Sunday, September 25, 2022

The Dutch Schencks (1500s-1600s)

About ten years ago I blogged through my family history.  Whether I will finish self-publishing it, I enjoyed writing up chapter 2 so much, I thought I'd post it here.


1. In 1620, Roelof Martense Schenck was born in what would become the Dutch Republic. In 1650, the year that his father died, he left for America.

He was from a prominent family in the land we now call the Netherlands, with a story that we can trace back at least to the 1400s. We have sometimes assumed in the past that Schenck is German. If it were really pronounced “shank,” German would make sense.

However, as we know within the family, it should be pronounced “skank.” The skank pronunciation reflects its Dutch origins. My wife Angie married a skank. One day in our early marriage, we were watching Saturday Night Live, and in one skit Mike Myers said, “Look at those two skanks.” We looked at each other with surprise. Let’s just say she didn’t want Tom and Sophie (or her as a teacher) being skanks in the public schools. I do hope to die a skank, however.

2. There is evidence of a Wynant Schenck living in the Bleijenbeek Castle in the Netherlands in 1405. The castle was built about fifty years earlier and would generally be in Schenck possession for the next couple hundred years.

As far as our direct lineage, I can go back to the mid-1400s:

Dederick Schenck van Nydeck
Dederick II Schenck van Nydeck (1481-1525)
Dederick III Schenck van Nydeck (1514-1560)
Pieter VII Schenck van Nydeck (1547-1580)
Maarten Schenck van Nydeck (1584-1650)
Roelof Schenck van Nydeck (1620-1704)

The “van Nydeck” or “van Nydeggen” part indicates the origins of the family in Nideggen, which is currently in western Germany. This is where the family was located when they took on the last name (or surname) Schenck. At some point in the Middle Ages, people began to take on surnames. Schenck has the sense of a cupbearer or, perhaps more likely for this area, a tavern keeper. So perhaps our ancestors in 1000s Nydeggen ran a tavern, a place for food and fun.

We also must remember that the national boundaries that exist now did not exist in the late Middle Ages. The Netherlands was not a country then, nor was Germany. All this land was then part of the Holy Roman Empire, which was a vast collection of almost 2000 small states, each with a castle of its own. Although it seems crazy to us, this area of the Netherlands was even under Spanish control in the 1500s when most of the ancestors I mentioned above lived. The part of Germany in which Nideggen is located only really became German in 1713 when Prussia took it over.

This part of the Netherlands at that time was mostly the Duchy of Guelders, and most of it is still in the province of Gelderland today. If you look at where our ancestors were born, they are in this area, although Goch was in the nearby Dutchy of Cleves. This is, by the way, where the family of Vincent "van Gogh" traced back to.

Dederick II (1481-1525) – born in Bleijenbeck Castle
Dederick III (1514-1560) – Bleijenbeck Castle
Pieter VII (1547-1580) – Goch
Maarten (1584-1650) – Doesberg

3. A fun story relates to Pieter’s brother Maarten, also born in Goch (1540-1589). Like his brother, who was a general, Maarten was a military commander in the fightings of that era. He fought with the Dutch William of Orange in the fight for independence from Spain. This fight began in 1568 and would continue off and on until the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648 (sometimes called the Eighty Years War). At the end of that war, the Dutch Republic was finally born as an independent state. And our ancestor Roelof left for America two years after independence!

Back to Uncle Maarten. He wanted Bleijenbeek Castle for himself, so he physically took possession of it from his cousin. But the court of William of Orange legally favored his cousin. He became unpopular with William’s court. The last straw was the crushing Dutch defeat by the Spanish at the Battle of Gembloux in 1578. You can hear the Schenck in him. “Incompetent leaders. Ungrateful idiots. I want to be on the winning side.” He switched sides and fought in the Army of Flanders (Spanish side) for a few years before coming to his senses.

Whichever side he was on, he was known for daring, charisma, and occasionally, winning by cleverness and daring. It is said he could eat, drink, and sleep while riding on his horse, “and his men followed him like dogs.” Again, in good Schenck fashion, after a few years, he didn’t feel like the Spanish were treating him right and he returned to the Dutch side in 1585. He became Lieutenant Governor of Gelderland. In 1586 he was commissioned to build a fortress in a village that still exists today, Schenkenschanz.

Interestingly, my dad always thought of the plains of Westphalia, Germany, when we would drive south of Gainesville, Florida, coming home from Indiana. The land there comes down from higher ground into lowlands, and it reminded him of his time in Germany. It is interesting that he would have been that far north. The Allies took the north Rhineland and Westphalia back from the Nazis from March to May 1945. I knew he was stationed in Nancy, France, and then later in Manheim, Germany. But he must have crossed into Germany at some point in the north. He had no idea that he was not far from where his Schenck ancestors had once lived.

Maarten would seem to have been a tricky character. In a move not unlike the Trojan horse, he got into one city by disguising soldiers on a salt wagon. Maarten met an untimely death that, again, somehow seems quite appropriate for a Schenck. He was trying to take Nijmegen for the Dutch by entering the city through windows on the river Waal.

The river was flowing faster than expected because of rain, and they were not able to enter where they had planned. Half their barges overshot their goal. When they finally were able to get in some windows, they stumbled onto a wedding party that ended their hopes for a surprise attack. In a hasty retreat, he jumped into the river, where his armor and the swollenness of the river caused him to drown. When they found his body a few days later, he was decapitated, his head put on a pike, and his body quartered. He died August 10, 1589.

4. Our ancestor Roelof Schenck was Maarten’s great nephew, the grandson of Maarten’s less controversial brother Pieter. Pieter was also a general for the Dutch throughout those conflicts—the whole time. Roelof’s father married a woman in Amersfoort, Utrecht in 1619. The Dutchy of Utrecht was to the northwest of Guelders. And that is where Roelof was born in 1620.

My impression is that these Schencks were doers, not so much thinkers. Plenty of thinking was going on at the time in the Dutch region, but I’m not sure how much our ancestors paid attention. They seemed much more interested in fighting the war for independence from Spain. The parts of Dutch culture from this period that we prize today largely took place in the County of Holland to the west, where Amsterdam is located. This area was a distinct culture where the primary language spoken was Frisian.

The fight for independence put them on the Calvinist side, and the Schencks would be devoted to the Dutch Reformed Church after they arrived in America. We cannot know whether they even knew of Jacobus Arminius, who argued for the doctrine we twentieth and twenty-first-century Schencks espouse: Wesleyan-Arminianism. Arminius argued that God empowered our human wills to be able to choose or not choose God, not that God predetermined who would be saved. Arminius taught in Leiden until 1609, when he died. In the aftermath of his death, his view would be considered heresy at the Synod of Dort in 1619, where the Calvinist TULIP became the official position. Again, who knows whether our ancestors had strong opinions on such things. They might at first have mocked those silly Frisians to the west and their arguments over unimportant things.

Total depravity – Humans are thoroughly evil.
Unconditional Election – God chooses the saved.
Limited Atonement – Christ only died for the elect.
Irresistible Grace – You will be saved if God chooses.
Perseverance of the Saints – You will make it.

5. This was the time Rembrandt was painting, also in Leiden (1606-69). This was the age of Grotius (1583-1645), one of the greatest thinkers of the time. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1618 for being an Arminian. He escaped and finished out his life elsewhere. Baruch Spinoza was about 18 when Roelof left for America. Spinoza was an unorthodox Jewish philosopher who believed in pantheism and is often mentioned in the trio of rationalists from this time period: Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz.

Descartes himself, sometimes called the father of modernism, lived in Holland from 1629-1649. It was here that he published his famous, “I think; therefore, I am” (1637).

Our ancestor thus left the Dutch Republic for New Amsterdam in the prime of the Dutch Golden Age. If some of the greatest thinkers of the day were in Holland, Roelof headed for a new conquest in the New World. His family would prove to be foundational there as well.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Wesleyan philosophy 6c -- Wesleyan Fundamental Social Concerns

The next installment in a Wesleyan social and political philosophy (see bottom for posts thus far).  


What are some fundamental Wesleyan social concerns?

1. What are some fundamental Wesleyan social concerns? They are the biblical concerns. They are Jesus' concerns in the Gospels.

The Gospel of Luke presents Jesus' visit to Nazareth in Luke 4 as a kind of inauguration of his earthly mission. He has participated in the baptism of John the Baptist. He has been tempted in the wilderness. Now he goes to the synagogue in his hometown and is given the scroll of Isaiah. He reads from Isaiah 61.

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to herald release to captives and sight to the blind, to send those who have been oppressed with freedom, to herald the favorable year of the Lord" (Luke 4:18-19).

This is an announcement, not an altar call. [1] It is a summary of the activities in which Jesus then engages in the Gospel of Luke. He heals the blind. He liberates the demon-possessed. He indicates that poor individuals like Lazarus are about to be in bliss while the rich man will soon be in torment.

