The Gospel and Social Justice: Concluding Thoughts on Pope Francis’ visit to the United States

IMG_0513Steve Skojec, writing in opposition to Pope Francis’ calls for action on climate change and social justice, did a wonderful job of summarizing the core of the opposition to the Pope’s message: stop focusing so much on social justice and instead focus on salvation. Or, to quote from Skojec;

As Thursday’s congressional address emphasized, however, Francis’ priorities are climate change, economic justice, marginalization and the poor, while little emphasis is placed on the deep moral and spiritual crisis that threatens our eternal salvation or our subsequent need for authentic conversion.

According to him, and others, it would be better for the Pope and Christians universal if they instead tried to get people to convert. While it’s okay to feed the poor and advocate for climate change, it’s only okay so long as we’re using such things to “preach the Gospel.” Otherwise, such actions are merely indicative of a glorified NGO.

We’re told that the purpose of the Church isn’t to be some humanitarian organization, but to “save souls,” completely ignoring 2,000 years of teachings, handed-down wisdom, and theology that teaches us there is no difference between the two. After all, when Christ stated the two greatest commandments, they boiled down to, “Love God and love your neighbor.” Those are vague enough to allow us to display that love in unique ways, but strict enough to tell us that love should be the drive in all that we do. Within these commandments, and within Christ’s own teachings and actions, we never see a hierarchy of what constitutes “love,” that one action involves a greater act of love than the other (short of self-sacrifice).

The problem, or so it seems, is that too many Christians hold this idea that the Gospel is ultimately about doing what we should in order to get to heaven. What we should do in order to obtain heaven differs from denomination to denomination, but the ultimate motive behind salvation tends to be, “What must I do to go to Heaven?” Of course, within Christ’s own teachings there is never a dichotomy placed between “being saved” and “social justice.” For Christ there seems to be a both/and aspect to salvation, that preaching the Gospel entails both advocating for social justice and for repentance.

In fact, the criticisms of the modern Pope on his calls for social justice are really a repudiation of millennia of Church teachings. Trust me, as someone who is Eastern Orthodox I do have criticisms of the Papal office, I do have issues with their theology – there is a reason that I’m Orthodox and not Roman Catholic – but those criticisms do not extend to his teachings on social justice. Such criticisms show a lack of imagination and historical understanding in attempting to separate the Gospel from social justice. The two, per Christ’s own example and teachings, are one in the same.

Acting as though salvation is about getting to Heaven (or getting right with God), or primarily about such things is no different than acting as though marriage is all about sex, or primarily about sex. Salvation, like marriage, is about a life-altering relationship that will impact every single aspect of your life. In return, it forces you to change how you view and interact with the world, realizing that some will come to salvation not through the booming cadence of the preacher, but through the quiet actions of love.

Certainly, turning from sin is an important thing as it is a form of liberation. But if we cannot move to liberate people from their current troubles, then what hope can we offer for liberation from sin? What is hunger compared to sin? Yet, if we cannot feed people now, if we cannot eradicate their physical hunger, how can we possibly hope to feed their spiritual hunger? Feeding the poor is the Gospel, because the action fits the immediate need while pointing to a future where hunger will not exist. Advocating change against climate change – a change that is harming humans – is preaching the Gospel, because we’re following in Christ’s footsteps by calling for Heaven here on earth, and in heaven there won’t be overconsumption and abuse of resources. All actions by Christians always hold both an immediate meaning and a deeper meaning (much like Scripture). Christians are to always preach the Gospel, sometimes with words, but always with deeds. If we follow the example of Christ, then we’ll find it impossible to place a barrier between the Gospel and social justice; for how can you have one without the other?


The Idealization of Marriage: A Response to Joanna Moorhead


Lest the Church should become too enraptured by the way things ought to be, Joanna Moorhead calls for its leaders to remember that real life sucks.

In a recent edition of TheTablet* Ms. Moorhead criticized the, “sepia-tinted movie version,” of marriage depicted by a series of videos produced by the Vatican.  She berates the films for portraying a naive and idealistic picture of marriage.  “The truth about real-life marriage,” she insists,

is that very often marriage is far from happy.  Most unions start, like the wedding scenes within the films, on a positive, upbeat note: the participants feel connected; together, ‘two become one‘ as one of the couples getting married [in the videos] puts it.  All is well and happy and right in their world.  But then–after a few weeks in some cases, a few months or years in others–come the trials, the difficulties, the disappointments, the surprises.  No marriage is without these ructions: there are no perfect marriages outside of Hollywood, or perhaps outside of the Vatican, where marriage only exists as a concept anyway.

