Posts tagged with: protestantism

RealClearReligion has become a starting point for my day, and I’m honored to have this week’s commentary linked in today’s morning edition, “Local Churches Hard Hit as Recession Spreads.”

The link posted just below mine from CNN’s Belief Blog highlights problems facing a local congregation, “Atlanta church faces eviction.” One of the points of dispute facing the congregation is the status of daycare and afterschool programs that use the facility. As John Murgatroyd reports, the pastor Mark Anthony Mitchell “considers the day care to be part of his ministry.”

What this case illustrates is that the true value of churches, so to speak, can be hard to pin down. Should churches simply be measured in economic terms? A study done in Philadelphia, for instance, tried to “to calculate the economic ‘halo effect’ of a dozen religious congregations in Philadelphia – 10 Protestant churches, a Catholic parish, and a synagogue.”

One outcome of the study, in part led Ram Cnaan, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, is that “equipped with such measurements a congregation could produce hard numbers to show community organizations, policy makers and potential funders the value of its local presence.”

But as the study notes, this can cut both ways. One of the reasons that local governments have been focusing on church properties is that, as this study found in Philadelphia, churches can sometimes seem to reduce surrounding property values. Thus, “measuring the congregations’ impact on property values backfired for St. Luke’s and the Epiphany Church in Center City, where adjacent real estate values were lower than in nearby neighborhoods. While that could not be pinned on the handsome church’s presence, the category put St. Luke’s halo into negative territory: minus $226,000.”

This brings us back, in some sense, to the issue I ended yesterday’s post with, the question of the right relationship and valuation between material and spiritual realities. While studies such as the one done in Philadelphia are clearly intended to help local churches, they run the risk of subjecting these institutions to rules of competition within which they will never really succeed if compared with local businesses. The true value of churches can’t be measured economically in these ways.

So while social science has important things to teach us about how our spiritual lives impact our lives in the material and social world, these disciplines don’t exhaust what needs to be said. Jonathan Malesic, assistant professor of theology at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA, recently wrote in the Journal of Markets & Morality (PDF) that the danger of “appealing to Christianity’s positive social function is that it substitutes a theological defense of Christianity for a sociological one. It admits that it is right to judge Christianity on its social function and then leaves it up to sociologists to amass empirical evidence for and against Christianity’s positive social effects.”

It’s true as Hunter Baker responds in the context of that controversy that Christianity (and the functions of a church) cannot be reduced to its social effects. And this is precisely the mistake we see at work in an ecclesiology that views that what the church has really “always been about [is] social affiliation. You met your friends, discussed your week, talked football, shared information about good schools, talked local politics, got the scoop, and made social plans (‘Let’s get together for dinner this week!’). Even if you hated church you could feel lonely without it.” What’s missing here is anything beyond the mere sociality of the church.

There’s no sense of the marks of the true church, what you get at church that you can’t get anywhere else: proclamation of the Gospel in the preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments. These are things, most especially the sacraments, that you just can’t get from Facebook.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Local Churches Hard Hit as Recession Spreads,” I examine some of the lingering and widening effects of the Great Recession. I focus particularly on an upward trend in foreclosures of church properties across the country. As the WSJ reports, “Just as homeowners borrowed too much or built too big during boom times, many churches did the same and now are struggling as their congregations shrink and collections fall owing to rising unemployment and a weak economy.”

I identify one particular threat in the current situation and a basic remedy. As to threats, local governments that are facing their own budgetary pressures are tempted to use the financial woes facing churches to force them to close in favor of tax-yielding properties. As to solutions, I write, “…this economic downturn and its cascading effects throughout society remind us of the solidarity of our social life. We are all dependent upon others, to a greater or lesser extent, and this is a reality that points our way forward through the various threats and dangers we negotiate today.”

A report was released this week that examines charitable giving patterns, especially among those who give to local houses of worship. On first glance the analysis offered by those who conducted the survey might seem to go against the situation as I’ve depicted it. As Ron Sellars, whose firm conducted the survey, says, “Americans who give to their church or place of worship are more likely to give, period — including to charitable organizations.” He concludes, “Rather than be in competition for the donor dollar, it seems that giving fosters giving.”

What the survey basically finds is that those who give at various levels to local congregations are far more likely to give to other charitable causes, and to do so in a substantial way: “For example, donors who gave less than $100 to a house of worship also donated an average of $208 to other charities. Those who gave between $100 and $499 to a congregation gave an average of $376 to others. Donors of between $500 and $999 to places of worship gave an average of $916 to others.”

