Category Archives: Culture and Society

How do we interact with our culture and society as followers of Jesus?

Pastoral Letter on Public and Private Fears in a Polarized State

For High Point Church, those interested in the Christian teachings on life under the State, and for those whom are citizens of another kingdom, the City of God.  

Christian Scripture is not only the word of God and a record of his revealing actions; it is also a chronicle of human behavior, demonstrating our nature and propensities in this world. It contains many faithful narratives about human states and people, the tumult and chaos of nations, as well as rare examples of the increase of justice and prosperity. God has given us plenty of teaching on how we can live in virtue and without fear—and thus in freedom—in any state on earth, regardless of its leader and government, or our status in it.  

It should be clear to anyone reading the Bible that progress and liberty are not human universals, but are rare jewels in the annals of human history. No nation has ever been a complete representation of the purposes or will of God. The State is not God’s City, though in his providence he is sovereign over its actions. The church is his kingdom and city, and though there are always wolves in the imperfect church, it is nonetheless Christ’s bride that he is working to perfect.  

The apostle Paul tells us in Colossians 1:9-12 that his prayer for the church is that we would be:  

“[filled] with the knowledge of his will through all wisdom and understanding given by the Spirit, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.” 

The Christian, like his Savior, will consistently find himself an alien in the world, and more so in certain times than in others. It is God’s desire for every believer, in every time and under every state, to understand God’s will so that they can live a life that is pleasing to God. This includes at least committing ourselves to “bearing fruit in every good work” (Col. 1:10), having great endurance and patience, and being able to joyfully give thanks to the Father who has rescued us. 

Writing this epistle from prison, and having been imprisoned unjustly, the apostle does not allow himself to be distracted with political considerations, though he himself is suffering as a political criminal in a corrupt judicial system. Instead, he tells Christians that both collectively and individually the goal is to be pleasing to God, committed to every good work, able to wait on God with endurance and patience, and having joy with a thankful attitude toward God the Father. 

In order to attain to this state of the heart, the Christian cannot give in to weakening frames of the soul: despair, gloom and despondency. Nor can we give into the heated frames of the soul: wrath, vengeance, anger, pride, envy and lust. The fear of meaningful and important temporal things easily steals away the grounding foundation of all the truths of salvation, our eternal hopes, our certainty in God’s oath and promise, and the thankful joy that comes as the fruit of such faith. 

Many sins are produced by the loss of a godly frame in times of abnormal fear. Frames of the soul that have either fallen into despondency or anger, because of our fear or pride, submit to our mind ready excuses for sins of all kinds—all forms of indulgence and intemperance. We can easily, in the state of anger and pride, believe we are holy, just and approved of by God even in doing the things that God has explicitly said that he despises and has commanded us not to commit.  

We make enemies of those who disagree with us and fall into the worst kind of partisanship. We are not faithful to the actual view of our neighbor, and so caricature it in our yard signs, media posts, and conversations. This is bearing false testimony against your neighbor. We refuse to forgive those who we think have committed a wrong—perhaps not realizing that we must forgive another for what we deem a wrong vote as much as we must forgive another for a different wrong action against us. We commit idolatry by elevating the interests of the State over the interests of the family of God, the body and bride of Christ. In further ideological idolatry, we hold fast to our perceptions of who the heroes and the enemies are in our public life, allowing our partisanship to lead to the worst kind of factionalism and tribalism. This leads us not only to abuse our neighbor, but to allow ourselves to hold a hatred for an entire class of people, both real and imagined. This causes us to refuse the virtue of hospitality by allowing ourselves to immediately dislike people that we believe failed to hold a complete orthodoxy in our factional religion.  

Wayward human souls also tend to look to strong leadership in moments of fear and pride. Not waiting on God and trusting him to bring about justice by his own means, we are willing to lie in wait to attack our neighbors in order to support whoever we believe will be the successful leader for our time. By doing so, we cannot help but elevate some of the worst characters, some of the most ruthless men and women, and to make every leadership decision a cataclysmic decision in a “winner takes all” scenario. Such leader and state worship has a horrific and murderous history, especially in the last 100 years—totaling more than 100 million people. And it continues. 

