So that was interesting! Yesterdays article sure stirred up a hornets’ nest. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. And tired Presbyterian ministers heading home from a funeral should probably not respond to provocative blog posts….but we are where we are.
In today’s culture, where children are idolised, they say that the quickest way for a preacher to commit ministerial suicide is to critique any of his congregants’ children. Touch the apple of someone’s eye and watch the sparks fly. Judging by some of the reactions I have received, it seems as though my response to the ‘Socialism is evil’ post on the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals blog, has zinged an arrow right into the apple of many! I promised Part 2 so, to use yet another truism, in for a penny, in for a pound (which being translated meaneth…in for a cent, in for a dollar).
I need however to make a couple of caveats here.
I am not advocating socialism. I am advocating that we as the church do not advocate any political socio-economic system, that we do not identify it with the church, and that we do not condemn those who don’t share our political views as evil.
I love America. I am not anti-American. Despite those who have feelings to the contrary, it is possible to deny that socialism is evil and love America. I accept fully that there is an anti-Americanism that pervades much of European society that is discriminatory, illogical and abhorrent. From a personal perspective, I love America, the land of the Free. Any nation that produces, BB King, Marilynn Robinson and Mark Twain has a lot going for it! And I love the American church – I listen often to preachers such as Tim Keller, Matt Chandler, John Piper and Ligon Duncan. It’s far too easy for people to just dismiss criticism by being emotional and saying, “They are only saying that because they don’t like us.” Or, as I have come across often, the belief that everyone in the world is jealous of America because obviously America is the greatest nation in the world. Such national pride is not of course confined to Americans (says the Scot!) but it does seem to pervade much of Christian culture, where the greatness of America is far too often confused with the greatness of the Kingdom.
My reason for writing this is not because I want to advance or defend a particular political point of view. Nor is it because I want to attack or denigrate any country or any church. Nor am I saying it because the Scottish church is any better – in fact I think in many ways we are in a far worse condition. I am saying this because I love the American church and I think it is in deep trouble for many reasons; one of which is this strange alliance of politics and Christianity.
In this theology, American Capitalism is the essence of America, which is in turn the essence of Christianity. To criticise Capitalism (or at least refusing to agree that Socialism is de facto evil) is apparently unchristian, unbiblical and unconfessional – which is presumably why the Alliance of CONFESSING Evangelicals allowed this post. I don’t confess that socialism is evil, and if the Free Church ever was daft enough to add another chapter to the Westminster Confession stating that it was, I guess I would be out of a job! The equation of the Gospel of Jesus with ANY of the kingdoms of this world has always been a disaster.
The first MTW missionary to Scotland told us his testimony: “I was a drug user, sinner and Democrat, then I was converted and became a Republican”. This equation of becoming a Christian as being synonymous with a particular political position was a strange one for me, as it is for most Christians in the world. Another time I spoke at a PCA presbytery and an African American pastor stood up and thanked me. “That’s the first time I’ve heard a Democrat speak in 20 years at this presbytery. Thanks brother.” When I assured him that I was not a Democrat he responded, “Well, you sure sound like one!”
How did we get to this position that, in many areas of the evangelical Church in the US, being a Christian is associated with being a Republican? It was not always so.
I think the answer is complex but let me suggest one factor; the genius of the political analyst and strategist Karl Rove and the impact of the so-called ‘Moral Majority’ under Jerry Falwell. Rove quickly realised that there were at least 25 million evangelical votes up for grabs, if only he could find a galvanising issue. And he did – abortion and other ‘culture war’ issues. In this he was greatly aided by the Liberal left, who had long ago given up on any kind of economic justice. Cultural issues and particularly the abortion question became the shibboleth issues – on both sides. To be honest much of it was smoke and mirrors. No Republican President ever rescinded, or sought to rescind, Row v. Wade but the issue was clear. It successfully delivered millions of white evangelical voters into the Republican sphere.
However, whilst I regard abortion as a key issue and it certainly influences how I vote, I cannot help but feel that this Faustian pact has ended up being a bit of a poisoned chalice for the Church in the US. The US may not have an Established church but it appears as though much of the US evangelical church has an established political viewpoint. Let me give a couple of examples of the harm the tying in of Christianity to a particular view of politics and economics has done in the US.