There is very little in Luke about saving souls in the evangelical sense. [2] Jesus does not tell them to let him into their hearts. He does not say, "The important thing is for you to be right with God spiritually. The rest is trivial." 

The special emphases of Luke-Acts are 1) the gospel is for the whole world, both Jews and non-Jews, 2) Jesus came to bring good news to the lowly, such as the poor and women (corresponding to this is bad news for those who were currently wealthy), 3) the importance of prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit, 4) the fact that believers are unified and peace-loving, although trouble often comes to them from others. While Luke brings these themes out distinctly, Jesus also heals and brings similar themes to those we find in Matthew and Mark. John is the most dualistic and spiritualized of the Gospels. As the most symbolic Gospel, it does push beyond the emphases of Jesus' earthly mission when his feet were on the ground, but it does not nullify the earlier Gospels.

My point is not to negate the importance of eternal salvation. Not at all. It is clearly the most important aspect of the gospel because it is ultimate. My point is that the most literal of the Gospels do not identify that subject as the focus of Jesus' earthly mission. Matthew, Mark, and Luke (often called the Synoptic Gospels) indicate that, on earth, Jesus was far more focused on the well-being and restoration of those right in front of him than on their eternal destiny.

2. The Wesleyan tradition has largely stood outside debates over whether social action is appropriate for Christians. John Wesley himself has heavily involved in the social concerns of 1700s England, from the desperate situation of coal miners and child laborers to his later support for the abolition of slavery. He knew of no chasm between spiritual concerns and concern for a person physically, socially, and economically.

The Wesleyan Methodist Church was founded as an anti-slavery movement. Orange Scott and Luther Lee were not only sick of the complacency and tip-toeing of the Methodist Episcopal Church around the issue of slavery. They were often unwelcome in a Methodist church that had become a little too comfortable with the social status quo. Frontier churches can become affluent in later generations, where there is more motivation for things to stay the same socially than to work for social change.

The Pilgrim Holiness Church was never a stranger to helping the poor and the down-and-out. God's Bible School in Cincinnati, often considered ground zero for the church's founding, always had an element of helping the downtrodden of the city in the early twentieth century. The Wesleyan church of my childhood in Fort Lauderdale, Florida was not only very conservative but always had a pantry for any needy individuals who might come by. 

3. Why am I belaboring this point? Because there are other Christian traditions that have a fairly negative view of this particular kind of social action. As we have tried to become more mainstream, it is inevitable that we would be influenced by other groups, and we have never really had a strong theological identity that might serve as a wall against absorbing extraneous influences of this sort. This can be true of larger churches that mingle in different theological circles and then pass that influence down the line. This can be true in an age of social media where grass-roots Wesleyans are constantly bombarded by the influences of broader Christian and non-Christian culture.

As we saw in a previous post, fundamentalist groups are very much in favor of social action (Christ above culture) in certain areas. For example, it is appropriate to try to stop abortion and gay marriage in the public legal sphere. However, inconsistently, it is not considered appropriate to try to help the poor with public means or to work against any societal structures that might have racial biases. These are considered liberal and thus anathema. These attitudes represent foreign influence on the Wesleyan tradition from the outside. 

In other traditions, we can trace this influence back at least to the early twentieth century, when conflict over what was called the "social gospel" arose. In those days, "Liberal Christianity" was an actual name for a segment of Christianity. It is true that many in this group had ceased believing in a number of core orthodox beliefs, such as the divinity of Christ or the inspiration of Scripture. That criticism of the group is fair. 

What did this movement believe? They focused their energies on doing good in the world, on making society a better place. A well-known example would be Charles Sheldon's In His Steps and the well-known slogan, "What would Jesus do?" (WWJD). A little-known fact is that Sheldon did not actually believe in the virgin birth or the divinity of Christ. He believed instead that Jesus was the model human being. The world would thus be a better place if we approached our lives with Jesus as our model. What would Jesus do in this situation? If we lived our lives like that, how changed would the world be!

This is a tale of two mistakes. On the one hand, Liberal Christianity was wrong in its sense of Jesus as only a moral example. Yet the opposition to the social gospel was wrong to dismiss the very things that Jesus modeled when he was on earth. We are not whole Christians unless we have both pieces to the puzzle. Both orthodoxy and social concern for others are essential features of the gospel in the Bible. The Wesleyan tradition has historically held these two pieces together even while other traditions have divorced them.

From a Wesleyan perspective, the problem with the social gospel is not the part about helping others, even by addressing the structures of society. From a Wesleyan perspective, the problem is not "the imitation of Christ." From a Wesleyan perspective, the problem is that the other half of the equation was missing. You can work to change society for the better and believe Jesus was the divine Son of God. You can live a life that tries to imitate Jesus and believe in the virgin birth. Such beliefs and practices are not contrary to the Bible. They are in fact the consistent teachings of Scripture!

4. We should probably also mention that dispensationalist influence on the Wesleyan tradition was also influence from the outside in the late 1800s. It became essential theology in the Pilgrim Holiness Church but the merged denomination chose more flexibility on end times teaching. Prior to that influence, the Wesleyan tradition was not oriented around a sense that the world would get worse and worse until Jesus finally returned.

In relation to social change, we might describe dispensationalism as having a kind of lifeboat theology. The world is on fire and will spin out of control until it consumes itself. There is no hope to save the world. The best we can do is get as many people as we can into the eternal lifeboat. It's foolish to try to work for change in the broader society. 

This is not Wesleyan theology. It is foreign influence. I would rather summarize truly Wesleyan theology in this area as, "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." Although these words are often attributed to John Wesley, there is no evidence that he actually even said these words. Nevertheless, they certainly suit his theology.

I might add that it has been over 150 years since John Darby introduced the world to dispensationalism in its modern form. A very large number of those looking for an imminent antichrist and Tribulation have come and gone. They could have done a lot of good in the world if they had stayed in the world a little longer instead of getting in the lifeboat prematurely. "We'll work till Jesus comes." 

There is thus nothing Wesleyan about the idea that the government cannot play a role in the betterment of society. Psalm 72 would suggest the contrary. This idea is foreign influence on Wesleyanism and Christianity in general. There is nothing biblical or Wesleyan about the idea that we cannot imitate Jesus because he's divine and we aren't. This idea violates the full humanity of Jesus.

To return to an earlier conversation, this is not a suggestion that Christianity take the reigns of government or fuse with the state. It is rather a "do all the good you can" principle. When the movement of the state aligns with the movement of Christ, there is no reason not to collaborate. This is Galatians 6:10: "As we have opportunity, let us do good to all [people]." Similarly of the state Paul says that a ruler "is God's minister for you for good." 

The Bible knows no prohibition of the state from doing good. Does the state sometimes mess up doing good? Absolutely. Has the state sometimes done good. Absolutely.

5. There is an aversion in many Christian circles currently to the words "social justice," and some people are sometimes mocked as "social justice warriors." This mocking is, again, foreign to the Wesleyan tradition and reflects the continued influence of the external forces I have mentioned above. However, I have no problem using the phrase "biblical justice" and backing up all values with Scripture.

Does Scripture show concern for those who are "poor," that is, those who are knocked off track. Does it show concern for those who struggle to survive because they lack the means to do so? Frankly, God wants us to do more than survive since we are created in the image of God. The answer is an unambiguous yes from a biblical perspective. Is this concern limited to other Christians? No. It may be focused on other Christians, yes, but it is not limited to them as Galatians 6:10 indicates.

Richard Mouw once wrote a piece in Christianity Today that I found personally helpful. [3] In it, he suggested that we as Christians should agree on core social values but leave some room for disagreement on how to play out those values concretely in society. For example, it is a core Christian value to want to help the poor. However, the situation is complicated. Sometimes helping with resources isn't actually helping a person in the long term. As we will see in a later post, while communism may seem like the book of Acts in some respects, it is not clear that it works as an overall societal system.

So our aim should be to agree on the overall values while leaving much room for disagreement on the particulars of solutions. The value that everyone should have health care is solidly biblical and Christian as a desire. But what is the best way for that to happen? Part of the problem with the evangelical church at present is that there is so much clutter in our environment that we are unclear even on what the core values are.

Take immigrants. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament solidly and without reservation would urge us to value the foreigner in our midst (e.g., Deut. 10:18-19; Ezek. 22:7; 1 Tim. 5:10). It would be highly anachronistic to make some supposed biblical distinction between legal and illegal strangers--such distinctions did not exist in biblical times. Some corners of Christianity at present, however, have been influenced by the world into a very hostile attitude toward "others." These skewed values can hide behind nuances. "They are illegal." "They are criminals and rapists." These are sometimes smokescreens for anti-Christian values.  

