Rampaging Christian Wowserism

Darryl Hart concludes his next chapter with the correct observation that “the phrase ‘under God’ raises more questions than it apparently answers” (p. 123). This not only is a fair challenge, but it is one we need to take up.

If I might, I would like to borrow a metaphor from Warfield, and apply it to the phrase “the lordship of Christ.” In the hands of liberals, the lordship of Christ is like pie dough — the farther you spread it, the thinner it gets. In this chapter, Darryl traces the origins of the phrase “one nation, under God” in the Gettysburg Address down to its insertion into the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 when we were fending off the godless commies. And they were godless, and this did have ramifications, about which more later. I was born in 1953, so this means that I only lived in a heathen nation for one year.

Between the Gettysburg Address and the revised Pledge, a generic Protestantism tried hard to extend “the kingdom” over every aspect of life. But since this was a social gospel kind of thing, the kingdom was like pie dough. By the end of the process, we find ourselves saying that the lordship of Christ means that we have to put a brick in the back of the john to conserve water, and that we have to drive a putt-putt car to save us all from global warming.

Of course, there is always the question of the facts. For example, if a public policy screecher began demanding that we all start rationing salt water because the planet Earth (which is our only home) was about to run completely out, and that many leading theologians agreed with this (and they would too), and that they offered their agreement in the name of the Lord Jesus, and with many solemn amens, I would still want to know how they could possibly think we were going to run out of salt water.

There is also the question of what the Lordship of Christ means exactly. In my view, it means discipling the nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded. It does not mean, just to be clear, invoking the name of Jesus in order to justify every damn fool idea that might be floating around in our heads. It means preaching the gospel in the narrow sense, saving souls, planting churches, building parish life, and then expecting the right worship of God in that place to transform that region over the course of centuries, and eventually the world over the course of millennia. Patience.

I will grant to Darryl the strong possibility that when Christians rush to implement kingdom ethics in the public square, they will frequently screw everything up. We need to make sure we are doing what Jesus said, and not what we thought Jesus must have said. The textbook case against Christian activism can be made in one word — Prohibition — the word that would have made the Lord Jesus at Cana into a felon. We did a great job there of setting aside the Word of God for the sake of our tradition. So we can fish around in church history and find plenty of examples of Christians legislating against sin in ways that were ludicrous and embarrassing. And I, even though I want the authority of Jesus Christ recognized in the public square, will be suitably embarrassed by it. Not like that, I want to say. I am embarrassed by these things because they are done in the name of biblical law and at the same time were manifestly unbiblical law.

So on second thought, why should I be embarrassed by people doing the opposite of what I am advocating? Okay, so I am not embarrassed by this kind of thing at all. But Darryl should be. Because if Jesus doesn’t care one way or another what we do in the public square, then rampaging Christian wowserism at the highest voltages must be okay. Right?

A big part of the problem in sorting all this out arises when the state forgets its mission and place. Darryl quotes a nineteenth century Presbyterian named Robinson with approval, saying that “the state and the church had different ends. The state’s was to restrain evil and cultivate social order; the church’s was to save a remnant of the human race for the world to come” (p. 118). So what do we do when the state refuses to restrain evil, but rather perpetuates it on a massive scale, undertaking policies that are inimical to the social order? And I am not talking about the nickel/dime bureaucratic foul-ups either, but genocides, pogroms, abortion mills, and more. Does the church continue on its very narrow mission of saving souls, and just like the priest and Levite in the Lord’s story, refuse to look in the ditch by the side of the road? We sometimes miss a subtle twist in the parable. If these men stopped to help the guy and he turned out to be dead, this would render them ceremonially unclean, unfit to do the work of saving a remnant of the human race for the world to come.

Of course, if a secular state were keeping things contained in a halfway decent fashion, in an order-in-the-streets kind of way, Christians ought not to be agitating to get that thing “Christianized” tomorrow. We should be focussing on building worshipping communities — like Paul in the first part of Nero’s reign. But as soon as the state catches on to what’s happening in their midst (and they will), they will make sure to demand something that Christians cannot in good conscience render, and the conflict will be joined — like in the second half of Nero’s reign. To illustrate, let me challenge Darryl to a thought experiment. I will bestow on him one hundred worshipping churches, built to his exacting doctrinal specifications, with about two hundred faithful Christians in each one. We will plant those churches in Saudi Arabia, on the condition that Darryl explain to me how those churches could possibly be there without causing a massive social, cultural, and political revolution.

I would be more than content to labor in the Church for a cultural transformation that is still centuries out. The Church is not in a hurry. I ask of the state only two things in return — don’t ask me for a pinch of incense for the emperor, and don’t undertake any civic enormities that would require a prophetic denunciation from the Church. The conditions sound simple, but this never happens because part of the devil’s strategy is to make the Church confront these issues before the Church is anywhere near ready to confront them. This is because you always want to engage with your adversary before they get their navy built.

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