But if we place these findings within the broader context of giving trends over time, and the conclusion that the share of charitable dollars going to local congregations is diminishing, the picture is rather different. This broader trend points to the possibility “that fewer people are seeing churches as the primary conduit for meeting the larger (charitable and evangelistic) need.”

Part of this has to do with the mission of the local church as opposed to other parachurch or ministry organizations. They do, in fact, have different purposes. But one place where the mission of the local church and social service ministries meet is in the office of the deacon, and that’s a place where I look for significant renewal and serious thinking to take place in the near future.

Shawn Ritenour, an economist who blogs at Foundations of Economics (titled for his book of the same name, which is reviewed in the most recent issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality), concludes on point:

Churches should fully fund their diaconate and charge them with earnestly ministering to the needs of the poor as they become aware. The diaconte should be pro-active and eager to minister. However, they should be wise in their ministration, so as not to promote the very problems they seek to alleviate. More importantly, the church should preach the Gospel to all, making disciples of all people. This two-pronged approach will minister to both the material poverty of the poor, and, more importantly, the spiritual poverty of those who do not know Him.

Deacons are, as Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef put it in their Deacons Handbook, “seeing eyes, hearing ears, and serving hands of the congregation.”

These material and spiritual aspects of our lives, and consequently of the church’s and Christian’s concern, has sometimes been called the “double vocation.” What we need to recover is this sense of double vocation, the responsibility of stewardship in its fullest sense, and the proper relationship between the material and the spiritual, the penultimate and the ultimate.

As churches face the kinds of budgetary pressures I’ve outlined, I can think of no better solution than to re-examine these fundamental questions, particularly in their implications for the execution of ecclesial duties.

Today is the 105th anniversary of the birth of the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. From the R&L archives:

Bonhoeffer’s resistance to the Nazi regime included his support for and pastoral participation in the Confessing Church along with other prominent Protestant theologians like Karl Barth and Martin Niemöller, as well as his intricate association with the broader ecumenical movement. When the effectiveness of the Confessing Church’s opposition to Hitler was blunted and his efforts to bring the moral authority of the ecumenical movement to bear failed, Bonhoeffer became involved with the so-called Abwehr conspiracy, which intended to assassinate Hitler, overthrow the Nazi regime, and end the war.

After imprisonment for his role in the escape of Jews to Switzerland, Bonhoeffer was implicated in the failed assassination attempt of July 20, 1944. At the age of thirty-nine, he was hanged by the S.S. at the Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, just weeks before the liberation of the area under Allied troops. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and death are a testament to his commitment to the Christian faith and his ardent opposition to the absolutism and idolatry of Nazi Germany.

I also recommend checking out the new biography by Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. You can read my review of Metaxas’ book here.

The single best work of Bonhoeffer’s to familiarize yourself with his life and thought is the little classic, Life Together.

Stephen Grabill and I follow up on the Lausanne Congress in this week’s Acton Commentary:

After Cape Town: Still Learning to Talk About Business and Ministry

By Brett Elder and Stephen Grabill

The Cape Town Commitment — a document that flows out of the Third Lausanne Congress on Global Evangelization held in Cape Town, South Africa, this past October — has generated a great deal of discussion since its release last week. Prior documents and declarations proceeding from the previous two Lausanne Congress gatherings (such as the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, and the 1989 Manila Manifesto) have been embraced as a sort of social encyclical and common rallying point for the evangelical church — broadly defined — around the world.

Last fall, we sat with rapt attention in the multiplex session on “Workplace Ministry” in Cape Town. It was during this insightful session that we were humbly reminded that one of the shortcomings of the Manila Manifesto was the glaring omission of the business community in the cause for global evangelization. Here we were apprised of the secular-sacred divide that has plagued the Christian church for centuries. Mark Greene, of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, and other distinguished speakers and panelists described eloquently the main reasons why, historically speaking, “ministry” and “business” have frequently operated in hermetically sealed compartments. The bottom line is that the evangelical church has yet to integrate ministry and business or harness its potential synergy in significant ways for the cause of global evangelization.

