Jonathan Leeman has done helpful work clarifying his own view and pressing against my recent series of reflections on the evangelical condition. I will put his comment in its entirety below. But I wanted to make one more go at clarifying my own take on this issue.
But first, I want to highlight Jonathan’s clarification of his understanding of “holiness,” which he suggests has more overlap with mine than I allowed. As he points out, he defined it as “consecrated to,” and so emphasized that it is not primarily a matter of difference or distinction. I apologize for misconstruing his view.
Yet at the same time, I think Jonathan has misread my own position. I’m not suggesting that we should “do away” with distinctiveness as a category. Instead, I think we ought do away with it as an aim of the church or a marker of the church’s integrity. It is doubtlessly the case that the church must say “no” to the world: the question is whether in saying “no” the church frames will construe itself as an appendage of the world and as such, in a sense, subordinated to us. It would be better to speak of worldliness as counter-ekklesia than the church as counter-cultural. The church must remain the primary referent and her inner life securely ordered toward the first things; it may simply be the case that Jonathan and I disagree about whether our current rhetoric of “countercultural” and distinctiveness impinges this ordering.
I should clarify further, though: I have no interest in ‘forbidding’ evangelicals from using the rhetoric of decline, as Jonathan suggests. I actually think that in certain respects we can say that society is in decline; my point has been that for evangelicals, however, we’ve long overdrawn whatever rhetorical capital that claim has. At least if we are going to behave any differently from our forebearers. (There’s an interesting question as to why despite their fragmentary institutions each generation of evangelicals seems to return to the same rhetorical spring.) And why shouldn’t we? If we are in a decline, repeatedly reminding the world of the fact did nothing to reverse it.
But in what respects decline? The problem with such architectonic theses like the decline and “counter-cultural” rhetorics is that they are so broad that they’re practically non-falsifiable and subsequently useless. And in the case of ‘decline,’ they also demand that we choose a practically arbitrary point of reference to tell our historical narrative from. So we are “headed downhill,” it is sometimes said; but while we have not eradicated our country’s original sin, we at least don’t have separate water fountains any more. We can look back on history and say things were better; we can also look back on history and say that things were worse. And we probably should do that with the same bits of history because any society is probably getting better and worse in different respects at the same time. The Renaissance produced Shakespeare—we have indoor plumbing and widespread abortion on demand. Advantage: no one, I don’t think.
Now, I think I can say all this and be consistent in my claim that the church should prepare people for persecution. In Mark 4, Jesus identifies “persecution or tribulation” as a potential threat to the souls of those who are converted. But there the formulation does not entail that “persecution” is distinctive to a season of the church’s life, nor does the Beatitudes prepare us in that way. Instead, it treats it as the kind of clarifying “secondary quality” which the church does not order its life around, but simply acknowledges as a possibility while she goes about her business. For that business seems to be the same regardless of the conditions in which she lives: to announce the Lordship of Christ Jesus over all things, and to care for the poor, the orphan, and the widow. If the church entered a season where the visible, external persecution or tribulations were relatively benign, then perhaps that was a sign she had done her work relatively well. If that period does not last, then that is perhaps a sign that she had forgotten her fundamental tasks.
But in that latter case, it seems plausible that “decline” is a lagging indicator for the health of the church. The dissolution has already happened, and the church was complicit in it. We are simply bearing the ill-gotten fruit of it now. But then to say that we need to prepare is to read the signs wrongly: the season of preparation has long passed us by; it was back when conservative evangelicals were decrying removing prayer in schools while voraciously consuming sex manuals that further wedded them to the sexual revolution. If we saw our own period rightly, I suspect it would appear not as a time for preparation but for penitence, and our great need not courage in the face of public challenges but integrity in the light of our internal compromises. If our society has become apostate, it is lamentation and sorrow that should mark our witness as much as the rallying cries to remain steadfast, and we should see an eagerness to jettison those practices which have entangled us in the world as it now exists. It may simply be the case that Jonathan and I disagree over whether such a posture now exists among evangelicals; the eagerness to speak boldly about gay marriage in public while speaking only gingerly about contraception or in-vitro fertilization in our churches makes me think we’re not quite where we should be yet.
Jonathan also wonders about my eschatology. I don’t think anything I’ve said commits me to a post-millennial view. I’m interested (for now) in leaving eschatology outside history and subsequently viewing every age as a hodgepodge: society is always in decline, it is always in ascent. It is always winter for the church, but also always Christmas. The principalities and powers make their war against the church, and the church carries on its business triumphing in the victory it knows has been won while waiting for its consummation. The eschaton relativizes every gain the church makes, for it orients the church’s life away from history toward the final word that shall be uttered. And it relativizes every season of “decline,” precisely because it reminds us that the path toward the end of all things is undetermined by us and unknown to us.
