Posts tagged with: church

One of the inspirations for my little book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, was the incisive and insightful critique of the ecumenical movement from the Princeton theological ethicist Paul Ramsey.

Ramsey’s book, Who Speaks for the Church? A Critique of the 1966 Geneva Conference on Church and Society, has a wealth of both theoretical and concrete reflections on the nature of ecumenical social witness and the relationship between church and society.

He concludes the book with a section titled, “The Church and the Magistrate,” in which he provides some direct comments on the way in which the church can actively be of service to the political authorities. This task is of great importance for the institutional church, but it must be done in such a way that the unique responsibilities of the church and the state are not conflated, and in a way that respects the conscience and individual responsibility of the Christian in civil service.

Thus, writes Ramsey, “If the churches have any special wisdom to offer here, it is in cultivating the political ethos of a nation and informing the conscience of the statesman. The church’s business is not policy formation. That is the awesome responsibility of magistrates (and of churchmen along with other citizens in their nonecclesiastical capacities).”

The role of the church, therefore, is to inform rather than to prescribe in specific detail. “It is not the church’s business to recommend but only to clarify the grounds upon which the statesman must put forth his own particular decree,” argues Ramsey. “Christian political ethics cannot say what should or must be done but only what may be done. It can only try to make sure that false doctrine does not unnecessarily trammel policy choices or preclude decisions that might better shape and govern events.”

And in a prophetic statement that indicts the contemporary fascination with “social justice” (which so often conflates the concept with love), Ramsey writes, “Christians should be speaking more about order as a terminal political value along with justice, without the naïve assumption that these are bound to go together without weight given to both.” Just how much do you hear about “social order” from those campaigning so vociferously for a particular form of “social justice”?

Ramsey’s book is well worth reading. If you can pick up a used copy somewhere, do so and count yourself as having found a bargain.

resurrection_241Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. – 1 Peter 1:3

John Wesley said of the new birth, “It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the almighty Spirit of God when it is created anew in Christ Jesus.” A message he often preached was “Since we were born in sin we must be born again.” The resurrection of Christ affirms the everlasting power of Christ to save and deliver humanity from sin and death.

This Easter, Christians all over the world celebrate an event that points to our present and future hope and glory. In American slave and Appalachia culture, the afterlife was always celebrated and stressed through their words and music, because of difficult trials on earth. The resurrection is the real theology of liberation, as Samuel Medley wrote in his great hymn “I Know that My Redeemer Lives:”

He lives to silence all my fears,
He lives to wipe away my tears
He lives to calm my troubled heart,
He lives all blessings to impart.

The resurrection was foundational everyday preaching for the Apostles in the early Church. As witnesses, their focus on the resurrection was also the cause of their persecution by the ruling authorities (Acts 4:3,4). Today some who claim to be ministers of the Gospel deny the miracle of the resurrection or dismiss it as “merely symbolic.” Sadly, they deny Scripture and Church teaching.

The Apostles knew that when they saw the risen Christ they were looking at the beginning and the end of history. The complete purpose and promise of Christ and humanity was made known and it’s an incomparable comfort. Humanity has a purpose and a place to call home. One of the most perplexing and haunting aspects of life is death. Life on earth is all we know and death for so many is very troubling and a topic to be avoided. Many churches and houses of worship avoid it. This is sad and it shows a wide displacement from the early Church and Church Fathers. For the believer, they will share in the resurrection of Christ and “death will be swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:42-54).

Often in the burdens that afflict our inner most being we can only find meaning in the resurrection. The trials, despair, and pain of this life crushes us too much. But when we spend our time dwelling on the risen Lord, our despair turns to hope. We know that he will not abandon us or forsake those who love and worship him, especially beyond the grave. The resurrection is a cause for endless celebration. It is the seal that we will fully dwell in the everlasting with the Triune God who created us for relationship with him for his glory.

The current issue of Touchstone magazine features an impressive cover essay by Douglas Farrow, Professor of Christian Thought at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. In “The Audacity of the State,” Farrow uses the biblical Ichabod motif to examine the crumbling pillars of the family and church, which when properly respected form critical foundations for a flourishing society.

In their place, writes Farrow, is the “savior state,” which “presents itself as the people’s guardian, as the guarantor of the citizen’s well-being. The savior state is the paternal state, which not only sees to the security of its territory and the enforcement of its laws but also promises to feed, clothe, house, educate, monitor, medicate, and in general to care for its people.” As Lord Acton said, “There are many things the government can’t do – many good purposes it must renounce. It must leave them to the enterprise of others. It cannot feed the people. It cannot enrich the people. It cannot teach the people. It cannot convert the people.”

