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Friday, October 10, 2014

To Be Or Not To Be In Exile

More than just exile, Carl Trueman's  First Things blogpost (click here) on the current state of exile for Christians is about how the Church should relate to society. As I wrote before in another review of Trueman, I like him for his independence and he seems to have a certain impulsiveness to which I can relate. Trueman approaches the Church's relationship with society from a Two-Kingdom (2K) theological approach (see his perspective of 2K theology here). For those who are not familiar with the terminology, 2K theology states that just as Israel lived in exile in Babylon, so should the Church live in the world. That is that Christians should recognize that they live in 2 disjoint kingdoms. The one kingdom is to rule the life we share with nonChristians while the other is to rule how we live in the Church with God.

To further this line of thinking, 2K theology states that neither the Church nor individual Christians should speak to the worldly kingdom about its rules from a Christian position except in rare, extraordinary cases. Thus, in civil matters, we should work side by side with nonChristians in furthering and prospering our societies based on natural law. And we should live in the secular kingdom as our nonChristian fellow citizens live except for when doing so would call us to sin.

In contrast to 2K theology stands Transformationist theology. Those advocating that kind of theology, whom will be called Transformers for the sake of typing shorter words, see as part of the Church's mission to, at least partially, redeem society by how it interacts with it and calls it to change. Here the Church is more free to speak as the Church when challenging society and the world to change.

Both perspectives have strengths and weaknesses that this post might eventually address. And what we will see here is why Trueman has determined that we NOW live in a state of exile, a position that is made somewhat inconsistent with Trueman's 2K theology roots by the word 'NOW.' This is because according to 2K theology, we unconditionally live in exile. But this is not how Trueman starts his article. Rather, the advancements and direction of science and the changes in society's sexual mores shows Christianity has lost its privileged position in guiding society and is now being moved to the margins. It is this marginalization of Christianity in society that, according to Trueman, is sending us into exile.

After making this point, Trueman states which Christian group will fall then farthest and which group will be best suited to survive. According to Trueman, American Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism have the most to lose with Christianity's fall from American grace and yet, only Evangelicalism seems to suffer. Evangelicalism has made itself vulnerable because of how it has branded itself as America's religion, especially with regard to the past. Roman Catholicism suffers a different fate. Why? It is, and this might seem difficult to believe, because of  Roman Catholicism's ties to and impact on society are too big and diverse to totally fail. This might have to do with its contributions to society other than building mega-sanctuaries.  But according to Trueman, all of this could change if the Roman Catholic Church lost its tax exempt status. 

Trueman goes on to say that not only do the Reformed Churches stand the greatest chance at surviving the coming marginalization, it provides the best hope for Christians and Christianity. The reasons for this are multiple. First, Trueman cites the Reformed Faith's intellectual resources. These resources include its intellectual rigor and its articulation of the faith provided by a list who's who in the Christian faith. Then there are its historical experiences in having been marginalized in the past, and its position of having nothing to lose in Christianity's lost privileged status because, with the exception of a couple people,  it did not own part of the public square. According to Trueman, the Reformed Church's social status is due to its singular focus on its main pillars: the Word, the sacraments, prayer, and worship. And in teaching the Word, there is an emphasis expository preaching and the family use of the catechisms as well as liturgy that supply a supportive context for the preaching of the Word.

But in all of this, what Trueman cites as the strengths of the Reformed Faith is in turning inward and circling of the wagons to fend off attacks. Here, we can note two things. First, such an approach is what we should expect from 2K theology with its model containing disjoint kingdoms. And second, we should note that such is not the approach being taken by the Roman Catholic Church which Trueman expects to fair better than the Evangelical Church. And it is at this point that we need to examine how much merit Trueman's approach has. 

But before we look closer at Trueman's approach, we should note that the Transformers' approach to is interact with and change culture so that the preaching of the Gospel does not sound like someone is speaking in tongues. Trueman doesn't put much stock into what the Transformers are doing because, with the coming marginalization, its fruit doesn't seem to be standing the test of time. We might also look at that but a little bit later.

What we need to do now is take a closer look at 2K theology in general. It is based on its seeing a high degree of continuity between Church and Israel when it was in exile. And as long as one emphasizes the continuity between the two, 2K theology can seem very sound. After all, it has some strong points. It does recognize that what is required to be a member in good standing in a church is not what it takes to be a righteous member of society. Also, 2K theologians do not, for the most part, seek Christian privilege in society. By Christian privilege I mean that Christians have a greater voice in determining the standards and laws everybody must follow. There are a few exceptions to this not seeking Christian privilege as the same-sex marriage issue showed. But for the most part, 2K theology wants Christians to have an equal place in society with nonChristians. 

