The Politicization of Faith

In his book The Case for Civility, Os Guinness describes two ways the independence of our faith is strategically compromised when churches try to advance their interest politically. He also describes why this must fail to address the deterioration of our culture, and I think his argument is compelling. This is from p. 101.

Faith’s loss of independence through politicization is more damaging than it might appear, for the cultural captivity of the Christian Right represents a double loss of independence. Rather obviously, Christians lose their independence when they engage in politics in a way that allows their faith to become subservient to politics and its priorities and procedures. But less obviously and equally important, Christians have already lost their independence when they attempt to find political solutions for problems that are essentially cultural and prepolitical — in other words, when they ask politics to do what politics cannot do.

When there has been a profound sea change in culture, as the United States has experienced since the 1960s, it is both foolish and futile to think that it can be reversed and restored by politics alone. That approach will always fail, and can only fail. Politics is downstream from the deep and important changes in American culture, and what lies upstream is mostly beyond the reach of political action. Thus overreaching political activism is bound not only to fail, but to leave the cultural changes more deeply entrenched than ever and those fighting them weaker than ever.

So instead of using political methods, like mobilizing church members to support or oppose certain political candidates or ballot measures, churches should simply teach the Word as it applies to the moral, ethical, or social questions implicit in the political debate. Then the members can act individually, based upon their informed conciences. That action would certainly not be limited to voting. The more powerful actions would be things like speaking the truth in love to those with whom our lives intertwine, and reflecting the mercy of Christ in our deeds.

Sometimes individual Christians (even ministers) may have opportunity to speak out publicly, but we should distinguish between speaking as individuals and speaking as the Church. When conducting a service, teaching a Bible class or counseling, I speak for Christ at the behest of His Church. When writing a blog post or speaking in a hearing before the town council, I voluntarily speak only for myself, a member of a particular community. Every member of a church has a similar private voice, which can collectively have a powerful influence upon our culture. However, this voice is not a tool to be manipulated directly by churches, because that would turn a prepolitical influence into a political one, simultaneously weakening it and compromising the independence of our faith from the political winds.

The Doctrine of the Church

Lutherans expressed the clear biblical teaching about the Church of our Lord in a time when most people were rather unclear in that area. Our doctrine is confessed in the Augsburg Confession, articles 7 and 8, and Article 12 of part 3 in the Smalcald Articles.

The Evangelical Lutheran Synod has also produced a doctrinal statement on the Church, which tends to follow the simplicity of the Augsburg Confession in some ways, but adds a focus on church fellowship and the matter of “the local congregation.” The focus on church fellowship is to be expected because of the sturm und drang following the dissolution of the synodical conference. We want to be clear about our reasons for associating publicly, or not, with other Christians. The focus on “the local congregation” seems to be a holdover from a controversy between members of the Synodical Conference. Missouri Synod theologians like Francis Pieper recognized that a local congregation possesses the essential qualities of an outward manifestation of the Church, while Wisconsin Synod theologians wanted to confess that the particular details of congregational organization manifested among us are not divine requirements. For some reason, these two emphases were considered to be in opposition to one another, and some of that controversy crept into the ELS statement on the Church.

The language used in the ELS statement to describe “the local congregation” speaks of “external forms.” That sounds like jargon if I’ve ever heard it. As far as I can tell, an external form is a specific institutional arrangement with all of its organizational details. Apparently it was not obvious to all in 1980 that God has not commanded any particular “external form” of the Church, though I suspect that those allegedly espousing such a view were misunderstood by those who condemned it. That language was picked up again in the 2005 ELS doctrinal statement “The Public Ministry of the Word,” only there referring to a specific position of responsibility with all of its organizational details, such as the office of pastor. There, the ELS wishes to confess that God has not limited the concept of “public ministry” to any particular position of responsibility. Notice how the use of “form” in 1980 and in 2005 have a similar intent: to say that the Church (on the one hand) and the Ministry (on the other hand) are not limited to the examples we see before us today. Yet they are also different, not least in the fact that contrary examples of “church” were not available in 1980, while contrary examples of “ministry” were prevalent in 2005.

I wonder, then, why there has been such a desire to insulate ourselves from “forms.” Do some really believe that there has only ever been one outward arrangement for the institution of the Church, with all of its organizational details? Such a narrow view is a bit ridiculous, given the variety of arrangements that have existed through history. Or is this the product of a bogeyman? Has there been too much emphasis upon the principle of Christian liberty over against the essential marks found in a Christian congregation, so that in order to protect that liberty, we don’t even wish to define an external congregation essentially according to those marks? Is it reasonable to think of an “external congregation” exactly in terms of God’s Word and Sacraments, and if so, will Christian liberty allow us to consider such an external congregation as a divine model for every Christian to seek? Is there any reason to define “external congregation” in any other way, in this context?

My final observation about the ELS statement on the Church is that point number 3 stops short. It gives the impression that the definition of the “office of the keys” is exhausted in the phrase “the authority to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments,” and it says nothing about the divine command to perform these tasks. It ends with the adverbs “individually and collectively,” but only two references to explain them. In fact, the references are given in the order of “collectively” first, and “individually” second (a purposeful chiasm, perhaps?). What is lacking here is the connection between John 20:21-23 and the collective exercise of the Keys. Of course, this is a possible junction point with a statement on the doctrine of the Ministry. Some parts of the 2005 statement do serve to clarify this, but use different terminology.

What do Tax Cuts Cost?

I’m a bit tired of reading about the prohibitive cost of tax cuts. The “cost” of a tax cut is a backwards and wrong expression. A tax cut doesn’t have an assignable cost, unless you can count your chickens before they hatch.

Taxes are by nature a forced confiscation of private property, though they are necessary to pay public bills. The nature of taxes means that their very existence is a drain upon the economy. Hence, for a better economy, and an economical benefit that could be enjoyed by all, taxes should be minimized.

When a politician speaks about the “cost” of a tax cut, he assumes the revenue of a particular tax to be already at his disposal, even before the tax has been collected. He also assumes that any negative economic influence of imposing the tax will be unworthy of consideration as a “cost.” On the first assumption, he is plain wrong. On the second, he is irresponsible.

The idea that uncollected, future taxes are already at the disposal of our legislature is exactly the same as the idea that a private citizen’s credit card limits are an asset just like his savings account.

Something to Chew On

It’s been quite a while now since my last post. Sorry about that. Over the last three to four months, I’ve had a higher-than-usual online workload as I worked to upgrade a pretty serious web site. The upgrade is now officially finished, but as always, there are aftershocks of work to do. In the meantime, the vicar at my parish has received a call to his own church. I’m thankful for that, because he’s been ready for a while, but had to mark time here for a few months. So my parish duties are now adjusting back to something like they were in the pre-vicar era.

By the way, the web site upgrade brought us into Plone 3, which is in many ways a great improvement over Plone 2. The experience has been pretty good overall. There are times when I’m sick of doing things on a computer. That has the benefit of driving be back to my ginormous backlog of “to-read” materials. On the other hand, the creative digital juices have also been stimulated from time to time, and I’ve been able to take a few minutes here and there to advance the state of some of my selfish software projects. (Selfish because I am the chief beneficiary of my efforts.)

Here’s something spiritual to think about, a theological nugget to chew. Check out Deuteronomy 29:29.

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.

That’s a distinction between things that God has chosen not to reveal, and those things that He has revealed in His law (aka His word). It means that it’s fruitless, foolish, and probably against our best interests to pry into the things God has kept secret, but it’s fruitful, wise, and very profitable to give our attention to what He has revealed.

Neat verse. It encapsulates an important theological distinction and expresses it rather clearly.