I watched a certain news outlet recently for a few days. The selection of stories in relation to illegal immigrants not so subtly proclaimed, "These people are all evil." In fact, one segment criticized other news outlets for not mentioning that a certain rapist was an illegal immigrant. Why? It seemed clear to me that the other outlets did not want to perpetuate the false impression that most illegals are unusually evil people, while this outlet did want to emphasize the false impression that all illegals are evil people. Yet I know many Christians feed on this particular news outlet, very likely misshaping their minds and values in these particular ways.

6. The quintessential Wesleyan verse on social structures is Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek. There is neither slave nor free. There is not 'male and female.'" Paul is talking about our adoption into Christ to be sure, but the principle of equal value stands in the background. 

It is true that he does not fully play out this equal value into the social structures of society. But he pushes against them. He does not tell Philemon to free Onesimus, but that would have been completely appropriate given what he does say. He does not remove the wife from under her husband's headship but that is a fitting completion of the trajectory in our society today.

We come back to the principle, "Do all the good you can." Wives will not be subordinated to husbands in the kingdom of God (Mark 12:25). There will be no human servants in the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God represents the trajectory of biblical values. If we can make the world more like the kingdom of God now, why wouldn't we?

There is a distinction often made today that is unfortunately sometimes mocked even by those who call themselves Christians. It is a distinction between equality and equity. In this scenario, equality refers to equal opportunity. So let's say there is some bread on a shelf that is on a shelf seven feet up. One person is six feet tall and the other four foot six. Both are allowed to reach for the bread. They have equal opportunity but not equal access.

This is equality. Nothing is stopping the shorter person from getting the bread. We just know they're not going to be able to do so without help from something like a step stool or another person. In this scenario, equity is about giving the shorter person the means to actually reach the bread. 

I recognize that life isn't fair, and I don't think God intends for us to pretend otherwise. If you cannot pass math, you cannot be a math teacher. If you cannot run fast, you cannot run in the Olympics. There are many circumstances where merely equal opportunity is appropriate and sufficient.

The Christian value of equity relates to more fundamental concerns. No one should starve to death. Everyone should have access to basic medical treatment when they need it. Everyone should have access to a roof over their head. If we can see these values play out in the world, why wouldn't we, especially since they also seem to play out the fundamental values of the American experiment?

[1] Intriguingly, Luke does not include Jesus' call to repentance for forgiveness of sins. It is there in Mark 1:15 in his source, but he introduces Jesus' ministry in a different way.

[2] Another example is how Luke represents Mark 10:45. While Mark speaks of Jesus being a ransom for the sins of many (a unique statement even in Mark), Luke's version of the statement would seem to be Luke 19:10: "The Son of Man came to seek and rescue that which has been lost." I translate sozo here as rescue so that we do not read meaning into the word that was not Luke's focus.

[3] "Carl Henry Was Right," 2010.




Philosophy of Religion

Philosophical Psychology


Social and Political Philosophy (How should we then live together?)

Monday, September 05, 2022

Wesleyan philosophy 6b -- The best way to govern society

The series continues (see bottom for posts thus far). What might a Wesleyan philosophy look like?  


The best way to govern society

1. As we said in the previous post, few people in history actually get a say in what the governance of society might look like. We might go further. Among those very few who do participate in the shaping of the state, even fewer are probably people of pure faith. As Lord Acton put it in the 1800s: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Few can influence the form of government. Fewer are Christians. And the Christianity of those very few is susceptible to the corruption of power. 

I was not always so pessimistic. I grew up with a dreamy view of most leaders, past and present. I had a sense that only the most virtuous get promoted to high offices, including the general officials of my church denomination. John Wesley was obviously a saint, and so were the general superintendents of my church.

I actually think very highly of John Wesley and my general superintendent, although I would not consider Wesley to be flawless or inerrant, by any stretch. Those in authority in the church over me right now are obviously flawless. :-)

But there is a certain hardness that can become important, perhaps even necessary to succeed in positions of power. In his famous advice, The Prince, Machiavelli around 1500 suggested that because the ruler was surrounded by forces that would love to dethrone him, the prince could not survive unless he acted in kind. A truly virtuous ruler, Machiavelli thought, would be quickly eaten alive. A colleague of mine once wondered if it was more and more difficult to be holy the higher you ascended in leadership.

2. There is a significant segment of Christianity that thinks everything went wrong when Constantine made Christianity cool in the year AD313. They idealize that dreamy persecution age before him, when being a Christian could get you killed. They demonize the period when Christianity took power, which they think ruined it.

I have mixed feelings about this perspective. I don't think it is entirely right or wrong. Rodney Stark's 1997 book suggests a mixture of reasons why Christianity came to dominate the Roman Empire. [1] Some were the fact that it did not abort female children and had a philosophy of helping others. It thus had higher reproduction rates and survived epidemics better. In the end, Stark notes that a 40% growth rate (which Christianity had) is not actually unusual for a religion. Perhaps what was more significant is the fact that Christianity weathered challenges better than other groups.

Did persecution help Christianity grow? Perhaps the occasional persecution did contribute to a social cohesiveness that is often attractive after the persecution is over. But I have heard Bud Bence strongly question whether Christianity grew during persecution. I once asked David Riggs his opinion of why early Christianity grew. I believe his answer was reproduction. On the other hand, persecution more or less did stop Christianity in medieval China and later in the Muslim world. 

There are some very good things that came from the Constantinian era. While I am unsure about Constantine's own soul ("power corrupts"), making Christianity legal doesn't seem a bad thing. Even if the number of "fake Christians" then multiplied, surely the number of true Christians grew as well. 

By the way, Constantine was not the one that made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. That's erroneous, although you hear it often. That didn't happen until later in 381 under Theodosius, when Nicene Christianity became the only permissible religion. Perhaps then such voices should be blaming Theodosius rather than Constantine.

We also tend to have dreamy eyes about what Christians prior to Constantine believed. Yet it was under Constantine that the Trinity become solidified as orthodox belief. Even in the mid-300s, there was a time when more Christians were Arians--who believed Jesus was the first of God's creations, not eternally begotten--than Athanasians who believed in the Trinity of the Nicene Creed. It is not entirely clear that, without Constantine and Theodosius, the Trinity would have become official orthodoxy. One of the things Constantine did was prompt an official position, which Theodosius put in stone.

The New Testament canon was not agreed on when Constantine became emperor (or even in his lifetime). The canon was not decided at Nicaea in 325, although you hear that a lot as well. You could argue that the standardization of both the biblical text and its boundaries was a consequence of the standardization of worship in the period after Christianity became legal. In that sense, the pre-Constantine church was a church where you did not have to believe in the Trinity and where there were differences of opinion on which books belonged in the Bible.

3. In the end, I have come to agree with Jesus. "Narrow is the road that leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matt. 7:14). The true church, the true people of God, cannot be identified by sight. True, it is a physical church as well as a spiritual church. The people of God gather. The people of God can be seen with our eyes in that respect.

But they are also invisible in the sense that we can never know by sight who is truly in. At any one period of time, not everyone in the church is in the Church. There are always both wheat and weeds (Matt. 13:24-30). I believe this was also true of ancient Israel as well. Not everyone who was in Israel was in Israel. Paul says as much in Romans 9:6.

So in a sense, there has never been and will never be an earthly kingdom where everyone is in the kingdom of God. While the medieval kings of Europe were Christians, I wonder if hardly any were truly Christians. 1 and 2 Kings would indicate that a minority of the kings of Israel and Judah were actually children of God. There is always a separation between church and state, even when the state thinks it is Christian. 

Of Rights and Freedoms

Wesleyans broadly speaking have lived under a number of forms of governance since the movement started in the 1700s. Wesley lived under a monarchy with significantly reduced power. American Christians live in a representational democracy. Christians have lived in Africa under dictatorships. Christians in China have lived under communism. 

Biblical instruction suggests that Christians under all these circumstances should submit to the governance of the state except where it directly conflicts with the commands of God. Romans 13:1 says, "Let every soul submit themselves to governing authorities." 1 Peter 2:13-14 say, "Be subject to every human institution because of the Lord, whether to the king as ruler or to governors as being sent through him." These instructions should be balanced with Acts 4:19, where Peter explicitly defies the instructions of the Sanhedrin.

Indeed, John Wesley did not think American Methodists were biblically right to rebel against the king of England, and I also find it difficult to justify in relation to these passages. "Taxation without representation" was not on the lips of Peter in front of the Sanhedrin. When I think of the injustices of slavery, the injustices of taxing tea seem rather feeble.

Mind you, I'm glad the revolution happened and that the US won. Once the war had begun, perhaps we could have justified fighting for the revolution in self-defense. Wars are complicated, and Christians sometimes end up fighting in defense of their own people when they would not have initiated the conflict or perhaps do not even consider the overall reasons for the fight to be justified. In such cases, the moral blame rests more with the instigators of war.

