July 2, 2015

The Separation of Church and Church

It is not the separation of church and state that will most affect Christians in the wake of the SCOTUS ruling last week on same sex marriage, but rather the separation of church and church.

If the wave of conversations and Facebook rainbow status updates by many of our church-attending friends is any indication, a painful, but necessary separation is coming to the church.  A separation that has been building a slow head of steam, but which has come to a boil quickly in light of the ruling last week.

And even here in Australia, which is so different to the USA in its expectations and experiences, it was as if the SCOTUS ruling was our ruling too.  For once following the USA into something is apparently a good thing, even though the last time we did that we ended up in Iraq.

Now I say this separation will be  painful because like all separations, even amicable ones, this one will result in a loss of relationship.  You can miss someone dreadfully should you break up, even if you did not see eye to eye with them. Even if you argued with them all of the time! So pain is coming because ecclesiastical, and perhaps personal, relationships will be broken.

And I say this separation will be necessary because the ripples of the ruling have not so much as caused deep theological and philosophical fissures and fractures in the Australian church, but, rather, simply exposed them.

Fissures that have been ignored or  papered over for decades in a bid to maintain some semblance of unity – and therefore survival – in a strongly secular context, are now seen for the yawning chasms they always were.  Sure we’ve whispered and bitched behind the backs of those we disagree with theologically, whilst generally conceding that we’re all in this together, especially in a “hard secular” land like Australia.

But folks, those days are over.  The schism will be for all to see. And I for one think that, whilst it will be painful, it will indeed be necessary.  If the comments on Facebook are any indication – and they increasingly are – there is deep antipathy coming between two sides of the same visible institution.  Now perhaps that sounds reductionist. After all, are there not a variety of perspectives on such matters? (See what I mean?!)

If all this is sounding like a variant of remnant theology – it is.  Our initial relief at the demise of nominalism in the 50s and 60s is now being tempered by the growing realisation that the pruning isn’t finished. The next generation of young people are simply going to make their choice about church on the basis of sexual ethics – they just are.  As a wise friend observed this week, we keep thinking this thing is going to bottom out and it  hasn’t – well not yet anyway.  What’s it going to look like when it does? What will our experience of church be? Those are important questions.

Put simply, the SCOTUS ruling flushed out for the first time, what many self-confessing Christians actually believe about core matters and, ultimately what it means to be the church before a watching world. Make no mistake, this is not a simple matter of “love wins”, nor is it about a minor matter of sexual ethics that has positioned itself to the side, discrete from the main body of doctrine and theology of the church, merely content to mind its “Ps” and “Qs”.

Rather, the ruling, and the subsequent Christian responses; sobriety/sorrow/anger on the one hand and celebration/relief/optimism on the other, have revealed that there are not simply strands of Christianity in Australia roughly headed in the same direction.  No. There are two competing versions of Christianity in Australia (indeed in the Western church in general) that cannot co-exist, despite what optimists might think, because each rejects the foundational framework of the other. 

It used to be much simpler than this, of course.  Our apologetics program was geared towards showing those outside the Christian faith – and Christians struggling to grasp their faith’s central tenets – that it was impossible to logically hold that two diametrically opposing perspectives on God – Hinduism and Christianity for example – could both be right.  If “A” were the case, then “B” could not be.  Remember those simple days?  Remember those conversations with interested non-Christian friends?

Oh for those days!  That is the heated conversation we are now having in the church.  The same sex marriage question; questions of whether or not the Bible condones homosexual sex or not; whether gender distinction is God-ordained or not; these matters are simply the presenting arguments of much deeper, more lasting, divisions; divisions that drill all the way down in an “if ‘A’ is right, then ‘B’ cannot be” kind of way.

The SCOTUS ruling has, for the church as much as the culture, exposed major watershed issues within the church.  Is the Bible authoritative? Should it be? Is marriage a sign or is it a destination? Is God using the culture to drag a reluctant church to where His heart is?

