Society is crying out for answers that only the church has, but it often wants them minus the values that make the church Christian. We should resist the temptation to conceal our full message for the sake of secular acceptance.
Media coverage and personal experience bear witness that every major power center in this country is groaning and heaving under the weights of insufficient resources, corruption and scandal, lackluster effectiveness, and ever-increasing need. Until recently, it was standard operating procedure for human services agencies to resist and refuse any type of involvement from churches or other faith-based organizations; the common understanding was that the well-known, albeit grossly misunderstood and misinterpreted doctrine of separation of church and state mandated such a response. But oh, how times have changed.
The creation of George W. Bush’s federally sponsored faith-based initiative, which is being continued by the current administration, has given the green light to partnerships between churches and agencies, and other “secular” organizations. These officially sanctioned partnerships have great potential to significantly impact the work of both sets of entities, but they have also created an interesting dynamic between systems that are quite often inherently conflicted when it comes to foundational beliefs and methods, purpose and objectives, and desired outcomes. I wonder if and whether these tension points should be resolved, and what it would mean for the church if they are.
- Deborrah Cooper believes Black women should stop spending so much time in church.
- A 2007 Pew Research Center study reports that almost 90 percent of African Americans say they have an “absolutely certain” belief in God; 80 percent of us say that religion is “very important” to us; and 55 percent of us admit that we “interpret Scripture literally.”
- The church is too frequently missing the mark, there is still an understanding — even by those who are not part of the church — of what the church should be about.
In every sector of society, people are asking for the church’s involvement and response. Programs and agencies are requesting action on everything from domestic violence to low educational achievement. In many cases, churches are responding with effective outreaches, trainings, and even financial contributions. Issues like education, homelessness, and hunger usually present few barriers to these types of collaborations. But issues like domestic violence, abortion, AIDS, and others have proven more problematic because it’s here that more theologically-based arguments and resistance crops up.
Much of this ideological tug of war is based in unavoidable differences in worldview. For example, Christians are charged to acknowledge that humanity is sinful and in need of a Savior. Secular thought teaches that humanity is inherently good and that circumstances and environment are the harbingers of evil and suffering; thus the secular opposition to any effort to change people and the focus on simply changing their circumstances. This type of clash leads secular activists to challenge spiritual leaders’ interpretations and applications of biblical texts, typically urging less orthodox or conservative, and more liberal or “expansive” views of the Scriptures. They also criticize what they view as over-emphasis on certain self-serving doctrines, like wives’ submission to husbands, and silence on clear biblical mandates to serve and care for the poor and sick.
In some cases, there might be some truth to this critique. But by the same token, their conclusions often amount to a deadly case of the tail wagging the dog. When it comes to biblical instruction, secular organizations cannot dictate theology to the church. They are ill-equipped to interpret scripture because the Bible says that spiritual truths can only be understood by those who are equipped to do so, and that the Holy Spirit is the one who helps us do that. Spiritually unregenerate minds are therefore not really able to render faithful interpretation or application of the Bible. So the onus falls on the church to do it. In those instances where we are emphasizing some truths while ignoring others, we must yield to the leadership and rule of the Holy Spirit to fix that problem so we can credibly fulfill our obligation to fully disciple people, which not only includes leading them to an acknowledgement and repentance of sin, and a sincere adherence to the commands of scripture, but also taking tangible action to relieve human suffering.
For example, in the case of AIDS, many churches have been slow to respond to the growing cry for help because they don’t want to compromise the biblical admonition against homosexuality. My observations tell me they are right to be cautious. Amidst accusations of being “constrained by judgment and dogma” and “judgment-based advocacy,” it seems to me that the church is right to resist attempts to turn the holy gospel into a one-sided therapeutic system in which the patient goes away emotionally happy and satisfied but spiritually damaged and sick.
While a holistically just response does not mean we pound people to dust with our constant refrains of judgment and damnation, it also does require us to remember that the gospel is not about making us comfortable and complacent when we are outside the expressed will of God. If it is about nothing else, the gospel is about transformation, which according to Romans 12, does not come about without a change in thinking. And ignoring certain aspects of the human condition cannot lead to changed thinking.
Practically speaking, this might involve helping AIDS victims come to grips with the attitudes that lead to their behaviors, and that possibly contributed to contracting the disease. In those instances where others’ actions have contributed to their diagnosis, loving guidance toward forgiveness and emotional wholeness might be in order. A truly comprehensive approach would address those issues, and also would minister to their physical needs too.
Society is crying out for answers. But the church will do itself and society a monumental disservice if it succumbs to pressure to give the feel-good, quick-fix solutions that potential secular partners are clamoring for. We must continue to be salt and light in this world. The best help we can give is doctrinally-sound, biblically faithful, tangible remedies wrapped in the love that has so freely been shown to us.