Two church news in Asia has caught my eye this week. First, the joint declaration of three denominations (i.e. Hong Kong Christian and Missionary Alliance; Hong Kong Baptist Convention; Hong Kong Evangelical Free) have decided to march for the cause of “Pro-Family” on May 18th. The march will feature the three denominations that had traditionally been involved in the homosexual debate (or I should say “anti-homosexual but let’s all love gays” debate). Although the organizers were saying that this march would not feature the homosexual/anti-homosexual agenda, most people I have talked to and most mummer I’ve seen on social media still interpret this march with a focal point on the homosexual issue. I guess whatever the intention is, the impact remains different from what the marchers claim.
The second bit of news is a bit more personal. Since D. A. Carson had given the Timothy Lin Memorial Lecture in Taiwan, a new wave attacking New Perspective Paul washed ashore, with fallouts both locally here in the US (i.e. among diaspora Chinese) and in Asia. The debate typically features issues with the framework of the Gospel Coalition (the John Piper, Mark Driscoll and D. A. Carson people). The complainer started with a discussion about how Taiwan’s Campus Publishing (think “Zondervan of Asia”) has been promoting NPP exclusively without allowing for diverse voices to emerge. She further pointed out that orthodoxy would be in danger pretty soon if new voices about Paul were allowed to publish and speak in different venues all over Asia. In short, orthodoxy is on its way down in Asia. I guess certain people have been saying that for years here in the US, and somehow Asia is now catching up.
How are these two related? I’m putting aside ethical issue (whether homosexuality or homosexuals should be accepted by Christians) and theological issue (whether NT Wright is right) to ask a incisive question. Who gives these people the right to speak? Let me state clearly that I’m not saying that people of opposing opinions should not speak, and the question is not meant to shut off these voices with whom I have disagreement. I however question the framework of their rhetoric. THAT framework certainly matters when it comes to preaching or speaking on any public issue as a Christian leader.
Relating to the first issue of the May 18th march, I know at least two out of the three denominations represented are in violation of denominational policy. The heads and leaders of these denominations have created videos and promotion for this march. I still want to ask the question. Who gives you the right? According to my understanding of the Evangelical Free polity, each local congregation is autonomous in its stance on ideological issues that are not related to historical/doctrinal orthodoxy (e.g. Trinity, Christology, etc.). That’s what the word “FREE” means in the Evangelical Free Church, to be free from a centralized authority that dictates the conviction or operation of the church. In free churches like the Evangelical Free and Baptists, no one leader can represent everyone in the denomination. The biggest ethical principle Baptists value is the autonomy of the conscience as the Spirit guides the believer. No one human voice can represent all the believers or even the denomination. Whether these leaders like it or not, they themselves are using the denominational name to march and they are de facto representative for their denomination, not only to outsiders but also to insiders. They want to centralize authority again and put us back into the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. In short, what they’re doing is essentially illegal within their own denominational tradition and structure. Their representation looks more like the great Pontiff of the Roman Catholic church when he makes ex cathedra statements or the Anglican bishops who make statements about this or that than true free churches with congregational polity.
Now, the second issue which I talked about (the anti-NPP group of talking heads) shares a similar feature as the first. They too represent “orthodoxy.” As a Protestant, I feel greatly concerned that these people who speak for orthodoxy (indeed, for God) are neither empowered with authority nor equipped with adequate academic training (though some might be). Yet, the worst part is the authority with which they make their pronouncement. Who gives them the authority to speak for orthodoxy (and for God)? I’m guessing these very same people who denounce the Roman Catholic church are in effect closet Catholics because they function more like the pope as the gatekeeper to Protestant orthodoxy.
To summarize the first problem above, I think we need to look at the church’s role in society. The Bible hardly presents any evidence for a prophetic voice AGAINST society. The modern church may choose to stand with public interest on some issues, but doesn’t have the right to force the society to accept exclusively Christian opinions agreed upon by a small group of Christians. The biblical God has hardly given the church authority to polemicize against society at all. Almost all the prophetic voices in the Bible spoke to the faith community. That ought to teach us something about our role and our sphere. Who gives us the right to shout at society? I suppose as citizens of a society, the government could grant us the right, but not God! Let’s be practical. When we make such pronouncements, we risk pushing our agenda on society. Furthermore, even if we are granted such prophetic voice, that voice is often drowned out by shameless “Christian” politicians (e.g. Leung Mei Fun) who would hijack the movement for their own causes. Why indeed force the world to accept our “Christian” value (whatever that means still deserve vigorous debates)? To summarize the second problem, I think we need to look at the the church leaders’ role (e.g. biblical scholar, theologian, or minister). No biblical scholar, theologian or minister possesses the whole truth (in fact, no human possesses all truth). A very important function of the church AND academy is to create space for reexamination of tradition so that both the truth can surface more sharply and the context can be clearly defined. When voices attempt to drown out other voices, the process becomes a power struggle and church political game rather than dialogue. As such, these voices whether debating the family value issue or NPP issue are playing a dangerous secularized power game. No part of this game is in line with Christian principles because “playing God” is dangerous.
How is all this related to preaching? Certainly, how we speak matters. The rhetoric of representing denominational authority has to change. The preacher has to be able to distinguish where the limitation of his authority lies. Furthermore, the rhetoric of “I’m orthodox but no one else is” is very dangerous. Many preachers presume to speak for God and they’re quite confident that they’re indeed speaking for Him. Well, I’m not so sure at all. A lot preaching I hear is merely personal opinion of the preacher with some very bad exegesis to boot. I think a great many of them should adjust their rhetoric to reflect the fact that truth may be still “out there” instead of “in here.” We’re just in dialogue about the truth. That is all.
PS. Just a note for anyone who wishes to quote any of the Prophets to me…You’re mistaking CONTENT for INTENT. The CONTENT is written in the form of prophecy against pagan nations. All these passages were INTENDED for Judah/Israel (mostly exiles) to bring comfort and warnings to the readers. There’s no evidence that such prophecies were ever HEARD by gentile nations. They were a dramatic reenactment of prophecy against nations to Israel. The ones who received the prophecies were either Israel’s enemies (e.g. Babylon, Moab) or potential allies (e.g. Egypt). While Judah mustn’t fear Babylon and other enemies, its exiles should also not align with potential ales. In fact, you may find that the exiles continued to disobey the Lord because there was plenty of evidence of Jewish settlement in Egypt instead of returning to Jerusalem. If you study the audience background, you would see that I’m right. And you’re welcome for yet one more lesson on biblical literacy brought to you by my blog (sarcasm mode).