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The Free-Floating Irrelevance of Ecclesiastical Colonization

The church is indispensable in God’s kingdom. The church alone is his local, gathered community washed in the blood of his Son under the oversight of earthly shepherds.[1] (There is no such thing as the “invisible” church in the Bible.) The church alone preserves structured theological belief (orthodoxy). The church alone is the pillar and buttress of truth (1 Tim. 3:15). The church alone administers the sacraments, or ordinances. The church is God’s chief institution for maturing his people (Eph. 4:1–16).

But the church isn’t God’s central work in the earth, and it certainly isn’t his only work. His chief work is his kingdom (Mt. 6:33), his rule and reign, to which institutions like family, church, and state contribute. The church is a single divinely established institution among several, and to elevate it to a more domineering place leads to the blight of ecclesiastical colonization. [2]

Contracting Christianity

Because the church is obviously vital, many Christians get the idea that where God is at work in the world, he is working everything within the church. This ecclesiastical colonization has historically come in one of two forms: (1) the role of the church is expanded to dominate all of life: family, education, politics, and culture. All culture must be church-ruled culture. The Middle Ages sometimes perpetuated this error,[3] which we can designate as ecclesiocracy — the rule of the church. This isn’t a problem anywhere in the Western world today.

But there’s also (2): The role of Christianity is contracted to conform to the church. It’s this second problem that’s pervasive today. The only important Christian things are happening in the church; everything outside the church is secondary or irrelevant as far as the Faith is concerned. The idea that culture itself should be Christian is a huge mistake.[4] Because economics, politics, science, technology, entertainment and sports aren’t a part of the church, they need and should not be Christian. This error is apparent in the so-called “Two-Kingdom” Theology:[5] the kingdom of the church is governed by the Bible, but the kingdom outside the church is regulated by “natural” theology, on what both Christians and non-Christians can agree are common-sense, non-Christian principles: Jesus is an absentee landlord. This dualism always leads to a radically secularized culture and a radically pietized church. The culture abandons God, and the church abandons any field it can’t control. From Satan’s standpoint, it’s an ideal arrangement.

Privileging Theology, De-privileging Worldview

Ecclesiastical colonization starts early. In seminaries and Bible colleges, future church leaders are taught the nearly exclusive importance of theology, meaning biblical or systematic theology and including exegesis, hermeneutics, Christology, soteriology, eschatology, and ecclesiology. These topics are necessary, and there can be no robust Faith without them, but the Bible includes much more. The Bible is no less concerned with a Christian view of economics, sex, music, science, and education than with traditionally theological categories. The Bible tells us how we are to live in the world, not just in the church. In fact, the faith disposition of our heart generates a worldview, and this worldview and the philosophy we derive from it shape how we interpret reality — including how we read the Bible.[6]

The culture abandons God, and the church abandons any field it can’t control. From Satan’s standpoint, it’s an ideal arrangement.

Our hearts and minds must be turned toward the Triune God before we can encounter the Bible reverently, and this is why the basic elements of a Christian worldview and philosophy come before even God-honoring Bible reading. Theology, the kind of knowledge central in the church, is not the only knowledge, or even the first knowledge, that needs to be Christian. Our view of reality precedes our view of everything else. It must begin with God and move outward to the world and family and culture and church and all else.

Double-Decker Reality

To better grasp Ecclesiastical colonization, think of the double-decker tour buses in London. Ecclesiastical colonizers move all Christianity into the upper deck of the church and theology. On the lower deck they leave the rest of life as permissibly non-Christian. Christians assume the Bible has nothing relevant to teach about tax rates or foreign policy or education standards or architecture or popular music or movies or cloning or surrogate motherhood or medical care: these are issues that shouldn’t pose big arguments and “everybody should work them out for himself.” The only important matters are evangelism and prayer (mostly in the church) and AWANA programs and Beth Moore Bible studies and church leadership conferences. The upper deck alone is Christian.  

Meanwhile, the lower deck gains its independence from Christianity. Why? The bus driver is always on the lower deck. The lower deck, already unattached from the Bible and church and Christianity, jettisons the upper deck, and soon starts driving the entire culture, above which the detached upper deck angelically floats, enjoying its helium holiness, while the lower deck drives the vast majority of cultural riders straight to hell. For this reason Joseph Boot writes: “To limit the kingdom of God to the church is to surrender culture to the enemies of God.”[7]

Conclusion

The temptation to surrender to ecclesiastical colonization is fierce. Living in a radically secular and neo-pagan culture, we feel safe retreating into our churches and ignoring the outside world. But Satan will never respect the sanctity of our churches. His objective in de-sacralizing culture is eventually to de-sacralize the church and family. Our counter-objective must be to re-sacralize all of life. The intention of the kingdom of God is to colonize all of life for Jesus Christ.


