The REAL story about church life in this pandemic

Empty church

Churches opening in violation of state regulations get a lot of attention, but it seems like the real story of church life during the COVID-19 pandemic is all the people who are not going back to church.

Here is Mark Wingfield at Baptst News Global:

The Pew study found only 12% of American adults reporting they have personally attended an in-person worship service in the past month. That compares with 70% of American adults who believe their churches should be open in one form or another. Fewer than 1-in-6 adults who want their churches open say they are attending themselves.

When the latest survey is narrowed to adults who typically attended religious services at least monthly pre-pandemic, the current reported attendance rate jumps to 33% — still less than half the number who believe their churches should be open.

Read the entire piece here.

The Falkirk Center on the John MacArthur controversy. Or how culture warriors write.

 

Grace Community

Some of you have been following the situation at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. For the past two Sundays, pastor John MacArthur has held religious services in defiance of California’s COVID-19 regulations. MacArthur said:  “We will obey God rather than men. We’re going to be faithful to our Lord.” Pictures of last Sunday’s services show that the church was filled. I did not see many face masks. People were singing. It did not look like people were social distancing.

MacArthur does not believe that COVID-19 is a threat. The state of California disagrees.

As might be expected, evangelical conservatives and the Fox News crowd are rallying around MacArthur, claiming that his First Amendment rights are in jeopardy. I doubt that argument is going to hold up, but I am not writing this post to argue one way or the other.

am writing to illustrate how the Christian Right is spinning this incident and how its adherents are contributing to our divided and polarized culture. For example, take a recent op-ed at the The Western Journal by Ryan Helfenbein, the director of communications at Jerry Falwell’s and Charlie Kirk’s Falkirk Center at Liberty University.

Helfenbein describes the California government as a “giant” that needs to be “slayed.” Such a characterization ignores the fact that governor Gavin Newsom is simply trying to protect the citizens of the state. He has scientists and public health officials advising him. Anthony Fauci has praised his handling of the crisis. Yet Helfenbein portrays the government of California as an evil giant doing everything in its power to close churches. This is not an issue of liberty versus freedom. It is a debate over how to reconcile two competing goods. Newsom has not convinced me that he wants to destroy Christianity or that he is a modern-day Goliath.

Helfenbein writes: “After doing what should have been a simple, mundane act–that is, holding their regular Sunday worship service–the church and its leadership have been threatened….” I’m sorry, but bringing thousands of people into an indoor space during a pandemic is not a “simple” and “mundane” act.

Helfenbein continues: “Now, in the face of the unconstitutional, godless mandate by California authorities to indefinitely cease in-person worship of the living God….” Notice the sensationalist language. And since when is it a “godless” act to try to prevent people from dying or getting sick? One might even argue that the regulations on worship are actually more Christian than MacArthur’s appeal to individual rights.

In order to fire-up the base, Helfenbein calls this “the most consequential First Amendment case of our lifetime. You can decide if he is right. He describes governor Newsom’s regulations as “wildly unconstitutional oppression.” Notice that these regulations are not just unconstitutional to Helfenbein, they are “wildly” unconstitutional. The use of the adverb here reminds me of this scene from A Few Good Men:

Helfenbein and the rest of his friends at the Falkirk Center don’t really care about how this issue might be handled through dialogue, conversation, compromise, and a good-willed effort to understand the arguments on both sides of the debate. (In other words, the stuff people should be doing in a democratic society). Nope–this is a war. Christians must gird-up their loins and fight for their constitutional rights even if it means placing people’s health and lives in jeopardy.

If you want a thoughtful evangelical response to this issue, check out pastor Gavin Ortlund‘s post.  And I am not just pointing you to his blog because I took his Dad for a class on the Minor Prophets at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the early 1990s. :-).  (Wow, that last line make me feel old!).

Evangelical pastor John MacArthur suggests churches that remain closed during COVID-19 are not “true” churches

MacArthur

Who is John MacArthur and what is this all about? Get up to speed here.

Kate Shellnut and Nicole Sparks report on MacArthur’s sermon Sunday at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California.

Here is a taste of their piece at Christianity Today:

During Sunday’s sermon, MacArthur suggested that churches that close are not true churches. “There has never been a time when the world didn’t need the message of the true church,” he said. “I have to say, ‘true church.’ I hate to think of that, but there’s so many false forms of the church. Let them shut down.”

The congregation laughed then cheered.

Some critics have questioned why Grace Church didn’t meet outside or adjust its indoor gatherings to meet health department guidelines rather than resort to a form of civil disobedience. Others brought up the risk of infection, since experts suggest church contexts, particularly with large crowds not practicing social distancing, are particularly susceptible to and responsible for several recent outbreaks.

Read the entire piece here.

Another evangelical pastor, Gavin Ortlund, has a different take.

What is going on with John MacArthur and Romans 13?

MacArthur

I could say a lot of things here about John MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, but until yesterday I always thought he took a pretty consistent stand on passages like Romans 13 that require Christians to submit to governing authorities. Whether you agree or disagree with MacArthur’s interpretation and application of Romans 13, his views have changed little over time. As I have noted before as this blog, MacArthur even believes that the American Revolution was staged in violation of this biblical passage.

In late May, MacArthur announced that Grace Community Church would be returning to face-to-face worship for the first time since the COVID-19 outbreak. Donald Trump said that churches were “essential. MacArthur listened and responded with his re-opening announcement. He wrote:

We were elated yesterday morning when President Trump declared churches to be essential, asked us to open this very Sunday, and promised to fight any state government that tried to stand in the way. As I’ve said many times, the Bible would have us submit to the governing authorities, and in the United States, there is no higher human executive authority than the president, who was speaking on a matter of federal and constitutional interest, specifically the First Amendment.

This announcement was made on a Friday. On Saturday evening, MacArthur learned that the Ninth Circuit Court ruled in favor of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s statewide stay-at-home order. This order prevented churches from gathering in face-to-face settings. MacArthur was not happy about the decision, but he admitted that “the Ninth Circuit decision is sadly the law of the land in California, and we gladly submit to the sovereign purposes of God.”

