Joel Osteen: human but not a false prophet

The sidebar of Joel Watts’ blog Unsettled Christianity currently lists as “False Prophets” about a dozen named Christian leaders, along with some Christian ministries and some less Christian ones. Among those named as false prophets are Rick Warren and Joel Osteen. And that is typical of the kind of criticism which many Christians routinely heap on well known megachurch leaders like these two, often without any real basis in fact. I can’t help suggesting that the reason for much of the criticism is jealousy of their success.

Joel OsteenSo it was interesting to read the post by Gez today on that same blog Philip Wagner defends Joel Osteen, with a long quotation from Wagner giving an essentially positive picture of Osteen and his church, including the following:

Joel does not teach classes on theology, the differences of Mormonism and Christianity or a thorough presentation of the foundational beliefs of Christianity. He’s a pastor with an evangelism gift.

Pastors at Joel Osteen’s church, Lakewood Church, disciple people, teach doctrinal truths of the Bible and train people for ministry. They teach people truth from error.

Indeed. The substance of most criticisms of the much maligned Osteen, apart from that he has enviably good teeth, is that his teaching is weak. Yes, perhaps it is, because his ministry is not that of a teacher. He is primarily an evangelist. Those who become Christians through his church and ministry then receive good teaching.

Philip Wagner, whose post Gez quotes, has a lot more to say about criticism of Osteen in his post What’s the Problem with Joel Osteen? He notes how “a well-known pastor in Seattle” (he means Mark Driscoll) used YouTube to “tear Joel apart” for “what he did not say” – the reference is probably to the same video that I discussed here in 2007, when I was perhaps trying to be more conciliatory than I am now. Wagner also writes:

Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion – even if it is ill informed.
The disappointing thing to me is that Christian leaders speak out publically against Joel and thereby encouraging other Christians not to respect him or to doubt his authenticity.  They feel the liberty to publically attack those whom they don’t really understand or know.   It’s embarrassing.

As a Christian, I’m discouraged by the behavior of leaders who criticize, attack or diminish the significance of other Christian ministers. 

This behavior and attitude is why many people do not want to be a part of Christianity or go to church because they feel that when they go to church they will be criticized the way our leaders do to each other.

For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.  Gal 5:14-15 NIV

I believe the main thing leaders should be “called out for” is the arrogance and the divisive example they promote by publically dismissing the relevance of another person’s ministry.

Have these very public leaders, who take the liberty to bring these unfair assessments of Joel Osteen, spoken to him or one of his pastors in private about their concerns?

I may be wrong – but I don’t think they have.

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you.  Matthew 18:15 NIV

Now Joel Osteen is not perfect. After all, he is human. I happen to think that his remarks about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism were unfortunate, although that could be because they were reported out of context.

I also think Philip Wagner is wrong about this: it is a major election issue, because many evangelical Christians will not vote for Mitt Romney simply because he is a Mormon.

Nevertheless this does not warrant Osteen being demonised in the way that he has been by so many Christians. He may be a flawed prophet, but that is not the same thing as a false prophet.

So, Joel Watts, please can you now take the lead of your friend Gez and remove from your sidebar the accusation that Osteen and other respected Christian leaders are “false prophets”. I don’t expect you to take down old posts, but I would like to see a new post expressing your regret for what you have written about these people in the past.

And please can that be an example to other Christian bloggers, and writers in other media, who are bringing the Christian faith into disrepute by their often ill-informed mud-slinging.

Which Gospel? Justice or Justification?

Scot McKnightScot McKnight posts today on The Three “J’s” in the Gospel Debate, and by doing so opens up in interesting ways this debate about what the gospel is and how we should understand it. This debate is fundamental to the Christian faith, because, in McKnight’s words,

The gospel is at the heart today of every major theological debate, and it spills over into one ecclesiastical debate after another.

