the free fall in our society– the church and the state

I really struggle over the relation of the church and the state. I respect scholars and Christian traditions in their various takes on the matter. I think there’s often good we can take out of varying viewpoints.

That said, I also think the so-called “Constantinian turn” of the church when the Roman Empire became formally Christian, was in some sense the death knell of what the church is called to be in the world: a witness to another lord, the one true Lord, and to the one good news in him. One can plausibly argue otherwise, and surely some of what they say will have plenty of truth in it. But a major problem I see today in the United States is the emphasis on the importance of the morality of the state, as if it somehow ought to be Christian in some way or another. This is the case from both the religious left and the religious right, the former emphasizing world peace and the right to do whatever, and the latter emphasizing a certain morality as in “family values.” Both have a code of ethics, but the attention is turned almost completely to the state, it seems.

Regardless, this is my take on the current sea change in the United States, of course same sex marriage, etc., all in the equation. The church needs to hold the line both on the teaching of the gospel: the good news concerning Jesus, and righteousness: God’s will in Jesus. And of course, that is to be a witness for the world, hopefully impacting the state for good. But the church must neither be influenced by the world, nor expect the world to be influenced by it. If I read the Bible right, that is. But to hear people both from liberal, progressive and conservative perspectives, you would have to think that much depends on what the state is doing, that is all that essentially seems to matter, and the church is present to applaud and support that.

It doesn’t matter one whit what the world does, what the state does, the church must kindly tow the line, holding to the teaching of our Lord, of righteousness. The church always must pray for the state, and be a witness to it of the power of Christ and the gospel. And it does need to be present for the good of all, including the state, praying for its blessing, as well as for the good of all people.

But the church must be careful not to compromise its calling to be a witness to the one good news in the one Lord and Savior, Jesus.

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The United States and us fearful Christians

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.

….All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

….Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.

Hebrews 11-12

July 4 is upon us, this being the holiday weekend preceding it. And if there’s one thing for sure, so many of us, and I’ll include myself, are hardly past the election fervor, caught up in a presidency which may turn out to be the most polarizing in US history, aside from Abraham Lincoln’s presidency during those tumultuous and horrific Civil War days. Hardly any of us like what is going on in US politics, many for similar reasons, others of us for different reasons, some of the concerns being the same across the board. It is a difficult time for a good number of reasons in a nation which is not only polarized, but threatening to be on the edge of being torn apart.

The question on this post is this: When push comes to shove, just where does our confidence lie? What do we think will win and save the day, and why? And just why are we so upset and fearful?

This is not meant to be a critique of the United States, but there’s no doubt there have been seismic changes in society, and that the liberal, progressives have been all but dismissive of the conservatives. And there’s no doubt that the conservatives themselves have written off the liberals. You have few moderates, who by many would be seen as wishy washy and weak kneed. As far as I’m concerned, while I do have opinions about US politics, and especially concerning issues of the day, none of that matters in comparison to the main point of this post. While those things have an important and provisional place, they are not at all on par with what now follows.

We as Christians, and especially the older generation of us, which includes myself, and I plead guilty, we have lost our focus and therefore are weak in our faith, and weary, in danger of losing heart. Oh yes, there will be some who will fight to the bitter end either for the Democratic Party, or for the Republican Party, or their version of what they think America needs, and won’t seem to have lost any heart at all. They have a lot of hope for good, and to avoid what isn’t good through the federal, state and local government. And again, it’s not like that has no value at all. But we in Jesus are actually called to something else, even while at the same time we pray and humbly participate according to our convictions for the good of the state.

Our goal is something better, something much more. It is to be a follower of Jesus in whatever culture we’re placed, to announce and live out the good news of the kingdom of God in Jesus, in the truth that Jesus is King with the hope that follows. We should be those who are commended for our faith in God, both confident and assured that God will fulfill his promises come what may. And that includes whatever we may face in coming days, years, or generations, should the Lord tarry.

We need to quit thinking and from that acting as if all depends on what is happening or not happening in Washington, D. C., as hard as that might seem to us, for some of us for different reasons. Our eyes need to become fixed on Jesus, period, who shows us the way as the pioneer and perfecter of faith, and of course, is the way. Faith, plain naked faith, and I mean the faith that is in the God revealed in Jesus, that is what we live for, and if need be, die for. While at the same time we faithfully pray for those in government, and hope for the best for the nation, and the world.

