What Is the Church?
“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Zlord your God that I command you today, by loving the lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” -Deuteronomy 30:5-20
Before we explore the parallels of our situation and choices to those of the German Church in the 1930s, we must briefly touch upon the American Church of our own time. In doing so, we cannot go very far without raising the most fundamental question:
What is the Church?
The Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked and answered that question in his brilliant doctoral dissertation, Sanctorum Communio, written when he was only twenty-one years old. But much more importantly, he continued to ask and answer that question with his very life, until his untimely death eighteen years later at the hands of the Nazi regime. The question was not, and could not only be, academic or the theological or intellectual. In some ways, it is the most fundamental question in human existence.
If the God of the Bible is real, if He created the universe and created us and sent His Son to die and rise again so that we might have a relationship with Him now and for all eternity, there cannot possibly be any more important question. What does it mean for those of us who would say we are Christians to be Christians? What exactly is the Church, which God tells us is His Bride?
Some might say the Church is a movement or an institution, but that is hardly God’s idea about what the Church is or is supposed to be. The real question is more pointed: When is the Church actually being the Church of Jesus Christ, instead of being that in name only? In the Old Testament God sent prophets to call the people of God actually to be the people of God, not only in name, but in how they lived. And in the last two thousand years God has sent prophetic figures to do the same thing: to call the people of God-what we now know as the Church-actually to be the Church.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of those voices. He called the German Church actually to be the Church in their time and, as I hope to make clear, his voice to them is his voice to us today, calling the American Church to actually be God’s church, with all that entails, so that we might avoid the mistakes of the German Church in the 1930s, and those direst consequences we know to have been their result. But let’s face it what God usually asks of His people is that they actually live out their faith in all the spheres of their lives so that all of society is blessed. And when they fail to do this, they are failing to be the Church.
So when we ask what the Church is today-and consider the condition of the Church today-we should first admit that in latter decades it has receded more and more from public life. In many ways, instead of taking the Church out into the world-and blessing the world-it has shrunk backward into what it mistakenly thinks of as a proper “religious” sphere. This seems to be its misguided way of apologizing for perhaps having been too political in the 1980s and 1990s, when the “Moral Majority” and “Religious Right” were the bogeyman of the secular media, who always accused Christians of being too “Political,” as they do today when anything we might say nettles their own uncompromising secular doctrines. But many in the churches were not up to these criticisms, and weary of the contentious culture wars, they thought that yes, perhaps it was time to retreat to strictly “theological” and “religious” issues. Perhaps it was time merely to “preach the Gospel”-as though such a thing were logically possible, as though the Gospel ever could be kept from touching upon all of the issues of human life. Or as though that would be anything but an abdication of God’s calling.
The sociologist James Davison Hunter became for many the voice of this approach which, in his 2010 book “To Change the World,” he referred to as “Faithful Presence.” For many, this came to mean that we in the Church ought not to be too bold about what we believe and proclaim. Perhaps it would just be wiser to keep a bit quiet and to be Christians in a way that was not very actively engaged with the world around us, but that might have an effect over the long term.
But the God who Himself is Truth cannot under any circumstances be chased into some arbitrary “religious” corner, as though the Church’s witness in the public square is somehow inherently untoward and overly aggressive. Nor can Christians be forced to express their faith only on Sunday mornings and only in certain buildings. Those who purport to call Him Lord can never allow themselves to go along with whatever such contorted theological calisthenics would involve. Such a view is at its core simply secular, and constitutes a fundamental misunderstanding of who God is. Nonetheless many Christians-often for understandable if mistaken reasons-have gone along with this, somehow thinking it to be the best way forward.
The first thing to be said about this-to the extent anyone has gone along with such views-is that we hope they might see their error and repent. It is in brutal atheistic regimes like China where such attitudes can be seen to prevail in all of their horror, where the state insists upon such a view and has the power to enforce it, essentially saying, “You may do as you like in that building at such and such hours, but when you come out you must bow to the secular authority of the state.” In America we have usually understood things dramatically differently. We have known that religious liberty means we are not merely able to worship privately, and to keep our religion to ourselves, but are guaranteed a “free exercise thereof,” so that our faith must by definition be carried everywhere we go, on every day of the week and in every place we take ourselves. Many have died for these freedoms, so the mistaken idea that we should voluntarily give them up is unprecedented, deeply un-American, and cannot be allowed to continue. It constitutes a violation of the most central idea of what makes America America.
