That our nation, and probably our world, is deeply, deeply divided right now is about the only thing that everyone seems to agree on.
The extremes are labeled “left” and “right,” but the dividing lines of separation meander all over the place enveloping all sorts of ideologies about economics, culture, religion, and society. Many people find themselves falling along different points of the left-right spectrum depending on the topic and who is defining the terms.
As the debates intensify, we feel pressure to pledge absolute loyalty to one of the two sides. Critical thinking loses out to tribalistic thinking.
Stress, anxiety, and confusion are high as we struggle to find our own “solid ground,” the place where we will pitch our ideological tent and defend our position.
Christians have been courted by thought leaders on both sides, explaining how their views most closely align with Christianity. The ability of these persuasions to uncover and inflame cultural and political divisions within the Church is a serious indictment of the Church. These appeals, mostly from outside the Church, usually contain some fatal flaw which stems from a misunderstanding of the Christian faith.
While I am no great thinker or gifted scholar (just another person with an opinion), I have spent my whole life immersed in 20th & 21st Century American Christianity. As an “insider,” for what it’s worth, I would like to share some thoughts specifically with my brothers and sisters who share my Christian faith…a faith based on God’s revelations about Himself in the words of the Bible.
A pattern I see throughout the Bible is the tendency of God’s chosen people to add idolatry to their worship of God.
Exodus 32 relates an incident which conveys a sometimes-overlooked aspect of this inclination. The narrative describes Aaron creating a golden calf to appease an impatient and restless people while Moses was away meeting with God. What I find interesting is that this idol was not intended to be a replacement god. It did not have the name of some other god from Egypt…but they claimed it to be the image of their God – the God who brought them out of Egypt.
Of course, the golden calf was not the image of their God (that is what humans are), rather it was a tangible, familiar, and controllable substitute. But their intentions did not lessen the severity of the error or of the consequences…because what they made was not true.
The implication being, even those of us who believe in the true God of the Bible become anxious and impatient and may caste Him in the image of our culture, looking for something agreeable to us which will meet our needs.
Later we see the Israelites struggling to possess their promised land. They did not completely clear the land and, as a result, started worshiping other gods alongside their worship of God. They did not throw God out right away, but it seemed harmless to include a few more culturally acceptable and less demanding gods. If idols helped them gain the very victories God promised, where was the harm? If the idols lessened some anxiety and, true or not, benefited people…why not?
This behavior is inevitable for humans looking for control. But according to the Old Testament narrative, over time, love and devotion for the idols grows and the true God is reimagined to resemble tame idols – and then rejected altogether. The result is spiritual decline, abuse, violence, and destruction.
In the Old Testament Biblical narrative, idols were mostly obvious. They were statues with temples and there was no ambiguity about whether the people were worshiping an idol or a false image of God.
However, transitioning into the New Testament church age, God’s “adult” people now incorporate Old Testament principles about who He is and who humans are in relation to God into our understanding of New Testament theology. And now it’s not always so obvious who or what we are worshipping.
Humans continue to desperately crave autonomy, and the essence of the struggle has not changed, which makes the Biblical narratives about idolatry relevant and instructive to modern day Christians. Theologians throughout history have made this same observation and offered various ideas for understanding what more abstract idols might look like. The framework I find most helpful is: an idol is anything created by God which we elevate to the place of God.
The thing in and of itself is irrelevant. It can be a good and useful tool such as money. It can be a beautiful gift such as love. It can be a force greater than ourselves like nature or a valuable attempt at mastery like science.
It’s not the moral quality of the thing, it is our view of the thing which makes it an idol…our view of the thing as the source of everything we need -the guiding principle by which we evaluate all ideas, actions, and motives – our meaning for life – the thing we cannot survive without.
This can become trickier than it might seem on the surface, because humans obviously need things to survive physically, mentally, and emotionally on Earth. The very act of living life requires that we work to meet our needs. We can and should engage in our own self-care. But our wish to do this with complete autonomy conflicts with the reality of God….God is the all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere present Creator who calls humans to join with Him in love, worship, and surrender.
So, we need to remember that it really makes more sense to worship the One who created and controls the sun, for example (an ancient idol-god), rather than the sun itself…or the One who created and controls all resources in the universe (i.e. money), rather than the resources themselves (a common and timeless idol-god).
When we fail to acknowledge God and worship Him for who He truly is, we are left to our own devices to meet our needs…and we must engage in a struggle with other human beings for power. Everyone is looking out for their own interests and the only way for anyone to enjoy the autonomy they seek is to possess the power to defend their autonomy against another whose interests are undermined by that autonomy.
Even though the struggles for power are the result of abandoning reality, the actual struggles are real… creating winners and losers, victims and oppressors, and even a man-made version of good and evil. This creates an alternate and completely human framework with which to view the world and the story it tells. Because the struggles are real and there is a version of goodness and morality within the framework, Christians can get pulled into adopting this same framework.
One way this happens, ironically, is when Christians become so alarmed by the surrounding culture’s commitment to “idols” that they enter into the very human framework which gives those idols legitimacy in order to do battle with them.
My dad used to tell me that when you try to manipulate someone, you give them power to manipulate you.
