Saturday, December 10, 2011

Can Orthodoxy Be Dead?

Our Sunday school class has been going through Ezekiel's prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar, a horrific time in the history of God's people brought about by their apostasy and idolatry. As shocking as the apostasy and idolatry were, the true horror was that the people of Jerusalem were content with the status quo: "The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way" (Jer 5:31).

Leading up to the fall of Jerusalem, the people made no pretense of worshiping YHWH, instead openly worshiping Baal (Jer 2:8) and the Queen of Heaven (Jer 7:18). So of course, God's glory left the temple and headed east (Ez 9-10), by implication to the community of exiles in Babylon. Then "the guards of the city" went through Jerusalem, beginning at the sanctuary, and killed everyone who was not grieving over the apostasy in the city.

The problem in Jerusalem was open apostasy: no one named the name of YHWH, and those who did were persecuted. My question, though, is this: is it possible to hold to all the proper theological propositions and still be apostate?

I live at a time in US history in which over 80% of those polled think our nation is "going the wrong way." By any measure, it is financially bankrupt: the official national debt is higher than could ever be repaid, the currency is losing value by the day, and as businesses fail the unemployment rate is high and still rising. "Whatever is true, ... noble, ... right, ... pure, ... lovely, ... admirable ... excellent ... praiseworthy" is scorned; the only virtue is "pushing the envelope," the only right our government recognizes is the "right" to kill the unborn.

Yet the US evangelical church waves this nation's flag proudly.

"We" are also so afraid of "our" enemies that "we" strip-search wheelchair-bound nonagenarians lest they carry weapons of mass destruction onto airplanes, to say nothing of caging sellers of raw milk and growers of industrial hemp, and killing innocent people overseas by the hundreds of thousands, all with the hearty approval of the evangelical church.

Actually, "hearty apporval" is an understatement. Dr. Michael Milton, the new chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, has gone so far as to call the decision to reduce military force overseas immoral.

Now if anyone is as orthodox as the day is long, it's RTS Charlotte. When I audited classes there in 1996, they allowed me to ask questions in class and grading my homework, examinations, and term papers, generosity auditors are usually not given. Nothing I saw while there would testify against their desire to be true to the Bible and sensitive to the Holy Spirit.

I have the same impression of World magazine. And my local church.

In contrast, I look in the mirror and see someone whose commitment to Christ is tepid. While those I disagree with over the war and "compassionate conservatism" seem to be fervent in their desire to know and carry out God's will, I find myself making excuses for my self-indulgence. To be honest, I not only find myself wondering if God loves me, I find myself wondering if there is a God at all and even not caring whether there is or not.

Now I want the gospel to be true—without it life has no meaning. But my wanting something to be true doesn't make it true, and, more immediately, it doesn't make it apply to me. So I write the following in the context of Paul's admonition, "If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall" (1 Cor 10:12): I find myself fleeing my own idols (v 14) too slowly.

But given what has come out over the years about the lies the US government has told to its subjects1 and, more importantly, the love the US evangelical community has lavished on those lies (see 2 Thess 2:11), I think the question needs to be asked: can idolatry prosper in the soil of even fervent theological orthodoxy?

I find one answer in the second chapter of the Revelation.

The church at Ephesus worked beyond weariness to do good deeds, persevered through hardship, could not tolerate wickedness, and pursued theological orthodoxy. Yet despite all that, they had forsaken their first love. They could hate what God hated—the practices of the Nicolaitans, whoever they were—but they didn't love what God loved (Rev 2:1-6). (Sounds like me, except without the hard work and perseverance.)

My question to Dr. Milton and the rest of the visible evangelical community is this: If you had to choose between being a US citizen (which today, as Congress is passing a law that allows the government to cage anyone they please indefinitely without trial, means someone who goes along with everything the government considers necessary) and being a Christian, which would you choose? If a ratio of dead innocents overseas to those killed on 9/11 of somewhere between a hundred and a thousand to one isn't enough, how many would be enough for you to say that you need to choose between evangelizing them and blowing them to hell? How do you know that that point is not too late to change the situation? Or does it just not matter?

My local church gives three times as much money in taxes for the war effort alone as it does to missions, and given the number of seminary professors and former missionaries in the congregation, I would expect this ratio to be on the low side for evangelical churches as a whole. Its prayers for missions and the military reflect this ratio: the former are sporadic and general, the latter consistent and specific. Is God more than three times as concerned that we worship in freedom (i.e., comfort) as he is that the Islamic world hear the gospel?