For those who are interested, I strongly commend this conversation that we had recently on the subject. I say a bit more about all this there.
Jonathan’s comment in full:
1) I’d like to point you again to my definition of holiness. It comports with yours more than you let on. I decidedly did not define it as “set apart from.” Rather, I defined it a “consecrated to” (i.e. devoted to or given over to), a definition which works in eternity past before sin entered that world. From eternity past, the Son was consecrated to the glory of the Father, and the Father to the Son, and both to the Spirit. So the call to holiness is most fundamentally a call to be consecrated to the glory and beauty of God. Which means, yes, the notion of holiness being “set apart from” is a derivative, consequential, or “a secondary” feature, as you put it. And this further means, the church’s call to be distinct is not primarily a matter of negation (“be UNLIKE them”) but even more fundamentally a matter of affirmation (“be LIKE him”). But in the context of a fallen world, that secondary feature is an inevitable and necessary feature, unless you want to do away with the sinfulness of sin. My caution, therefore, is that in your critique of distinctiveness rhetoric, which evangelicals can surely overdo, don’t do away with it altogether. The Bible uses it, and it’s a necessary feature of the fact that there is sin in the world from which we must be set apart–individually, socially, corporately, institutionally.
2) I’m not equating distinctiveness rhetoric and declension rhetoric. The first describes the state of things. The second describes historical movement. These belong to different categories. With regard to the latter, I agree utterly that we don’t know what season it is: winter? spring? That’s precisely why the 9Marks Journal I referred to in point 1 posed the matter as a question (“Vanishing Church?”) and then provided a series of articles that emphasized hope and affirmation. That said: I maintain that, in principle, we are capable of looking backward, assessing the moral and spiritual movement of a people, and arriving at the conclusion, “Hey, things really are getting ‘worse’!” Any given diagnosis might be mistaken, but it also might be correct. And if things can get “worse,” and if we are capable of observing as much, it strikes me as strange to say that people shouldn’t say it. Your two blogs strike me as trying to forbid people from saying “Things are getting worse!” Surely things sometimes get worse, no? So I agree that we should say “Things can get better!” But why would forbid the opposite? Now, you concede that we should prepare people for persecution. It seems to me, then, that there’s some tension between what I understand your blog post is trying to do, and this same concession.
3) You write: “On my reading of such exhortations, the “world” and “this age” against which Christians are meant to stand do not necessarily and always perfectly correspond with the institutions outside the church.” Certainly I have no disagreement with that historical claim. I would still make the theologically positional and ethical claims that the church has been made the true, born-again, new-creation humanity, and therefore that it should live as this new creation humanity. And these two claims (positional and ethical) admit of both like and unlike, or continuity and discontinuity, with fallen humanity. Like: humanity. Unlike: new. And it’s within the element of “unlike” that we must maintain some room in our rhetoric for talk of distinctiveness and sometimes decline–for the “counter” in the phrase “counter-cultural.”
4) Bottom line to all this: I’m arguing for a both/and (like and unlike; separated from and separated to; ascension and declension), whereas I feel like you’re arguing for an either/or. Is that an unfair characterization?
5) Last thing: have you become post-millenneal or something analogous to it? That’s not a critique or “gotcha” question. It’s a genuine question, based on the overall argument and your last couple of paragraphs especially, esp. with the talk of the boundaries of history and what they will or won’t maintain. A friend who read this reply asked if you were an Anglican (which, of course, would be a critique. ;-) I am wondering how much of the eschaton you are willing to bring into this world and present age. Maybe you’d bring more than I would? If so, then that is where our fundamental disagreement might lie. I’m not looking to argue that point; I’m just trying to locate our disagreement. So when Jesus says in John, “You will have trouble in this world,” I take that to mean, the world, the flesh, and the devil, the principalities and powers, will conspire against the Lord and against his anointed, as well as against their people, until Christ’s second coming. Sometimes things will get a little better, sometimes a little worse–who can predict what tomorrow will bring. But the saints should expect the general opposition of these forces as those forces manifest themselves outside the membership of the church, sometimes within the membership of the church, and, frankly, yes, even daily within our hearts (old man vs new man). So unless you want to argue that “the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Christ” (Rev. 11:15) little by little in our present age, then I still don’t understand how you get around maintaining some space for both the rhetoric of distinctiveness and the occasional rhetoric of declension. Both should maintain a quieter place in the orchestra than the trumpet blasts of hope and kettle drums of confidence, but they still belong in the orchestra.