But where did we ever get the idea that we should mind our own business along such lines, as though the truth of God were a parochial, subjective idea that had no bearing on anything beyond our private prayer times and churches? Where did we who claim to be the Church ever get the idea that we shouldn’t express any number of things too loudly, that we shouldn’t-for example-express the biblical view of human sexuality as a sacred and mysterious bond which God created only for the marriage between men and women for life? Where did we did we get the idea that we don’t have an obligation to tell the world what God says about such things-about the unborn and about human freedom and human rights? Or about anything, including the deadly perniciousness of Marxist atheist philosophy, whether in economics or in any other sphere? Where did we get the idea that we shouldn’t be at the forefront in criticizing the great evil of Communist countries like China that brutally persecute religious minorities in ways that bring to mind the Nazis themselves? And why would we not speak out against American and international corporations that do business with them until they force them to take human rights seriously and change their inhuman practices? How dare we be silent about such things!
We must remember that William Wilberforce in his day was told to keep his faith private, and was told that his “religious” view that slavery was wrong had no business poking out into the wide world. It was thought an absolute scandal that a man would bring his religion into the public sphere and dare to impose his views through the laws of the land. But Wilberforce knew that his “religious” views about slavery were only “religious” to those who didn’t like them, many of whom were making monstrous profits from the evil of the transatlantic slave trade. So we thank God that he did not let those naysayers dissuade him one bit and kept at his campaign to end slavery, having no doubt that it was God’s will for him to do so. He also had no doubt that it was the duty of everyone who dared identify as a member of the Church in England to join him in this, and to the extent was a prophetic voice to the Church of his time. But where are those voices in the American Church today regarding the inhuman cruelties perpetrated by the Chinese Communists on the Uyghur Muslims and so many others?
Of course, Dietrich Bonhoeffer too was told not to be “political”. His Christian faith gave him the idea that because German Jews were being wickedly persecuted he had an obligation to speak out, and not only to speak out but to do everything he could-unto the point of surrendering his own life-for what he knew to be right. He understood that what is right and true is never merely right and true for some, but is inevitably right and true for all-or is not right and true in all. So Bonhoeffer dared to call upon his fellow church leaders to stand with him in these things. But early on in this effort, he saw that his was an increasingly lonely path, and that eventually he would be virtually alone with God in pursuing what he believed was right.
So the question comes to us: How is it that so many in the American Church of our time have shrunk back from public engagement, and quietly assented to the decidedly unbiblical-and decidedly un-American and unconstitutional-view that the truth of God is not applicable beyond the churches? How have we been persuaded to be silent in the face of evil? When did we begin to agree with those trying so hard to marginalize our views, to think that perhaps they had a point, and perhaps we shouldn’t express our views too vigorously, lest we be accused of trying to impose them on the rest of the culture? If Wilberforce did not let the pro-slavery voices of his day deter him and Bonhoeffer did not let the pro-Nazi voices of his day deter him, why have so many American church leaders let the voices of their ideological opponents cow them into silence? Do we not realize that no good ever can come of such silence and inaction, that human beings whom God loves suffer when His own people fail to express boldly what He has said and when they fail to live as He has called them to live?
So how in the world did the current situation come about?
The late, great Chuck Colson rarely gave a speech in which he did not quote a certain statement of the Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper. “There is not one square inch,” Kuyper said in 1880, “in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign, does not cry ‘Mine!'” Kuyper himself, in being both a statesman and a theologian, obviously lived out this idea. Thinking we would keep our faith in some religious or theological corner is-as we say-preposterous. But the reason Colson quoted Kuyper as often as he did was because the contrary idea had begun to find purchase in some Christian circles.
