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When culture captures the Church

Wallace Henley
Wallace Henley | (By CP Cartoonist Rod Anderson)

The California Legislature wants wayward religious institutions within its jurisdiction to repent of their wicked ways and get in line with the culture.

California culture, of course.

The newly passed (but not yet law) California Assembly Concurrent Resolution 99 requires ministries, their pastors and counselors, to cease any approaches to sexual identity counseling based on “stigmatizing beliefs” that do not conform to current LGBT views. Such therapies amount to “psychological torture” and “mental health malpractice” in the view of the lawmakers voting for the Resolution (approved on a strict party-line).

A result of Resolution 99 would therefore deny the right of people desiring such counsel to obtain it. Senator Andreas Borgeas, a Fresno Republican, warned that the Resolution is “treading into freedom of speech territory… When an individual seeks therapy or guidance before a religious leader, whether it be a mosque, a temple, or a church, that is a private setting,” he said. “To disallow or create the pathway where we tell individuals they cannot say certain things should give us pause.”

This latest gambit from California is just one more attempt to force religious institutions into cultural conformity. There are many in political power or seeking it who will not be satisfied until churches and other religious bodies are captives of contemporary culture.

Sadly, many churches are playing into the hands of the cultural tyrants.

The mainstream liberal church has yielded to the authority of culture by casting aside faith in biblical revelation and its authority. Evangelical, Charismatic, and Pentecostal churches have made themselves vulnerable by allowing style to drive and displace sound theology.

It is important to try to understand and engage with the culture in its language and style within biblical limits. However, when style becomes a new hermeneutic determining theology and doctrine, the church no longer seeks personal and social transformation through the power of the Word and Spirit.

Instead, there is only spiritual humanism. The wonder of transcendence is dethroned by the “high” of immanence. There is enhanced subjectivism in which “I” becomes the determinant of what is true. The idolatry of the self takes over.

  Whether it’s the liberal church that has shoved aside biblical teaching and embraced contemporary culture’s view on sexuality and other issues, or the prosperity gospel that even Benny Hinn has now rejected, or the evangelical church that has become so “attractional” that it is little more than a spiritual Starbucks, cultural captivity is stifling the stabilizing authority of the Word, and the transformational power of the Holy Spirit.

And whether such churches are liberal or not, they have embraced the belief of Friedrich Schleiermacher, that all religion is “subjective.” As Samuel Gregg notes in his important book, Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization, Schleiermacher is “the father of liberal Christianity.”

But a church does not have to be “liberal” to embrace the immanence-dominated subjectivism of the present age.

One of the tragic examples was that of the white church in the Deep South during the era of slavery. Its leaders promoted a rubbery biblical hermeneutic that could be stretched to accommodate the institution that reduced generations of human beings the Bible declared as being created in the image of God, to chattel. The Scriptures were subjected to the requirements of the culture.

In more recent times we can cite that part of the German Church that formally yielded to the Nazi worldview and sought to structure a belief system that would accord with the culture and style of the Third Reich.

In the present, the victory of style over substance has littered the landscape with leaders who no longer see the point of struggling to counter a culture plunging into chaos. They might wonder: If the style signals that the church is just another element of the culture, then why fight it?

Surely this is helping drive leader and congregational burnouts, moral failures, depression, criminality, and even suicide. When one has given his or youth to prepare to lead, and then worked to the point of exhaustion for something that is nothing more than one more brick in the edifice of a crumbling culture it’s easy to ask: “What’s the point of it all?”

The preeminence of style casts things into rampant subjectivism. In that froth, people and their institutions are “tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine.” A ship awash in turbulent seas needs a strong keel to maintain its equilibrium.

Contemporary churches under the pressure of cultural conformity—even from august legislators—must get balanced on the keel of the Word and aligned with the wind of the Spirit.

Sadly, this is an era when the power of the immanent, the lure of the subjective, and the “eclipse of transcendence” (Charles Taylor and A.J. Conyers have written about this, among others) is so great even the California Assembly—along with other branches of civil government—believe they can actually change and make doctrine.

Chinese authorities are now demanding that the Bible must be revised to align more with Confucianist and Communist thought. Perhaps what is happening in China will become a template for lawmakers in California and elsewhere who want to press the church into conformity with contemporary culture.

In such an age, the Apostle Paul wrote, “hold on to what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21)

Hold on tight, Church!

Wallace Henley, a former White House and congressional aide, is senior associate pastor at Houston’s Second Baptist Church. His most recent book is Call Down Lightning, an analysis of the Welsh Revival of 1904-5, and its implications for our time.

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