3.13.2006

Against Christianity?


Peter Leithart is controversial and provocative. He wants to be. He wants to change the categories and labels so that we think about what we’re doing. Thus the title of this book.

What’s it all about? Largely, it’s about a “Christianity” that is confined to the head, the pew, and one day of the week. This is contrasted with the Biblical view of the Church as “the Assembly” (Greek: ekklesia). Leithart doesn’t go the usual route with this term – called out of the world, or called as in elect of God. Instead, he notes that this is the same term the Greeks of the day used for their political gatherings which had the purpose of governing the city. Assembly is Parliament. Ekklesia is Congress. The Church is the new governing body of a new City. It is the City of God, already established here on earth, as a challenging alternative to the secular city.

Okay, so now that I’ve got you nervous, let me alleviate that. Leithart does not mean political as you think of political. He does not advocate political activism as it is typically thought of. The Church isn’t supposed to be telling congress what laws to pass. It’s not like that.

Now let me make you nervous again. The Christianity Leithart is against allows the world, and even Christians, to marginalize their faith out of the center of culture. Instead, our faith, if preached and lived out faithfully, will have tangible results beyond the pew and morning devotions. We will act differently at work, with our neighbors, etc., and that will change the culture. This is not a bad thing. We have to rethink what culture is; it is nothing more than the outworking, externalizing, of religion. What we DO is determined by what we BELIEVE.

Many people lament the times in history where whole cultures and their governments have adhered to Christianity, because it makes for nominal Christians. This is misguided. Such nominalism is a real concern, but in a thoroughly Christian culture it can be dealt with through knowing each other well, and subsequent church discipline. We don’t need a godless general culture to produce genuine Christians. Leithart points to Jonah at Nineveh as an example. “You called me to be a prophet against them, not a chaplain for them!” But what’s wrong with being a chaplain aligned with a power that believes?

Along these lines, Leithart’s last chapter is “For Constantine.” Christendom is not an inherently negative thing, where the Church is grasping after power in a sinful way. “Christendom meant not the Church’s seizing alien power, but alien power’s becoming attentive to the Church” (pg 129, quoting Oliver O’Donovan’s “Desire of Nations”).

“The Christian Right made one of the most characteristic of modern political beliefs the foundation of its entire agenda: the assumption that the state has jurisdiction of morals….. A more radically Christian approach would be for the Church to challenge this assumption by reasserting her own jurisdiction of morals…. The Church could begin by accepting responsibility for the conduct of her own members” (pg 118).

But,

“The Church does not agree on, much less enforce, her own ‘thou shalt nots.’ The Church does not even agree that there are ‘thou shalt nots.’ The anti-culture has invaded the Church” (pg 115).

“So long as the Church preaches the gospel and functions as a properly “political” reality, a polity of her own, the kings of the earth have a problem on their hands. Some Haman will notice that there is a people in the empire who do not live according to the laws of the Medes…. As soon as the Church appears, it becomes clear to any alert politician that worldly politics is no longer the only game in town…. This necessarily forces political change, ultimately of constitutional dimensions” (pg 136).

The big questions this book raises, but doesn't really answer or address: how do we go after a distinctively Christian culture OUT THERE, while also affirming religious tolerance in the public square? Was it wrong for Constantine to outlaw pagan religions in favor of Christianity? Why would that be wrong today in America? Do we believe more strongly in the First Amendment or the First Commandment? Ultimately (in the Kingdom of Heaven), the two are incompatible and the former will pass away. But if we’re praying for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, why are we reluctant about this?

No direct answers from me right now, but this from Steve Forbes during his presidential campaign a few years back: we have to change the culture before we can change the laws. Because the laws are just the outworking of our beliefs. Work on the heart of your neighbor; that’s the way to change things. Neither Leithart nor I am interested in imposing Christian laws on people who don't want it. God will judge them for their rebellion eventually; I don't have to now. But we need to keep in mind our goal in the culture war: to win; to change enough hearts that people want to have a government that explicitly honors the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Whether this will actually happen before Christ's return is beside the point; shouldn't we be working towards it now?

Expecting some good discussion on this one...

9 comments:

  1. Well, I'll fire the first salvo. :-)

    How do we establish a Christian culture while affirming religious tolerance? By properly defining "religion". At the time our Constitution was written, the common definition of "religion" was "Christianity". In fact, the first American dictionary, Webster's 1828, only makes passing reference to pagan faiths as "religion". So religious tolerance is defined as tolerance for all forms of the Chrtistian faith, not all false faiths.