For McKnight the key to the debate is how to frame the gospel. He notes that “some people frame the gospel through the category of justice“, and others “through the category of justification“. The latter group, especially those who call themselves “Reformed”, tend to reject as “liberals” the former, who tend towards political activism. The latter often reject the former as “fundamentalists”. McKnight responds to both groups:

The gospel, I contend, is not properly framed as injustice becoming justice (though clearly this happens) or as the unjust becoming just/justified (though clearly this happens too). And the debate between these two folks proves an inability to convince one leads to the other compellingly. There’s a better way.  Instead…

This is where McKnight brings in his third J. He writes that “some people frame the gospel through the category of Jesus“, and for his discussion of this framing he links to his own recent book The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited . He concludes:

There are three J’s in the gospel debate. The right J is Jesus.

If you preach Jesus as the gospel you will get both justification and justice.
If you preach justification you may get Jesus (but I see only some of Jesus and not the whole of Jesus) and you may get some justice (I’m skeptical on this one).
If you preach justice you may get some justification (but I’m skeptical on enough justice gospelers ever getting to justification) and you get Jesus, but again only some of Jesus (often only his teachings, his life, and his life as an example).

If you preach the Jesus of Paul’s gospel (1 Cor 15) or the apostolic sermons in Acts or the gospel of the Gospels, you get all of Jesus and all of Jesus creates both justice and justification.

As for me and my house, we take the third J.

And so will I. Jesus comes first. Following him leads to personal justification and also to action for justice. But both have to spring from a relationship with him and follow the path on which he leads.

Did the Church of England stop colluding with Babylon?

George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian last night, accused the Church of England of “colluding with Babylon”. But in the latest developments this afternoon St Paul’s Cathedral has suspended its legal action to evict the Occupy London Stock Exchange protesters, and has announced an initiative “reconnecting the financial with the ethical”. Ken CostaThe initiative is to be headed by former banker Ken Costa, who left his top job as chairman of Lazard International earlier this year, but is apparently still Chairman of Alpha International and a churchwarden of Holy Trinity Brompton. Giles Fraser, who resigned as the cathedral’s Canon Chancellor because of his sympathy with the protests, will also be involved in the initiative.

So did the alleged collusion just come to an end?

Monbiot’s article The medieval, unaccountable Corporation of London is ripe for protest is a shocking exposé of how the Corporation of the City of London, the city’s official local government, is controlled by banks and other financial companies, and is almost without any democratic accountability. Yes, the 9,000 residents of the Square Mile can vote, but only in four of the 25 wards (voting districts), and the representatives of the others are chosen by companies.

Perhaps even more shocking is the way that the City is out of the control of Parliament and exempt from effective regulation. As a result, Monbiot writes,

the absence of proper regulation in London allowed American banks to evade the rules set by their own government. AIG’s wild trading might have taken place in the US, but the unit responsible was regulated in the City. Lehman Brothers couldn’t get legal approval for its off-balance sheet transactions in Wall Street, so it used a London law firm instead. No wonder priests are resigning over the plans to evict the campers. The Church of England is not just working with Mammon; it’s colluding with Babylon.

Protesters at St Paul's CathedralYes, it is this same City of London Corporation which is taking legal action to evict the Occupy London Stock Exchange protesters, or at least their tents, from in front of St Paul’s Cathedral. The camp is apparently partly on corporation land and partly on cathedral land. Last Friday the cathedral authorities announced that they would take similar legal action. And it was very likely this prospect that prompted Monbiot’s accusation “colluding with Babylon” – although it would have been more fair to direct the accusation at St Paul’s rather than at the Church of England in general.

Was it this prospect of legal action that also prompted the resignations first of Giles Fraser and then yesterday of the cathedral’s Dean, Graeme Knowles? I guess we will only know if they choose to tell us. One thing we can be sure of, though, is that this occupation, although not originally directed at the cathedral, has exposed massive divisions within it between those who, if not actually colluding with Babylon, want to uphold the status quo, and those who are sympathetic to the protesters’ campaign against the strongholds of Mammon.

I had wondered, indeed even publicly in a comment this morning on a post by Scot McKnight, if the Bishop of London’s intervention today might lead to a harder line against the protesters. After all, Bishop Chartres is very much an establishment figure (it was he who disciplined Bishop Pete Broadbent last autumn for criticising the royal wedding) and might be expected to support the status quo. So I am pleasantly surprised that after meeting with him the cathedral authorities are taking the steps that they have announced. They no doubt hope that this will prompt the protesters to leave their camp, but I don’t think it will.

