Columnists > Voices

Fine-tuning the nuances

The difference between the church gathered and the church dispersed

Issue: "The Marriage Amendment," June 8, 2002

My pastor was about to announce a prayer vigil at the local abortion clinic the next Saturday morning, and to invite us to join him during that hour of sidewalk protest. But before saying a word, he pointedly left his pulpit, walked across the platform, and stepped down to where we were all sitting.

I'm sure some folks there that January morning didn't even notice the subtle symbolism. Some who did notice might have said it was much ado about nothing. But in the continuing debate over whether the evangelical church in America is being overly politicized, nuances do make a difference.

There weren't many nuances a couple of weeks ago when two spokesmen for opposite sides of that argument squared off for a semi-public debate of the issue. Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas picked up where he left off in his 1999 book Blinded by Might, where with co-author Ed Dobson he argued that the religious right is asking for nothing but trouble when it pretends it can change the soul of America through the political process. But from the other side, Focus on the Family vice president Tom Minnery shot back: "Try telling that to blacks in America. Maybe all racist hearts haven't been changed by the civil rights laws-but at least injustice has been reduced."

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The vigorous debate was arranged by the Ethics and Public Policy Center of Washington, D.C., whose vice president Michael Cromartie credited a WORLD column last February with sparking the idea for such an exchange.

The discussion is important. Mr. Thomas has properly sounded two thoughtful warnings: The first is that evangelical Christians ought to be more skeptical about either the efficacy or the integrity of the political process. "We are so gullible," Mr. Thomas says repeatedly, "when we act as though the election of the right person as president, the winning of a majority in Congress, or the appointment of just one more conservative to the Supreme Court will bring in the kingdom of God."

Mr. Thomas's second warning is that local churches need to be more careful not to become precinct offices for the Republican Party. I totally agree that there is great danger in allowing anyone to confuse the biblical gospel with partisan politics. But here, as I said in this space last Feb. 23, Mr. Thomas is fuzzy in failing to distinguish between the institutional church (or what we might call the "church gathered" for worship on Sunday morning) and the people of that church (or what we might call the "church dispersed" for their salt-like activity in society through the rest of the week). If he limited his critique to some churches' tendency to focus on Sunday mornings more on conservative social issues than on teaching the broad scope of the Bible's teachings, his point would be sharper.

To my ears, Mr. Minnery effectively challenged Mr. Thomas on the first of the two points. Mr. Thomas is still chafing, Mr. Minnery suggested, at the embarrassments of his earlier identification in the 1980s with Moral Majority and groups like the Christian Coalition. But Focus on the Family and its current cohorts, Mr. Minnery asserted, are today neither beguiled by power in high places nor seeking to substitute political process for the work of God's Spirit. Mr. Minnery pointed out that Focus on the Family's president, James Dobson, is quite willing to be an outcast of the Republican establishment and that the group spends only 5 percent of its annual budget on political action.

Much more ambiguous is the debate over using pulpits to discuss issues that might easily be interpreted as either moral and ethical, on the one hand, or political, on the other. A number of Michigan pastors were offended several years ago, for example, when a mailing from Focus on the Family urged them to preach sermons against gambling during a campaign to approve state-operated casinos. Even more offensive to some was what they interpreted as public criticism from Focus on the Family when they didn't preach such sermons.

That disagreement focuses on the distinction between the "church gathered" and the "church dispersed." Just a short generation ago, conservative evangelicals tended to be on the other side of the argument. "It's OK for Christians to talk about racism and the war," they said then-"but don't preempt our pulpits for those discussions." Now that the issues are abortion, homosexuality, prayer in the schools, and support for Israel, some churches hear little else-even on Sunday mornings.

So I was thankful when my pastor left the platform for his announcement. It was an important symbol. And Mike Cromartie says the Ethics and Public Policy Center will sponsor still further discussions to help the rest of us fine-tune such important nuances.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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