The sad reality for far too many in the church is that “ministry” is sacred and “business” is secular. You do not have to be a theologian to grasp the logical conclusions that follow and that perpetuate these bifurcated realms. Christian discipleship is reduced to one form or another of ministry effort and all ministry is done through the institution of the local church or a nationally or globally oriented parachurch organization. Therefore, all those serious about ministry will be drawn to spend as much time as possible in the “ministry” world. Perhaps one can even take some of that ministry into the “secular” workplace and redeem it? Perhaps Bible studies or personal evangelism efforts will help redeem that space?

When we relegate work (which God ordained before the fall) to the “secular” realm we cede territory that is squarely a part of God’s kingdom design. This separation has profound consequences. In fact, from a biblical vantage point, what we commonly refer to as “ministry” is no more sacred than “business” — God is the author and designer of all of life. That means that reflecting God’s image in our business activity is indeed a sacred calling and one worthy of a lifetime of intentional effort. It is most certainly not a necessary evil. We commend the framers of the Cape Town Commitment for very clear language that charts a fuller, more robust trajectory for evangelism and discipleship; thereby inviting the remaining 98 percent of the Christian community who do not serve in formal ecclesiastical roles to understand their vocation as “ministry.” We all must reflect God’s image as we employ our unique areas of giftedness in service to our neighbor, the kingdom, and the world around us. (more…)

Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
By

Two more thoughtful reviews of Jordan Ballor’s Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness are in. Ross Emmett says that, “those concerned about the role of the church in the world today can learn a lot by reading and reflecting on Ballor’s excellent critique of the ecumenical movement’s political economy.” And in the new issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, Thomas Sieger Derr agrees with Jordan that the ecumenical movement should be “appropriately circumspect in its ethical pronouncements on specific matters of public policy.”

And, on his blog, Hunter Baker (he’s a PowerBlogger, too) chats with Jordan about Babel. Here it is in full:

Baker: Writing a book is serious undertaking that requires a lot of motivation. What was it that inspired you to write Ecumenical Babel?

Ballor: A number of years ago I first became closely aware of the kinds of advocacy that was going on by officials at ecumenical organizations. In the meantime, while pursuing graduate work and various duties at the Acton Institute, I kept an eye on ecumenical affairs, and when the 2010 Uniting General Council of the soon-to-be-formed World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) was announced I had the idea to write something engaging the social teaching of the various ecumenical groups. The WCRC was going to be formed at a meeting here in Grand Rapids at Calvin College, so I thought that this was an event that was perfect for the launch of a project that would later become Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness. (The less-colorful working title was Ecumenical Ethics & Economics: A Critical Engagement.) As I say in the book, given my denominational background, including my current membership in the Christian Reformed Church (a member denomination of the WCRC), I have a real theological as well as spiritual interest in ecumenism, which I believe is of utmost importance in contemporary Christian life. The real promise and challenge of authentic ecumenism is undermined to a great extent by the kinds of frivolous and downright irresponsible pronouncements coming out of the mainline ecumenical groups, and this is a tragic state of affairs that I feel needs some ongoing response. Building on a line of criticism I find in the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Ramsey, and Ernest Lefever, Ecumenical Babel is an opening statement in what I hope will be a renewed conversation.

Part of your argument, as I understand it, is a complaint against the practice of left-wing economics tied to the Christian faith. You would prefer that denominational confabs leave matters of economic policy undeclared and advert to prudence, instead. Is that a fair representation? And if so, does your book cut into the efforts of many Christian thinkers to encourage the integration of faith with a variety of fields?

It is a fair representation, provided that it is balanced with my similar discomfort at particularly right-wing economics coming from pulpits as well as denominational and ecumenical offices. What I hope is that my book interrupts the efforts of many Christians to bring their faith to bear on public life in a facile and superficial way. I do believe that the Christian faith is relevant for all of human life. It is a vigorous and comprehensive faith. As Jesus says, he has come that we may have life “to the full” (John 10:10 NIV). I take this to refer to the “bigness,” the comprehensiveness and complexity, of the Christian life in this fallen world. But it is typically not the case that there is a single Christian position on particular economic or political questions, and I find that there is all too often a kind of ideological imposition on the church and its social witness. This happens both on the left and the right, but in this case I focus particularly on the ecumenical movement where the problem is largely left-wing brands of economic and political ideology. Carl Trueman has written a book, Republocrat, that focuses on a rather different context, that is, socially and theologically conservative or confessional Presbyterianism in the United States, where he finds the problem to be an unduly close connection between conservative theology and conservative politics. Insofar as our objects of critique are different (and indeed our sensibilities are rather different regarding the prudential questions of economic and politics), then our respective criticisms are on one level quite radically opposed. But this opposition is particularly in the application, not in the principle, which is that we both write against the ideological interpretation of the Christian faith along particular economic or political lines.

