“Private Judgement, if it remained private, was not sound judgment. In order for it to be rational and accurate in its interpretation of the outside world, it was necessary for such judgement to show “Itself to be generally true” – Adam S. Borneman, Church, Sacrament and American Democracy.
One of the concerns that you often hear in conversations about “the culture wars” is that the reason they are fought is to keep religion from becoming overly-privatized. This is a legitimate concern, as we have seen a concerted effort to remove religion, and at time Christianity in particular more and more into the private sphere. Longtime readers know that I have very little faith in fighting culture wars and prefer a faith that lives out the way Jesus laid out for us to live. This is a life that foregoes these wars of words for a humble life of service. I believe, as Sinclair Ferguson writes that :”We are to put on the whole Christ” over and against everything else this world would seek for us to be. Again, as I have written before, culture wars are antithetical to the way of Jesus. They act as though the spread of Christianity is going to come through might and cultural influence, even though that is nowhere in the teachings of Jesus and actually contradicts those teachings. As Christians, we should echo Peter when He says: “Where else are we to go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68)> If we believe that to be true, if Jesus is the only way to eternal life, that means that literally everything in our lives has to be weighed and measured against Christ’s words. If the words and actions match Christ, we are fine, if not, we probably need to spend some time with the Holy Spirit, letting him transform our minds and hearts. Beyond just the scriptures, there is to be group consensus that can only be reached by group study of the Scriptures. It is not that we do not have opinions, but that those opinions are informed by Father, Son and Holy Spirit speaking through the Word and through prayer.
As Christianity is pushed further and further to the margins, the culture war rhetoric has ramped up. But I would argue that, while the concern over and over-privatized religion is a legitimate one, it is also at the core of culture war problem to begin with. That is, we bring our private discernments to the culture wars and we join a group that has made the same or similar private discernments we have and think that this means we have found group consensus that is biblical. Since the groups judgment is proven correct through a self-affirming process (the private thought of the thinker) there is no need to test the opinion against Scripture. This phenomenon is especially present where a big name has attached themselves to the idea that is pushing that private judgment. We trust that because the person has been to Bible college or has a big platform they must be correct, but this is logically false because we know people can push ideas without any biblical evidence or the biblical evidence they chose to use is scant to nonexistent and pigeonholed. When we put our trust in a human being and not in the Triune God we are setting ourselves up for heartbreak and failure.
Many of you know what this looks like. If you have ever heard phrases like: “Well, this is what this passage means to me” followed by a personal interpretation that when challenged provokes a visceral reaction to the questioner. It becomes more important for Christians to: “live their truth” than for truth to be completely and totally formed and informed by the full council of Scripture. In effect, we become the very post-modernists we spent decades denouncing, like our secular counterparts, coming to a conclusion and then joining a tribe that already agrees with us, where we never have to evaluate and even question our foundational beliefs. When those foundational beliefs are directly challenged or even destroyed, we become defensive or our systems of thought begin to get deconstructed.
This problem is nothing new in American Christianity. It existed in the 1800’s as well when it seemed anyone and everyone had a reason for splitting from the church. Sectarianism, the name we give for when opinions matter more than Jesus words about unity among his followers, was rampant in the 19th century. Everyone had a reason and an opinion and then just as today many of the theologians at the time were concerned about the over-privatization of religion. Philip Schaff wrote: ‘
“The most dangerous foe with which we are called to contend is not the Church of Rome, but the sect plague in our own midst; not the single pope of the city of seven hills, but the numberless popes-German, English and American-who would fain enslave protestants once more to human authority, not as embodied in the church indeed, but as holding in the form of mere private judgment and private will.” Principle of Protestantism, pg 114.
John Williamson Nevin, Schaff’s counterpart at the Mercersburg Seminary in Lancaster PA argued alongside Schaff, that the “individual” Christian had to understand themselves within their relationship to the Church. Nevin believed, along with Calvin and Luther, that where there was no Church, there was no Christ and so to separate oneself from the Church was to separate oneself from Christ. Nevin also did not see Church Attendance, but participation in the Functioning Body, as a sign of one’s salvation, he quipped: “The complete salvation and conversion of the world would not be accomplished by simply adding the names of more and more individuals to the roles of believers.” Adam Borneman notes that to Nevin: “Christian Identity (and therefore true human identity) begins with Word and Sacrament, as administered under the authority of the Church.” In our modern parlance we would sum this up by saying the cliché: “There is no such thing as a lone ranger Christian.” The church is a necessary part of both Christian Identity and Christian Life because it is within the Church, understood as the body of believers, not the building in the Mercersburg Theology, that one experiences and comes to the knowledge of Christ and is transformed through His Holy Spirit. When one goes outside of the Church for wisdom, they are looking places other than Christ.
Now, I need to be careful when I say this and clarify, I am not talking about denying general revelation, which is part of God’s revealed truth and character. I am talking about seeking wisdom and insight and forming our opinions outside of the church and the Word of God. Special Revelation exists in two places, in the word of God and in the development of His people by the Holy Spirit in Church History and even Church History has to answer to the Word of God, as Schaff notes in The Principle of Protestantism: “The tradition answers to love.”
