Over the last few years, two issues have overshadowed many others within the Presbyterian Church in America: (1) racial reconciliation and (2) the role of women in the church. Although there has been much progress in addressing these concerns, the conversations continue to evoke strong responses. Moreover, it has become commonplace to include modern sociological theories into these discussions. In my opinion, the import of these theories has not been accompanied with sound wisdom and discernment. In a desire to exercise discretion, I think there are four important considerations we need to have whenever we address sociological concerns within the church.
1. Consider the Historical Context of Language
Whenever we address any controversial topic, it is necessary to deliberately choose our words carefully because our language frames the parameters and tone of the discussion. We should consider both the historical and the modern context in which our language will be interpreted when discussing various ecclesiastical issues. For instance, when discussing social strife, the terms marginalized, oppressed, majority culture, subdominant culture, justice, patriarchy, and misogyny are often used, but they are rarely defined or the definitions change to fit the speaker’s argument. This usually means that we often speak past each other or engage in equivocation. Moreover, many of these words do not arrive from Christian tradition, but from the academy. Unless we provide qualifications to the appropriation of this language, we must beware of borrowing outside language when attempting to diagnose problems within the church.
This is particularly true when discussing racial reconciliation. Embedded within these words are two basic concepts. First, reconciliation assumes that there is a restoration of friendly relations between two parties. In addressing the history of minority participation within the conservative churches, we must ask whether this is an accurate description of our history. Second, when discussing race, we must ask whether or not we are being affected by an outdated, 19th-century definition of race (for an introductory discussion of this topic, see the following article).
2. Consider the Pervasiveness of Sin
From a Reformed perspective, sin affects man’s moral faculties as well as his rational faculties, including his intellect. The effects of sin on the mind—known as the noetic effects of sin—cause us to have intellectual prejudices, faulty perspectives, intellectual inconsistencies, irrational deductions, closedmindedness, intellectual pride, incomplete knowledge, and a host of other problems. Furthermore, the noetic effects of sin also cause miscommunication in how we speak to one another.
But what is true for the individual is often magnified for the group. In other words, what is true for the biblical view of man must also carry over into sociology and how we understand social interactions within and outside the church. Therefore, we should expect that much of academic sociology—which is typically divorced from biblical anthropology—will have significant errors. If sin adversely affects human judgments, such that we are prone to develop faulty perspectives, how much more will the noetic effects of sin affect our interpretation of human behavior? This is why we must be especially careful in using sociological concepts and theories to analyze and remedy social conflicts within the church.
3. Consider the Motives
In using sociological categories in ecclesiastical discussions, we must also search for the motivation behind sociological categories. Although we can learn much from non-Christian researchers (thanks to God’s common grace), we must never assume that academic language and/or theory is morally neutral. In reality, many of the interpretations of sociological phenomena stem from either a non-Christian or even an anti-Christian framework.
It is my experience that Christians can naturally discern this when applied to other academic fields. For example, when Christians speak about the historicity of the Scriptures, we don’t use the naturalistic presuppositions of critical historians and treat the Scriptures as mythology. The same type of discernment should be applied when discussing sociological concepts within the church. When Christians speak about social interactions within the church through the lens of power dynamics, social stratification, and intersectionality, we are not invoking sociological categories that are amoral. The social conflicts of the 20th century demonstrate that it is naïve to believe that academic research is purely objective when interpreting social phenomena; rather, it’s often used as a tool to re-order societal norms.
When these sociological categories are applied to the church, we often invoke tendentious perceptions that see the institutional church itself as being inherently oppressive to minorities and to women.
4. Consider the Consequences
The most difficult task of discernment involves predicting the consequences of our actions, both in the short term and into the future. In other words, when the short-term effects on one specific group is all that’s taken into consideration, consequences that can affect the entire course of churches and denominations will arise in the long run (consider Machen’s fight against theological liberalism and modernity and the issues we are facing today). Thus, the theological arguments that we use to address current issues will have far-reaching implications for future discussions and problems within the church.
Too often, we are tempted to view friction within denominations as “problems” which can be addressed with simple “solutions.” In reality, the proper way to view internal problems is to view all courses of action in terms of trade-offs. Hence, the question should not be what solution solves the immediate problem. Rather, the question is: what solution is best for the long-term health of the church, regardless of the sacrifice needed to confront it?
The Work of the Gospel
Of course, we must also consider the work of sanctification in the church. All of the agricultural and athletic analogies concerning sanctification assume that sanctification is a slow and deliberate process. As I stated above, what is true for the individual will usually apply to the group (the church). When a denomination or local church has failed to address pertinent social evils within its ranks in the past, it should not be expected that the full fruits of repentance will occur immediately. Rather, we should expect that the work of the gospel within the church will be slow but steady.
This is a call for forbearance and love, with a long-term view of growing in holiness. Whether we are correcting sins towards minorities or towards women, we should expect that it will take many years (perhaps multiple generations) to fully see the fruits of repentance. Courage is required to stand against long-standing sins, but patience is needed to see God gradually produce the fruits of repentance. May we work through these issues with godly sincerity and with assurance that God will complete this work within his church.