The events of the last few days have been yet another public relations disaster for the Church of England – or perhaps not, if one subscribes to the view that the only bad publicity is no publicity. But in fact the last major alleged disaster turned into something of a triumph. Can the same happen on this issue? If the church can present itself as agreeing with the strong popular sentiment against excessive corporate greed, but without identifying itself too closely with any specific political positions, then this could greatly enhance the Church of England’s public image. And if this has to be done over the resignations of some church people who would prefer to collude with Babylon, then that can only be for the good.

PS (after about an hour): Although they are on the same site that I linked to above, I have to thank David Keen on Twitter for linking to two recent articles by Ken Costa about the St Paul’s situation: Reconnecting the financial and the ethical (PDF) and Why the City should heed the discordant voices of St Paul’s. These are significant not only for their content but for who is writing this and where he is presenting it: the recently resigned chairman of a major international bank, respectively speaking in the palace of the ruler of Babylon, i.e. the Lord Mayor’s Mansion House, and writing in Mammon’s own daily newspaper, the Financial Times.

#Occupy Wall St #OWS, or be a Hide-Behind-Wall Saint?

At Red Letter Christians Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove writes an interesting response to Occupy Wall Street and the worldwide Occupy movements which have grown up in response: Waiting For St. Benedict: Where Does Occupy Wall Street Go From Here? But I cannot agree with Jonathan’s apparent conclusions. I can agree with him that

The world as we know it is coming to an end. We’re all aching for the world-to-come.

But the question is how to get there. …

The Occupy Wall Street protesters may indeed not know how to get to where they want to be – or even exactly where it is they want to be, but on that issue see this great cartoon (thanks to Sam Norton for the link):

The Silent MajorityBut I’m sure they don’t want to go where Jonathan seems to think they should go:

Early in the 6th century, when the Roman Empire faced attacks from without and discontent from within, there came a point when most people knew that things had to change but no one was certain what would come next. About that time, a middle-class young Italian named Benedict left his home in Nursia to go to school in Rome only to find that the Empire which had been centered there was almost completely gone. … Benedict went to a cave, built himself a prayer cell, and so enrolled in the university of the world-to-come. …

The power of Benedict’s Rule was this: in a world that was falling apart, it gave structure to small communities of faith that could experiment in a new kind of community. It did not aim to restore Rome to its former glory or even to reform the church. The Rule simply offered people a way to live a vision of life together rooted in service, humility, and love. Throughout the Dark Ages, the Rule guided communities that existed as points of light in a sea of dark despair.

Yes, “Saint” Benedict’s Rule and the monasteries which sprang from it may have saved some of the treasures of ancient civilisation and provided part of the basis for its Renaissance rebuilding. Meanwhile they became the rich oppressors of the late Middle Ages, which had to be overthrown through a protest movement called the Reformation. This slow process of recovery followed many centuries of the chaos of the “Dark Ages”, and, to quote Tolkien, “some things that should not have been forgotten were lost”.

Wouldn’t it have been better if a talented man like Benedict (c.480–547), instead of retreating into monasticism, had stayed in Rome, like his contemporary Boethius (c. 480–524), to work hard at preserving and renewing its failing civilisation? Boethius, who has been called “the last of the Romans”, lost his life because of his political involvement, and within a generation Rome was devastated and largely abandoned. Benedict kept himself safely out of the way and died peacefully in old age. Could he have prevented the fall of Rome? Probably not, single-handed, but he could have tried.

Our western civilisation is not yet as far gone as the western Roman empire in the early 6th century. It is not yet ruled by foreigners who have seized power by force. It is not yet too far gone to be saved and for its wrongs to be righted. But if Christians, who may well have the best perspective on its rights and wrongs and the best ideas on how to save it, don’t play their part, the future is bleak. Our civilisation looks likely to be torn apart, as Rome was, by those with financial and military might but often lacking goodwill and long term vision.

