Friday, September 25, 2009

The church caused (and could undo) big government.

This is a developing thought process for me. It does seem inevitable to me that the government will continue to grow. I don't think there is an example of a democracy that has un-done growth. The conservatives say it as "doomsday coming" and proof of societal decline, the liberals as "it ought to be". Here is another take:

The unabated growth of the United States government has corresponded directly to the disengagement from society of the American church. The removal of the active role of the church among the poor, the broken, the illiterate, the oppressed has also paralleled the astronomical increase of wealth among middle class Christians in America. This increase in accumulated personal and institutional wealth, along with the absence of engagement with the poor in our country, has been a critical factor in the growth of the government.

And the only way back, that I can see, from immense and inevitably larger government, is for the Church in America to change. The average Christian tithes about 3%, and has no sense of “cap” on one’s personal wealth or lifestyle. I have only met one Christian who has made it clear that they tithe on all income: capital gains, salaries, even student loans/grants.

Before you assume I am a communist, let me be clear. I believe that limited regulation within free-market economies is the best way for individuals created in the image of God to appropriately live out what they were designed to be. Regulation is always necessary in some forms because of the fallenness of man. Yet all regulation has unintended consequences and always impinges on human freedoms.

But markets allow people to work, and working is clearly the fastest way out of poverty. A massive number of people in so-called 3rd world countries have risen out of the depths of poverty, largely due to a growth in the economies of India and China. People have been put to work productively and poverty has decreased.

Entrepreneurialism, allows individuals to work, freely and creatively. These are each key parts of the imago dei.

I also assume that there are, as the Dutch theologians would like to say, appropriate spheres of sovereignty. . . family, church/local organizations, markets, governments. Each has appropriate roles to play. When one abdicates its appropriate role, we should expect to see others (a) pick it up and (b) not do as good of a job as the appropriate entity/sphere would have done.

“If you talk and act as a Christian should, the world will love you for what you do, and hate you for what your say”. Tim Keller (my paraphrase).

In the early 1900s the conservative, largely white church in America stopped doing what Christians should do. She removed herself from engaging with society and being an active part of addressing issues such as caring for the sick, the illiterate, the destitute, and those experiencing injustice.

During a period known as the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, virtually all of the fundamentalist churches and leaders, the heritage to what is now called the evangelical church, engaged in a theological battle over the meaning of the gospel. Out of a fear in what had become known as the social gospel, the church removed itself from actively engaging with society and took on a separatist, individualistic, and culture-war posture.
The church created her own schools, magazines, radio stations, art (sort of), literature (sort of) and more. She continued to proclaim a gospel of Jesus and Him crucified, (saying the things she should say) but became virtually irrelevant to the larger society in terms of mercy, justice and cultural engagement (thus not doing the things she is called to do).

This removal from society and the active disengagement with those on the margins of society coincided with the years leading up to the great depression, during which the government grew by leaps and bounds. Who would feed the hungry, retrain workers, fill them with dignity and purpose, educate them, speak up for those unjustly kept out of the economy? The answer became the government.

We have continued on this path for a century. The government continues to fill in roles that ought to be cared for, in my estimation, by small local organizations who are able to work with much greater accountability, efficiency, effectiveness, and sustainability.

But, I hear the objections now, “the government is taxing us to death!” “We can’t afford to do this until the government stops competing with the church.” “We can’t stand it when the government wades into issues like unemployment, education, health care and more. Stop the socialism!”

But I am increasingly convinced this is backwards. The church has the moral responsibility, through its manifold small organizational representations, to be the hands and feet of Jesus. To love the unlovable, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, speak up against injustice and of course, preach the gospel. Yet the church has ceded this responsibility away. . . and the federal government will inevitably continue to grow until we “do the things we should do”.

“But we can’t. we don’t have the money” . . . we say. What if every Christian in American gave 20% of our income? What if Christians who are well off capped their net worth at say $2,000,000? What sort of revolution would unfold? We would not only have enough to pay for our (ridiculously) large church buildings, we could fund (Christian) schools that would revolutionize our inner-cities.

