Posts tagged with: church

The fourth week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The fourth leg of the journey took the bikers from Salt Lake City to Denver, a total distance of 478 miles.

The “Shifting Gears” devotional at the beginning of this week focuses especially on the relationship of the church to culture. On day 22, the devotion notes that the “crucial pillars of civilization–education, family, government, and science–are in a state of decline and disrepair.” This may seem like a strange claim given all that humans have been able to accomplish over the last century or so. But if you look at the moral center of all these pursuits (for no human endeavor is “value” free), then the claim begins to make some sense.

Take, for example, the prayer from day 22, which focuses on gambling and the state of Utah’s position, which “forbids gambling and casinos.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer once reflected on a symptom of the lifelessness of modern society when he wrote,

One gambles with the future. Lotteries and gambling, which consume an inconceivable amount of money and often the daily bread of the worker, seek the improbable chance of luck in the future. The loss of past and future leaves life vacillating between the most brutish enjoyment of the moment and adventurous risk taking.

Similarly, the day 22 devotion observes “that today’s culture, including the church, has sunk into a passionless routine.”

And in the same way, the day 23 devotion examines the ambivalent relationship between church and culture, although it ends on a rather optimistic note: “A hundred years ago biking was a Sabbath sin. Now our whole troupe bikes to church Sunday mornings. We, like the land, are being redeemed.” Even so, a consistent theme of critique towards destructive aspects of modern life is present throughout these devotions. As the day 13 devotion concludes, “Constant busyness is not godliness.”

The overall focus of the bike tour is poverty. To get involved in charities that effectively integrate faith and compassion, visit the Acton Institute’s Samaritan Guide. Be sure to check out the charities working in Colorado. Denver, the destination at the end of week 4, is home to two previous Samaritan Award honorees, “Providence Homes” (2004) and “Joshua Station” (2007).

With the United Methodist General Conference only weeks away, Bristol House just released Taking Back The United Methodist Church. Tooley is the United Methodist Action Director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy and has been a passionate advocate for theological integrity and reform within United Methodism for two decades. The book provides an excellent overview of some of the most egregious separation of some United Methodist leaders from Christian Scripture and traditions, including an all out embrace of a contradiction of sexual norms, and stale 1960’s liberal political philosophies. It’s an equally strong account at chronicling the renewal efforts within the Church at large, and the fruit of these efforts.

Tooley goes into detail about Bishop J. Joseph Sprague’s denial of the full and eternal deity of Jesus Christ. Sprague is now retired, formally the Bishop of Northern Illinois. He also provides snippets from a thoughtful response from a newly elected Bishop of Florida at the time, Timothy W. Whitaker. Whitaker was almost alone among the Bishops in criticizing Sprague, calling him “a person of deep faith,” whose comments at Iliff School of Theology on Christology were “incoherent.” Whitaker criticized Sprague for contradicting the Nicene Creed’s affirmation of Christ as “eternally begotten of the Father.” Whitaker himself wondered in his critique, if Sprague had fallen into the ancient heresy of adoptionism, which is a denial of the Hypostatic Union of Christ. Sprague also denied essential beliefs such as the virgin birth, a physical resurrection, and substitutionary atonement.

Bishop Marion Edwards of the North Carolina Conference also criticized Sprague. Additionally, the United Methodist Book of Discipline says the responsibility of a bishop is to “guard, transmit, teach, and proclaim, corporately and individually, the apostolic faith as it is expressed in Scripture and tradition, and, as they are led and endowed by the Spirit, to interpret the faith evangelically and prophetically.” Sprague was never truly held to account for his teachings by the United Methodist Church, but it did open a much needed conversation and validation of the nature and character of Christ. Sprague is , “The most vocal prominent active liberal bishop in Protestantism today,” Tooley declared. Sprague responded by denying that he was liberal, saying, “I consider myself a radical.”

Tooley also discusses radically heretical conferences at United Methodist Seminaries across the country, where the divinity and character of Christ is openly mocked. Other conferences adoringly worshiped feminist gods, and exalted other outrageous forms of religious pluralism, and strongly embraced pro-abortion measures. (more…)

Over recent weeks a great deal of controversy has been swirling in Michigan over allegations of an affair between Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his former Chief of Staff Christine Beatty. Lower courts have approved the release of text messages between the two that would seem to belie the sworn testimony of Kilpatrick and Beatty, and an appeal is currently being considered by the state Supreme Court.

