By Greg Forster: part seven of a series.
In my last post I talked about how the underlying theology of fortification paradigm churches leads to cultural puritanism. Here are three specific ways fortification paradigm churches can overcome this:
The Past: Where dominance paradigm churches overestimate both the moral and religious integrity of the American experiment, fortification churches tend to underestimate it. They value religious freedom highly, because they hope to keep the church at arm’s length from the social order; but they fail to appreciate how religious freedom is neither an abstract idea that floated down out of the ether of Platonic ideas nor a theological construct that can be justified straightforwardly from the Bible. Like all social orders, religious freedom is a product of human (i.e. not just church) history.
There is, to be sure, much in the American experience that is well worth holding at arm’s length. But you do not handle sin by keeping sinners at arm’s length. That is not how Jesus handles them, and he doesn’t seem to recommend it for churches, either.
The fortification church I attended was in a small town where parades were the biggest thing holding the community together. Everyone showed up for the Veteran’s Day parade, homecoming, Halloween, etc. Our church viewed with suspicion other local churches’ participation in these parades. Some saw it, and not always without justification, as shallow marketing and self-promotion.
I suggested we should put a float in the Fourth of July and Veteran’s Day parades, not to promote our church, but as a way of saying thank you to America for giving us the religious freedom that we (and all people) need. “We could not only show that we’re grateful for what our country has given us,” I said; “we can help our neighbors understand their own traditions and values better – that’s a service the church can provide to the community.” Those I shared this idea with were sincerely intrigued by it, but never enough to actually help me do it.
Valuing what is good in our culture will not only (hopefully) cure us of a poisonous sense of alienation and hostility toward our own people-group, and teach us to set forward-looking rather than backward-looking goals; knowing more clearly the story of how (e.g.) the big, messy American stew of diverse religious and philosophical influences was essential to the rise of religious freedom will also help us to see the deficiencies in fortification churches’ deeper cultural puritanism.
Real moral goodness is revealed by the Bible but it is not only known by the Bible. We must know nature first before the Bible can speak to us – including human nature as expressed in culture. The Bible itself constantly assumes that we come to the Bible as creatures who are already moral agents. In I Corinthians 11:14, Paul refers to culturally contingent rules of permissible hair length for men as a form of moral knowledge, knowledge gained not from the Bible but from – his word – “nature.” There are great depths to be plumbed in that; we need not assume it implies long hair on men is morally wrong in every cultural context. But at minimum it means the Bible presupposes we come to scripture already possessing valid moral knowledge taught to us by our cultures.
The gospel, the cross and the biblical story help us understand what it means to be good in a way that those outside don’t have access to, but they do this by transforming our natural understanding rather than substituting for it. This means the church does not fight for the good outside the public square; the church is never not a part of the cultures and nations within which it operates. 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, fortification churches are similar to dominance churches in overemphasizing the role of personal sin in explaining material poverty. They do tend to appreciate that larger social and cultural dysfunctions are at work, which dominance churches typically do not; but they tend to view those as not within the church’s job description. As I have emphasized, fortification churches are often magnificent in helping people overcome addictions and personal vices. Dealing with the larger social forces that tempt and bully people into these behaviors is seen as something that has to wait for Jesus to come back.
A real reconnection of fortification churches to their surrounding communities – not just evangelism but real expressions of gratitude and affirmation for what is good in our culture – would force fortification churches to recognize that they are implicated in the continuing presence of injustice at the social level. That the church can serve its surrounding community by helping it understand its own traditions and values better implies the church must serve the community by confronting its systematic evils.
The Peace of the Church: The fortification paradigm church I was in had once, a decade earlier, been a dominance paradigm church. It had gone through a very convulsive period of reformation when its leadership became convinced that a stronger call to holiness and discipleship among those in the church was needed.
Much was gained in this turmoil – by the time I arrived, the church had a fruitful program of systematic discipleship training and, as I have mentioned, a sizeable number of former addicts and reprobates who were now loving and glorifying God.
Much was also lost, however. In the spirit of cultural puritanism, the church’s new vision had not always been pursued in a way that valued input from those whose thinking tended more toward dominance or accommodation paradigms of the kingdom. Relationships had been broken or greatly strained.
I remember vividly a brief exchange I had with one of the church’s former leaders, who had been in a sort of internal exile in the church for some time by that point. He and I were becoming close friends.
Looking around the congregation, he said, “this church used to be full of business leaders from the town. We had almost all of them. It used to give us so many opportunities to influence the community. Now they’re all gone.”
I gently asked him how many former drunkards, drug addicts and porn users who had overcome their enslavements were in the church at that time. “I take your point,” he said – and meant it.
But I also took his point, and said so. “We need to find a way to do both,” said I. “Amen,” said he.