary to become a polished and refined preacher. Suppose he even preaches truth most of the time. He looks the part, he plays the part, and he even speaks the part. But suppose this man has had no heart change as so many men in ministry have not. What have we accomplished? The man will die and he will perish in his sin the same as he would have even if he had died in prison.

Social ills are the direct result of sin and of judgment. Two things produce this less than desirable state we live in. Sin and God’s judgment. There are many instances where I cannot say which is which. But I do know it is one or the other.

What is the mission of the church? Is the church called to be concerned with social reform? If she is, she should stop at nothing to bring it about. She should spend all her energy, time, resources, and money on bring about the kind of social reform that God would want. However, I do not believe the church’s concern is social reform. I believe the church’s concern is Christ. I believe the church’s concern is preaching the gospel and making disciples. Jesus ordered his disciples to go along the way, making disciples, students, radical followers as they went. Go, preach, make disciples. That is the divine imperative for the leaders in the Christian group. The should not look like a political action group bringing about pressure on Washington to implement its policies and look after the interest of its membership. Nowhere does Scripture inform believers to force the values of Christianity on the unbelieving culture through political and legal reform. Sometimes I get the sense that if it is offensive to Christianity, then it should be illegal. We play the hypocrite when we demand that gay marriage be outlawed but don’t do the same for unbiblical divorces. Is it right for the church to insist that unbelievers adhere to Christian ethics? Of course, they are better off if they do. That is not the argument. It is also not the point. The point is that Scripture does not issue these mandates. Scripture plainly and clearly tell us that the Christian group is to make disciples and preach the gospel. She is to keep the unbeliever from her ranks by purging and discipline when called for. She is to live by a set of values that are distinct from those in her culture and by so doing, she becomes a light in a very dark place. That is the mission, purpose, and goal of the church according to Jesus, according to Scripture.



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