Part of this may be traced back to the 1960s, when the U.S. Supreme Court took prayer out of the public schools-but the problem is less this specific action than what it represented and portended. It was part of a general trend down a path that was fundamentally mistaken in its views of Jefferson’s famous “wall of separation” between church and state. Rather than protecting people of faith from government intrusion, as the Founders intended-which is of course the central idea of what we call religious liberty-the judiciary instead began to interpret it to mean that the public square should be stripped of faith entirely. The Reverend Richard John Neuhaus famously called this the creation of “the naked public square,” which was the perfect opposite of the Founders’ intentions. And it must be said emphatically that to secularize the public square is actually to impose upon it a religion of another kind, albeit in a way that very cleverly and dishonestly pretends not to be religious at all. But on matters that touch on the fundamentals of human existence, especially with regard to such institutions as marriage and the sanctity of life, we are inescapably dealing with religious issues. So to stand against the views of people of faith is-quite ironically but unavoidably-to take a distinctly “religious” view nonetheless, and to seek to impose it. And so the Supreme Court and the federal government, which are expressly forbidden from putting a thumb on the scales-but who are to allow the American people to exercise their wills to have freedom in all things-began to impose secular views. the justices did this most infamously when in 1973 they purported to discover in the Constitution a “right to abortion,” where of course none existed or ever could exist. In the decades since that time, they continued to drift farther beyond their ordained judicial orbit and have sometimes legislated unconstitutionally from the bench. So because the American people did not sufficiently see the dangers of this, and because Christian leaders did not speak out boldly, the drift toward an unconstitutional and secular view began to be enshrined in our laws and in our culture.
We must also go back to the mid-1950s to understand what happened. It was in 1954 that then Senator Lyndon Johnson introduced an amendment to the U.S. tax code prohibiting churches-and any other nonprofit organizations-from taking a public stand on political candidates. If anyone from a pulpit dared to endorse a candidate, that church’s tax exemption would be repealed. It is astonishing that pastors in America allowed this wild idea to go uncontested. In this they behaved rather like many of the submissive pastors in Germany two decades earlier. Of course, for American pastors to submit meekly to anything like this is far more shocking, given our own history of religious liberty and freedom of speech.
As a result of these and other events, a pall was cast over many churches, and faith over time began to be ‘privatized”-to recede from the public sphere and from being applied to issues that went beyond mere theology and personal pietism; and this erroneous view bcame increasingly normalized. But it is an inescapable and painful fact if the churches in America are not free to speak on any topic and in any way that they choose-and if they voluntarily go along with this view-then no one in America is truly free, and America herself has effectively ceased to exist.
We have to see just how outrageous it is that this has indeed happened. How could the government in putting forth the so-called “Johnson Amendment” dare to draw any lines around what could be said in a sermon-in which God’s own Word is to be delivered? What could conceivably be more deserving of complete freedom than that form-of all forms-of public speech? And if the conscience of the man of God in that pulpit would cause him to speak for or against a candidate, what is that to the U.S. government? In fact, it is none of its business.
Have we forgotten that pastors in the eighteenth century spoke boldly from their colonial pulpits against the tyranny of King George III, and opposed him by name? Was it not their voices that helped us to gain our freedoms and that helped us to create a Constitution in which all of our freedoms were enshrined in a way that has been the envy of the whole world ever since? Were pastors from their American pulpits in the nineteenth century not allowed to speak against those candidates who expressed racist and pro-slavery views? Did they not even have an obligation to educate their congregations on such things and to encourage them to choose leaders who shared God’s views? Finally, were pastors in the twentieth century not allowed to speak out against candidates who advocated for Jim Crow laws? Do we think they ought to have been?
This is no way for any Christian-much less a pastor-to parse what he may be ‘allowed” to say, and certainly not from the pulpit. It can only be God-and our consciences guided by Him-that can determine what we should and shouldn’t say. So our total freedom-in and beyond our pulpits-is nonnegotiable. The truth cannot be contained, and certainly not in categories that have been arbitrarily chosen and defined by others. So when did these pernicious ideas come into American churches?
Perhaps the more important question is: why did Christian leaders submit to these un-Christian and un-American ideas? And why are they submitting to them today? Have so many pastors today really forgotten that it is God who calls them to their posts, and God who fills their churches and keeps them filled? Have they forgotten what the Scriptures say: that if they honor God, He will honor them? Has keeping an eye on the bottom line and on the numbers in attendance caused them to drift away from the very reason God called them to the pulpit in the first place? Have they become like the leaders of American corporations, who have become especially cowardly and seem willing to say and do whatever someone advises them is necessary to avoid trouble and keep them from being “cancelled”?
