Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What About Wilberforce?

Despite an effort to be concise, somehow these posts keep getting longer. I’m sorry about that. Please bear with me, this one took some exertion and much prayer. A couple years ago, with a small group at my church, I helped lead through a series called Head, Heart, and Hands based on the book by the same title by Dennis Hollinger. It was foundational to me, my personal vision (see About Me section), and in a large part to the purpose of this blog. The basic premise of the series was the importance of developing a whole faith for the whole person by sufficiently understanding (faith of the head), wholeheartedly experiencing (faith of the heart), and effectively proclaiming and demonstrating (faith of the hands) the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I realized that if I neglect any of these areas, I will without doubt spiritually self-destruct. If you’ve been reading this blog long, you probably could guess that a faith of the head comes easy for me, and is where I default. A faith of the heart has been a natural result of my greater depth in the knowledge of God. Faith of the hands has always and continues to be my Achilles heel, and because of that I am at risk of self-destruction.

As I’ve started engaging the culture with the Gospel and encountered its complexity, specifically this year with politics, this weakness has become relevant because it would be very easy for me to hide behind well structured sentences, ideas, and arguments. I don’t regret any of these sentences, ideas, or arguments, but I don’t want the possibility to exist that such words are not backed up with actions. So I come to what is, unfortunately, a great hypocrisy and tragedy within the Evangelical Church in our generation (it’s not just me). As Ronald Sider asks in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, why are Christians living just like the rest of the world? I, in shame, can not answer that question effectively either for myself, or many like me.

Grace and Truth

Well, thanks be to God that answer is forming. I acknowledge the temptation and tendency to default towards proclamation and understanding, while neglecting demonstration, of the Gospel. And so I resolve to avoid that neglect and, as Pastor Greg Boyd says, by my life create the question that only the reality of Jesus Christ can answer. But I also acknowledge that without the effective, accurate, and faithful proclamation and understanding of the Gospel, my faith will self-destruct, my answer to the question from the world will be insufficient, and the reality of Jesus Christ will not be complete. In other words, I acknowledge that I must speak and live with a Christ-like balance of grace and truth, and I cannot sacrifice truth for the sake of grace, or vice versa. If I do, or if we do, it will all be for nothing, and all the encouragement, love, kindness, and grace in the world will not compensate for the reality of hell and the wrath of God; and all the brilliant and polished preaching in the world will not compensate for the damage done by hypocritical lifestyles and not loving our neighbor. Grace and truth are necessary. Jesus did not come as truly God and live a life of sin, nor did he come and live a sinless life as anything less than truly God.

This is all amazingly relevant and applicable, in my opinion, to political engagement by Christians. In other words, I tremble at the risk that Christians, so convicted by and ashamed of their hypocritical and inconsistent lifestyles (which I acknowledge), would silence their voices altogether, reduce their involvement either in public service or boldly advocating for issues that few others may defend, or neglect the truth of their convictions for the sake of grace and love. We have to do both; maintain the one and build on the other.

What I mean by Truth

What I mean by truth is that God is Sovereign and the Bible is authoritative, and Jesus Christ is supreme and no other name under heaven leads to salvation. God is holy, we are sinful, the Bible is preeminent, and the Cross in central. All this has overwhelming implications on our lives and the way we interact and love others. It means that we cannot compromise the truth that God created us in His image and knit us individually together in our mother’s womb. To mess with that is fundamentally unacceptable. It means that the sacred institution that God himself established to be, above all else, a representation of His relationship to the Church and the foundation of society, cannot be redefined. It means that we are obligated to care for the poor and not overlook those who are hungry or in need, and if we become wealthy by oppressing the poor, or fail to give to those in need, we are in very bad trouble. If we lose these things, we lose the Sovereignty and holiness of God, and we lose the authority and preeminence of the Bible, and we lose the centrality of Calvary. That is everything!

Now, surely you are saying, it is more complicated than that. You say, we don’t have to lose all these things, but we also don’t have to force our beliefs on others, or speak so publicly about them especially in the political sphere, or expect a secular culture and government to adopt our theology and value structure. But what I am saying is what a tragic pendulum swing it would be if Christians went from boldly proclaiming and defending the implications of the Gospel (albeit living in a way that is often inconsistent to this proclamation), to demonstrating with love and consistency the grace and mercy of God, without mentioning or defending the reality and implications of the Gospel which such actions are based on and receive their power from. Not enough grace should not be replaced by not enough truth. Christians should practice good theology and good works, and not abandon either for the sake of the other.