Secular freedom is not a biblical principle. Freedom from slavery to sin is a biblical principle. Fighting for my individual rights is not a biblical principle. Giving up one's freedom for the benefit of others is a biblical principle. Fighting for the value of others might perhaps be justified. [2]

The impulse to insist on meeting to worship during the height of COVID was in part based on faulty understanding. A segment of Christianity was misled into believing that the virus was a hoax and an instrument to oppress the church. Anyone who got seriously sick or had a close one die can tell you it was no hoax. I knew more than one person who died after not taking it seriously. Shame on those who misled people to their deaths.

However, the notion of freedom and rights would have been insufficient biblical grounds to meet during COVID. The biblical principle is the surrender of one's rights for the betterment of others. On an accurate understanding of the situation, meeting as a church virtually rather than in person was the loving thing to do toward one's neighbor and family, no matter how much one personally might have wanted to meet.

The idolization of freedom among American Christians is a synthesis of non-Christian values with Christianity. It is a me-centered freedom rather than an other-centered surrender. It is what we call "syncretism," a mixture into our faith of elements that are actually antithetical to true faith, which is about surrender to God and others rather than the indulgence of personal freedom.

Monarchies and Oligarchies

1. Clearly a person can be a Christian and live under a king/queen, whether the ruler is just or unjust. Plato in the 300s BC thought that the ideal situation was a state ruled by a philosopher king. [3] I suspect a state run by a competent, benevolent, Christian king or queen could be a very good state indeed. The problem is whether that will be true of the next ruler.

In fact, God is the perfect King/Ruler. He is all-knowing and all-understanding. He is omni-competent. He is so omni-benevolent that the Bible can say, "God is love," where love is the disposition to act for the good of the other. It would thus be foolish not to submit to the Kingship of God and the Lordship of Jesus the Anointed One, the Messiah. No earthly king could ever come close. 

However, over the long term, on earth with human kings and queens, you cannot guarantee that the succeeding kings or queens will be either benevolent or competent, even if they consider themselves Christian. I suspect that the citizens of a state would have a better life, even as Christians, under a competent atheist who is benevolent than a well-intentioned Christian who is a buffoon--let alone a person who calls him or herself Christian but is not truly benevolent at all. 

It is simply false to think that a spiritual leader will thereby be a good leader or that if a person is a good leader, they must obviously be spiritual. Patently false. There have always been unethical leaders who accomplish good things and ethical leaders who screw everything up.

The choice of a king in 1 Samuel 8 was apparently not God's first choice for Israel, although he allowed it and then used it. This is an illustration both of God dispensing choice to his people and of God working through whatever forms of culture might exist at a particular place and time. Perhaps God would have eventually given Israel a king anyway, in preparation for Christ. 

But we should not conclude, as some monarchists argued in the 1600s, that monarchies are God's will for the earth. [4] A king or queen does not have a "divine right" to rule, let alone to rule in whatever way they wish. God gave Israel a king because their surrounding peoples all had kings. It was another example of the incarnational principle, where God meets people where they are in their situation and understanding. Then he works from there.

For all these reasons, I do not believe that a benevolent monarchy is the ideal form of governance. Aristotle, like Plato, believed that a benevolent monarchy was the best form of governance, but a tyranny (rule by an evil dictator) would be the worst. [5] Secondarily, he argued that the rule of a few good men would be second best, an aristocracy. So rule of a few evil people, an oligarchy, would be second worst to a tyrrany.

2. As a side note, Aristotle viewed women as incomplete humans and as incubators. They did not contribute to the "form" of a person, in his view, the part that constituted the essence of who we are. [6] In his view, women would not typically be appropriate to rule, "except when there is a departure from nature." [7] Aristotle's Politics presents a view of the household where the husband is the head of the household like the leader of a city. The wife was then like a citizen in that city. He also gives his ideals with regard to children and slaves.

His instruction is quite similar to the household codes in Colossians and 1 Peter. This comes to a key point that I think is quite consistent with Wesleyan thinking. There is nothing distinctively Christian in Paul's world about saying the husband is the head of the household or that the wife should submit to her husband. There is nothing distinctive in Paul's world about saying a slave should obey his or her master, assuming the institution of slavery. These statements conform to Paul's secular culture, and Aristotle would wholeheartedly agree.

It is thus when Paul pushes for the empowerment of the wife that he is being distinctively Christian. It is when he urges Philemon to consider Onesimus a brother that he is being distinctively Christian. The principle of "in Christ neither slave nor free" is the eternal identity principle. The other is an accommodation to a fallen world. This is what the early Wesleyan Methodists believed, and that Luther Lee preached. In that sense, egalitarianism is more in sync with the trajectory of Wesleyanism than complementarianism, which I would argue is less than the kingdom ideal and a corruption of Wesleyanism.

3. An aristarchy as Aristotle understood it was not a matter of vote or appointment. It was rule by powerful leaders who did not really need the approval of the people they governed. The Roman senate before the Empire was an oligarchy of sorts, ruled as it were by wealthy, important people like Cicero. Each year, two consuls were elected from the Senate to run the administration of the Republic. The House of Lords in England was an aristocracy, before the House of Commons was added. The addition of representational elements was a move forward, in my opinion.

Aristotle thought that an aristocracy was the second best way for a society to be ruled. However, if those few men were evil, it would become an oligarchy, the second worst form of rule. Although Russia under Putin has moved more and more back toward a dictatorship, it has largely been run by a few incredibly wealthy individuals these last two decades. As we will argue in a later post, this is what happened when the dissolved Soviet Union shifted to unbridled capitalism largely without the checks of representational democracy or a Constitution with checks and balances like most modern Western states. 


Communism, technically speaking, was meant to be a point when society did not really need money because resources would come "from each according to his ability" and would then redistribute "to each according to his need." [8] Although it sounds very Christ-like, it just doesn't work on any large scale or for any sustained period of time. We will return to it in a later post on economic philosophy.

As a means of governing society, twentieth-century communism was a wholesale failure. It inevitably devolved into dictatorships and oligarchies which did not in any way lead to societal thriving. Those with ability had little motivation to excel because the fruits of their labor were siphoned away to those with less ability. In the end, the drive to excel is part of human nature in its unfallen state, and society thrives when this drive is leveraged in balance with the needs and welfare of others.

There have been some brief, smaller experiments with communal living--the Shakers in Kentucky, the Oneida community in New York. These experiments generally have a short life because they are contrary to human nature, both in its essence and in its fallenness. There are almost always stronger personalities that unofficially dominate. Conflicts eventually come that have no real mechanism for effective resolution.

In the end, I only mention communism here because it was a form of governance in the twentieth century. It lingers on in some sense in certain parts of the world, but even China and Cuba have made capitalist adjustments in order to move forward. Communism has largely turned out to be a form of monarchy or oligarchy, not the dreamy, classless society Marx thought it would become.


As a teenager, the word Democrat was sufficiently shunned in my background that we did not want to call the US a democracy. Instead, it was important to say it was a "republic," which of course fit much better with being Republican. What is the difference? Perhaps we could say that a pure democracy is a place where individuals vote on almost everything, such as in certain towns in New England. A republic in the American sense is a representational democracy, where individuals are elected by the people to make key decisions and laws for the whole. 

In our context, however, it is a distinction without a difference.

Obviously, a pure democracy, where every individual votes on virtually everything, would be unsustainable on a large scale. Aristotle considered a democracy the third best form of government, and mob rule the third worst. A danger with a pure democracy, I suppose, would be when there are no checks and balances on the majority. The majority, then, can obliterate the minority, if they so desire. 

Similarly, the whims of small groups can get out of hand quickly on smaller scales. When you look at the way blacks were treated in the Jim Crow South in the late 1800s and early 1900s, you have an example of local power oppressing a particular people group virtually without check. An example is the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. His obvious murderers went unconvicted because the social forces of the region undermined the system. It took the intervention of a larger authority, the federal government, to begin to address a system that was supposed to work fairly and equally that had gone awry on a local and regional level.  

As you may have picked up, I believe the concept of state's rights has largely served historically to try to undermine the American ideal. This was certainly true in the conflict of the Civil War, and the same dynamic resurfaced in the South in the 50s and 60s over civil rights. A particular region didn't like being forced to do the right thing by the broader country. Note that I am expressing the historically Republican view, the view of Lincoln, in saying this. State's rights was a Democratic perspective until the 1960s. The two parties have switched perspectives.

Even in regard to the issue of abortion, the argument of states' rights is not really the true position of the anti-abortionist. Clearly, the proper goal of the anti-abortion movement is not for the issue to be a matter of individual states but for there to be a federal law prohibiting abortion nationwide. We are seeing the anti-abortion argument shift in this direction now that Roe v. Wade has been repealed. At best, a state's rights position in relation to abortion was transitional.

