The Voice of The Church in Society

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On November 18, 2013, Rev Karl Westerhof wrote a noteworthy article, entitled The Church and the Exercise of Non-Ecclesiastical Power, on the Elder's Network. The article broached the important but nettlesome subject of the place the (institutional) Church in contemporary society. Westerhof refers to the Sphere Sovereignty  views of Abraham Kuyper; he also points to the Manual of CRC Government (2008, p. 123) and the CRC Church Order Commentary by Dr. Henry De Moor. Those sources seem to endorse the notion that denominational governance must deal only with ecclesiastical matters – and not interact with societal institutions. Westerhof cannot fully abide that view. He states: “Denominations are institutions and as such are endlessly intertwined with other cultures in society and do exercise influence and and power.”

The purpose today is to invite the readers of the Elder’s Network to continue this discussion. It's a matter of importance! On the one hand we must not fall into the trap of the Social Gospel movement. On the other hand we all came to realize that the Christian church in Germany did not speak prophetically during Hitler's infamous days. Can the Christian church afford not to address the great moral issues of society? But I also realize that addressing some of society's problems and concerns is a daunting task, both with respect to the content and the manner.

Let me introduce another contributor to the Elders' Network– though he is not aware of it just now. He is none other than Dr. Steve Timmermans, who will appear before to this summer's CRC Synod to be confirmed as the next Executive Director of the Christian Reformed ChurchTimmermans, who is currently the President of Trinity Christian College near Chicago, was interviewed by the Grand Rapids Press. This is how he was quoted in the issue of April 8– his remarks touch upon the above matters– “Society has changed greatly. Our churches are existing in a sea of change.”  In response to the interviewer's question, “... how the church can be relevant to society in 2014?” he responded: “I do think that people are searching for what's meaningful in life, and I believe that the only answer is faith. We're going to have to learn to use our voice in new ways in contemporary society.”

What will it mean for the CRC to use our voice in new ways in contemporary society? 

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The Church should be relevant by loving God and being a good neighbor.  The. Church as no other public leadership roll unless asked to comment/testify as a qualified witness. The members of the church should participate as private citizens as led by the Holy Spirit. That is what "separation of Church and State" should mean.

It would be interesting to know if there is such a thing as "new ways".  The only answer is faith, he says, but that is quite general and might be misunderstood.  There are many faiths, and even the devils believe (and tremble).   The real only answer is Christ as the son of God, his death and resurrection.  (Probably that's what Timmermans meant by "faith", but many others could misunderstand).

To speak in new ways... what does that mean?  like the pacifists who refused to fight in the army?  like the hutterites who isolated themselves?  like the sphere sovereignty people who want to separate church and state and education and business from each other?  Like the social gospel people who wanted to be good samaritans without being christ followers?  Like the soul winners who ignored poverty?  or like the soul winners who ignored personal christian morality?

Whether new or not, perhaps the church should concentrate on not compromising, and follow the example of Daniel and his friends at the expected expense of their life.  The deacon Stephen who preached an unpleasant message and died for it.   Like Peter and Paul and early christians who would not offer sacrifice to Ceasar.   Like those who would obey God rather than men.  And the church grew greatly at that time.   Maybe not new, but in this day and age, maybe it is new.

We have christian schools in Alberta that have been there since the 1950s.  But as time went on, they began to yearn for the provincial dollar, believing they had a right to it.  I think they do have a right to it, but how easy will it be to maintain christian education once governments impose their value system on the christian school under the threat of removing funding?  It will be interesting to see whether the school retains both its funding and  its right to speak against homosex, or premarital sex, or adultery, as the state maintains the supposed human rights to equal treatment for all.   Likewise the compromises that churches engage in have a great danger of killing them slowly as they attempt to honor Christ without sacrifice.

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I'd like to affirm what is expressed in this article that to continue this discussion is a matter of importance! As Jesus was sent into the world, so are we, his followers and representatives. His life is a good example of engagement with the culture around him, rendering both unto Caesar and unto God, each his due. I've thought about this question as it relates to Safe Church Ministry. There are those who would say that we need not be concerned about abuse which takes place outside our church walls, or abuse that doesn't involve a church leader in a situation of legal liability. What concern is that of ours? Isn't having a safe church policy enough? My answer is no. I would say that our churches are filled with people who have been hurt by abuse (one study states that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men have suffered interpersonal violence in their lives - that's a lot of people. They are wounded; they are in our churches). We are the very body of Christ. When one part is wounded, the whole body suffers. We are not what we could be because of it. It seems right to me that the church not only offer support and healing to those who are wounded, but also stand with those who are working toward an end to all abuse, abuse that is hurting our church, and all of us. It's interesting to consider the civil rights movement or the anti-slavery movement. These were fraught with conflict in the church, both sides using the Bible to either uphold the status quo, or call the world (the world, not just the church) to a new understanding. These movements were championed by people of Christian faith; that makes perfect sense to me.