Greg Boyd in his sermon series, The Cross and the Sword, identifies five disastrous consequences when we mix the kingdom of this world with the Kingdom of God, or more specifically, when the Church involves itself in issues of political concern:

1. Our witness to Christ is compromised
2. We lose our missionary focus
3. We trust power-over instead of power-under
4. We allow the kingdom of the world to set the agenda
5. The Church sees itself as the guardian of social morality

You can listen yourself to hear at length what I could not easily summarize here, but what I hear Greg Boyd saying is that all we as Christians should do, living with a Kingdom of God mandate, is see the need, meet the need, and proclaim that the Kingdom of God is at hand; anything more he says, will be disastrous. What does the Kingdom of God at hand mean and what does it include? Living and loving like Jesus, he would say. Does loving like Jesus mean ignoring obvious injustices that could be reversed through gracious, truthful political engagement? William Wilberforce didn’t think so. He spoke up inside his culture and political structure and eventually brought about the end to the obvious injustice of slavery.

I think it is inaccurate and dangerous to ignore the fact that God uses the Church to bring about positive social change that glorifies him and honors his demands (See: When God Disturbs the Peace). Just as those demands did not tolerate, and through His Spirit working in His people brought about the end to, slavery; so it will not tolerate the destruction of His image bearers in the womb and will, I believe, in His sovereignty bring such horrors to an end also. May it be through the Church, and may we not abandon our role in such a God-glorifying, people-loving, culture-transforming, Kingdom-building development.

When discussing the Church’s embarrassing examples of attempting to guard morality, Boyd is rightfully appalled at the lack of criteria the Church uses to decide on moral issues to guard. Why is there so much fuss about nudity on television and so little concern at all about sexual trafficking in Cambodia? Why are there so many rallying outside a courtroom protesting gay marriage and so few outside a homeless shelter protesting or combating homelessness? In his frustration at why Christians choose the wrong issues to guard, and in turn paint the picture of hypocrisy to the outside world (which is true), he seems to imply that Christians should not be concerned about either. Why can’t we be concerned about both? I would ask why are some so passionate about racial reconciliation in our world but so unconcerned about the lives of unborn babies (many of which are black) that are taken every day? Why can’t we be concerned about both?

Without the proper balance of truth, the Church would become just a well-meaning and loving charity organization with no ultimate foundation and no eternal impact that accepts that some innocent babies will be killed, and some fundamental institutions will be redefined, and no ultimate and complete answer is available to hurting people who look at our love and ask, “Who is this Jesus”? The answer will never only be that He is a good man who came to this earth to show us the way to live and treat people, who spoke one version of truth that you can take the parts you like and discard the parts you don’t. A much better, more loving, more encouraging, and more helpful answer is that He came to do all those things and love people in the way he did, and he did all this as truly God with all the authority under heaven and only in His sovereign and gracious and glorious name will anyone be saved. The pendulum needs to be balanced.

What I mean by Grace

So let me say that what I mean by grace is that we all are sinners and we must first remove the tree trunk in our eye before we will have any ability or effectiveness helping others with the speck in theirs. It is fundamentally and eternally true that the world will know us by our love. And not the kind of love that is articulated in Hallmark cards, but the kind of selfless, sacrificial, Calvary-type love that demonstrates Christ through the surrender of time, resources, energy, and even life, if necessary. What I mean by grace is the Philippians 2 kind: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

What I mean by grace is that social change is more possible through soul change, and we should by our witness love people into relationships with Christ before lobbying for some political party that will not exist in the fullness of time. But not all political involvement destroys the Church or is inconsistent with the life and demands of Jesus. Ronald Sider says it this way: “Unless we embrace the biblical truth that sin is personal and social, we will never understand either the full set of causes or a comprehensive set of solutions to racism and economic injustice – or, for that matter, the destruction of the family and the loss of respect for the sanctity of human life. Because of the way God made us, we change society both one person at a time and through changing unjust systems. A biblical perspective demands both personal conversions and structural change.”