Representational Democracy

1. The form of government of the United States and other modern Western countries seems to me the best possible of forms, given human nature. On the one hand, there is a Constitution that is rather difficult to change. The first ten amendments are a Bill of Rights, on condition of which the Constitution would not have been ratified in 1788. These are very important because they protect the minority against the whims of the majority.

The central principles of the system are checks and balances alongside an assumption of self-interest. In an approach that fits very well with Christian and Wesleyan theology, there is a fundamental assumption that human beings are fundamentally selfish and self-interested. If we are allowed, we will run over our neighbor when it is to our own advantage.

The system thus works to cancel out our fallen tendencies. The people elect those who represent them, and they can vote them out. A president focuses executive action but is checked in power by the Constitution as upheld by the judicial system. Congress is meant to channel the will of the people, as it is allowed by the Constitution. The system, in effect, is meant to encapsulate the love of our neighbor as ourselves. 

As mentioned, there is an executive, the administrative head of the republic. This role channels the benefits of a monarchy. But the executive must follow the Constitution and the laws of the land. The executive is re-elected every four years and can only serve twice--an improvement to the Constitution made after FDR. 

The laws of the land are the purview of Congress, which consists of two houses. The House of Representatives is the more representational of the two houses, where representatives are chosen every two years from a smaller geographical unit based on population. The Senate has two representatives from every state for six years and thus follows again the principle that the majority cannot simply overrun the minority. Rhode Island gets as much a say in the Senate as Texas or California.

However, the Constitution and laws of the land are only as good as the people are willing to enforce them. If a president were to ignore the Constitution and stay in office, if the powers that be could not dislodge him or her, then the letters on pages become irrelevant. It is essential for the people only to elect individuals committed to the system as it stands. It is also essential that the voting system remain intact, unlike Russia where it would seem elections are rigged.

The 2020 election was a very dangerous moment in our history. On the one hand, the key points of its certification were all individuals who had supported the incumbent. Every examination of the election in the justice system upheld it, often by judges appointed by the incumbent. The former Attorney General under the previous president has repeatedly affirmed its validity. No one has been able to demonstrate sizable error in voting machines. Yet the former president has been able to convince many Christians that its results were invalid. This is a very dangerous situation, and it is unfortunate that many believers have contributed to it.

2. The Supreme Court and justice system then provide line calls. For the last fifty years, we have had a debate not unlike debates over how to appropriate Scripture. The side that has dominated until recently has appropriated the words of the Constitution in the light of historical developments. The focus is on the principles of the Constitution. The other side, which has recently become dominant, applies the words of the Constitution in terms of the specifics in the heads of its eighteenth-century originators. In a sense, the impact of the Civil War is reversed. The realities of a significantly broadened context are not taken into account. 

Let me give a biblical parallel. The Bible says to love your neighbor. The justices of the last fifty years have, in effect, asked what would be loving given our current sensibilities. The new court, now dominated by "originalist" appointees, asks instead what would have been considered loving in 1789. If beating a child or wife was considered to be within the parameters of love in 1789, then the law must allow it today. 

By contrast, the side that was previously accused of "legislating from the bench" and being "activist judges" would rather have said that, given our current sense of things, it is not loving to beat your wife or child senseless. The originalist side would have us make explicit in law any extension of Constitutional principles beyond the unwritten specifics in the bubbles above the heads of the founding fathers. In both cases, the same words are followed, but the originalist would not allow us to leave the time-bound understandings of the 1700s unless we explicitly pass laws to say so, even though those specific understandings were never specifically stated in the Constitution itself. 

The spirit of originalism has never contributed to freedom or the underlying principles of the Constitution. It has never expanded rights. It has always served to constrain and withhold. We saw it in the Dred Scot decision that forced runaway slaves back to their masters. We saw it in Plessy v. Ferguson's "separate but equal" debacle, which led to the re-oppression of blacks for over fifty years. It has virtually always served an unloving and repressive purpose that works against the spirit of the Constitution.

As a side note, the underlying dynamic of re-contextualization has always been in play in our appropriation of Scripture without our realizing it, and I believe God is in it. No doubt if we did not "spare the rod" in the manner of an ancient Israelite, we would consider it highly abusive today. When James Dobson set out parameters for the corporal punishment of children, he did so in a very careful way that no doubt is quite different from what would have been in the bubble above the head of an ancient Israelite.

In short, Christians and the church have always read the words of Scripture informed by a spiritual common sense in dialog with our current context. This is how the Spirit speaks through Scripture and how Scripture remains a living word.

Universal Ethical Egoism

The ethical approach that underlies the modern constitutional system might be called universal ethical egoism. As an "egoistic" approach, it aims to provide maximal freedom universally. However, this is not without limits. At a certain point, the exercise of my freedom begins to impinge upon yours. There is thus no such thing as absolute freedom in the system. 

Freedom of religion ends when my religion calls me to kill you or steal your stuff. Freedom of the press ends if my press threatens to undo the whole system. The right to bear arms ends when I start shooting people.

So we create a system that allows the majority to prevail except when its will would impinge on the rights of individuals or subgroups. And we allow individuals to have freedom except when it impinges on the rights of other individuals or groups. There is a system and a structure that facilitates these principles. 

Church and State

The non-establishment clause of the Constitution was meant to prevent a state church. It was meant to provide government neutrality toward organized religion. The principle is very Wesleyan and seems to be what God has practiced throughout history. God did not allow Israel to worship other gods, but he allowed the nations of the world to do so. In Romans 1, God "gives them up" to worship idols and be sexually immoral. A nation that allows its people freedom of religion beyond Christianity is thus analogous to the way God runs the world.

It is true that the spectrum of religions in 1789 was much less extensive than it is today. Here is an example where the originalist runs the risk of undermining the spirit of the Constitution by focusing on unwritten specifics that may or may not have been in the heads of some founding fathers. The more timeless principle is that the United States should be a religious neutral zone. Congress should not pass any laws that are rooted in the specific religious understandings of a particular religion.

I have already mentioned the fictitious quote attributed to Charles Spurgeon. "Why didn't the Baptists burn anyone at the stake?" The response: "Because we were never in charge." The very reasons why some individuals came to America--pursuing freedom from religious persecution--militates against a government that turns around and establishes a specific religious framework. 

We might point out that the rules not to murder, not to steal can be justified in a non-religious way. From the standpoint of the Constitution, these sorts of rules fit hand-in-glove with a social contract we have made with each other. The Preamble to the Constitution is a social contract, with the philosophies of John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and others standing in the background. "We the People... do ordain and establish this Constitution."

I agree not to kill you if you agree not to kill me. I agree not to steal your stuff if you agree not to steal mine. In terms of the Constitution, these are not religious statements. In terms of the Constitution, these are not the legislation of morality. In terms of the Constitution, these are the terms of a social contract aiming at universal ethical egoism. These are concrete, commonly understood principles for a maximally free society. They cohere well with Christian values, but they are not specifically Christian. 

However, I would also agree with those who argue that some judges in the past have misinterpreted the independence of the state from religion as almost a hostility against religion in the public sphere. The clause does not say, "The state shall prohibit all religious expression in anything run by the state." Rather, the goal is for the government to provide a neutral ground where a pluralism of religions might exist without any of them harming each other.

[1] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997).

[2] 1 Corinthians 9 is very helpful on this subject. It is in the context of chapters 8-10 on the question of eating food sacrificed to pagan gods. As an example, Paul did not insist that the Corinthians give him his rights. Rather, he surrendered his rights for the edification and true benefit of others. Romans 14 presents similar principles.

[3] Plato's Republic.

[4] E.g., Thomas Hobbes' Leviathon. Louis XIV is the consummate example of a seventh century king who thought his absolute monarchy was a matter of divine right.

[5] Aristotle's Politics.

[6] By contrast, because Plato saw the mind and soul of a person as something quite distinct from their bodies, he was more open to women leading. In their minds, they could also contemplate the eternal ideals.

[7] Politics, 1259-1260.

[8] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto.




Philosophy of Religion

Philosophical Psychology


Social and Political Philosophy (How should we then live together?)

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Wesleyan philosophy 6a -- How should we then live together?

The next question in the series. Doing my best to be objective...


Social, Political, and Economic Philosophy
We have just finished looking at ethics: "How should we then live?" Or better yet, "Who should we then be?"

The seventh question in these Wesleyan thoughts on philosophy broadens ethics out to society: "How should we then live together?" How is society best structured? How should society be governed? How might we best exchange our goods and services? From a Christian standpoint, a crucial question is, "How should the people of God relate to the people of the world?" 

These are the questions of social, political, and economic philosophy. Social and political philosophy is ethics written large.

