It’s time for the Church to move into the 21st century.

Here’s an opportunity for the Church to revise its teaching and increase its reach among young people.

If the Church doesn’t change, it will get left behind.

Peppered throughout the news coverage of Pope Benedict’s resignation announcement are comments like these from “practicing Catholics” who are politicians or common Catholics interviewed on the street.

The subtext behind these statements is this: The Church needs to get with the program.

Now, as a Baptist, I have more than a few disagreements with the teaching of the Church of Rome - sola scriptura being the watershed issue from which flows a whole host of other doctrines and practices. Despite overtures from Pope Benedict on the doctrine of justification, Trent still stands (unfortunately).

But let’s go back to this notion of the Church “getting with the program.” First off, the idea that the global Church should cater to the whims of a shrinking number of North American Catholics betrays a stunning ethnocentrism and an imperialistic mindset among elites who, ironically, would consider themselves “multi-cultural.”

Beyond that, however, I find it interesting that evangelicals are facing the same kind of cultural pressures.

If a pastor won’t get with the program and recant his previous opposition to homosexuality, then he’s off the inaugural platform.

After all, we’re in the 21st century now! What’s this continued opposition to abortifacient drugs? What’s this old-fashioned idea that kids need a mom and a dad, not two of the same gender? For heaven’s sake, get your head out the clouds and put your feet on the ground!

What we see in these conversations are two overarching themes: authority and eschatology.

Authority

The first is the question of authority. The assumption behind the recent calls for the Catholic Church to change is that Christians belong to a purely human institution that can adjust and tweak its teachings at culture’s beck and call.

In other words, cultural consensus is the authority. When Christians are out of line, they ought to pressure their church to modify its teachings to comply with the newfound consensus.

But the catholic church (I’m using small “c” catholic now, to refer to the universal church, not the Church of Rome) is not a human organization. The proclamation of the church is that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord. We believe this to be objectively true. It is not a human label slapped onto a human institution, but a divine revelation taken up and carried by a people called out by God for His missionary purposes in the world.

I admire the way the Pope has answered critics who wonder why he hasn’t pushed for women priests, for example. Benedict responds:

The Church has “no authority” to ordain women. The point is not that we are saying that we don’t want to, but that we can’t.

Following (Christ) is an act of obedience. This obedience may be arduous in today’s situation. But it is important precisely for the Church to show that we are not a regime based on arbitrary rule. We cannot do what we want. Rather, the Lord has a will for us, a will to which we adhere, even though doing so is arduous and difficult in this culture and civilization.

Appealing to the authority of Christ is exactly the right road to take on these matters.

We operate from within a worldview in which Jesus Christ is the Lord who reigns over His people. Because He is King, we cannot tinker with His Word and then glibly go on as if the fundamental truth of our proclamation has remained unchanged. Once you bow to cultural consensus, your declaration of Christ’s lordship is meaningless.

It all comes down to this: Who’s in charge? Who is your authority? 

Eschatology

Then, there’s the eschatology pulsing through these conversations. Don’t make the mistake of relegating eschatology to the bargain bin filled with Left Behind books. We see eschatology all over the place.

Consider this comment: When will the church move into the 21st century? That question betrays a very clear notion of time and progress, the idea that history is moving somewhere.

But contrary to Piers Morgan’s view of the world, history is not moving in a solely upward direction, as we become more and more “enlightened” and free from the taboos of previous generations. The idea that the church must change because, after all, we are in a new day, and in this day and age, we don’t go for things like that… well, that kind of talk betrays a rival eschatology to that of the church. It puts the climax of history in the Enlightenment of the 1700’s and charts an upward progression.

To be sure, things have improved. Technological advances in the past thirty years alone are stunning. And yet, technological progress has its dark side. There is no end to our depravity. Nuclear bombs. Terrorism. Drone attacks. The list goes on.

The rival eschatology says, “The world is improving and the church is stuck in the past. Get it in gear, or get left behind.” Denominations fall all over themselves to follow suit and not run afoul of the cultural zeitgeist, only to discover their sanctuaries emptied of people and their pulpits emptied of power.