It is common for people to think that this is a tribal problem, and therefore a problem with the other tribe to which we do not belong. But it is not. All of these problems are human problems, and manifest themselves wherever human fear and pride are resident. And they are repented of and somewhat ameliorated, at least for a time, where human beings in humility and faith repent of such idolatries, sins and fears, and choose instead to trust the living God and to follow his Christ.  

It is fashionable at the moment to fear that America is on the brink of being overtaken by “fascism,” and that every person must exert themselves extremely in order to keep such fanaticism from taking hold. The predictable and strange irony of this is that this is precisely how fascism takes hold. Totalitarianism does not emerge from tiny minorities, but by blaming small minorities for the problems of the whole through the voice of a strong man who can rally the majority to his side, usually in a democracy. American Progressives believe that the danger comes from the American Right, recognizing that some fascist regimes were nationalistic in nature, as opposed to communist regimes that were globalist in nature. It is true that when nationalism is defined as a kind of “blood and soil,” and is choosing its membership by race or some other arbitrary standard, that the totalitarian tendency can find its scapegoat and bring on its side a sufficient majority for dictatorship and great injustice. Yet people on the American Right have also observed that every totalitarian regime was also socialist by its very nature. Spain, Italy, Germany, and even the large strain of American fascism during the Progressive era (seen most profoundly in Woodrow Wilson), were all progressivist and socialist by ideology and practice.  

The Christian who understands the nature of the human condition understands that the tendencies towards totalitarianism and injustice reside in the embrace of fear and pride and the rejection of faith and virtue as defined by God. In this state, there is no safety against great horrific outcomes by being on anything like the “Right” or the “Left.” Both visions can become great, and both visions can become specters and wraiths, giving into the worst of their condition, and losing everything good God put in their created nature.  

Advice to Christians about what to do in times like this: 

Some Christians believe that in order to make Christ known to our neighbors, we must capitulate to their political tastes and perceptions. Yet although the apostle Paul said that he becomes “all things to all men, so that by all possible means he may save some,” he did not apply this to sinful tendencies, or views that were contrary to the gospel. You will not find in the ministry of Jesus him capitulating moral standards, especially within worship, virtue and morality, when speaking to people of the world—whatever their political persuasion. His views cannot be characterized as partisan, though sometimes he agreed with one party or another on a particular issue. Instead, his views were consistently seen as otherworldly. People of every faction, from within every partisan group, at some point looked at Jesus with complete bewilderment because he belonged to and spoke of the kingdom that was not of this world—or at least not of this world’s worldliness. 

For the Christian to be faithful to his Christ, and also a faithful witness to his neighbor, it is true that he should not be unlike his neighbor for its own sake, alienating them over the trivial. But nor does it mean that the Christian should lie down the convictions of conscience that she believes is informed by her belief in the gospel. For the thinking and concerned Christian, they will not find a home in either political party in the United States—at least not consistently. 

If we wish to truly be followers of Christ, as well as how he handled the political concerns of his day, we are wrong to see in Christ the consummate progressive, liberal, libertarian, or conservative. He was none of these things consistently. To Jesus, it depended on how any particular progressive, liberal, libertarian or conservative view agreed or disagreed with the otherworldly ethic of the City of God and the will of his Father. On any particular issue, he may agree with one party on an issue, and a different party on another issue—but he would never agree with them all on all issues. And more than anything, he would not be drawn into their idolatry of power. One of the great ironies of the cosmos is that the One with the greatest right and power to coerce all creatures to give fealty and loyalty to himself, came in absolute humility, argued on the basis of truth rather than power, and left choice to the conscience of all men—knowing that the consequences of their choices were dire. He neither stole their rights, nor their destinies, though he died to make the greatest destiny possible for every man and woman. 

Dear brothers and sisters, there are many men and women who seek to stir you up in fear, pride and anger in order that they might have power, notoriety and wealth. To give into fear is always to allow ourselves to be easily manipulated and controlled. The desire for power is exceedingly corrupting. We must reject the calls to fear and hatred of our neighbor, while speaking the truth to each other graciously, according to conscience, and according to the word and will of God. What our nation needs from us most is not our allegiance to the political parties, but an allegiance to temperance and public virtue flowing from the humility and honesty of Christ.  