Let me pick up on that last matter to illustrate the magnitude of the matter. Someone pushed me on this recently, by stating that the cultural change overtaking us could actually be God driven. In other words, failing to get on board this SSM train will leave the church stranded at the station. This person went on to say that perhaps the church needs to be humble and take a lesson from the culture, because even though the change is not a result of revelation, it is something the church should have been leading.

Let that sink in for a moment.  That’s a huge assumption, but one that I now realise is held by a lot of folk who attend church. Christians were, apparently (though not necessarily ‘actually’) behind the 8 ball back on the race debates, and this is just the next iteration.  To get it wrong once was understandable, but twice? Inexcusable.  And we are not simply talking about whether or not the church can cope with a shift towards SSM in the wider culture, but whether our refusal to accept it as normative , indeed God given, behaviour exposes how wrong we have been about sex all along.

And whatever our ills in the race debate – assumed or real – let’s be clear that this is no peripheral matter. This assumption signals a complete reversal of how the Bible understands the nature of the relationship between a redeemed people and a world in rebellion.  Leaving aside Scott McKnight’s astute observation that many Christians use the word “culture” because the word “world” does not come off so well in the New Testament, such a perspective completely undermines a covenantal theology in which God calls a people OUT of the world in order to speak INTO the world FOR the sake of the world.

In Scripture the only time that the world gets to speak INTO the church is when the church is so like the world that God has no option but to hand his people over to what they want in judgement.  To miss that point is to miss the fundamental thread of God’s redemptive plan.  Israel’s deepest shame in The Prophets is not that she is not enough like the pagan world surrounding her or has failed to keep up, but that she takes her depravity to depths that the pagans do not even stoop to.  And this is indeed reiterated in the New Testament.  Think 1 Corinthians 5:1ff:

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.

Paul sees the New Covenant people repeating the sins of the Old Covenant people and he doesn’t say, “Well, you could be ahead of the 8 ball on this one!”  No! When Paul finishes that section by saying “Purge the evil from among you”, he is simply echoing the prophetic call of the Old Testament, a call that eventually results in all of the people being purged – from the land.  Paul is calling for a mini-exile for the sinner in 1Corinthians 5 for the sake of their ultimate salvation. And what they view as freedom – as worthy of a flag raising – he labels “arrogant”.

And this idea that the church needs to catch up with the culture challenges the fundamental notion of church discipline.  Where does one draw the line about what is acceptable in the church, especially if the culture is ahead of the church on such matters? How can there be an authoritative word by which to make such distinctions? How can the church identify itself as a distinct ethical community?  What holds it together? Should we even be doing what Paul says to do, and remove the person from among us? These questions have simply been swept aside in the euphoria.

And such perspectives are not isolated.  One evangelical scholar calls for sociology to be given a more “strident” voice in the sexual ethics debate.  The presumption is that the Bible has had too loud a voice for too long and has drowned out what he considers to be an essentially disinterested sociological voice. This voice is, in his opinion, merely reflecting reality, as opposed to interpreting it.

Such a viewpoint completely ignores the vast sociological iceberg waiting to sink the Christian ship.  If you want an idea of just how strident that sociological voice already  is, ask a Christian psychology student how well received the Christian framework is in the Social Sciences faculty. As one such student told me recently, “It’s a case of keeping your head down and shutting up.” Why? Because that strident voice will cut you down.  To assume sociological neutrality seems naive in the extreme.  Besides the idea that Scripture is too strident guts the notion of gospel proclamation and removes any concept of “Thus saith the LORD”; a voice of prophetic announcement to a sleepy church and a sinful world.

And this is not simply to do with sexual ethics.  We live in a greedy culture. Is the church behind the 8 ball here?  Quite frankly, is the prosperity gospel ahead of the curve? Who’s to say?  You certainly can’t ascertain from the culture that a constant desire for more material goods is wrong, indeed the opposite is more likely the case.

There’s more to say on this matter, and I will tease it out in the future. There are other major strands of difference in the church that will only drive this schism deeper.  But for the moment, all we can do is be reminded, like Elijah was, that there are the equivalent of “7000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”  For let’s be clear, that’s ultimately what all of this is about.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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