By Greg Forster; part two of a series.
One of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had was teaching Sunday school classes on theology and politics in one of America’s most firmly “dominance paradigm” churches – the kind of church that has a culture warrior mentality. Even where churches have more recently turned away from the culture war as such, this model of how the kingdom of God relates to the culture within which it operates remains. The faith and work movement needs to relate the kingdom of God to human culture, and this model – unattractive as it is given our current exegencies – contains some of the wisdom we need.
When I was at this church, the culture war was still going full blast. This church played a leading role in the Religious Right. Our senior pastor had delivered the opening prayer at a GOP convention at the culture war’s height. The evils of abortion and homosexuality were regularly canvassed in the pulpit, with sound apologetic responses to the stock arguments in their favor.
Since I’m anti-culture-war, you might think I wouldn’t have enjoyed the experience of teaching the Sunday school class on politics. Well, I’ll admit that back then (this is a while ago) I was less anti-culture-war than I am now. But even at that point I was already pretty significantly out of accord with the oversimplified thought systems dominating in this church. I agreed with it about most of the particular issues (abortion, etc.) but not the overarching dominance paradigm within which they operated.
The real fun was that the people in my classes really, really wanted to learn. They wanted a deeper understanding of what their faith had to say about national life, about justice, about how to fight back against evil and suffering in the world.
I’ll never forget: After the first class in which I explained the concept of natural law, a man came up to me and said something like, “this is amazing, it makes sense of so much that I haven’t understood – nobody has told me about this before. Can you recommend a good book for beginners on this topic?”
I stood there, frozen, unable to think of a book I could recommend to this non-academic but eager-to-learn individual from which he could gain a fuller understanding of the idea of natural law. And that was what led me to write my first post-dissertation book, much of which was simply an amplified version of my notes from that Sunday school class.
We all have a stereotype of the culture-war church, and that stereotype is not without empirical sources. However, my experience leads me to believe that the right leadership can effectively bend these churches away from hate and resentment, toward a loving and holy concern for justice that the church’s mission requires.
What Other Churches Can Emulate
The concept of this series is, instead of trying to map out a model of what “the right kind of church” would look like, let’s consider the strengths of each of the three inadequate models that Greg Thompson has identified and see how other kinds of churches might adopt those strengths. If dominance paradigm churches emulate the strengths of fortification and accommodation churches, and the others do likewise, we’ll all move toward being “the right kind of church.”
A full list of the strengths and weaknesses of the dominance paradigm would be too long for this post, and redundant in light of Thompson’s paper. I’ll focus on what I think is most important.
These churches care a lot about justice, and – just as important – they have a theologically informed understanding of what justice is and requires. Fortification and accommodation churches should consider how dominance churches, alone of the three types, have to some extent successfully resisted the relentless individualization of advanced modern culture, treating people as members of their communities rather than as isolated, self-oriented individuals.
An interesting note: Dominance churches are more likely than other churches to be strongly grounded in theological tradition. At my dominance church, this was not just because of our denominational affiliation. We recited the Apostle’s Creed in worship weekly.
Fortification and accommodation churches might find it fruitful to reflect on this connection. While tradition is not authoritative as such, it is the only cross-generational storehouse of wisdom we have. Knowledge traditions force us to live in a wider world, taking our bearings from more than just what seems useful in the present moment.
Fortification churches should particularly consider how the calling of discipleship to Jesus Christ compels us to be active in resisting Satan’s public influence in the civil communities in which we live. Mere love of neighbor ought to compel this if nothing else. However, at a deeper level, the Great Commission says make disciples of all nations because the church’s mission is to build godly ways of life within every nation, ultimately with a view toward the redemption of the nations as nations when Jesus returns. And you can’t live a godly life in your nation if you don’t care about your nation’s evil ways.
Accommodation churches should particularly consider how “loving our neighbors” and “fighting for justice” are labels that can be very, very easily co-opted by worldly, ungodly agendas. Thus, when churches that are overly focused on showing how the faith is relevant to people’s lives and to the community at large adopt “justice” causes, they are in danger of importing into the church, under the guise of “loving our neighbors” and “fighting for justice,” causes that hurt people and dishonor God. The church should not overemphasize its differences from the culture within which it lives, but those differences should never simply disappear, either.
Accommodation churches like to ask “Who in your community would be disappointed if your church closed its doors?” That is a good and necessary measuring rod. But dominance churches might well retort: “Who in your community would be delighted if your church closed its doors?” Does the pornography dealer or payday lender in your neighborhood hate and fear your church? In a dark and wicked world, that is another necessary measuring rod.
Next time I’ll look at where (besides the obvious) dominance churches might look to the other models for growth opportunities.