Thursday, August 11, 2005

Scattered Replies

[The following blog post is by Jus Divinum]

First, some links:

Scott Klusendorf draws our attention to "Mr. Calvin Goes to Washington". I think it provides an interesting perspective on the ECB dispute. Keep in mind that people like Steve Camp have taken to calling themselves "Protestant Reformed Christians," rather than evangelical, which is ironic indeed.

Russ/Sosipater provides an interesting quote on religion and politics from a noted Reformed Baptist critic of theonomy. (Yours truly also manages to get into Russ's quote of the day.)

I want to take some time to deal with some scattered replies to my various recent blog entries, mainly authored by Phillip Johnson.

Phil replies to my "Slippery Slopes and the Genetic Fallacy" with four complaints on the subject of political activism:

"My first gripe is with ostensibly Christian organizations and ministers of the gospel who in any degree dilute, suppress, deflect, or confuse the simple, pure gospel message they are called and ordained to preach, and either substitute or blend into their "gospel" a political message instead.

My second gripe is with those who think (or act as if) political remedies for society's evils are more effective instruments for the improvement of our culture than the gospel message itself.

My third gripe is with those who make politics a higher priority than evangelism in their dealings with unbelievers.

My fourth gripe is with those who think political activism is a duty incumbent on all Christians."

I largely agree with Phil's four points above. I'd just register a few caveats. Re: his first point, I'd just say that there is a difference between a "Christian organization" which simply articulates a political message, and an organization which "blends into their 'gospel' a political message". There is a difference here, and it ought to be respected. I have yet to find a significant ECBer organization which actually espouses the view that political activism is part of the content of the gospel message itself.

Re: his second point, again, I have yet to find any ECBers who do "think (or act as if) political remedies for society's evils are more effective instruments for the improvement of our culture than the gospel message itself." Rather, this is often an unwarranted conclusion drawn by critics of ECB about anyone who spends any time involved in political activism. I'm not saying Phil has done this, but I have seen it done (repeatedly, in past entries on Steve Camp's blog, for instance).

Re: his third point, I'm not quite sure how to apply it to anyone in particular. That's because, for just about any ECBer I know of, it is next to impossible to know whether they "make politics a higher priority than evangelism in their dealings with unbelievers". After all, to the extent that we know anything about an ECB leader, it is ordinarily only through their publicly accessible writings and speeches, and therefore we have little idea how they interact with unbelievers in their daily relationships with them. For instance, despite reading both Phil Johnson's and Al Mohler's blogs rather faithfully, it would be a total non sequitur to infer anything at all about "their dealings with unbelievers" on a regular basis, much less their "priorities" with them. Nevertheless, Phil's third point here is a good one in general, although ordinarily the only people we're in a position to apply it to, are ourselves.

Re: his fourth point, as I've already repeatedly made clear, I agree, assuming that I understand what he means by "political activism". I do think there are basic duties of Christian citizenship in a democracy that ought to be taken seriously, however. And my main point throughout this extended exchange is whether cooperative political activism is permitted for individual Christians, not whether it is obligatory for all and sundry.

Phil says, in the link above:

"And I hate to see the very people who ought to be teaching Christians Scripture and sound doctrine wasting their energies instead trying to organize evangelicals to maximize the clout of the American political right."

This, of course, presupposes that energy spent on political activism is by definition "wasted energies". You see, it's comments like these which lead me to think that Phil really thinks, in his heart of hearts, that it is forbidden for individual Christians to spend any time whatsoever in political activism. Phil of course expressly denies that he thinks this. But on the other hand, it's a clear implication of what he says above. For Phil, by definition spending time on political activism is a waste of energy.

