Monday, August 08, 2005

Further Comments on the ECB Dispute

[the following blog post is by Jus Divinum]

I want to make a few more comments on Phillip Johnson's reply to my earlier piece.

(For those following this issue, once upon a time Chuck Colson wrote an article, then Phillip Johnson commented upon it, then I commented on Phil's reply, then Phil replied, then I replied, then Phil replied again, and I gave a fairly short reply. Here, I'd like to expand on this very last set of thoughts.)

As I said in the last reply linked to above, Phil's continues to impute to me the claim that:

"political activism is a 'kind of "ministry"' that ought to consume the energies of the church as a body," and that "government and politics... constitutes a 'mandate' for the whole church."

However, again and again, my main concern has been to argue that, at the very least, Christians are at liberty to enter into political activism, and -- specifically -- are at liberty to cooperate with non-Christians for the sake of bringing about various social goods that are neither spiritual nor eternal. Indeed, I've repeated this last slogan so many times now in comments at Phil's blog, that I can scarcely discern why this fundamental emphasis has been missed in Phil's recent comments.

In this ongoing exchange, and in earlier comments on Phil's blog, I've harped a lot on the issue of 'equivocation'. I don't mean to raise this issue as a means of smearing Phil. Equivocation on key terms is a pervasive and often unintended impediment to genuine Christian dialogue. It doesn't just happen when Christians talk to cultists. It also happens (as in the present case) when sincere, Bible-believing Christians talk to each other over a range of issues.

I think that when I repeatedly talk about it being permissible for Christians to cooperate with non-Christians for... etc., Phil may be reading my reference to 'Christians' as somehow a reference to the church as a whole, or to the mission of the church as a whole. I do not. As I thought I made clear in my original reply, the mission of the church is the Great Commission, and political activism isn't that.

(Of course, even if I believed that political activism was some sort of specific obligation resting upon each and every Christian, I don't see how it follows that I'd be touting this as the mission of "the church". Presumably, if I believed that Christians ought to brush their teeth every day, kiss their spouse before they go to work, and drive the speed limit on the freeway (and, preferably, in that order), it wouldn't follow that I think any of these things is the Great Commission, or the mission of the church as a whole.)

Thankfully, in his last reply linked to above, Phil has drawn for us an explicit distinction between "individual Christians" and "the church". With respect to the former, Phil says:

"I think it's fine and commendable for individual Christians to pursue any vocation that is not inherently sinful. (It is not and never has been my contention that interest or involvement in politics is sinful.)"

And with respect to "the church," Phil says:

"I'm simply saying that organizing a lobby for better dentistry is not the business of the church. Waging military campaigns against unjust nations is not the business of the church. Yet I agree completely that dentists and soldiers in just wars are ministers of God for good in the same sense magistrates and policemen are, according to Romans 13. But that's simply not the kind of "ministry" that ought to consume the energies of the church as a body."

I agree, of course, with the substance of both of these citations. What then constitutes the real disagreement between us? Well, first, there remains a series of disagreements:

[1] According to Phil, ecumenical politics "seems to be the only strategy Colson is willing to consider as a remedy for the moral rot of postmodern culture." I argued that this was false.

[2] According to Phil, Colson "clearly does not believe the gospel itself can transform culture." I argued that this assessment arbitrarily narrows what it means for the gospel to transform culture.

[3] According to Phil, political activism in cooperation with unbelievers implies a denial of "the principle of sola fide as the very essence of the gospel message," which is "what the Protestant Reformation was all about." Such political activism must "interfere with fulfilling the Great Commission'." On Phil's view, "You simply cannot solicit the support and partnership of Jewish leaders in a moral crusade if you're clearly and forcefully declaring the exclusivity of Christ." I argued that all of these contentions were false.

[4] According to Phil, we must reject Colson's "assumption that preaching the gospel and 'engaging culture' are two distinct activities." I argued that, on the contrary, this assumption is as common-sense as anything could be.

