In 1927, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned, “the sort of friendliness between Church and society that we have cultivated in the past, especially in Germany, is actually the cause of the Church’s increasing irrelevance.” He could say the same thing about churches in the twenty-first century. Only a couple of weeks ago the Presbyterian Church USA abandoned God’s teaching about marriage and family, acceding to political and social pressure by redefining marriage as a union of two persons, who may be of the same or different genders. This change cannot be explained by any new revelations from God. It can only be explained by a decision to put popularity ahead of faith.
Every day we see political leaders cave in to cultural pressure, and even though we deplore it, we expect it of them. However, when leaders of our churches do the same thing, it is much more than deplorable. It feels like treason.
Christian leaders have an important calling, and at the center is Jesus’ command to teach disciples “everything I have commanded you.” When Christian leaders abandon the Bible, the things Jesus taught, and begin to teach that the moral principles in it are outdated, or obsolete, their followers have good reason to be dismayed. Worse, as Bonhoeffer pointed out nearly a hundred years ago, the world at large thinks it sees in such behavior something it always suspected. It thinks that all those old rules were just power plays anyway, and the unprincipled abandonment of biblical teaching looks like an admission that the Bible is not very important after all. It looks as if the leaders are admitting that God really did not make those rules; people did, and they did it as a power trip, not a principle.
Not every Christian leader has abandoned ship. When Bonhoeffer saw what was happening between the Church and the Nazi government of Germany, he spoke out and acted on his understanding that such cooperation and collaboration was ungodly. He paid the ultimate price for his commitment to God and the Bible. There are Christian leaders in the USA who, like Bonhoeffer, refuse to belly up to the government trough, and they refuse to go along to get along. They stand out when they speak in opposition to calling a union of gay men a marriage. They are accused of complete lack of love when they call illegal aliens illegal. They are scorned for their unwillingness to take government restrictions along with government money in their charitable endeavors. They are belittled for a lack of intellect when they refuse to attend or promote interfaith conferences to discuss the “many ways” to God. They are mocked for asserting that God is the God of life, not death, as they counsel pregnant women to turn away from abortion.
The bottom line is that churches are becoming sideshows in the eyes of the population. This misconception is largely due to the ignorance of media types who breathlessly ask if a new pope will move away from the Catholic Church’s antiquated views on abortion. However, media types will not learn what Christ’s church really is from public speakers such as Joel Osteen, who declares that God wants everyone to be rich. They can only learn what the church is from preachers who say that Jesus is the only way or that the Bible is God’s ultimate truth.
The culture does not like anything old, and that is the problem with churches in general. They promote an old idea—Jesus is the only way to God. They promote an old book—the Bible, whose oldest texts root in a past whose distance from today is not known with any certainty. The culture believes that to teach that Jesus is the only way to God is selfish and discriminates unfairly against other religions. The culture further believes that the Bible is a dusty old book about ancient people. In the culture, it is important for all religions to be equal, just as all pay should be equal, all housing and health care should be equal, and marriage should be equal. The basis for all this equality is a line of thought that says humans have evolved into better beings than they were two or three or four thousand years ago. The culture declares that the evolution of humans today makes them wiser than the ancients, and this generation believes that it is actually capable of ending all the evil that defeated past generations. The fact that evil continues today is said to be evidence that God does not exist and churches are irrelevant.
Sadly, many churches feel threatened by the culture, so threatened that they have relinquished everything that used to make them relevant and valuable to the culture. They have sold the moral and ethical teachings about life and truth and God himself for approval in the press. They have rephrased their “theology” to accommodate the public perception that the God who was good enough for ancient people simply cannot handle today’s more nuanced understanding of truth.
What is the consequence of this change? Is the world a better place because churches have shut up and let the political agenda rule the day? There is no evidence to support that conclusion. Evil continues in all its many forms. Conflict of every sort burgeons in suicides, divorce, murder, political rancor, and international wars. The whole idea of family is being crushed under the heavy boot of activism, political and social. Churches that have abandoned the Bible and no longer consider Christ to be the way to God have nothing to say to people who confront evil in its many forms. These churches have become truly irrelevant. They have accommodated themselves completely out of the picture. These churches will become museums that house ancient rituals and art, or they will become nothing more than atheist gatherings where the word God is truly nothing more than whatever you conceive that to be. The myth of human progress, embodied in so-called “progressive” thought, whether political, social, or religious, has nothing with which to arm humankind against evil.
Martin Luther wrote, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” At the time, he wrote those words, he knew from faith and experience that Jesus is “the way,” not “a way.” He revered the Bible as God’s word to humankind, a guide for faith and life. Martin Luther knew the Church to be relevant and powerful in the fight against evil. It is worthwhile to contemplate what he had to say and to consider how these words still are relevant today:
1. A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
doth seek to work us woe;
his craft and power are great,
and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.
2. Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right man on our side,
the man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth, his name,
from age to age the same,
and he must win the battle.
Hymn text by Martin Luther, from http://www.hymnsite.com/lyrics/umh110.sht