Have the blessings we have in America made us so comfortable and so soft that we have forgotten that God expects us to serve Him with everything we have, and that if we are in leadership, He requires us to understand that our greater position of authority comes with even greater expectations? Of course, many American pastors probably never had this kind of heroic faith to begin with. And there are some who once had it, but who over time have lost their first love and drifted to that awful point at which they are in danger of judgment, just as the German Christians in the 1930s and just as the Christians in Ephesus in the first century were.
Will those among us who have lost our first love repent before it’s too late?
There are a host of reasons-and excuses-for the behavior of many pastors and Christian leaders, and we will touch on them as we go forward because many of them are the same reasons and excuses given by German pastors in the 1930s. But the language of many contemporary American Christians is different than that of the German pastors of the 1930s in one principal respect. The American Christians of our own time have taken to using the term “the Gospel” in a new way, as though by doing this they hope to set religious and theological issues apart from all else, as though this were possible. And so now, when many American church leaders shrink from taking a particular stand, they often say that they are doing so “for the sake of the Gospel.” It is “for the sake of the Gospel” that we will not contest these things, they say, that we will assiduously avoid taking sides in these terribly divisive “culture wars,” and will even more assiduously avoid being identified with any political party or candidate. The idea is that anything that might conceivably be accused of “being political” is manifestly out of bounds.
But how can we have come to this bizarre pass? If there are injustices done to our fellow Americans, are we not to protest and, if necessary, even fight politically for what is right, just as Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce did? When is speaking against injustice “merely political?? And when and how did “Gospel-related” issues retreat to where they can only be those issues of justice that fall on one side of the political spectrum? Are we to be hoodwinked so easily? Who decided that being political means we are not being “Gospel”-oriented?
Part of the problem is that times have changed. As James R. Wood well describes in a recent article in “First Things” magazine, titled “How I Evolved on Tim Keller”, the problem is not at all that wonderful pastors like New York’s Tim Keller were wrong in their assessments that we should avoid politics and culture-warring, but that a circumstances in our own culture changed, they eventually became wrong by sticking to a script that was no longer right for the time in which we found ourselves. Woods writes:
“keller’s ‘third way’ philosophy has serious limitations as a framework for moral reasoning as well. Too often it encourages in its adherents a pietistic impulse to keep one’s hands clean, stay above the fray, and at a distance from imperfect options for addressing complex social and political issues. It can also produce conflict-aversion, and thus it is instinctively accommodating. By always giving equal airtime to the flaws in every option, the third-way posture can also give the impression that the options are equally bad, failing to sufficiently recognize ethical asymmetry.”
As a result of such thinking, many have continued to believe that the approaches to the culture that worked in 1995 or 2005 must still work today. How one wishes that were true. But what worked then does not and cannot work anymore; and we are obliged to face this, just as the German Church was obliged to see that what worked under the Kaisers would not work under Adolf Hitler. The circumstances have changed, and we must adjust.
Of course, most Christian leaders have not seen the change and have not adjusted, but continue to act as though it is an unseemly betrayal of their calling to say anything that might open them to the accusation of being political. As we have mentioned, during the recent pandemic when churches were preposterously deemed “non-essential” by governors and mayors-while marijuana dispensaries and casinos and strip clubs remained open-many pastors behaved as though it was their Christian duty not to speak, as though this were the “winsome” way forward. When questionable medical procedures were being forced on their parishioners-some of which were manufactured with cells used from aborted babies-they meekly adopted the stance that it was the “Christ-like” thing to submit and not to fight, not even to mention such tremendously serious issues. This was a deeply disgraceful moment for the American Church.
Believers have always been called to speak the truth and to fight against injustice of any kind. As we have said, we are obliged courageously to bring our faith to bear on all issues.
The Church is called to speak out and to fight not just when the cause is fashionable-as with such causes as human trafficking-but also when it is unfashionable, and perhaps especially when it is unfashionable. If we do nothing when we see our culture being attacked in ways that will cause innumerable people to suffer, will not God hold us accountable? We are responsible to those suffering now, and to those in future generations. How can we let others-rather than our own consciences-dictate what we say and do?