But what does this mean for our own private thoughts? How does this work? Are we to be “anti-individual?” John Williamson Nevin was not. Borneman gives a good summation: “Nevin was not anti-individual. Proper reason and proper religion, however, only took place when the individual submitted their own subjective reason to universal, objective reason. Private judgment, if it remained private, was not sound judgment. In order for it to be rational and accurate in its interpretation of the outside world, it was necessary for such judgment to show “itself true in general.” To Nevin, the only way we could know if what we believe on a topic is true it must be held up to the objective standards, specifically of scripture and the tradition of the Church. When God said: “Let us reason together” He means we should work out our thoughts and sins within the light of a community, “Us” is a call to the corporate body, not to the individual sinner in the context of Isaiah 1. In the same way, our thoughts and opinions need to be brought to the community to be reasoned through thoroughly and informed by the scriptures. Otherwise they are “not sound judgments” because they have not passed the test of the Word of God and community.
This was what the Bereans did in Acts. They studied the Old Testament Scriptures and judged Paul’s thoughts as they were hearing them to ensure that what they were saying was right and true in light of the Scriptures. It cannot be stressed enough here that all thought has to be judged by Scripture as the primary judge over and above the community. Something can line up with what the community believes, but not pass the scripture test. The Bereans made sure that what Paul was saying was accurate according to Scripture, they tested him, even as they believed on faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. They were wise in the way they went about, making sure Paul was speaking truth to them from the Scriptures and not making up something.
The Bereans are often held up as examples for youth group kids, but very seldom do we see them used as examples for our churches as a whole. The implication being that young people should study the scriptures and weigh everything against scripture but when you get to adulthood it is whatever the prevailing logic of the day is and you should go with that. Perhaps this is another of the reasons younger people like myself leave the Church after high school and college. They are told by youth pastors and college chaplains to read and study the scripture, even encouraged to go deep, and when they do they discover the depths of wisdom in the scriptures and then they look around and see their parents, adult friends and mentors living a life that is contrary to the life of Scripture that they were encouraged to study like Bereans. I know this has been a major point of tension in my own journey of deconstruction and reconstruction. I believed Jesus when I read Matthew 5: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and then looked up and heard and saw people I looked up to my entire life actively hating their enemies on the other side of the political aisle. I heard them name-call anyone who disagreed with them, often at church on Sunday, and my conclusion could easily have been that of my peers who left the Church. Instead, I felt the love of God for the Church and decided to call the Church to Repentance, not because I said so, but because Jesus says so. (Disclaimer: Not everyone who leaves the church does so because of mere hypocrisy, many have been hurt, some severely by the Church and some have been forced out for calling out the hypocrisy and abuse, we should not assume a single reason for leaving). As Christians, we are to: “live by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). That means that any thought we make major decisions on that is not held and backed by the Word is a thought that will lead to destruction.
For the sake of argument, let me use immigration as an example: Let me start by saying that these issues are no political, they are human, that is, when I think of these issues I think of real people who I have known, been friends with or ministered to. There is a policy discussion to be had about this issue, but that is not for the Church to figure out. As Daniel Montenez made clear during a sermon at Gordon-Conwell: “A sovereign nation has the right to defend and protect its borders, but it must do it justly.” Christians can and should inform the government what is a just law and how to enforce laws justly from the scriptures, but we also have another responsibility towards the foreigner in our midst that is found in the Moral Law of God which Jesus carries forward into the New Covenant as a Law on the Heart (Jer 30, Matthew 5). That is: “And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (Duet 10:19). This comes on the heels of another command to love the Lord, Love for God, Love for one another, love for the foreigner, they are all tied together. In the New Testament, James expects us to practice a religion that “cares for widows and orphans” (Jm 1:27). The Churches responsibility towards the foreigner is not to ask whether or not they are here legally, but to serve those whom the Lord puts in front of us to serve out of love for God, love for one-another and love for the foreigner. This is the argument I have heard from my own conference leadership in our Conservative Conference of Christian Churches (CCCC), and logically it makes coherent sense when you take the full council of scripture into account. Whatever policy a Christian advocates for then must start from that position, from the posture and attitude scripture lays out for us towards the immigrant. It does not matter what the prevailing wisdom is on the right or the left. If the Bible is not our starting and ending point in these discussions, as Christians we are going to get it wrong.
So let us summarize: personal opinions are not inherently evil or bad, but for them to be considered a “sound judgment” they have to be brought to the throne of Christ and weighed by the word of Christ and the community of Christ. If they disagree or directly contradict what the teaching of the Word is, then the individual or community consensus needs to be adjusted to the council of Scripture. Scripture contains all the wisdom we need to talk about and understand complex issues and we are both commanded and have demonstrated for us how to use it in this way. The Holy Spirit will never lead us astray and so we need to learn to listen to the voice of discernment and examine Church History to see how He has led the Church on these issues in the past.
God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit along with the Word of God are the primary authority in the life of a Christian, Christ is the only one who can demand total allegiance to Himself, his life and way, and when we do that, we actually experience more freedom and peace, not less. But we have to do it. We cannot keep running away and hiding from Him, because we are only running to judgment, not life, even while we think we are first in line for heaven.