For that matter, was it really God who sent Christian soldiers to help found the Republic of Iran, in which Islam is the state religion, and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan? In both nations, confessing Christians have paid a horrible price for their "enduring freedom," much greater than the price paid by US evangelicals, which of course the latter take as a call for even more killing, so that "we don't have to fight them over here."

How about fighting Islam over here?

The most fertile ground for Islam in the United States, save perhaps for the wombs of resident Muslim women, is the prison system, the evils of which I have decried here and here. Most of those incarcerated are innocent of any activity that was considered a crime even by Christians a hundred years ago, when the church was more influential than it is today.2 Yet what prominent evangelical leaders are willing to come out and say, e.g., "The Bible nowhere gives me jurisdiction over what you grow in your garden, provided it stays in your garden, nor what you consume in the privacy of your own home, nor what you voluntarily exchange with your neighbors; therefore, in the name of Jesus, while I urge my fellow citizens to exercise the utmost caution and restraint in their use of potential intoxicants, I call on the US government to end the War on Drugs and free all those convicted solely of possession and sale of substances"?

If they are worried about the spread of Islam, why do they not take a look at the prisons? Is the ratio of Christian converts to Muslim converts "good enough for government work"? Or do we just love the US government, including its barbaric prison system, more than we love God?

Just as the glory of the Lord departed from the temple of Jerusalem because of the people's open apostasy and allowed them to be slaughtered by the Iraqis of their day, it would seem the Lord removed the lampstand of the church of Ephesus despite its hard work and perseverance and turned the people over to Islam (and, even scarier, the church of Philadelphia shared the Ephesians' fate).

In the past I have taken breaks from writing this blog and reading my favorite writers when I felt I needed to make sure my focus was on Christ and his kingdom and not on attacking the libertine state. Would it be unreasonable to ask the evangelical church in the US to take a month sometime to take Uncle Sam's flag out of the sanctuary and off the flag pole, take off the flag lapel pins, and pray exclusively for Christ's kingdom and its emissaries (including military members and chaplains, but only as they are ambassadors of the gospel)?

Germany was once the hotbed of the Reformation. Before my time, its strong central government was the hope of many Protestants3 for recovery from terrible oppression by the victors of a war they were convinced had been forced on them. When Germany went to war, it was to regain what it said was land unjustly taken from it and later to fight Communism. Today Germany is the economic engine of Europe, but it is not known for a vibrant church.

Is our future the carpet bombings and fire bombings and atomic blasts we have inflicted on others, followed by an age in which the Christian church is an irrelevency, ignored and tolerated at best? Do we avoid such a future best by being "patriotic Americans" exporting democracy by bomb blast, or by single-hearted devotion to Christ and his kingdom?


1. For starters, see this review of one book and mention of others that praise Franklin Roosevelt for lying the US into World War II.

2. I find it ironic that when it comes to killing and caging innocent people, conservative Republicans side against me with the Progressive Democrats Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt.

3. "The [Protestant] churches did not reject National Socialism on principle. The idea of a strong authority and a close bond between throne and altar, of the kind that existed in the empire between 1871 and 1918, was in keeping with Protestant tradition. Many ... [Protestants] had reservations about the democratic Weimar Republic and sympathized with political forces – such as the German National People's Party – that idealized the past." Wikipedia entry for the Confessing Church. A bulletin insert put out by Christian History magazine (alas no longer available on line), went even further, saying that evangelical churches put swastikas and pictures of Hitler on their pulpits and the Gestapo supported Christian missions.


  1. But ...why take off the flag lapel pins ...?

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  2. Hi, Danish,

    I suspect you're asking in jest so you can sell some pins, but I'll answer anyway.

    For one thing, the federal law against using the American flag as apparel is still on the books; it's technically illegal for sports teams to have it on their uniforms or for the rest of us to wear it as decoration. The overlap between laws and enforcement is imperfect at best, but laws that are not enforced, as well as non-laws that are enforced, are on the rise, methinks.

    What sentence goes through your mind when you see a flag or flag lapel pin? Isn't it something like, "That person is proud to be an American," meaning he wants to identify with what the government, or at least the society south of Canada and north of Mexico, stands for?

    I see much in our society from which I wish to distance myself. Jesus tells me nothing about being a good citizen: the Wehrmacht was comprised of good citizens. He tells me to be a good neighbor. Uncle Sam is not a good neighbor by any Christian standards I know of. It's time to ditch all association with him.

    Thanks for reading!