Category Archives: Culture and Society

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

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

Escaping Worldliness through the Pursuit of Joy

Throughout Substance as whole, starting in the very first chapter, I wrote that much of the confusion in our thinking comes from the structures of our thought and life and not from the ideas themselves. This is true when we talk about worldliness; it may be even more true when we talk about joy. We don’t really talk about joy, do we? We talk about happiness. Even when we say the word “fulfillment,” we don’t mean the fulfillment of some grand philosophical purpose for our being, we just mean that we feel full inside. We just mean “I’m happy.”

However, happiness is notoriously unpredictable in the human heart. It’s a little like seeing birds in the winter. It is extraordinarily difficult to capture a bunch of songbirds so that you can see them during the winter. But it’s not that hard to put seed in a bird feeder and watch them come. Happiness is the birds. Virtue is the feeder. This is one of the differences between “joy” in its comprehensive definition, and “happiness” as we commonly mean it.

Continue reading Escaping Worldliness through the Pursuit of Joy