Ms. Moorhead’s diatribe suggests that the Vatican is out of touch with reality, and insensitive to the real life struggles of regular people.  Discussing and promulgating information about the essence of marriage–depicting how things ought to be–only reenforces how detached the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is.  In short, she thinks the Vatican is frolicking in the idealistic world of make-believe and has forgotten that we common folk struggle and toil with the realities of real life (which is messy and disappointing).

But what type of videos would Ms. Moorhead have the Vatican produce?  Should they have hired Quentin Tarantino to direct a gritty short film about an abusive husband beating his wife (complete with blood splats on the camera lens)?  Or perhaps the producers of Fifty Shades of Grey to make a sensuous film about a woman caught in adultery?  The writers of Coronation Street could have created a soap opera about a young couple, savagely arguing over a utility bill, who divorce after a drawn out and painfully mundane court battle.  Or, in true Hollywood style, they might have produced a special effects driven remake of the 90’s thriller Sleeping With the Enemy . . . 

You see, Ms. Moorhead is right.  Real life is tragic; it’s full of struggle and toil and pain and suffering and sadness and heartbreak.  We’re all painfully aware that the actual world is not the ideal world that we long for.  But where, in this mixed up, dysfunctional, relativistic, utilitarian muddle of Western culture can we look to see how things ought to be?

Of all places, we should be able to look to the Church!

In spite of Ms. Moorhead’s pessimism, the Vatican understands the unfortunate condition of real life all too well.  Which is precisely why they have produced the films she so cynically mocks.  In a society in which it is extremely difficult to find happy, healthy, long-lasting, monogamous relationships–in a world struggling to understand what marriage is–it is absolutely necessary to depict the ideal.  It is precisely because the world is detached from the Truth and wallowing in a nightmare of its own making that the Church must portray marriage as it ought to be.

In real life people lie, cheat, murder, and steal.  Yet, when rearing our children, we don’t (one would hope) fail to teach them the way things ought to be.  We don’t, on account of the facts of real life, fail to teach them it is wrong to lie, cheat, murder, and steal or fail to encourage them to live a life of virtue.  We instill in our children moral values–ideals–so that they might live successful and healthy lives. We know that living out these ideals can be quite difficult; but we instill them nonetheless.

Likewise, the Church lovingly teaches its children what marriage is and shows them how it ought to look; it idealizes marriage knowing full well that it is not, “straightforward, or easy, or cozy, or even harmonious, in its living-out.”  But, if we pay attention to the teaching of the Church on marriage and sexuality, in spite of the difficulties we face, we may find our marriages looking closer to the idealization that Ms. Moorhead holds with such contempt.

*The article in question was published in the November edition of the monthly magazine.

Words and Scripture

Words as signs

One of the jobs and (occasionally) joys of thinking philosophically is to recognize the things that are overlooked; it is to recognize the forgotten; to highlight the “obvious”. Indeed this is true when considering the nature of our communication. We are a speaking species, and we use a most unique method to communicate with one another: words. No other species we know of uses words as an essential component of their interaction and being. We begin using words as quickly as our parents can make us, and it’s truly a necessary means of adjoining one mind to another and ultimately of forming society.

Every sentient species, or most at least, can communicate with others in some way. They use vocalizations, gestures, or some other means specific to their nature. For humans, our use of words are actually a use of signs: things that point to other things or realities. Indeed, they are a special class of signs that we created and may be thought of as conventional (as opposed to natural); language is natural, but the specific words that inhere are formed by us. As St. Augustine describes in his work On Christian Doctrine, words are used for “drawing forth and conveying into another’s mind what the giver of the sign has in his own mind” (Book II, Ch. 2). For instance, when one uses the word “horse” in conversing with another they are using that sign to point to the animal John Wayne rides on the Silver Screen. Words, in a similar way to thoughts, are intentional, and aim at some other thing.