It's an open question, of course, as to whether every Christian is called to be a teacher of Scripture and sound doctrine in the first place. Is Phil speaking of an informal calling, or a full-time, formal calling? Informally, with respect to our individual relationships with other Christians and in our families? Yes, but then there's little evidence that ECBers contravene that responsibility. Formally, with ongoing teaching ministries in the church that involve public exposition of Scripture and time devoted to little else? No, I don't buy that; not everyone is called to that. Dobson is a psychologist and pediatrician and Colson is a lawyer. Is Phil really saying that he can lay down the law as to what these individuals ought to be doing, with respect to their individual callings? Is the Christian doctor "wasting his time" because he could be teaching Scripture instead?

Sure, Phil says that political activism is legitimate for the individual Christian, but when it comes down to it, when they spend any time doing it, Phil emphatically thinks it's all a waste of time. This isn't a consistent position on Phil's part, unless Phil thinks it's legitimate for Christians to waste their time. So it certainly looks like Phil subscribes to the very prohibition that he otherwise denies.

Moving along, Phil Johnson replies to my "Interesting Question" post. Since Phil has earlier accused me of injecting irrelevant parties into the discussion, I suppose turnabout is fair play :-) Suffice it to say that the 'interesting question' was being posed for Steve Camp, not Phil Johnson. And from what I can tell, Camp's and Johnson's positions are somewhat distinct, with Camp's being the more radical and implausible. For instance, Camp believes that evangelicals do compromise the gospel when they work along side Roman Catholics to reform culture on moral evils like abortion and judicial tyranny. It's a fair question, then, whether Camp thinks that evangelicals also compromise the gospel when they work alongside Roman Catholics with respect to military purposes, and if not, why not?

Johnson posts a reply, but he doesn't bother to answer the question. Indeed, he doesn't think this is a very good question at all, but that's only because he's completely misconstrued the parallel that was asserted. He asks:

"You seriously think that's a good question?

Do you honestly see such a close parallel between individual Christians serving in a secular government's army, and evangelical churches, ministers, and media ministries who not only start their own parachurch politico-religious organizations (where doctrinal boundaries are deliberately erased for the sake of political harmony)--but also target the community of believers in their efforts to coordinate, recruit, and raise funds for various boycotts, legislative initiatives, and political campaigns?"

First, as I thought I made clear earlier, there is a distinction between 'individual Christians' and 'the church'. Just because someone thinks it's OK for individual Christians to do something, according to their gifts and opportunities, doesn't automatically mean that they think it constitutes the mission of the church. Phil is still stuck in his "mandate for the whole church" mode, where every endorsement of ECB constitutes a claim that "political activism is a 'kind of "ministry"' that ought to consume the energies of the church as a body." Once again, he persists in finding his favorite bogeymen even in posts that have little to do with them. Phil thinks I'm asserting "a close parallel between individual Christians serving in a secular government's army, and evangelical churches, ministers, and media ministries". But, of course, I wasn't drawing a parallel between the activity of individual Christians and the activity of the church as a whole, at all. I was drawing a parallel between individual Christians and individual Christians. What aspect of this is so hard to grasp?

Asking the question I linked to establishes a baseline for honest discussion, and that's all. If someone thinks it's OK for evangelicals to cooperate with Roman Catholics in a military endeavor, then it's utterly inconsistent to argue that such cooperation in a political endeavor is forbidden, or somehow compromises sola fide. Indeed, all of the factors which are usually said to condemn the cooperative political endeavor to illegitimacy -- Christian/non-Christian cooperation, fallible method, unsure outcome, aiming at nonspiritual goods, aiming at noneternal goods -- are present in the cooperative military endeavor as well. Getting both sides to at least acknowledge this is a good start. At this point, the issue of how you go about each activity, and in particular how local churches are to be related to it, has not so much as been broached. And a good thing too, because if there can't be any honesty about the basic inconsistency of the position just sketched, then there sure isn't going to be any profitable discussion of the wider issues.

Phil may say, "Hey, I don't believe that! I don't believe individual Christians are sinning by cooperating with non-Christians in political endeavors!" And maybe he doesn't. But again, the post to which he is responding wasn't directed at him.

