What is the church to do in a 5-4 world?


Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002

A Brave New World supplants the illusion of Christian America 

We now know what we have long suspected: America is not and never was “a Christian nation.” We may have put “In God we trust” on our coins and “one nation under God” into our pledge during the red scare, but those were merely the vestigial organs of an America of church attenders familiar with the scriptural imagery of Western civilization. But Western civilization is quickly fading away, swept under the rug of social change in a brave new world of neoliberalism and its deity, the self-identified eros.

Harbor no illusions, neoliberalism is a puritanical and absolutist form of progressivism. It is characterized by “tolerance” – the buzzword of an orthodoxy of the unfettered self. We are watching its fruit as our culture, unmoored from classical ideas of truth, beauty, and dignity, descends into hedonism. Regardless of the rhetoric, in neoliberalism truth is not actually relative. Truth may be a social construct, but it is absolute, and, as in all puritanical schemes, difference of opinion is not “tolerated.”

Artist Theo Eshutu-Brave New World http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/brave/index.html

Artist Theo Eshutu-Brave New World http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/brave/index.html

Perhaps nowhere is neoliberalism on clearer display than in the triennial meeting of my Episcopal Church. For us, the “movement of the Holy Spirit” is determined by popular vote. To oppose the winds of change then is nothing less than to oppose God. The neoliberal “Spirit,” is a “spirit” of triumphalist glory, a big-brother who squashes dissent quickly and quietly. In the deliberations of our bishops yesterday, a small and quiet conservative minority wished to read a statement indicating their disagreement with the redefinition of marriage. They were cut off on parliamentary grounds. Neoliberal tolerance can tolerate no dissent. The vitriol, social shaming, and gloating on my Facebook after the Obergefell ruling stands in stark contrast with the rhetoric of pluralism and classical liberalism we hear so much about. Our delegates heard from a Sunday school teacher shacking up with her boyfriend who has no interest in marriage, then passed a resolution to “continue work studying the growing contemporary reality…that is redefining what many mean by ‘family’ or ‘household.'”  This explicitly includes, “those who choose to remain single; unmarried persons in intimate relationships; couples who cohabitate; couples who desire a blessing, etc).” It implicitly includes “listening” to another type of emerging family structure – polyamorous families. I report this, not to be shocking, but because our church takes its establishment roots quite seriously and is generally a reflection of where progressive culture desires to go next. And, as you will have noticed, for culture crusaders addicted to the fight, there is always a next fight…

Time magazine this week posted an article by Mark Oppenheimer arguing for the elimination of church’s tax exempt status. It is spreading through social media like wildfire. The new elite smells blood: it is the last weak pulse of traditional America. Somehow they have forgotten that orphanages, hospitals, universities, literacy, and abolition were all ideas given to the world by that enemy of humanity – Christian thought.

Somehow lost in both the sophomoric euphoria and the licking of wounds is the fact that political solutions simply do not work. We are forty years into our legislative solutions to our race issues, yet those issues are still present. And in this mess Christians are still forgiving and angry nuts are still burning down our places of worship.

How should the church respond to culture shift?

We could keep financing losing political battles. We could keep encouraging ugly rhetoric. We could fight to keep our tax exempt status’ and tax deduction for charitable giving. We could keep trying to support political parties for whom nearly half of my state has disengaged and reregistered as “independent.” We could do what many have chosen to do this week and simply remain silent. We could flip-flop on 2000 years of unbroken Christian tradition and the clear meaning of the words of scripture.


…we could go back to what the church was good at. Remember, when we were eleven scared dudes hiding out in an upper room? That group had a unique methodology unused since the faith embraced power in the fourth century…

Lessons from the first Christians

First, they gathered in remarkable unity across ethnic, cultural, and social barriers in formational, seeker-insensitive worship services – This may surprise many of my evangelical friends, but there are eucharistic pointers in every NT author. The story of God is taught and formed with remarkable clarity in the format of Word and Sacrament present in Acts and given to us as ancient practice by Justin Martyr in 150 CE. We must form Christians. This is more than sermonizing. It involves enacting and imprinting the story of God on human hearts.

