In his book Telling God’s Story, author John W. Wright discusses how much of Evangelical preaching of the twentieth century capitulated the scriptures what he calls “the horizons of the hearers.” That is, preaching employed a hermeneutic which sought to apply the scriptures to the status-quo lives of the people, a life that was very much shaped by American individualism rather than calling the people from their life into the life imagined by “the horizons of the Scriptures. So the author writes:
Without a hermeneutic that can challenge the horizon of the hearers by the horizons of the Scripture, the church can only respond to the society in which it sojourns and will always be captive to the role that the host society will permit it to play” (p. 39).
I find his observation about the captivity of the church to be very astute. Broadly speaking, has the church in America really been reduced to nothing more than a dog on a leash being led around by Master America?
This past Wednesday brought about the culmination of several controversial decisions made by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). In particular was the SCOTUS strike down of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The reactions, predictable as they were, seemed to reveal just how much the church in America is held captive to the role that American culture (both left and right) has assigned it. The church seems only capable of either singing the praises of society for choosing to exercising it’s chief value, individual liberty (a secularized liberty too), or whining because society told the church to once again to drop the ball and go stand in the corner. Depending on what side of the American political fence Christians stood on, most were either full of praise or full of anger (maybe I was one of those even though I tried to do neither). Of course, had the SCOTUS upheld the DOMA, the reactions of Christians would have been just as predictable too. Christians on the left would whined in protest because the courts did not defend individual liberties (curiously labeling it as a “justice” issue) while Christians on the right would have sang the praises of society, as though the church needs the state to affirm what constitutes marriage. Feel the tug of that leash?
There is a different way though. I’m speaking about a different way so that the church—you and I, who call ourselves Christians—can be the salt and light the church has been called to be (cf Matt 5:13-16). Yes, it involves following Jesus but it’s also helpful to remember that Jesus was never interested in his teaching his disciples to attach themselves to the theo-politics of Second-Temple Judaism or the imperial politics of Rome in order to be salt and light. In fact, they couldn’t! New wine must be placed in new wineskins lest it burst the old wineskins and spill on the floor where it is wasted, leaving nothing but useless old wineskins. This is why Jesus taught his disciples to recognize that they were part of a different kingdom that lived by different set of values with a different means of advancing the mission of God. As for marriage, perhaps it is time that the church start defining what constitutes marriage by the examples of Christ-honoring marriages among Christians rather than appealing to society and its courts to define what marriage is.
So back to the church in America. Has the church finally reached the fork in the road where it cannot go any further without choosing one path or the other?
For far too long the church has fooled itself thinking it can walk with one foot in the new world to come, the kingdom of God, and the other foot in a kingdom that will not stand. All the while, the left and right of American culture, which are nothing more than different sides of the same secular coin, are more than happy to have the church its corner so long as the church accommodates itself to their ideologies and means of achieving those aims.
So will the church live as salt and light? Well, maybe the church can think about that after it gets done celebrating the 4th of July.