[1] P. Andrew Sandlin, Un-Inventing the Church (La Grange, California: Center for Cultural Leadership, 2007).

[2] S. U. Zuidema, Communication and Confrontation (Toronto: Wedge Publishing, 1972), 47.

[3] Christopher Dawson, Medieval Essays (Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1954, 1968), 75–94.

[4] David VanDrunen, “Calvin, Kuyper, and ‘Christian Culture,” in Always Reformed, R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim, eds. (Escondido, California: Westminster Seminary California, 2010), 135–153.

[5] Brian G. Mattson, Cultural Amnesia (Billings, Montana: Swinging Bridge Press, 2018).

[6] Andree Troost, What Is Reformational Philosophy? (no loc.: Paideia Press, 2012), 1–21.

[7] No author listed [Joseph Boot], For Mission (Grimsby, Ontario: EICC Publications, 2018) 20.

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Religious Liberty: America’s Christian Heritage

The U. S. Founders believed in religious liberty and as Christians (or Christian-influenced), they knew that “Christianity Is the Mother of Political Liberty.” In fact, political liberty grew out of religious liberty in Europe. Therefore, we need to know what religious liberty means. It doesn’t mean that the state is neutral toward religion. The “Establishment clause” of the First Amendment had a very precise meaning in the late 18th century. It meant that the United States wouldn’t create an established national church as England did. Congress, therefore, was prohibited from establishing a national church (there was never any “Church of the United States”). Note this fact: The colonies, and then the states, almost all had either established churches or an establishment of a generic Christianity.

The Establishment clause

It’s hard for us to grasp this fact today, but the delegates to the Constitutional Convention demanded the Establishment clause not because they were secularists, but because they were Christians[1] — they had their own state churches and religion and they didn’t want a national church to interfere with it. They didn’t want the Feds intruding into the state religion. The Establishment clause was never designed to de-sacralize culture or even the state.

The Free Exercise clause

Then there’s the free exercise clause. Congress may not prohibit the free exercise of religion. This clause obviously didn’t reflect a secularizing objective. The European religious settlements often had allowed religious persecution for dissenters. The Framers wanted to avoid this, and they wrote that avoidance into law. They weren’t secularists trying to keep Christianity out of the public square; they were Christians who didn’t want any particular church to suffer persecution for its beliefs and practices. They didn’t want the Presbyterians persecuting the Baptists, for example.

There’s no “separation of church and state” in the Constitution (it came from a private letter by Jefferson). However, properly understood, there is a legitimate “separation of church and state” implied in the Constitution — but not the separation of the state from God, which is another matter altogether. The Founders did not want a “Christian state” as such, but they did want a state that reflected certain Christian truths as they related to politics.

Persuasion, not coercion

Now, undergirding this view of religious liberty (which for the Founders implied liberty for Christians) is a striking rationale. The Founders believed that true religion — the Gospel of Christianity — doesn’t require the coerciveness of national politics to survive and thrive. They believed that if left in the free market of ideas, Christianity had nothing to fear. They were tired of the European idea that the nation had to be commandeered by one church, which then in turn got special privileges and protections. The Founders believed that genuine faith didn’t need coercive protections. All it needed was the freedom to propagate and proselytize.

Now, as you know, this is simply not true of many other religions — Islam, for example, has a very different church-state paradigm. Islam requires state protection and coercion precisely because it has no Gospel, no Good News. It’s a moralizing faith, not a redemptive faith. States shaped by Christianity can offer religious liberty to Islam, but true Islamic states like Iran cannot (consistently) allow full religious liberty to Christians or anybody else, except Muslims. Christians can afford religious liberty, but Islamists cannot.

Amid the present cultural depravity, today’s well-intentioned Christian calls for “post-liberalism” are actually suggestions to walk away from a consistently Christian social order. The expression for the generic Founding political philosophy is classical liberalism. It is the closest thing to a Christian political philosophy you can get. One of its cornerstones is religious liberty.

Religious liberty in the United States reflects a Christian conviction — that religion is a matter of persuasion, not coercion.