    Was Constantine wrong? No. (IMHO)

    Asking why it would be wrong in America today presupposes that it would be wrong. I don't think it would be wrong according to the original intent of the Founding Fathers.

    So, when properly understood, there is no tension between the First Amendment and the First Commandment.

    How's that for a conversation starter? ;-)

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  2. I can't argue constitution, because I know nothing about the American constitution except that the separation of church and state is nothing like it is commonly understood today.

    I question, do we really want to establish a 'Christian' culture? I ask that because it seems whenever culture gets christianized, many pagans become Christian on the outside, but without real heart faith, because it is the 'acceptable thing' to do. It has been a long time since I read a book entitled "The Once And Future Church," but I seem to remember that was part of what happened when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. The far reaching changes in the church that came from that have lasted until the last couple of decades. Now we seem to be in a paradigm shift back to a culture much more like that of the early Christian church. Is that good? I'm not sure, but the cultural christianity of the past was more friendly, but how many people were christian in name, but not in any other way because it was the expected thing?

    I'm looking forward to hearing more from others.

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  3. Conrad, can we really say the Founding Fathers wouldn't have had a problem outlawing paganism? Wording it that way, I would agree, but what about, say, Deism?

    I agree that establishment of religion largely was meant to leave such establishment to the states, and was tacitly understood to mean no denomination of Christianity to be established, but I also wonder about people like Jefferson and Roger Williams (is that the guy? founder of Rhode Island?) - there were lots of "freethinkers" in that day whom the founding fathers were also seeking to protect, it seems to me. People who were less than orthodox in their Christianity. So I think the word "religion" is there intentionally to make a broad tent, even if back then it was 90% Christians and 10% Deists.

    My "why would it be wrong" does presuppose that it is, but I only worded it this way to mimic the assumption people have, not to endorse the assumption.

    Would it be wrong, if Washington DC saw the light and came to Jesus, for the government to change the wording from "free exercise of religion" to "free exercise of any version of Christianity," as things stand now? In other words, was Constantine wrong to change the laws before the culture was really ready for it?

    Maybe a moot point, since we couldn't change such a law without an overwhelming majority in favor...

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  4. Jim, I agree nominalism is a problem that goes along with culturally endorsed Christianity.

    If I get married, I'm going to have times where I put myself before my wife. Since I don't want to do that to a potential bride, I'm not going to get married. It's not worth the risk.

    I see the same flaw in the nominal Christian objection as exists in the logic above.

    Having a Christianity that has tangible affects on the world around us is worth the nominalism that can be dealt with. External social pressure that's positive isn't all bad. I just preached Zechariah 13, and you might find verses 3ff interesting, about the false prophets...

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  5. steve,
    I thought you were married, or are you and sara living in _____? :)

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  6. What can I say...Jim put me up to it! :)

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  7. Jim Vellenga9:11 AM

    Steve, I guess my question is does Christianity need to be the official religion of the land for Christians to have an effect on culture? I'm not sure it does.

    It seems that if all those who follow Jesus would realize whatever task they do is a vocation in which they serve God, if all those who followed Jesus would live with a consistent view that all they do must be done in light of God and seeking to glorify him, then I would hazard a guess that there would be great effect on the culture even if Christianity was not the official religion.

    Having said that, a similar problem could arise if there were enough Christians in a given culture so that they are the majority. Then it would also be advantageous for people to become nominal Christians as that is the group that makes us the majority.

    So I guess either way the same danger it there.

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  8. Good one, Annette! It, just an illustration people!

    Jim, this angle you take makes sense to me. I agree we don't need an officially Christian nation to change the culture. That's part of my point: we need to get the culture there first. Ditto my agreement on your second paragraph.

    I even agree that nominalism is a danger in your last paragraph, but in some cases, even now, it's a danger I'm willing to live with.

    For instance, I like that adult movie stores are social taboo in most parts of the country. There is an external social pressure against them, including some zoning laws, probably. This is good and imposes morality on the town. Great! It makes porn addicts deceivers. I'm fine with that. It is up to the Spirit, the Church and the convicting Word and Sacraments to deal with such deception.

    The trick comes when you talk about commandments 1-5 of the Big Ten. To have laws making their breaking illegal would be, to put it negatively, a theocracy. This is the move which Conrad and I are provocatively saying isn't inherently bad...

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  9. I guess I am not sure that the establishment of a theocracy is what we are charged to do as the church. This is not to say that I would not want a Christian government that enforced the first tablet of the law, but rather, that I would need to be convinced that that is something we as Christians are charged to establish.

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