In a piece as far-ranging and challenging as this, there are bound to be some minor points with which to quibble. For instance, Farrow’s characterization of the role of Erastianism in the overarching narrative seems to be a bit of a caricature, or at least not contextually sensitive. But in any case, there is one larger lacuna in Farrow’s otherwise admirable, impressive, and worthwhile essay, a piece which has far too many worthwhile sections and quotes from which to pull an adequate nosegay. Farrow’s piece must be read in its entirety. (And while you are there, sign up to receive Touchstone.)

But in discussing the elements of civil society, those institutions other than the state which provide it with limits and humble its would-be soteriological ambitions, Farrow considers only the church and the family, “the two most prominent pillars of political freedom, the pillars that have always provided for a roof or shield over the individual and his conscience.”

To be sure, there is some historical basis for considering only these three (church, state, family). These are, after all, the so-called “three estates,” orders, or institutions of classical Christian social thought. These estates have in some form or another functioned vibrantly in the discussion of Christian social thought from Luther’s own time to the present. Richard Baxter (Weber’s proclaimed paragon of the Protestant ethic), for instance, had a threefold distinction beyond personal ethics: economics (referring in the older sense to family), ecclesiastics, and politics.

But in speaking of the tyrannical habitus of the state, at least passing reference must be made to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer identified as the fourth institution: the realm of work, business, culture. It is understandable why Farrow might not pay much attention to this multifaceted pillar of civil society, especially since that pillar has largely been ground to a nub in the course of the twentieth century. But state control and invasion of this sector of social life is as far-reaching, perhaps more so, as it has been with the state’s involvement in the church and family.

The church and the family certainly have their defenders in the public square, although they are too few and fragmentary, as Farrow rightly laments. But who will speak against the audacity of the state for the realm of labor, work, and cultivation? These need their defenders, too, and that in one sense is precisely what we aim do here at the Acton Institute.

A few weeks ago Hunter Baker posted some thoughts on secularism and poverty, in which he wrote of the common notion that since private charity, particularly church-based care, had failed to end poverty, it seems only prudent to let the government have its chance.

Hunter points out some of the critically important elements in creating a culture of prosperity and abundance, what Micah Watson calls “cultural capital.”

But it’s worth examining in more detail the point of departure, that is, considering the relationship between the church’s approach to charity and the creation of the welfare state. Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef write of this in a brief essay contained in their book, The Deacons Handbook: A Manual of Stewardship, first published in 1980.

DeKoster and Berghoef argue in “The Church and the Welfare State” that “The Church is largely responsible for the coming of the modern welfare community.” But they also contend that the diaconal office is the key to answering the challenge posed by the welfare state: “The Church could be largely responsible for purging welfare of its faults and problems. IF enough deacons caught the vision!”

The church helped to bring about the welfare state in two ways. First, the Church embodied the idea of loving self-sacrifice in service of others. “The Word which the Church proclaims demands charity and justice for the poor. As this Word has permeated at least the Western world, an alerted public conscience has demanded public welfare,” write DeKoster and Berghoef. “The Church is the parent of the welfare community.”

But this “welfare community” became secularized when the Church “did not, and perhaps in some respects could not, measure up to her own ideals. Not all the starving were fed, not all of the homeless given shelter, not all of the oppressed and exploited relieved. The cries of the needy ascended to heaven. The Lord answered with the welfare state. The government undertakes to do what the Church demands and then fails to achieve by herself.”

In this sense, the welfare state is understood to be God’s preservational (thus imperfect) answer to the failed duty of the Church:

Thus the Church is, both by commission and by omission, author of the welfare state. Deacons start from here. Government has undertaken to do what conscience, tutored out of the Scriptures, demands but fails, through the Church, entirely to achieve.

In the brief essay Berghoef and DeKoster go on to outline some practical steps that can be taken to address this failing and rein in the scope of governmental responsibility. Some of these specifics need updating given what has happened in the United States over the last thirty years. But the vision of The Deacons Handbook, that the core of the answer lies in the diaconate, is a worthy and compelling insight.

Hunter will be pleased to note that among the practical advice given by Berghoef and DeKoster is that the meaning of the First Amendment needs to be reconsidered. Their advice for the deacon? “Do a study of what is so readily called ‘the separation of Church and state’.” This aligns with the argument Hunter makes in his new book, The End of Secularism.