That is our calling. This is what we Christians in America should be known for. In and through Jesus.

See Andy Stanley’s compelling message, Fix Your Eyes, which inspired this post.

 

at the heart of the gospel

And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
    for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
    holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.”

Luke 1

It’s a little less than six months until Advent, but there’s never an inappropriate time to reflect on its beauty and meaning in the coming of the Messiah. Jesus comes as King, but in a way unlike that of the rulers and authorities of earth. He came and will come, and now comes by the Spirit through the gospel, and he comes to reign. In that reign is most certainly salvation, along with judgment, and from that, justice.

Israel is at the heart of this promise, receiving mercy from God ultimately to extend mercy to others. And Jesus himself is the fulfillment of what God promised to Israel and through Israel to the world.

And this gospel involves a shaking up which in part is the dealing with sin in each individual, including the high and mighty. This kingdom is for the humble, the poor, and the oppressed. The rich must beware, because unless their pockets are open in generosity, they will end up empty.

Mary’s Song is a shorthand for much of what we read in the Bible. The gospel is political, but not like the politics of this world. But don’t be mistaken, it does deal with the politics of this world ultimately, when Jesus returns. And somehow by Christ even now through the church impacts the rulers and authorities, both physical and spiritual.

A missing note I believe all too often in our understanding of the gospel.

For two outstanding reads on this, see Scot McKnight’s, The Real Mary, and The King Jesus Gospel.

the amazing grip of politics versus the weakness of the gospel

I am amazed at the grip that US politics has on people, and I’m thinking specifically of God’s people. And in comparison to that, the gospel itself in most ways seemingly secondary.

That may be an unfair statement, and after all, no one believes that any government or political party will give them salvation and eternal life. This might be akin to the early Christians respecting those in governing authority over them, but proclaiming a new king, Jesus, and a new kingdom, the kingdom of God present in him, with the promise of Jesus’s return so that the kingdom will fill all of the earth.

The tricky part ends up being that the politics of this world is important in its place. Couple that with the reality of the politics of Jesus (see for starts on that, Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount) and you are talking about nothing less than a new society, not simply a way to better oneself and do well in the old order of things.

There might be some good in using the system to impose better laws and work at rooting out evil. I think that can all be well and good in its place. But the one reality that will stay put and change everything is solely in Jesus, and God’s grace and kingdom come in him. And that begins now in and through the gospel and the church.

The weakness and foolishness of the cross. The power and wisdom of God. In and through Jesus.

 

hard topics (and the tongue)

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4

Politics and religion can be quite dicey topics fraught with potential fallout for relationships. The heat can be turned up pretty high when topics surrounding either are being discussed. Discussion and conversation is soon lost into heated argument, if we’re not careful. Perhaps it’s better to avoid such altogether. Probably one of the most helpful attitudes is to acknowledge how much we don’t know, rather than what we think we know.

In Paul’s small but great letter to the Philippians, we find an apt exhortation near its end which can help us in this. First of all, referring to values that were esteemed in the culture of that day, Paul directs the church and by extension us, to ponder what is true, good, beautiful, and praiseworthy. And then he reminds them to live as he did in following Christ. When you consider the letter of Philippians alone, that is indeed a tall order. But one within our grasp to grow into in Christ.

Back to difficult, controversial issues. It might be best to avoid them altogether when we know we might differ with a fellow believer on this or that. It can be good to discuss differences, provided there is a listening ear and openness to learn on both sides. And to those who are not believers, we should major on simply loving, and sharing the good news in Jesus.

Above all, we need to inculcate love between us, especially when what could divide us is simply a few words away. And we can’t take that for granted with anyone. If we do touch on the difficult issues, we need to be quick to draw back and make room for the other person, and their viewpoint. Out of love for them, and for the Lord. All of this in and through Jesus.

Presidents, politics, even nations (empires) come and go. Jesus is Lord.

