By Greg Forster: part four of a series.
In my last post I talked about how the underlying theology of dominance paradigm churches leads to practical deism. Here are three specific ways dominance paradigm churches can overcome this:
The Past: Dominance paradigm churches overestimate both the moral and religious integrity of the American past. There is, to be sure, much that is morally good and authentically Christian in our national history. But it is important to see the ugliness and the Romantic, heretical religious individualism as well. Nothing other than God and his word (incarnate and written) is really pure.
This will not only (hopefully) cure us of poisonous nostalgia and teach us to set forward-looking rather than backward-looking goals. Knowing more clearly the story of how (e.g.) Christianity was essential to the abolition of slavery will also help us to see the deficiencies in our account of moral knowledge.
Real moral goodness is known by nature but it is not fully known by nature. The gospel, the cross and the whole biblical story from beginning to end help us understand what it means to be good in a way that those outside simply don’t have access to. This means the church does not just fight for the good in the public square; it has to develop and offer to each culture a unique understanding of what it means to be good in the context of that particular culture.
The Poor: In my experience, dominance churches overappreciate the role of personal sin in explaining material poverty. They tend to underappreciate the continuing social and cultural (not legal) dysfunctions that are a legacy of past injustice, and also the extent to which the poor are still directly preyed upon by the powerful today. A real effort to help people in material poverty – not cheap and easy distribution of resources, but the kind of hard, long-term work described in books like When Helping Hurts – would force dominance churches to recognize the real-world complexity of justice and mercy more fully. It would also, one hopes, mitigate the tendency to approach every problem by choosing a side and fighting.
The Peace of the Church: When the world-famous culture war pastor told me he couldn’t understand why black Christians tend to vote Democratic in spite of abortion, I offered him my theories about it. He just kept shaking his head – whether because he wasn’t impressed with my theories or because the whole thing was just so discouraging to him, I don’t know.
You know what neither of us did? Neither of us said, “Why don’t we ask them?”
This church was located in a major metropolitan area. There was no shortage of black churches around. Why didn’t we go ask?
In fairness, perhaps because we had good reason to expect such a discussion might not go well. But we owed it to God, to our brothers and sisters, and to ourselves to make the effort regardless of its potential success. And if such an effort had been undertaken wisely, with our eyes on the long term and not immediate gratification, it could have been tremendously fruitful for all.
Ethnic reconciliation is an existential imperative for the church. The New Testament is clear: the church is not the church if it is not a community that transcends national/ethnic boundaries. This is why one of the four traditional characteristics necessary to the true church is that it be “catholic,” i.e. universal, trans-national/ethnic.
Real brotherhood with churches whose ethnic composition differs from ours would not only obey this existential imperative, it would also put us in relationship with people who will shed new light on our understanding of justice and mercy, and hold us accountable for at least acknowledging the concerns we don’t naturally want to – even if we do, in the end, vote in different ways.
Brilliant essay Greg! Better, fuller, non-ideological study of history plus genuine listening to others, with a teachable spirit. THEN we can offer to help alongside others. Not in a patronizing way but as colaborers standing on the flat ground in front of the cross. You capture all the right notes here Greg. Thank you.