Sunday, April 15, 2012

One Evangelical’s Response to Andrew Sullivan’s Christianity in Crisis

Summary of Andrew Sullivan’s Christianity in Crisis (from the article): Christianity has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists. Ignore them, writes Andrew Sullivan, and embrace Him. Apr 2, 2012 1:00 AM EDT

The main point of this article—according to the title—is that Christianity is in crisis. As Allan Quatermain said in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, “The Empire is always in some peril.” But Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18b ESV).”

Now I won’t just dismiss this article based simply on the idea that Jesus has his church under control. The Lord has a process for building His church and that includes times of correction. The Apostle Peter told us, “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God (1 Peter 4:17 ESV)? “ One of the ways that Jesus builds His church is through loving discipline. We certainly see that in the book of Revelation, in which Jesus speaks to the individual churches, telling them Who He is, what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong then setting out a path forward for them to overcome and to receive the blessings of God.

The words of Andrew Sullivan are nothing like the words of Jesus. Instead of beginning with a revelation of Who Jesus is, he begins by claiming: “If we return to what Jesus actually asked us to do and to be—rather than the unknowable intricacies of what we believe he was—he actually emerges more powerfully and more purely.” Mr. Sullivan would separate us from the knowledge of Christ by putting it in the past tense and declaring it unknowable. That is not what the scriptures declare. Just before Jesus said that He would build His undefeatable church He asked His disciples who they thought He was.

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven (Matthew 16:15–17 ESV).
Our heavenly Father still reveals Jesus to us through the Holy Scriptures and by the power of the Holy Spirit, but magazines like Newsweek sell more copies when they include a controversial article about religion. To do that they must manufacture a crisis and take cheap shots at the biggest players in organized religion, rich evangelists (though in reality there are undoubtedly far more poor evangelists than rich ones), the Roman Catholic Church and the evangelical churches. We’ll ignore the fact that these magazines pick on Jesus because right now He’s turning the other cheek and the prophet Mohammad isn’t.

The book of Ecclesiastes tells us that God has put eternity in men’s hearts. Mr. Sullivan said, “The thirst for God is still there. How could it not be, when the profoundest human questions—Why does the universe exist rather than nothing? How did humanity come to be on this remote blue speck of a planet? What happens to us after death?—remain as pressing and mysterious as they’ve always been?” But the Apostle Paul said, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth (Romans 1:18 ESV).” So there are two powerful desires at work within fallen man: one for the divine and the other to suppress the truth because of our sense of guilt and a stubborn refusal to turn from our sins. The first chapter of the book of Romans plays that out, showing how we try to create a religion that works for us, recreating God in our own image, if you will.

I will take Mr. Sullivan at his word when he claims to believe in Jesus’ divinity and in the resurrection, but why then does he appeal to the authority of Thomas Jefferson who called “vast parts of the Bible religious manure?” Isn’t he trying to transform Christianity into a religion that is somehow more palatable to people today? It does remind me of what the Apostle Paul was talking about when he said that in the last days there would be people who have an appearance of godliness but who deny its power. Let us be clear, the power of godliness is found in the person of Jesus Christ, revealed in the Holy Scriptures through the work of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father. Jesus is our mediator, the One Who stands between us and God, the One Who brings us together. He paid the price for our sins on the cross and was raised from the dead that we could become right with God.

Mr. Sullivan boldly asserts that we should ignore the Holy Scriptures’ “supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, pogroms, reformations, and counterreformations.” He provides no evidence that the supernatural aspects of the gospel, in fact, gave rise to these things. No causal relationship is established in this article. This is “begging the question” brought to a new low. I could more easily assert, based on the authority of the scriptures, that the supernatural aspects of the gospel transform our lives and enable us to put God’s word into practice. Can one not recall any good that any Christian has ever done? Turn in your imagination and ask them if their good deeds came from their inherent goodness. In my mind, each one replies, “No. God did a miracle in me and enabled me to do some good.”

