Sunday, November 18, 2012

Incoherence of Political Activism in Evangelical Thought: Answering Steve Hays Pt. II


Steve Hays writes, “Of course, I never said the only effective method of opposing “something” is political activism. Rather we were dealing with the specific case of public school indoctrination. And I said that “if you reject Christian political activism, then you have no effective means of opposing the secular education establishment.”

This represents the crux of Steve’s argument. It is firmly utilitarian, firmly pragmatic, and in my opinion, it fails to focus on loving the right behavior for the right reason. Moreover, there is no sound exegetical support for Steve’s argument. In rebuttal after rebuttal, rather than appeal to specific Scriptures rightly interpreted, Steve has been very dismissive about my charge.

Christians preaching the gospel out of love for obeying God, not because they think they can change the world. They know that if the world is going to change, that is the business of God. Their hope is that all men would come to Christ, not that their culture would be morally good.

Pay attention to Steve’s use of the phrase “no effective means.” Apparently, Steve thinks that Christians cannot effectively oppose secular philosophies in the universities unless they are politically active. In other words, indoctrinating your children in the truth of God’s word is an ineffective way to counter the effects of the secular university. Selecting a godly Church where the creeds are soundly biblical, the sermons expositional, the music Christ-centered, and the youth program seriously aimed at firming up the faith of the young is ineffective apparently by Steve’s way of thinking.

Steve criticizes my position that one can oppose the secular university with its godless philosophies by publicly condemning them and speaking out against them. We can oppose them by arming our children with the truth and with good critical thinking skills. We can oppose them by preaching the gospel and carrying on with the mission of the Church.

Steve says, So what, if anything, does he propose to do about it? To merely “speak out” against public school indoctrination is not an “effective” means of opposing it. To merely be “against” something is not an “effective” means of opposing it. Rather, Ed’s alternative is an ineffectual means of opposing it. It doesn’t change anything.

Steve further exposes his pragmatism by asserting that my action “doesn’t change anything.” Would Steve argue that preaching the gospel is ineffectual and hence it should be abandoned in cases where it produces few to no converts? Moreover, where is Steve’s exegetical evidence supporting his view? If I understand Steve correctly, he is asserting that Christians have a duty, a divine mandate to be politically active. This makes it a sin for Christians to be otherwise. Indeed, this is a serious accusation. Christians must take absolute care anytime their view leads them to this sort of behavior. If I accuse someone of sin when they in fact are not sinning, I have sinned. I would hope Steve would ease up a bit where it involves introducing the idea that we sin when we are not doing what he thinks we should do in the political arena.

Steve thinks political activism is about “advancing or defending public policies which respect the right of Christians to discharge their divinely-mandated duties to God and to their fellow man. And it’s also about advancing or defending social policies which promote the common good.”

In other words, if we aren’t politically active, we will face an environment where we cannot discharge our divinely-mandated duties to God. I think Steve is terribly misguided here. We may face the day when the civil authorities threaten to arrest us, our company threatens to fire us, and perhaps we may face the threat of death. However, historically speaking, the Church has often faced such circumstances and I would suggest that around the world, there has never been a time when Christians somewhere did not face these very conditions. American Christians seem to think they have some “right” to insolate themselves from persecution while their brothers and sisters in the rest of the world, or much of the rest of the world, suffer. Where is God in all this? Has He left the forming and shaping of cultures up to the Christian Church? Are Christians responsible for making sure the globe experiences religious liberty, adopts Christian values, and is a really good and moral place to live? Was this really the agenda of the apostles as they moved through their respective culture preaching the gospel?

Steve leans heavily on the Sinaitic Covenant in order to support his idea for doing social good in the culture. The problem with this view is that there comes without a divine mandate. It matters not that Steve thinks it good for the culture if it adopts the Law of Moses. I think that would be better than the alternative as well. That is not the problem. The problem enters where Steve thinks this a divine imperative. There is no such imperative in the text that instructs civil authorities to adopt the Law. Moreover, there is no imperative for the Church to do all it can to get a culture to adopt the Law. If Steve says he does not see a divine imperative then it is a moot point. Steve then argues that if we can’t apply the Mosaic Law to gentile governments because it was given to Israel, it follows that we can’t apply the book of Romans to 21C American Christians because it was given to 1C Romans Christians.

This logic would hold except for the fact that the Mosaic Law was given to all Jews living in that era and moving forward to Christ, not just those present at Sinai at the time the law was given. Steve knows this and his argument here is a bit disingenuous in my opinion. Just as all Jews were held in bondage to that law until the New Covenant was enacted by Christ, now all Christians are under the tradition handed down by the apostles, the faith, the teachings of the twelve that have as their central source, Jesus Christ. Just like the Covenant was given at a particular place in time and all who were born after the fact came under it’s authority, the same is true for those who are born again even if they were not born again during the first century or in Rome.