As is evident, there are two modes of communicating via words, that being speaking and writing. Speech is of course when one vocalizes words normally to be heard by another, a hearer. The spoken word is one that comes in and out being rather swiftly, unless we have utilized some technology to record the moment. The written word is precisely the original technological innovation to do just that; however because it lacks the presence of the speaker and the auxiliary conveyance inherent in personal interaction it can be a more complex phenomenon. As it often transcends the paradigm in which it was etched, and can be read long after the author is gone, it adds further dimensions of concern for a reader. Beyond just knowing the language, the reader must deal with translations, foreign allusions, historical circumstances that illuminate meaning and the like.

But the purpose in using speech and the written word are the same: to allow the hearer or reader to grasp the meaning of the speaker or writer. One has to recognize the word-sign, and that directs him to the object or reality being addressed; in other words, there are two components that the hearer or reader must get in order to get the meaning of a statement: the sign and the thing-pointed-to. We can say there has been a successful communication when the receiver has recognized both. To utilize our example above, if someone says the word “horse”, in order to understand them we must know that “horse” is a sign that points to the four legged, long haired, apple-eating, seemingly complaisant man-carrier.

Because this is where the crux lies, if there is a mistake in either case the hearer or reader will suffer ignorance. For instance, if when the speaker uses the word “horse”, and the hearer recognizes the sign but has a quite insufficient knowledge of the thing-pointed-to, he will adopt or employ a false view. If his knowledge of horses is only gleaned from the Hollywood, he might arrive at the conclusion that horses are eagerly disposed from birth to be saddled and directed by man. But this, of course, is only achieved with great effort and time, with a taming of their nature. Under normal circumstances, his concept of a horse can be corrected by some equine expert or investigated via regular avenues of human reason. Also his ignorance probably doesn’t have much bearing on his livelihood.

Sacred Scripture

With these thoughts in mind, how does it impact our thinking about something that purportedly does have great impact on one’s livelihood? Sacred Scripture is recognized by Christians to be the inspired testimony of the Incarnation and full of the teachings of Christ and His Apostles; if that’s true, one’s understanding of Scripture might make an eternal difference. It is also claimed to be inerrant in its revealed truth concerning the Faith. Knowing what it means would seem to be of the utmost import.

Obviously it is composed of words, which means that if the above analysis is correct, there are at least two things the reader must recognize to come to an understanding. They must recognize the word itself, and the object it points to. They must interpret the signs on the page, and call to mind the realities or things pointed to. How can one know if they are interpreting the sign correctly, calling to mind to right thing-pointed-to, and if they understand the nature of the thing-pointed-to? Who has the authority to correct one’s interpretation, or one’s understanding?

Logically there seems to be these possibilities:

  • The individual himself
  • A learned individual (an expert or scholar)
  • A group of individuals (or a group of experts)
  • Some other entity that is particularly authorized to perform that role

For an individual to be the authority of determining the meaning, he will inevitably suffer from subjectivism, and tends towards solipsism. In this case, the individual who believes that horses are not born wild and untrained but domesticated has the authority to overrule reality. If he has the authority to think whatever he wants about the sign and the thing-pointed-to, he seems to be inconsonant with the demands of objective truth. He is wrong, but he “makes” himself right. The nature of something that is true objectively is that in order for one to recognize it, they must conform their minds to it, not vice-versa. Further, if two individuals read the same text and form two contradictory notions, they cannot both be right. The principle of non-contradiction, which underlies not only our minds but all of reality, would be overridden. This literally means the end of truth itself.

What about the situation with the imperfect understanding of a horse? We said an individual could perfect their concept via rational investigation to overcome their ignorance. Why not here in the case of Sacred Scripture? The difference lies in the fact that knowledge of horses is inherently something that can be discovered via human reason, while the objects of faith are beyond our rational penetration. The whole point of revealed truth is that we cannot come to know it on our own. We also said above that the equine-challenged person could consult an equine expert to correct his knowledge. Is this appeal to experts possible in the realm of understanding Scripture?

There are certainly many who are educated in the necessary fields to read Sacred Scripture well. They have mastered the ancient languages, and other disciplines required to read the texts how they were intended by the author. There is not doubt these skills are very helpful, and ultimately necessary to achieve understanding. As most will agree, the historical-critical method of Scriptural scholarship has yielded great return on better understanding the historical paradigm and intricacies therein. However, it is also true that no amount of education can overcome the limitations of the individual; hard as we try, we cannot become omniscient nor experts beyond a fault. Scholars are notoriously divided on essentially every issue they undertake to in study in history, philosophy, and even the physical sciences. The authority they would exercise in the matter would at root be tainted by the same problems as the above case. They would perhaps trip over higher-level issues, but trip they would (and do). In other words, while the expert has a good shot of recognizing the word-signs correctly in Sacred Scripture, they cannot be guaranteed of recognizing the thing-pointed-to.