Mr. Sullivan asks, “What is politics if not a dangerous temptation toward controlling others rather than reforming oneself?” That is the oldest argument in the book. It goes like this: “Don’t tell me how to live; you’re not perfect yourself.” Doesn’t society need some controls? We use politics to create mechanisms to control our society. Anarchy is an ugly alternative. If each one of us strove for and finally achieved perfect moral reformation then we wouldn’t need politics. I don’t see that happening anytime soon. In the mean time, just because a person calls himself a Christian doesn’t mean that he should be excluded from the political arena. Ones religion informs ones conscience. I would not advocate a Christian version of sharia law, but it is perfectly reasonable for religion to have an influence on politics. We might just as well try to exclude logic or ethics.

Mr. Sullivan says, “The crisis of Christianity is perhaps best captured in the new meaning of the word 'secular.' It once meant belief in separating the spheres of faith and politics; it now means, for many, simply atheism.” No, actually, secular simply means things that are not religious. Redefining words is a way to confuse people when you don’t have a particularly persuasive argument.

Mr. Sullivan does allow that there are times of great extremity when Christians should be allowed to be involved in politics, but only the kind of Christians that he advocates: those who ignore Who Jesus really is and who disavow the supernatural power of God. He said, “When politics is necessary, as it is, the kind of Christianity I am describing seeks always to translate religious truths into reasoned, secular arguments that can appeal to those of other faiths and none at all.” The gem of truth here is that, in order to be effective in the political sphere, we must translate spiritual truths into logical arguments, but that is not the sole domain of those who have an appearance of godliness but deny its power. This is something that evangelicals can do. I’m not saying that we always do.

Then he gives us an important caution: “But from Gandhi to King, the greatest examples of these movements renounce power as well. They embrace nonviolence as a moral example, and that paradox changes the world more than politics or violence ever can or will.” Thank you, Mr. Sullivan. I didn’t know that we were experiencing a groundswell of Christian churches advocating violent political changes these days. That is bad. Nonviolence is better. You are so right.

Mr. Sullivan says concerning the Roman Catholic Church: “whatever shred of moral authority that remained has evaporated.” What solution does he recommend? “I don’t know what greater indictment of a church’s authority there can be—except the refusal, even now, of the entire leadership to face their responsibility and resign.” The entire leadership of the Roman Catholic Church must resign or Andrew Sullivan will not grant them any moral authority. That would kill any cancer that exists, but I’m not sure the patient would survive the treatment. It sounds to me like Mr. Sullivan has an agenda to rebuild the Roman Catholic Church as he would Christianity as a whole.

Now let’s look at one of my favorite parts of this article. “Others defend a rigid biblical literalism, adamantly wishing away a century and a half of scholarship that has clearly shown that the canonized Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ ministry, and are copies of copies of stories told by those with fallible memory. Still others insist that the earth is merely 6,000 years old—something we now know by the light of reason and science is simply untrue.” You’re talking about me, Mr. Sullivan (and perhaps also your grandmother). I believe the Holy Scriptures are the Word of God. God does not lie. By His grace and in His sovereignty, God has preserved His Word for us. If you would ridicule me for my simple faith then I will rejoice, as my Savior told me to, but to be perfectly honest your attack is less than impressive. Is that all you’ve got?

There are a lot of things that I’m ashamed of, but like the Apostle Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16 ESV)…” He told the Thessalonians, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers (1 Thessalonians 2:13 ESV).” When we accept the Word of God for what it is then that word works in us and transforms us by the power of God. Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away (Matthew 24:35 ESV).” The way I read the data, after two millennia of scholarship and textual criticism the Holy Scriptures are more impressive than ever and they are still changing lives today.

I am a young earth creationist, but I do not insist that the earth is merely 6,000 years old. I’ll admit that I think it is probably somewhere in that range, that’s just how I read the scriptures. Other believers—reading the same Bible–think the earth is much older. A literal reading of Genesis reveals that on the day God created Adam he looked older than he was and he was placed in a garden that looked older than it was, otherwise he would have had nothing to eat from the trees. No surprise, the universe looks old. Perhaps Mr. Sullivan has more faith in science in general and his light of reason in particular than I do. That is something I do not presume to know.