The world tells evangelicals (and Catholics, it seems), Jump on the bandwagon of cultural progress like all the mainline denominations have. Oh yes, and we can seen just how well that has worked out for them, can’t we?

“It is always easy to let the age have its head,” said G. K. Chesterton. “The difficult thing is to keep one’s own.”

We Have a Program

The reason the church can’t afford to “get with the program” is that we already have one. It’s called the Great Commission. It is the program given to us after Christ’s resurrection. We are to go into all the world to preach - however unpopular the message will be - to all nations. 

Our message is powerful.

Our mission is global.

Our methods are adaptable.

But the program stands. King Jesus has summoned us and sent us out.

We are not beholden to the authority of “cultural consensus.” Neither are we living according to the fictional eschatological timetable concocted by those who have drunk deeply of Enlightenment philosophy without knowing it.

We are a resurrection people. The King has already given us a program. And that is why we can’t get with the world’s.

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Comments:


11 thoughts on “Why Doesn’t Your Church “Get With the Program”?”

  1. Christiane says:

    The recent election highlighted something about Catholics and ‘the times’ in a special way. Many Catholics were divided about which party to support. It was assumed that they would vote for the party that was ‘against abortion’ (in the parlance of the day), but the majority did not. This was something of a puzzle to those who thought Catholics were one-issue voters.

    What pulled Catholics away from voting for that party was a call from the heart of the Church to not hurt the poor and the marginalized. This call first came from some nuns, and ended up by being echoed by the United States Council of Catholic Bishops, who condemned the Ryan budget plan as ‘immoral’ because of its immediate impact on the weakest members of our society.

    Catholics didn’t ‘go with the flow’ along with other conservatives this time. And they won’t ‘go with the flow’ along with many progressives, concerning social issues.

    What guides a Catholic compass today? Is it a picture of an aborted baby, or is it the ‘cry of the poor’? Or is it something ‘else’?

    If that ‘something else’ is a moral conscience, likely no political party can assume that the Catholic vote will ‘go their way’. Can that be said of other denominations? Each must consider on its own what its moral compass is guided by. But in the end, every Christian person answers to God, not to politics, or the Church, or the ‘culture’, but to God. The response of conscience is between a man and God alone. ‘The flow’ cannot change that.

    1. CG says:

      From what you’ve said, it sounds to me like they were indeed “going with the flow” of what their church authorities (the nuns and council of bishops) were telling them to do…

      That aside, I see a constant and growing obsession with politics in the evangelical church. It’s truly alarming. So many who profess Christ’s lordship are instead looking for affirmation and identity in politics. It’s the lens through which they are beginning to view everything else. They send out constant emails and facebook posts about it – zealous evangelists for their political position.

      I’m reminded of the parable of the sower, where weeds grew up and choked some of the seeds, which Jesus said represented the “cares of the world”. I suspect an inordinate obsession with politics is one of the most significant “cares of the world” that the evangelical church needs to confront.

  2. brian says:

    As a Catholic, I dread the inevitable news reports where reporters wonder if we’ll get a progressive pope who will get with the times and embrace homosexuality, women clergy, etc. They’ll also sprinkle in plenty of stories about sexual abuse by priests. It’s predictable and disgusting. Trevin, you’ve said it well, and Christiane, you’re right about the Catholic vote. I have not a clue why a large percentage of us vote the way we do. It’s a troubling thing. Lastly, Trevin, you’re a bit guilty of yourself having an expectation that the Catholic Church “get with the program” when you say, “Trent still stands (unfortunately).” Do you think the Catholic Church will reverse course on this? Do you wait for Rome to see the light? No, the Church has spoken on this matter, and her decrees on justification can’t be changed. These are truths of the Church, (though I realize you respectfully disagree.)

    1. Ben De Bono says:

      I agree, calls for Catholics to overturn Trent (or any of the other councils) are unrealistic and mildly insulting. We need meaningful dialogue between Protestants and Catholics but that requires respect and acceptance of the Catholic understanding of doctrinal development despite disagreement on that point

  3. Amen and Amen. I’m always torn between a chuckle and grimace of pain when I see commentators essentially wonder when the Pope is going to stop being Catholic and acquiesce to modern, liberal culture. Vatican II was a big deal and all, but no, you’re not going to all of a sudden get an egalitarian and pro-gay rights apologist–you’re going to get a Catholic Pope.

