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No. 18: Taking the Situation Seriously

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 18
October, 1990
Copyright 1990, Biblical Horizons

Evangelicals have in recent years become more interested in looking into their Bibles for wisdom to deal with modern problems. This is undoubtedly a welcome development, after many years of neglect.

But there are dangers and costs as well. One of these is the tendency to fall into a modern problem-solving mode of thinking. The modern world is dominated by the illusion that social problems can be solved by the application of the proper technique. Evangelicals face the danger of making the same claim for "biblical solutions." There are many problems of domestic and foreign policy that defy any "solution." The Bible undoubtedly guides us, tells us clearly what we can and cannot do, makes wise the simple. But this does not mean that there is always an obvious biblical solution, a simple biblical technique that, properly applied, yields its result.

I do not see, for example, a biblical "solution" to the well-nigh intractable problems of Palestine and South Africa. I certainly believe that we should be searching the Scriptures for wisdom concerning these issues. But no technique exists to solve these problems. The resolution of these conflicts is much less mechanical a procedure than that, and a much riskier procedure as well.

Another danger is that concentration on biblical norms can lead us to ignore the situation at hand. We may project long-term visions of what the world should be, but often fail to wrestle with the world we have been given. Thus, we tend to downplay what Nobel economist James Buchanan has called the "uniqueness of the status quo." Buchanan notes that "The choice among alternative structures, insofar as one is presented at all, is between what is and what might by. And proposal for change involves the status quo as the necessary starting point. `We start from here,’ and not from some place else." This does not mean we accept the status quo, but that we understand the limits it places upon us.

This is not merely a pragmatic argument, but has theological roots. John Frame has argued that we cannot apply the Bible correctly unless we are also paying attention to the situation. The more we know about the situation, the better able we are to apply the Bible. Scripture guides us in our interpretation of the situation; but we must interpret the situation. Moreover, the situation is a product of God’s plan. God has given us the status quo, and we need to accept it as His gift and His challenge.

This means that promoting a long-term vision of a biblical social and political order is not sufficient. It is not sufficient to say, for example, that we need to dismantle the centralized welfare state and return to family and Church ministries of mercy. That, I believe, is an appropriate long-term goal. But, by itself, it doesn’t address the problems that we face today. Among the complexities of our situation are these: for all the flaws of the welfare state, the majority of Americans evidently want it to continue; there is simply no consensus, even on the Right, for dismantling of the welfare state; at present, Churches are not equipped with the money and skills to shoulder the burden of our nation’s poor and homeless; families are disintegrating; the mobility of modern life makes family support of poor members more difficult; and so on. These social, economic, political, and technological facts must be taken seriously. If we talk about dismantling the welfare state without addressing these issues, we have not dealt responsibly with the issue at all.

Taking the situation seriously means also that we recognize the "Butterfly effect" of the apparently small obstacles that we overcome. Staying married may seem a rather uninspiring goal, but it has a greater long-term impact than any hundred Congressional bills. Weekly celebration of the Eucharist may seem completely irrelevant to real life, but it’s vastly more important than the next Presidential election. Politically, we need to welcome even the smallest victories. Without being satisfied with cosmetic changes, we must recognize the virtues of the marginal improvement. A short-term "winner take all" attitude can only exacerbate conflict.

More broadly, we no longer have a Christian consensus. We are no longer a Christian nation. Evangelicals, therefore, can, as a practical matter, no longer dictate morality to the nation as a whole. We are no longer a righteous empire. Religious pluralism is a fact of American life. Whether we think that is good, or whether we think it will last, we need to deal with it.

How are we to act in such a situation? The Bible provides models for us. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people found themselves in a variety of social and political circumstances. Israel survived slavery, liberation, prosperity, decline, and exile. Christ’s church will do likewise. The varied experience of the biblical saints gives us much guidance in living within out culture. Thus, for example, we might compare the Israelite confederation and early monarchy to the first centuries of American history; in both cases, most leaders were believers and the basic legal and political structures were deeply influenced by biblical norms.

Which biblical era is closest to ours? This is certainly open to debate, but I believe that we are in a situation somewhat similar to that of the exiles and the first-century Christians. Political and intellectual elites are largely hostile to Christianity, and we are a minority, though happily not yet a consistently persecuted minority. On the other hand, there are also similarities between our present situation and that of the remnant of believers in the divided kingdom. We have a Christian heritage and past, just as the Jews did. We have repudiated that past, just as they did. We might therefore gain wisdom from studying the lives of Elijah, Obadiah, and Micaiah under king Ahab.

Romans 1 also provides some insight into our current situation. There, Paul describes three "deliverances." When men harden themselves against God, He delivers them over to idolatry (corruption of worship), then to degrading passions (corruption of sexuality and family), and finally to a depraved mind (corruption of society as a whole). At present, it seems that we are somewhere between the second and third "deliverance"; worship and sexuality have been corrupted, but we still have not completely descended into the total barbarism that Paul describes in verses 28-32. But we are well on our way. Unless we repent, those verses describe our future.

Senator Bill Bradley wrote a book about his basketball career entitled, "A Sense of Where You Are." Though lacking some of the more spectacular physical abilities of his peers, Bradley became an All-Star basketball player because he knew more about the game, and knew where he was on the court at every moment. To serve God faithfully, we need to develop not only a thoroughly biblical view of the world, but also to develop a sense of our place in history, and of the particular challenges before us.