What about a group of individuals? Can “strength in numbers” provide a basis of how to understand the meaning of Sacred Scripture? We know that individuals, whether learned or not, are not in the position of determining the meaning because they inevitably impose their own limitations on its meaning. But perhaps a group or majority of people can correct the problems one might have on their own? This seems to be a better option, because it does cohere with how we treat other disciplines. Science, history, philosophy, mathematics and others have their way of referring to their community in order to justify results, and that can head off implicit blunder or even aid in critical breakthroughs. However, if we notice, we have already undercut this option. While the democratic principle is useful to recognize how most people think, or even to correct errors in certain cases, it is in principle incapable of being a criterion for truth. If the majority believes something, that doesn’t make it true. We can list countless examples of the predominance of a given idea that was later proved to be false, or can be logically shown to be so. If sixty percent of Americans believe that two and two equal three, that doesn’t make it so; even if they think it is four, that doesn’t make it so.

If these options for safeguarding one’s interpretation from error are lacking, is there an entity that is capable of doing so? Is there a mechanism or authority that doesn’t suffer the limitations of the individual or groups of individuals? It would have to be something that is specially formed or accredited to avoid error in interpreting the meaning of Scripture. If there is objective truth to be had there, it seems the answer is yes. If the Church is what she purports to be, then that is obviously the suitable authority. She has the capability to adjudicate between disputes about the word-signs and the object or realities pointed to. This doesn’t imply that the mysteries of the Faith will be resolved or explained away, but precisely that they won’t. Nor does it imply the Church is right about everything, but only about the content of the Faith and deductions from it. Many Christians will agree with this, though there may by some disagreement about the nature of the Church. That is a discussion for another post, perhaps.

So far I’ve tried to suggest that it is in the nature of words to require a hearer or reader to interpret them in order to comprehend them; that they are signs that require one to recognize both the sign itself and that which it points to. In order to come to an understanding when dealing with words, one must be correct on both counts. In normal cases, this requirement can be met by abilities to gain knowledge and perfect our concepts through experience and reasoning. However, it is precisely not possible in the case of Revelation because it is in principle beyond our reason; it can be explored by reason but not attained by it. This means there must be some kind of authority in order to correct our interpretations if they are wrong or are lacking. It cannot be individuals, scholars, or majorities because all appear lacking in their competency. In the end, it seems the only way to safeguard the objective truth contained within Scripture is if there is some entity specially equipped to correct us. This entity seems to be the Church.

A Caution for Every Christian Who Eats Fast Food

I was inspired to write this post after reading Pastor Nathan Rouse’ article, A Caution for Every Christian that Drinks Alcohol.  I don’t think he took his argument far enough  . . .

caught in the act . . .

caught in the act . . .

Something unhealthy has crept into the American church and it’s quite distressing.  Many Christians have allowed themselves to take eating fast food lightly.  Now, before you start throwing your empty hamburger wrappers at me, let me be clear:  I don’t believe eating fast food is a sin (in spite of the fact that doing it might very well send thousands of people into Hell).  Of course, gluttony is a sin; and let’s be clear, obesity is one of the biggest killers in our society and continues to take a destructive toll on marriages and families.

But, there’s an even bigger problem!

The often overlooked sin rearing its ugly head are Christians openly displaying their love and consumption of fast food to those around them in public and on social media, when there are many around them who struggle with this temptation and addiction.

the face of evil . . .

the face of evil . . .

The Apostle Paul addressed this same issue in his day when the Christians in Corinth argued over whether or not they could eat meat sacrificed to idols.  Paul clearly stated that, even though they had the freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols, they should be sensible enough not to eat it in front of those who struggled with this practice.  Check it out for yourself (there is absolutely no possible way to misinterpret or misapply this passage of scripture):

“Only take care lest this liberty of yours [in our case, eating fast food] somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.  For if any one sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol’s temple [a.k.a McDonalds], might he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols [i.e. a Big Mac]?”  (1 Corinthians 8:9-10)

What this means is this: shame on you when you share pictures on Facebook of you enjoying a juicy hamburger!  