[1] On all of these points, see Daniel L. Dreisbach, “In Search of a Christian Commonwealth: An Examination of Selected Nineteenth-Century Commentaries on References to God and the Christian Religion in the United States Constitution,” Baylor Law Review, Vol. 48, No. 4 [Fall 1996], 928–1000.

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God’s War Plans, and Satan’s

God has chosen not to annihilate Satan and his forces, but to get the victory for his people through great conflict over sin. He decides to defeat it, not abolish it. Think about that fact for a moment, because it’ll help you understand many things about Christianity and the Christian life. God allows Satan and his hosts to continue their work. God refuses to give Satan the satisfaction of accomplishing the divine will by simply abolishing evil. God accomplishes this will by defeating evil. This means that there’re great battles that we Christians must fight, and they’re great battles of the heavenly realm, and many of those battles include angels arriving to answer our prayer (read Daniel 10).

Therefore, if you’re praying, and praying for a long time, and your prayers aren’t answered, don’t stop praying. Don’t assume that your prayer isn’t in God’s will. Only rarely in the Bible does God reveal that the prayer of a godly person is not in his will. In the vast majority of cases, he answers the prayer of his righteous people, because righteous people pray righteous prayers (Jas. 5:16). This, by the way, distinguishes biblical prayer from the heretical health and wealth gospel and the prosperity gospel. God isn’t interested in answering the prayers of worldly narcissists. But he delights to answer the prayer of his righteous people who wish only to please him.

Gospel battle

A massive front in the battle is Gospel preaching. In the Parable of the Good Sower (Mt. 13), Jesus says that when people don’t understand the Gospel, the evil one (Satan) comes and snatches away the good seed that was sown in their heart (v. 19). There’s never gospel preaching without spiritual warfare. Satan has a vested interest in preventing and perverting the gospel, and he does it all the time.

Jesus uses the same metaphor of planting seeds in the very next parable, the Parable of the Weeds (v. 24f.). The Lord himself sows good seed in the field of the world. The good seed is the people of God, “the sons of the kingdom.” Simultaneously, Satan sows the weeds, “the sons of the evil one.” In this parable, Satan’s not removing good seed; he is sowing bad seed, and the bad seed is actually people. This isn’t a pleasant thought for modern Christianity, but it is a biblical truth. Satan uses evil people to disrupt the kingdom of God, and places them near the people of God in the world. This is a tactic in his warfare. So we can’t pretend that everybody near us is either a Christian or neutral. Satan intentionally places people in the world to thwart the growth of the kingdom of God. And God will only remove them finally at the end of the world.

False apostles

Then think of the false apostles in 2 Corinthians 11. Paul says that Satan’s ministers, the angels or fallen elohim (gods), have begun impersonating ministers of righteousness. We’re not entirely clear what the specifics are of their teaching, but they were leading the Corinthians away from the simple, pure gospel of devotion to Jesus Christ. They were well educated and loved their rhetoric, and there’s nothing wrong with either, but they used these gifts to detract from the purity of the gospel.

Only rarely in the Bible does God reveal that the prayer of a godly person is not in his will. In the vast majority of cases, he answers the prayer of his righteous people, because righteous people pray righteous prayers

Whatever detracts from simple, single-hearted devotion to Jesus Christ is satanically inspired, and anybody who does this as a teacher is a satanic minister. It could be the idea that the Mosaic law can stand on its own apart from Jesus Christ. That’s false doctrine in both the New Testament and the Old Testament. It could mean that you had to become an ethic Jew in order to become a part of the people of God. That’s also false doctrine. It could be that since you’re saved by grace, you don’t have to quit sinning. That’s false doctrine. A grace strong enough to forgive you but not change you isn’t the grace of the Cross and resurrection. Any teaching that obscures or detracts from salvation in Jesus Christ alone, any Gospel that says there is good news apart from our Lord and his death and resurrection, is devilish. That’s at the heart of our warfare.

Apostasy battle

Consider next Luke 22:31–34. Jesus foretells Peter’s denial at his trial. He then says something truly remarkable. Jesus tells Peter that Satan has desired to have him so he could sift him like wheat: in other words, to wreak havoc on his very soul. But, listen to these powerful words: “I have prayed for you that your faith does not fail.” There’s warfare for the souls even of the people of God. Satan wants to destroy their faith and their trust in God. He wants to unleash torment and tribulation on them so that they turn their back on God, just as he tempted Job for that reason.

As we as a culture turn our back on God and revert to paganism, we can expect more demon possession.