Scot McKnight has an interesting piece on what the world needs most, precisely, What America’s Culture Wars Need Most, and I agree. Looking at what’s best for the United States, it would surely be a people whose expectations for the United States, or for any government or political entity or leader are tempered by their belief in one transcendent that deserves full allegiance and trust: King Jesus, and God’s grace and kingdom come in him.

This thought may not be easy for anyone, so great is the divide in the United States today. And it’s not like the politics of the nation state doesn’t matter, nor carry with it serious consequences. But it is a question of just where our ultimate confidence lies, and if we even unwittingly place that kind of trust in a political party or ideology of this earth, rather than in God. It is one thing to think this way or that about whatever issue we’re considering. It’s quite another to assume that the answer for the world lies in lining up one certain way or another. How such matters turn out may indeed make a world of difference, but what difference, or we might say kind of difference are we as followers of Jesus, as the church to make through the gospel?

The gospel, the good news in Jesus, is in some ways oblivious to the world and its ways. It matters not who’s in charge in Washington or elsewhere, the church through the gospel continues on with the same humanity coming out of the same life regardless. The church stands as the witness to the one good news which remains constant, and ought to be a light which often brings a rebuke to the nation state.

We must beware of putting our confidence not only in elected officials, but in ourselves as well, thinking that through grass roots effort, we can effect the change needed for the world. Again, it’s not like such things never matter. It’s just that there’s one thing which will stick and effect a change which will go beyond whatever changes occur within the world system. The good news of God’s grace and kingdom come in King Jesus by the Spirit experienced and lived out within the church, and to which the church is a witness is the one reality that will last.

We hope and pray for the good of the United States, and for the good of all nations. But our full confidence is in God’s promise in Jesus, no less. And never in any nation state.

biblical illiteracy and the United States

Scot McKnight has a most interesting post on the Bible’s place in the founding of the United States, and in US political, presidential rhetoric. If you read this, and stop there, you would do well.

My thought is on the great loss of being biblically illiterate, though if you’re into US politics heavy, you will still do better to read Scot’s post. Just a bit long, but well worth it.

The Bible is such an important document in the founding and fabric of the United States, though that’s a complex topic by itself, and I’m in no way suggesting that the United States was meant by its founding documents to be a Christian nation. Only that the Bible certainly significantly contributed to what the United States was and at least to a significant extent still is. But to get back to my own point for this post, I think it would be good and wise for those becoming citizens to have to read a shortened version of the Bible, maybe kind of like a Reader’s Digest condensed version, which would help people understand something of the values and structure on which this nation was founded and built.

We don’t do well as Christians to not be people of the Book. Yes, Christ is our center, who brings us into the life of the Triune God, and is the Savior and Lord of the entire world. But that faith, while centered on the gospel, the good news of God in Jesus, is found in scripture, in God’s written word. To say God’s written word opens up plenty of misunderstanding, but it is sufficient for now to say that the fulfillment of it all is in Jesus. But to understand that fulfillment and what it means from cover to cover, we need to read and reread and become steeped in the entire Book. And like a friend reminded me, the Bible itself is complex. A simple, child-like faith opens one up to the beauty and power found in its pages. But it can leave one gasping and grasping for answers. The Holy Spirit is our help together as we read scripture, meditate on it, and if you wish, commit some of it to memory. But there’s no doubt that we’ll be stretched in the process, which surely is part of the point of scripture, God’s written word.

But we’ve fallen on hard times when it comes to actual knowledge of the Bible. People still buy it evidently, but there are other ways to occupy time now, many. We’ve maybe read it through once, or at least heard large parts of it read, some of that over and over again. So we think we have it, that we really don’t need to read it at all. I hear that we need to do it, not read it. Well, I believe we need to both hear and obey God through it. We need an interactive relationship with God through scripture, and we need to come to it again and again to let its truth break through to us and soak in our bones over time. All of it, not just the precious promise parts of it, but the hard and seemingly mundane in it. The Bible mirrors real life, right to its very depths. But with the one good news for the world in Jesus.

Whatever we are doing, or out and about, we in Jesus, let’s lead the way in serious study and contemplation of scripture.Yes, certainly hoping the better for the United States and all nations on earth. But committed above all to what is mandated in scripture as followers of Jesus.