This subject will take several posts. Here is a tentative map for the next few weeks:

  • How should the church relate to the world?
  • What is the best way to govern society?
  • What are the fundamental social concerns of Christians and Wesleyans?
  • How might we best exchange our goods and services?
  • Wesleyans and race
Christ and Culture
Few of us, Christian or otherwise, get to choose how our society is governed. Occasionally, there are moments when Christians had the opportunity to choose sides. There was the Jewish War from AD66-70, when Christian Jews in Jerusalem had to decide whether to stay and fight the Romans or retreat to Pella. My sense is that most fled (Mark 13:14). In the 1500s, English Christians could either go with the flow of Henry VIII or resist with the Roman Catholics.

In 1600s England, English Christians could either go with the flow of the Puritans or support the king. Perhaps some of my German Baptist ancestors left Germany for the Americas in the early 1700s because they sought religious freedom. In 1776, Christians in the colonies picked sides between the revolutionaries and the crown. There were choices on governance that could be made in the lead-up to the Civil War. Perhaps some of my Quaker ancestors left North Carolina to trade a place of slavery for southern Indiana. 

In 2021, many of those who stormed the US Capitol saw an alignment between their actions and their Christian values. Evangelical Christianity is playing a major role in current civil unrest in the United States, and it remains to be seen where it will lead.

But most of the time, our governance is a given. Most of the time in history, the way we are governed is not something we could effectively change. The more poignant question for Christians is thus how we engage the society in which we find ourselves.

In the end, most of us are not fully aware of the historical forces at work on us. We have likely inherited certain assumptions about how the church should relate to the world. We may not even know we have them. Rather, there is often a prevailing wind in the groups to which we belong. We typically go with the way the wind is blowing. 

We always have arguments, to be sure. We probably think we have thought deeply about the positions we have. But most of us are fairly unaware of the historical forces at work on us. [1] Our arguments come more from our social groups and our historical situation than from reason. We seldom change our minds, just our rationalizations.

In 1951, H. Richard Niebuhr suggested five different approaches of Christians to culture. [2] His categorization has not been without critique. [3] Nevertheless, I still find his categories generative. Here is a simplification of his schema:

  • Christ against Culture -- withdraw from society, live in a bubble in a world to which we do not belong
  • The Christ of Culture -- accommodate the broader culture, modifying our Christianity
  • Christ above Culture -- synthesize Christianity with culture, blur them together
  • Christ and Culture in paradox -- live like Christ at church, like the world in the world
  • Christ the transformer of culture -- try to influence the culture to become more like Christ
These categories are suggestive, but there is no such thing as a social group that does not have a culture. Culture refers to the norms and practices of a social group. Faced with this typology, almost everyone puts themselves in the last category, as if we stand outside culture in some way.

Every word of the Bible is incarnated in a culture of some kind. There is no such thing as a culture-less Christianity, and the people of God go through cultural shifts within the pages of the Bible.

I wonder if we might categorize Christian engagement with the surrounding culture by way of two "axes," one of which is a spectrum about how activist or separatist we are from society. Then the other axis would relate to whether the church aligns more with the way culture is changing or the ways in which culture is resisting change. We might plot such a grid as follows:

Some Christians assume that the job of the church is to make the laws of America mirror that of their particular Christian group. The law of the land should be the law of their church, a kind of Christian sharia law.

Other Christians see the broader society as something quite separate and removed from the church. Let God take care of the world. Our business is to be the church. "Come out from among them and be ye separate."

Still other Christians think that the world is getting better and better. Society is actually getting more and more like the kingdom of God should be. The church should change for the better as the world changes for the better.

Finally, there are those who think we have to live in the world even though we cannot agree with the world. We inevitably have a split personality. In the church we live and think as the church. Then when we go to work, we live and think like the world.

The last four paragraphs describe different positions Christians--and various Wesleyans--have toward how the church might engage the world. I would argue that Wesleyans have taken most of them at some point or another. Let's look at each of them in turn.

Christ above Culture

1. Niebuhr wrote his classic work in 1951. We had just become the world's greatest superpower coming out of World War II. We had played the key role in the defeat of an incredibly evil force on the earth. The Nazis were outside us. We could be honest about them. Nothing stopped us from seeing Hitler for the pure evil he was. We had no media channel telling us the Holocaust was a hoax. 

As a side note, it is hard for us to realize how many "mild-mannered Germans" did not see through Hitler. [4] Their media broadcast that all Jews were evil, and dissenting voices were squashed. Think of how illegal immigrants are sometimes portrayed on certain media channels today, almost as if they are all murderers and rapists. Many Germans thought it was justice, moral law in action, for Jews to be rounded up and separated. Their removal protected society from their evil influence, they rationalized. Germans were shown pictures of happy Jews playing in the camps. 

See, they are happy in those camps. We've brought justice. We've protected society. They are being treated nicely.

What we call Germany's invasions were, in their view, setting right the injustices of the past. It is the same argument that the Russian church is supporting right now in Russia in relation to Crimea and Ukraine. Those territories belong to Russia, the argument goes. So Germany was recovering the lost German territory of the past. It was liberating Germans from peoples who were oppressing them, and redressing the injustices of World War I. 

Our human capacity to rationalize our social situation and to justify the groups to which we belong is immense.

We like to think that we would have seen Hitler for who he was. I'm not so sure many of us would have, including many Christians. They made the mild-mannered citizens of Dachau walk through the camp after it was liberated so that they could not deny the reality of what had happened there. It seems absurd to us. They must have known. But I doubt that your average German at that time was much different than your average American today, including your average American Christian. 

Coming out of World War II, it was easy for us to think of America as God's nation. We helped restore Israel as a nation in 1948. We put "in God we trust" on our money in 1956. More than ever we saw ourselves as the savior of the world, the hand of God. We were God's favorite nation. As any sociology textbook would predict, we accentuated our virtues and ignored that we had plenty among us with the spirit of Nazis.

2. I would argue that the grassroots of the Wesleyan Church has thoroughly participated in these winds of culture. Niebuhr's "Christ above Culture" refers to a blurring, a synthesis of our traditional cultural values and our faith. Robert Bellah coined the phrase "civil religion" in 1967. [5] He referred to the way in which our patriotism can take on a quasi-religious form. 

Predictably, since our national fervor and our religious fervor have a similar character, they get mixed together. Our patriotism becomes sanctified and mixes imperceptibly with our faith. We have US flags on our platforms. July 4 becomes a religious holiday. Veterans and soldiers become saints. Our political party becomes the only party a Christian could belong to.

I have participated as a minister in a few funerals and burials where the deceased had served in the military. As a minister, I know that the spiritual dimension of a burial far supersedes any memorial of earthly military service. Yet I did not experience those funerals in that way. It seemed to me that the greater religious fervor often attached to the memory of military service. The truly Christian part seemed more a formality to get out of the way. "Are you done yet, preacher?"

This is civil religion, where we cannot tell where our devotion to America ends and our devotion to God begins. It is all intermingled almost imperceptibly. Our political associations are synthesized with our religious ones. It is, frankly, idolatry.

Let me suggest that "Christ above Culture" has been the dominant way grassroots Wesleyans have related the church to the world perhaps since World War II. We have had a hard time distinguishing our faith from certain cultural traditions, including our political affiliations. 

3. If you look back to the founding of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, it is no surprise that most of those Wesleyans were Republicans. After all, it was the party of Lincoln that had, in the end, been the side that abolished slavery. It is no merit since I had no choice in it, but I am grateful that my ancestors were Quakers who left the world of slavery for Indiana. My great-grandfather happened to fight for the Union. That is not to say that his cousins who fought for the South had much choice in the matter.

So being Republican in 1865 was very understandable for a northern Wesleyan Methodist. This association was passed on to the next generation. Inevitably, other Republican positions became associated with our Christianity. If the Republican party tended to be the party of (northern) industry, then capitalism and faith become blurred. Capitalism and faith would eventually become synthesized. [6] 

I'm not sure that many northern Wesleyans paid much attention to the injustices of the South toward former slaves in the late 1800s and into the twentieth century. These would have been reasons for northern Wesleyans to continue to lean Republican in the early 1900s. However, I suspect that our Republicanism was more baked into our religion by that time. It had become part of our culture, the blurring of our faith with our tradition.

My family was afraid the four-term Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt, might usher in the tribulation. There were similar fears about the first Roman Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. Might not a Pope turn out to be the Antichrist? Nixon was revered. He was firmly believed until he publicly confessed. Even then his own confession was almost not believed. He was mistreated by those liberal Democrats (who, after all, were probably communists).

The reasoning changed. The blurring of faith with our culture was the deeper, constant reality.

In many circles similar to ours, there is a kind of sanctification that takes place once a person is chosen as the Republican candidate for president. No matter what we might have felt about the candidate in the primaries, he almost becomes a saint once the election cycle has begun. One of the most fascinating tidbits of Wesleyan history is that the 1972 Democratic opponent to Richard Nixon, George McGovern, was raised as a Wesleyan Methodist. Yet I doubt very seriously that many Wesleyans or Pilgrims in Indiana voted for him. The political synthesis prevailed over any religious commonality.