So, I would plead with my fellow Christians, don’t be thinking at the moment how to retreat into personal sanctity in places of safety, behind walls or in mountain hideaways. Yes, there is a place for Christian community, “a way to live a vision of life together rooted in service, humility, and love”, but it is not in isolation from the world like Benedict’s monasteries. Rather, as Christians we need to occupy our neighbourhoods, if not in the literal way of Occupy Wall Street, at least by being lights of Christian witness within them.

For some of us, as it was for Boethius, the way to be a Christian witness will be political activity of one kind or another. We shouldn’t let scares about “dominionism”, as if there is a real danger that anyone will have enough power to impose Christian morality by force, distract us from our urgent calling to rescue our world from the threatening chaos. Do we want our world to remain under the “Domination System” of the evil one, as expounded by Walter Wink and today by Kurt Willems? Do we really think that is better for our world than it being under the dominion of God?

As Kurt writes, our Christian task is not to join the occupiers, nor to demonise them, nor to flee from them:

Only when we see our oppressors as gifts, as objects of love in spite of their un-love, will we be able to become the kind of just peacemakers that the way of Jesus invites us.  Our task as followers of Jesus, when we understand the dynamics at work in the Domination System, is to humanize our oppressor and in turn become more fully human ourselves. …

… the people of God have a gift to offer the world – the gift of the “third way” between inaction and violence.  The way of Jesus exposes the dehumanizing systems of the world, while seeking to raise the humanity of all parties involved in any conflict – even one dealing with economics.

Book Review: The Politics of Witness, Allan R. Bevere

The Politics of WitnessAgain I thank the publishers, Energion Publications, for sending me a review copy of The Politics of Witness by Allan R. Bevere. I have now found time to read it, and here is my review.

This is a slim book, with only 62 pages of main text. As such it can hardly claim to do full justice to the complex main issue it addresses: how, if at all, Christians should be involved in politics. Indeed it makes no such claim, but is presented as an introduction to the issues. Its North American perspective gives it some distance from my British one, but in today’s world US politics have to be the concern of us all.

In general terms this book is a useful introduction to the issue. It gives a clear presentation of how from the time of Constantine onwards the church has been compromised by its often close association with governments. It also clearly shows that, theologically speaking, it is not modern nation states but the church which is the successor of the ancient kingdom of Israel, and so material about Israel should not be used directly for modern political purposes.

Sadly, however, the book does have some serious weaknesses. One of them is related to its disconnected feel. The author is aware (p. xiii) that the book reads somewhat like a collection of rather loosely connected essays on one theme. These loose connections gloss over huge holes in Bevere’s arguments.

Most strikingly, his treatment of the biblical material in chapter 2 comes to an end in Mark 12, and so has nothing to say about the death and resurrection of Jesus or about the birth and early life of the church. There is not even a mention of the apostles’ practice and teaching relating to governors and officials. The first we hear of the church, in chapter 3, is when it is already compromising itself with the state, in the person of Constantine. It may be that in a book this size the material in the latter part of the New Testament could not be discussed in detail, but surely there would have been space for a brief mention of which passages needed further study.

As for the biblical material which is presented, I have some serious issues with Bevere’s treatment. In particular, he quotes (p. 10) Ezra’s instructions concerning the surrounding nations “never seek their peace or prosperity” (Ezra 9:12) without noting how this apparently contradicts what Jeremiah wrote to the Jews in Babylon:

seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.

Jeremiah 29:7 (NIV)

How can one resolve this apparent contradiction? One difference is that Jeremiah is writing to God’s people in exile whereas Ezra is addressing Israelites living in a restored theocracy. So if, as Bevere argues, theocratic Israel is not a model for modern nation states, Jeremiah’s instructions are surely more relevant for Christians today.

Bevere makes a similar error when he interprets Mark 10:35-45 (pp. 13-14) as relevant to politics. He claims that this passage is “more than a lesson on how the disciples should relate to one another”. But explicitly that is what it is. If principles can be found here which are applicable to how Christians relate to governments, then they can also be found in many other biblical passages which Bevere argues are relevant only to Israel and to the church.