The essence of faith, in all places and at all times is twofold. It is first to repent of that which is wrong, and to put our faith in the good as it is embodied in Christ. And second, faith is to not give way to fear, but to be willing to trust God and to wait for him. Throughout Scripture, “waiting” for God does not mean passivity and indolence. It means that we will not take into our hands that which is left to God alone—like wrath and revenge, the manipulation of events that cannot be done with virtue, and the like. To wait for God is to do everything we can possibly do for the good that is shown to us in God’s revealed will and then not to try to do more. It is to leave to God what is God’s, and to wait for him to work out whatever he has chosen in his providence to bring to pass. It is to believe that the final reward, our ultimate redemption in glorification, will provide sufficient joy, hope, and endurance to follow Christ who seemed forsaken in the events of this world—especially political ones—and yet who was vindicated and glorified to eternal joy. 

Finally, brothers and sisters, do not lose hope. Do not give in to fear. Do not allow anger to be an excuse for intemperance. Rejoice in the Lord, and put no hope in princes, governors or presidents. Yet pray for governors, presidents, and other governmental entities on all occasions. Act conscientiously in your public work according to your best understanding of what will work toward human flourishing and is in the will of God. And then put your trust in God, and wait for him. Do good, live in his joy with thankfulness, and know that if we live under the derision of the earthly city, we will be pleasing in the eyes of the One who is working redemption for his heavenly City. We have been redeemed and will be redeemed, so let us now, like Jesus our Christ, spend ourselves in every work of redemption our hand finds. Do not grow weary brothers and sisters, night must always give way. 

Grace and peace,  

Pastor Nic Gibson 

Having a Political Voice as a Church

For more on this topic, listen to the Engage & Equip podcast episodes #174: Is the Cure Worse than the Disease? and #175: How Should Christians Engage in Politics?

Should a church have a political voice? Should a pastor?

Should I go to a church if the church’s or the pastor’s political voice doesn’t seem to be what is approved of by the party or philosophy I most approve of?

How should I think about politics and the church as a Christian?

Christian faith has always been called “political.”

The Bible is a “political” book, and Jesus was considered a “political” figure. After all, he was always talking about his “kingdom.” In fact, all of Scripture makes “political” claims: The book of Genesis claims that our God is the God of creation and, therefore, is the sovereign governor over the entire natural realm. He also claims ownership of all image bearers, or human beings. He declares how they should be treated by other human beings, by families, by religious orders and by governments, declaring that they have what we call “rights.” He also declares how human beings should be treated economically, with at least minimal standards regarding economic justice. Many of the Old Testament prophets specifically criticized the government for its corruption and economic favoritism. These men spoke “politically” for God. His judgment concerned, in part, the acts of their government.

Jesus was executed as a political dissident and as a traitor against the Roman government. James and John were flogged for not obeying the government’s policy to manage the spread of Christianity. The apostle James was killed in political instability caused by people politically rioting against the rise of Christianity. The apostle Paul was whipped, beaten and imprisoned numerous times by government officials; he was a political prisoner virtually all of the time he was imprisoned. The early Christians were persecuted by their governments, and the apostle John was exiled by the Roman government. Some of the earliest Christian public writings were written to emperors, arguing against the injustice of how Christians were being treated by the empire.

Many biblical commentators, of both liberal and conservative persuasions, have noted the interplay of religious faith and politics in the Scriptures from beginning to end. Whatever Christianity is, and whatever its politics, we find that its practice is always running afoul of politics. Said another way, Christian faith and doctrine is always at least being mistaken for politics.

Everything is political now.

Second, it may be noted that more and more in American life is being taken into this sphere of what is considered political. The definition of totalitarian fascism, as determined by dictator Benito Mussolini, was “everything inside the state, nothing outside the state, and nothing against the state.” One might define totalitarian politics as, “everything inside politics, nothing outside politics, and nothing against the importance of politics.” Over the last eight years I have heard both Democrats and Republicans say that we were moving towards dictatorship, depending on whether President Obama or President Trump was in power. (In fact, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR were our most dictatorial presidents. And two are on Mount Rushmore. FDR openly admired and was admired by Mussolini.)