Now, before you say you only eat fast food with others that are like minded or with your spouse, let me ask you the following questions:

  1. Do you highlight or joke about your french fries in person or on social media (posting pictures like this one on the world wide web for all to see)?
does this tempt you?

does this tempt you?

2. Do you eat your fast food in public when there’s a good chance you might bump into someone who struggles with gluttony (oh, and believe me, you will)?

Whether you like it or not, people are watching you . . . oh yes, they are always watching you . . . and holding you to the highest possible standard.  Therefore, you should never ever, upon any circumstances, do anything.  The goal of the Christian is to be a people pleaser–we never want anyone to get the wrong idea.  One false step could be fatal!  Eating a french fry could be the straw that breaks the camels back!  Consider this scenario:

Billy (a Christian) orders a value meal from McDonalds and decides to eat it in the restaurant.  Michael (who struggled with gluttony for years, had a gastric bypass, and lost 400 pounds) walks by and sees Billy taking a bite of his hamburger.  This tempts Michael who enters McDonalds, orders a meal, and falls, head long, into the never ending pit of overconsumption.  In three months, Michael finds himself, once again, struggling with obesity . . . and it’s all your fault!  How could you be so heartless?

Do you love fast food so much that you are willing to undermine your Christian witness?  Do you love your “freedom” so much that you could care less how it affects another brother or sister?  Do  you realize that anything you do in public could send someone spiraling out of control?

Be afraid . . . be very afraid . . . and, in the future, order Chinese and have it delivered directly to your home (then, secretly, and privately, consume the food).

Real Persecution or, Being Kicked Off a TV Show Doesn’t Count

syrian christiansIn my last post, I pointed out that while what Phil Robertson is facing isn’t persecution, it does betray that our nation cannot handle disagreement and has bought full-force into the secular/sacred divide, believing that Christians ought to just shut up and keep their religion confined to Sunday mornings.

What Phil is facing is hardly persecution; he is suspended by the network for a moral teaching of Christianity, not the heart of the Gospel itself. Likewise, the Network hasn’t said if it’s what he said or how he said it (specifically the crude manner). After all, The Advocate, a magazine dedicated to homosexual views and issues, named Pope Francis as the “person of the year.” Phil essentially said the same thing the Pope did, albeit in a much less tactful manner. In other words, how Phil stated his opinion is as much to blame for the outcry as is that he said it.

What is more troubling, however, is how Christians are up in a firestorm over this, going out and purchasing “Duck Dynasty” merchandise and creating a multitude of “I support Phil groups.” In fact, there are already a multitude of such groups, one numbering nearly 800,000 and another numbering 300,000, with smaller ones well into 50-60,000. Yet, if you look for groups that “stand with Syrian Christians” or even pay attention to the massacres occurring over in Christianity’s homeland, the biggest group has around 4,000 followers.

Of course, Facebook “likes” and followers hardly account for actions. Consider, however, that Walmart sold out of Duck Dynasty merchandise shortly after the controversy began. Christians turned their outrage into action and are continuing to do so, threatening boycotts, “buycotts,” and all sorts of things. Yet, when it comes to the actual persecution faced by Christians overseas, persecution caused at the hands of the US tax payer-backed rebels in Syria, there’s nothing. Christians have not taken to the streets in protest. They have not embarked upon a campaign of writing to congressmen and the President. They are not preaching from the pulpit this Sunday, as most certainly the Duck Dynasty fiasco will be the centerpiece of at least a few sermons.

Syrian Christians face extinction. When we read about Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, we must note that he was on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians who were already there. Within the first few months of Christ’s resurrection, Christianity made its way to Damascus. Many of the earliest Church Fathers, writers, and even New Testament characters took place or were from modern Syria. One cannot think of Christianity is a proper historical sense without also thinking of Syria. Yet, after 2,000 years of existence, Christianity faces its greatest threat in that region. Think, for a moment, of what persecutions Christians have faced in that area. The Roman persecutions, the Islamic persecutions, even persecutions caused by the Crusaders; yet, more Christians have faced death, Christianity has faced its greatest regional threat in the modern day than in 2,000 years of almost continuous persecution. Our brothers and sisters in Syria are facing their greatest threat ever, yet the Church in the West remains silent.