Bevere also makes use of the rhetorical device of hyperbole to cover weak points in his arguments. For example, he writes:

For Jesus, one of the biggest failings of his people was the decision not to reject violence … Time and time again, Jesus continued to insist that God’s people could not be a light to the nations if they insisted on beating the nations over the head. On more than a few occasions, Jesus refused to be taken off and made king by the people in order to lead a revolt. (p. 13, emphasis added)

Well, the gospels present just one clear occasion when the people wanted to make Jesus king, John 6:15. It is possible, but unlikely, that his triumphal entry to Jerusalem could be interpreted in this way. But one or two occasions is not “more than a few”. I don’t remember Jesus ever addressing “beating the nations over the head”, but a few times, not “Time and time again”, he did teach his disciples to avoid violence. Bevere’s point could have been made much better by discussing these few passages rather than exaggerating their number and prominence.

Skipping over several chapters about which I have no specific comment, I come to chapter 6, “Why the Church in America Cannot Speak Truth to Power”. I accept that there is a real problem in that many Christians involved in politics, on the left as well as the right, seem more interested in power than in the kingdom of God. I realise that Christians in politics will be misunderstood (as I have been!) as supporting the Constantinian system. I understand that any system of political parties tends to corrupt those who go into them with good Christian ideals. But I don’t think these can be used as arguments that no one should even try. It is not of course an easy path for Christians. But we are not always called to do what is easy.

So I find myself in agreement with much of the “(Not So) Modest Proposal” in Bevere’s final chapter. I agree that some Christians are called into national politics. I would also fully support Bevere’s point that this call

must be confirmed by the church just as much as the call to ordained ministry. (p. 60)

Christians who go into politics and in doing so cut themselves off (as President Obama has done) from a local church are stepping into a minefield with little protection. Those who do so with the backing and prayer support (although not the public political endorsement) of a local church are far better placed to avoid wrong compromise, remain faithful to their calling, and make a difference to their nation. So I am pleased to read that Bevere does consider this to be a proper Christian calling.

I’m sorry to sound rather negative about this book. Despite the weaknesses I have pointed out it is still well worth reading. But it is by no means the last word on a subject of great interest to me. I intend to continue blogging about this, taking up some of the themes from Bevere’s book.

Grudem: Politics not really according to the Bible

Wayne Grudem: Politics according to the BibleA few months ago I had some quite positive things to say about Wayne Grudem’s book Politics According to the Bible – although I had not read the book, and still have not. Already in my comments on that post I was less positive, and suggested that

this is by no means a book I could recommend.

I would now like to reaffirm that in stronger terms, in the light of Mako Nagasawa’s post Wayne Grudem’s Misuse of Scripture in “Politics According to the Bible”. Nagasawa claims, and provides good evidence to demonstrate, that

Grudem’s biblical foundations are deeply faulty, and … many Christians who read him are being led to very wrong conclusions and opinions.

The main criticism is of Grudem’s conclusion that the Bible affirms

the right of the individual to acquire as much wealth and private property as possible by all lawful and moral means.

Nagasawa argues that Grudem has misused the Old Testament passages on which he bases this conclusion. Indeed he writes that

Leviticus 25 demonstrates that God’s vision for biblical Israel was virtually the opposite that Wayne Grudem has for America. …

For people to have the unlimited ability to accumulate wealth and pass it on to their children is precisely the opposite of what Leviticus 25 says.

Nagasawa clearly demonstrates this point, and shows that this material from the Law of Moses cannot be used to support Grudem’s conclusions. Ancient Israel was nothing like the conservative vision for 21st century America.

Now, as Nagasawa recognises, there are serious issues with using these instructions for a theocratic state to support any kind of political vision for today, whether more like Grudem’s or Nagasawa’s. The more appropriate Old Testament material for us to consider today is about how individuals among God’s people were politically active in states which did not worship Yahweh. But when we look at the most prominent such individual, Joseph, and at how his government nationalised the livestock and the land in Egypt (Genesis 47:13-26), we find more support for Nagasawa’s position than for Grudem’s.

Christians and Politics: Williams and Whitefield

I thank the publishers for sending me a review copy of The Politics of Witness by Allan R. Bevere. When I have time I will be reading and reviewing it, especially in the light of the discussion relating to my post Is every Christian in politics a “Dominionist”? But I am likely to be too busy to do this for the next few days.