Earlier this week, presidential candidate John McCain came under media scrutiny following a NYT piece that raised questions about the nature of his relationship with a lobbyist. These are just two of the most recent instances of high-profile political figures being embroiled in allegations of immoral conduct (AP reporter Libby Quaid gives a rundown of the reaction of a number of the spouses in recent instances).

The recent case of Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal comes to mind. Prominent Michigan businessman and political activist Peter Secchia reportedly linked the Kilpatrick scandal to Clinton.

At an Economics Club luncheon earlier this month,

Before introducing the keynote speaker, Secchia managed a swipe at Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and former President Bill Clinton. Starting with his back to the crowd, he turned quickly to face the podium. “I did not have text with that woman,” he said, pointing at himself with both thumbs.

While particular occasions can be easily used for partisan jokes and finger-pointing, the questions of immoral actions by public servants cut across both aisles and through the annals of history.

Moreover, these kinds of allegations (and actions) are really no laughing matter (indeed, the reaction among conservatives to the NYT story has been anything but jovial). The accusations alone can be powerful enough to destroy lives, marriages, families, and careers.

In a penetrating essay on the Kilpatrick affair, David Hess compares the consequences of alleged marital infidelity between elected government officials and corporate CEOs. He makes a strong case that there is a double-standard, with the more stringent line being taken not in politics but instead in the private sector.

He writes of the comparative consequences for a CEO: “A steadily declining share price? The board of directors will give you a second chance. An ethical violation that does not have an immediate, direct impact on company performance? A resignation is expected as soon as possible.”

Hess examines both the internal (e.g. setting organizational values) and external (e.g. loss of consumer confidence) reasons for this moral “high ground” among both for-profit and non-profit corporations and organizations. He looks in particular at the cases of Mark Everson, former chief executive of the American Red Cross, and Harry Stonecipher, former chief executive of Boeing.

Hess’ analysis bears out upon reflection. Just consider in recent memory how many politicians in office have survived sexual scandals. Larry Craig is still a United States senator, but Ted Haggard was rather ignominiously dismissed as head of the NAE and a mega-church in Colorado Springs.

This, too, makes some sense. That oldest non-profit of them all, the church, has had some pretty stringent requirements for leadership since its very inception, such as being “above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable,” and so on. I wouldn’t want to make the correlative claim that instances of sexual immorality are less common among Christians than the general populace, or among the church’s leaders than other public figures.

But, as Hess claims, it seems pretty clear that there is a different standard of judgment for such things, and that the higher standard applies not in the case of political figures but rather among business, church, and community leaders (perhaps sports figures like Kobe Bryant being an exception).

It’s also the case that calling out political figures on their infidelities has historically been a dangerous calling, but one that the church’s prophetic responsibility embraces.

The pertinent question seems to me to be not why the market and the church typically hold their leaders to such high standards, but rather why citizens and voters don’t do the same for the government. Apathy? Secularism? Something else?

This summer I’m working on developing the syllabus for a class that I’ll be helping to lead in the Fall. The course will focus on readings in social ethics, with a general theme on church and culture, and a particular theme on church and poverty.

I’ll be reading through the selections on this particular theme over the next few weeks. I’d like to post the readings for the week that I’ll be going through, so that you can read along if you like. I’ll post my responses, observations, and questions as separate posts throughout the week, as starters for discussions that we can pursue in the comment threads if you so desire.

I’ll do my best to summarize works that may not be available or for those who aren’t able for whatever reason to engage the primary sources directly. Where available online, I’ll include links to the primary sources. Otherwise, the sources can only be found in print (this information is available upon request…some of them may be hard to find, and I’ll note those in the relevant post).

The readings will progress in roughly historical order. For this first week of readings, let’s look at:

  1. Cyprian of Carthage, On Works and Alms

  2. Clement of Alexandria, Who Is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved?
  3. Gregory of Nazianzus, On the Love for the Poor
  4. Gregory of Nyssa, Love of the Poor

Week 2:

  1. John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty (Part 1; Part 2; Part 3).

Week 3:

  1. Bonaventure, A Defence of the Mendicants (selections), in From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought 100-1625, ed. Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, pp. 312-19.

Week 4:

  1. Martin Bucer, De Regno Christi (selections), in Melanchthon and Bucer, Book I, Chapter XIV, “Care for the Needy,” pp. 256-59; Book II, Chapter XIV, “The Sixth Law: Poor Relief,” pp. 306-15.

Week 5:

  1. Richard Baxter, How to Do Good to Many (Part 1; Part 2; Part 3) (London, 1682; repr. 1830).

Week 6:

  1. John Wesley, “The Rich Man and Lazarus.”

Week 7:

  1. Abraham Kuyper, The Problem of Poverty.

Week 8:

  1. Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis.