Before we knew his name or any details about President Trump, before we knew any charges against him, (I have joked, before the foundation of the world) we could have predicted strong Wesleyan support for him. We could have predicted that opposition to him would be cast in religious terms as the work of the Devil, with Democratic opposition on the side of evil. 

This is Christ above culture, the blurring and synthesis of faith with cultural tradition.

The rationalization of why the Democratic party is the party of evil and the Devil has changed over the years, but the position has stayed the same. It is significant to reflect on the fact that this was true long before Roe v. Wade gave the argument to end all arguments. Most historians would argue that the Democratic and Republican parties have almost switched sides on some issues, [7] yet the synthesis of Republicanism has persisted.

4. Even the religious-political synthesis on the issue of abortion is not as straightforward as it may seem to us. I have already argued for the Wesleyan position in a previous post. This is a post on social forces and the fusion of traditional culture with our Christianity. There are social forces at work here of which we may not be fully aware.

Politically, Republican opposition to abortion has a background in southern opposition to desegregation. Southern states had argued that the federal government did not have the right to make them have black children in white schools. It was the same argument for "states' rights" that they had made prior to the Civil War. 

(Note on which side of that issue the Wesleyan Methodist church was. Some southern history books have tried to gloss over the reasons for southern secession, but the majority of historians would agree that "state's rights" was really a proxy for the issue of slavery. The South could see the writing on the wall and wanted out before the broader country would limit or abolish slavery. State's rights was the rationalization for a more basic underlying reason. We could resurrect most any 1800s Wesleyan Methodist, and they would fully agree with this interpretation.)

In the late 1970s, Jerry Falwell shifted the state's rights argument from desegregation to abortion. Did the Southern Baptists really care that much about abortion? They would come to. But in 1973, most Southern Baptists supported Roe v. Wade. In that year, a former president of the SBC made a statement that only considered a child a person after it is born. [8] He would change his mind in the decade that followed. Then, under Ronald Reagan, the abortion issue became synthesized not only with states' rights but also with Republicanism.

Again, I have argued for the Wesleyan position on abortion in a previous post in this series and elsewhere. Similarly, I do not belong to the Democratic party. My purpose in this post is self-awareness, not to oppose the Republican party or favor the Democratic party. 

5. This post is about our assumptions on how the church should engage the world. My argument is 

  1. that we are often unaware of the historical forces on us in such matters, 
  2. that we give arguments that are often not the deeper, underlying forces behind our positions, which often involve a lot of sociology, and 
  3. that having a position does not automatically entail how we should engage the world in relation to it.

As Christians, as Wesleyans, we need to be able to distinguish our kingdom identity from our political identities. Paul recognized this need when he told the Philippians that their citizenship was in heaven (3:20). As a Roman colony, citizens of Philippi were citizens of Rome, a real treasure in that world. Paul says it is not who they are.

Hebrews similarly distances its audience from its Jewish political identity. "Here we have no lasting city" (13:14), almost certainly a reference to the earthly Jerusalem. I would argue that there are equally godly Wesleyan individuals in all the principal political parties. 

I believe there are times when the appropriate Christian action is to call the world back to past strengths in our culture. There are times to affirm positive elements of our culture that are in danger of passing away. American culture is increasingly nihilistic, meaning that it is plagued with an increasing sense of purposeless, which often leads to violence. A celebration of truly positive virtues in America's past isn't a bad thing. However, it would be beneficial for us to be more self-aware of instances when we might confuse our faith with elements of our tradition that aren't actually Christian at all.  

Christ against Culture

1. I was not alive in the first half of the twentieth century. For those who were, we should also keep in mind that human memory tends to color our earlier memories each time we reflect on them, "infecting" them, as it were, with our current experiences. That's why primary sources are so important, so we can see how people really thought in another time. [9] We may think we always thought a certain way when in fact our perspective or emphasis has actually changed over the years. [10] 

My hypothesis is that World War II marked a shift in the paradigm of many Wesleyans from "Christ against Culture" to "Christ above culture." Christ against Culture is a perspective that withdraws and separates from society rather than trying to make society conform to our Christian values. My hypothesis is that our positions may have stayed much the same but our stance of engagement with culture changed after World War II. After the war, we became increasingly zealous to convert the world to our synthesis of traditional culture with Christianity. 

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, I'm suggesting, Wesleyans were more separatists.

I would describe the paradigm of the holiness movement as "Come out from among them and be ye separate" (2 Cor. 6:17). We recognized that we were a "peculiar people" (Deut. 14:2). The world was lost. It was doomed. It could not be saved. In the late 1800s, D. L. Moody preached that all we could do was try to get as many people as we could into the "lifeboat" of the true church. The Pilgrim Holiness stream of the Wesleyan Church was a firmly dispensationalist church. They were pre-millennials like Moody. It was all headed for the Tribulation. 

No use trying to save the world other than a few souls.

Although the Pilgrim side of our heritage did favor urban centers, the Wesleyan Methodists generally located their colleges in the middle of nowhere. The founder of Houghton College explicitly spoke of Houghton as a place removed from the world. Central was located smack between Atlanta and Charlotte--as far away as you could get from both.  

2. Christ against culture is largely the paradigm of the New Testament as well. Before we say that this paradigm must then be ours, we should remember that the social situation of the Roman Empire was quite different from ours. To impact the culture with a "Christ above culture" synthesis in the first century would have been impossible without revolution. (Some Jews of course tried it.)

When the powers of government are overwhelmingly disproportionate to the church, living as a somewhat isolated community of faith is probably the only option for the true church. There is no real option to synthesize the culture of the church with the world. The options are either to accommodate and disappear (Christ of culture) or be separate and weather the occasional persecution.

Jesus shows this attitude toward Roman money when he says in effect, "Give Caesar his money back. It has nothing to do with God" (Mark 12:17). Paul shows this attitude toward policing sexual activity in the world: "What is it to me to judge those outside? Is it not those inside you to judge? God will judge those outside" (1 Cor. 5:12-13). Paul would never even think about trying to get the Romans to pass certain laws about marriage or sexuality. It wasn't even a possibility.

I have heard an anecdote about a Pilgrim District Superintendent in the 60s who on election day would muse to his children, "I wonder who they'll elect as their president." It's not that he didn't vote. He voted. That wasn't the point. The point is the paradigm. The world was something different, something separate. This was a quite different paradigm than the strident engagement of the evangelical church today in politics.

Christians can also separate from the world on some issues and not on others. For example, evangelicals might say on issues of racial inequality, "God will take care of things. We just need to pray. It's a soul matter." Or on guns a Christian might say, "This is a heart issue. You can't change people's hearts by legislation." On social issues in general, someone might say, "The job of the church is to see souls saved, not to change the world. The world will get worse and worse until Jesus returns." But on abortion or gay marriage, the same person might be quite activist. "We need to vote for politicians who will make decisions from a Christian worldview."

3. My sense is that John Wesley was not a "stay separate from the world" kind of person. He was not a "the church is just in the business of saving people's souls, not their bodies or relationships or bank account or society." He was a social activist. He favored the empowerment of the poor. He empowered women in his movement. He favored the abolition of slavery. I will return to him below.

There are times when the appropriate stance is to separate like the New Testament church. But if we can do good in the world, why wouldn't we?

The danger is when we have mixed foreign DNA into what we are trying to transfer the world into. We probably cannot help this dynamic because we can never fully see ourselves. Christ above culture does this by mixing non-Christian elements from our past and from our human traditions. Christ of culture, our next stance, can do this by mixing non-Christian elements of the present and future. We thus need to be careful always to remember that our kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). We are ultimately aliens and strangers in the world (Heb. 11:13). 

In that sense, Christ against culture is the most fundamental of the stances from a New Testament standpoint, even if we should try to transcend it when we can.

Christ of Culture

As Niebuhr described the "Christ of Culture" perspective, it was the church selling out to the pagan world around it. Some non-Wesleyans would say that we have accommodated culture by letting women preach. The newly formed Global Methodist church would say that the United Methodist Church is accommodating culture with regard to the ordination of practicing homosexual ministers.

As Niebuhr laid out this position, I find it to be his least helpful characterization because it makes it easy to say "those who believe like me are the true, faithful Christians and other groups that disagree are compromising to culture."

Take the issue of women in ministry. Wesleyans believe in leadership and ministry. We would point to examples in Scripture where women are:

  • the highest political and military leader (Deborath)
  • a higher spiritual authority than the high priest (Huldah)
  • an apostle (Junia)
  • evangelists and teachers of men (Priscilla)
  • a deacon (Phoebe)
  • etc.

Many Wesleyans have historically been egalitarian. Luther Lee, a founder of the Wesleyan Methodist church, preached the ordination service of the first woman ordained in the US. Again, we find the core truth here in Scripture, in Galatians 3:28 and Acts 2:17.