Meanwhile I have a couple of links and quick thoughts to share on the subject of Christians in politics.

Archbishop Rowan WilliamsRachel Marszalek, newly ordained in the Church of England, reports on a visit to her diocese by the “notorious” Archbishop Rowan Williams. Part of her post is about a talk by the Archbishop “Making a Witness in the Public Square”. Here are some of his words as summarised by Rachel:

When you come into the body of Christ, you are to be loyal to God’s vision for the human race, over and above ethnic, National and even, swallow hard, family loyalties. It calls you also to be loyal to something that has not yet happened. For the Roman Empire this was seen as a rival claim. But we can not be loyal Roman citizens and in choosing not to be, death was the consequence for some. Christians work out a theology of citizenship which means that the country itself can not be treated as a god. …

The Roman Empire got it wrong in seeing Christianity as a rival claim. But the church was a great, big organisation. It was one legal system against another. The church has to step back and not compete for territory.

Rowan anchored much of what he spoke about in the work of William Stringfellow… Rowan quoted from ‘Conscience and Obedience,’ written in the late 1970s. …

When is it right not to obey the law, asks Stringfellow…when the law seems to be going in the opposite direction to God’s vision. Stringfellow proposes vocal advocacy – we do this and we take the consequences. Civil disobedience is not something Christians should never consider. We have to be able to say to the state – by what authority can you do this if it defies a Godward direction?

What can I say? Rowan Williams clearly wouldn’t endorse the kind of conservative Christian involvement in US politics which has been much discussed, and misrepresented, in recent weeks. But he would also reject the idea that Christians should keep out of political discussions and retreat to their own communities. These are thoughts I will bear in mind as I read Bevere’s book.

George WhitefieldMeanwhile Scot McKnight writes about Politics and Religion, the American Odyssey. A large part of this post is a discussion of the role of George Whitefield in pioneering Christian political action in North America. He finishes with some questions about how far Whitefield’s example can be followed today (emphasis as in the original):

Many may be uncomfortable with Whitefield’s attention to political issues in England and the USA, but there’s a big question here we need to discuss: Can a Christian pastor completely ignore the political? While the Anabaptist vision, as compared with the Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed views, may prefer more separation from the State and political issues, can the Christian preacher ever avoid the implications of the gospel for politics?

I will ponder these questions, and maybe some time I will attempt to answer them.

Is there an alternative to Palestinian statehood?

Flag of PalestineToday, as the BBC confirms, the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to apply to the United Nations for membership, and the United States is expected to veto this bid. Nevertheless the campaigning organisation Avaaz is continuing to appeal for support for the application. In an e-mail this morning (I can’t find the text on the Avaaz website but there is a copy online here) this is part of the argument they make:

growing numbers of Palestinians are giving up on two states and deciding to embrace a long term struggle — one they liken to South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle — for a single secular democratic state with equal rights for all ethnicities and faiths.

This, Avaaz implies, is a bad thing, a movement which should be undermined by granting to the Palestinian territories immediate statehood and separation from Israel.

But why? Does Avaaz really think that “a single secular democratic state with equal rights for all ethnicities and faiths” is a bad thing? Would it really be better to divide the country permanently on ethnic and religious lines?

Avaaz also notes that this would be “effectively the end of Israel as a Jewish state”. True enough. But it would not be the end of Jewish presence and influence in the land. Currently there are just more Jews (about 5.5 million) than Palestinian Arabs (about 5.3 million) living in Israel and the Palestinian territories taken together. That balance might change if Palestinians “return” from neighbouring countries – but then more Jews might move to a peaceful new nation, and any law of return would have to be even-handed. In practice neither side would be able to dominate the other.

So could this solution work? Of course it would not be easy to resolve decades of conflict and bitterness. But the comparison Avaaz makes with South Africa suggests how this could be done, through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Also a single state is more likely to succeed if it is a federal one, with large degrees of self-government for the continuing Jewish and Arab majority areas.

There are of course many obstacles to be faced before such a solution could be agreed, not least the probable strong opposition of extremists and religious fundamentalists in Israel and among the Palestinians – not to mention in America. However, those of us who are politically moderate and believe in the separation of the state from organised religion should see this as the most desirable long term outcome. But it will be jeopardised by any continuing moves to institutionalise the division of the land.

