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Evangelicalism and the Sickness of Western Culture Part 3 — Healing Evangelicalism

Wallace Henley Portrait
Wallace Henley |

Read Part 1, Part 2.

"God forgive us for selling out our great intellectual treasure—the gospel of God with us—for a mess of psychobabble and pragmatic, utilitarian, self-help triviality." (emphasis in the original)

So said United Methodist Bishop William Willimon in his foreword to Michael Horton's book, Christless Christianity.

Trivialization is a sure mark of delusion. Trashing a treasure to focus on its counterfeit indicates disassociation, resulting in the inability to recognize true value.

Contemporary culture urgently needs true value, but important facets of the Church within society that could provide it have suffered breakdown. Horton laments a "recurring emphasis" that preaches that "human beings are victims and being lost no longer means being damned but lacking direction in life." (emphasis in original)

Jesus Christ is the hope of the world. The Church is to minister this hope. Again, it is the "soul" of the culture. If that "soul" suffers breakdown, it spreads into the broader culture.

Hence, the healing of the sickened society must start in the Church. Truly, "it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God." (1 Peter 417)

People suffering psychological breakdown are said to have gone off the "deep end," losing mental, emotional, and volitional balance. They need restoration of equilibrium in thought and deed. This is the only way stability and steadiness can be restored to the psyche—and what happens in the psuche (the New Testament Greek word translated "soul," and from which we get "psyche") will ultimately afflict the body.

After decades of direct participation in the Church and culture wars, I submit the following as some of the areas where the Church—especially evangelicals (including me) who stress biblical authority as the basis of worldview—must recover equilibrium:

We must recover the balance between transcendence and immanence.

God, dwells in the "highest heaven" (2 Chronicles 6:18), is "high and lifted up" (Isaiah 6:1) in His transcendent majesty, and is also the "God (who) is love." (1 John 4:8) The extreme of transcendence leads to Deism, to a god so remote he may as well be dead (think Nietzsche, Altizer and the 1960s God-is-dead movement), then agnosticism, and finally to atheism. Immanence in the extreme leads to the obsession and worship of self of which contemporary celebrity-selfie-phenomena are sacraments.

We must re-establish the equilibrium between engagement and separation.

As the "Body of Christ" in the world, churches must continue the Lord's incarnational ministry. However, when we forget our identity as the Body of Christ within culture, we lose the distinctive abilities to help heal culture. In David's day, Nathan was a prophet in the king's house, but he never forgot that he was God's man in the king's house. The Church is to be both pastoral and prophetic.

The Church must maintain the equilibrium between relevancy and biblical authority.

Relevancy is important, but must not displace the authority of the Bible. Like David in the tragic case of Bathsheba, contemporary culture urgently needs someone who will tell it hard truth, as Nathan did David. Contemporary society is controlled by the stern authoritarianism of the new cultural religion of progressivism. The spirit of the age must not displace the Spirit of the Lord, or the Church will be powerless.

We must hold fast to the balance between style and theology.

Let our styles of music, media, books, and other forms of worship and proclamation communicate effectively to the contemporary ear. But we must resist the temptation to allow the thematic content to be shaped by the latest cultural novelties. Let us sing the "new song," but with faithfulness to the ancient truths.

We must find and operate in the equilibrium between predestination and freewill.

One extreme in contemporary evangelical debate sees predestination in the absolute, stifling evangelism. The other extreme at times treats predestination and election as if they were not part of biblical truth. The equilibrium is in 1 Peter 2:9—"... you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a people of God's own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light..." God does not wish "for any to perish but for all to come to repentance." (2 Peter 3:8-10) Evangelism and mission constitute the balance-point in the debate: God has predestined some so that all might have opportunity to become part of the elect of God, according to His foreknowledge.

To implement our incarnational mission within and toward the culture we must function in the healthy equilibrium of Word and Spirit.

To separate the Word from spiritual ministry is to fall into frenzy. To marginalize the Holy Spirit under the demands of human-contrived doctrines is to be locked in tight form. The Church in our crazy age must minister powerfully in the Spirit, but within the parameters of biblically revealed truth.

Four decades ago I left the White House after three years of service there with a searing conviction that has only intensified: the most powerful, vital agency in the world is not found in Washington, or any other center of global power, but in the genuine Church—especially in its local expression. Human power may be able to ignite revolutions, but it is through the genuine Church—whatever it calls itself denominationally—that the Holy Spirit can minister transformation to society and its culture.

We must not devalue ourselves. Judgment must begin with "the household of God." We must recover biblically based, Spirit-revealed sanity where we have lost it.

All our efforts at cultural healing are useless without that.

Wallace Henley is senior associate pastor at Houston's Second Baptist Church, and Chair of Belhaven University's Master of Ministry Leadership degree. He is a former White House and Congressional aide, and co-author of "God and Churchill", with Winston Churchill's great-grandson, Jonathan Sandys.

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