Second, from their deep formation, the ancient Christians moved missionally in service and proclamation into the world. They loved, gave, and proclaimed Jesus’ to the least, last, and lost.

Third, they were annoyingly clear about the exclusive claims of Jesus in a pluralistic world. This made them the target of recurring persecution. A persecution which they generally embraced.

Fourth, they were not worried about their “rights.” They worried about the world’s lostness. We can stop worrying about being persecuted and start embracing and supporting Christians who are actually being persecuted. Embrace the loss of status and prestige! Let us join our African American brothers and sisters in turning the other cheek, blessing those who persecute us, and forgiving the offender.

Fifth, they modeled internal civil discourse (Acts 15). In our churches we can teach the “faith once delivered.” But we can teach it as truths we are being conformed to, rather than using the faith as a bludgeon to beat non-Christians into an eternally irrelevant social-conformity.

Fortuitously, these are exactly the lessons we learn from many of the fastest growing millennial-heavy churches. Millennial-heavy churches (churches with hundreds of millennial generation attenders) tend to be liturgical and artful, with deep biblically-based sermons. They are high on diversity and community. They fearlessly preach on difficult topics with a “hard on me, soft on you” hermeneutic. They actively engage in social action. They tend not to engage in political action. They even seem to have a significant number of young lgbt attendees who respect their authenticity. Or, as one millennial said when she left her mega-church that is moving to gimmicks to drive attendance, “I want to go where the Christianity is what is on display.”

So, church, do not change the “deposit of faith” to make it more “relevant” to the culture. There has never been a time that has not failed to be a losing proposition. There is a reason that the fellowships that change least account for the most of us – Catholicism and Orthodoxy continue to account for 2/3 of the world’s Christians.

The Christian faith is neither the moral improvement program that many conservatives wish for it to be, nor the affirmation of desires that many progressives seem to want to make it. The Christian faith is nothing less than a radical reorienting of the human experiment to a new master. To quote, Abraham Kuyper, “There is not one one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Jesus Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘mine.'”

Or, as our spiritual forebearers said, “Jesus is Lord.” 

So let us stop trying to remake a secular society in our own image. Let us instead worry about God’s priorities: “The redemption of the world through our Lord, Jesus Christ.” (BCP, 101)

We have work to do. Politics is not that work.

*Brave New World photo labelled for reuse.

***I should say that I support full protection under the law for lgbt relationships, not because it is the government’s business what adults choose to do, gay or straight, but because adults have children, and children need the protection under the law afforded by the cultural values of monogamy and fidelity. I also see a big difference between what a pluralistic government protects and what the church, as recipients of scriptures and the tradition of the apostles, defines as marriage.


22 thoughts on “What is the church to do in a 5-4 world?

  1. It has been a week. We have a new Presiding Bishop who seems touched by the Word and the Holy Spirit but I was less than encouraged when I listened to his gracious words to our departing Presiding Bishop. I hope and pray he leads us in an entirely different direction. Someplace sacramental and liturgical and absent courts of law. When I watch an altogether ‘perfect’ (for these days) PB step down to be replaced by an Evangelist I can only hope that the Holy Spirit is indeed in charge and we will spend no more time suing each other over bricks and mortar but suing instead for peace and reconciliation.

    Then there have been the ‘resolutions’ and I have watched one after another reshape and reform our body politic toward what clearly is not working.and hasn’t been since late-to–the-party- guilt has been the motive force of TEC since the Sixties. We changed our Prayer book, our Hymnal and lost congregants. Convention after convention we made one resolution after another and lost parishes and then complete dioceses. We are now at the outer fringes of the Anglican Community. Not an easy thing to do in an organization held together by opposing points of view.

    I have watched as one ‘side’ celebrates a ‘majority victory’ and the other side is shamed into silence lest they be called bigots, racists or one or another kind of ‘-phobes’. It is true that the inability to ‘tolerate’ the others’ point of view is splitting us apart and the most radical thing I can think to do is reissue the 1928 or 1662 BCP back into common usage with a glossary for those that need lessons in the English language. Or maybe that’s in part what the pulpit is for; to teach and preach. Your unspoken proposal is to return to the early home churches and start acting like Christians. Also radical.