    To conclude this survey of a series of texts on the church and poverty, we’ll be looking at this piece from Rauschenbusch. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first publication of Christianity and the Social Crisis, and a new centenary edition has been released this month by HarperSanFrancisco and includes responses to each chapter from figures such as Jim Wallis, Tony Camplo, Cornel West, Richard Rorty, Stanley Hauerwas, and others.

A few weeks ago I was listening to a very engaging American RadioWorks documentary, rebroadcast from last October, “Japan’s Pop Power.” The show focused on the increasing cultural imports to America coming from Japan, which by some estimations will soon dwarf industries typically associated with American-Japanese trade like automobiles, technology, and electronics. Japan’s economic success is a sure sign that human creativity and inventiveness are more important factors in human flourishing than mere material concerns or natural resources.

Some of the commentary expounded the typical pattern and dynamics of a sub-culture movement becoming mainstream. A great deal of the program focused on Japanese art, film, and media products, including the form of Japanese comic known as manga. Beginning with Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the growing Japanese dominance of programming oriented toward youth is especially noteworthy (I’m a Yu-Gi-Oh! fan and my wife likes Ninja Warrior).

One portion of the program interested me especially because we have been discussing the importance of narrative here lately. As Chris Farrell and John Biewen spoke with an American teenager, it became clear that in part what draws our youth to contemporary forms of Japanese storytelling, beyond the inherent exotic elements, is the disjointedness of the narrative. It’s often a challenge to figure out who the main characters are and what they are doing. Some of the attraction is no doubt the mental agility that is required to induct a logical flow from the sometimes confusing morass.

But on another level, the attraction is undoubtedly a reflection of a post-modern mindset, which isn’t so concerned with logical plot progression. Japanese shows are renowned for their emphasis on glitzy effects, explosions, and action (oftentimes at the expense of sanity) such that they’ve become a staple of American parody:


It’s always a challenge for Christians to determine when and how to engage cultural movements. Some businesses and industries are without a doubt beyond the realm of moral permissibility, and the Christian is barred from licit participation. The message to those who are involved must be only, “Go and sin no more.”

But other times keen discernment is called for, and Christians at different times and places have come up with very different answers about how to engage the broader culture. At some point soon, for instance, we’ll look in more detail at the Christian Reformed Church’s synodical reports from 1928 on “Worldly Amusements” and from 1966 on “Film Arts.”

One approach I’m familiar with in a professional capacity is the attempt by some Christian publishers to transform the manga genre into something that is a positive and constructive influence, conducive to Christian piety, rather than one that celebrates moral depravity (for which manga is infamously renowned).

Zondervan, for example, has newly available a number of new manga series aimed towards youth or “tweens” audiences (full disclosure: I provided theological review services for a number of these products). On example is a series that follows the fictional exploits of Branan, the son of the biblical judge Samson. Other series follow a team of time-travelling flies and relate the biblical narrative in the form of a Manga Bible (the latter produced by a Korean author/illustrator team).

Whether such ventures are judged to be successful depends on the standards applied by individual Christians. No doubt many will be thankful for offerings in a pop culture genre whose contents are sincerely counter-cultural.

What is certain is that there is no better place to address the needs for a new generation of readers eager for meaningful narrative than to rely upon mythopoeia and, indeed, the greatest story ever told, the “True Myth,” the biblical drama of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.

There’s been a spate of stories lately in various media about the difficulty that evangelical denominations are having keeping young adults interested in the life of the institutional church. Here’s one from USA Today, “Young adults aren’t sticking with church” (HT: Kruse Kronicle; Out of Ur). And here’s another from a recent issue of my own denomination’s magazine, The Banner, “Where Did Our Young Adults Go?”

I wonder if the push to be “relevant,” initiated largely by the baby boomer generation’s rise to power in institutional structures, hasn’t hastened rather than chastened the loss of interest on the part of young adults. If all churches offer is culture-lite, why even bother?

No doubt the reaction by some will to go to even greater lengths to make church “cool,” because using pizza and pop for the Eucharist hasn’t been enough so far. But, contrary to what might be the natural reaction to some, the way to keep people invested and coming to church isn’t in the continuous lowering of barriers and expectations, but rather the call to a committed and disciplined life of discipleship.

There’s a reason why well-to-do, educated Muslims are attracted by Islamist rhetoric: it gives them something to believe in, something ostensibly worth fighting and dying for. The fact that Westerners don’t get that is all the more illustrative of how far gone the culture really is.