The first is the destruction of ‘Blue Sundays’ and the end of the whole idea of the 4th commandment (complete with its emphasis on social justice, Sabbath rest etc.). Commerce ruled and the church meekly followed. Nothing could be allowed to interfere with the service (worship?) of mammon. Is it too fanciful to link this with the fad for churches as entertainment/business centres, rather than gatherings for the covenant worship of the Lord’s people?
The second is the way that money is used in the US church, where there is so much inequality. When I read 2 Corinthians 8, I find the phrase that Marx and Engels used in their Communist Manifesto, “From each according to his means, to each according to his needs.” Paul explicitly says that there should be equality (and yes he is speaking financially.) I accept, of course, that it is not something imposed by the State yet it should be voluntarily practiced within the Church. The bottom line is that ‘The community as a whole’ (see back to our definition of socialism in the previous article) should share in what the Lord has blessed us with. In one sense you could argue that the Church is the ultimate in (voluntary) socialism. We pool our resources together, have ‘All things in common,’ help one another, care for the poor and evangelise the lost. The wealth that the church has should be pooled together so that the widow’s mite is as valuable as the millionaire’s tithe, and it is administered by deacons full of the Holy Spirit and faith – not just those whose bank accounts are full. But what I see happening in much of the US church (and also over here) is that the rich have an inordinate influence. Who cares about the widow’s mite (apart from Jesus)? I have witnessed the abomination of millionaires’ conferences and elaborate fundraising dinners as Christian churches and charities pander to the wealthy in order to get their substantial donations. And I have seen in practice, many times, that just as in the world, so in the church, ‘He who pays the piper calls the tune.’
When I read the biography of Billy Graham I was astounded to discover that in the early years a major part of his funding came from a wealthy man who wanted to use him as a bulwark against Communism. What’s wrong with that? The Gospel is not to be used to further ANY political agenda. We preach the Gospel in order to defeat all sin, and all the systems of this world, not just one.
I think this illustrates a pattern that is like a cancer on the American church; the ‘|Men in black’ (in this case I am talking about the accountants, lawyers and businessmen, not Scottish Presbyterian elders) call the tune. It’s all very well to talk about biblical principles and practices but when it comes to hard cash we are told we have to be pragmatic. What this means is that those who have money can, far too often, dictate policy, practice and preachers. I know of so many examples of the harm that occurs when church discipline and godly doctrine is replaced by millionaires’ networking and church politics.
This article is already long enough but let me give one personal example. I once spoke at a conference after which the organiser privately thanked me and said that the students loved it and he loved it, but…. I knew there would be a but. What was wrong? He told me not to bother asking for any money because the people who had the money hated what I said. He explained that even though what I had said was true, realistic and biblical, it was not what the funders wanted to hear so any appeal for money (I was partly there to fund raise for mission work in Scotland) would be ignored. Apparently, I didn’t know how to ‘Play the game.’ But is this game worth playing? How much heresy, blasphemy and hypocrisy have been financed by those who hadn’t the spiritual sense to know better? It appears that boards, trusts and investments are more crucial to the American church that the Lord’s appointed means of deacons!
A third factor of this cultural assimilation is that, far too often, the church is run like a corporation rather than a covenant community. The power brokers are the wealthy. After all, if you have a $50 million building to pay for you can’t afford to upset too many wealthy people. They have lots of money to give away (and an incentive with their taxation to do so as well) so we are competing for their largesse. Far too often the eldership is run more like a corporate board than a spiritual court and the minister is the (well paid) CEO. I wish my American brothers and sisters would take a lesson from the Church here in Scotland. In my view, one factor in our decline was when a person being a banker was considered more of a requisite for becoming an elder, than being a godly farm worker.
And then there comes the abomination of the branding of Christianity. Even Calvinism has become a brand. I too have the John Calvin t-shirt, and the Calvin beer, as well as the books. I remember being at one of those ‘side meetings’ at a conference where we were offered a lovely lunch and a good talk. I was enjoying the food for the body as well as the food for the soul when I almost choked on my southern fried chicken. I called over one of the hosts, pointed to the leaflet we had been given and asked somewhat incredulously, “Is that a copyright sign besides the word ‘Sonship?'” You can’t copyright ‘Sonship’ any more than you can copyright ‘Adoption’ or ‘Atonement’ but they had.