    I find my self driven back to reading Romans and re reading the battle line drawn between transforming and conforming and all I can see coming out of this convention is more conformity to a deeply divided, broken, and heartless society. Christ died to show us the lengths to which rendering unto Causer would never be enough. And yet we are in lock step with the armies of the night.

    For me and my house, I proclaim that we are here to witness that His death was not in vain, not by choosing sides, but by becoming slaves to the one true Master.

    Thank you for telling the truth.

  2. Jesus says his followers are the salt of the earth (Matt 5:13). Salt is an important nutrient as well as a preservative. While certainly we should put church-being before politics, there is nothing wrong with participating and being involved in politics as long as we keep it in perspective. (As a Federalist, I think the 5 justices did something very unconstitutional and tyrannical, and it’s not wrong for a Christian to be upset about that.) However, I’m far more worried about churches not teaching their members to be faithful to Scripture. That’s why we’ve gotten to this point in our culture — lack of good teaching (and not just on the issue of sexuality). The church is to be countercultural but it seems like a lot of church goers don’t understand that. Because (in mainline and seeker-sensitive churches) no one has taught them.

    Also in regards to how God intends the Church to influence the culture, Matt. 13:33 comes to mind.

    • Hi Heather,

      Thank you for commenting.

      Those justices were certainly interesting. We have three who never pen their own opinions-they don’t need to since they simply decide as they were elected to decide.

      I am not arguing against understanding and voting. I am saying that we have put our eggs in the wrong basket. As one who raised support for Gospel proclaiming workers it was disheartening to have people who were missing paychecks while the people I was asking to help keep young missionaries in the field told me, “Sorry, we gave five figures to a legal defense fund and cannot give to helping people hear the good news of Jesus this year.”

      You are surely right about our fuzzy teaching. Amos 8:11 comes to mind: “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord GOD, “when I will send a famine on the land— not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.”

  3. I have great admiration for your thoughtful, passionate message, Matt, and appreciate the heartfelt responses from others as well. Thank you all for giving us a glimpse of what you believe may be the future of TEC based upon your observations at the convention. Let us all join together in prayer for The Church and for her leaders….. that all motivations will be influenced by, and decisions made through the discernment and leading of the Holy Spirit….. that parishioners will be transformed through the Word of the Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit….. and that our Corporate commitment to Christ and His Kingdom will be strengthened and deepened….all for God’s Glory.

  4. As a deputy attending covention who happens to be a gay man who happens to be ordained, I am saddened by the statement that my capacity to love a person of my gender is irrelevant.

  5. My dear friend and brother in Christ,
    We’ve talked about all the issues you raise in this blog post many times over coffee these last five years. Let’s cut to the chase: How would you respond if two people you knew to be deeply committed followers of Jesus, and longtime members of your parish, came to you as a gay couple, asking that you officiate at their marriage?

    • I would tell them that I have a colleague who is a terrific priest, that he does a great wedding service and will do excellent and challenging premarital counseling with you both and then I would bring them to you, my friend.

  6. Thank you for your kind words, and your confidence in my pastoral gifts, my friend. Anyone who feels un-welcome in other parishes will always be welcome at St Mary’s. Send them our way, any time!

  7. Matt, Thank you for a very thoughtful article. I’ve never read your blog before, and found this by chance when searching to understand a remark made elsewhere about a “5-4 world”, a term I had not previously heard.

    Sir, I’m Not an eloquent writer. In fact, I’m kind of an oaf when it comes to expressing my thoughts in writing, so I hope you will indulge me. If my reply is inappropriate for this forum, please just delete it.

    I have some sympathy for the points you make about the Episcopal Church, and I share many of the concerns you express about Christianity. I was an Episcopalian once. Raised in the Church, in fact. My dear Grandmother, may she rest in peace, was the prototypical “church lady” – on every committee, cherished the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the whole 9 yards. 🙂 I left the church as a teenager for the typical silly “reasons” many teens leave the faith.