For a small but illuminating example of the current zeitgeist, check out the questionable reaction of this pastor and teacher, when a teenage student falls asleep during Friday prayers: “If God knows they need sleep, who am I to wake them up?” The question, no doubt arising out of admirable intentions, leaves me agog and aghast.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Osama Bin Laden is bidding his followers to come and die for him, and we can’t even ask our kids to stay awake during prayers?

It’s been shown in numerous studies, reports, and anecdotal tellings that religion that is high-maintenance, expecting more of its members than perfunctory attendance, tends to do better in attracting new members and keeping old ones. People are looking for meaning and truth. That’s just a basic fact of human nature. If people aren’t getting the truth at church, they’ll look for it somewhere else, even if, as in the case of Islamism, it’s a futile search.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic…. Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it…. Trust to the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity!”

Readings in Social Ethics: Richard Baxter, How to Do Good to Many (London, 1682; repr. 1830), part 3 of 3. References below are to page numbers.

Concluding Consectaries:

  • These consectaries are aimed at Baxter’s audience, wealthy Christian merchants. Baxter examines in some particular detail suggestions for the right use of their charitable funds and efforts: “Might not somewhat more be done than yet is, to further the gospel in your factories, and in our plantations?” (329)

  • Concerning Christians abroad who are too poor to have materials printed in their own countries and languages: “Could nothing be done to get some Bibles, catechisms, and practical books printed in their own tongues, and given among them? I know there is difficulty in the way; but money, and willingness, and diligence, might do something” (330).
  • Baxter addresses the institution of slavery and condemns it as Christians practice it, contravening the greater moral duty to aim towards the conversion of their slaves. The law mandate the release of slaves upon their conversion: “Is it not an odious crime of Christians to hinder the conversion of these infidels, lest they lose their service by it, and to prefer their gain before men’s souls? Is not this to sell souls for a little money, as Judas did his Lord?” (330).
  • Baxter denounces such practice in no uncertain terms: “Why should these men be called Christians, or have any christian reputation, or privileges themselves, who think both Christianity and souls to be no more worth than to be thus basely sold for the gain of men’s servilest labours? And what, though the poor infidels desire not their own conversion, their need is the greater, and not the less” (331).

Next week: John Wesley, “The Rich Man and Lazarus.”

Readings in Social Ethics: Richard Baxter, How to Do Good to Many (London, 1682; repr. 1830), part 2 of 3. References below are to page numbers.

On Motives:

  • Human works are God’s appointed means of grace: “It is God’s great mercy to mankind, that he will use us all in doing good to one another; and it is a great part of his wise government of the world, that in societies men should be tied to it by the sense of every particular man’s necessity; and it is a great honour to those that he maketh his almoners, or servants, to convey his gifts to others; God bids you give nothing but what is his, and no otherwise your own but as his stewards. It is his bounty, and your service or stewardship, which is to be exercised” (320).

  • An element of self-love can be present as a motivation. There is an Augustinian tone to this note, that all men by nature seek what they perceive as the good: “Self-love, therefore, should persuade men to do good to all. You are not the least gainers by it yourselves…. The believing giver hath more pleasure than the receiver; and this without any conceit of commutative meriting of God, or any false trust to works for justification” (321).
  • There is no time like the present to do good works: “And let all men take their common and special opportunities to do good: time will not stay; yourselves, your wives, your children, your servants, your neighbours, are posting to another world; speak now what you would have them hear; do them now all the good you can. It must be now or never; there is no returning from the dead to warn them” (323-34).

Readings in Social Ethics: Richard Baxter, How to Do Good to Many (London, 1682; repr. 1830), part 1 of 3. References below are to page numbers.

On Good Works:

  • A condemnation of selfishness: “It is a sign he is a branch cut off and withered who careth little for any but himself” (292).