However, I think it is more obvious that over the last 15 years we have been moving towards a dictatorship of politics—that it is politics itself that is swelling up and claiming to control all of human life. Everything is political. Everything is inside politics. Everything reveals your politics. Everything requires a political framing, every false step a political reprisal. Everyone has to be trying to control everyone and everything else. More and more people judge each other and approve of themselves based on their political creed rather than the basis of their own moral acts of virtue.

Whether those in power are Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or progressives, this is a profoundly unhealthy state of affairs.  It may be argued now that this writing itself is a “conservative” view, that I am seeking to smuggle in a “small government Republicanism.” But I am much more concerned about the size of politics than I am about the size of government.

For example, we could have an enormous government that was only in charge of national defense. In such a case, the government would be large in size, but narrow in scope. Virtually all of human life would be outside of government, in what has been called “civil society.” Civil society is the realm of commerce, free associations, families, churches, and anything that stands between the government and the individual. It is the realm of institutions that we make for ourselves and use to form ourselves. It is also the part of life least constrained and controlled by people other than those involved—it is the realm of liberty.

This liberty can only exist where even democratic majorities cannot tread. Otherwise the 49% shall be controlled by the will of the 51%, and they will live under the tyranny of democracy. There is such thing as a democratic totalitarianism. Two wolves and a lamb vote on what’s for lunch. 51% gets to pee in the oatmeal of the 49% minority. This is why the West created a common law radically limiting the scope of government with a reel of “rights,” built up from the Magna Carta to the time of the Revolution, even to the removal of the last vestiges of Jim Crow. This idea that a civil reel of rights should create a large space free from the tyranny even of democratic government, in which people could freely associate and build the lives they chose, was called “liberalism.” Liberalism was the idea that we should not coerce anyone’s life without grave need, and that we should leave people free to pursue happiness according to their own rights and conscience. And the early Americans believed this could only be done if religion had a large place in that civil society.

From the time of the New Deal forward through the Great Society, and the increase in regulations and entitlement/relief programs, the scope of this “liberalism” has been shrinking. More of life has been taken from the realm of liberty and placed in the safeguard of technical administrators put in place by democratically elected representatives. As the government was responsible for more and more, the stakes for controlling that government went up and up. The fight for every post and seat became more and more vicious. Money poured in, and everyone had to become an advocate. No one could afford not to be on a team. And once everyone is on one team or another, everything is the game. Everything is politics, and all that matters is who’s winning.

Damned either way

When all of human discourse and life is swallowed up into “politics” (claims that an insinuate grab for power on behalf of a certain policy were by a certain group), no claim can be made that isn’t a kind power grab. So no claim is truly a moral claim. No claim can be a spiritual claim. There are no metaphysical claims. There aren’t even any scientific claims. There are only political claims pretending to be moral, theological, spiritual, anthropological, metaphysical or scientific. Well, unless our team is making the claim, and then it’s obvious that all we care about is the truth. It is the other guys who are never sincere, but only grabbing power. I can hardly think of a more depraved and demoralized public square than one in which politics becomes totalitarian, because it has become total and partisan.

As American public life has become more politically totalitarian, all speech is consider political speech. More positions are considered political positions. More ideas are considered political ideas. And in this transition, many Christian claims that are moral and theological are now assumed to be mainly political.