Second, in his response above Phil has thrown in everything but the kitchen sink, and then attributed it all to me. Again, the question was a simple one: what are individual Christians allowed to do, and with whom are they allowed to cooperate? But where Scott Klusendorf phrased the question simply in terms of what Christians are allowed to do (is it "not OK" to work on pro-life causes?), Phil insists on reading into this simple question an obligatory agenda for what "evangelical churches" and "ministers" should do. Indeed, Phil seems to think that if you dare to say that "it's OK" for Christians to cooperate with non-Christians in pro-life matters, then you must be endorsing "media ministries" and "parachurch politico-religious organizations". Beyond this blunder, if Phil recalls, I've explicitly and repeatedly said that I don't think there's a need to call these organizations "Christian" or "ministries" anyway.

Phil asks:

"In other words, how much does the legitimacy of our support for the war against terrorism justify the use of evangelical resources in pursuit of that war?"

Notice the equivocation on "evangelical resources". What is meant here? What ministers of the gospel do in their local churches? Or, what individual Christians voluntarily decide to do? Or what? On one reading of "evangelical resources," Phil would be saying that any expending of any efforts of any evangelicals, in cooperation with non-Christians, is an unjustified use of "evangelical resources". Sometimes I fear that Phil actually believes this (see above), but he seems to distance himself from this extreme view at times. On another reading of "evangelical resources," it is only when gospel ministers or local churches or Bible study radio ministries devote their time to this, that resources are automatically being misdirected. Which is it?

Elsewhere, Phil writes:

"Jonathan Felt wants me to answer his every argument in favor of turning the evangelical movement into a political lobby. (No, I'm kidding. I know he's not consciously arguing in favor of that. But he seems blissfully unaware and unconcerned that that's what in fact is happening.)"

I'm not "blissfully unaware" of it. But I do ask a simple question: What's wrong with turning the evangelical movement into a political lobby?

Such a question may sound shocking, even scandalous. But the problem with Phil (and Steve Camp too, BTW) is that the phrase "political lobby" or "PAC" gets thrown around like it's some swear word that ends all debate by its very crudity. Since this presupposes the very value judgment that is in dispute, I fail to see how it furthers the argument. If "political lobbying" were all that evangelicals in America ever did, then perhaps we might have a problem on our hands. But Phil has scarcely said anything to make that proposition tenable. Now, a case might be made that "political lobbying" is one among many things evangelicals do in America, but how this is scandalous, I have no idea.

Finally, Phil goes on about my wordiness, and prefers that I only post "just one or two main points at a time". Someone inform me when Phil actually adheres to that standard, when critiquing the fads of the day in his own blog entries. In the meantime, I thought I took the time to boil down this whole dispute to two simple paragraphs from me, and then suggested serious consideration of five simple questions from someone else. You'll find them about halfway through this piece. I said there, in part:

"But second, I wonder what Phil would say about the following two claims of mine:... [two paragraphs deleted] 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."

I don't think it would take a whole lot of effort to confront these specific claims directly. As I've said elsewhere, any legitimate cause can be pursued with idolatrous priorities, such that the primary mission of the church gets undermined. But that's not the issue (if it were, I'd be presenting a completely different set of arguments, asking the critics of ECB to support their sociological generalizations about allegedly idolatrous priorities with cold, hard facts). Rather, I want to know if Christian/non-Christian cooperative political endeavor is acknowledged as permissible behavior, in any form.

4 comments:

  1. Jus Divinum wrote:

    > I'd just say that there is a difference between a
    > "Christian organization" which simply articulates a
    > political message, and an organization which "blends into
    > their 'gospel' a political message". There is a difference
    > here, and it ought to be respected.

    Perhaps in theory, but I'd be interested in seeing a specific real-life example of any major evangelical political organization that has made a clear and unambiguous effort to maintain a definite distinction between law and gospel—without participating in activities like ecumenical or inter-faith prayer meetings; without extending implicit public recognition to Roman Catholic priests as if they were legitimate ministers of the true gospel; without supporting ecumenical "evangelistic" programs; and without allowing the political message to eclipse the gospel in their message to unbelievers.