Another time I was visited by an American missionary who represented one of the myriad mission organisations. He showed me his particular programme and I said that we could use it if we were allowed to adapt it. “Oh, no..I am not authorised to allow you to do that…it’s the whole package or nothing….They have accepted it in Slovakia and Sweden.” I asked him jokingly if he was just going to European countries that began with an S. He said yes. What a mission strategy! Selling a product to countries that begin with the same letter! Why didn’t the apostle Paul think of that one?!
Another time I spotted a notice in a Reformed seminary that advertised Evangelism Explosion as being a $1 per soul in Poland – meaning that for every $1 given to EE one soul in Poland was saved. The spirit of Tetzel is alive and well!
It is not for nothing that the blasphemy of the health and wealth teaching has spread like a cancer from the US church into the rest of the world, especially Africa and Asia. I know that many of my American brothers and sisters fervently oppose that blasphemy (witness John Piper’s wonderful video on the subject) but I wonder if we have ever considered whether or not this false teaching might have grown as much out of the American cultural soil as it has out of the theological? It strikes me that just as Mormonism is the ultimate US Frontier religion, so the health and wealth gospel is wonderfully suited to the American capitalist dream. Maybe it’s not just socialism that is satanic?
All of us would do well to remember that Jesus came to start a covenant community, not a capitalist corporation – no matter how slick the presentation, or grandiose the mission statement.
I suspect I already know all the arguments against what I have said. I have heard them many times, both the public and the private ones. Since I’m on a roll, I’ll just deal with three.
You just don’t like the rich and you are opposed to wealth.
Not true. Any rich person is very welcome in my congregation – as much as any poor person. I do take seriously what the bible says about not many wealthy and wise being called and what Jesus says about how wealth is a real hindrance to entering the kingdom. But I know also that wealth is a blessing from God and I thank the Lord for every wealthy, generous Christian, who shares what the Lord has blessed him with. I am writing this on the train home from attending my Auntie Sheila’s funeral. She died aged 85 after having served the Lord for many years as a missionary in Africa. A wealthy man I know, who lived a frugal but not poor life, gave a great deal of support to her privately and consistently. I only found out about it later. He was a great example of how wealth should be used. In this respect let me share with you something I read from Augustine last week – in one of his sermons on John.
“He who loves God is not much in love with money…..Money then will be the means of pilgrimage, not the stimulant of lust; something to use for necessity, not to joy over as a means of delight……Use money as the traveller at an inn uses table, cup, pitcher, and couch, with the purpose not or remaining but of leaving them behind”
I thank the Lord for the rich Christians I know who have grasped and practice this. (If any of them want to help clear our building debt, fund Solas or help with our church plants…I’m all ears!)
This is all helping evangelise the world.
Yes in some instances. But far too much of the Lord’s money is being wasted. I don’t know if this statistic is still true but a few years ago something like 98% of the money collected in US churches was used in the US. And even that which isn’t is too often used to promote American churches and American programmes. I recall one senior US minister telling me that in his view 70-80% of money spent on missions overseas was being frittered away. At a conference in a European country I was visited at midnight by a group of Eastern Europeans. When I asked them why they were visiting me at that ungodly hour, they said that they wanted to invite me to speak in their country, but that they did not want to upset their American hosts. The story they told me was fascinating. When the Wall came down they were initially delighted. Freedom! But with freedom came problems. Pornography and western missionary organisations poured in. Every one of those organisations would have as their mission statement something along the lines of ‘we are reaching the world for Jesus’. They brought money and resources. And whilst the Lord used some of that, over all they felt that the effects had not been good. The privatisation of religion had also led to increased competition, inter church/agency politics, ‘rice’ Christians and numerous heresies, as well as missionaries being sent back in ‘spiritual’ body bags – exhausted and disillusioned. One senior pastor who had spent time in prison said that he had almost got to the stage where he preferred communism!
A word in your ear – or a friend’s ear.
This is the private argument. The ‘Quiet word in your ear.’ You can’t say any of this because you will be defunded (like being defriended on Facebook but even more painful!) Just as there is ‘She who must be obeyed’ so there is ‘He who must not be upset.’ I have seen the power games that get played in the ‘Networking’ and church politics that happen. I have witnessed a ridiculous amount of fawning, backslapping, wining and dining solely because the person concerned has a lot of money. James chapter 2 (and read ch 5 while you are there!) comes to mind:
2 my brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favouritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6 But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?
