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Friday, January 10, 2014

Reviewing Carl Henry's Principle Of Church Disengagement With Society

This post is reviewing an article that reviews Carl Henry's principles which he used as the editor of the magazine, Christianity Today. His principles and practices were reviewed in a Christianity Today article titled, Carl Henry Was Right. The article was written in January of 2010 by Richard Mouw. In his article, Mouw remembers a time when Henry and him went back and forth on editorial changes for an article which Mouw submitted. One part of the article in question dealt with Mouw's initial assertion that, from time to time, the Church has to take a stand in terms of social justice issues. Henry wanted Mouw to say individual Christians should instead of the Church. After they went back and forth, Henry persuaded Mouw to make a revision that wrote about a "Christian's duty with respect to civil rights" rather than "the church's duty." Though not fully agreeing at the time, Mouw was writing this article to declare that Henry was correct in making the correction.

This correction was determined by Henry's five editorial principles. While you can click the above article link to read all five principles, we will focus on principle #2 which is listed below.
The institutional church has no mandate, jurisdiction, or competence to endorse political legislation or military tactics or economic specifics in the name of Christ.
Mouw adds the following modifications to this principle. First, the Church should be saying "no!" to certain social issues. In fact, Henry could be emphatic in telling Christians and churches to address social issues. And in encouraging Mouw, in his article, and the Church in general not to endorse political legislation and such, Henry did recognize certain "emergency" situations, such as when the Nazis were in power, that could provide exceptions to the rule.

But the problem here is whether allowing the exceptions either undoes the rule or makes it too rigid. For what or who is to determine what is an "emergency" is the problem. Sometimes we slower to recognize the emergencies that exist in our own society than we are in seeing the catastrophes in others. 

In addition, citing the Nazis as one example for what constitutes an emergency situation. For doing so sort of implies that the Nazis have provided a minimum standard for evil so that the Church can remain on the same course unless things get as bad as they were under the Nazis. This idea both horribly minimizes the atrocities of the Nazis while practically guaranteeing that we either never deviate from the above principle or find ways to magnify the significance of a current situation in order to excuse making an exception. In the latter case, we see an undoing of Henry's principle.

Henry's above stated principle has perhaps set the grounds for a similar principle followed by some 2K adherents. That is that while, like Henry, they have no problems with telling individual Christians that they should be free to endorse proposed laws, military plans, and economic practices, the Church should not because it is too inept to speak for a vary diverse body of people. For once the Church does speak to an issue, its decision implies an obligation for its members to follow suit. And such is a legitimate point.

However, Anthony Bradley, a theologian whose economic and political viewpoints I struggle with, adeptly challenges Michael Horton, a 2K theologian, by writing that this kind of reasoning is what some Southern Churches used to abstain from participation in both the Abolitionist and Civil Rights movements (click the following link and read the first comment, blogpost and Bradley's response). In addition, we have to ask how could the Church not support abolition, the 13th, 14th and 15th Constitutional Amendments, and Civil Rights legislation during the 1960s? How could it be that the Church was not competent enough to speak authoritatively regarding these items?

So here is a suggestion, perhaps we should downgrade Henry's principle here to a guideline. That is instead of setting such a difficult bar to hurdle for the exception, as Henry does, we should lower the bar to be hurdled for when the Church speaks authoritatively on political, economic, and military issues lest the Church becomes complicit in the obvious cultural sins of the society in which it resides. Yes, the Church could take many foolish political stands if the bar is lowered, but if the Church's leaders don't speak out against noticeable social sins of the day, it will be encouraging some of its members to participate in them. In addition, the Church's strong stand against individual sins joined with its coddling of social sins destroys the reputation of the Gospel to many nonChristians, especially to those who are demonstrating a greater social righteousness than the Church is. 

And we should note that though much of our society has progressed from the horrific racism of the past, there are other isms that could become as pervasive and destructive as racism. For example, we have an economic classism that continues to increase the wealth and income disparities in our country. In addition, we also have a nation that is still bent on militarism and imperialism. So though we don't want the Church to take stands on issues that could be unnecessarily divisive, the Church should do all that it can to not be an accessory to social sins.


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