We could transform our health care system. We could easily address our homelessness and housing issues. It would allow us to do approach the development of economic systems in urban communities through micro-enterprise, entrepreneurialism, job training and more. All of this would allow us to do it with the kind of close to home accountability, efficiency and effectiveness that cannot be accomplished through large bureaucracies.

I am not suggesting that this would replace the federal government, but I propose that this is what it will take to undo the growth of the federal government in America. I believe that if we did this, that is if we lived sacrificially and loved our neighbor as ourselves, along with proclaiming an unapologetic gospel, we would have immense credibility. In other words we could more effectively “say what we should say while we do what we should do”.

It is our materialism and individualism that has caused the government to grow. Rather than rail against our government, which will inevitably continue to grow unless something radical is done, we would do something radical. Should we wait for the government that most of us don’t trust to somehow do the right thing? No, we should stop it by doing what we ought to do.


Jeremiah said...

Wow, Joel, well stated. I've been saying the same thing for a couple of years now (and my family calls me "socialist" hehe).

I appreciate your willingness to get in and get your hands dirty with real life issues - whether ideological or social.

hammerdad said...

Hey Jeremiah, thanks for chipping in!

Socialism would say we need the government to be big. . . the national council of churches and other liberal groups openly advocate this. . . suggesting that government's purpose is to take care its citizens (including the poor).

I am suggesting just the opposite, except that if those that should care for them (the church) aren't willing and doing so sacrificially, we should expect (and probably not bemoan) the government taking over and doing it badly.

On another note, Go Brett Favre! (never thought I'd say THAT!)

Northside Eric said...

I do not agree. Big government is not so much caused, but it is needed by big business. The scale of human society drives the scale of our institutions. The church can not replace government nor can it replace work.

My thoughts are not fully developed, but the church is not the solution to civil realm problems. The body of Christ can help us to do what needs to be done, but it can not fully replace it.

ben said...

I'm not tracking with you Eric.

I certainly think big business is anti-big gov't and that business generally needs limited forms of government to flourish. . . I didn't argue that the church should replace gov't. . . but through effective engagement with society (as has been absent) could lessen the demand for ever-increasing governmental programs.

not sure what you meant about church replacing work, that wasn't my point at all. . .

hammerdad said...

Eric, I accidentally commented while logged in under a friends name (Ben) but it was all me!

Sarah said...

I think its interesting that as Americans, we often steadfastly declare a clear separation of church of state but the reciprocal effect of their relationships with society is clear. As the church began to pull back in the early 1900's, the government had to ramp up. Yes that is separation but the relationship there is interesting enough to spur me to see ties to each other.

I fully agree that the church needs to leave the building and get out into the street, literally. To love the people with all of their resources; wealth, time, energy, etc. It is much easier to pray for someone, than with someone. It is easier to do anything for someone, than with someone. Relationship is the hardest, yet most beneficial solution I have yet to discover. The church, as all of us, just need to engage again.

JudyBright said...


I am totally with you on this. As a conservative, I see this as our biggest, gaping weakness. We preach against big government (as we should) but what is there to replace the programs that help the poor?

Have you read The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns, the US president of World Vision? I just got it last night and read 3/4 of it. (I never do that with books) It deals mostly with worldwide poverty but addresses American poverty as well.

I hope a lot of people read it, because it's directed at the affluent evangelical church in America. He covers tough topics, but I think in a way that people would be open to reading and that this audience can understand.

hammerdad said...

Thanks for your notes Sarah and Judy. . .

I haven't read the Stearns book but have heard about it and will probably get to it. . .I just got an 8 book Amazon order so am a bit backed up right now!

Steve said...

Good stuff, Joel

Have you read Mark Noll's book, "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind"? One of the salient points he makes is that the marriage between Evangelicalism and American Republicanism (not the party, but rather the institution) was a disastrous one.

