Christmas vacation is always a time for me to read, meditate and review the past year. I send these seven challenges for 2007, not because I have the answers, but because I feel they are critical issues confronting the church. Our ability to deal with these major concerns, or failure to deal with them, could have a major impact on the future of our work and mission as Baptists.
1. Christianity and culture
Since the first century, the church has had to deal with the question of the gospel and culture. We see this in the Pauline epistles, particularly in 1 and 2 Corinthians, where Paul is faced with cultural issues in relating the gospel to Gentiles who were not part of the Jewish culture into which he and the other apostles were born. Therefore, there were questions about the law versus the gospel, circumcision, eating food offered to idols, marriage and human sexuality, stewardship and tithing and a whole host of other questions about things that Gentiles found foreign to their culture.
With the victory of Constantine and the advent of Christendom, the pagan world culture was made into a so-called Christian culture. The question of how Christian that culture really was continued to occupy the mind of theologians through the Middle Ages and into the Reformation. Baptists reacted against a cultural form of Christianity and called for a radical following of Christ over against culture.
What is the Baptist vision today of the cultures in which we live? Where there are Baptist majorities, have we become too much at home in Zion? Have we lost the prophetic message of the church over against the neo-paganism in which we now live, particularly in the West? Have we so accommodated the Christian faith to the current culture that we no longer have a word from the Lord, or the ability to say, “Thus saith the Lord!”?
The gospel is a judgment on all cultures. In affirming multi-culturalism have we compromised the gospel? In trying to be tolerant have we affirmed a cultural Christianity which is not able to judge between good and evil? How can we recover the prophetic word and bring the light of Christ into the dark sides of all human culture?
2. Holiness and social and personal morality
The biblical call for holiness and shalom—God's peace—are related. Too often in the church and the world we separate personal morality from social morality. Scripture does not separate ethics into personal and social. The prophets condemned the social injustices of their day as much as they did personal immorality. This is most evident in the prophetic protest against worship that does not issue in concern for righteousness at home and in the nation. Amos warned: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:23-24). I will never forget Billy Graham preaching at the Earl's Court in London in 1967. He said, “Of course the gospel is also a social gospel with social consequences!” He called for Christians to be involved in the great issues of war and peace, poverty and hunger. In our day we also must be peacemakers and work for justice for all people.
We must work to overcome the divide between social and personal morality. At the same time we protest war, we must also protest the immorality of the secular world and let it not set the agenda for the church. We must protest the smut and pornography of Hollywood and Bollywood. We must produce films, literature and art which promote holy living. When adultery is accepted as a way of life, when pre-marital and extra-marital sex is accepted, when homosexual behavior is affirmed, when abortion becomes a means of birth control, then indeed Christians must counter with a biblical view of life. We need to promote a biblical worldview that encourages young people to see the beauty of human sexuality in the light of Christian marriage.
To separate human sexuality from the family and procreation is a return to a pagan view of sex against which biblical faith is a protest.
The challenge of being prophetic in the realm of personal and social ethics is constantly before us. Modern culture's descent into violence, war, poverty and aberrant behavior has brought new demands upon the church to be faithful to Scripture and tradition. At the same time, we should not elevate one sin above all other sins but condemn all unholy living. Paul in Romans 1:29-32 reminds us of humanity's inclination to evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, gossip, slander, hatred of God, insolence, haughtiness, boastfulness, heartlessness, ruthlessness, etc. Indeed the challenge to a holy life must be the call of faithful discipleship!
3. The prosperity gospel
Jesus calls his followers to bear the cross. In Mark 8 he makes it very clear that if anyone would follow him, they must deny themselves take up their cross and follow him! There is no promise that if one becomes a Christian, one will become healthy, wealthy, or wise, in human terms. Of course, there are very positive results of Christian moral teaching that in the end promotes health, wealth and wisdom. If one is an alcoholic and spends one's salary on alcoholic beverages, then one will become poor, unstable and condemn one's family to poverty. Following Christ changes that. William Barclay tells of a dock worker in Glasgow who became a follower of Christ and gave up his drinking, which had been a major problem for him. When he went back to his job, the workers made fun of him: “So, you believe that Jesus turned water into wine, do you?” The new Christian dock worker said, “All I know is that in my family, Jesus turned beer into furniture!”