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I'm wondering if it is so easy to discern what ecclesiastical matters are and are not.  Karl mention s racial relations for example.  Certainly this could not mean that the church does not have the expertise to declare apartheid a sin which we did.  It might mean that the church could not declare the KKK an association to which a Christian might belong or could it since we seem to know that Christians may not belong to lodges.  It seems that a sermon on racial relations is demanded by the scriptures. How would love the Lord your God with all your heart mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself not speak to racial relations as well as other relations.  Justice is also difficult.  The Bible is clear that God hates injustice.  The church surely could not advocate injustice. Amos was convinced that "skimping the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales" was wrong no matter what sphere we might be talking about.  He felt compelled to say in the name of God "let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream."  Granted we do not know exactly what he meant by justice here but if we ever found such a thing it would be incombent on the church to speak out against it regardless of sphere sovereignty.  The law of God transcends spheres. How else could we be in the politics of abortion? What about fair wages?  The Bible says God is for it and that people who failed to pay the workmen who mowed their fields are in danger of God's judgment.  The CRCNA would be derelict if it did not say at least this much.  Right? I do fear that sphere sovereignty can be a barrier to speaking out on moral and ethical issues.  It provides cover for the church and its leaders. It does function as a useful tool in making decisions that are not clearly supported by scripture and the creeds.

Bonnie and Larry and Bill are making good points.   Sphere sovereignty does not mean that one sphere does not interract or influence another.  Sphere sovereignty means that the church does not run or operate the state, and that the state does not appoint preachers or elders, and that neither the church nor the state should operate business nor daily education.   At that level, private citizens, perhaps influenced by their church and their education, would operate the state, their business, and their schools.  It is impossible to avoid interaction, since the state will have to decide whether to tax churches or exempt them.  The state will at minimum have to facilitate education if private citizens are not doing it adequately.  

But it is true that scripture does speak to poverty, justice, fairness, and if the church speaks the gospel, it is difficult to see why it would exclude some issues from its purview.  (Should the church be in the business of deciding on appropriate tradeoffs politically? ie. trading abortion for healthcare?)  On the other hand, the tendency of the church is often to latch on to issues which society finds popular.  In that case, scripture is merely being used as a cover or justification for involvement.  Women in office and environmental issues are particularly relevant here.  Was greenpeace the result of scriptural preaching or something else?   Were all the scriptural advocacy for women in office not relevant for 1900 years?  

While the church could speak on many issues, it should recognize that in the eyes of the world, its opinion on these issues will not often bring people to Christ, especially if it has the same position as the world.   It will merely lull people to placidity, since they will not be challenged by the gospel.  While Jesus did say to give to Ceasar what is ceasar's and to God what is God's, it was not until denying Ceasar what he thought was his, that the gospel took on real significance.  

The church needs to be extremely cautious when taking a stand on contentious issues because it can be highly destructive. In 2012 we took a corporate stand on Global warming.

Now, we have liberal Democrats insisting that pastors preach on the topic. And when they do, conservative Republicans are squirming in the pews because they believe most of it is based on a hoax to make Al Gore richer. But during the sermon there is no format to voice an objection. So alienation is the result.

By raising the profile of Global Warming in our churches, we have shattered the intimacy of conversations between Christians because we do not want to offend each other. We are walking on egg shells rather than enjoying the communion of the saints. In such an atmosphere of tension, we only talk to those who agree with us and avoid interacting with any others. Doing church becomes something to be avoided rather than embraced.

And finally, when a significant portion of the membership finds itself in disagreement with the stand of the denomination, the support of Ministry Shares becomes a lower priority. In some cases it may be a deliberate effort to starve our Denominational Offices, but more likely it is hard to support something one feels is wrong and so begins the effort to find other Kingdom causes. And our support of Missionaries drops to 10%.

This has been the cost to the CRCNA as a result of the vote in 2012 so far and it continues to reek havoc within our congregations. Yet we persist.

Why not focus on those things we have in common, like our love for our Lord and our passion to witness to that love.