    > I have yet to find a significant ECBer organization which
    > actually espouses the view that political activism is
    > part of the content of the gospel message itself.

    Well, I grew up less than a mile from the headquarters of the prototypical example of this: Billy James Hargis and his Church of the Christian Crusade. An anti-communist political message was the sum and substance of almost every message he ever preached—both from the pulpit each Sunday and on his radio broadcast each day. According to Hargis, communism epitomized the devil's program, and he defined the "Christian Crusade" solely in terms of a political agenda. What he did in the '60s was very similar to what many in the Christian Right are doing today.

    If you want to see the same principle in action in an earlier generation, I'd urge you to read the sermons of Billy Sunday, J. Frank Norris and other Prohibitionist preachers prior to 1935, and see if you can find any well-known ones who managed to keep from blending the message of Prohibitionist politics with their "gospel" preaching.

    And of course, the liberal political dalliances of the early twentieth century virtually all ended with theologies that replaced the gospel with a liberal social agenda. Ron Sider and Jim Wallis seem to be following the same trail.

    I'd say those who have tried to blend big-time political activism and full-time ministry and managed to keep the political message from overwhelming the gospel message or in some way seriously tainting their testimony are the exception rather than the rule. I wouldn't say dogmatically that it's impossible, but I would say it's not a good idea. No man can serve two masters.

    > Re: his second point, again, I have yet to find any
    > ECBers who do "think (or act as if) political remedies
    > for society's evils are more effective instruments for
    > the improvement of our culture than the gospel message
    > itself."

    As I have pointed out previously, Dobson broadcasts obsessively on political issues and rarely if ever on the gospel. His ministry is billed as a ministry to strengthen families, and yet he barely deals with the redemptive truth today's families need to set at the center of their focus. (The gospel is certainly not a major item on his broadcast agenda.) He has also publicly criticized other ministers who insist on preaching the gospel rather than lobbying for political causes. Two years ago, he sent a letter to his constituents that said this:

    "This month, I want to say a few words about our culture's continued moral decline and, more importantly, the apparent hesitancy of some within the Christian community to try and stem the tide. Despite the relentless attacks by homosexual activists on the institution of marriage, and of "safe sex" ideology, pro-abortion sentiment, and other forms of immorality that are engulfing us, there are those within the church who remain convinced that it isn't our place to make our voices heard on these issues.

    In their estimation, controversy about sexuality, the sanctity of human life and the traditional family are 'political' in nature and therefore unworthy of our attention."


    He then specifically cited John MacArthur and Cal Thomas (along with gratuitous quotes from Jim Bakker) as examples of men who he claimed "remain convinced that it isn't our place to make our voices heard on these issues." Why did he accuse them of that? His answer was a quote from MacArthur saying, "God does not call the church to influence the culture by promoting legislation." MacArthur said instead that the focus of the church ought to be on the proclamation of the gospel, and that pastors shouldn't give up gospel preaching to become political lobbyists. In Dobson's assessment, that constituted evidence that MacArthur is "hesitant" to try to "stem the tide" of unrighteousness in society. The only reasonable conclusion is that Dobson believes the gospel ministry has no power to stem that tide.

    > Rather, this is often an unwarranted conclusion
    > drawn by critics of ECB about anyone who spends any time
    > involved in political activism.

    I've never been critical of just "anyone who spends any time involved in political activism." I have been critical of "ministries" that do little else (while raising money for "the Lord's work"), and men called to the gospel ministry who are known more for the political message they proclaim than for actually preaching the gospel.

    > I'm not saying Phil has done this, but I have seen it
    > done (repeatedly, in past entries on Steve Camp's blog,
    > for instance).

    Well, I am saying that I haven't done it, so I don't see its relevance here.

