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.




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