  4. Joel Chan says:

    Thank you for this post. Your larger point about “can’t” vs “won’t” is well taken, and I was blessed by the reminder of our “program”.

    I’m wondering about how the authority of Christ and the immovability of the teachings and truths we hold fast to plays out in a range of contexts. Certainly, the core truths (God exists, Jesus was man and God, we are saved by faith in Christ alone, not by works, the Bible is the Word of God) stand on two rock-solid pillars: 1) the authority of Christ, and 2) our confidence in the accuracy of our *interpretation* of the texts from which those truths are derived.

    For instance, when thoughtful and sincere Christians disagree over, say, the right way to do baptism, or whether women should be ordained, I think it is wise to pause and evaluate the strength of the 2nd pillar (the accuracy of our interpretation), and reconsider whether we can give the same weight (the same can’t vs don’t criterion) to these matters as we do to the core truths of Christianity.

    I think a positive thing that has come out of postmodernism is a recognition that we never simply read “the plain meaning” of the text; interpretation is always a part of our reading of Scripture. Again, for the core truths of the Gospel, the Scriptures are abundantly clear; but for some other issues, there have been and continue to be thoughtful disagreements among the disciples of Christ. I think in particular of how technological progress has raised a host of ethical issues that were not explicitly addressed in the Scriptures, necessitating interpretation and adaptation of core principles and precepts to these novel contexts. I am thinking of issues like cloning, stem cell research, genetic modification, etc. There are certainly others.

    I guess my point is that the can’t vs don’t distinction is a good thing, but that we should not be too hasty to apply it to everything we do and believe as Christians.

    My other question has to do with eschatology, and your disagreement with the notion that history is going somewhere. I am confused, because I thought the Gospel tells us that history is indeed going somewhere, namely to the ultimate and final defeat of Death, and a consummation of the reign of Christ over everything. Perhaps you meant to disagree with the notion of *where* history is going, and *how* things move forward?

  5. Flyaway says:

    Meanwhile, it is my understanding, that the false prophet, Nostradamus, has predicted that this will be the last Pope. Will the secularists once again reject the Bible and cling to human understanding?

  6. If the Church were to “overturn” Trent, it would have to overturn Orange, the latter of which fully informs and shapes the contours of the former. Trent–in terms of justification–is a brief against Pelagianists, semi-Pelagianists, and the Reformers, all of whom held in common the belief that the infusion of the divine quality of grace is unnecessary for justification. This is why Trent outlines the five causes of justification in meticulous detail and explain how (1) not one of the causes is the individual believer who receives the grace (contra Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism), and (2) the grace received is a divine quality that changes nature (contra the Reformers).

  7. man, that was simply brilliant. I was just nodding, when ich read this. everything in me said: yes, that’s so true, to the point, yimply true.
    thank you man!

  8. Adam O says:

    Lots of good stuff here, particularly this: “Once you bow to cultural consensus, your declaration of Christ’s lordship is meaningless.”
    I did want to bring up one point of contention though because I feel like I hear it all the time from Gospel Co. folks in their critique of mainline denoms. Trevin says, “Jump on the bandwagon of cultural progress like all the mainline denominations have. Oh yes, and we can seen just how well that has worked out for them, can’t we?” I think I am presuming correctly that he means to dismiss them because of their drop in numbers over the past decades. I read a Mohler article the other day when he levied, with similar sarcasm, the same critique. Now I am all for disagreeing with various positions adopted by certain mainstream denominations based on different/better interpretation/application of the Bible. But it is not fair to say that a drop in numbers relates to unfaithfulness. We certainly understand this when the critique works in the opposite direction for some Prosperity Gospel churches. I worry that our theological disagreements incline our hearts to want to take little pot shots at our brothers and sisters of the mainlines. I would love to see those kinds of comments go away and be replaced with more prayer for all of us to have humility, faithfulness, and Christ-willing, unity.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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