We went way beyond a reasonable patriotism and switched citizenships. This enabled us to enshrine the American Dream as our own, forgetting that whoever loves his life will lose it.

And of course there was the fundamentalist/modernist controversy that you mentioned that caused an unfortunate divorcing of good news and good works.

So we got into a bad "marriage" on one hand and had a bad "divorce" on the other, and today we pay the price.

I still maintain that the church's mission is to make disciples, and that while we must engage political and social issues, we do so knowing we will never "fix" the broken world. The cool thing is that one of the many things disciples do, besides make more disciples, is to address all you mentioned.

I also like the idea of small government, but recognize the paradox that in a fallen world nothing works ideally, and everything that does work tends to be a bit messy anyway.

hammerdad said...


thanks for the note. I read Noll's book when it came out and haven't read it since, but was really impacted when I did. He is definitely one of the guys that led me to really try to think through the basis of what I believe and where it came from. . . holding the faith without checking my brains at the door.

While I think I generally agree with your point about fixing the society. . . I think that the category of "fixing" as the measure of what's possible and worthwhile is a very western notion. I can no longer think in terms of making disciples without the social engagement. You simply can't find Jesus preaching a spiritual only gospel. It always has social and physical commitments. A disciple without a hand for mercy and voice for justice is not a Christian in the gospel according to Jesus sense. these commitments not only follow through from the OT prophets who portray Shalom to come, but in Jesus estimate reflect who actually understands the power of grace that has overtaken them. (ala the parable of the unmerciful servant and many more).

Steve said...

I agree substantially and referenced that thought with this brief phrase:("The cool thing is that one of the many things disciples do, besides make more disciples, is to address all you mentioned."). Perhaps I was vague there.

Disciple making is holistic.

There does tend to be a nervous reaction, however, when either gospel preaching or justice work is mentioned without some bigger context.

Those who treasure the preaching of the cross have been appalled by some who give lip service to preaching the gospel, and even redefine it, while really only working on and caring for temporal social problems.

On the other hand, those who have a passion for the poor and for justice have been turned off by many "gospel preachers" who care for nothing more than more converts, or better yet, more notches on their belts.

The scars from the modernist/fundamentalist controversy remain and run deep. They (in my experience at least) create distrust between people who actually substantially agree.

The Gospel is for the whole person, and the charge given to disciples in the New Testament is fairly clear. It is not possible to truly care about people without caring for both their temporal and eternal condition. The core of our (mankind's) problem is enmity with and estrangement from God. Everything else can be traced to this. The cross is the only solution to this problem, and that in no way is in conflict with healing the whole person and even redeeming the structures and environments that keep people in bondage.

I guess what I was saying in my comment though is that Jesus made it clear that there will not be full healing or redemption until He comes back, and I would argue that the Bible paints a picture that is increasingly dark and bleak as that time approaches.

But the old cliche of whether our job is to fix the sinking ship or pull people into a lifeboat creates an unnecessary dichotomy. I think we can plug leaks while we're pulling people out.

Matthew Bohling said...

Love what you've said here. As I try to implement in Seattle a similar mindset you're seeking to implement in Chicago, I find that people don't realize the degree to which not only their money but also their time is focused on themselves. Government works with lots of money impersonally producing quite little results. We have to learn to work wisely with whatever money we have personally so that family by family lives are changed and situations are transformed. This is radically more personally costly than slightly higher property taxes to support low income housing (what I'll be voting on today in my local election). How can that kind of personal effort be induced? Only if people delight in God because of the gospel will they be willing to stop delighting in comfort, ease, personal space, etc. Only within that kind of context will calls to this kind of full on engagement with broken people and broken communities be responded to by grace.

Northside Eric said...

Hey Joel,

I finally have some comments to make back. More accurately I will let some others make my points for me.

First let me make some philosophical proportions. Government and business are not antithetical to each other but are symbiotic. If one is against big government one must also be against big business. Destroy the Federal Reserve then be prepared to destroy big banking. Get ride of the FTC then destroy Wal-Mart and GE and GM.