This much remains true:

What is important, with an eye on tomorrow, is to discern what constructive relations may be developed between alert diaconates and public welfare. And it is immediately obvious that diaconates are uniquely qualified to amend what are commonly perceived as defects in the welfare system.

Check out an excerpt from the original edition of The Deacons Handbook containing the essay, “The Church and the Welfare State.” And sign up over at Christian’s Library Press to keep informed about upcoming releases in 2010, including new editions of The Deacons Handbook, The Elders Handbook, and more.

Deacons Handbook Excerpt

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ron Sider: “If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world.”

Jim Wallis: “I often point out that the church can’t rebuild levees and provide health insurance for 47 million people who don’t have it.”

Blog author: jballor
Friday, April 17, 2009

This Sunday I’ll be giving a talk at Fountain Street Church on the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His unfinished Ethics is a tantalizing work, full of insights and conundrums. Here’s what he writes in the essay, “On the Possibility of the Church’s Message to the World,” with regard to the church’s engagement in social justice:

Who actually says that all worldly problems should and can be solved? Perhaps to God the unsolved condition of these problems may be more important than their solution, namely, as a pointer to the human fall and to God’s redemption. Human problems are perhaps so entangled, so wrongly posed, that they are in fact really impossible to solve. (The problem of the poor and the rich can never be solved in any other way than leaving it unsolved.)

This kind of perspective flies in the face of the arrogance of so much of the contemporary transformationalist social justice movement among Christians. It allows us to see the possibility that the brokenness of the world is not meant to be solved in the end by anything other than God’s own redemptive work in Jesus Christ. It provides a boundary against any kind of post-millennial triumphalism.

One of the charities my wife and I make a point to support is Compassion International. There are a great number of things that could be said about the work of this ministry. But I want to point out a piece by Tim Glenn, Compassion International’s U.S. Advocacy Director, called “Why We Can’t End Poverty.” In this post you’ll find none of the high-handed presumption that the only thing keeping us from “making poverty history” is our political will to do so: our governments just aren’t giving enough.

Instead, Glenn discusses the end of poverty within a framework that agrees with that presented by Bonhoeffer above. “I don’t think we’re called to end poverty. I do think we’re called to be obedient to God’s command,” writes Glenn. “I think God allows poverty so that His glory may be shown … through His people doing His work … obeying that command.”

Government is most surely a divinely-ordained reality, and a blessing that we must celebrate. But governments realize their task when they recognize their own divinely-ordained limits.

Government exists as a form of common grace to preserve the world for Christ’s coming, when the government as an order of preservation will give way to a divine monarchy (“Every knee will bow.”). In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the government is here to keep “open” the orders of the world for Christ.

But when government oversteps this mandate, it tyrannizes the other orders of preservation and undermines the basis for its own existence. It then becomes a force for destruction as much as for preservation.

In addition to strident debate and firm resolution in public affairs, satire is a powerful tool in calling the government to heed its limits. It is in this spirit that the following two items are offered.

First, “The Heaviest Element Known to Science.”

Lawrence Livermore Laboratories has discovered the heaviest element yet known to science. The new element, Governmentium (Gv), has one neutron, 25 assistant neutrons, 88 deputy neutrons, and 198 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312. These 312 particles are held together by forces called morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called peons. Since Governmentium has no electrons, it is inert; however, it can be detected, because it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact. A tiny amount of Governmentium can cause reaction that would normally take less than a second, to take from 4 days to 4 years to complete. Governmentium has a normal half-life of 2-6 years. It does not decay, but instead undergoes a reorganization in which a portion of the assistant neutrons and deputy neutrons exchange places. In fact, Governmentium’s mass will actually increase over time, since each reorganization will cause more morons to become neutrons, forming isodopes. This characteristic of moron promotion leads some scientists to believe that Governmentium is formed whenever morons reach a critical concentration. This hypothetical quantity is referred to as critical morass. When catalysed with money, Governmentium becomes Administratium, an element that radiates just as much energy as Governmentium since it has half as many peons but twice as many morons.

And second,

As Bonhoeffer wrote in his 1933 essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” a basic task of the church is to “continually ask the state whether its action can be justified as legitimate action of the state, i.e. as action which leads to law and order, and not to lawlessness and disorder.” In so doing, the church shows itself to be the state’s “most faithful servant.”

After all, pointing out the excesses, sins, and errors of another can be the most sublime act of love.