However, many other voices in the church today would consider the Wesleyan support of women in ministry as an infection of the church by culture. Even within the Wesleyan Church, there is an increasingly louder group claiming that egalitarianism is an infection of the church by culture. They would argue that complementarianism is the more Christian view. This view tries to affirm women as equal in value while believing they simply serve different roles in the church.

Clearly, the founders of the Wesleyan Methodist church were progressives in their day, even revolutionaries in their social context. Donald Dayton has done a good job of laying out these dynamics in Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage: A Tradition and Trajectory of Integrating Piety and Justices, a must-read for all Wesleyan ministers wanting to understand our heritage. The Princeton Calvinists of the mid-1800s were the traditionalists of their day. They were the ones who used Scripture to push that slavery was biblical. They were the ones using Scripture to push that women should be in submission to their husbands. The first Wesleyans were radicals.

In revising Niebuhr, I find it more helpful to identify this position as one that sides with social change over social tradition. Some of my readers may wonder where his "Christ the transformer of culture" goes in my chart. The answer is that it depends on the moment. There are times when Christians should be activists and times when they should separate. There are times when they should pull culture back to tradition and times when they should be on the side of change.

The mistake Niebuhr and so many of us make is in thinking we can actually remove ourselves from the culture around us. Christianity is always incarnated in culture. It can never fully separate. Even if we go to live in the middle of nowhere, we take it with us. The Amish are half-frozen in the culture of the 1800s but still affected by the contemporary world around them.

There can be elements of secular culture that are actually more in keeping with Christian principles than parts of the church. Where did secular culture get the idea that women are just as valuable as men? Is it not the fumes of Judeo-Christian values? Could it therefore be that what part of the church sees as an accommodation to culture is actually an example of the world being more Christian than that part of the church? 

In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul tries to dance between the newness of the gospel and tradition. The gospel opens the door for women to pray and prophesy in worship. But that causes significant social conflict as the dynamics between men and women at Corinth are in conflict with the culture. Paul's solution is for the women to veil. That way they are respecting their husbands. They are not creating a sexual obstacle to the other men. They are not causing jealousy from other wives. But they are vessels of the Spirit. I have a hunch that 1 Timothy 2 reflects the effects of trying to work through similar tensions.

So there will be times when "Christ the transformer of culture" sides with change in the culture from tradition. And there will be times when "Christ the transformer of culture" sides with tradition over change in the culture. And there will be times when the church lays low and doesn't make waves with the culture (e.g., 1 Peter 2:12).

Christ and Culture in Paradox

At its worst, "Christ and Culture in Paradox" reflects the divided mind of James 1:6-8. The person is one way in church and another way in the world. The person is loyal to God on Sunday, and loyal to the world the rest of the week.

There are individuals who live with this sort of inner tension. There have always been individuals who work in the field of science and have never fully reconciled the operating assumptions of their work with the assumptions of their church. For example, some graduate students in biology go into their study convinced that evolution is irreconcilable with their faith. If they then become convinced of evolution, they lose their faith. 

Others reconcile their faith with evolution. But still others continue on with a kind of inner contradiction. Their mind says that evolution makes sense, but they can't square it with the belief they also have that the Bible is true. That is a conversation for another place. My point is simply that there are individuals who live with a kind of contradiction of worldviews inside.

Similarly, there are those who personally live by one set of rules as a Christian but operate by a different set of rules in their public life. In the past, President Biden has suggested that while he is personally opposed to abortion, he does not believe that position should be enacted in US law. I know military chaplains who have struggled with the religious neutrality the military expects of them and the expectation that they treat all religions neutrally and perhaps even perform gay marriages.

Here we get into the question of church and state. The first amendment to the Constitution indicates that Congress shall not establish any law respecting the establishment of religion. Thomas Jefferson coined the expression, the "separation of church and state." We live in a time when the interpretation of this concept is a matter of significant debate. 

The background of this clause was the tension within the colonies over the establishment of state churches. New England was Puritan and Calvinist. Maryland was Catholic. Rhode Island was a place where you did not have to be one church or another. This was the position that won out in the Constitution.

In effect, then, we theoretically live in a land that tries to be religiously neutral. It does not aim to favor or squash any particular religious perspective. This context creates immediate conflict with the Christ above culture perspective, whose implicit aim is to fuse Christianity and culture. Can gay marriage or early first-term abortion be legally prohibited on any grounds that are not specifically religious in nature?  

When you look at the Thirty Years War in Europe or the back and forth blood shed in Reformation England, much of that conflict had a Christian overlay. Should Germans be Lutheran or Catholic? Should the French allow Protestant Huguenots to practice Christianity their way? Should Zwingli allow the Anabaptists to rebaptize? Should the English burn Catholics or Protestants at the stake?

The Puritans fled England for religious freedom only to impose their own approach to faith on everyone else in the New World (Christ above culture). The Quakers just wanted to be left alone to practice Christianity in their own way (Christ against culture). In my opinion, the Founding Fathers were wise to go for religious neutrality, even though some of them were people of faith. Others were Deists, who believed God created the world but was no longer directly involved.

There is an anecdote that probably is not historical but still provides insight. In the story, Charles Spurgeon is asked why the Baptists never burned anyone at the stake in English history. His answer was reportedly, "Because we were never in charge."

I would argue that a system of government that is religiously neutral fits very well with Arminian theology. It fits with Calvinist theology to force (predestine) the rest of a country to abide by its own religious understanding. The US ended up with a more Arminian theological paradigm. God wants the world to choose him, but he does not force the world to choose him.

It is thus fitting for the US to be a country with basic moral laws that keep us from killing each other, stealing from each other, etc. These are all concrete instances of harm that are moral but not specifically religious. Then the Constitution keeps us from imposing specific religious views on each other. This protects us from our own Christian infighting. After all, which Christian understanding would we make the law of the land?

Christ the Transformer of Culture

It is not historically Wesleyan to think of the church's role in society as purely one of spiritual influence. Wesley tried to change England societally for the better. I believe it is possible to synthesize the above conversation into a coherent approach to Christ and culture in the US context. 

First, there are universal moral principles that cohere well with a representational democracy. The US was founded on the theory that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." Mind you, that language already involves some "Christ of culture." The biblical perspective is arguably one of graces not rights.

We might think of this principle as nothing other than "love your neighbor as yourself." A societal structure in which all persons are valued equally, protected equally, and equally given rights thus provides an intersection between Christian values and American values. It provides a framework in which we can work for good in the culture without trying to impose specifically Christian convictions. It does roughly correspond to the second half of the Ten Commandments.

We can work to abolish slavery on this understanding. We can work to protect the life of the unborn to the extent we can convince the world that the unborn are children. We can work to undo discrimination against individuals on the basis of their race or gender. If we can make the world a better place, why wouldn't we? This is intrinsic to Wesleyan roots.

However, as Arminians, we do not try to legislate morality beyond doing fundamental harm to others. We leave room for the world to choose God. We are content with the separation of church and state in specifically religious matters. We try to woo the world to Christ rather than synthesize a Christian Frankenstein of culture.

Christ the transformer of culture may adopt each one of the four basic stances at appropriate times and places. There are times when we should call culture back to its previous values and a time to push it toward change. There will be times when we are activist and times when we separate and hunker down. The Holy Spirit provides the wisdom to know when to do which.

[1] An excellent window into the fact that our reasons for our politics are often not the real reasons comes from Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage, 2012).

[2] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951). 

[3] I have heard several in recent days express a strong preference for Andy Crouch's Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Task (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008). However, his position is that we cannot change the world.

[4] Hannah Arendt famously wrote about the "banality of evil," how completely unordinary those who carried out the Holocaust and the Nazi agenda were. See Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin, 1963).

[5] Robert N. Bellah, "Civil Religion in America," American Academy of Arts and Sciences 96 (1967): 1-21.  

[6] In the early 2000s, I used to joke to my philosophy classes that some in my family were somewhat sympathetic to the NRA because they were against abortion. Evangelicals are against abortion, so they tend to be Republican. Republicans tend to be in favor of the NRA. So evangelical Christians are in favor of the NRA because they are against abortion.

[7] This is the insidiousness of Dinesh D'Sousa's argument. He equates the southern Democratic party of the early 1900s with the Democratic party of today when some very important transitions in that party took place in the 1950s and 60s. It was the Democratic party of the 60s that passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, for example. Over a thirty-year period, that element of the southern Democratic party largely transitioned to the Republican party.

[8] William Criswell. See here and elsewhere.

[9] This is a reason why journaling is so personally valuable too, to put us in touch with our real self from the past.

[10] I have found myself having to adjust my language over the years as certain terms explode. A word or phrase that caused no controversy one year might be something to strongly avoid the next, as phrases become highly politicized. This is true for both the right and the left. "You can't have used that word and not have meant something big by it."