By What Authority?

Kevin D. Paulson January/February 2013

Since the emergence of the Religious Right on the American political scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, cooperation between Protestants and Catholics for political purposes has been both open and active. Such religio-political alliances have existed before, of course, in the context of liberal causes (e.g., civil rights, the Vietnam War). The corporate nature of these and similar moral issues made the religious involvement less problematic for those concerned about maintaining the separation of church and state. Within the context of the Religious Right movement, many trace events back to the 1994 document "Evangelicals and Catholics Together."1 That document proclaimed a new Christian unity relative to both theological and political goals. The document was prepared and endorsed by such prominent Catholic thought leaders as Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel, and by such Protestant luminaries as former Nixon aide Charles Colson and televangelist Pat Robertson.2

What I have chosen to call the "new ecumenism" is significant because of its differences from the old ecumenism. When many conservative Christians think of the ecumenical movement, they think of such organizations as the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches, or of meetings at which doctrinal compromises are crafted for the sake of denominational mergers–often by theological liberals with nontranscendent views of biblical authority. For this reason, the very phrase "ecumenical movement" has long evoked negative responses from the conservative wing of Protestantism. And yet with the rise of the Religious Right, it has been these very conservative Protestants who have been most proactive in forging unity with Roman Catholics for political purposes. Rather than seeking unity through some doctrinal "middle ground," achieved through the give and take of dialogue and negotiation, the new ecumenism simply ignores doctrinal differences–even major ones–for the sake of a united front against what is held to be a permissive, morally bankrupt culture.

The Problem

But expedient unity of this sort carries with it a major problem.

Adherence to moral absolutes is a cornerstone of conservative Christianity. For Protestants, historically, this has meant holding to the Bible as the exclusive guide to faith and practice—sola scriptura, as the Reformers said. On this basis, conservative evangelicals condemn fornication, adultery, homosexual practice, the production and viewing of pornography, and other practices considered to be immoral.

The challenge arises when the same Bible that condemns practices generally viewed by conservative Christians as immoral is also found to condemn beliefs and religious practices held dear by a large segment of the "moral majority" thus built. This problem, when considered, poses some serious questions for those with a high view of biblical authority. If the Bible is the source of the moral convictions by which one measures society, on what basis does one refuse to apply the biblical standard to political allies whose teachings or religious practices contradict the Bible? If one chooses simply to ignore such contradictions, what is to be made of the biblical command not to be "unequally yoked together with unbelievers" (2 Corinthians 6:14)?

In short, what happens when biblical absolutes become politically inconvenient?

If the Bible is truly God's infallible Word, shouldn't its adherents stand by all of its teachings, even if others call such teachings bigoted? This, at the bottom line, is why politics is such a dangerous means by which to advance the church's mission, and offers yet another reason the separation of church and state is an imperative for the church as well as the government.

In the world of politics success is defined by 50 percent plus one. In the biblical worldview, by contrast, success is defined exclusively by faithfulness to the divine Word, regardless of how inconvenient or unpopular such faithfulness might be. When the so-called Moral Majority first came on the American scene, many Christians (as well as others) found the name unsettling. After all, the Bible never promises that God's true followers will ever comprise a majority, even among professing Christians. Jesus Himself declared: "Narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it" (Matthew 7:14). According to the Bible, only eight people got on board Noah's ark (Genesis 7:7; 1 Peter 3:20), only three stood unmoved when the rest of the world bowed before Nebuchadnezzar's image (Daniel 3:12). And at the end of human history, according to the Bible, those found faithful are described not as a majority, but as a "remnant" (Revelation 12:17).

According to Scripture, the Christian's duty is to adhere to the counsel of God, even if the result is revilement and ridicule by the rest of society. Biblical teachings cover more than sexuality issues. They place in the crosshairs of scrutiny a wide range of cherished beliefs and practices, including many held dear by conservative Christians. Something is very wrong with the spiritual integrity of church members who are prepared to sacrifice biblical teachings for the sake of political objectives. Such dilemmas, however, become inevitable when Christians seek to blend the church's agenda with that of the state. Majority opinion is the guiding force in representative government, and when the biblical message is subjected to such a standard, much of it will be lost: and with it, the most basic authority of the Christian faith itself.

1 "Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium," First Things, May 1994, pp. 15-22.
2 Ibid.

Article Author: Kevin D. Paulson

Kevin Paulson is a much-published author, editor, and minister of religion. He writes from Berrien Springs, Michigan.