God expects those who have a voice to speak out for those who do not-who most of all tend to be the poorest among us. So if we as Christians see Marxist policies being proposed and enacted-which we certainly know may crush the poor into the dust for generations-shall we be silent lest someone accuse us of being political, or worse, “a member of the Religious Right”? Is that all it takes for the forces of evil to crush the poor in our time? If I know that Critical Race Theory will divide our nation horribly and will destroy the fabric of society, am I to keep silent because someone will cynically call me a racist for raising my concerns? To remain silent because some will call us names and criticize us is simply to be cowardly, and constitutes a simple failure to trust God.
And what if standing with the disenfranchised and the poor also means standing with those who are lower-class whites? Will we step aside from doing so because this is unfashionable in some circles, or because someone might cynically call us “white supremacists?? Will we refrain from standing up for people of color who don’t toe the line of those who claim to represent them? We must once and forever stop pretending that speaking the truth on any of these issues means leaving the “Gospel” for politics and “culture warring.” We must declare what we know to be true. And part of what we must declare is that the secular leftists in America-and leftist in the Church too-have beco9me radically political and are cynically pretending that those who disagree with them are the ones being political. All truth is truth, and we are responsible to stand up and do what we can. What are we afraid of? If God be for us, who can be against us? Does that scripture no longer man what it once did? If we believe God demands we speak the truth as we see it for His purposes, how have we so easily let ourselves be turned aside into silence?
Because of all these things, where we are now in America could hardly be more dire. In some ways it is as though George Orwell had scripted it, except it is far stranger than anything he ever wrote; as if a pinata in the shape of Karl Marx has been beaten asunder and a confetti of new words and impossible-to-fathom concepts has fallen over everything. Suddenly the false, confusing, and wicked ideas that come from Critical Theory and “Transgender and Queer Theory” have not only erupted into culture but have been welcomed into many churches, whose leaders seem not to understand that the cultural Marxism from which these ideas derive is inherently atheistic and dedicatedly opposed to the God they claim to represent and serve. These ideas can never accord with the reality and order of the world that God has created. The proponents of these ideas are in fact at war with God and God’s reality, though of course they will hardly admit as much. But what concerns us far more than the cynical and confused proponents of these ideas is that many church leaders are afraid to stand against them. That is the central horror of our time.
What more needs to happen before Christian leaders see that things have changed? What more needs to happen for them to see that God calls them to stand and fight against the unfurling madness? Everywhere we see things we could not have imagined even a few years ago. Children have been subjected to unimaginably inappropriate ideas by teachers paid with our tax dollars, and their parents have even been told that their children’s learning is no concern of theirs and that the state will choose what and how they learn. This is Communism come to America. Can there be any other way to say it? Do we need to be reminded that no greater evangelist than Billy Graham himself spoke aggressively against Communism in the 1950s, knowing that it was the enemy of all God held dear-the enemy of God’s people and of God Himself? If the one man most famous in America for evangelism and for preaching the pure Gospel of Christ felt the need to speak so very boldly against the evil of Communism, how can we today fail to do at least the same when its horrors are falling upon us and our children in such measures as Dr. Graham hardly could have conceived?
Nonetheless, we have seen how many churches and church leaders hold back from speaking our acting. as we have said, during the COVID-19 pandemic, political figures decreed that churches were to be shuttered, and that the spiritual health of Americans was meaningless. If ever there was a shot heard round the world in our own time, that was it. But how many rallied to that cause and said, “We are obliged to keep our churches open? Not because we don’t care about the health of our parishioners, but precisely because we do, and because we know that their health is a more complicated thing than some are making it out to be. Our fidelity is to God, and we will bear whatever consequences may come. Here we stand, we can do no other.” How many Christian leaders spoke out in that way?
Some stood heroically, but the overwhelming majority did not. Although American Christians genuinely look to their leaders to help them face the evils being unleashed on them and their neighbors, most pastors were and continue to be as silent as church mice. Why? Will some of them at last now wake up and repent? Will some at last now begin to speak up-or will they forever hold their peace and invite the judgment that is sure to come?