Now, in an online statement, MacArthur seems to have changed his position on Romans 13. He has decided that Newsom’s  current ban on indoor religious services is intruding on his congregation’s right to worship. He writes:

However, while civil government is invested with divine authority to rule the state, neither of those texts (nor any other) grants civic rulers jurisdiction over the church. God has established three institutions within human society: the family, the state, and the church. Each institution has a sphere of authority with jurisdictional limits that must be respected. A father’s authority is limited to his own family. Church leaders’ authority (which is delegated to them by Christ) is limited to church matters. And government is specifically tasked with the oversight and protection of civic peace and well-being within the boundaries of a nation or community. God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church. The biblical framework limits the authority of each institution to its specific jurisdiction. The church does not have the right to meddle in the affairs of individual families and ignore parental authority. Parents do not have authority to manage civil matters while circumventing government officials. And similarly, government officials have no right to interfere in ecclesiastical matters in a way that undermines or disregards the God-given authority of pastors and elders.

When any one of the three institutions exceeds the bounds of its jurisdiction it is the duty of the other institutions to curtail that overreach. Therefore, when any government official issues orders regulating worship (such as bans on singing, caps on attendance, or prohibitions against gatherings and services), he steps outside the legitimate bounds of his God-ordained authority as a civic official and arrogates to himself authority that God expressly grants only to the Lord Jesus Christ as sovereign over His Kingdom, which is the church. His rule is mediated to local churches through those pastors and elders who teach His Word (Matthew 16:18–192 Timothy 3:16–4:2).

Read the entire piece here. MacArthur makes it sound like Newsom and all government officials concerned about the health of their citizens are somehow equivalent to an atheist totalitarian state trying to suppress all forms of religious belief.

What happened to the principled Romans 13 argument that MacArthur made back in May? He addresses this issue in an addendum posted this morning:

Below we want to answer the primary question we have received in response to the statement:Why did you submit to the original government order, citing Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2?

The elders of Grace Church considered and independently consented to the original government order, not because we believed the state has a right to tell churches when, whether, or how to worship. To be clear, we believe that the original orders were just as much an illegitimate intrusion of state authority into ecclesiastical matters as we believe it is now. However, because we could not possibly have known the true severity of the virus, and because we care about people as our Lord did, we believe guarding public health against serious contagions is a rightful function of Christians as well as civil government. Therefore, we voluntarily followed the initial recommendations of our government. It is, of course, legitimate for Christians to abstain from the assembly of saints temporarily in the face of illness or an imminent threat to public health.

When the devastating lockdown began, it was supposed to be a short-term stopgap measure, with the goal to “flatten the curve”—meaning they wanted to slow the rate of infection to ensure that hospitals weren’t overwhelmed. And there were horrific projections of death. In light of those factors, our pastors supported the measures by observing the guidelines that were issued for churches.

But we did not yield our spiritual authority to the secular government. We said from the very start that our voluntary compliance was subject to change if the restrictions dragged on beyond the stated goal, or politicians unduly intruded into church affairs, or if health officials added restrictions that would to attempt to undermine the church’s mission. We made every decision with our own burden of responsibility in mind. We simply took the early opportunity to support the concerns of health officials and accommodate the same concerns among our church members, out of a desire to act in an abundance of care and reasonableness (Philippians 4:5).

But we are now more than twenty weeks into the unrelieved restrictions. It is apparent that those original projections of death were wrong and the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared. Still, roughly forty percent of the year has passed with our church essentially unable to gather in a normal way. Pastors’ ability to shepherd their flocks has been severely curtailed. The unity and influence of the church has been threatened. Opportunities for believers to serve and minister to one another have been missed. And the suffering of Christians who are troubled, fearful, distressed, infirm, or otherwise in urgent need of fellowship and encouragement has been magnified beyond anything that could reasonably be considered just or necessary. Major public events that were planned for 2021 are already being canceled, signaling that officials are preparing to keep restrictions in place into next year and beyond. That forces churches to choose between the clear command of our Lord and the government officials. Therefore, following the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, we gladly choose to obey Him.

This reads like some of the American patriots in the 1760s and 1770s trying to twist and contort their reading of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 in order to justify the American Revolution against the arguments of Loyalists clergy like Samuel Seabury and Charles Inglis

When Evangelicals open churches early

Evangelicals 2

Evangelicals like to think of themselves as people of faith. Faith is often irrational, but there is a fine line between faith and stupidity. As the title character of John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany reminds us, “I DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING THAT POPS INTO MY HEAD–FAITH IS A LITTLE MORE SELECTIVE THAN THAT.”

The New York Times has done some good reporting on what has been happening in churches and other evangelical ministries that have been opening too early.

Here is a taste:

But as new cases and clusters have emerged in recent weeks from Florida to Kansas to Hawaii, public-health experts have emphasized that, even with social distancing, the virus can easily spread through the air when hymns are sung and sermons preached inside closed spaces. One of the world’s first mass coronavirus outbreaks occurred in a secretive South Korean church.

“It’s an ideal setting for transmission,” said Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease expert at Emory University, referring to church gatherings. “You have a lot of people in a closed space. And they’re speaking loudly, they’re singing. All those things are exactly what you don’t want.”

The Graystone Baptist Church in Ronceverte, West Virginia, had resumed Sunday services, with masks optional, just 10 days earlier when congregants began to fall ill in early June. There have been at least 51 confirmed cases and three deaths tied to the church, local health officials said.

Charles Hiser, 82, was the first of three churchgoers to die after contracting the virus.

His daughter, Libby Morgan, said her father had lived alone and had spent the last few months cooped up at home to stay safe. She brought him groceries and talked to him regularly on the phone so he was not lonely. But Hiser missed going to Graystone Baptist, where he had attended services for 30 years or so, his daughter said. So as soon as regular services resumed at the end of May, he went right back, eschewing a mask.

Within two weeks, he had tested positive for the virus.

“I felt like, gosh, I was thinking he’d be safe there,” Morgan said. “You know, you’re in church. Just like a child that goes to school is supposed to feel safe.”

The church is now reopened, again, after a two-week closure.