Some think that the “religious right” is in turmoil and utter fear after the election of Barack Obama. I’m not as concerned about the religious right political agenda as I am Jesus Christ’s Kingdom of God agenda, but I don’t believe the political agenda is altogether damaging to the Kingdom agenda, as long as we are careful and have a Christ-like balance of grace and truth. Again, William Wilberforce is a striking example here. Sider gives additional perspective: “Wilberforce and the evangelical abolitionists did not argue that the only way to end slavery was to convert all the slave owners. They worked for new laws that would change the structures by making slaveholding illegal.” And in the process, God changed the hearts of many slave owners, not to mention slaves and activists!

I was greatly impacted and convicted by The Cross and the Sword series because I, like many, so quickly preach and talk and much more slowly love and listen and help people who are in need. The stories of missionaries and servants and social workers and Mother Teresa-types are so few but so glorious. People who so selflessly love and care for hurting people that those people (unprompted) ask the question that only the reality of Jesus Christ can answer, and then through the Gospel those servants answer the question to the salvation of God’s people. It is healthy for me to hear that the enemy is not the liberal or the atheist, but the enemy is the principalities and powers of this present darkness who would have me hate the liberal and atheist instead of love them.

Grace and Truth in the Sanctity of Life

Boyd gives the example of Dorothy, who demonstrates more than proclaims the concept of being pro-life by her love and sacrifice for women who find themselves in crisis pregnancy situations. An example of loving and honoring and respecting women so much that even in the worst of situations, the opportunity is made available to make abortion an unwanted and unneeded option. His example of Dorothy indicates what all in the pro-life movement need more of: defense and love of the mother as much as that of the unborn baby. But then at the end of his description of the example of Dorothy, he indicates that she still considers herself pro-choice. Why can’t the perfect example be of someone who loves and lives like this, but also proclaims and defends the truth that abortion has no place in the Kingdom of God? We need to do both! Wouldn’t Jesus Christ do both?!

So if we’re going to be like Dorothy and love women at every level, helping them and pleading with them to avoid the option of abortion, but still philosophically be pro-choice, shame on us. We are sacrificing truth for the sake of grace. But of course, if we are going to be pro-life and not be at all like Dorothy in our love and support and defense of women in addition to unborn babies, shame on us. We are sacrificing grace for the sake of truth. Jesus Christ did not come to us that way and I do not believe he desires us to go out into the world that way.

You might say, wait a minute: you are making the political pro-life stance to be synonymous with truth. What I am actually doing is presenting the concept of pro-life to be a more true application of the Gospel and grace and truth of Jesus Christ. I feel confident saying this because to be pro-life (by my definition) does not mean to be anti-choice, and so it leaves open the option of not only defending unborn babies but also loving women and counseling them towards the most loving and Christ-like choice. Being pro-choice does not necessarily mean anti-life, but does leave open too much of a possibility for abortion and death to be a result. Perhaps you could refer to what I define as pro-life as pro-choice, and that would be fine. I don’t care about semantics. Just as long as we are both loving the women and defending the unborn in all circumstances, and not just loving the women and potentially sacrificing the unborn if that seems like the only option. We should never allow it be the only option. The only exception I personally can accept is when the life of the mother is at stake, and as the commentary in the ESV Study Bible says, “Here it is necessary to recognize that removing the unborn child is done with the direct intention of saving the life of the mother, and not with the direct intention of taking the child’s life (which, if the medical technology exists, should also be preserved).”

Grace and Truth in Marriage

As far as the marriage debate, I plead ignorance to both marriage and homosexuality, so I would be hard pressed to muster an educated comment on what the political and legislative priorities should be on such a delicate issue, but one that the God of the Universe is not silent about. What I will say is that it seems that the question of equal rights is small potatoes compared to the spiritual and social implications of allowing marriage to be redefined. In other words, allow tax benefits and hospital visits (because those who consider themselves homosexual obviously are equal as people) without redefining a sacred institution meant to show us the most mysterious and glorious relationship in the world, and meant to serve as the foundation of the family, which is the foundation of society. Either way, the Church should love unconditionally, and proclaim what is important to God unconditionally, and how that is worked out politically, I don’t presume to know. But I absolutely do care, and so should the Church.

God is Still Sovereign

The effectiveness of the Gospel depends so much on grace and truth. If we are not gracious, our truth will be altogether unattractive, and if we are not truthful, our grace will lead to nothing in which to believe and have no power in which to save. The Gospel of the Kingdom, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whatever you want to call it, will be lost without the appropriate amount of both.

