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Trusting God less than the Government

Or I could say, I think we trust the Gospel (God’s plan), less than we trust the government.

Yesterday I posted something from Dave Black to Energion.net (with permission), and e-mailed several of my friends (and Energion authors) to see if they might have a comment on it. As I’ve been thinking about the post, I decided I had a few words of my own to say about it. That post in turn links to a post titled Evangelicalism == Christian Legislation at Juris Naturalist. Though the original post specifically uses abortion as its key example, I am not posting about abortion here, but rather on the question of Christian involvement in politics. Also, I am not going to talk about evangelical Christianity, but rather about mainline Protestantism, of which I am a part.

I confess that when I went to read the post the first thing that jumped out at me was this:

I don’t think morality can or should be legislated.

It seems fairly obvious to me that morality not only can be legislated, we do it all the time. I’ll continue to argue that point. But then I thought of some of the idioms I’ve studied in the Bible, and how the meanings of the words as such may not convey what the phrase has come to mean. So I think it might be possible that this obviously false statement (read one way) might mean something rather different. In fact, over the last few months, I’ve asked some folks who use this just what they’re trying to say. In this very informal and unscientific survey, nobody intended to say that a law couldn’t prescribe doing something that would qualify as moral, nor that it could not proscribe something immoral. Rather, they meant that the law could not make people more moral. Perhaps some linguist will get a good research paper out of surveying what people are actually thinking when they say this.

I actually have a problem with that as well, in that I do believe that carrying out moral behavior on a regular basis, even when one is constrained to do so by someone in authority, may contribute to one becoming a moral person. Habits do make mental impressions. I think there is a good deal of this illustrated in the Torah. But that is for another time.

The key issue here, it seems to me, is the strategy that Christians should use in promoting what we think is right in the broader society. The contrast presented in the Juris Naturalist post is that exercising self-sacrifice would be a better strategy for accomplishing our goals than action in the public square. The illustrations used were paying a woman not to have an abortion (with a related question of just how much that would be worth) as opposed to participating in the March for Life in Washington, D.C. While I personally dislike marches as a means of accomplishing political goals, I will admit that’s a prejudice, and I would also see plenty of drawbacks to the proposal to pay women not to have abortions.

Let me illustrate with a slightly less heated issue. In my home church (which is mainline protestant rather than evangelical), we have a group that is interested in reforming the juvenile justice system. I have great sympathy with their goals, but I’m interested not in the validity of the goals, but in the strategy here. I suspect that nobody would suggest they can accomplish their goals without political action. The juvenile justice system is, and must be to a large extent, run by the government. If one is to reform it, one must make changes at the political level.

Such changes come slowly. There is a tendency right now to believe that harsher punishment and more cases of trying juveniles as adults is the best approach. Ignoring the validity of each option, let’s think strategy. The temptation is to become frustrated and angry when the government doesn’t go our way. I’m not going to comment on the state of the evangelical church, but for mainline protestants here in the south there is a great deal of frustration.

What do we tend to do about it? We tend to throw up our hands and say that in this atmosphere there’s really nothing that can be done. It’s not that we trust government so much, it’s that we tend not to see any other options.

And that’s where, I believe, we need to start thinking much more about the gospel. There’s a stereotype of those who think the gospel can solve these things, one that suggests that “solving a problem with the gospel” means that we preach to people, get them to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, and when we have accomplished this they no longer commit crimes that result in them being in the juvenile justice system, they no longer use drugs, and they no longer consider abortion an option. I don’t know how many people might mean something like that, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I do believe in transformation of life through the gospel, but that’s one aspect.

What we need as well is a gospel based transformation of life at the church and Church level, that is churches who are living the gospel on a daily basis, where Christianity is not just what you do on Sunday morning but drives everything. We’ve come a long ways since the church was acting in unity as described in Acts 2:43-47, and the long ways hasn’t all been in the right direction, to say the least! Coincidentally, my wife is reposting some things I wrote about this on her devotional blog. The first part, Church: Alive or Dead – Part I was posted this morning. The result of such a transformation would be to keep many youth out of the juvenile system in the first place, and while this does not eliminate the need for reform, it does help young people. And it isn’t exclusive either. We can do both.

We no longer expect a community of faith as they did. In fact, our expectations of members are rather low. We no longer assume that when a member of the church is in trouble the primary source of help, encouragement, and support is the church. Similarly, we don’t see the church as the source of accountability. Being part of one body will involve rebuke as well, but I fear we have lost the skill (and perhaps the discernment) to do that right. But even further, we don’t see the church so much as the people as a matter of buildings, programs, and organizational structures.

I’m sure someone will point out how many people have said things just like what I say, and that my accusation is unfair. I recall a church where I spoke on prayer. I was told that prayer was the second highest priority of that church. (I didn’t inquire as to what the first priority was.) In view of this, the prayer coordinator was shocked that only about 20 people from a 500 member church showed up for the prayer seminar my wife and I were there to conduct. I simply pointed out that our real priorities are not necessarily indicated by what we say. Looking at the church grounds, I’d have to say that sports was a higher priority at that church. That’s where the time and the money were going.

Similarly look at your church’s budget. Where does the money go? That will give you a good idea about priorities. Yet it isn’t all about money. Where does our time go? Is it looking inward? Is it taking care of a core group of “important” members? I recall a case in which a church board rejected an outreach project to young people. They said it was not a good outreach project because most of the youth involved were not church members. Besides, of course, learning the English language, that board needed to consider just what their church was there for. We often have nice mission statements, but the question is whether our actual mission is the same as our mission statement. You can tell what the mission of a church is by what it actually does.

And this is what I mean by trusting God less than we trust the government. We take our issues to the political sphere and when that fails us we often give up or we make token efforts. There are a huge number of Christians in this country, even a huge number of active Christians. If our money was backing up our words we could accomplish great things. We’d have to find ways to get around some of our structures. I consider church buildings the most wasted structures around. Whole sanctuaries getting used just on Sunday morning and perhaps Wednesday night! Gymnasiums used just a couple of times a week!

Then there are our denominational structures. When I look at downtown Pensacola, I see Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches, along with quite a number of others in close proximity. There are some really good things going in terms of cooperation between these churches. I suspect much more could be accomplished if we dropped some of our concerns with denominational identity and credit. And there are many places were dozens of churches exist close together and the members of one church don’t know what the next church is doing. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone points out to me something happening in the downtown area of Pensacola as the result of this blog post–something I should have known about.

In fact, there are many small lights around the country. I have been tremendously impressed with things I see in smaller churches. What we need is for those things to spread. My mother’s home church has a program that prepares a personalized bag of supplies, including a quilt and other helpful items for children who are going into foster care. I’ve been telling people about that program and over and over people have said, “What a wonderful idea!” And there are plenty of wonderful ideas that result simply from living the gospel on a day-to-day basis, a plan God had in place quite some time again.

I think we could carry out major reforms in our country simply through active discipleship. I don’t think that would keep us out of the public square. In fact, I think it would find us there quite a lot, and much more successful. I just think many of us have given up on the gospel as a force in the church. If so, it is no wonder we are doing poorly as a force in the world.


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