The Proclaimers have a song about this kind of attitude; “Cap in Hand.” I’ve done it myself. I’ve gone to ask for help from potential wealthy benefactors and some have been gracious but most see that we just do not ‘Fit the profile.’ To paraphrase the Fife twins, “I can’t understand why we let someone else rule His church, cap in hand.” Now again this is not saying that all rich people who give money insist on stating how it is spent, although many do. Many others would back them, saying, ‘What’s wrong with that? It’s their money.”
No – it’s not. It is the Lord’s money and we are just stewards of it.
Never mind the Greeks bearing gifts, sometimes I think we need to beware of the rich churches/individuals/mission organisations that come bearing gifts providing we fit in with their pre-determined agenda. Again please note I am not saying that ALL are like that – but it is a significant problem and one that needs to be faced.
This is also something that goes on here. I find it more than a little disturbing that whilst lip service (and a little cash) is paid to the notion of bringing the good news to the poor – it is middle class suburban or city centre churches which flourish, have large programmes, multi-staff and are seen as the key congregations. It’s interesting that I would have no problems finding many people who want to come and plant churches in St Andrews or Edinburgh, but aren’t interested in Kilmarnock, Paisley or Cardenden. Apparently the Lord isn’t either because, whilst many are called to mission, few are chosen for the insignificant places.
Anyway enough. In part three (see what you started Rick!) I will try to be add some balance and ask the third and final question – is Capitalism Satanic?
Just for fun I thought you might like to see one of the responses my original article garnered.
From RC Sproul Jr none the less.
“ I wonder if the author would affirm that any tax can be theft. His argument that Jesus said to pay our taxes, means that taxes can’t be theft is odd. I wonder if, because Jesus says we should give our shirt to someone who takes our coat that taking coats cannot be theft”.
He then goes on to defend the astonishing position that taxation is theft.
Lets look at the logic of his argument, which is surprisingly weak. I did not say that “taxes’ can’t be theft.” I do argue that the government has the right to collect taxes and that taxes are not NECESSARILY theft. I should also point out that that if you define theft as taking something illegally then it is difficult for taxes to be theft. However, they can be unjust.
RC also misses out the obvious difference between someone asking you for your coat (and you responding with generosity and grace) and the government ordering you to pay your taxes. Paying tax is most certainly in this country not voluntary (although I realise that Donald Trump and others in the US seem to think that “Only fools pay taxes.”) But the most astonishing thing is the argument that all taxation is per se ‘theft’ (I have been genuinely shocked at how many people have written to me with this point as though it were some kind of ‘Killer’ argument, rather than the illogical anti-biblical nonsense it really is!) Was the apostle Paul wrong when he urged the Roman Christians “ This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.” (Romans 13:6-7). Doubtless such is the commitment to this kind of mixture of folksy homespun politics/theology that someone will find some kind of eisegesis to explain that Paul really meant we should not pay taxes, but I ain’t buying it. Can you imagine if the libertarians and ‘all taxation is theft’ brigade got into power? It would be the end of the USA. The American Defence Department is the biggest employer in the world, with 3.5 million employees and a budget of some $600 billion. Who is going to pay for that if there is no taxation? Voluntary giving. Maybe those 300 million plus firearms in private hands might come in use after all!
Finally I leave you with some wise thoughts of my friend and colleague, the Rev Dr John Ross – a man whose political conservative credentials are not in doubt (and whose theology, spirituality and usefulness in the church remain completely undiminished despite that! Because in a mature church, one’s political views are not confused with one’s theology and biblical views.) John wrote this in response:
“The article is bizarre and unworthy of an intelligent man like Rick Phillips. It betrays any intelligent attempt at serious analysis and utterly fails to distinguish the underlying concerns and motives of the modern democratic Left, whose philosophical roots and social conscience lie less in Marxism and more in the Christian teaching of compassion and acceptance of the fact that we are our brother’s keepers. I am not a socialist and I believe that classic socialism, whereby the state owns the means of production is, as a political philosophy, bankrupt. But so too do the great majority of those on the political Left. What is being advocated by Bernie Sanders – and so badly caricatured by Rick Phillips that he is in danger of violating the 9th Commandment – is not socialism in any meaningful sense, certainly not Marxist socialism, but rather an attempt to introduce into the USA something like the mixed economy and concern for social justice generally accepted in the UK and across Europe by conservative as well as Left-leaning governments. No post-war UK Conservative government has considered education and health care, free at the point of delivery, to be inconsistent with Conservative philosophy.”
See you tomorrow!
You can get the final post in this series here –