What Jesus prayed for Peter I trust he prays for us. And God answered Jesus’ prayer. Peter failed temporarily, but he won permanently. Why? Because of the prayer of Jesus Christ. But make no mistake: there was a battle, and it was a fierce battle for Peter’s very soul.

Today when we see family members and church members and friends of people we look up to fall from the Faith, never assume this is simply as result of rational, mental calculation and “falling into sin,” or mere backsliding. Satan and his minions are wrecking their lives. They’ve suffered the onslaught, the havoc-wreaking forces of hell. This realization will cause us to be a little more patient with them, while, of course, warning them of the grave danger of turning their back on the Lord.

Healing and exorcism

If you read the synoptic Gospels you know that a big part of Jesus ministry was casting out demons and healing the sick. But what he claimed to be doing was defeating Satan (see Mt. 10:1; 12:22–28; Lk. 13:11–16). With the Advent of our Lord, the incursion of the kingdom of God entered a new and accelerated phase. Satan had bound the nations, particularly God’s chosen people Israel, and Jesus came to unbind. How can you plunder the house of the mighty man, if you don’t first bind the mighty man who has bound others? In that metaphor, Jesus depicts Satan as the mighty man that he is come to bind and plunder (Mt. 12:22f.). By the way, Jesus gave this metaphor after he had healed a blind and mute man. That healing was a mark of defeating Satan. It was hand-to-hand spiritual combat that Jesus seemed almost constantly to be engaging in. As much as we might deplore healing ministries and reprobate cash-four-health schemes, we can’t avoid the Bible’s plain teaching: part of spiritual warfare is battling illnesses. The same is true of battling demon possession. This is the biblical world.

And if you wonder why we don’t see more evidence of demon possession in our world while we hear about it a lot more in places like Africa and the Asian bush, it’s because those places aren’t as Christianized as the West; the power of the gospel has pushed Satan to the margins. As we as a culture turn our back on God and revert to paganism, we can expect more demon possession.

Sovereignty and battle

Incidentally, have you noticed that when Jesus confronted those who are possessed by demons, he never laid the blame on them? Today we talk a lot about people’s sins that invite demon possessions, and they certainly can (Mt. 12:43–45). But Jesus looked at these poor, pitiful creatures as the victims of Satan’s hatred for God and for his kingdom. They were casualties of war. This of itself shows us that there’s a great evil in the world, and it’s not the results only of man’s sin but of Satan and his insurrectionist minions.

People sometimes ask the perennial question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The Bible’s answer is simple. Because there is great evil in the world. We can’t say, “Well, God is sovereign, and he could stop it.” Of course he could. But in stopping evil he would have to stop the entire universe. He chose to create both human and nonhuman beings with the capacity for choices, and those choices are sometimes evil. This doesn’t mean they can overthrow his sovereignty. God can and will still accomplish his purposes, but he will accomplish them partly by means of human and nonhuman choices. And those choices, tragically, are often evil. In this way, God got can use sin for his own purposes without being the author of sin. God’s not the author of little babies being burned and buried alive by ISIS, but he’s still working all things for his own glory.

In short, there is evil in the world, great evil, and it won’t overthrow God’s plan, but he is also not the source of it.

Christus victor

The Cross of Jesus Christ was the greatest act of spiritual warfare in human history, and it was God’s greatest victory. Gordon Rupp writes:

There are forces at work in human history which represent human solidarities, perverted and twisted and full of danger. They’re part of the pattern of evil. They’re part of the conflict in our human existence. If the Christian gospel were only concerned with the moral problems of individual men and women, it would be defective indeed. But the first Christians knew better when they affirmed, ‘Christ has conquered sin and death and principalities and powers’.

E. Gordon Rupp, “Principalities & Powers

Our war is bigger than we think.


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Hope, Not Quarantine

Christian culture inspires great hope for the future. History is not an endless, repetitive cycle of rises and falls. It’s a God-governed odyssey moving from Creation to Fall to Redemption to Consummation.[1] God’s kingdom in Jesus Christ is not static. Although it suffers from diabolical attack, and sometimes, it seems, is almost overthrown, it marches on to its destined victory (1 Cor. 15:20–28). Christian culture is optimistic culture, not because it has confidence in its own society, but because it has confidence in the God whom it loves and obeys.