    Later, and for most of my adult life, I was a practicing United Methodist. The UMC is another “Mainline Protestant” Church that votes on what the Bible means. But unlike TEC (neat abbrev., BTW), the UMC (as you may know) also has churches in places like Africa and Korea who are also allowed to vote on what the Bible means. And that’s the only reason the UMC is not (yet) marching in lock step with the Presbyterians, TEC, and the like.

    The reason I’m writing, though, is because I hear something in this piece – and maybe you are aware of it, or maybe not – but its something that could be Very Dangerous for you as an Episcopal clergyman!

    When I see you use words like “Eucharistic” and “Sacrament” and names like “Justin Martyr” – Matt, I have to warn you! – You are touching on topics that could change your life, if you are not careful.

    I’m NOT a clergyman and (regrettably) I’m Far from being a theologian, but I write because the “Problem” I see for you is the same “Problem” that happened to me.

    You see, I suspect we may have some common roots, at least in what we were taught about the Christian Church. I never went to seminary – but I suspect you were taught at some point, as I was, that the Church established by Christ established in circa 33 AD, and that Paul, Luke, Peter, John and Jude write to and about in the rest of the NT, doesn’t exist any more. That it disappeared when it “embraced power”, never to be seen again… or perhaps not to be seen again until the 16th century when it was “rescued” by apostate monks, German princes, or English Kings.

    And yet you recognize that there still is “2000 years of unbroken Christian tradition.” But do you ever ask yourself how that “tradition” remained “unbroken” from 313 AD until 1517? Do you ever ask yourself if there’s a hand you could touch today, that touched a hand that was part of an unbroken chain of hands that once touched the hand of Christ?

    Its a dangerous question, and I urge to you think carefully before inquiring any further. Like I said, its a topic that could change your life.

    In Christ,

  8. Hi Thomas, Thank you for taking the time to comment.

    I actually have asked that question and am convinced that there are three groups that have hands who have touched the master’s: Rome, Constantinople and Canterbury (through Rome). Each of those communions has its own issues. Ours is subtracting from the deposit of faith, Rome’s is adding to it, and Constantinople’s is melding the deposit to ethnicity.

    • Canterbury too?

      Wow! That’s… uh…. Well…. Gosh! That surely an…. Uh…. an “interesting” point of view!

      Forgive me! I apologize for sounding snarky – But you did prompt me to spend a few minutes researching and I see that this is the position of the Anglican communion.
      So – wow.

      I suppose that would be a great topic to discuss further. As would the topic of adding to the deposit of faith. I do consider myself a pilgrim and I do feel obliged to seek the truth in all things.

      But I guess, rather than waste any more of your time, why not get to the heart of the matter?

      I take it from your essay above, and your response to Mr. Bustrin, that you intend to hold fast to the teaching of Jesus on the issue of marriage, as that teaching has been understood by virtually all of Christendom for nearly all of the past 2,000 years, prior to the last few years or so, rather than abide by the new “discipline” of “TEC”?

      If I’m correct in that assumption, can I ask you an honest question?

      Exactly how do you see that going down (no pun intended)?

      I can’t predict the future, but we’ve all seen how these things have been unfolding for the past couple years with independent businesses (florists, bakers, etc). And I think its at least “reasonably foreseeable” that your parishioners are going to figure out your position on the matter – if for no other reason than reading your blog. Do you agree?

      So what do you think is going to happen if two same sex persons present themselves to you and directly request that you officiate their “marriage” and you refuse? (even if you decline in the most polite terms imaginable).

      How do you think “TEC” is going to respond if this couple threatens to sue your church, and attack its tax exempt status for “Discriminating” against them?

      I promise I’m not trying to be a jerk, but I honestly wonder what your thoughts are on this matter?

      • Hi Thomas.

        No one really has to try very hard to figure out my position. It is well known in the Episcopal Church that I am welcoming toward all but only affirm what scripture and the church historic affirm. I read that as the call of the gospel. Jesus was remarkably welcoming but actually raised the bar on a host of moral issues over the Old Testament and 1st century Jewish culture. Evangelicals tend to keep the moral bar. Progressives the welcome bar. I see Jesus keeping a both/and stance.

