It has been quite interesting to listen to the comments of various media personalities following the announcement that a new pope had been selected. Even as the cardinals were meeting to discuss and vote, the media had breathlessly speculated about what the new pope might be like, and all their speculation centered on his ethnicity and his social agenda. This sort of chatter seems completely irrelevant to the real work of the pope. The way things worked out, it appears that the cardinals did not consult the media for guidance in the process.
Nevertheless, undaunted, the media immediately began to press for an agenda from this pope. Since none has been announced, and likely none will be announced to the media, the press feels compelled to speculate. The most startling element of the conversation for people of faith is the suggestion that a new pope might act to alter fundamental church teachings that are, in the minds of reporters, out of touch with modern realities. The media often appears to believe that Christian teaching ought to be reshaped as the culture reshapes itself from time to time.
For example, since the culture in the US and the western world has improved the opportunity and freedom for women to wield power in the world of politics and business, the media constantly hammers on the fact that the Roman Catholic Church does not ordain women to the priesthood. Likewise, since there is a cultural move afoot to legitimize not only homosexual practices but to legalize homosexual unions as if they were marriages, the media seems to think that a new pope ought to be more open to these changes. In discussions of contraception, abortion and sterilization, the media constantly asks why the Church does not change its views since a majority of Catholics are believed not to comply with church teaching on these matters. The media treats the teachings of the Church as if they should be reviewed and revised and subject to a vote of the members at frequent intervals.
The Roman Catholic Church has a large membership, but it is far from the only Christian denomination. There are so many denominations because Christians don’t agree on all the fine points of theology. However, if asked, all Christians would agree that Christian teaching is not a matter subject to evaluation for customer satisfaction. Christian teachings are based on God’s revelation of himself and of certain absolute truths that cannot and will not be changed based on member opinions. Lutherans, for example,teach that Holy Scripture is the sufficient guide for faith and life. We mean that when we want to know how to live in a way that pleases God, we look in the Bible for guidance.
Some Christian individuals, some Christian churches, and some Christian denominations soften that view in practice, even though they may say that they hold the principle that the Bible is God’s sufficient guide for faith and life. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for example, publicly asserts the principle of the Bible’s sufficiency when, on its website, readers find this statement: This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life. Christians looking for a church home might take comfort in that assurance that the ELCA looks to the Bible for guidance in faith and life. When they find “A Social Statement on Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” on that same website they might again feel reassured of the biblical foundations of ELCA teaching when they read on page 10: As we determine how to love and serve the neighbor in a complex world, Lutherans rely on Scripture. Yet they must certainly pause on page 20 of the statement to read and reread in a state of confusion if not outright dismay: some are convinced that the scriptural witness does not address the context of sexual orientation and lifelong loving and committed relationships that we experience today. To put this statement in plain English: Lutherans of the twenty-first century know things about human beings that God forgot to put in the Bible when he inspired it back in the day.
ELCA Lutherans are not alone in their assertion that either the Bible is irrelevant on some subjects or that the plain meaning of the words in the Bible is not the meaning God wants us to understand from his revealed Word. There are a number of denominations, numerous churches and many individuals who have abandoned the Bible in favor of making sure the church is not in conflict with the culture on politically sensitive issues. Since Peter’s first sermon in Jerusalem Christians have been challenged to obey human preference rather than God’s revealed will. The conflict raged to a greater or lesser degree through ensuing centuries. Whatever the situation, however, Christ’s church has stood firm on the principle that the church’s teachings do not develop in the culture for the church to absorb when they mature. Rather, Christ’s church has listened to Christ and proclaimed Christ’s message, even when that message was a judgment on the culture. The church has thrived best when it stayed closest to Christ and his message. The sorriest days of the Christian church have been the days of collaboration with culture and/or government when the church sought popularity rather than truth.
The Catholic Church has not been immune to that temptation, and it has its own issues with cultural collaboration. In Mexico today there are churches where Catholicism has submerged itself in the indigenous cultures, barely sustaining any connection with the teachings of Christ. There are state churches in many countries which have become so thoroughly enmeshed in politics that it is hard to identify the church within the political garments. Thus, it is possible to understand why reporters might breathlessly ask communicants in St. Peters Square in Rome, “What is your greatest hope for this new pope?” and expect an answer such as, “more emphasis on women’s rights” or “he should stand up for marriage equality.”
Christians must not go along with this sort of thinking. Christians in the US have a civic obligation to participate in their government and in the conversations that shape public policy. However, their faith, not polls and cultural norms, must shape their views. Christians must put Christ ahead of their civic concerns, and they must follow his guidance as they act and speak on political issues. The founders of the nation expected and desired that individual citizens would follow their individual consciences in the discussion of public concerns. The founders considered the influence of churches in the culture to be a good thing, and they expected the moral and ethical discussions to include input from religious convictions of citizens. In fact, contrary to the common contemporary notion that the culture should shape the church, history demonstrates over and over that the founders believed the churches should shape the culture.
Christians all know that they must live “in” the world without becoming part “of” the world. It isn’t easy to do when the world is clamoring to know what Christians will do to make Christianity fit better within the culture.