Now that we have some space between us and the events of Charlottesville, I want to share some thoughts about how we, as the Church in America, got here. Where exactly am I talking about? I am talking about our position on the outside of the conversation of Justice looking in. I am talking about how we find ourselves reacting to the events in Charlottesville, and events like Charlottesville after the fact.
The Church is supposed to be the greatest agent of change in the world. And, in many areas of life, it is doing a great job. However, as it relates to the “justice” conversation in our culture, the Church’s voice is not resonating. We are not leading the way. This is the “here” I am thinking about.
As I have reflected on what happened and how the church reacted, I wanted to know if there are any practical and theological insights we could gather from everything that happened during, and especially afterward. It is not easy to reflect and discover that mistakes have been made. But, if we do not do this we risk repeating the same mistakes over and over again. That is not wise.
There are at least three principal reasons we find ourselves where we are. First, the church has forsaken our responsibility to speak truth to error. Second, we have assumed the words of the world rather than the Word of God. Third, we have lost trust in the Gospel to produce the promised transformation of the human heart.
At each step, we have capitulated to the world, we have ignored the sage wisdom of the apostle James who said, “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).
1. The church has conceded the position of moral authority to civic and political organizations and institutions.
The church, as the representatives of the Kingdom of God, has the backing of God. In the simplest of terms, this means that when we are in proper alignment with God, his word, his will, his mind, we are in the right position to speak about injustice. And, the opposite is also true. When we are out of alignment with God we cannot and should not. But, that hasn’t stopped people before.
It is difficult to stand up and speak on moral issues when the church surrendered its prerogative to do so to civic and political organizations. When the vacuum was created something had to fill that void. I am not saying these organization or institutions are evil. What I am saying is that the void they filled was the Church’s to keep. When the Church’s voice stopped speaking, the voice of the world took over. As well intentioned as it may be, the world and its institutions are not designed or intended to prepare for the return of Jesus.
The purpose of the government is to protect its citizens. The purpose of the church is to create a just community. I do not know what caused the church to believe that secular and political agencies were better equipped to handle the temporal needs of her neighbors. But it is too late to change where we are. We can only look at what they have created and try to catalyze change.
We have to remember that the no matter how well intentioned, civic and political organizations and institutions only ease the circumstances, they cannot transform the heart of men. That particular task is the purview of the Holy Spirit. The transformation of a wretched sinner into a saint can only happen within the confines of and under the tutelage of the Gospel. To believe otherwise is bound to lead to failure.
2. The church has adopted the language of the world rather than of the Scriptures when speaking about evil and the fundamental problems in the world.
Not only have we conceded the position of moral authority, we have begun to sound like the world when we talk about evil. When we talk like the world we should not be surprised by what that creates.
The open verses of the Bible give us a picture of a speaking God. A God who forms and shapes the world from nothing. We bring into being that which never was, merely by speaking it out of his mouth. This is the power of the word. And while I will grant that we do not have the same creative power, human words do have power. The Scriptures tells that “life and death are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). James writes, “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3: 6).
An unbridled and unredeemed tongue will cause destruction to reign. Not because words are physical, but because words go into a person and wreak havoc on the soul. I remember the child’s refrain, “Sticks and stone may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This is a lie. Words hurt because they brutalize the human spirit. How many times can a child hear they are stupid before begin to believe. Paul wrote in Romans that faith comes by hearing (Romans 10:17) and that hearing comes through the word of Christ. But what happens when the word of Christ is replaced with other words. Words that are designed to give life and produce transformation? What happens is that we build the opposite of faith. We end up building negative faith. We distort the human mind’s ability to ascertain truth and damage a person’s ability to recognize the image of God within themselves.
When we surrender the words of power found in the Bible we have nothing with which to fight or with which to form a new world. We do not have words leading and pointing to life. Until we reject the words of the world, we will suffer at the hands of its creations.
3. The church has abandoned the means of reconciliation the Cross provides and trusted the regulations the legislative structures impose.
I find it completely astounding that a people who have been set free from the works of the flesh and the condemnation of the law would trust a legal system to change people!
Paul said it best when he said that the law produces death. Not just the law of God, but the laws of men. The purpose of a law is to provide a boundary. And boundaries are necessary but they eventually begin to feel like chains rather than protections. We feel their weight and fight against them even to the point of death. We do not see that the only way to achieve freedom is to have the laws repealed. But, before we think that this means there should not be any laws we have to understand what the real problem is.
The real problem is that a law that is imposed from without will always create the conditions for rebellion. We will always fight against what is someone else’s version of what I should be doing. Only when the law is written on our hearts; when we become a person who embodies the law can we behave differently.
Jesus said that he came to fulfill the law. That he came to live a life where nothing he did breached the law and where everything he did exemplified a heart inclined toward holiness. If you could always do the right thing, there would never be a need for laws. But that is not the world in which we live. We are a lawless people. And it is only the law of Christ.
21 Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. 22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. (Galatians 3:21-26)
The bottom line is that looking for transformation through the law is death. Just a few verses before Paul left this warning to those who look to the law for justice.
10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Galatians 3:10-11)
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only true means of reconciliation available to the world. All other attempts, approaches, or inventions of men are false gospels, false hopes. If we cannot trust the Gospel to change a sinner’s heart then why even call ourselves Christian. Why even go to church, read the bible, or pray. If we are not going to give a full throated, completely devoted, ridicule inducing commitment to the Gospel we are nothing more than wolves in sheep’s clothing. We are charlatans who must be exposed and expunged from the rolls of the church.