There were just six recorded cases of the coronavirus in Union County, in rural northeastern Oregon, when the Lighthouse United Pentecostal Church announced its reopening on May 22 in an Instagram post that also cited Trump’s remarks about reopening churches.

Now, the county has recorded 356 cases, many of them traced to the church.

Read the entire piece here.

Saturday night court evangelical roundup

donald-trump-and-pastor-paula-white

What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since our last update?

Samuel Rodriguez is upset about the prohibition on singing in California churches.

Jim Garlow agrees with Rodriguez:

Here is how Dietrich Bonhoeffer would probably respond to Rodriguez and Garlow.

Meanwhile, court evangelical journalist David Brody loved Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech:

Here is Brody again:

I don’t think you need to be a “far left latte sipper” to be troubled by what happened last night at Mount Rushmore. It was a “big celebration” during a pandemic with no masks or social distancing on a weekend in which the CDC warned people about gathering in large crowds. We already know that Don Trump Jr.’s wife tested positive for COVID-19. And don’t even get me started on Trump’s use of the American past to divide the country on Independence Day. I wonder what Frederick Douglass would have thought about Trump’s speech. By the way, I am not “far left” and have probably had ten latte’s in my life. I prefer the $1.00 large McDonald’s coffee on my way to campus. 🙂

Charlie Kirk, an evangelical Christian, bids his followers to come and die:

Does anyone want to help Kirk, the co-director of Liberty University’s Falkirk Center, reconcile the previous tweet (above) with the one below this paragraph? I am not sure he understands the meaning of “liberty requires responsibility.” As Christian moral philosopher Josef Pieper wrote, “It is the concern of the just man…to give others due rather than to obtain what is due him.” But what does Pieper, one of the great Christian intellectuals of the 20th century, know? He is not, after all, 26-year-old Trump wonder boy Charlie Kirk:

And then there is this:

Lance Wallnau is attacking another so-called “prophet” and, in the process, offers his own prophesy. He says the coronavirus, racial unrest, Christians “taking a knee,” and the tearing down of monuments are all judgments of God on America. If you have time, read the thousands of comments on the right of the video and then come back and let’s talk about my “fear” thesis.

Jenna Ellis, a spokesperson for Liberty University’s Falkirk Center, is getting into the “America was founded as a Christian nation” business.

She also liked Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech:

I would like to hear how John Hagee uses the Bible to defend free speech, the right to assemble, the right to petition, the freedom of the press, the right to bear arms, etc.:

Like patriotic ministers have been doing since the time of the American Revolution, Hagee takes New Testament passages about liberty and freedom and applies them to political freedom:

Tony Perkins is engaging in the same type of scriptural manipulation:

Gary Bauer throws thousands and thousands of hard-working American history teachers under the bus by telling them that they don’t love their country:

Robert Jeffress is back on Fox News defending his Lord’s Day morning political rally with a non-social-distanced choir. His defense if whataboutism:

The day before, Jeffress made his weekly visit with Lou Dobbs. Pretty much the same stuff:

Focus on the Family is running an interview with Eric Metaxas about his book If You Can Keep It. I point you to my review of this seriously flawed book. If you want to take a deeper dive into this, here is a link to my longer review. I assume that this was taped a while ago (the book appeared in 2016).  As I listen to Metaxas’s radio show today, and compare it with this interview, it is striking how far Trump and the aftermath of the George Floyd killing  has pushed him even further into a Christian Right brand of Trumpism.

Franklin Graham is quoting the Declaration of Independence. Here is a question: Was Thomas Jefferson right? I think the Christian tradition certainly values life. It certain values spiritual liberty in Christ. But what about political liberty? What about the pursuit of happiness? Perhaps this is something to discuss with your friends and family over the holiday weekend.

Until next time.

Post COVID-19: religious revival or religious recession?

church-1515456_960_720

Last month, when I was writing my series “Three Sundays in April,” I commented on how court evangelical preachers Greg Laurie, Robert Jeffress, and Jack Graham were predicting a great spiritual revival as soon as Americans came out of quarantine and started attending church again.

But David Gibson, the director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture, wonders if COVID-19 will actually lead to “religion recession” in America.

Here is a taste of his piece at Religion & Politics:

The future of our national religious life is also the subject of growing speculation, with the sunny-side-up view arguing that we are primed for a new “Great Awakening” of the sort that have periodically transformed American culture.

This revival will be spurred, the thinking goes, by a flood of Americans who ache for a return to communal worship that has been denied them for months. They will be joined by newcomers who, chastened by this national memento mori, discover or rediscover the balm of faith. “Could a plague of biblical proportions be America’s best hope for religious revival?” Robert Nicholson wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “[T]here is reason to think so.” Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution had the same question: “It could also go the other way,” he tweeted, “but my instinct is to think that a great awakening is now *more* likely, at least in America, by 2050.”

To many, the prospect of a resurgence in religious observance is an enticing vision, because faith communities can be anchors of social solidarity, which has been steadily eroding for decades.

The data and history tell a different story, however, and, much like the economic outlook, the forecast for religion looks more like recession than resurrection.

Read the entire piece here.

Also see Yonat Shimron’s piece at Religion News Service: “Survey: Most Americans aren’t comfortable going back to religious services.

Wednesday Night Court Evangelical Roundup

Court Evangelicals at Table

Since my last update, a few things have changed in court evangelical land. Neil Gorsuch, one of two Donald Trump Supreme Court nominees, has defended LGBTQ rights and has proven he may not be the best court evangelical ally when it comes to questions of religious liberty. I imagine some evangelicals who are looking for a reason to reject Trump at the ballot box in November may have just found one.

Police reform and debates over systemic racism continue to dominate the headlines. On the COVID-19 front, more and more churches are opening this weekend and Donald Trump is preparing for a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

What do the court evangelicals have to say?

In an interview with Charisma magazine, James Dobson writes:

In an outrageous ruling that should shake America’s collective conscience to its core, the U.S. Supreme Court has redefined the meaning of “sex” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to include “gender identity” and “sexual orientation.” Not only was this decision an affront against God, but it was also a historical attack against the founding framework that governs our nation.

Dobson says nothing about Trump or how Gorsuch burned white evangelicals on this decision.

I don’t know if Louie Giglio supports Trump, but he is now apologizing for his use of the phrase “White Blessing”:

The apology seems honest and sincere.

Jenetzen Franklin praises Trump as a great listener and defender of law and order.  But Trump’s police reform speech failed to address the systemic problem of racism in America. It attacked Obama and Biden and it defended Confederate monuments. Is this big action?

Johnnie Moore, the guy who describes himself as a “modern day Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” is doing the same thing as Jenetzen:

Greg Laurie interviewed South Carolina Senator Tim Scott on police reform. Scott talks about the “character” of police officers and shows a solid understanding of the Bible, but the issues of racism in America go much deeper than this. I encourage you to listen to Gettysburg College professor’s Scott Hancock upcoming interview at The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

The Laurie-Scott conversation is a step in the right direction, but it focuses on striking a balance between law and order (Scott quotes Romans 13) and individual acts of racism.  The real conversation should be over to have an ordered society and address systemic racism. Today, for example, Scott said that the United States is not a racist country.

Robert Jeffress is “thrilled” to have Mike Pence speak at his church for “Freedom Sunday.” Expect fireworks. Literal fireworks! Once again, it will be God and country on display.

Here is another view of Pence.

Last Sunday, Jeffress addressed the Floyd murder and its aftermath with his congregation at First Baptist-Dallas. He summarized his response to our current moment in three statements:

1. God hates racism. Jeffress FINALLY admits that First Baptist Church was on “the wrong side of history” on matters relating to race. This is a huge step! It would have been nice to have this history included in the church’s 150th anniversary celebration, but I don’t think I have ever heard Jeffress say this publicly.  Let’s see where this goes. First Baptist-Dallas has some reckoning with the past to do.

2. God hates lawlessness. Jeffress says that there is “nothing wrong” with peaceful protests, but he condemns the looting and riots. He does not say anything about the root cause of the riots. One more question: Does God hate Christians who disobey unjust laws? I think Martin Luther King Jr. had something to say about that. So did most of the patriotic pastors during the Revolution. You know, the guys who created America as a “Christian nation.”

3. Racism and lawlessness is not the problem, the problem is sin. Agreed. The sin of racism pervades every institution in America. In order to address the problem of racism we need to go beyond mere calls for personal salvation. American history teaches us that some of the great evangelical revivals led to abolitionism and other forms of social justice. At the same time, some of the great evangelical revivals led to a deeper entrenchment of racism in society. Jeffress’s church, which celebrates its history of soul-winning, is one example. Also, let’s remember that when Frederick Douglass’s master got saved during an evangelical revival, he became more, not less, ruthless in his treatment of his slaves. We will see what happens this time around, but individual spiritual regeneration does not always solve the deeply embedded problems of race in America.

Now I want to hear how this generally good, but also insufficient, message applies to Jeffress’s support of Donald Trump.

James Robison is right. But so is Jurgen Moltmann when he said that Christians must “awaken the dead and piece together what has been broken“:

Tony Perkins is talking with David Brat, the dean of the Liberty University School of Business, about law and order and the breakdown of K-12 and higher education. Perkins thinks the real problem in America is a “lack of courage.” I did a post about courage a few weeks ago.

Brat wants Christians to be “prophets, priests, and kings.” Yes. Here is something I wrote last month about such royal language:

What does it mean, as Scot McKnightN.T. Wright, and Matthew Bates, among others, have argued, that Jesus is King? What role do Christians play as a royal priesthood, proclaiming the truth of God to the darkness and, as Wright puts it, “reflecting God’s wisdom and justice into the world.”And there’s the rub. Reed’s Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God as understood by many conservative evangelicals, looks the other way when a ruler from another kingdom (so to speak) practices immorality. They do not seem to take their citizenship in this Kingdom as seriously as they take their American citizenship or, at the very least, they seem unwilling to say more about the tensions between the two. (There is, of course, a deep history behind the conflation of these two kingdoms).

Gary Bauer just retweeted this:

Perhaps he should have made a caveat for Christians in prayer. But let’s face it, the court evangelicals don’t do nuance very well.

Ralph Reed is fully aware of the fact that Gorsuch and Roberts have betrayed him and his followers. Yet don’t expect him to throw out the Christian Right playbook anytime soon. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is ready to retire and Reed will no doubt try to make the 2020 election about the Supreme Court:

Rob McCoy, the pastor of Calvary Chapel of Thousands Oaks in Newbury Park, California, invited Charlie Kirk, the Trump wonderboy, to preach at his church last Sunday. McCoy introduced him by quoting Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever it admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” Kirk then got up and gave a fear-mongering political speech that ripped evangelical pastors who have participated in anti-racist protests. At one point, Kirk told the Christians gathered on this Sunday morning that if the Left “takes him down” he “will be on his feet” not “on his knees.” This was an applause line. If you want to see hate preached from an evangelical pulpit, watch this:

And let’s not forget Charles Marsh’s twitter thread exposing Eric Metaxas’s use of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to attack Black Lives Matter.

Until next time.

Churches and the memory of the Confederacy

Cathedral of the Rockies

Cathedral of the Rockies, Boise, Idaho

Last night I ran across this article from The Spokesman-Review about a Boise, Idaho church that will remove a stained-glass window featuring Robert E. Lee.  Here is a taste:

BOISE, Idaho – One of Boise’s largest churches is removing a controversial reminder of Idaho’s connections to the Confederacy – a stained-glass window featuring Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

The Cathedral of the Rockies installed stained-glass windows for its then-new building in downtown Boise in 1960. Church documents show that the window, featuring Lee standing with Presidents Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, was meant as an “inclusive nod to Southerners who have settled in Boise,” said the Rev. Duane Anders, senior pastor.

“Clearly, white Southerners,” Anders said.

As protests over the death of George Floyd and police violence against Black Americans continue, communities are increasingly demanding the removal of Confederate monuments and other symbols that elevate racist figures in American history.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced the removal of the state’s largest Confederate statue in Richmond. People in Boston beheaded a statue of Christopher Columbus, which was later removed by the city. The Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee voted Thursday to strip Confederate names, symbols and icons from all U.S. military bases despite vocal opposition from President Donald Trump.

At the urging of community members, the mostly white leaders and congregation of the Cathedral of the Rockies, the downtown campus of the Boise First United Methodist Church, said the time is now for their church.

“It’s not about removing sinners from the window,” Anders told the Statesman last week, “but about removing a racist symbol that clearly says to some people that you’re less than, and that you’re not really welcome.” Phillip Thompson, the executive director of the Idaho Black History Museum, is one of many people who have been urging church leaders to address the window since 2017.

Read the rest here.

I don’t know of any congregation that has taken racial reconciliation and its Confederate past more seriously than St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Read about it here. And then listen to Episode 43 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Trump’s Profanity

Trump Bible St. Johns

20th-century German Catholic moral philosopher Josef Pieper has been the gift that keeps on giving for me this week as I try to make sense of everything going on. Today, I want to call your attention to Pieper’s 1969 essay “The Sacred and Desacralization.” It provides some theological guidance as we try to make sense of Donald Trump’s visit to St. John’s Church yesterday.

Pieper starts with a story:

Frankfurt, Germany; the end of May 1948. St. Paul’s Church has been restored, in the midst of a city which still lay in ruins, for the centennial celebration of the founding of the German National Assembly. The German Writers’ Association, which had just been founded, was also holding a little festivity inside the bright, mottled sandstone rotunda. People left the radiant morning behind them and strolled into the building, engaged in lively discussions and moderately curious. A number of them, quite unabashed, continued smoking until they had finished their cigarettes, or started to light another. But then they were told, “Please don’t smoke, we’re in church!” The man next to me looked up in surprise: How could this be considered a church? I agreed with him in the sense that the form of a building alone is not enough to make it a church. After a while my neighbor went on: “And even if it were a church, a real church, why, after all, should one not be allowed to smoke?….” One year later in Berlin-Treptow, a district of East Berlin, once again people were instructed to obey the prohibition against smoking, this time when they entered the giant memorial park for the fallen solders of the Red Army…And a short time ago, in Israel–in a discreet but very firm tone–the same injunction was issued, in the restaurant at my hotel, when some Americans guests at a nearby table had finished their dinner and were taking out their cigarettes: “No smoking please!” “But why not?” This time the reason was not the place but the time. It was Friday evening and the Jewish Shabbat had begun.

Some of my evangelical friends might resist the lesson of this story. But though they may not smoke in church, they do indulge in other things during religious services. Most evangelicals do not have a very robust view of sacred space. As a result, they may not have much of a problem with what Trump did yesterday.

Pieper continues:

Clearly in none of these cases is the prohibition of smoking motivated by any practical consideration or obstacle, as it would be in auditorium or an operating room; nor is it motivated by any fear of the danger of fire…Nor does the prohibition imply any condemnation of smoking in general, any intimation that smoking is an activity in which it is really improper for people to engage. Instead it is clearly designed to call people’s attention to a boundary, to the border line separating a particular place or a particular, unusual span of time from all other, ordinary places and times, and to point out the contrast between them. The person who crosses the threshold into this “other” domain, is expected to behave in a way different from his normal behavior.

When Donald Trump used the property at St. John’s Church for his Bible-toting, violence-endorsing, race-baiting photo-op, he was engaging in profanity in the truest sense of the word. He was soiling a sacred space. I think there is a lesson here for all evangelical leaders who want to bring political speech–the language of the profane–into their churches.

Pieper elaborates further:

The purpose of the rules is the expression of reverence and respect. Respect for what? It must be for something which demands and deserves homage and veneration. If the stranger then asks what is the exact nature of this thing which is worthy of veneration, probably the answers he would receive could not so easily be reduced to a single common denominator. In any case, he would inevitably be told that this thing was in some sense “holy” (or ought to be “holy”) to human beings…

Pieper reminds us that the word “sacred” in English means “set apart.” There are certain places that “stand out from that which is everywhere and all the time, and which thus possess a peculiar and exceptional worth.”

Here is Pieper on profanity:

The “profane” is the realm of the commonplace, of that which is not endowed with this [that of sacred space] exceptional character.  By no means is “profane” necessarily synonymous with “unholy,” although of course there is also such a thing as the expressly unholy, which at the same time constitutes something in the highest degree profane.

Pieper one more time:

And regardless of whether the members of a religious congregation regard themselves as parochia (from the Greek paroika), ” a group of strangers or sojourners” (whence our word “parish”), or whether they consider themselves the citizens of the coming Kingdom, they draw a boundary line between themselves and the normal, everyday way of life, as it is lived by the citizens of an ordinary community. They may celebrate their liturgy in a makeshift church in the suburbs; in the dancehall of a village where the Diaspora has driven them into exile; in a cathedral whose costly hall is filled with stained-glass windows symbolizing the Heavenly Jerusalem; or in a concentration camp where, for a few minutes, a living wall of bodies creates a makeshift sanctuary and screens it from the grip of executioners. All these places have one thing in common: They stand out, by their poverty as much as their splendor and prodigality, from the dwelling places of everyday existence, from their death penury as well as from their deceitful luxury and comfort.

And nothing seems more natural to a man, when he is inside such an enclosure, than to behave “differently” than he behaves in other places such as a sports arena or a place of business. Naturally, in this sequestered place one continues to speak a human language, and yet it is “different” language–different in character, in intonation, in vocabulary, in gesture.

When Donald Trump moved from the Rose Garden to St. John’s Church he was moving, at least in terms of the Christian faith (as opposed to, say, American civil religion), from a profane space to a sacred space. When he arrived, he committed an act of profanity at a sacred or holy place.

Two Wheaton College Faculty Members Tell Trump That His Call to Open Churches Was “Dangerous.”

Church closed

Here is Kent Annan and James Aten at The Washington Post:

Dear President Trump,

Your pronouncement that houses of worship are “essential” and that governors across the nation should allow them to reopen was both irresponsible and potentially destructive.

Your message, which lacked specific guidance, threatens to confuse thousands of faith leaders who have been trying carefully to follow the public health messages from local government leaders, scientists and epidemiologists over the past several weeks. It puts church members, local communities and our ability to be a faithful witness at serious risk.

Some states already have been working with houses of worship on following guidelines for carefully reopening, but many will interpret your call as a signal that it is safe for churches nationwide to reopen.

Friday’s news conference could put a strain on pastors because parishioners might pressure them into making hasty decisions. And it threatens to divide congregations who have different opinions about when and how to reopen.

Read the rest here.

Most of California’s Evangelical Megachurches are Still Online

Saddleback

Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA is online this weekend

1200 California churches will open this weekend in defiance of the governor’s orders. We posted about this here.

But before the press paints California evangelicals with one broad brush, as they are prone to do, it is worth noting that nearly all of California’s largest and most influential megachurches will continue to conduct services online this weekend. Most of them are not listening to Donald Trump. They are making their own decisions in conversation with local government and health officials. This is also the case with evangelical churches across the country.

These churches are online only (though dated (10 years old), we are using the Hartford Institute for Religion Research megachurch list for attendance numbers):

Saddleback Church in Lake Forest (Rick Warren): 22,055

Bayside Church in Roseville (Ray Johnston): 22,286

The Rock Church and World Outreach Center in San Bernardino (Dan Roth): 14,550

Mariners Church in Irvine (Eric Geiger): 13,567

West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles (Charles E. Blake):13,000

Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside (Greg Laurie): 13,000

The Rock Church in San Diego (Miles McPherson): 12,864

North Coast Church in Vista (Larry Osborne): 12,521

Calvary Chapel Golden Springs (Paul Ries): 12,000

Templo Calvario Assembly of God in Santa Ana (Daniel de Leon): 11,000

Shepherd Church in Porter Ranch (Dudley Rutherford): 8675

Valley Bible Fellowship in Bakersfield (Ron Vietti): 10,300

Faith Community Church in West Covina (Dan Reeve): 10,000

Sandals Church in Riverside (Matt Brown): 9559

Calvary Church in Costa Mesa (Brian Broderson): 9500

Calvary Chapel South Bay in Gardena (Jeff Gill): 9200

The Church on the Way in Van Nuys (Tim Clark): 9032

Calvary Chapel in Downey (Jeff Johnson): 9000

Angelus Temple in Los Angeles (Matthew Barnett): 8975

Eastside Christian Church in Anaheim (Gene Appel): 8960

Cathedral of Faith in San Jose (Ken Foreman): 8000

Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood (Kenneth Ulmer): 8000

Grace Community Church in Sun Valley (John McArthur): 8000

Shadow Mountain Community Church in San Diego (David Jeremiah): 7513

Cottonwood Christian Center in Los Alamitos (Bayless and Janet Conley): 7000

Horizon Christian Fellowship in San Diego (Philip Macintosh): 7000

Emmanuel Faith Community Church in Escondido (Ryan Paulson): 6500

High Desert Church in Victorville (Tom Mercer): 6313

Lancaster Baptist Church in Lancaster (Paul Chappell): 6000

Bethany Slavic Missionary Church in Sacramento (Adam Bodnaruk): 5700

Crossroads Christian Church in Corona (Chuck Booher): 5221

Sunrise Church in Rialto (Steve Garcia): 5000

Rock Harbor Church in Costa Mesa (Bart Scharrer): 5000

Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena (Jeff Mattesich): 5000

 

ADDENDUM: When I posted this on Facebook I wrote: “Most California evangelicals will worship online this Sunday, but the media is obsessed with those that want to open-up.”

A reader responded:

The media is obsessed.” If I’m a journalist, it’s my responsibility to cover things like the Liberty Counsel’s “ReOpen Church Sunday” announcement which was made over a month ago. That’s not obsession, it’s simple reporting.

My response:

No argument here…You have to cover it. You are doing your job. But part of my job is to remind people that the reporting of individual cases–like the Liberty Counsel “ReOpen Church Sunday”– is used to create a larger narrative that informs programming and a given outlet’s approach to the news. You are covering facts. 24-hour news outlets are taking those facts and telling a story over the course of a given news cycle. CNN and MSNBC want to paint evangelicals as rights-obsessed, anti-science crazy people. FOX wants to portray them as patriots. Neither represents the everyday lives of most conservative evangelical Christians. A historian would tell this story very differently. 50 years from now, the story of Pentecost Sunday 2020 in California will be that the attendees of the largest megachurches in the state stayed home.

ADDENDUM #2 (Saturday, May 22, 2020 at 11:00am): John MacArthur of Grace Community Church is opening.

 

“Genuine Christian Faith is Larger Than the Constitution”

Corona Church

It looks like more than 1200 California pastors will hold in-person services this weekend in violation of Governor Gavin Newsoms’s stay-at-home order. Read their letter to Newsom here.

Here is Peter Marty, publisher of The Christian Century:

What’s motivating this willingness to put the lives of church members at risk in order to assert First Amendment rights? I don’t think it has anything to do with an honest conviction that various governors can’t stand religion. It has everything to do with an obsession over rights.

The language of rights is the language of power. “No right is safe unless it can be carried to an extreme,” conservative political philosopher Harvey Mansfield once remarked. This may be what we’re witnessing at the moment. Even though all rights have limits—you can’t shout “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater—the absolutizing of rights has become a distorted feature of American politics.

Legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon calls it “the illusion of absoluteness.” In her 1991 book Rights Talk, she points out that when talk of rights turns absolute it inhibits conversation, silences responsibility, and downplays obligation toward the common good. She writes that the “relentless individualism” promoted by such rights talk “fosters a climate that is inhospitable to society’s losers, and systematically disadvantages caretakers and dependents, young and old.”

Rights are certainly important. But there’s a reason the Bible shows little interest in individual rights. If I see my life primarily as a prepackaged set of guaranteed rights owed me, instead of as a gift of God, what motivation is there to feel deep obligation toward society’s most vulnerable? If I’m just receiving what’s my rightful due, why would I ever need to express gratitude? What’s the point of looking outward toward others if I’m chiefly responsible for looking inward and securing the personal rights that are mine?

I want a faith that’s larger than the US Con­sti­tution…. 

Read the entire piece here.

The Church in Exile

Wright

Theologian N.T. Wright has a new book out titled God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath. I have a review copy, but I have not the time to look at it yet. Stay tuned.

Wright has published an excerpt at Time. Here is a taste of “Should Churches Reopen? The Answer Lies in Thinking of This As a Time of Exile“:

Of course, part of the point of Psalm 137 is precisely that this Psalm is itself a “song of the Lord.” That is the irony: writing a poem about being unable to write a poem. Part of the discipline of lament might then be to turn the lament itself into a song of sorrow. Perhaps that is part of the way in which we are being called right now to be people of lament – lamenting even the fact that we can’t lament in the way we would normally prefer. We need to explore those questions, and the new disciplines they may demand, in whatever ways we can. Perhaps this, too, is simply to be accepted as part of what life in Babylon is like. We must, as Jeremiah said, settle down into this regime and “seek the welfare of the city” where we are. But let’s not pretend it’s where we want to be. Let’s not forget Jerusalem. Let’s not decide to stay here.

Read the entire piece here.

Digitizing New England Church Records

csm-volume72-fig01

Here is Jeff Cooper at the blog of the American Antiquarian Society:

For the past fifteen years, New England’s Hidden Histories (NEHH), a project of the Congregational Library & Archives in Boston, has sought to locate, digitize, transcribe, and publish online New England’s earliest manuscript church records. The project, which was featured on the front page of the New York Times, has already made available documents from nearly one hundred local churches.

With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the American Antiquarian Society has partnered with Hidden Histories to digitize some of the most exciting and illuminating documents in the AAS’s vast manuscript collections. The current pandemic, which has forced virtually all research institutions in New England to close, underscores the importance of digital initiatives, and the online accessibility provided by these kinds of projects. Already the two institutions have collaboratively digitized and published online an early manuscript draft of Congregationalism’s foundational document, the 1649 Cambridge Platform, along with the church elders’ responses to lay objections to the document. Early New Englanders referred to the Platform as their “constitution” of church government…

Other significant documents slated for digitization include the papers of the Reverend Thomas Shepard, one of the key members of the founding generation, and the one thousand-page diary of Increase Mather. Collections of local church records scheduled for online publication include those of Worcester, Holden, Shrewsbury, and several others. Hidden Histories has transcribed many of the documents in its collections and is always looking for volunteers to assist.

The thousands of pages of historically significant documents to be published online by the AAS and New England’s Hidden Histories will provide scholars and the general public with an unprecedented opportunity to study seventeenth and eighteenth-century church and community life in the region.

Read the entire post here.

What’s the Matter With Kansas?

laura kelly state of the state

Governor Laura Kelly

Here is The Wichita Eagle:

Easter looming, Kansas Republican leaders on Wednesday revoked Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s order limiting religious gatherings to 10 people as the state’s coronavirus death toll jumped 40 percent.

House and Senate leaders — meeting as a body called the Legislative Coordinating Council — voted along party lines to throw out the directive. Their decision came as the number of reported COVID-19 cases in the state climbed to more than 1,000 and the death count ticked up to 38.

Church gatherings have produced three case clusters across the state and health officials fear Easter gatherings could further spread the deadly coronavirus. Pastors and priests now confront a stark choice: forgo in-person services on Christianity’s holiest day or open church buildings and potentially risk exposing parishioners.

Kelly denounced the legislators’ decision at a late afternoon press conference, calling it “shockingly irresponsible” and one likely to cost lives.e legislators’ decision at a late afternoon press conference, calling it “shockingly irresponsible” and one likely to cost lives.

She said she instructed her legal counsel to explore a court challenge. According to the governor, it was unclear whether an overall statewide ban on mass gatherings of more than 10 people remained in effect.

“There are real life consequences to the partisan games Republicans played today,” Kelly said.

Her order had sparked strong backlash among Republicans and religious liberty advocates, who condemned it as a violation of foundational freedoms and an overreach by the governor. One GOP congressional candidate, Adrienne Vallejo Foster, went as far as calling on sheriffs to ignore the order and urging churches to meet while practicing social distancing.

She said she instructed her legal counsel to explore a court challenge. According to the governor, it was unclear whether an overall statewide ban on mass gatherings of more than 10 people remained in effect.

“There are real life consequences to the partisan games Republicans played today,” Kelly said.

Her order had sparked strong backlash among Republicans and religious liberty advocates, who condemned it as a violation of foundational freedoms and an overreach by the governor. One GOP congressional candidate, Adrienne Vallejo Foster, went as far as calling on sheriffs to ignore the order and urging churches to meet while practicing social distancing.

Read the entire piece here.

Governor Laura Kelly was on CNN last night. She said the faith-leaders in Kansas are very supportive of the limits she placed on religious gatherings. It is the GOP politicians, she said, that have a problem with her order.

I wouldn’t be surprised if these same legislators also invoke Romans 13 when they defend Donald Trump’s anti-Christian policies.

Don’t conservative Christian philosophers, political theorists, theologians, and legal scholars believe that civil rights are rooted in a Judeo-Christian understanding of human dignity? If this is true, then what do you do when the protection of these rights place the lives of other in jeopardy?

When the Churches Can’t Provide the Social Safety Net That We Need

a3062-nodepressioninheavenIn the midst of our current pandemic, several historian friends have been referencing Alison Collis Greene‘s book No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta. Greene’s book shows, among other things, that sometimes the good work of local churches in times of economic and social crises is just not enough.  Sometimes we need the government.

Over at The Baffler, Rachel Bryan, a doctoral student in literature at the University of Tennessee, reflects on Greene’s book in the context of her own experience growing-up in the South.  Here is a taste:

IN 2005, MY FAMILY HOME BURNED DOWN. It was an old Sears Roebuck Victorian that my parents spent over twenty years remodeling a bit at a time. The fire happened in June in Alabama; I was asleep in my older sister’s bedroom while she was at the beach because she had an air conditioner in her room, and I didn’t in mine. I slept in her bed whenever I could, which saved my life when the fire started in an outlet in my room. Later that year, Hurricane Katrina came through and flooded what was left of the house’s ground level. We had insurance and were able to eventually rebuild, after a stint in a house with possums in the attic, but I remember the stifling silence of our small town’s churches during those years. Our own church was microscopic, with a few families and older people who could only offer the shirts off their backs—and many did. But I knew then, without question, that churches weren’t a social safety net. If we needed help, the church wouldn’t be the provider.

Those memories came back to me recently when, for a Southern history seminar, I read Alison Collis Greene’s 2015 study No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta. Greene tells the story behind what she calls “the myth of the redemptive depression.” There is some truth to the myth, she notes in her opening. “Members of families and communities indeed turned to one another in their hardship, and many also turned to their churches for solace, for support, for meaning.” Yet in the Mississippi Delta, people quickly saw “the inadequacy of families, communities, and churches full of poor people to aid one another in their time of mutual distress. The Great Depression gave lie to the toxic notion that responsibility for poverty lies with the poor rather than with systems of oppression that make a mockery of the American dream.” With a global pandemic and economic recession—if not full-scale depression—looming, Greene’s study of religious charity and political power speaks to life and death concerns in the nation’s most vulnerable regions—and sheds light on what we’re all about to face.

And this:

Later, Greene’s book turns to the reshaping of American national memory—specifically, how the New Right emerged after World War II to rewrite the narrative of the church’s failures during the Depression, and how the church further aligned with the nation’s commitment to capitalist industry in the late twentieth century. The new story encouraged resistance to socialized poverty initiatives, and it framed the state as having gotten in the way of effective church charity

In these rosy new narratives, the Great Depression brought suffering and sorrow, but also thrift and humility. It did precisely what religious authorities had hoped it would: it stripped away life’s superfluities and brought people together, and to God. The Great Depression brought redemption—or it would have, if only Franklin Roosevelt had not interfered.

That’s the redemptive myth, and it fortified the falsehood that governmental assistance was unnecessary, and even harmful to individual initiative and religious charity. This history is important for Southern communities today, especially in places where churches are taking tithes online but will go on to offer no direct relief aid to their congregations. And communities will continue to send their prayers, find social solace in their church communities, and listen to sermons about their communities coming together, all while these churches have no loaves and fishes to spare.

Read the entire piece here.

Rodney Howard-Browne Arrested for Holding Services on Sunday

Pastor-Rodney-Howard-Browne-arrest

I am glad they got this guy. You remember him:

Rodney Howard-Browne held services again on Sunday. Tampa Bay-area officials said enough:

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne bonded out of jail Monday afternoon. He paid $500 bail and was released from the Hernando County jail, online records show.

An arrest warrant for Tampa Bay pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was issued Monday, and the pastor was taken into custody after the sheriff said the church violated a countywide “safer-at-home” order.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said the River at Tampa Bay Church violated the county’s order related to large gatherings and social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic. A live stream from the church on Sunday showed the building packed with worshippers.

When Chronister saw images from a crowded Sunday service at the church posted online, he was furious.

“We received an anonymous tip that Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne refused a request to temporarily stop holding large gatherings at his church,” he said. “And instead, he was encouraging his large congregation to meet at his church.”

Hours later, the sheriff along with Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, filed a pair of charges against Howard-Browne, including unlawful assembly.

Chronister said it was a “reckless disregard for public safety.”

Chronister said Howard-Browne refused requests to stop gatherings at the church and even encouraged people to meet at the church. Chronister said the pastor “put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk,” and in turn thousands of Tampa Bay residents in danger.

Read the rest at CBS Tampa affiliate WTSP-TV.

What is the Role of the Church During This Pandemic?

Christianity

As readers of this blog know, I have taken some comfort and instruction during this pandemic from the writings of Anglican clergyman and Oxford University theologian N.T. Wright.  Churches may be closed, but the church–as the Christian people of God–still speak and act in the world.  But what should this kind of acting and speaking look like?

In his book God in Public: How the Bible Speaks Truth to Power Today, Wright writes:

…when God wants to change the world he doesn’t send in the tanks…he sends in the meek, the mourners, the merciful, the hungry-for-justice people, the peacemakers, the incoruptibly pure in heart. That was never a list of qualities you  need to try to work at in order to get to heaven. It was always a list of human characteristics though which God would bring his kingdom on earth as in heaven. That is how God works. And by the time the bullies and the arrogant have woken up to what’s happening, the meek and the mourners and the merciful have built hospitals and schools; they are looking after the sick and the wounded; they are feeding the hungry and rescuing the helpless; and they are telling the powerful and the vested-interest people that this is what a genuinely human society looks like…

The church has another role in times like this.

Here is Wright from Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues:

From pre-Christian Judaism to the present, God’s people have claimed the right and responsibility to speak truth to power, sometimes with words, often with bodies. Martydom has frequently been the most powerful statement of all. The post-Enlightenment world has developed two other ways of speaking truth to power, but neither has done the job well.

On the one hand, we have opposition parties, which easily generate a two-party-culture-war polarization, which both Britain and the United States suffer from. Every issue is seen in black-and-white terms of us and them…

On the other hand, we have the electronic and print media, the increasingly complex world of journalism that takes on itself responsibility of holding government, and indeed the opposition, to account…

These two methods of speaking truth to power–official opposition parties and the media–regularly fail. As we all know, opposition parties often collude with governmental folly and wickedness, and newspapers can easily egg them on in precisely those areas where critique is most needed. The church’s vocation of speaking truth to power has thus been taken over by two systems that aren’t up to the job. We urgently need the voice of Christian wisdom to approve that which is excellent and to call to account that which isn’t. Of course, when we try to do that, the media regularly tries to rule the church out of order, not just because it doesn’t like what we might say but because we are treading on turf they took from us, and they don’t want us to have it back. So, once again, we have colluded with this diminishing role and God-given vocation; or, worse, we have been herded like sheep into the lobby of this or that party, swept along on agendas we assume too readily to be God’s agendas and unable to differentiate between the whim of the party and the conscience of the Christian.

Acts of love and mercy. Speaking truth to power. That is pretty good advice to build on.