I have found this to be true, and I think this is why. Manipulation is about our power and control. Faith and worship of God is about His power and control. When we react to the culture within the power and control framework, we effectively abandon our worship of the God of the Bible . . . denying He already has all the power and control.
This has been a particularly thorny issue for the church in America. Even as good and beneficial Biblical ideals were woven into the founding of our country, the thread of autonomy worship was woven in right alongside them – granting power and favor to Christianity. And Christians, by and large, accepted this seemingly harmless add-on idol, basking in popularity and growing accustomed to cultural dominance, and incorporating it into an Americanized version of Christianity.
American Christians today have very real concerns about their country. The idol of autonomy worship has grown in power and influence and led to the rejection of objective moral truth. Society can no longer tolerate the worship of the God of the Bible alongside the god of personal autonomy. Systems and institutions are increasingly hostile to anyone claiming any morality which would take power from personal autonomy.
So, what is a Bible believing Christian to do?
As I see it, there are three options. One is to engage the culture on their level. We think the God of the Bible should maintain dominance, so we pursue political and cultural power, popularity, and control for our God (being our heritage and right, after all!), effectively reducing him to an impotent reflection of the idol of autonomy.
Another option is a more honest acknowledgement that the God of the Bible has now taken a back seat to autonomy…the inevitable path of Progressive Christianity and just a pit-stop on the way out the door of Christianity.
And the third option is to see our American Idols for what they are, stop trusting in them (tear them down), and seek to know, love, and trust in the true God of the Bible.
I am deeply troubled by the vast majority of American Christians choosing between the first two options. I fear the consequences will be dire when Evangelical Christians – having discarded the constraints of Christian principles along the path to brokering political power – are exposed as complicit in the apparatus which dismantles the very freedoms we are trying to preserve.
But I don’t urge a different path because of that fear, or because of the accusations of disillusioned young people fleeing the Church, or because of any other matter of pragmatism. I urge a different path because reality and truth matter…because God’s people should represent His righteousness and trust in His power – not align themselves with any human system in an attempt to accomplish His purposes.
The Way of the Cross
Certainly, we are called to act for the benefit of our communities, to participate in and influence our societies, and to stand and defend unpopular truths. But even as Daniel and company were entering civil service in a Godless country, they did not compromise their obedience to God. They refused to eat the king’s food, to worship idols, or give up their prayers.
I don’t know what the path of faith would look like exactly, or how it would play out in the culture. Christians could still become scapegoats and lose more freedoms. But I would rather that happen because of our faithfulness to the message of the Cross of Christ than to be either rescued or denigrated because of a political alliance. And who knows, maybe a Church wholly devoted and trusting in God might be more effective in slowing our country’s moral decay than a powerful and controlling Church.
I understand the struggle. In the face of helpless humans losing their lives every day, it makes sense that we feel compelled to take matters into our own hands. But abortion – and all exploitation really – is the logical consequence to the worship of autonomy (a modern version of the ancient child sacrifices). Does God call us to engage in a power struggle over this? I’m not talking about proclaiming truth…I’m talking about making a bid for political power to force an end to the practice.
I say, “no.” That is not the course I see in Scripture.
I say we need to tear down the god demanding the sacrifice, the god of personal autonomy . . . and to do that we will have to start with the Church. That would be the first step to following the Biblical instruction for Christians – to influence culture as a testament to the reality of God, trusting His plan and purpose. If we did that, we might also notice the many other victims caught in human power systems…the ones we’ve abandoned in our other power struggle with leftist ideology. But we are the ones with the answers for those victims as well…it’s not a “left” or “right” answer. It’s a God answer.
Brothers and sisters, political power struggles do not fit into Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God. We need to stop pulling out our “back-up god” to do our primary God’s work.
I know my small voice is but a whisper in a whirlwind of Christian leaders urging their followers down the path of compromise; abandoning our standards of truth and morality to engage in a political fight. These are big names with huge followings. But I must respectfully dissent.
I understand their concerns, their rationale, and their arguments. But the flaw in their thinking is that we can (and should) accomplish a greater good by allowing ourselves to be pawns in a political power grab. This desire for the greater good allows them to be manipulated and blinds them to the implications of their own deeply held convictions, as well as to the bigger picture of a president who has spent four years pushing their fear buttons, exploiting and deepening divisions in our country, and undermining the three-branch system of checks and balances of power – the very system which protects our freedoms.
My trust is not in the American system of government. Nevertheless, I see wisdom in the balance of power and will not be helping to take it apart. I don’t believe the ends justify the means, and I don’t believe God is honored or glorified by his people trusting in the word and protections of a narcissistic bully and pathological liar, handing over the keys of the country in exchange for a short-lived victory.
My concern is for the integrity of Christianity and our witness to the truth of who God is. We should never expect that witness to become culturally popular, because the message of the cross is a stumbling block to the religious and foolishness to the irreligious (I Cor 1:23). But Scripture continually commands God’s people to speak what is true about Him.
On a purely practical level, even if President Trump keeps the Christians around when he’s done with them, which I doubt, we won’t really be enjoying the enduring power and favor we seek because when anyone’s freedoms are undermined, everyone’s freedoms are undermined. The compromises required of Christians to maintain favor will never end.
Please…my dear Christian friends…don’t let your good intentions be exploited by an immoral politician.