This book was published by the Acton Institute where you have worked for a number of years now. In a nutshell, can you make their case for “religion and liberty”? And can you tie that mission to your book’s message?

The focus of the Acton Institute is to promote a society characterized by both freedom and virtue. The thesis, you might say, is that true freedom is only possible and realized within the context of virtue, the kind of virtue you get from a biblical account of God and his creation. The two must go together; you don’t get lasting or vigorous freedom in society without a virtuous people, and you don’t get a virtuous people without the institutional and structural freedoms that minimally allow, and maximally promote, such virtue. My book’s message relates to this in that it engages a particular set of voices that undermines this rather tenuous balance that holds freedom and virtue in harmony. The mainline ecumenical movement has been advocating for decades now for a kind of social, political, and economic transformation that I think would have deleterious consequences, and they have done so in a way that overreaches the mandates and responsibilities of the Christian churches as institutions in social life. One of the founding motivations for the Acton Institute was to present religious leaders with some introduction to economic ideas, so that their proclamation of the Gospel might be informed by some familiarity with what is involved with entrepreneurship, vocation, and business. The recent statements of the mainline ecumenical movement display the kind of ignorance of economics and un-nuanced rejection of economic realities that the Acton Institute has been working to dispel for the last two decades.

Finally, this book is the first publication of a renewed Christian’s Library Press, which was purchased and put back to work by Acton. Why did Acton buy the press? And what are Acton’s plans for the press going forward?

The Acton Institute’s acquisition of Christian’s Library Press was part of the institute’s reception of the literary and intellectual estate of Lester DeKoster, who passed away in 2009. Along with DeKoster’s books, notes, and unpublished manuscripts, the Acton Institute became the steward, you might say, of the publishing imprint that DeKoster began with his friend Gerard Berghoef and their families in 1979. Over the following decades Christian’s Library Press put out a number of important and valuable books on stewardship, discipleship, and Christian leadership that got some significant, albeit limited, circulation in Reformed and Presbyterian circles. One of the things Acton is committed to doing with CLP is to update and bring some of these texts back into circulation, introducing some of them for the first time to the broader evangelical world. So, for instance, we published DeKoster’s book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, in a second edition last year. This is a little book that captures well, in an accessible and popular way, a core understanding of the value of work and its meaning in the Christian life. Moving forward we have plans to expand the imprint as we make available some of the CLP backlist in new editions as well as publishing new books in the broad area of Protestant social thought.

I’ve issued a call for publication for a special issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality to appear in the Fall of 2011 (14.2). The details are below, and you can download and circulate a PDF as well.


Call for Publication: Modern Christian Social Thought

In recognition of a number of significant anniversaries occurring this year, the Journal of Markets & Morality invites submissions for a special theme issue, “Modern Christian Social Thought” (vol. 14, no. 2). The year 2011 marks the 120th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, the encyclical from Leo XIII in 1891 that inaugurated the subsequent social encyclical tradition. 2011 also marks the 20th anniversary of John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus, which was promulgated at the centenary of Rerum Novarum.

This year is also the 120th anniversary of the First Social Congress in Amsterdam, which has become well-known as a representative of the trend of European social congresses in the last half of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth centuries. Abraham Kuyper, the noted Dutch theologian and statesmen, gave the opening address at this First Social Congress, a speech that set the tone for addressing the “social question” in light of Christian ethical reflection.

In recognition of these important events and their bearing for the course of Christian social thought over the last century and beyond, the journal welcomes submissions focusing on aspects of social thought in the various traditions, both within the Reformed or Roman Catholic tradition as well as in comparative and constructive dialogue between the two. This issue will include a new translation of a selection by Abraham Kuyper. The journal also welcomes proposals for translation other important sources related to the issue’s theme that have not been widely available previously in English. We also welcome submissions focusing on social thought in other Christian traditions, particularly Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox, in the modern era (from roughly 1850 to today).

The special theme issue, “Modern Christian Social Thought,” will appear in the Fall of 2011, and article submissions must be received by August 1, 2011, in order to proceed through the review process in a timely manner.

