Private Holiness & Public Good
As I’m preparing to preach on James 2:8-26, I’m reminded of an important era in American religion that I want to share with you.
One of my colleagues at the university where I was a campus minister was a friend named Paul Raushenbusch. He was the Associate Dean of Religious Life and is now the senior religion editor at the Huffington Post. We disagree on almost every theological issue, but we are cordial to one another; I enjoy his sense of humor and honesty. Paul is the great grandson of a famous theologian man named Walter Raushenbusch. A couple of years ago Paul edited the one-hundred year anniversary of a very important—though highly contentious—book in American religion, Christianity and the Social Crisis. I want to tell you about it for a moment so you can see why personal morality and social action have historically been pitted against each other. This story will help you understand why the evangelical church tends to put so much emphasis on matters of personal purity and why the more liberal mainline church tends to emphasize social action. This is important because it helps us see why what James is saying in 1:27-2:26 is so important for a new church in Owasso.
Walter Raushenbusch was born in New York State in 1861 to a devout Christian mother and a dad who was a German Baptist preacher. Raushenbusch grew up learning evangelical doctrines and personally believed the gospel at seventeen. He wrote that he was “influenced by grace down to his depths.” But in studying the Bible in seminary, Raushenbusch began to doubt biblical inerrancy, saying, ”it was not taught by Jesus; it makes salvation dependent upon a trinitarian transaction that is remote from human experience; and it implies a concept of divine justice that is repugnant to human sensitivity.” (For the record, I completely disagree with this statement.)
Raushenbusch was a young minister when mainline Protestant churches were largely allied with the social and political establishment, in effect supporting the domination by robber barons, income disparity, and the use of child labor. Most church leaders did not see a connection between these issues and their ministries, so they did nothing to address the suffering of the children or the poor caught in this system of injustice. But Rauschenbusch saw it as his duty as a minister and student of Christ to act with love by trying to improve social conditions. In this way he was honestly trying to live out what James says in James 1:27-2:26. “Faith without works, especially works toward the poor and marginalized, is dead,” he reasoned.
In 1907 he wrote that famous book called the Christianity and the Social Crisis. The aim of the book was to re-engage Christian responsibility toward society in ways the church had overlooked or ignored. In it he wrote, "Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus. Whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social relations and institutions of men, to that extent denies the faith of the Master." That statement by itself is sound, but the premises upon which he declares it are not. The problems with his theology are many. Christianity was a force for social good; the Kingdom of God was eradicating injustice. He said, for example, that that the sacraments of the church were not a sign and seal of being engrafted into Christ, but were merely an act of dedication to a religious and social movement. Further, he didn’t believe in the substitutionary atonement, Jesus was just a moral teacher; he rejected biblical authority, the Bible is just an inspirational tale, etc. The danger here is that when you choose social concern on the basis of anything other than faith in Christ’s atonement for sinners, then you miss the heart of the gospel. They assumed their “human sensitivities” were accurate indicators of reality; but this side of the Fall, unfortunately, we cannot trust even our own desires to keep us straight (James 1: 14-15) without the “mirror” of the Word (James 1:23-25).
Through the years, however, this book caught the attention people who were frustrated that the Protestant church preached personal morality on the one hand but on the other had a very anemic theology of social concern. They saw this as a kind of hypocrisy. And they rededicated their lives to care for the poor and downplayed the hellfire and brimstone preaching, which “did no good except to lead to self-righteousness and religious bigotry.”
Over the years, you can see how this worldview has influenced many mainline denominations. When you don’t believe in the inerrancy, authority and infallibility of Scripture, you are able to ignore passages that speak of sin and death and hell and keeping oneself “unstained from the world,” (James 1:27c), and raise the banner for the part of that verse that says “care for the widow and the orphan” (James 1:27b). This is called liberationist theology. Liberationist theology says that Christianity is about liberating the oppressed from systemic injustice and bigotry. And it has influenced many important people in our nation’s history, including Martin Luther King, Jr.
While all this was developing on the “left” in the wake of Christianity and the Social Crisis (and other books), there was another group of Christians in America on the “right” who saw the danger of liberationist theology, and called people “back to the Bible.” The “Bible Conference Movement” was born in places like Niagra Falls, NY in order to study the Scriptures literally and rededicate themselves to purity, knowledge and right doctrine. Eventually, many great seminaries began out of this tradition, including my own, Dallas Seminary, and even, indirectly, Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. The call “back to the Bible” was indeed a needed correction for people who jettisoned the truth of God’s Word for “human sensitivities.”
Through the years however these two groups of people remained ideologically distinct within the "Christian" world. People outside of the Christian church wondered what all the trouble was about. "Why are there so many Christian churches 'splitting'?" they asked. Meanwhile these two sides of the social morality / private morality divide largely populated Protestant mainline churches and the Evangelical mainline churches respectively. In due time, eventually the PCA left the mainline PCAUSA church because of these issues and others in order to remain “faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed Faith and obedient to the Great Commission.”
In James 1:27, James offers a unique definition of religion. In Greek thrÄ-skeia refers to the outward manifestation of one’s devotion to God. And in explaining what our outward piety or devotion should look like, he brings together two elements of Christianity that are not often kept together: 1) concern for personal holiness, and 2) a concern for public action and social concern. The first is often characteristic of separatists (like the Bible conference movement and many charismatic movements) and the second is often characteristic of progressives and called “social justice.”
Trinity stands firmly rooted in the conservative evangelical tradition, yet we believe both sides of this conversation have sometime to contribute. Our core values affirm that the Gospel impacts into our lives in three ways: worship, community, and Kingdom-mission. Worship refers to our confession that Jesus Christ is Lord in all spheres of life, personally and corporately. There is no private holiness / public activism for us. They are linked together in biblical sanctification. We also strive to be a counter-cultural community, where people love each other in ways rarely experienced in Owasso and Tulsa. We also want to be a people on mission who are dedicated to publically extending God’s Kingdom through evangelization and social concern. We are in effect trying to do exactly what James says in the verses we will look at this Sunday, James 2:8-2:26. We are trying to bring two biblical things, “personal holiness” and “public action” to the forefront of our church’s calling because James says that both are implications of the Gospel. In short, we seek to publicly engage Owasso and Tulsa with the Gospel of Jesus Christ's work for sinners. Come join us on the journey to do this in an exciting time of our City's history and economic development.