Perhaps we should have Patriarch John X of Antioch interviewed by GQ wherein he can state his opinion on homosexuality. Perhaps GLAAD will be kind enough as to raise an objection, causing Christians to turn their attention to someone who is really persecuted. While blood is not necessary for persecution, blood always signals that persecution is occurring in full-swing, and Syrian Christians have spilled blood. They haven’t lost lucrative television contracts, they haven’t had nasty articles written about them, they haven’t been called names; they’ve been murdered, placed in mass graves, and beaten until forced to leave.

Where is the Christian outrage over their deaths, especially when these deaths are backed, supported, and paid for with our money? If the US government helped pay for A&E to cut ties with the Robertson clan, I assume there would be protests in the streets and cries for senators and even the president to step out. The backlash would be beyond comparison. Yet, for Christians facing real persecution there is relative silence. It is a shame and betrays how ethnocentric and selfish Christians in America have become.

For those who do feel like they want to help, for those who truly desire to help Syrian Christians outlast this persecution, here are a few things you can do:

  1. Pray – prayer is not overrated or outdated. For those who cannot give, for those who cannot help, for those who cannot write, prayer is the option. It is the giving of time, of thoughts, of actions. It is what united us to God and with others who pray for a common cause. Pray for the persecuted, but also pray for their persecutors that they might find Life and repent of their ways. Overall, pray for peace.
  2. Donate – for those that can afford it, you can always donate to the IOCC (International Orthodox Christian Charities) who are helping both with those who stay and with refugees.
  3. Write – write to your representatives and encourage them to cease supporting the Syrian rebels. The civil war in Syria continues because the rebels have an endless supply of cash coming their way. Without money, there’s only so much damage they can do.
  4. Protest – if the persecution continues and our involvement increases in support of the persecutors, Christians should engage in peaceful protests. Nothing that mocks our leaders, nothing that spews hatred, but rather to show our bafflement at why we are supporting those who persecute our brothers and sisters.

Never forget that when one is a Christian, one is a part of the family of believers. You have more in common with the suffering Syrian who is a Christian than you do with your neighbor who is a nonbeliever. If you can show outrage over a man who simply will not suffer from his crude opinion, certainly you can exert as much effort towards those who suffer on a daily basis and could lose their lives for a faith we have taken for granted.

Who Wears the Pants? or, The Purpose of Marriage

bridegroom1It seems that American evangelicals – conservative, liberal, emerging, and otherwise – are obsessed over the roles between husband and wife within marriage. In one corner (the typically conservative corner) we have Complementarianism, the belief that the roles of husband and wife compliment each other, which is to say that the husband is the authority and the wife submits. In the other corner (the typically liberal corner) we have Egalitarianism, the belief that the roles of husband and wife are equal, which is to say that the husband and wife share authority within the home and neither has authority over the other. The problem with the debate, however, is that it’s framed incorrectly, thus both sides end up missing the point and hold erroneous conclusions.

When forming an argument if you begin with a false premise then your conclusion will also be false and the argument invalid. In the debate between complementarians and egalitarians, both sides tend to begin with a faulty premise, namely that there is to be authority within a marriage. From the idea, “there must be authority within a marriage” both then seek to find where that authority ought to be placed. Both sides begin with the question, “Where does the authority lay?” yet neither side begins with the proper question, “What is the purpose of marriage?”

Marriage is a sacrament, at least for those who still follow the sacraments. Even for denominations that have done away with the sacraments marriage is still a very important event and taken very seriously. Even in the most country Southern Baptist Church, where the congregants would sooner drink unsweet tea and sing the praises of Lincoln and the Union than give any credence to “them Catholics,” marriage is treated as a sacrament in all but the name. In such churches, if you are over the age of 20 and not married the old women will begin to worry for you and the men will question you. No matter what strand of Christianity you run into, marriage seems to be an important aspect for that strand.

Yet, in all its importance we often fail to answer the question, “What is the purpose of marriage?” Sure, there are very practical purposes of marriage, such as having sex, having children, having a companion, and so on. Yet, one can imagine a world where such things can still occur, but marriages not exist. The Bible is clear that all of these things are to happen solely within the realm of marriage. Thus, the practical elements that come to mind, while representative of marriage, do not address the purpose of marriage. Why does God deem that these things ought to happen within marriage? Perhaps one could point to Genesis where we see that husband and wife are to “become one.” Perhaps the purpose of marriage is to become one, but what does this look like?