Queries are welcomed, as are submissions by international scholars and graduate students.

Please direct all correspondence and submissions to:

Jordan J. Ballor
Executive Editor
Journal of Markets & Morality
jballor@acton.org

About the journal:

The Journal of Markets & Morality is a peer-reviewed academic journal published twice a year–in the Spring and Fall. The journal promotes intellectual exploration of the relationship between economics and morality from both social science and theological perspectives. It seeks to bring together theologians, philosophers, economists, and other scholars for dialogue concerning the morality of the marketplace.

Submission guidelines, subscription information, and digital archives are available at: http://www.marketsandmorality.com/

The latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality (13.2) is now available online to subscribers. This issue features a fine set of articles from Manfred Spieker, Gregorio Guitián, Joseph Burke, and Jim Skillen. It also has the usual range of book reviews, so ably overseen by the journal’s book review editor Kevin Schmiesing.

This issue also has two special features. The first is a controversy between Jonathan Malesic, assistant professor of theology at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and the author of Secret Faith in the Public Square: An Argument for the Concealment of Christian Identity (Brazos Press, 2009), and Hunter Baker, associate dean of arts and sciences at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, and the author of The End of Secularism (Crossway, 2009). In a lively and wide-ranging discussion, Malesic and Baker debate the question, “Is Some Form of Secularism the Best Foundation for Christian Engagement in Public Life?”

The other special feature in this issue is our second occasional installment of the Status Quaestionis. Conceived as a complement to our Scholia, which are original translations of early modern texts and treatises on ethics, economics, and theology, the Status Quaestionis features are intended to help us grasp in a more thorough and comprehensive way the state of the scholarly landscape with regard to the modern intersection between religion and economics. This Status Quaestionis is an original translation of a piece by the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today.” This piece was written by Bavinck for the First Social Congress in Amsterdam in 1891. This congress is famous for its opening address, given by the Dutch neo-Calvinist theologian and statesman, Abraham Kuyper (available in translation as The Problem of Poverty). John Bolt, professor of at Calvin Theological Seminary and editor of the four volume English edition of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics (Baker Academic, 2003–2008), provides an extensive and insightful introduction to Bavinck’s essay and the broader context of European Christian social thought in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

This issue of the journal also marks the end of the tenure of the journal’s founding executive editor Stephen Grabill, who now is director of programs at the Acton Institute and editor emeritus of the journal. Here is an excerpt from my editorial (PDF):

Dr. Stephen Grabill’s time as editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality has been characterized by close editorial care and precision, a commitment to responsible scholarly expression, and innovation in terms of content and delivery. At the close of his time as executive editor, Dr. Stephen Grabill is most deserving of the “well done” said to a “good and faithful servant” of freedom and virtue (Matt. 25:31).

Dr. Grabill’s farewell editorial is also available and worth reading as a retrospective on the journal’s first thirteen years of publication (PDF).

Given the journal’s ongoing policy of distinguishing between current issues (the two latest issues) and archived issues (which are freely available), this means that issue 12.2 is now fully and freely available to the public.

For access to the two current issues, including the newly-released 13.2, I encourage you to consider subscribing as an individual as well as recommend that your institution subscribe to the Journal of Markets & Morality.

It is sometimes remarked in response to my treatment of the Accra Confession of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and now World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) in my book Ecumenical Babel that the Accra document is not really a confession at all. It says itself, after all, that it is a confession, but “not meaning a classical doctrinal confession, because the World Alliance of Reformed Churches cannot make such a confession, but to show the necessity and urgency of an active response to the challenges of our time and the call of Debrecen.”

Rather than being a confession in some technical ecclesiastical sense, then, it is better understood as a declaration, or even still a “conversation,” as it was dubbed by a commenter at one of my talks on the Accra Confession. My response to this is that I am in favor of a discussion, a dialogue, and a conversation about the Reformed faith, economics, and globalization, but if you actually read the Accra Confession, it is a document that shuts down conversation rather than fostering it. It draws lines between faithfulness and unfaithfulness, just as any Christian confession does. Having already determined the rightness or wrongness of particular views, it forces one to take sides. There’s little room for authentic “conversation” in that kind of a rhetorical context.