  • The orderliness of subsidiarity obligations: “But as all motion and action is first upon the nearest object, so must ours; and doing good must be in order: first we must begin at home and with our own souls and lives; and then to our nearest relations, and friends, and acquaintance, and neighbours; and then to our societies, church, and kingdom, and all the world. But mark that the order of execution, and the order of estimate and intention, differ. Though God set up lights so small as will serve but for one room, and though we must begin at home, we must far more esteem and desire the good of multitudes, of city, and church, and commonwealth; and must set no bounds to our endeavours, but what God and disability set” (294).
  • The need for discernment and prudence in Christian charity: “In such cases there is need of great prudence and impartiality to know whether the good or the evil do preponderate; and a great part of the actions of our lives must be managed by that prudence, or else they will be sinful” (295).
  • God brings good even out of the evil of selfishness: “A narrow-spirited, selfish man, will serve others no further than it serveth himself, or, at least, will stand with his own safety or prosperity. He will turn as the weathercock, and be for them that are for his worldly interest. I confess that God oft useth such for common good: but it is by raising such storms as would sink them with the ship, and leaving them no great hope to escape by being false, or by permitting such villanies as threaten their own interest” (298).
  • Again, the need for wisdom in loving others is emphasized: “He that will do much good in the world, must be furnished with considerable abilities, especially prudence and skill in knowing when, and to whom, and how to do it. Without this, he will do more harm than good” (299).
  • Good works are oriented towards the ultimate good of the soul. The composition of human nature, body and soul, determines the relationship between material and spiritual assistance: “Do as much good as you are able to men’s bodies, in order to the greater good of souls. If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings, not as if we were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men; God hath so placed the soul in the body, that good or evil shall make its entrance by the bodily sense to the soul” (303).
  • This prioritization of the spiritual over the temporal necessitates the use of the sort of prudential wisdom and reasoning Baxter praised earlier: “All men are sensible of pain or pleasure, good or evil, to the flesh, before they are sensible what is necessary for their souls. You must therefore speak on that side which can hear, and work upon the feeling part, if you will do good” (303).

Readings in Social Ethics: Martin Bucer, De Regno Christi (selections), in Melanchthon and Bucer, Book II, Chapter XIV, “The Sixth Law: Poor Relief,” pp. 306-15. References below are to page number.

  • Giving aid to the needy in the church is a manifestation of an attribute of the church, for “without it there can be no true communion of saints” (307).

  • What the church and its representatives are and are not responsible for: “First, they [deacons] should investigate how many really indigent persons live in each church and for whom it is equitable for the church to provide the necessities of life. For the churches of Christ must exclude from their communion those who, when they can sustain themselves by their own powers, neglect this and live inordinately, accepting borrowed food (II Thess. 3:6); it is certainly not the duty of the church to foster such people in their godless idleness” (307).
  • The responsibility of subsidiarity: “Thus if any needy persons belong to anyone’s circle, either by blood or marriage or by any other special relationship or particular custom, it is certainly their duty, if they have the means of the Lord, to provide for their own the necessities of life and spare the churches in order that they may have more to nourish and assist those who have no home or family who would want to or could help them” (307).
  • The wealthy nobility has a responsibility to the society. Citing past examples of such praiseworthy behavior: “Pious princes and men of wealth established homes and hospitals, some to nourish and care for the needy who were in good health, some for infants, others for orphans, still others for the aged infirm, others for those laboring under various forms of sickness, and some for pilgrims and displaced persons” (310).
  • The drive to bypass the church and provide alms personally and individually is a result of sin: “Finally, since from our nature, depraved and always rebellious against God, we continually compromise the instructions and precepts of God, and according to our desires and misdirected judgments, are always eager to follow paths and ways other than what God has prescribed, however holy the care of the poor is, there will be some who will refuse to put their alms for the poor into a common fund, and say that they prefer to provide for the poor by their personal generosity if it seems good to them to do so. Their arrogance will have to be countered both by Your Majesty’s law and through the discipline of the Church; by a law which imposes a double offering to the Lord’s fund, if anyone is caught giving anything privately to the needy; by the discipline of the Church, so / that if anyone puts nothing into the Lord’s fund, he should be admonished of his duty from the Word of God by the ministers of the churches, and if he should resolutely despise this admonition, he should be held a heathen and a publican” (311-12).
  • By this Bucer means that the Church must be the primary instrument of charity and must be the recipient of all due offerings. But this does not mean that charity cannot be done individually above and beyond the giving to the Church. It simply means that offerings to the Church may not be neglected in favor of individual giving: “No man’s hand is closed by this law, to interfere with his opening it to whatever poor persons he can and will provide for” (312).
  • The mere necessities of life are not enough. The Church must give so that those in poverty can be educated, married, and flourish as productive and respected contributors to society: “Nor is it sufficient for the kindness of Christians to give food, shelter, and clothing to those in extreme need…. For it hardly suffices for the churches of Christ that their people should merely be alive but it must also be provided for them that they live to the Lord for a certain and mutual usefulness among each other and within the State and Church” (315).

Next week: Richard Baxter, How to Do Good to Many (London, 1682; repr. 1830).