Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Spirituality of the Church

One of the interesting conversations going on in blogosphere is over a issue that I've spent a great deal of time, pastorally and academicially--"the spirituality of the church." I think this is an important conversation, because it gets to all sorts of very important issues for Presbyterians: the "power" or "authority" of the church; the freedom of the conscience; the relationship between "church" and "state"; etc.

That being said, it does strike me that in some quarters, there is a tendency to a "spirituality" doctrine that is far beyond what is necessary to protect the church's spiritual nature as well as beyond what Presbyterian forefathers believed. This view seems to be (my summary) that the church, especially in its ministerial and declarative functions, has no authority or power granted to it by the resurrected and ascended Christ to teach on moral matters that may be issues under consideration in the broader public realm. This would be evidenced in comments that the church should not preach or teach on issues related to poverty, systemic injustice, or racism because those are "public" issues.

[The more telling comment is that we shouldn't preach or teach on these issues because these were the concerns of the "Social Gospel," Presbyterian progressives in the old PCUS, or political liberals of the 1950s and 1960s. Such reminds me of a comment by L. Nelson Bell, founder of the Southern Presbyterian Journal, who once observed, “We resent this further intrusion of Church leaders into the realm of international polices for three reasons. First, they are not competent in that particular field. Second, they have no right to use the prestige of the Church in this matter. Third, we think their advice is dead wrong.” For Bell, the point was really the issue: he simply believed that progressive leaders were “dead wrong." But instead of making the case, leaders like Bell would simply appeal to the "spirituality of the church."]

I think this position is far beyond what 19th century southern Presbyterian leaders, for example, would have recognized. Thornwell and Dabney, among others, commonly made the distinction between taking a particular policy position or advocating a particular political solution as "the church" on the one hand and instructing members on the moral duties required of them as individual Christian citizens on the other. That is why you can find sermons from Thornwell on the "duties of masters and slaves" or from Dabney on "temperance"; both were moral issues that were also political issues and as such required the pulpit to open God's Word on those topics.

The issues under consideration today--poverty, racial and social injustice, AIDS, peace, women's roles in church and society--are both difficult and challenging issues that individual Christians face. While the spiritual nature of the church would prohibit binding the consciences of God's people on particular policies or approaches to deal with these issues, it does not prohibit a ministry of God's Word to deal with the moral requirements involved with them. And while we would not want to have a ministry that demands that Christians support debt relief for Africa, we do want a ministry that raises the point of how God cares (and by extension, how God's people must care) for the poor and forsaken in every culture, American or African.

By overextending the logic of the spiritual nature of the church, perhaps our ministers might fail to declare "the whole counsel of God," which cares not only for the glorious doctrines of our faith but also cares for the grim and desititute of our world--both of which are Gospel concerns. These are things concerning which ministerial power should declare God's Word.

7 comments:

D Hart said...

Sean, if I may, in my understanding of the SpoCh, the reason for the church not speaking on poverty and wealth, or systematic injustice is not because those are public matters but because the Bible has little to say about them in a way that is helpful for policy makers or even individual Christians to take a definite stand in a practical way. To use an example from the 20th century, J. Gresham Machen believed that American politics at the very least was ambiguous about Prohibition. Was it a state of federal matter? Could the Bible possibly decide? Even more, could the Presbyterian Church then endorse the 18th amendment if the Bible did not settle this aspect of the legislative issue (aside from questions about the role of the state in regulating the sale of alcohol, or what actually constitutes drunkenness -- are blood samples necessary?).

The SpofCh then has specifically to do with the sufficiency of Scripture. Does it speak to these matters in the variety and specificity required? Or is it silent? If so, then the flip side of the SpofCh is Christian liberty. Christians may vote for legislators who favor the minimum wage and they may vote for legislators who oppose the minimum wage. Both sets of Christians have liberty and are welcome in the church. But the church may not endorse the minimum wage unless it has clear biblical warrant.

For that reason, it would seem to be foolish for preachers to preach on either Prohibition or the minimum wage. Drunkenness and the poor may be fair game. But I doubt those sermons will have much to say about the way citizens or politicians act in the political arena. If those sermons do become so specific, then I'm betting the pastor has derived his argument less from Scripture than from an op-ed piece or a book.

Or have I missed your point?

Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Darryl: yeah, I think you misunderstood my point. I agree with you that the spirituality doctrine would mean that we shouldn't advocate certain policies from the Bible (and I said that in the post). What I was arguing was that often those who trot out "spirituality" overextend it so that no "moral" or "public" issue can be dealt with from the Bible.

Hence, those who would preach from the Bible on matters of poverty and social justice are decried as promulgating a "Social Gospel," when in fact they are simply preaching the whole counsel of God. To neglect issues of poverty, justice, or race (all discussed in the Bible) strikes me as unnecessarily limiting the subject matters on which ministers preach and as going beyond what key "spirituality" proponents believed and practiced.

I hope that helps to clarify...sml

D Hart said...