The eschatology of a Christian culture is an eschatology of optimism.[2] Eschatology is one’s view of the future. Christians who embrace pessimistic eschatologies, who believe that culture is destined to get increasingly worse, are, in this way, at least, thinking more like pagans than Christians. Almost all civilizations at the time of Christ believed in a cyclical view of history: history is destined to go up and down and up and back down again.[3] A truly Christian eschatology sees God at work gradually redeeming all of culture by the power of his Spirit and in spite of fierce, frantic Satanic opposition.[4]

Secularization, a turning away from the Triune God and his word, has infected our culture with a deep spiritual disease. Jesus Christ and his way of doing culture is the only cure. Christian culture is the panacea for the diseases of everything from relativistic chaos, enslaving depravity, and postmodern despair.

A Seductive Illusion

An understandable and rational response to these pervasive secular (as well as pagan[5]) diseases is to quarantine ourselves in our families and, at most, in our churches. The attitude is: even though our society may become more secular, we can become more Christian. A large number of ministries are committed to restoring the family and reviving the church. I support them, and I pray that they’re successful.

However, if they neglect the cultural component — and if they think they can sustain a robust Christianity over time in an evil culture — I believe this view to be not only theologically mistaken, but also dangerously delusional. The church should indeed impact society, but society has a way of impacting the church.

The sociologist Peter Berger popularized the idea of “plausibility structures”:[6] what counts as legitimate and illegitimate, real and unreal in a culture. When secularists create a comprehensive plausibility structure, it means that Christian truth is not so much persecuted, as it is simply meaningless. It doesn’t matter if the church stands up for biblical marriage if the wider culture defines marriage in a radically different way. Trying to restore biblical marriage would be akin to trying to restore the 18th century French monarchy. People wouldn’t fight you; they’d simply look at you as nutty. That’s why we cannot afford to fix just one thing: We cannot afford to fix the family and the church but not the culture. These institutions are all interrelated, and each affects —  and infects — the other. What our children and grandchildren consider normal will be shaped not only by what they hear and see in family and church but also in the surrounding culture. Abandoning the culture to Satan and secularists is to allow them a hand in deciding what is normal for our children and grandchildren.

Only God gets to decide what’s normal.


[1] Herman Dooyeweerd, Roots of Western Culture (Ancaster, Ontario, Canada: Paideia Press, 2012), 28–36.

[2] J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971).

[3] John Baillie, The Belief in Progress (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1951), 43–51.

[4] For an example of how to interpret the Bible optimistically in this way, see Roderick Campbell, Israel and the New Covenant (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1954).

[5] Peter Jones, One or Two, Seeing a World of Difference (Escondido, California: Main Entry, 2010).

[6] Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy (New York; Anchor, 1967, 1969), 12.

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Counsel to Younger Bibliophiles

This new year, I’ve noticed (and benefited from) a number of 2018 books-read lists, but here I want to address younger bibliophiles, and from a different angle.

Recently I estimated the number of books that I’ll read over the rest of my life, if God grants a full life, and given my pattern of reading, underscoring, annotating, and indexing. The estimate I came up with was 800 to 1000. That’s not many books. This number sobered me into thinking how I’ve often in the past read widely but not wisely. I’ve read thousands of books (I don’t know how many), and, of course, I wish I knew then what I know today about reading choices.

I began reading omnivorously when I was 10 or 11 years old. Aside from the Bible, the first book that I read, at least the first long book, was The Complete Sherlock Holmes. I was hooked. I was reading theology at 14 years old and socio-cultural works at 17 and 18.

I’ve never let up.

I’ve been so intellectually curious and such an excited and excitable reader that I’ve read widely on a number of topics, perhaps too many topics. While I’m not unhappy with my wide reading, I’m aware that had I read more wisely, I could’ve benefited more greatly from my reading.

My advice to younger readers: Try to discover the very best two or three books on any topic in which you’re interested. My practice was to read anywhere from 15 to 30 books on a single topic, when that wasn’t necessary. Unless you’re a scholar specializing in a particular topic, you don’t need to know everything that everybody has said about it. In fact, if you’ve read more than two or three books on the topic, you’ll probably find yourself consuming a lot of repetition. This happened to me. Because of opportunity costs, this meant that there were other topics that I simply left unread.

Don’t simply read a book because it is (or looks) interesting. Select your reading strategically. Compile a list of the books that you intend to read in 2020, and do your best to finish that list. Don’t be sidetracked by other interesting books. There will always be interesting books to read, but the most interesting books are not always the right ones for you to read.

There’s no substitute for disciplined reading choices.

I wish I’d known this in 1975–1990.

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