I support most of Avaaz’s campaigns. But in this case I believe they have got it wrong, and those like President Obama who reject full Palestinian statehood have the best policy.

Is every Christian in politics a "Dominionist"?

US Capitol Building at nightI read Joel’s review of The Politics of Witness by Allan Bevere (I have not read the book) in the light of his strident attacks on so-called “dominionism”. I was glad to see Joel’s agreement that Christian involvement in right-wing politics should be judged by the same standards as Christian involvement in left-wing politics. The post opened up for me the question about whether Christians should be involved in politics at all, of whatever colour. In the words of the alleged “dominionist” Peter Wagner:

The rules of the democratic game open the doors for Christians … to move into positions of leadership influential enough to shape the whole nation from top to bottom.

But is it evil “dominionism” for Christians to move into these positions of political influence? Here is the comment I made on Joel’s post, which he has yet to respond to despite having posted at least eight times since that post:

I guess there is an issue here which I still need to resolve with you. Does Bevere help us to resolve it?

Is it right and good for Christians to get involved in politics? If it is right, in what way? Is it wrong, for example, for a Christian to stand as President, because by doing so he or she is “bent on taking over the American Government in the name of God”? Or what about standing as Congressman or Senator? Or is it only wrong if he or she does so as the representative of some kind of Christian organisation? What, then, if the group is not explicitly Christian but its policies and nearly all its members are Christian? What if that group is the one of the two main parties, and the candidate has won that party’s support for more or less Christian policies?

Or if all Christian involvement in politics is wrong, what is the logic and what are the consequences of Christians, even if in the majority, handing over all the business of governing to non-Christians?

Do you have answers to these questions? Does Bevere? After all, they strike at the root of our rather fundamental disagreement about “dominionism”.

Joel doesn’t seem to have any answers, at least yet. Does anyone else reading this?

My own position is clear: it is right and proper for us Christians to be involved in politics at all levels, provided that we use honest and democratic means to do so. Indeed this is what I have done myself, at a low level. If any Christians do gain power, they will naturally want to use that power to promote policies generally in line with their faith, but they should not use it to oppress others or to enforce Christian practice or morality. I do not believe that any church as an institution should be involved in politics or endorse any candidate. I would consider Christian political parties legitimate, but at least currently here in the UK I would not choose to promote one.

The alternative to Christian involvement in politics would be, it seems to me, to hand over our nations as gifts to the powers of evil – either to liberal secularists or to fundamentalists of other religions. Is that what Joel and his fellow anti-dominionists want?

So it is interesting to see that Joel has also provided evidence which could suggest, at least to conspiracy theorists, that the Dominionismism conspiracy is an Islamic plot to undermine Christianity and present the USA to those powers of evil. He quotes from an article Exposing religious fundamentalism in the US published by Al Jazeera, best known as apologists for Osama Bin Laden and friends, which claims that

The US media has been downplaying a radical Christian theology that is increasingly influential in the Republican Party.

In fact what happened is that some in the US media, such as Lisa Miller of the Washington Post, realised that other media reports had been grossly overblown and inaccurate, and offered much more balanced analysis of the issues. But this new analysis did not suit the Islamist agenda, and so not surprisingly Al Jazeera weighed in with its own detailed but tendentious article. At least they did manage to lay to rest the lie that Peter Wagner is anti-democratic with this quote from him:

If a majority feels that heterosexual marriage is the best choice for a happy and prosperous society, those in the minority should agree to conform – not because they live in a theocracy, but because they live in a democracy. The most basic principle of democracy is that the majority, not the minority, rules and sets the ultimate norms for society.

Indeed, although the Al Jazeera article is right to balance this with a mention of minority rights which even a majority should not take away.

Now I accept that some Christians in politics have put forward extreme policies which I find highly distasteful. That is their right in a free and democratic society – although when it comes to recent horrors such as the call to let uninsured patients die I don’t see how such policies can be reconciled with any form of Christian faith. But the existence of such abuses on the right, and perhaps also on the left, is no argument for Christians to keep out of politics. Instead what is needed is for large numbers of sensible Christians with moderate policies to get involved, to defeat by democratic means both the extremist Christians and the secularists, and to acquire the influence needed to mend the world’s broken political systems and governments.