God willing, I will also be able in future posts to mobilize Christians in our generation to be equally passionate about other injustices that are just as horrible and just as inconsistent with the grace and truth and person of Jesus Christ as abortion; like poverty and racism and sexual trafficking. And may our focus, on our knees, be to approach these things with just as much grace as we do truth.

Ronald Sider also asks in a more recent book (called The Scandal of Evangelical Politics, which probably does a much better job than me making the point of this post), why are Christians missing the opportunity to change the world? He argues that the evangelical community’s approach to a comprehensive political philosophy has been inconsistent and confusing, but that is no reason to not form a better one. For example, regarding the sanctity of life, we focus only on abortion, “as if life begins at conception and ends at birth”, and we ignore other problems like starving children and adults who are killed each year due to tobacco smoke. If we focus on only some of these things, our passion for the “sanctity of life” is confusing and ineffective. If we focus on all of these things, God through us could change the world. Let’s not miss that opportunity.

And at the end of the day, our hope for these things is ultimately in God, not in any government or any culture. But we should not assume the role of the Church in governmental structures or cultural realities is altogether ineffective or damaging or outside of the Sovereignty of God. The Church can stay separate from the state and still be engaged and effective. History has some promising, yet rare, examples of social change working within God’s Sovereignty that we should look to for inspiration, and we should trust God to work through us in these ways again.


dhaase said...


Thanks for covering the cross and the sword. I appreciate your open-mindedness and respect your views. I think a major point of Boyd's was that political topics are divisive and sometimes create a lose/lose argument. He uses an example in John 8 to show Jesus' reaction to a similar controversial topic (this is the "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone" story).

Jesus let this adulterous woman off without punishment. In that day, I'm sure even Jesus’ followers thought, "Wait a minute, J-bone. You are opening the door to a great deal more sin; this can't be what God wants." But the Kingdom of God is beyond the politics of man. And Jesus wasn’t playing by the current kingdom’s rules.

Do you think his reaction would be different if woman had an abortion? If she illegally wed her gay lover?

Jesus was not focused here on punishment in order to reduce the amount of sin in this society. He was focused on radical love healing broken hearts. Shouldn’t we do the same?

The good news of God is neither Republican nor Democratic (or, in Jesus’ day, whatever parties were). Abortion is one issue among many that Christians should care about, and neither party represents Christians perfectly (or very well at all). It is heartbreaking for some Christians (and even worse for outsiders) when the Republican party is portrayed as the Christian party…this can be confusing and it dangerously distorts the good news of God’s kingdom.

Perhaps the greatest danger here is thinking that by voting for "Christian" policies once every 4 years (or 2, whatever) that we have eased our burden of carrying Jesus' cross...but we carry a more important vote each time we are faced with the opportunity to support a woman who just had an abortion, a gay couple who is trying to adopt, or a Muslim who is being racially profiled at the airport (or bombed in their poor village half a world away). These are the outcasts in our society today, and if Christ were here, I suspect you might find him among them.

However we vote, we should all stand together in professing the good news of the kingdom. It is greater than any kingdom here on Earth. We should, no doubt, try to bring these kingdom principles to life every day. And your blog is a step in the right direction.

Joey Elliott said...


You are all kinds of right. I think Jesus would treat the woman who just had an abortion or just married her lover the same way he treated the woman caught in adultery. And we should too. But that doesn't mean in general that Jesus supports such things or that the Church should either.

Punishment shouldn't be our focus and wasn't Jesus's focus in this case, but obviously a society of prostitutes, only homosexual unions, and increased abortions is not what the Kingdom of God will look like. And is His Sovereignty I believe Jesus commads us to loving acknowledge such truth and trust that through us He can make our society less like that.

Clearly, the Church is at an awkward time right now, not just in political engagement (which means much more than voting, in my opinion), but also in cultural engagement of all kinds, where our actions do not always back up our words. We do not as quickly come alongside the outcast as we do accuse them of being an outcast. We need more grace.

I feel the unique calling to encourage more love, more grace, more consistency, more personal accountability inside the church, less judgment outside the church, but specifically to do all this without losing the truth.

In other words, while the pendulum swings back towards grace and love (God willing) in the Evangelical community, I feel called to be the guy who with all my strength holds on for the ride but keeps it from being just as far out of whack in the other direction. Losing truth would be just as damaging as losing grace, and I feel like someone has to keep us reminded of that. So I'll be that guy.

Thanks so much for your comments and encouragement. I, and this blog, need voices like yours more than you could know.