"… a theology which justifies doing practically nothing"

Whenever I suspect I’m getting a little too negative about things in my writing, I read a  bit of Gary North—and come away feeling like a Pollyanna. I admire North’s willingness to state his views, no matter how fringe, plainly and without hedging. I also enjoy his style and his humor.

Today North observes the church has almost completely checked out of society, in particular dealing with social problems, but objects to being seen that way.

Let us take the universal problem of alcoholism. This problem can be found in every society, at any point in its history. What has the church, synagogue, or mosque done to deal in a systematic fashion with the problem of alcoholism? The answer is clear: nothing.

People who attend worship services on a regular basis do not want to sit next to drunks, bums, and the general riffraff of society. They want to sit next to people who look pretty much like they do, dress pretty much like they do, and smell pretty much like they do. The riffraff of the world are well aware of this, so they don’t step foot inside churches, at least not during worship services. They may knock on the pastor’s door, trying to get a handout, but they know better than to come into the worship service. They are not welcome. People know they are not welcome.

This is nothing new. It has been true for centuries. It is why a few denominations support skid row rescue missions. But most do not.

There is some residual shame about this—Christians know that this is exactly the sort of work they are called to—but even that recognition manifests itself in a shameful way.

So, in the great division of labor, the institutional churches, synagogues, and mosques defer to other organizations. But then when those organizations are successful, some members of the church, synagogue, or mosque complain that the organization is not run by, and especially not financed by, the church, synagogue, or mosque. The members of the religious groups do not want to fund the treatment centers. They do not want to interact with people who are afflicted by these problems. Yet they resent the fact that other organizations are interacting with such people — organizations that are independent of the church, synagogue, or mosque. […]

The churches have defaulted, and they have not given guidance to members who might otherwise start charitable organizations. Then the leadership of the churches wail on the sidelines of life, complaining that the world doesn’t pay any attention to the church. This has been going on in Protestant circles for about 300 years.

The harshest line in North’s essay:

Contemporary Christians are incapable of doing much of anything, and they have developed a theology which justifies doing practically nothing.

Is this fair? I’m still thinking about it. I was thinking about it as I skimmed through a long essay by Carl Trueman, subtitled “Why Reformed Christianity Provides the Best Basis For Faith Today”.

Christianity is moving to the margins of American life, and Christians are heading into cultural exile. The question is: How will we survive? The answer is: as Paul did in the first century. First and foremost, we need the simple proclamation of God’s Word in church week by week, reminding us of our identity in Christ. We need liturgies and worship saturated with that Word. We need engagement with the world consistent with the identity formed in us by a clear and confident faith in that Word.

Aha, engagement with the world! Does Trueman describe anywhere what he thinks constitutes such engagement?

Today’s world is becoming a colder, harder place. Even so, we have ongoing civic responsibilities. Shaped by our faith, we too can speak to those in power. We must remind them of their responsibilities to protect the innocent and to punish the wicked. We must remind them of the fact that they, the magistrates, will ultimately answer to a higher authority. It is this consciousness of civic responsibility—and of a firm place to stand in Christ—that frames Calvin’s Institutes and has served to make Reformed Christianity such a powerful force for change in history, from the Puritans to Abraham Kuyper.

Really? Reminding the magistrates of their responsibilities is what made Reformed Christianity such a powerful force for change in history? Maybe North’s line needs to be amended slightly: “… and they have developed a theology which justifies doing practically nothing aside from talking.”


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