Indeed, I would say the dominant interpretive context of the Accra Confession within ecumenical circles is precisely as a confession, “to respond in a confessional manner, that is, to take a faith stance regarding current global economic injustices and ecological destruction.” In his article, “The Historical Context of the Accra Confession,” Averell Rust exemplifies this perspective perfectly. Rust traces the background of the process toward the Accra Confession, dubbed the processus confessionis, and contends, “The debate on whether the ‘integrity of our faith is at stake’ has moved beyond an ethical discussion to a theological one. It proceeded to the call for a status confessionis/processus confessionis.” It is essential to note that the Debrecen call to which the Accra Confession explicitly links itself was a call for WARC churches “to work towards the formulation of a confession of their beliefs about economic life which would express justice in the whole household of God and reflect priority for the poor and support an ecologically sustainable future.”

It is worth exploring conference proceedings published in vol. 65, issue no. 1 of Hervormde Teologiese Studies (2009), which generally reflect a similar assessment. A notable exception is Hans-Wilfried Haase’s “Theological Remarks on the Accra Confession,” which criticizes the confession on a number of salient points. He concludes that the rhetorical stance of the document “becomes a problem, however, when some possible actions take on the quality of a confession and people who, for various reasons cannot agree with those actions, are then excluded from the confession.” Or as I have claimed, a particular wholesale rejection of economic globalization should not become an article of the Reformed faith.

Christianity Today has named the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization at Cape Town one of the top news stories of 2010:

Thousands of global evangelical leaders gather in Cape Town to discuss missions, highlight evangelicalism’s global diversity, pray for religious liberty, and build relationships that will likely bear unexpected fruit in the decades to come.

Check out some of the resources from the Acton Institute related to Cape Town 2010:

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
By

Rev. Daniel Meeter, pastor in the Reformed Church of America (RCA), writing in the Reformed journal Perspectives, “Observations on the World Communion of Reformed Churches”:

My participation at Johannesburg is the reason I was an observer at the General Council, and why I was assigned to the General Council’s committee on Accra (though there were many other committees and a host of workshops that interested me, from worship to theology to inter-faith dialogue). Our committee was huge: sixty people or so. We eventually divided into table groups, and I was a pinchhit table leader. My table included Taiwanese, Chinese, Filipinos, and Indonesians. Our tables were charged to come up with a variety of responses to Accra, such as actions and outcomes or further work on its content and theology. Our responses were recorded and two delegates were appointed to consolidate them into a report to the plenary. I had to leave before the report was made, so I look forward to reading the minutes of when they come out.

One of the table groups reported that a key outcome was that the main concern of the WCRC in general should be “social justice.” The reporter was from a church that had belonged to WARC. This worries me. It suggests to me that this WARC delegate was not talking to REC delegates. It also worries me because I suspect the view that the main concern of the WCRC should be “social justice” is more widely held. Here is my second observation: this is going to be a problem for the WCRC. I hope the executive committee can direct a more holistic kind of ecumenism for the WCRC. (Would there was a Hungarian on the committee.)

I don’t mean to be flippant, but “social justice” is the main concern of civil government, not the church. This is an example of the politicization of Christian witness on both left and right which James Davison Hunter analyzes in his new book, To Change The World (Oxford, 2010). It is certainly true that on such issues the church is responsible to be prophetic in speech and active in demonstrating a just and wholesome life in real and even institutional ways, but to consider this the main concern of a church body is to miss the main concern of a church body. Unfortunately, this is not rare among the churches of the WCRC, the most Protestant and secularized of the world ecumenical groups, and with the weakest common ecclesiology.

I want to be clear that I think it’s right for the WCRC to be focused on the Accra issues (while the Anglican Communion is preoccupied with the sexuality of its bishops). I believe that justice in the economy and the earth is the great issue of our time, and critical to the church’s credibility. But it seems to me that the Reformed tradition can do better than “social justice”–to the actual benefit of social justice. It seems to me that the main concern of the WCRC is the Lordship of Jesus Christ, or in classic terms, the Sovereignty of God, or in gospel terms, the Kingdom of God or the Reign of God. As the Belhar says, “Jesus is Lord,” and this makes all the difference for justice in the world and in the human race. Making some version of the Kingdom of God the main concern of the WCRC will also provide a place for such other concerns as worship, doctrine, ecumenical dialogue, and inter-faith dialogue. Otherwise, the WCRC will have no right to consider itself a “communion” instead of just a big religious NGO.

As they said, read the whole thing. And for an engagement of the Accra Confession and the WCRC within the broader ecumenical context, see my book released earlier this year, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness.