NOTE: Second in a series, this latest post is better understood by reading the previous ones.
As I wrote in the previous post, one of the three books I read near the beginning of serving in the pastorate was Jacques Ellul’s The False Presence of the Kingdom. Here is the author’s preface to American readers:
TO THE AMERICAN READER
While I am describing and discussing in the text situations and policy decisions of the Reformed Church in France, these situations and policy decisions are not peculiar to the experience of French Christians. Their experience has now been duplicated in most other churches. Theological debate in the French Church on the role of the Christian in society is often far advanced over such debate in other countries; this may be explained by the fact that the French have lived for a longer time under a secularized society, where the situation of the Church is a much weaker one. But such debate is important for everyone, and for what will happen in the next few years. The American reader will, therefore, be able in almost every instance to find for himself the appropriate parallel situation in the American Church.
This English edition was published by Seabury in 1972. Thus we’re far beyond Ellul’s “next few years.” American readers will note how helpful the book is to the “situation in the American Church” here and now, a half-century later.
This may well be due to the American church having finally reached a point where, particularly after the most recent couple of decades, our Christian American exceptionalism has accelerated in its decline, and secularism has taken great leaps and bounds so that, now, the American Church has been relegated to the marshes, sloughs, and backwaters of civil society. If you doubt this, listen to Tucker Carlson’s present interview of Kanye (“Ye”) West (part 1 and part 2). He’s got a good grip on secularism’s “demonic” nature, at least with respect to African Americans.)
Secularism’s contemporary sweeping of the field here in America would explain the strong sentiment of ressentiment which permeates the preaching, podcasting, and writing of many today within the conservative church—the men who don’t stop quibbling, grousing, and bellyaching about those they see as responsible for the “tyranny” they incessantly whine about as they build their base.
In our last post, we examined this decline’s acceleration within the church, focussing on the more liberal, educated, rich part of the Evangelical church. Now we turn to the more conservative, less educated, southern part of the church which focussed its attention and gathered its disciples around unabashedly conservative political protests and action.
Speaking of conservative religious political action, back in the seventies at UW-Madison I took a course in Irish history, so I found the bosom-buddy friendship and co-belligerency of South Carolina’s Bob Jones and Northern Ireland’s Ian Paisley shameful. “The Troubles” of Ulster and Northern Ireland were inseparable from the hatred of Roman Catholics for Protestants—particularly Presbyterians of Scottish descent—as well as the hatred of those Protestants for Roman Catholics. It was bloody and filled the news regularly, right up until 1998; and it left in its wake ever greater reasons for Roman Catholics and Protestants to increase their hatred for one another. There were bombings, murders, and assassinations, all strictly following Northern Ireland’s religious fault lines.
Meanwhile, here in the States, Evangelical leaders like Billy Graham, Rick Warren, and Tony Campolo visited the White House, baptizing our presidents with their religious presence and approval, while other religious leaders such as Ralph Reed and Jerry Falwell—on the opposite end of the political spectrum—rode a wave they claimed as “the Moral Majority” whose constituency was almost exclusively conservative Evangelicals. Behind it all, and providing the major political thrust of Evangelicalism across the twentieth century, was that constant of American politics, the unflinching support of anything and everything Israel. Evangelicalism of the second half of the twentieth century was massively dispensationalist, and it was particularly evident in the Left Behind series of escapist novels which grew into a billion dollar juggernaut. (In the interest of full disclosure, the series was published by my father-in-law’s publishing company, Tyndale House.)
Speaking of Evangelicalism’s union shop of pro-Israel dispensationalism, we must not fail to give honor where honor is due. Let us then record that our dear prophetess Elisabeth Elliot Gren made herself a stench among Evangelicals by pointing out that many of the Palestinians were our brothers and sisters in Christ. Yikes!
Evangelicalism’s conservative pastor-politicians silenced her on that matter at the same time as the more liberal Evangelical celebrities like Bill Hybels squelched her Biblical condemnation of their feminism.
Anyhow, you’ll now better understand my saying I’ve lived long enough to have some perspective on our present brand of conservative Christian histrionics issuing from our latest brand of pastor-politicians. Across the years, I’ve listened to preachers huff and puff demanding prayer led by public school teachers be restored to public schools. I’ve watched the school flagpole prayer meetings; and then, more recently, read and mourned the profs at my own Presbyterian Church in America’s Covenant Theological Seminary issue the call for the repeal of the sodomy laws on the books of state legal codes across our nation, going on to promote the gay effeminacy of Revoice.
Then (and oppositely), in the wake of Obergefell, I’ve listened to Evangelical pastor-wannabe-politicians demanding that county clerks refuse to issue marriage certificates to lesbians and sodomites.
Nevertheless, it was not until I was in my sixties that I began to speak out against all these men using and abusing the church in service to their political ambitions. To be sure, Billy Graham was an embarrassment when, first, he stood loyally beside President Nixon commending Nixon’s religious commitments; but then, later, he issued a statement saying how shocked he was at the obscenities President Nixon spewed on his infamous White House tapes. Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed were similarly embarrassing in their use of God’s people and church to get a larger and larger constituency of the church to adopt their nakedly political and sectarian goals.
The list of Evangelical religious leaders who have worked hard to build their constituency through political sectarianism has been a constant within the American church, but not until the past couple years of conservative religious leaders crying “tyranny” over masks, vaccines, and the theft of the 2020 election have I felt duty bound to condemn this abuse of the Gospel ministry, as well as the Name and Bride of Christ.
Certainly there are those who would want to say some of these causes, movements pushed by Evangelical pastor-politicians and religious leaders are unlike the others. For instance, they would claim that fans of the Moral Majority (Jerry Falwell) and those who now have opposed Covid public health authorities would not favor the repeal of sodomy laws or the Kellerite tribe’s indiscriminate proclamations of good will to all men.
This is true, but we must point out that each of these political stands were (and are) taken by the most conservative Christian church members and their officers. They all say they believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. They all claim they condemn sacramentalism, and believe that unless a man is born again, he cannot inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. They all believe in the Virgin Birth and Second Coming. They all believe we must return God to the education of our children. They all talk about a “Christian worldview.” They all tip the hat to being “pro-life,” and so on.
And yes, there are a small group of conservative Evangelical religious leaders principally aligned with Westminster Seminary in Escondido who oppose all these religious/political movements on the basis of what they refer to as “the spirituality of the Church.” They claim it is the pastor’s job to shut up about everything political. They demand the pastor “preach the Word” surgically, by that meaning in such a way as scrupulously avoiding ever addressing any ethical, moral, or theological issue that anyone could views as “political.” Happily, these men are a backwater of a backwater. Claiming they are simply declaring what our Protestant fathers declared before them, their form of “two-kingdom” theology is a lie, and their equivocations, historically, have become obvious to those few who are aware of their yipping and yapping.
Now then, what does Ellul’s False Presence of the Kingdom have to do with this?
What Ellul warns against is the movement current a century ago within the French Reformed Church which declared that God was, then, obviously bringing in His kingdom. He warned against those who worked politically for the promotion of this or that political initiative claiming their work was blessed by God because Jesus Christ Is the Risen Lord Whose kingdom is inexorably growing, and that to succeed it only requires Christians with zeal for the Kingdom of God and faith in its imminent arrival who will take the initiative in the affairs of this world in such a way as to accelerate its final victory.
Ellul pointed out that Christian leaders who proclaimed the righteousness of their political movements concerning, for instance, socialism or Algerian independence, failed to take into account the not yet aspect of the kingdom of God declared all through Scripture. Those who overwhelmed that truth of God’s Word by neverending claims of the kingdom’s already aspect, forgetting Scripture’s declaration of the inbreaking part.
Ellul pointed out that both the not yet and already of the Kingdom of God must be confessed by the people of God:
[T]hese intellectuals will say that it is precisely because they have this hope that they act in this way and are optimistic. Yet, as a matter of fact, all the conclusions they draw imply that for them the whole weight is on the concept of the “already accomplished.” In place of the tension between the two inseparable terms of the “already accomplished” and the “not yet brought to pass” they substitute (without in fact saying so!) the single proposition of the “already realized.”
Pastors who don’t believe and depend upon the Holy Spirit’s power preaching the Word of God to man’s heart and conscience inevitably hanker after other things to justify their existence and calling. Liturgy. Music. High sacramentalism. Architecture. Shaggy dog stories. Pro-life protests. Political action.
These are the temptations every pastor faces as he takes up the call of God to shepherd His flock.
(Second in a series.)