Theological Etiquette

I don’t know about you, but my early morning startup process is a mixture of ingredients. Coffee in hand, it typically involves a brief interaction with the Bible as prompted by a devotional resource. After that, as long as nothing is pressing, I spend a few minutes reading, whether that be an article or a casual scroll through social media. Last Sunday’s routine enjoyed a visit with John 1:14 followed by commentary from Luther, a portion of which encouraged believers to “further and increase [God’s] kingdom, which is in so many suppressed and hindered by the devil and the world.” Luther continued by saying this happens when we “open to Christ our treasures and present them to Him, as the wise men did. And how? Behold, His Word is written (Matthew 25:4): ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’”

Not long after visiting with these things, I read a relatively intuitive quotation from Edmund Burke, a member of the British Parliament during the American Revolution and a critic of Britain’s treatment of the colonists. He said, “All men that are ruined, are ruined on the side of their natural propensities.” In other words, pay close attention to your natural inclinations in any particular situation. Doing so can spare you some of life’s biggest headaches, the kinds that will inevitably do you in.

This is incredibly insightful, so much so that it came to mind later that morning during the Adult Bible study. We’re currently studying Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Last week, we continued our walk through chapter 5, which began with revisiting:

“Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore, do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (vv. 1-10).

Relative to this, Burke’s words seemed strangely appropriate. They understand that restraining the types of behavior Saint Paul forbids requires self-awareness, the kind born from genuine honesty.

I didn’t know it, but philosophically, Burke appears to have been a man after my own heart. He wrote a book entitled A Vindication of Natural Society. I managed to read about ten pages of it on Google Books before ordering a hard copy for myself. In the book, Burke chisels away satirically at deism’s popularity while also showing how proper manners help steer and uphold morality while fortifying the boundaries of natural law. He doesn’t necessarily use the following example, but it came to mind as I read those ten pages—and I shared the thought with the Bible study attendees.

Consider a man opening a door for a woman. When a man does this, he isn’t just being properly polite. He’s also acknowledging essential distinctions between men and women. There are things men can and should do that women cannot and should not. The same is true in the opposite direction. There are things women can and should do that men cannot and should not. And yet, while these things might be otherwise offensive to some, the distinction is acknowledged and upheld by an act of humility. Burke argues that the practice of manners—which are, for all intents and purposes, societal rites and ceremonies—restrain darker inclinations.

Now, think back to Burke’s original quotation insisting that one’s natural propensities, if unguarded, can be ruinous.

Everyone has improper tendencies. Let’s say a particular man has a propensity for lording over women, treating them as shameful lessers. By making a conscious effort to begin opening doors for women, this man takes a step toward restraining this unfortunate inclination. He’s submitting himself respectfully to the role of caretaker without unnaturally emasculating himself. The process acknowledges a man’s biblical role of headship, yet it does so in love. The practice of manners—the societal ceremony—helped maintain this framework. I’ll give you another, more personal, example.

I had a good circle of friends in my earliest high school years in Danville, Illinois. Believe it or not, even as testosterone-enriched athletes, we were never inclined to swear. The rest of our teammates were. Outnumbered in this regard, as a result, there came a time when swearing began infecting our circle. To stop it, the four of us pledged to punch one another anytime an inappropriate word crossed our lips. A few days and lots of bruises later, we brought what was becoming a natural propensity under control.

It’s too bad I cannot continue employing such tactics as a clergyman. But I digress.

In short, my friends and I knew ourselves. We were honest about what was becoming a dreadful propensity. We were Christians, and we sensed foul language’s incompatibility with our faith (and, as Burke might suggest, its erosive effect on a moral society). With that, we warred against the tendency with a ceremony capable of maintaining the boundaries (Ephesians 4:29-30, 5:1-13). We did this before the propensity ruined us. Interestingly, the ceremony was unpleasant when used. It hurt. But it was worth it. I should say, it’s likely even Saint Paul would have approved. In 1 Corinthians 9:27, the verb for “discipline” (ὑπωπιάζω) means to strike something physically. Paul appears willing to use extreme techniques to keep his own body under control. Getting punched, perhaps by Timothy, wasn’t off the table.

During last week’s Bible study, I wondered out loud if any of this was relevant to worship style. Of course, my wondering was rhetorical. How could it not be? That’s one of the benefits of traditional worship’s maintaining of historic rites and ceremonies. In a way, they’re theological manners.

Tradition understands man’s propensities. It knows we want things to be our way (anthropocentrism). To restrain this more-often-soiled-than-not tendency, rites and ceremonies—spiritual etiquette—carry the worshipper along in ways designed to exchange anthropocentrism with Christocentrism. In other words, their purpose is to force man out from the center of his own universe and put Christ firmly in the middle.