The excesses of part of the charismatic and evangelical movement that emphasizes the prosperity gospel are a failure to take seriously the call of Christ and the cross. Christ does not call people to an easy gospel, to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” the forgiveness of the sinner without the cross, but he calls people to take up their cross. Or, as Ernest Campbell said, “The Christian faith has not been tried and found wanting, but it has been tried and found difficult.” One hundred and sixty thousand Christians are killed every year for their faith. We must not cheapen faith in Christ by making it a call to prosperity.
The good news, however, is that following Christ makes the heart prosper and life prosper by giving meaning and fulfillment in Christ. Recently I heard Bev Shea, now 98 years old, sing the old gospel song, “I'd rather have Jesus than silver or gold.” If the Christian church really believed that then there would be massive changes in our stewardship, our building funds and our use of God's resources!
4. Religious fundamentalism and separation of religion from state
Any “ism” or ideology that replaces God has within it the tendency to usurp God's prerogatives and make itself into another god. That is the problem with religious fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalists think that they speak for God and whoever does not agree with them is doomed and may even be threatened by the sword! After centuries of religious wars and conflict, Baptists proposed the separation of religion from the state as the guarantee of religious freedom for all religions. This is one of our great contributions to the history of religion.
The question of the relation of religion and the state remains an urgent question for our day. To confront the scientific revolution and evolution and its non-Christian and non-biblical tendencies, in 1905 a group of outstanding Christian theologians and scholars printed a series of articles that were published in book form as The Fundamentals. These books were an outstanding defense of orthodox Christianity. However, within 30 years the movement split. One group became negative, anti-intellectual and spent all their time attacking individuals and condemning great men and women of faith. These were called the fundamentalists. They brought conflict to many churches and lost their goal of evangelism. Against this fundamentalist movement, a group of young Christians led by Harold O. J. Ockenga and a young evangelist named Billy Graham gathered and formed the National Association of Evangelicals. They maintained that fundamentalism had missed the goal of orthodox Christianity and issued a new call for world evangelism. Out of this movement thousands of para-church organizations were spawned, many with Baptist leaders.
This movement of neo-evangelicals has now become the predominant expression of the Protestant faith in North America and many parts of the world. They have organized on a world level and formed the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) which unites 450 million evangelicals. In all of life, however, the pendulum of human fickleness continues to swing. There is a tendency, in confronting the problems of modern culture, for some people to revert to a sectarian and isolationist view of the world and a new fundamentalism. These people again accuse others with whom they disagree as being liberals, or communists, etc. These neo-fundamentalists have different names, but they have in our day brought disrepute upon the Church of Jesus Christ, caused disunity which has hindered evangelism, and unfortunately created a liberal reaction. This is the problem of Christian fundamentalism.
However, even more threatening to peace in the world is the religious fundamentalism of religions that takes up the sword. Terrorism has brought great alarm and fear to the world. Using religion as a pretext many world religions want to attain political power by violent means. The reaction to such religious fundamentalism often brings forth further war and violence. The tragic war in Iraq is a case in point. Christ calls us today, as he did of old to Peter, “put back your sword.” In confronting religious fundamentalism, within and without the Church, we need to become a force of the compassionate love of Jesus bearing the cross, knowing that ultimately one day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord!
The Baptist understanding of separation of religion from the state is a safeguard against religious wars. It behooves Baptists to continue to defend this principle, while at the same time continuing our prophetic tradition of reminding the state of its opposition to great injustice and social evils, such as racism, war and poverty.
Next issue: Three more challenges