Monday, November 23, 2009

What's missing in the movement

There's a movement within American Christianity towards a kind of greater social awareness and promotion of social justice. It's made up of people who embrace typically "liberal" ideals and support typically "liberal" causes: homelessness, racial equality, fair wages, child labor, sustainable use of resources, etc. I'd find myself in most cases aligning myself with them with their beliefs and priorities, but when I read the things they write or listen to what they have to say, I find myself wanting to rip my hair out.

For several reasons:

1) They appear more concerned with image and perception than the hard realities and doctrines of Scripture. I come across a lot of issue-dodging, especially when it comes to doctrines like hell and homosexuality, where straight (pardon the unintended pun) questions are often deferred and stances are not taken. They'll say things like, "Well, many people who follow Jesus disagree about what Scripture says on this issue," or "I don't like to argue about that, especially when so many people are dying of starvation every day." Maybe so, pal, but answering the question straight won't be stealing food out of anyone's mouth. Their avoidance of these questions makes it seem as if they're afraid that saying outright what they believe Christianity and Scripture teaches will then alienate them from the people they've worked so hard to be accepted by. (Which, truthfully, it pobably would.)

2) They like to bash the fringe elements in Christianity. They don't always do this in a straightforward manner. It's more of a name-dropping, aren't-you-glad-we're-not-like-so-and-so sort of a thing. Again, it's understandable, and I've engaged in the same behavior on a few occassions. But it's wasted energy and pointless back-patting. Sure, be glad you're not a Creflo Dollar Christian, or a Fred Phelps disciple, or a Pat Robertson junkie (Not that some of these fellows could even be considered being part of the fold, but still...). But aren't you wasting your breath discrediting them when people are dying of starvation? And who listens to these nuts anyway?

3) They appear to have a commitment to their causes that supercedes their commitment to Christ. The line becomes blurred between the Gospel and their immediate political cause. To them, Jesus came to end poverty, rather than coming to redeem sinners to Himself.

It's this third item that I think makes what they say often impalatable to me. There's a distinct lack of the Spirit of Christ in their attitudes and their communication. Their intentions are good, but they're not driven by a deep desire to see the Gospel spread. Their ends appear more humanitarian than for God to be glorified and the Kingdom to be spread. So while I often find what they say to be praiseworthy, and they put many issues on my radar which I generally wouldn't know about, I ultimately cannot align myself with them. I wish I could, because in many ways I find that what they have to say about social justice makes much more sense than anything most of the rest of the church is saying. But I am solidly Reformed in my thinking, and cannot shake the deep understanding of what the Gospel is, and why Christ truly came. We can say that ultimately He did come to end poverty, and He did call us to love all people equally and not show favoritism. But these are the fruit of the Spirit's work in our lives, and we can't separate the fruit from the Spirit any more than you can buy a pair of Nikes not made by a starving, exploited child.

And it's for these reasons that I find what people in this camp (sometimes called "emergent," although that buzzword appears to be fading into the distance) have to say so bittersweet. I'm glad they say it, but I wish that what they said came with more of a commitment to the truth of Scripture and to the spread of the glorious name of Jesus. I look desperately for those voices who do both. There's a balance to be found, I'm sure of it.


  1. Jesse, you are hitting where it counts. My bible study is wrapping up a study of James, so you caught me with his at a good time.

    As much as people from varying persuasions tend to missread that epistle, it might be one of the most needed books for the Reformed church today. Sometimes the implied comeback in our heads after reading "Faith without works is dead," is "We'll at least it's faith," forgetting that Dead means no faith at all. That's convicting.

    But, at the same time, there is no sanctification without justification. Or in other words, Christ is not just behavior modification (as DWebb would put it).

    So I, like you, am in search for a balance. Forgive me for abstracting your concrete thoughts.

    BTW, congratulations!

  2. Good stuff... I've been giving this some thought lately as well - sparked in part (as I'm sure you also were) by the new DW record.

    It's frustrating that there seems to be such an unnecessary either-or dichotomy within the church. I find myself retracting from the "fundamentalist crowd" (for lack of a better term) because their gospel is so exclusive. But I can't align with the "emergent crowd" because their gospel seems too watered down. Right now I'm probably more frustrated with the former - mostly for habitually placing God and Country on equal pedestals and for pretending that some sins are just inherently worse than others... But it seems like the middle ground shouldn't be so hard to find.