[5] According to Phil, Ac 4:12 and Jn 14:6 have some sort of significance against political activism with non-Christians. I've argued that they do not. (BTW, Phil continues to misconstrue the significance of the proof-texts he offers. In the last link above, he makes reference to Mt 20:25-28. I submit to Phil that if that text doesn't preclude Christians from serving as the civil magistrate, then it doesn't preclude ECB either.)

So, there continues to be plenty of disagreement between Phil and myself, even when we clear up the equivocation over 'Christian' and 'church'.

But second, I wonder what Phil would say about the following two claims of mine:

"'Of course, historic evangelicalism has always regarded the principle of sola fide as the very essence of the gospel message. That's what the Protestant Reformation was all about.' This is of course all true, but why does Johnson think it is relevant against Colson? Apparently, Johnson thinks that 'the very essence of the gospel message' sets the boundaries for any and all cooperative endeavor participated in by Christians. If your partners don't believe the gospel, then the cooperative endeavor compromises the gospel. Now, I think belief in the gospel sets the boundaries for some cooperative endeavors engaged in by Christians, and very important ones at that (again, church membership, or gospel ministry, come to mind). But for all cooperative endeavor in society whatsoever? Sorry, but Johnson's going to have to argue for that one. He can't expect reasonably reflective Christians to buy into his socially-restrictive rules on his say-so."


"'You simply cannot solicit the support and partnership of Jewish leaders in a moral crusade if you're clearly and forcefully declaring the exclusivity of Christ.' Sure you can. You can 'declare the exclusivity of Christ' for salvation, while not making belief in Christ a condition for political activism. Does Johnson actually have a good argument against this simple position?"

If Phil would actually agree with me that Christians cooperating with non-Christians in the activity of political activism is not forbidden, and does not undermine the sola fide essential of the gospel, then I think that what appears to me to be our greatest difference, would in fact fade away. If, as Phil claims in his latest reply, "government and politics are legitimate realms in which Christians can and should function as salt and light," then what principled reason could Phil have to the practice of ECB by Christians (whether many or few, and whether in conjunction with non-Christians or not)?

I close with a series of five questions posed by "david" over at Steve Camp's blog.

At his "August 03, 2005 11:53 AM" comment, david asks:

"I don't quite understand why it is acceptable to vote and voice one's opinions, but not to hold rallies. Why is one acceptable, but not the other?

It seems to me that once you have conceded that voting and discussing are legitimate actions for a Christian, you have conceded the basic point of the activists."

(david's comment at "August 03, 2005 2:44 PM" is also worth reading.)

Then, at his "August 03, 2005 8:38 PM" comment, david says:

"As for the broader issue of political activism, it seems to me that in order for this discussion to proceed profitably, some things need to be clarified, things like:

1. To whom are the charges being addressed? Individuals? Churches? Movements? Para-church organizations? Consider: The appropriateness of leveling the same accusations at each one without considering what is each one's proper role.

2. What political or cultural engagement is off limits? All of it, or only some? You say voting is good. Is acting en masse off limits while acting individually is not? Why or why not?

3. Is political/social activism wrong only when it involves cooperation with non-Christians? If so, does cooperating in any way always imply fellowship and unequal yoking? Would it be okay if non-Christians were not involved?

4. Are men/churches/organizations being accused of abandoning reliance upon preaching the gospel because they engage in activities besides preaching the gospel? What is the right way to balance preaching/evangelism with other good works? Is any activity besides preaching the gospel a total waste of effort?

5. Are men/churches/organizations being accused of relying too much on political activity instead of God? If so, how can this be known? Since we cannot read hearts, we must read actions and words. What are its manifestations? If people are failing to trust God fully, should they then stop engaging in political/social activism altogether, or should they pray for grace while continuing to do what is right?"

I think these questions pave the way towards a profitable discussion of just what the critics of ECB are and are not saying. Given the agreement that at least some people have with my previous posts -- people who have, BTW, come up with good material of their own -- I don't think I was completely crazy in making those earlier critiques.

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