By Greg Forster; part three of a series.
“I just don’t understand it,” the world-famous culture war pastor said to me. His voice was soft, his head cast down, his tone sorrowful. “I don’t question that they’re believers. They are. I know they are. But I just don’t understand how anyone who believes in Jesus could vote for politicians who support abortion.”
“They” were the black church, which votes overwhelmingly Democratic.
In my last post in this series (on how the faith and work movement can grow its way out of Greg Thompson’s three inadequate models of the kingdom of God) I suggested that there is more to “dominance paradigm” churches than the culture war stereotype. In that post, I used that as a starting point for considering what other kinds of churches could learn from them. Here, the “something more” is a first step for the dominance paradigm churches themselves to grow beyond their own limitations.
What I will not talk about is why churches shoudn’t take sides in partisan and ideological competition. Many dominance paradigm churches have already realized this, and those that haven’t are not going to listen to what I have to say anyway. (Not that there aren’t good ways for Christians to bring the holy love of God into those kinds of debates; it just isn’t what pastors and churches should be doing.)
But overcoming the temptation to partisan and ideological warfare is not enough for dominance paradigm churches. They need to address the deeper theological assumptions and blind spots that led them into the culture war in the first place. They don’t need to abandon public witness for justice and mercy in the civil sphere, but they do need to have a deeper theology and a wiser sense of prudence about doing so.
I think the deepest deficiency in dominance-paradigm churches is an oil-and-water separation of “the gospel” from morality or “good works.” The church is the realm of the gospel, the culture is the realm of morality.
This might sound strange – aren’t dominance churches all into Francis Schaeffer and Abraham Kuyper (“There is no square inch…”) and getting the church into the public square? And isn’t it fortification churches that draw a sharp theological divide between the grace-transformed community of the church and the law-cursed community of the culture outside?
Well, yes – but also no. For one thing, a lot fewer people have actually read Schaeffer or Kuyper than quote them. A real encounter with Kuyper would shake up a lot of assumptions on the Religious Right (and also on the Religious Left, whose reverence for Kuyper is equally superficial). Even Chuck Colson, who was wiser than most of the dominance paradigm Right that he led, was always more revered than he was deeply understood. But the problem goes deeper.
The underlying theology of dominance churches runs something like this: Humanity has been given morality – in full – by the natural moral law. Morality is known, fully, by nature and conscience; this original, natural knowledge is only confirmed by scripture. The reason the church has business in the culture is because salvation through the gospel makes us people who care about morality and thus will fight for it in the culture.
A friend of mine calls this “practical deism” because it reduces to a minimum God’s role in our daily behavior, way of life and larger social/cultural structures. When it comes to life in “the culture,” which is pretty much all of life, God is there as the giver of the moral law in eternity past and judge of our conduct in eternity future. He is not an active and personal presence, doesn’t interfere in the details of how and why people make particular decisions in the present. God only gets involved in your life as a living, personal God in church activities, which take up a few hours a week at most.
You can see how this theology led to culture warriorism. The assumption that morality is fully known by natural law lends itself to excessive confidence in the moral integrity of secular movements. “Conservatism” was not Christianity, but it was fighting for moral goodness (life, sexuality, religious freedom, anti-Communism, etc.) against a rising tide of immorality. Close enough for government work!
You can also see how this leads to captivity. All the real heavy lifting – the intellectual and practical work of buliding the movement, setting strategy and tactics, etc. – is done by conservatism. The only distinct role for the church is to recruit foot soldiers; to “get people saved” and thus turn them into people who care about fighting for justice, etc.
As I said, the gung-ho eagerness for political combat is fading, and in many places is long gone. But all too often, the same underlying theology is at work. How can we overcome this?
Stay tuned for my next post, which will discuss the three ways dominance paradigm churches can overcome practical deism.