Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Church as a Public Institution

James Davison Hunter on the politicization of American culture in "To Change the World":

"If modern politics is the sphere of leadership, influence, and activity surrounding the state, politicization is the turn toward law and politics - the instrumentality of the state - to find solutions to public problems....This is demonstrated by the simple fact that the amount of law that exists in any society is always inversely related to the coherence and stability of its common culture: law increases as cultural consensus decreases." (pg. 102)

"It is difficult to even imagine much less accept the idea that there should be public space occupied by activities or organizations that are completely independent of the political realm. The realm of politics has become, in our imagination, the dominant - and for some the only adequate - expression of our collective life....This in turn has brought about a narrowing of the complexity and richness of public life and with it, a diminishing of possibility for thinking of alternative ways to address common problems and issues." (pg. 106)

I find Hunter's analysis here hauntingly and almost depressingly accurate. I say "almost" because I believe the accuracy of what he portrays opens a door for the church to step in as that public institution that has other, non-political and non-legal ways of answering our common problems. But this requires that the church and her leaders learn how to address the issues of the day and the universal issues of the human condition without waiting on those in public power to lead the way. Here are some thoughts on how that may happen.

The church has answers the state will never truly grasp. Even if most people in positions of legal, media, educational, and political power were genuine followers of Jesus Christ, we live in a pluralistic culture in which the imposition of "Christian" laws will, in the end, do only a little good. The church must learn to lead the way. Do not wait for a vote to have a sweeping cultural consequence. Step up and address life with the unique set of resources the church has at its command.

Our theology must lead the way. We are currently told that theology is backwards, coercive, and an outdated way of thinking in our modern age. But that is what people who do not understand Christian theology tell us, so why do we have any reason at all to believe their dismissive point of view? Theology well done, with its eyes wide open to all of God's truth, is a powerful and wide-ranging guide for our common problems. Maybe one reason the world sees us like specialists in alchemy and phrenology is because we have not taken our theology seriously enough.

Church leaders need to broaden their own education and understanding of the world. Specifically, I believe pastors need to stop being experts in mid-level management techniques and start being experts in the kingdom of God and the human soul. Pastors ought to read broadly and often. They need to acquaint themselves with the best out there in the fields of science, sociology, psychology, history, biography, philosophy, theology, and more. Then their sermons need to reflect that self-education.

The church needs to be courageous. One of the themes carried through the book of Acts is that Christians "spoke boldly" when they had the chance. Christians carry a message that sticks out and will be called names, but it is a message that has the power to save and transform lives. But that will only happen when the church learns to be winsome, wise, and bold.

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