Jesus didn't mean 'nation-state' – nor does Wagner

When I was working as one of a Bible translation team in a former Soviet republic, one of the local team members questioned the use in an Old Testament draft of a word meaning “nation”, referring to Egypt. She told me that she had learned, no doubt in her Soviet era political classes, that the concept of “nation” was a modern one. I asked her what she thought were the characteristics of a “nation”. She mentioned such things as a single ethnic group and language and secure and stable borders. I could truthfully point out to her that ancient Egypt had all of these characteristics for thousands of years (in fact for longer than any modern nation state except possibly Japan). She withdrew her objection.

The first part of the title of this post, “Jesus didn’t mean ‘nation-state'”, comes from a comment by Joel Watts on one of his own posts, and refers to these famous parting words of Jesus:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

Matthew 28:18-20 (NIV 2011)

The United NationsIndeed the “all nations” of which we are called to make disciples are not to be identified with nation-states in the modern sense, or with the currently 193 member states of the United Nations. This is clear when we note that the modern “Westphalian system” in which land areas are divided into nation-states dates back only to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 – and so after the word “nations” was used in the 1611 King James version (and probably in earlier versions) of Matthew 28:19. In the ancient world there had been some nation-states, even more or less according to modern definitions, such as Egypt and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, but well before the time of Jesus these had been swallowed up by larger empires. So Jesus certainly didn’t mean “make disciples of all nation-states”.

But Joel, in the same comment, referred to

the urinating-poor translation of that section of Matthew.

He didn’t specify exactly what his objection is to the translation, nor for that matter which translation he was objecting to. But clearly at least part of his issue is with the word “nations” in verse 19, used in 22 of the 27 English versions at Bible Gateway. He seems to suggest that Bible readers will understand “nations” in this verse as a reference to modern nation-states. Well, perhaps some might. But the Google definition of “nation” does not imply the political organisation or single government characteristic of a modern nation-state:

  1. A large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory
    – leading industrialized nations
  2. A North American Indian people or confederation of peoples

Joel’s problem with the word “nations” seems to stem from a quote in his post from Peter Wagner:

Formerly, I thought my task was to go to as many nations of the world as possible and save as many souls as possible and plant as many churches as possible. Now I take the Great Commission more literally when it tells us not to make as many individual disciples as we can but to disciple whole social groups—such as entire nations. This is kingdom theology.

Joel’s fellow-blogger RODOFA (aka “Rod of Alexandria”) commented on the latter part of this quote:

See, this is exactly the problem with reading our views of the nation-state into scripture; its just not there.

C. Peter WagnerBut who exactly is “reading our views of the nation-state into scripture”? Certainly not Wagner, who is not at all referring to states or governments, but explicitly to “social groups”. The problem here seems to be that Rod and Joel are reading their views of the nation-state into Wagner’s words, whereas Wagner, a Bible scholar with an M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary and a Th.M. from Princeton Theological Seminary, was using the word “nations” in the same sense that Jesus was using it. And he surely knows very well that Jesus didn’t mean ‘nation-state’.

Joel blames bad translations for Wagner’s supposed misunderstanding of “nations” in the Bible. I blame Joel’s and Rod’s misunderstanding of the English word “nations”, as always meaning “nation-states”, for their misunderstanding of Peter Wagner’s theology, and their culpable misrepresentation of him as a “dominionist” with an interest in taking over governments of nation-states.

In fact, as I made clear in my previous post about him, Wagner has entirely repudiated the idea of the church running any nation-state. Rather, I’m sure he would agree, as I do, with Kay Sharpe’s words in a comment on Joel’s post:

Discipling nations starts with people getting saved, healed, delivered, set free – God lays it out there pretty nicely in Isaiah 58 and 61. In order to disciple someone, one must have their heart. In order to disciple nations, we must gain the heart of the nation. We do that by setting individuals free… who in turn set more individuals free… who in turn… until it becomes neighborhoods and people groups and states and then nations.