        The Episcopal Church has clear canons protecting clergy from performing any marriage they feel uncomfortable with. It was originally written for clergy unwilling to perform re-marriages. It was specifically reaffirmed for clergy unwilling to perform same sex marriages.

        What happens in the future is anyone’s guess. In the Episcopal Church many of our most theologically trinitarian clergy are young gay clergy who value a broad church in a post sex-wars world. The Episcopal church has been trending more orthodox theologically and more progressive politically. The place this collides is in sexuality. How those trends go in the future is anyone’s guess…and why I wrote about 5 posts on the General Convention and what I thought we needed to do. There were many real and profound positives from that general convention. But there were also a few I think were enormous mistakes.

  9. Matt,

    Thank you for your responses. I certainly have to agree with your assessment both of Jesus’ disposition in this regard, and that of so many contemporary churches. And frankly, the “both/and stance” you describe above is consistent with my personal experience in the Catholic Church (believe it or not), and one factor that attracted me to her.

    You seem like a rational and pleasant person. I certainly wish you the best, and I hope those canons work our for you! But (from my “peanut gallery” perspective) I fear that there will be trying times ahead for anyone who fully upholds the teachings of Jesus and his Church.

    Thank you again for your thoughtful essay above!

    • Hi Thomas,
      I am a fan of the Catholic church. I was recently part of a group of folks that put together an ecumenical day of prayer, preaching and worship through song called the John 17 Movement in Phoenix. The clergy group met in the Phoenix Diocesan offices with bishop Olmsted.

      Today’s canons are certainly no guarantee of protection tomorrow. But an umbrella that may wear out is more protection than not having an umbrella. I admit that it would be comfortable not to have to wonder if I, someone who started out his Christian life slightly left of center and who, without moving, is now on an exposed far-right flank of his church will be run out of town on a rail. Yet here I am called, so here I will stay.

      I appreciate the official clarity and pastoral breadth of Rome. When I was moving my sticking point with Rome and Constantinople was “the only true church” thing.

      God’s blessings as you seek Him in His fullness.

  10. Yea, that “Only true Church” thing can be tough.

    Though in fairness, at least according to what I’ve been taught, Its certainly NOT as rigid a doctrine as I had previously thought it was. For example, (and forgive me if you already know all this) – the Catholic Church, at least since Vatican II, has not taken the position that ONLY Catholics can be saved. (See CCC 838, 819, and others) Non-Catholic Christians are not referred to as “pagans”, “heretics” or “non-believers” (as the Muslims call us), but as “Christians” and as “Separated Brothers”. (CCC 818). I can’t cite authority, but its my understanding that the Catholic Church views a Protestant Christian earnestly living a life of good will to be in far less spiritual danger than a confirmed Catholic who has fallen away from the Church.

    Just my “soap box” thoughts here, but it seems to me Obedience has never been a “strong suit” for human beings. And it seems to me that we Americans seem to be particular stiff-necked when it comes to obedience. Especially obedience to Any “Authority” not seated right here in America.

    I mean, if we think about it – you know, really break it down, has there ever been a Christian schism (and thus a new “church”) NOT based (at its heart) on disobedience?

    So yea, its not a very “Politically Correct” position. Sorta like the rather non-inclusive claim there’s only one way to Heaven. 😉

    But then, isn’t any claim of “exclusivity” arrogant?
    Unless, of course….. well, . . . . You know……. 🙂

    Thank you for your blessings, Matt. And FWIW, coming from a weak and sinful laymen, I pray that GOD blesses you too!!

    • Schism is an ugly thing. One of my life works is unity in the Body of Christ. If we start with trust and partnering in evangelism through ministries like Young Life, it will open our emerging post-denominational world to structural unity. As Cyprian said, “one cannot have God as Father without the Church as mother.” 🙂

      I should sen you to today’s post on my journey from atheism, but instead search thegospelside (a box on the bottom right of the page) for “spiritual baseball” – it is a post on how I became an Anglican from a conversation with a Catholic youth director.

      Have a word and sacrament week, Thomas!

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