Monday, January 17, 2011

“Martin Luther King Day” in Evangelical Perspective

As a student at Boston University in the 1960s, I was part of a group that was bused down to Selma, Alabama, just before Martin Luther King’s Selma-to-Montgomery march. The atmosphere in Selma was like that of an evangelical revival; we sang gospel songs and listened to fiery sermons — one being by A. D. Williams King, MLK’s brother. We marched around Selma in a civil rights demonstration, jeered by the bystanders and soaked by a downpour. Later, as pastor of a small Methodist church, I heard Dr. King speak on Boston Common, and I and a few of my parishioners picketed the Massachusetts State House singing “We Shall Overcome.” As a Boston University graduate student I examined King’s typed doctoral dissertation in the School of Theology library, on a comparison of the idea of God in the thought of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman, and may have quoted from it in term paper.

Those were in my “liberal” days. Later, when I became an evangelical Christian, my perspective changed. The civil rights movement had lost its original Christian impetus — if that was, really, anything more than window dressing. I understood that the drive for “equality” was based on the New Testament principle of oneness in Christ (e.g., Galatians 3:28), but that divorced from its Christian orientation it becomes distorted and just one more example of totalitarian “political correctness.”

Combined with the contemporaneous “sexual revolution,” the civil rights movement has done much to destroy African-American family structure. It may have restricted economic and educational opportunities for black people by eliminating their distinctive institutions in the effort to integrate them into the larger social fabric. Shaping congressional districts to ensure the election of minorities has actually reduced the number of African-Americans in Congress, by making them non-competitive in the “white” districts that remain (non-competitive not because of their race, but because of their political ideology). As one African-American noted in a TV discussion I heard several decades ago, “we’ve been civil-rightsed to death.”

I do not blame Martin Luther King for what happened to the movement after his passing. My point is that he has become an inappropriate symbol for what passes for “civil rights” today, which includes homosexual “marriage” and all the rest. It is well for the evangelical church to steer clear of MLK Day. It grieves me that evangelical churches have adopted the secular and popular calendar as their “liturgical year” — Mothers Day, Valentines Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Armed Forces Day, even Pastor Appreciation Day. The liturgical churches, which follow the traditional church year, have been in a measure protected from this incursion.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

“Majoring in the Minors” in the Church

As a student at Illinois Wesleyan University in the late 1950s I was required to select a major field. I was headed for the ministry in The Methodist Church, but at that time Methodist seminaries didn’t recommend a college major in religion for pre-theological students. (I think seminary faculty were afraid that students entering with a college religion major would have to be re-educated!). As a result, I needed to choose a different major.

Because of my interest in music I chose to major in that field. Illinois Wesleyan had a prestigious School of Music, but I was in the College of Liberal Arts. Therefore, I became the only liberal arts music major in the university, and took forty hours in that field. Although I had enough religion credits to count for a major, and was going on for more work in that field rather than music, I spent my college years “majoring in the minors.” (I couldn’t even minor in religion, because IWU’s course catalog didn’t provide for a “minor” designation at that time.)

I’ve never regretted my “majoring in the minors,” because the knowledge and enjoyment of music has always been an important part of my adult life and has certainly contributed to the ministry. However, when the process of “majoring in the minors” is applied to areas of life outside of academia the results can be ludicrous.

A man who pursues a hobby, to the neglect of his family relationships or gainful employment, is pursuing the wrong major. A parent who pushes a child to develop talent in sports or some other field, to the neglect of the child’s character development, is doing the same thing. A politician who focuses on superficial solutions to public issues, such as government-run health care, is misplacing his emphasis. In this instance the focus ought to be on the reduction of medical costs through the elimination of layers of bureaucracy, the reform of litigation, and education in life-style changes that promote better health and reduce reliance on harmful and expensive drugs. You can easily multiply the examples where “majoring in the minors” has unintended consequences that only add to life’s problems.

The church in North America today is similarly addicted to misplaced emphases. Church leadership is always tempted to stress denominational distinctives; theologians tend to focus on the salient aspects of their particular point of view. Catholic, Reformed, Dispensational, or Pentecostal doctrine comes to the forefront in place of what C. S. Lewis wanted to call “mere Christianity.” These things become the “majors,” while the heart of New Testament faith — the living presence of Jesus Christ with His people — becomes the “minor,” mentioned only in passing.

Lay people sometimes fare no better. They might choose a church to attend based on such things as worship style. Do we sing “contemporary” choruses, old-time “gospel songs,” or stately organ-accompanied hymns or chants? Does the preacher use a manuscript, or speak in extemporaneous fashion? Do officiants wear casual clothes, encouraging other worshipers to do the same, or do they dress more formally or even wear vestments? Do we lift our hands or pray in other tongues during worship, or do we participate more placidly? Compared with the presence of the risen Jesus Christ, by the Spirit, these differences are only differences in style. Elevating them to prominence is truly “majoring in the minors.”

If Jesus Christ is who the Scriptures say He is, Christians need to become trans-denominational. If, as Hebrews (1:3) states, Jesus is “upholding the universe by his word of power” (1:3), and if, as John (1:3) says, “all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” — then the living Christ is present wherever His people gather to honor and celebrate Him. We can be aware of His appearance, or parousia, in any worship setting regardless of style.

The presence of God, revealed in His Son, can break through into our lives because Jesus is alive — and, as Paul reminds us (Acts 17:28) quoting a Greek poet, “In him we live and move and have our being.” In a culture increasingly hostile to Christian faith, it is time for Christians of all traditions to quit “majoring in the minors,” and make it evident in all aspects of living, including formal worship, that Christianity is Jesus.