Monday, February 19, 2007

Public Christian or Public Church?

If we choose to reject an iconic faith where America and it's symbols are sacralized or a priestly faith that "confuses nation with church," but we still want to be engaged in the public square -- what are our choices? Mark Toulouse, writing in his book God in Public offers two possibilities, both of which have found representatives in the contemporary American situation. These are the Public Christian and the Public Church.
The Public Christian affirms the role of the Christian in public life, but deems it improper for the church itself to engage in political/social activism. It's theological roots can be found in Augustine's "Two Cities" and Luther's "Two Kingdoms." For both of these pre-eminent theologians of Christian history, the church is spiritual. The church's role is to provide pastoral care and seek to evangelize the world. In the contemporary world, Toulouse points to Carl F. H. Henry, a founding member of the Fuller faculty and founding editor of Christianity Today. To say that the church should remain above the fray, doesn't mean that the individual or a group of individuals can't engage in public life. Henry himself called for a transformed social conscience and he did believe that the church should serve as an example of social justice -- it can feed the hungry, but not engage in political action. Interestingly enough, Toulouse points to Jim Wallis as one who started with Henry, but who has begun to move from the Public Christian view to what he calls Public Church.
The Public Church sees the church itself taking a prophetic role in society. It doesn't engage in political life as an adjunct to the state, but as a community it stands as voice of conscience. Thus, the church's mission is more than evangelism, but takes seriously the breadth of the command to love. Rooted in a more realized eschatology, more of Calvin than Luther, it seeks to understand the ethical imperative of the Gospel (Albrecht Ritschl). This is the vision of the Social Gospel, with Walter Rauschenbusch as its formative thinker. It is also the perspective of a Martin Luther King, Jr. In this vision of church life, God is liberator and the church is the representative of this God in the world.
To take the step of becoming a Public Church is risky. It is quite possible for the church to become co-opted by political forces -- as history has so clearly demonstrated. Theology can become secondary and irrelevant to the social vision -- and this has happened as well. Still, if we understand church to be a covenant community living as God's people in the world, then perhaps we are better equipped to seek justice as a community than as individuals.
So, which is it? Public Christian or Public Church -- this is a difficult choice. My own experience is probably the former, but I understand the need for the church to become prophetic, so perhaps this is the better way. Much is here to be considered!!! For, as Mark Toulouse writes:

Martin Luther King spoke the language of faith, informed by the gospel, and connected it powerfully to a call for the reform of public life. he did so in very public ways. Christians must learn again to stand in the tradition of King.

2 comments:

Dennis said...

Thanks for posting this; I've had this debate with myself over and over again, and it's nice to see it discussed in a forum like this. Like you, I generally line up with the "Public Christian" idea. While there is a great deal of power in "Public Church," I'm not sure it is as powerful a witness or as powerful a force for change as "Public Christian." Perhaps more importantly, the "Public Church" idea can be polarizing, in that it forces otherwise happily diverse congregations of believers to line up on one side or the other. In mainline denominations, most of which are as theologically diverse as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), congregations are often thought of as "liberal" or "conservative," descriptors famously called obsolete by Michael Kinnamon. Those descriptors miss the diversity within each congregation, and the misunderstand the nature of the Church at every level. I have heard over and over again the angry and empty threat that a church member "cannot share the table" with those whose views on Christian political activity are contrary to their own; "Public Church" guarantees that this will happen at every manifestation of the Church.

At the same time, there's a serious drawback for "Public Christian." The Church doesn't exist only as a loose association of independent individuals; decisions have to be made about how the congregation or denomination will do business. How does a local institution decide whether to provide benefits to partners of gay clergy or whether to engage in social justice-related boycotts without becoming "Public Church?" In short, it can't. Much as I personally would like to see the church avoid divisive resolutions and empty pontificating, I wonder if it goes hand in hand with the need to make corporate decisions for the corporate church.

Mystical Seeker said...

I'm definitely on the side of "Public Church". I think that unless a church serves as a prophetic voice against injustice, then it is not really serving God. On the other hand, I take a radical stance on this, because I believe that the true prophetic role means not allying ones self with the any of the factions of the ruling class. That means that I don't think that religion should operate within the halls of power, but rather outside of it. That also means not identifying necessarily with political parties or candidates, but as forces for social change that can pressure the domination system from the outside.