    > Re: his third point, I'm not quite sure how to apply it
    > to anyone in particular. That's because, for just about
    > any ECBer I know of, it is next to impossible to know
    > whether they "make politics a higher priority than
    > evangelism in their dealings with unbelievers".

    In practical terms, it's not "next to impossible" at all. Because my remark has nothing to do with what they might list as priorities in theory. I'm talking about the issues they actually devote their costly radio airtime and ink and paper to the discussion of. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Matt. 12:34).

    > to the extent that we know anything about an ECB
    > leader, it is ordinarily only through their publicly
    > accessible writings and speeches, and therefore we have
    > little idea how they interact with unbelievers in their
    > daily relationships with them.

    Except that I wasn't talking about "their daily relationships"; I was talking about their public ministries.

    > For instance, despite reading both Phil Johnson's and Al
    > Mohler's blogs rather faithfully, it would be a total non
    > sequitur to infer anything at all about "their dealings
    > with unbelievers" on a regular basis, much less their
    > "priorities" with them.

    Perhaps. But if you listened regularly to tapes from my preaching ministry, read my blog, and heard me speak at conferences--yet rarely if ever heard me proclaim, explain, or defend the gospel, you would be justified in concluding the gospel wasn't enough of a priority in my ministry. And then if I talked incessantly about Bush's judicial appointments and strategies for getting the federal marriage amendment passed, you'd probably be justified if you expressed a suspicion that I was too interested in temporal legislative matters and not concerned enough with proclaiming the gospel.

    > Nevertheless, Phil's third point here is a good
    > one in general, although ordinarily the only people
    > we're in a position to apply it to, are ourselves.

    Well, I strongly disagree, and I submit that you have a duty as a steward of God's resources to try to make a reasonable judgment about the priorities of the ministries you support. If that were as difficult as you pretend, you'd have a hard time being a faithful and discerning steward.

    > [M]y main point throughout this extended exchange is
    > whether cooperative political activism is permitted for
    > individual Christians, not whether it is obligatory for
    > all and sundry.

    I don't know about that. That certainly has not been very clear. If I recall correctly, what stirred your ire in the first place was my criticism of Dobson's leadership in "culture war." As noted above, a major and recurring theme in his message is the notion that if you are not lobbying for legislation, you're guilty of doing nothing of any real consequence to stem the tide of unrighteousness in our society.

    > "And I hate to see the very people who ought to be
    > teaching Christians Scripture and sound doctrine wasting
    > their energies instead trying to organize evangelicals
    > to maximize the clout of the American political right."
    >
    > This, of course, presupposes that energy spent on
    > political activism is by definition "wasted energies".
    > You see, it's comments like these which lead me to think
    > that Phil really thinks, in his heart of hearts, that it
    > is forbidden for individual Christians to spend any time
    > whatsoever in political activism.

    You've misconstrued my comments. I'm explicitly talking about men who are called and ordained and trained and qualified to teach Scripture and sound doctrine—and whose abilities are desperately needed to remedy the spiritual illiteracy that is rife in the church. If those men focus their attention instead on political lobbying, and if they take pulpit time and radio time and writing time that ought to be given to the ministry of the Word and devote it instead to political issues, they are indeed wasting their energies.

    And that is happening, on a wide scale. Nowhere is it a bigger problem than in Christian radio, which happens to be the industry in which I work.

    > For Phil, by definition spending time on political
    > activism is a waste of energy.

    That is not what I said. I would, however, say that to take resources donated or paid for by people who believed they were giving their money to the Lord's work, and use it instead to lobby for the appointment of a particular Supreme Court Justice is indeed to squander resources and waste energies.

    > It's an open question, of course, as to whether every
    > Christian is called to be a teacher of Scripture and
    > sound doctrine in the first place.

    Well, that wasn't my point. But I don't believe it is "an open question." To whom do you suppose Hebrews 5:12 applies when it says, "You ought to be teachers"? To whom does the Great Commission apply?