But the problem with 2K theology, and thus in Trueman's circling of the wagons, is failure to recognize the discontinuities between the Babylonian Captivity and the Church's current alien status in the world. Whereas Israel was kicked out of the Promised Land and sent to exile in Babylon as a punishment for sin, the Church has yet to enter the Promised Land and so, in some ways, it resembles the wandering Hebrews in the wilderness as well as the Israelites in captivity. From this, we should understand that though Israel's exile in Babylon does provide a helpful imagery and some useful examples, it cannot possibly fully illustrate the Church's status here. Thus, while we must include lessons from Israel's Babylonian captivity, we should look beyond it as well.

There is also discontinuity in the kind of community Israel was and the Church is today. For the most part, Israel was a closed community. They did not go to Babylon in order to grow by enlisting new members. They went there to learn and be faithful while serving time. In contrast to that, the Church has been given the Great Commission. And with the Great Commission comes an outer-orientation that Israel never had. Thus, the Church, while employing a self-exile from sins of the flesh, is there to reach out to the unchurched so that they might believe. At this point, we should point out that there are no Old Testament examples of evangelism, with perhaps the exception of Jonah preaching to Nineveh, to provide illustrations for how we should relate to our Babylon. So we must look for general principles to add to the Old Testament imagery of the exile in Babylon version 1.0.

Certainly 2Kers would argue that they do follow the Great Commission by evangelizing. But it might be that their efforts are incomplete. Why? Because 2Kers are content to call people to repentance for personal sins only. They are, however, more reluctant to preach about repenting from corporate sins, which are sins performed by groups whether those groups include individual businesses, economic systems, political systems, governments, militaries, or societies. Note that the use of the word corporate here does not have to involve business corporations. In fact, such goes against 2Kers application of the Israel's exile in Babylon where one was to join society and work for its prosperity. From my internet conversations with 2Kers, most seem to have trouble acknowledging the existence of corporate or group sins. This might be due our cultural's emphasis on the individual.

At this point, we should note that Transformers have fewer problems and thus less reluctance with acknowledging and pointing out corporate sin. Their hope is to be able to influence culture by regaining Christianity's privileged status. Developing Christian leaders for a secular world is their hope. After all, for a long time Christianity did have a privileged status in this country, but we should note who was either pushed to was never lifted from the margins during that time period. 

The problem here is that neither the 2Kers nor Transformers can think of Christianity influencing culture without first gaining some kind of upper hand in society. Thus, the former doesn't try while the latter does and is waiting until it has control to make any moves. It is this seeking of privilege and advantages, just as much as if not more than, the advances made in science and changes in sexual mores that is marginalizing the Church in society. 

Listening to the Emergent Church can support what was just said about what is causing the Church's marginalization. For while both 2Kers and the Transformers want to tell everybody how to behave sexually, both fail to challenge unjust economic systems or illegal wars. So while the Church tries to force Dick to marry Jane rather than John, it says little to nothing when the Free Market consolidates wealth or funds the polluting of the earth or when one country invades another. Here, we could say the 2Kers and the Transformers prefer just to be snipers targeting the sins of the individual while acting as the Cowardly Lion when it comes to confronting corporate sins.

It's not that the Church will never suffer marginalization due to perceived differences with science or changing sexual mores. We should note that the Church had already started feeling the these negative effects of Modernism when reason supplanted faith. And what seems to be the issue regarding changing sexual mores is not necessarily that we are against the changes; but that we try to legislate in order to prevent the changes. 

There is possibly an additional solution to our new state of exile to what Trueman suggested. After all, even on a good day, our battle with our own demons and personal sins require many of the same spiritual resources Trueman listed. That additional solution would be to develop a hybrid between 2K and Transformationist theologies. We could combine the 2K approach of not seeking Christian privilege with the Transformationist approach of trying to redeem society. That is when we try to improve society by seeking an equal voice with nonChristians. Here, we would speak as Christians to the corporate sins and problems of the day, but we would do so as collaborators with nonChristians rather than as leaders. Just perhaps by coming alongside to work as equals with nonChristians while presenting a Christian view of things, we will avoid the exclusive inner-oriented 2K approach while eliminating unnecessarily offending nonChristians by trying to prove that we have the right stuff and they don't.



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