So, out of curiosity, do you think Jim Wallis is guilty of the Social Gospel? Doesn't some of this depend on what the Bible says about poverty, race, and injustice? More specifically, doesn't it have to do with whether you start with poverty, race and social injustice and then see what the Bible says, or you start with the Bible and look to see whether it even addresses these subjects? If like John Frame you thought the Bible teaches all truth and you went to the Bible looking for its teaching on cinematography, you might be either seriously disappointed or misread the Bible seriously.

Sean Michael Lucas said...

Well, I think you know better than I do that "Social Gospel" is a category that historically speaking yields a variety of definitions. That is probably why scholars in our field have made distinctions between "the Social Gospel" and "Social Christianity." At least in the way I've come to understand all this, the Social Gospel redefined doctrines in corporate ways--so sin represented systemic and corporate injustice; salvation systemic and corporate justifice; etc. To me, Rauschenbusch's "Theology of the Social Gospel" represented the highest point of this type of theological development.

"Social Christianity" is probably a better technical term for what, for example, PCUS progressives were advocating in the 1920s and 1930s. Influenced by Rauschenbusch and mediated by Walter Lingle, these young progressive came to believe that the most important manifestation of the Gospel was in the "social" or "public" sphere. While they never denied the importance of an individual appropriation of the Gospel, if push came to shove, they leaned toward the social or public application of the Gospel.

In reference to Jim Wallis, he probably falls in this category of "Social Christianity." Although I've not read much of his work nor Sojourners, it strikes me that he seems to make the claim that Christianity cannot help but make a public difference. Even more, that the highest part of Christianity is what it does in the public realm and that Christians should embrace particularly policy solutions to public issues based on biblical rationale.

I believe that this goes too far. It moves beyond the moral imperatives of the Bible on issues such as poverty and creation care, on which Christians should be agreed, to particular public policies and applications, over which Christians might and probably will disagree.

But even here, Jim Wallis doesn't violate the "spiritual nature of the church" because he is operating as a private citizen, thinking biblically about particular issues. Where Wallis would violate the spiritual nature of the church is if he used the pulpit or the church's courts to advocate for a particular policy position and attempt to bind the consciences of God's people from the pulpit for his position.

I think that this is part of the category mistake that some folks make between "church and state" issues (where "spirituality" comes into play) and "faith and politics" issues (where "spirituality" does not come into play). As a result, Wallis is free to advocate whatever policy positions he choose as long as he doesn't do this in the name of the "church" or in the corporate worship of the church.

I hope that helps...sml

Anonymous said...

sean,

wallis does indeed use the pulpit. if you do enough skating around on his site you will find a pre-packaged sermon on darfur for any pastor who shares his cultural values.

and let's put the cards on the table here: when a figure like jim wallis speaks he does so with a heavy backdrop of religion. i don't envy the office of minister in this way. it's not that they cannot have their views, but they ought to be a HECK of a lot more careful when speaking publically. private speech is one thing, but the way figures likek wallis and kennedy run roughshod over the rulebook is enough to make me spit. yes, that is a way of saying, "pastors, you can think however you please, but keep it to yourself and speak only the Gospel."

where is robinson when you need him?

zrim

Anonymous said...

figures like falwell sounded like they championed the SOTC before the cultural revolution of the 60s. but what was really meant was that the social gospel they opposed was simply not the right one. this was proven, i think, by the fact that when the cultural status quo no longer was in their favor they took up arms, as it were, and enlisted the gospel for their cause since the broad cultural agendas would no longer tolerate them...and voila...the moral majority. in hindsight, falwell never had anything close to a proper doctrine of the SOTC (what would you expect anyway out of a revivalist?). it wasn't until the friends he had made with the world turned on him.

zrim

Anonymous said...

"The issues under consideration today--poverty, racial and social injustice, AIDS, peace, women's roles in church and society--are both difficult and challenging issues that individual Christians face. While the spiritual nature of the church would prohibit binding the consciences of God's people on particular policies or approaches to deal with these issues, it does not prohibit a ministry of God's Word to deal with the moral requirements involved with them...By overextending the logic of the spiritual nature of the church, perhaps our ministers might fail to declare "the whole counsel of God," which cares not only for the glorious doctrines of our faith but also cares for the grim and desititute of our world--both of which are Gospel concerns."

Really?

I wonder what one does with scripture when it no longer serves the immediate and contemporary purposes of those who want to specifically apply it? I think of the anti-abortionists who cite the psalm about being knit together in mother's womb as biblical evidence that the public policies of the religious right are what God intends. What happens in times and places where the socio-political scene more or less comports with how Falwell would want to see the public policy shake out (i.e. it is thoroughly supressed)? What does being knit in mother's womb mean then?

Same question for Wallisism. What happens to scripture which supposedly calls for debt relief or the eradication of poverty, the end of war/promotion of peace, etc. in properous environs?

What happens when the "grim and destitute" are not so paltry anymore?

And how do we account for the fact that plenty who hate the Gospel have these same "Gospel concerns"? That is, do we really need the Church to solve Darfur or abortion?

Steve