Here are some examples:

  1. Abortion is the taking of innocent human life. All human institutions should be structured against the taking of innocent human life, and it is always immoral for a person, no matter what their institutional role, to take such life.
  2. Racism and sexism are violations of human dignity and should be opposed in every context they are found.
  3. Poverty is produced by both rapaciousness and dysfunction. Therefore, every society must have mechanisms to help the poor while distinguishing its cause. Therefore, every society must balance protecting the poor against the wealthy seeking to monetize their work for themselves, and dysfunction among the poor that produces indigence and dependence. Historically, more emphasis must be given against the rapaciousness of the rich, since it’s more likely that they can capture the institutions of society, including government. Therefore, societies must have a strong anticorruption bias and support for the legal rights of the poor, while not supporting indigence independence.
  4.  Covenantal and comprehensive heterosexual marriage is the fundamental building block of healthy families and human society. This does not mean a society won’t make any deviation from this norm. However, for society to be healthy, the vast majority of families must submit themselves to this norm for their own good and for the good of succeeding generations.
  5. Human beings should be accorded the right of conscience, religious belief and moral practice, and be free from unnecessary coercion, with a heavy bias towards freedom and liberty. Freedom of conscience, the will, and religious sentiment are supreme to the existence of authentic human consciousness and being. Governments have no right to suppress the religious and moral conscience of men, especially within the realm of natural theology.
  6. People have the right to benefit from the work of their own hands.
  7. Societies have the responsibility to alleviate poverty of misfortune. Societies have the opposite responsibility to not alleviate poverty of indolence.
  8. Governments have the responsibility to punish those who do wrong.
  9. Court should either favor the rich nor the poor, but should produce impartial justice.

In such a context, you’re stuck either way. If you say nothing, in trying “not to be political” you’ve succeeded in not preaching the whole counsel of God. But pastors, and by implication, churches, are responsible to communicate the full will of God.  The Apostle Paul said it this way in Acts 20:26-27, “Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.” Christianity has views about things that affect public life, and they must be declared in a full throated way in every generation, and even to the government and its officials. Not to do so is to displease the Lord. It’s not an option.

But if everything is political, this will be considered political speech. Many feel like the church “shouldn’t get involved in politics.” So their response is that this is a foul against how a church or pastor should speak. When people hear what they think is “political,” they grow offended and complain, or leave.

The Origins and Ironies of Thanksgiving

Imagine someone from a galaxy far, far away coming to America in late November and thinking we worship the turkey goddess—or the football gods. When strangers do cross our path—that is, refugees or immigrants, international students, the homeless—would we invite them to a Thanksgiving meal and explain its meaning?

For Thanksgiving two years ago, my wife Sue and I invited a family of seven Iraqi refugees to share our Thanksgiving meal. Their big question, as Muslims and newcomers to America, was this: “Is Thanksgiving a Christian holiday?” I answer, “No, it is not uniquely Christian; all grateful hearts may participate.”

However, there’s a rub as we thank God for the grub: Some may not be feeling so thankful this year. To get in the right mood, a gratitude journal helps. This accords with the research of Michael McCullough and Robert Emmons, who conducted a psychological study with three control groups: One group journaled weekly about things they were “grateful” for, one about things that were “hassles,” and a third group about “events” that were unremarkable. After just nine weeks, the gratitude group reported better well-being, better health, and increased optimism than the other two control groups.

For another take, I invite you to consider the origins and ironies of our Thanksgiving holiday. Centuries ago, the Pilgrims faced squalor and hunger in Europe, along with the fear of being assimilated into the Dutch culture of the day. Hence, they came to America, “the land of opportunity,” to build a better life.

Most immigrants at our southern border, as well as those in Spain and North Africa coming from sub-Saharan Africa, and those in Germany fleeing from the Middle East, tell similar stories of hope for opportunity and a better life.  (I personally heard many of those Spanish, North African and German stories in 2016, 2017 and just a few weeks ago.)

But in making this 400-year-old cross-continent parallel, I sloughed over a crucial difference. The Pilgrims of 1620 were met by the local Indians, who moved from hostility to hospitality. During their first New England winter, being short of food to start with, nearly half the immigrants—indeed, 14 of the 18 wives—died!  Nevertheless, they set aside a day of thanksgiving out of human resilience and undaunted hope. Wow! I want that, don’t you? Persevering in prayer and assisted by helpful Indians, those Pilgrims reaped a bountiful harvest the following summer.