Understandably, rites and ceremonies are multifaceted, and like getting punched by three friends all at once, they can sometimes be uncomfortable. I get that. They’re strict means of exercise. But the most rigorous kinds of training often produce the best results. In this case, the singular goal of each word and motion is a heart fixed securely on Christ by faith and a new propensity—a Spirit-driven inclination—to imitate Him in the world around us (Ephesians 5:1).

A Trojan Horse of Sorts

I was at a conference in San Diego the week before last. Apart from the time I had with my wife in the evenings, I’m not so sure it was the best use of my life’s fast-fleeting hours. I went as a guest of Charlie Kirk. His organization, Turning Point USA, orchestrated the event and paid for our travel and lodging.

I was glad to go. Jen was, too. I learned some things and met a few people. While I did those things, Jen went to a Safari Park and met a rhinoceros, or as the park rangers call the creatures, “chubby unicorns.”

Again, I was glad to go. Admittedly, I was also glad to leave.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate Charlie Kirk and his efforts. That’s one reason we’ve partnered with him here at Our Savior in Hartland more than once. He’s sharply intelligent and can readily tap into his intelligence and share it with accessible language. I think I appreciate him most for his grasp on the essential crossovers between Church and State. He knows biblically, historically, and practically where these two estates meet, and he knows why it’s important for Christians to be mindful of these things.

Unfortunately, the folks running his conference and many of the guest presenters proved to have a far lesser grasp on these things than their leader. When Charlie came on stage to introduce the three-day event, he promised a smorgasbord of speakers who would offer help and resources for navigating the turbulent waters of Church and State engagement. Remarkably, he teed up this promise by first commending the Nicene Creed as essential to the gathering. I was glad about that. Next, he expected the speakers and attendees to put their denominational particulars aside to cooperate in the acceptable externals. In these locales, different branches of Christendom are free to unify to accomplish shared goals. I was glad about that, too. Enough, already! The “us against them” mentality in the Church is not helping!

Still, only a handful of speakers did what Charlie described. David Barton, Dr. James Lindsay, Bob McEwen, and Dr. Larry Arnn were a few. The rest of the event was dominated by mega-church pastors giving sermons that did, in fact, insist on acceptance of distinctly theological things—things about God laying this or that unprovable premise on the speaker’s heart, pre/post-tribulation concerns, “deeds, not creeds” dogmatics, and a whole host of other rudderless theological ramblings particular to popular evangelical Christendom. Moreover, these same speakers went out of their way to take jabs at traditional churches. Lutheran, Roman Catholic, old-school Presbyterian, or old-guard Methodist, it didn’t matter. If your church was inclined toward maintaining tradition and creeds, historic rites and ceremonies, you needed to get with the times. You needed to be courageous, to step out of conformity and get radical for Jesus. Courage, courage, courage! Get radical for Jesus!

Every time this happened, as the only one in the crowd wearing a clerical collar, I felt somewhat like a visual representation of what they were belittling—and I’m pretty sure some of the pastors around me betrayed the same discomfort with their glances. That being said, the onstage indictments didn’t miss their mark. I actually do believe that creedal Christianity is the best way to preserve truth and foster the genuine courage required for defending it. I think what they were doing was very near the epitome of nonsense. And not only that, but in my experience, the encroaching world appears utterly unconcerned by their zealousness. And the reason? Well, let me get to that.

Relative to my long-standing opinion on this, the guest speaker I appreciated the most was Dr. James Lindsay, the foremost “Paul Revere” on Critical Theory. To grasp his impact, you should know that when people write books decrying Critical Theory, he’s often their source material, being the one most frequently quoted in the footnotes. Formerly a devout atheist and now a confessed agnostic, Lindsay was the presenter I appreciated the most. He was an objective observer of the Church, making his insight valuably unbiased. In fact, his observations were a “Trojan Horse” of sorts when it came to the overall vibe of the event.

During his presentation, he referred to Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Freire, the father of Critical Pedagogy, as one of Critical Theory’s truest originators. As he did, he made a stinging observation that had many in the room pulling back on their amens and alleluias. He said that fundamental to Freire’s position was the deconstruction of the traditional churches. Lest he offend his hosts outrightly, Lindsay implied that Freire didn’t appear concerned in his various writings about the newer, more contemporary churches. These churches were already apart from what could shield their deeper connection to truth. They’d given it up voluntarily in their efforts to be found acceptable to the world rather than distinct from it. He inferred that the framework of contemporary churches (whether they’re willing to admit it or not) is primarily experiential—the manipulation of emotional highs and lows. He explained this as the best platform for replacing hard and fast truth with subjective sensitivity, namely, making what someone “feels” about truth the center of the experience. On the flip side, he sensed Freire’s concern for traditional churches being natural fortresses against this strategy. Freire believed them to be set apart from culture by objective boundaries. Their creeds hold the line on what is and is not true. Their traditions and worship practices are near impenetrable expressions of those truths. It would seem in Freire’s mind, if Critical Pedagogy was going to help usher in a purer era of socialism, the traditional churches needed to be in the reticule of the effort’s heaviest artillery. Tear down the traditional institutions and rebuild new ones. The contemporary churches have already proven themselves willing to follow along in stride, being shaped by their inherent desires for acceptability to the culture rather than expecting the culture to conform to the truths they hold dear.