For anyone who knows the Bible, the following statement is likely the most outlandish: “Jesus never spoke of homosexuality or abortion, and his only remarks on marriage were a condemnation of divorce...” Let everyone who knows and loves the scriptures pause and take that in. It is magnificent in its ignorance.

First, let’s take homosexuality. How about if we actually look at what Jesus said?

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate (Matthew 19:3–6 ESV).”
In the beginning God made them male and female and made them one. That is what God calls marriage. The law of God makes it clear that sex is blessed by God within marriage and marriage is intended to be between one man and one woman. Fornication, sex without marriage, is a sin. Sex that violates the marriage covenant, adultery, is a sin. Building on the sum of God’s revelation up to that point, that is what Jesus taught. Homosexuality, as an inclination, could be defined as same sex attraction. In that sense, it is not a sin, any more than any other inclination to sin is, in itself, a sin. Sex outside of the marriage covenant is a sin and Jesus defined marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman.

Marriage does not come from the state. God gave us marriage. The state can define a legal arrangement that it calls marriage, but it does not have the power to change God’s definitions. In his day, C. S. Lewis said that Christians should not try to incorporate biblical divorce standards into the law, thereby enforcing them on unbelievers. I don’t know what he would say about same sex marriage.

If life begins at conception then abortion is murder, plain and simple. It would be technically correct to say that Jesus did not tell us not to murder, but it would be missing the point entirely. Here’s what He said on that issue:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire (Matthew 5:21–22 ESV).”
In the Law of Moses God had already revealed–to no one’s surprise–that murder was wrong. Jesus spoke to the heart of the issue of murder and told us that other attitudes and actions have the same moral equivalency. Now let me ask you, if calling a brother a fool makes us liable to the fires of hell then what does calling a baby a fetus (so that we can feel better about killing her) make us liable to?

It troubles me that this article never affirms what Christian churches have done and are doing. From the beginning the church has given to the poor and supported widows and orphans. It sounds simple, but it never has been. The first church in Jerusalem dealt with the thorny issue of racism in its distribution of food to widows. The Apostle Paul added a definition of the type of widow that should be supported by the church. He also told us that anyone who does not work should not eat. I wonder what Paul would have said to Saint Francis about begging for food when one is capable of working. Would it have sounded crazy to him?

I am encouraged to see what is happening with young evangelicals today. They tend to be less homogeneous politically. I have long worried about the elephant in the evangelical room. I’ve asked my friends, “Aren’t we giving the impression that if you want to be one of the born-again ones, you had better be prepared to become a Republican?” The kingdom of God will not be established on this earth through a political process. Each of us must struggle with how we live our faith out.

It is also encouraging to see the growth of missional communities. These are small groups within churches that are doing service projects for their communities. It’s not a new thing, but it brings a renewed emphasis, a fresh perspective and a new energy that is having an impact all over this country.

I do agree that head knowledge is not what Christianity is all about. Paul told us that head knowledge just puffs us up with pride, while love actually builds us up and makes us better, more effective people. Then he said, “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God (1 Corinthians 8:2–3 ESV).” John told us, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him (1 John 3:17 ESV)?” This is not a new idea for the Church. Does it help us to be reminded by someone who has “no concrete idea how Christianity will wrestle free of its current crisis?” Indeed, it means little coming from someone who can say nothing affirming and can only put forward two examples: one, Thomas Jefferson, who is no man’s orthodox Christian and the other, Saint Francis, who precious few of us can relate to.

I’ll tell you what I think God is speaking to the Church. Jesus prayed to the Father, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (John 17:20–21 ESV).” Jesus is speaking to us and telling us to not be divided by any issue that is not an “essential of the faith.” We need to dust off the old dictum: “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things charity.” Jesus is building His church among all who have experienced the reality found in the Apostles’ Creed: Roman Catholics, evangelicals and all orthodox Christians. Just because a person is orthodox, doesn’t mean he is born-again, but if you are born of God then you must be orthodox on the essentials of the faith. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are not orthodox Christians; they are not born of God. They worship a different Jesus. The Holy Spirit is working in the Church to focus our eyes on Jesus, to empower us to proclaim the life giving Gospel and to move us to join hands with one another.

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