Of course, becoming one flesh is still just an aspect of marriage. While everyone agrees that the most successful marriages are the most self-sacrificial ones, not everyone agrees on how much self-sacrifice should be given. Seth Adam Smith (what a name) argues for total self-sacrifice, that marriage isn’t for the individual, but for the other. While popular (and mostly correct), there have been detractors. They argue (mostly correct) that marriage is about us, about a partnership. Yet, in both instances the purpose of marriage is focused on the “one flesh” and what that means. The purpose of marriage is focused on the participants in the marriage, not in the One who instituted the marriage.


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Why Are Young People Leaving the Church? or, the Plight of Spiritual Refugees

IMG_0248If you pay attention to Christian news in America, you’ll notice that there has been a very popular trend ongoing within the Evangelical church. It’s popular and in right now to ask, “Why are young people leaving the church?” It’s been featured on CNN, Christianity Today gave us 6 reasons they’re leaving, not to be outdone the Reformed element posted 10 reasons young people leave church, and Relevant magazine (if you have to title yourself relevant, then are you really relevant?) just tells us what young people are saying. All these links are just the first few off any Google search; there are tons of articles out there trying to figure out why young people are leaving the church – specifically the evangelical church – in droves.

I should also mention that no one actually agrees on why young people are leaving the church. Some say it’s because of the church’s anti-homosexual, anti-abortion, anti-science stance. Others say because the church has been too soft on homosexuals, abortion, and evolution. Some argue that a lack of intellectual satisfaction is the cause, while others argue it’s an over-saturation of apologetics. Some think it’s a matter of no serving enough, while others argue that it’s serving without sharing the Gospel. And the list goes on. The fact that no one can agree and point to contradictory reasons actually shows us why young people are leaving the church.

If you really want to know why young people are leaving the church then look to Syria. I know, the two don’t seem related, but they are in a way. The conflict in Syria has created approximately two million refugees; imagine the entire population of Houston being relocated over the course of a year. War creates refugees, it creates people who leave a nation and if that war is never settled, these refugees begin to lose their culture in their new land. Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, has been engaged in warfare (mostly political) since the 1980s. Young people are still battle fatigued and see no reason to belong.

Why have we lost Generation X, Y, Z or whatever? Why have we been losing more and more young people since the 1970s? Because Christianity, in particular evangelical Christianity, has created spiritual refugees. In attempting to legislate the actions of every American, the church has lost the hearts of most of its young people. This is not to say that the church shouldn’t be active in the public square, just that it works better in dealing with people, not politicians.

Throughout Church history, Christians typically wrote to and served the average person. Only on rare occasions did they write to government officials (typically to say, “Hey, we’re not that bad, please stop killing us”). When Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410AD, the Romans received a beautiful treatise from St. Augustine (City of God) that explained what occurred and how to get through it. When 9/11 happened for America, we got Pat Robertson. During the earliest centuries of Church growth, Christians would write to the average person and attempt to win his heart. The Christians would serve people and communities in an attempt to display the Gospel. Somewhere along the way, we lost that drive.

The Church always thrived, even during its own internal wars, because those who adhered to the true doctrine continued to teach and live that doctrine with conviction. These Christians were able to teach the young people the faith. They were able to teach and then demonstrate this faith. Most importantly, however, is that young people had to make this faith their own.

In the American church, we have been so busy becoming “culture warriors” that we’ve abandoned our duty as Christians. The belief that if we just pass the right laws, if we just enact the right moral codes, that our society will somehow improve puts our faith in the Constitution and Congress, not in Christ. Such an attitude exists for both the “Religious Right” and “Progressive Christians.” Both are waging a war for the American legislature, somehow believing it is the same thing as a war for the American heart. All the while, the Church’s young people grow weary from the endless, fruitless, and stupid battles and flee.

Attend any conservative Christian function and you may confuse it for an AARP convention, with a few sightings of young white men who you know were raised on a strict diet of David Barton, Bob Jones, and A Beka Books. Alternatively, if you just go to an Emergent church (which has really fizzled out) you’ll find it’s just the Christian wing of the Democratic Party. A lot of my friends who went that route have abandoned the church all together, because they realized that the Emergent Church was the Religious Right, only for liberals.