In summary, one of Critical Theory’s most influential proprietors appeared to believe that traditional churches were society’s last line of defense against its pedagogies.

Strangely, Dr. Lindsay’s presentation was the only one of the many I attended that allowed questions. Of course, I raised my hand. The microphone runner seemed to avoid me with incredible precision at first. But I kept my hand up. Eventually, someone nearby pleaded my case, and I was granted the last question. The runner handed me the microphone just as the moderator announced that only two minutes remained for the final question. Already somewhat familiar with Freire, especially his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (which I happened to visit with very much in passing last year before giving a speech that compared specific sociopolitical agendas to the creature in the film “The Thing”), I asked him if it would be a good idea for mainstream evangelical churches—many of which seem to epitomize the description of chasing after emotional experiences—to start moving back toward embracing creedal traditions that have proven in history to help shield Christians from deceptive ideologies like Critical Theory. Secondly, I asked what suggestions he might offer to churches that want to begin such a return. Before Dr. Lindsay could answer, another speaker sitting beside him took the microphone (much to Dr. Lindsay’s wide-eyed surprise) and returned to the premise that it’s not about style but rather that pastors just need to be courageous.

“You guys just need to be brave. All we really need from you is to step outside your comfort zones and show some courage.”

That was it. The session was over. But I wasn’t done. I ended up connecting with Dr. Lindsay backstage. We had a wonderfully refreshing conversation. Before concluding, he expressed a willingness to speak at our “The Body of Christ and the Public Square” conference here at Our Savior in 2023. As a side, he mentioned he has close friends in Ann Arbor and that he’s an enjoyer of whisky, which puts him within range of a quiet evening with a Lutheran pastor who owns a rather significant selection of uisge beatha—the water of life. I’ve already sent the details to his scheduler. God willing, things will work out accordingly.

I suppose one of the lessons I learned at this conference is that anyone can prattle on about courage, but in the end, genuine courage is conditional. In other words, the value of any particular belief or effort cannot necessarily be judged by the amount of courage it takes to defend it. Foolishness can very easily be mistaken for courage. Genuine courage can only serve as a natural application for objective truth. It results in a willingness to live and die for truth when living for it will be hard and dying for it will be easy. But it only really associates so viscerally in this way with truth, not lies. Dying for a lie is not courage but foolishness.

Foolishness, not cowardice, is courage’s truest opposite.

Foolishness thinks going against natural law and touting one’s confused sexuality is brave. Foolishness believes disrupting a pro-life rally by shouting “My body, my choice!” takes guts. Foolishness believes that canceling someone for expressing an opposing opinion is valorous. Foolishness thinks that a fifty-year-old man who leaves his wife and children to live as a six-year-old transager/transgender girl is valiantly embracing what he feels is his most authentic identity. On similar fronts, foolishness believes creedal things such as pledges and confessional statements of belief are dangerously divisive. Foolishness considers tradition, whether wearing vestments for worship or favoring marriage between one man and one woman, as blind conformity that suppresses progress. Foolishness believes that historic rites and ceremonies, whether kneeling for prayer with hands folded, eyes closed, and head bowed, or standing for the national anthem with one’s hand over the heart, are all mechanically spiritless and often representative of past oppression.

But in reality, why is foolishness so opposed to these things? Firstly, foolishness cannot tolerate anything that would bind the subjective desires of the radical self to someone or something else’s standards. This intolerance foretells the Last Day’s potential turmoil. As I’ve written before, when the divine lights come on at the Last Day, the radically individualized self will be measured against God’s standards, not its own. Secondly, these things teach. They are ancient conduits for communicating truth from one generation to the next. Freire’s sincerest point is that cultural transformation begins by first tearing down the old and its conduits and erecting the new.

I left the conference with a better view of some things. I hope I’m wrong, but it sure seems as though many of America’s mainstream churches—perhaps more accurately, their pastors—while they might not be holding hands with the Marxist left, seem to be in a pinky-finger relationship with certain Marxist ideologies. In that sense, they have far too much in common, and that’s incredibly troubling.

I’ve already shared all this in a lengthy phone conversation with Charlie’s folks. They need to understand that no small number of clergy and church leaders from some of the largest denominations in the world—many of whom I continue doing my level best to encourage toward engagement in the public square—would be disinclined to show up at such an event. And if they did attend, perhaps worse, they would likely feel validated in their desire toward disunity and disengagement. Again, I don’t want that. We need to be working together.

I don’t know for sure how Charlie will receive my commentary. Nevertheless, I know him to be a Godly and contemplative man, so I’m assuming he’ll at least consider the perspective, taking from it what he feels is helpful toward making next year’s event even better.