The surviving Pilgrims then declared a three-day feast in November of 1621, to thank God and to celebrate with their Indian friends. We traditionally celebrate this event as the first Thanksgiving in America.  But rival claims for “first Thanksgiving service” are made by Virginians as early as 1619, by the Spanish in Texas as early as 1565, and by French Huguenots in Florida—all before the Pilgrims arrived. Never mind that the Indians had such fall festivals long before. How ironic.

At Thanksgiving in the Gruen household, or in phone calls made that day, I ask, “What are you particularly thankful for this year?” Eight shares later, I conclude we have much to be thankful for—good health, good jobs, good friends, good kids, three wonderful grandkids. I take mental notes, gather pics that fit, and prepare my “dear-all, what-a-wonderful-year-it’s-been, count-your-blessings” annual newsletter. Some of you get that. Many of you do the same thing—focus on the positive, and not just in newsletters.

But for families grieving the loss of a loved one this season or suffering through a bad year, your letter—if you send one at all—will differ. You better acknowledge the giant “turkey” in the room. Don’t let some yahoo like me force you to share one thing you’re grateful this coming Thanksgiving. Don’t dance at the office Christmas party or sing joyous carols all night just to please other people. In acknowledging your grief or apathy, go ahead stuff the turkey and enjoy all the trimmings—it is comfort food, after all—but don’t stuff your feelings.

You can grieve and be grateful. In 1863, amidst our bloody Civil War, President Lincoln saw fit to issue the proclamation creating the day we now celebrate. Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation came at a time of spiritual crisis for him personally and for a divided nation. Personally, he’d just buried his 11-year-old son, Willie. “The severest trial of my life,” said Lincoln. Now, as we are again polarized and losing loved ones to health crises and acts of violence, it will help to turn to the first Pilgrims and Lincoln for enduring reasons to be grateful. Our forebears invite you to give thanks in word and deed, in all circumstances—that is, in life and death, in abundance and want, in sickness and health, amidst great adversity and diversity, remembering both wrath and mercy, victors and victims, grieving family and joyful friends alike.

Rev. Dietrich Gruen is Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Columbus and Bethany Presbyterian of Randolph. He is also the Benevolence Coordinator at High Point Church and former member of the Global Missions Team at High Point Church.

Orientations and the Body of Christ (resources)

Any Christian of any orientation who is seeking to be faithful to the Gospel is going to find stiff resistance from the world generally and possibly even from self-identifying as Christians. Living this out faithfully requires more than the solution to a question. There is a deep tension here that must be managed. It is a brokenness that must be carried, a burden that we must bear together. The point where truth and gracious love meet always seems to land within this tension, and that’s how it will remain until that final day.

I have compiled below some of the best and most usable resources I know of that can help you learn about the issues related to faithful Christian belief and practice and alternate sexual orientations. Hopefully this page will grow and be refined over time. Feel free to make suggestions if you know of something helpful I have overlooked or am not aware of.

As a blog of High Point Church, the perspective here is confessional, Biblical Gospel-centered, historically orthodox Christianity. Continue reading Orientations and the Body of Christ (resources)

When your table hosts a divided America

by Dietrich Gruen, Bridge Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Columbus

Engaging controversial issues from the pulpit is difficult for me, but so is the dilemma faced by many at the dinner table, post-election.  Our problem and opportunity are how to talk politics with family and friends who disagree on today’s political flash points.  To help in that regard, I shall share wisdom gleaned from several bloggers, family, and holy scripture.

First, to graciously discuss hot topics, get permission to go deeper.  When friends & family gather at the table for Thanksgiving or Christmas, keep the food hot and the rhetoric cool.  IF more heat than light is being generated, that’s time to back up, read the body language, and get permission to go further.  Once you have permission, agree on rules of engagement.  You could start with these: Continue reading When your table hosts a divided America

May the worst of times bring out our best

by Dietrich Gruen

Bridges out, roads blocked, businesses closed, basements flooded. One death.  Many water rescues by boat, helicopter, and human chains.  Untold storage items, basement appliances and family treasures soaked and lost.  Lakeside decks and docks float away.  Lakes appearing suddenly where there were none the day before.  Hundreds of flooded cars ditched in either underground parking or clogging above-ground streets. Continue reading May the worst of times bring out our best