Steve likes to include political activism under the rubric of social responsibility. Steve contends he can get away with this reasoning because the command to honor one’s father and mother is really “quite vague.” This flies in the face of the perspicuity of Scripture. While not everything in Scripture is equally clear, certainly the commands of Scripture are unambiguous. Steve requires a degree of equivocalness in order to postulate his position. God demands our love and devotion. Our love and devotion necessitates that we keep His commandments. Can it be that God requires us to love Him, which in turn requires us to keep vague commandments that we can’t even be sure we understand? In addition, this would certainly make political passivism a sin in Steve’s view. This outcome is unavoidable within the framework of his argument.

“Household codes of ethics (commonly referred to by the German Haustafeln, “house tablets”) were widespread in the Greco-Roman world. These codes focused on three primary levels of reciprocal submission and obligations within the extended family: wives to husbands, slaves to masters, children to parents. Jewish forms of household codes are evident in the context of the Shema (Deut 6:4–9), in the Fourth Commandment and in the wisdom literature. The NT codes prominently include obligation to governmental authority (see Civil Authority). A  code of household ethics is found in 1 Peter 2:11–3:12 (cf. 1 Tim 2:1–15; Tit 2:1–15; Eph 5:21–6:9; Col 3:19–4:1), in part occurring as an apologetic to show that Christianity was not culturally subversive (Balch, 81–109). Early Christianity apparently applied the household model to relationships within the church itself, producing ecclesiastical station codes (e.g., 1 Clem. 1.3; 21.6-9; Ign. Pol. 4.1—6.1; Did. 4.9-11; Pol. Phil. 4.1—6.3; Aune, 196; McDonald, 97–98, 190).   [Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids, Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).]

Steve’s argument that the command to honor your parents is "vague" contradicts the long-standing principle of clarity, not to mention the historical facts as we know them concerning the Greco-Roman and Jewish household codes during this period. Both of these points serve to demonstrate that the readers would have been clear about what it means to honor one’s parents.

Is Christianity on the brink of becoming a culturally subversive religion? Are people bitter towards Christianity because it preaches the gospel of repentance or because they feel that Christians want to use the political system to turn their religious codes into civil law? In other words, is the secular culture reacting to what it sees as a threat to its own freedom? I suggest that we have to be willing to think about that possibility.

I see a bit of selfishness at the fundamental level of Steve’s argument. Steve does want to suffer persecution. He does not want the government to encroach on his religious freedoms. Steve and I share this goal. Steve thinks he can do something about it. If he just employs the right methods and is socially responsible (his words), he can turn the tide back in his favor. He desires a life of comfort and ease in his Christian walk. Who can blame Steve for wanting that? I want it too. The difference between Steve’s view and my own is that I believe that God determines those things, not the Church.

I reject the argument that politically active evangelicals make about the relationship between the believer and modern politics and culture for numerous reasons. The argument is fundamentally incoherent. This is because they pick and choose which parts of the moral law they think civil authorities should enact. This makes the argument capricious and arbitrary. They will fight against gay marriage but not for marriage in general. They want abortion banned but say little about banning adultery or Sabbath keeping. When asked about these points, they resort to radical pragmatism and admit that you can’t win every battle. You have to pick your fights. God doesn’t work like that. We have as much of a chance of banning abortion in this country as we do outlawing adultery. But that doesn’t stop some Christians from making it the gospel instead of the gospel being the gospel. Moreover, the argument requires an imperative for secular governments that is entirely missing from Scripture. It requires the Mosaic be placed upon the shoulders of secular, gentile nations for the purpose of creating or formulating civil law. This is an unlawful use of the law to put it mildly. There is no divine imperative for this, nor does Scripture contain any precedent for this whatever. Secondly, it requires the Christian Church to take up an active role in attempting to make godless men more moral when the Church is supposed to be used by God to make spiritually dead men alive. This approach perverts and corrupts the image of the Church and causes unnecessary confusion, not to mention bitterness and resentment on the part of culture for all the wrong reasons. The culture hears the political message and in this message, the gospel is lost entirely or corrupted to the point that it is unrecognizable. Rather than hearing the gospel of repentance, the culture hears the Church judging it for its behavior and thinks it uses its political clout to force it to do as we say.

The Church is not called to force the Mosaic Law on the civil culture. She is not called to lobby Washington to impose her values on the rest of society. She is not called to create a moral utopia. She is not called to make godless men good. She is called to make dead men alive. She is called to preach the gospel, baptize converts, make disciples, and live out her values, God’s moral code for all the world to see, to witness. This code testifies to the life transforming power of the gospel. She is called to embrace God’s code, to adhere to God’s code, to live God’s code. She is not called to impose this code on the culture through political activism. The Church is busy trying to get the world to accept its values when it should be busy trying to get it to accept Christ. That is the only way the world will adopt Christian values in any meaningful way. Preach the word, Church, and all will be well with your soul.

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