Sermon: Church and Society

07.05.2015     Preaching Text: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

As you know, I’ve been hammering on about the state of the church in contemporary society. My basic contention, in part, is that because of our history we need to be especially aware of the extent to which, consciously or unconsciously, we tend to conform to society’s values and norms.

From its earliest days New England Congregationalism has had a proprietary involvement with the culture. As a Calvinist spin-off from the Church of England, the earliest Congregationalist settlers to these shores did not recognize a separation of church and state; they were deemed one and the same, just as in the Geneva of John Calvin’s day.

Years ago I served a church in New Haven, CT that had been founded in 1638. It was one of the very first churches in what was to become the United States.

Behind the pulpit there is a glorious Tiffany stained-glass window which shows a man under a tree holding a bible and preaching to a small congregation seated on the grass.

One immediately assumes this is an updated depiction of Jesus. But that would be wrong. Instead, it’s John Davenport, co-founder of the New Haven Colony and the church’s first pastor, freshly arrived from the liberal epicenter of Boston!

Davenport was to remain pastor there for some 30 years until, that is, he left in a huff. The reason? The New Haven Colony and the Hartford Colony were in negotiations to merge. The problem was that the Hartford Colony allowed non-church members to vote! Such was beyond the pale for Davenport.

The early settlements here in the New World were actually theocracies, meaning the church and state were one. There’s no small irony in the fact that these pilgrims and puritans came to this country seeking religious freedom and immediately denied it to others!

Thus we New Englanders come by our over-involvement with society honestly. It’s part of our historic roots.

This sets up a problem. John Calvin, along with Martin Luther, emerged as the central figures in the 16th century movement to reform the Roman Catholic Church, their main objection being Catholic “worldliness.”

In 313 A.D., the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, setting the stage for a political/governmental/religious entity that eventually came to be known as the Holy Roman Empire. Church and state became one.

Over a thousand years later the Protestant Reformation forcefully rejected the manifold ways the church had merged with the “world.” It was not uncommon, for instance, for Catholic bishops also to be wealthy, powerful princes. Within reformationist circles, this churchified worldliness was seen as unchristian, unbiblical, and “unorthodox.”

To counter this worldliness, the Reformation sought to reclaim the sovereignty, the holiness, the set-apart-ness of God. Human categories of being had replaced the often inscrutable otherness of divine revelation. Thus the Reformation fought to re-establish the “orthodox,” rightly-ordered distinction between, to use Augustine’s terminology, the “city of God” and “the city of Man.”

Though God had created all that is, God must remain distinct, transcendent, standing over and against all earthly truths or systems. The Reformers did not, it’s essential to note, see themselves as creating a new theology but as restoring the original one, one that had been lost over time by the church’s descent into worldly-isms. The Reformation simply sought to restore biblical, “orthodox” Christianity to its rightful place.

Throughout its 2,000 year history the Christian church has always struggled to walk a fine line between being in the world while avoiding being of it.

The Judeo-Christian tradition, unlike all other religions of antiquity, believed that the Creator God was powerfully involved in the world and not aloof from it. This requires that the church be involved in it also. But – and this is key – the church must assiduously avoid being conformed to the world. The church is thus called to be both an agent for godly change in the world yet set apart from it! No easy task, that!

In the extreme, we might define the pre-Reformation Roman Catholic Church as an example of Christianity being overly involved in the world, while the Amish still seek to be utterly separate from the world.

In the Fundamentalist-Modernist debates in the early 20th century, this same dynamic was at play. The Fundamentalist argument was that to be involved in the world was to be subsumed by it, while the Modernist position countered that to isolate oneself in a cul-de-sac of theological purity would deny the Christian mandate to bring Christ’s message of salvation to the world.

Some 100 years later, the mainline Protestant church is at risk of committing the same error the Roman Catholic Church made in the pre-Reformation era, which is to say that it tends to over-identified with the “this-worldliness” of secular culture.

American “civil religion” historically married the Protestant mainline with American culture. Just as Roman Catholicism had joined with the Establishment in medieval Europe, the Protestant mainline tradition joined with the Establishment here in America.

Beginning in the mid-60’s, as we know, this started to change. Today we are functionally “disestablished,” no longer occupying a seat at the proverbial table, no longer a player at the “commanding heights of culture.”

As disconcerting as this may seem, at first blush, it actually offers new opportunities for the church in America. We now have an opportunity to be seen as distinct from the culture, free to reaffirm our distinguishing, biblically “orthodox” bona fides, acknowledging once again the sovereignty of the holy God if the Bible, a Creator God not bound or defined by this world.

But rather than promote a biblical theology, the mainline churches have championed philosophical theology.

In laymen’s terms, philosophical theology seeks to follow the latest isms emanating from secular culture’s “cutting-edge” intellectualism. It breathlessly conforms the gospel to fit the latest philosophical trends, be they post-modernism, deconstructionism, multiculturalism, etc. This attempt to tailor the gospel to fit into the latest secular ideologies once prompted Peter Berger, the famed sociologist, to wonder: “Why is the church always the caboose on the end of the cultural train?”

Perhaps the church today has an inordinate fear of being rejected by secular culture or of being labeled as “fundamentalists” or “bible-thumpers.” Yet in so doing we deny the original, orthodox, biblical witness that takes its cues from divine revelation rather than all provisional, this-worldly “truths.” Amen.