These young people are spiritual refugees, fleeing from a war that is not their own. They flee to the supposedly neutral ideas of secularism, where they don’t have to be religious, but can be spiritual. The cost to enter such a society is that they must abandon certain beliefs, or at least act a certain way, but they are willing to pay this price just so they can be free from this cultural war.

Imagine a young refugee from Syria arriving in the United States. At first, he wants to abide by his cultural upbringing as much as he can, but he realizes that staying in his culture means he must be reminded of the war he just left. As time goes on, he adopts aspects of the culture he’s just come into. And one day, while at a Fourth of July barbecue with his new friends, wearing a shirt with the American flag, drinking a PBR, eating pork ribs, and talking about the upcoming football season, he proudly declares he is still Syrian. Yet, there is nothing Syrian about him except he can speak Arabic. He has abandoned his culture and fully assimilated; what was once a place of refuge has now become home. His children will be fully American. Sure, once they’re born he may try to go back to his culture, but one cannot return home in a foreign land. His kids will come to resent the culture, thinking of it as backwards and weird. They might engage in it for nostalgia’s sake, but they won’t really consider themselves Syrian; by the time we get to his grandchildren, they won’t even speak Arabic anymore and Syria will be nothing more than a place on a map.

The same remains true for spiritual refugees. They leave the church to escape the culture wars. They arrive in the secular land wanting to still hold onto the vestiges of their faith. They think they’ll create a new kind of Christianity, but soon discover that even this alienates them from their new culture. As time goes on, they adopt certain aspects of the culture they come into. And one day, while denying miracles, that Jesus was God, while stating that Jesus was probably just a good person, while casting serious doubts about God’s existence, they will proudly say they still consider themselves Christians. Yet, there is nothing Christian about them except they still know the lingo (e.g. “saved,” “redeemed,” “inspired,” etc.). They have abandoned their faith and become secular; it may be a mystical secularism, a more spiritual secularism, but it is still secular. They might even abandon faith all together and become atheists, but they can never abandon their upbringing and culture entirely (which explains the evangelical nature of the New Atheists), just as a refugee can never eradicate his accent.

Within a few generations, their children will be completely apathetic, hostile or, worst of all, ignorant of their Christian roots. The children of these disaffected spiritual refugees will grow up ambivalent to Christianity. The grandchildren of these spiritual refugees will be completely unchurched, knowing none of the lingo (words like “unchurched”), and Christianity will be nothing more than a set of superstitious beliefs or philosophical arguments.

The solution isn’t to create better aid workers to these spiritual refugees. The solution isn’t to try to appeal to these young, disaffected youths. Refugees lose touch with their homeland because they don’t go home. Likewise, spiritual refugees will continue to move further and further away from the faith until they realize that it’s okay to go back home. They won’t return until they see that the pointless wars are over.

Calling for an end to the warrior culture, the idea that it’s us against the legislature, is not the same as a call for Christians to further retreat from the public discourse. In fact, abandoning public discourse is part of the problem of why people leave the church. For too long, Christians have focused on legislating morality – whether it be banning abortions and homosexual marriages, or promoting homosexual marriages and social reform issues – and not on creating a culture wherein people choose to do the right thing. Some things are still worthy of challenging in the legislature – such as banning abortion and some social reform issues – but what good does it do us if we never appeal to the hearts and minds of the general population?

We live in a time where our war against the culture has abandoned our youth. They are good at spouting off our pre-programmed information, but they are not good at thinking. It’s a sad day when young Christians (and older Christians) actually struggle to refute the arguments from Dawkins, Hitchens, Krauss, and others, when they struggle to refute the easiest of arguments in the world. It’s a sad day when young Christians are given party after party and only asked to do a mission trip here and there, when they’re asked to take and take from the Church rather than to give. It’s a sad day because our culture war has made our faith a political mechanism, but not something that is really owned by our children.

If you want to know why there is a mass exodus from the Church by young people, it’s because the churches have abandoned the heart of the Gospel. They failed to offer up something that is intellectually and existentially satisfying. We are offering something that youth cannot make their own because we tell them to believe, but never to understand. We tell them to act, but not to live. They then face the realities of this world, whether it be a Richard Dawkins or a 9/11, and they have no answer. I think of my own experience, entering high school to Columbine and leaving high school to 9/11 and a war, and there were no real answers from my church at the time. As long as Christians pursue the culture wars and then turn around and give youth “the next big thing” in Christianity, they will continue to lose their young people, they will continue to create refugees.