Is the Church Weak and Compromised??
Is the Christian church in America in a similar place as the church in Nazi Germany? Has the church today become complacent, weak, and compromised, unwilling or unable to speak truth to power? That is the suggestion, or maybe more accurately, the charge leveled by author and radio host Eric Metaxas in his new book Letter to the American Church. I think Metaxas is right about the church, but for all the wrong reasons.
Here is where Metaxas is right: the Christian church today in American is weak and compromised. According to Metaxas the year 1954 was pivotal to the church’s emasculation. That was when the amendment to the U.S. tax code was passed prohibiting churches and non-profits from taking a stand on political candidates. Even more galling to Metaxas, pastors in America passively submitted to this supposed outrage. This, Metaxas believes, is the cause and grounds for the gagging of pastors and the controlling of churches by the government, and it is both “un-Christian and un-American.”
There is one huge and glaring hole in Metaxas’ argument that completely invalidates his point. The only reason the government can prohibit churches from taking political stands is because the church willingly accepts its privileged tax-favored status as a religious entity, thus being able to do its business tax-free and (even more importantly) give tax-deductions to encourage contributions.
This is a choice that churches make. Any church is free to reject its tax-free status and stop giving tax-deductions to its donors. However, churches have so long enjoyed this privilege (in fact, since the founding of America) that it is assumed and not questioned. But it’s not a right, but a privilege, one that we can forego at any point. In so doing, churches would be free to endorse and campaign for whatever issue and whichever candidate they so desired. It’s just that simple. Of course, this is not even considered as it gives a massive benefit to church’s financial bottom line, both for its institutional wealth as well its donors. Contrary to Metaxas’ outrage, this embedded arrangement is as “American” and it would appear as “Christian” as it gets.
This gets to the real reason and basis for the weak and compromised state of the church—the love of money and commitment to a privileged tax status. Tax-law is the government’s most powerful tool used to influence and move behavior. So long as tax deductions are available to religious organizations, it will influence choices such as attendance, membership, and most significantly the amount and frequency of donations. Ironically, the very tool of the church’s wealth-building power is the vice that keeps the church weak and compromised. If the church really wants to be free (as Metaxas demands) then maybe it needs to disentangle itself from IRS beneficence.
Sadly and erroneously, Metaxas lays the blame for the church’s compromised state upon its toleration of “pernicious” ideas such as Critical Race Theory (CRT) and socialism. Pastors in particular are called out for their cowardly silence lest they offend or get too political. It is worth noting that Metaxas never – not even in the slightest – defines CRT or socialism. The lack of definition, depth of consideration, or intellectual nuance is astounding. He simply rails against them as evil and puts pastors on blast for not doing the same. In so doing, Metaxas appeals to the most base instincts of his intended Christian audience of pastors and congregants.
Instead of reasoning with his reader, Metaxas assumes a polarized political posture of Christians contra mundum, or at least against the world of liberalism. He assumes that all Christians should agree that the labels “CRT” and “socialism,” are evil whatever they may actually mean. This is dangerous. Rather than produce peaceful and productive dialogue, such uncritical and undefined use of polemical labeling tends to whip up frenzied, mindless, and reactionary mobs.
Indeed, having read Metaxas’ Letter, I am left asking myself if this is in fact the author’s intention. The thematic parallel interwoven throughout the book is the perilous similarly Metaxas sees between our day and what happened in Germany, which allowed for the rise of Adolf Hitler and the extermination of millions of Jews.
While invoking Hitler and Nazi Germany is a common rhetorical tactic, Metaxas’ Letter peddles particularly hard in its fear-mongering. According to Metaxas our society is in grave danger of being taken over by “false, confusing, and wicked ideas” that are “inherently atheistic.” While not explicitly said, the clear implication is that these ideas have been brought forth by godless liberals and progressives (i.e Democrats). What is explicit is the warning that America may be on the verge of becoming the next or new Third Reich of our day. This is supposed to instill the fear of God in all the faithful. Metaxas warns his readers: if pastors don’t speak up against these pernicious ideas, we will “invite the judgment that is sure to come.”
To suggest that national genocide and divine wrath can be expected if pastors do not speak up against liberalism is irresponsible and concerning. But Metaxas adds fuel to the fire by invoking the life and legacy of German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer as his hero and solution. Bonhoeffer, recognizing the evil of Hitler’s Nazi agenda, famously plotted a failed assignation attempt of the Fuhrer, was caught and eventually executed by the Gestapo. Metaxas spends no less than five chapters explaining the heroism of Bonhoeffer in the context of Nazi Germany.
The connection appears to be obvious: for faithful Christians, in order to combat these socio-political evils it may mean a daring act of faith and patriotism that, like Bonhoeffer, is willing to take matters into one’s own hands. This should be a frightening proposition for anyone regardless of political persuasion.
Metaxas himself is on record as saying he is willing to die for what he believes is right. Put this together and events such as Jan 6 and the recent violent attack in the home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi makes more sense and could even be defended as heroic. Metaxas is in effect calling pastors to arouse the kind of political and theological indignation in their congregants that is willing to do violence to those who they deem harmful, all in obedience to God and for the good of the nation.
The contradiction cannot be lost in all of this that this call is to pastors who lead churches filled with congregants who are called to follow Jesus, whom by all accounts never once took up a weapon or called for violence against those who opposed him or disagreed with him. On the contrary, Jesus told his disciple Peter to put down his sword and healed the servant whom Peter harmed. Jesus taught his followers to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them. Most profoundly, Jesus did not establish his agenda and authority with politics or violent coups, but demonstrated his power by willingly laying down his life as a sacrifice on the cross. The Apostle Paul understood the way of Jesus when he wrote, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
The logic, rhetoric, and implications of A Letter should concern everyone: Pastors, Christians, and non-Christians alike. Unlike the author of the book (whom, to my knowledge, has no pastoral experience or background) I have been a pastor the past 22 years. I have preached countless sermons and have led diverse congregants through all sorts of economic, political, racial, and social distress. I am taking the time to write this because I am concerned that, if heeded, the result of Metaxas’ Letter could incite further violence against government officials and justify vigilantism, all in the cause of religious faithfulness, or at least under the pretense of it. As a follower of Jesus, I am concerned this will only further damage the church, the reputation of the faith community, and the cause of Christ.
Pastor and Executive Director: Cross Community Church and The Equity Center
October 31, 2022