    > Is Phil speaking of an informal calling, or a
    > full-time, formal calling?

    I was speaking primarily of vocational ministers and full-time leaders in the church, but there's a principle here that's applicable to all: render to Caesar no more than what belongs to him; and render to God no less than the best of your time, energies, and resources.

    > Informally, with respect to our individual relationships
    > with other Christians and in our families? Yes, but then
    > there's little evidence that ECBers contravene that
    > responsibility. Formally, with ongoing teaching
    > ministries in the church that involve public exposition
    > of Scripture and time devoted to little else?
    > No, I don't buy that; not everyone is called to that.

    You're musing there about issues I have never raised, and which are not at all germane to any point I have made.

    > Dobson is a psychologist and pediatrician and Colson is a
    > lawyer. Is Phil really saying that he can lay down the
    > law as to what these individuals ought to be doing, with
    > respect to their individual callings? Is the Christian
    > doctor "wasting his time" because he could be teaching
    > Scripture instead?

    Dobson left his medical practice and Colson left his legal practice to go into "full-time ministry"; they solicit donations from the church in the name of Christ to support what they do; they operate tax-free parachurch organizations; and they are in unique positions of leadership that give them more influence in the church than the vast majority of qualified elders. There is a spiritual stewardship that goes with that kind of influence, and both men have sold it for a mess of ecumenical pottage.

    > Sure, Phil says that political activism is legitimate
    > for the individual Christian, but when it comes down to
    > it, when they spend any time doing it, Phil emphatically
    > thinks it's all a waste of time. This isn't a consistent
    > position on Phil's part, unless Phil thinks it's
    > legitimate for Christians to waste their time. So it
    > certainly looks like Phil subscribes to the very
    > prohibition that he otherwise denies.

    The problem is that you have misunderstood my position. People who lead large evangelical parachurch organizations paid for by money donated for ministry purposes, are not merely "individual Christians." I know of key evangelicals who work on the staff of the Bush White House. More power to them. I'm glad their influence is being felt, and I know God calls and places people in such positions.

    But if they decide to leave the government payroll, start parachurch organizations, solicit support from the church, and use those resources for political lobbying, with the implied promise that this sort of politicking is vital for the redemption of our society and the ultimate triumph of righteousness in our culture—then I'll strongly object, OK?

    ReplyDelete
  2. But if you listened regularly to tapes from my preaching ministry, read my blog, and heard me speak at conferences--yet rarely if ever heard me proclaim, explain, or defend the gospel, you would be justified in concluding the gospel wasn't enough of a priority in my ministry.

    Phil, as far as blog goes, I would see this as a valid criticism. Most of your blog's space is devoted to blogspotting folks who happen to link to you (one recently being of folks who comment to your site), some of your concerns about the church, the errors and faults of theological views that do not align with your own. Perhaps the other avenues of your work, doin fact encompass the other facets of preaching and explaining the Gospel, but to say your blog "proclaims" and "explains" the Gospel seems very disingenuous to me.

    Brad

    ReplyDelete
  3. Brad, I don't think Phil made any claims about the gospel-content of his blog. His point was that if you examine all his output and never see any prominence given to the gospel, you'd have grounds to complain about how his priorities are stacked. Since you admit you haven't done that, your remark wasn't to the point. I have listened to several of Phil's sermons, and his passion for the gospel is obvious. He has also included a lot more gospel-oriented material on his blog than you let on.

    I also think your statement "Most of your blog's space is devoted to blogspotting folks..." is a pretty severe overstatement, Brad. There aren't many blogs out there that can match Phil's for substance. If you're going to chase Phil around from blog to blog looking for new ways to disagree with him, you ought to to pick better issues. I know Phil, and he has enough real faults that there's no need for anyone to invent imaginary ones.

    ReplyDelete
  4. In case anybody is wondering, I often respond to Phil's comments separate blog posts. I responded to the ones above, here:

    http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2005/08/scattered-replies-redux.html

    ReplyDelete