The title of Michael Horton’s Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church is emblematic of this piece, which appeared in Christianity Today (CT) last month.
First, the title of the book. Is there such a thing as a Christless Christianity? For that matter, is there an alternative gospel? A Christless Christianity is no Christianity. (1 Corinthians 1:23) Christianity has a way of being binary in that regard. And as for the gospel, if it’s “another” gospel, then it’s “really not another” but rather a contrary gospel that is to be accursed by the church. (Galatians 1:7-8)
So, obviously, Horton does not think there is literally a "Christless Christianity" or an alternative gospel in the Christian church, let alone the American church. Indeed, he wrote so much just a few pages into the book. “Second, I am not arguing in this book that we have arrived at Christless Christianity but that we are well on our way.”
This sort of walking back harsh and alarming rhetoric has come to be expected from Horton. The recent CT article is no different.
Horton announces that President Trump said, we’re “one election away from losing everything.”
Horton is correct here. “As evangelicals, we would do well to correct the president on this point. If an election can cause us to lose everything, what is it exactly that we have in the first place?”
But is he really correct? Horton is definitely not correct if we recognize that Trump didn’t mean our eternal soul (or even Mar-a-Lago for that matter). Obviously, Trump didn’t mean literally (in an exhaustive sense) “everything.” A context of political momentum places boundaries around “everything.” But to acknowledge that would have left no reason to have written this particular article.
But let’s see what else he says.
Surely we can be grateful for any public servant who upholds the First Amendment. And we should applaud fellow believers who ply their education and experience as lawyers to defend religious freedom (as long as they don’t seek to privilege Christianity legally above other religions).
I’m not sure what Horton has in mind by “privilege,” but I have no problem seeking Christian privilege over some of the privileges that might be sought by adherents of other world religions. I know of one religion that condones polygamy. How about one that offers celestial reward for flying airplanes into buildings? I have no reason to believe that orthodox Mormons and Muslims would not want to gain equal protection under the law, like the privilege Christians enjoy in partaking sacramental bread and wine without fear of molestation. Should Rastafarianism, with its sacrament of ganja (or “wisdom weed”), get a seat at the table of the religious privileged? How about the occult?
Something tremendous is at stake here: whether evangelical Christians place their faith more in Caesar and his kingdom than in Christ and his reign. On that one, we do have everything to lose—this November and every other election cycle. When we seek special political favors for the church, we communicate to the masses that Christ’s kingdom is just another demographic in the US electorate.
Let’s take a closer look at whether evangelicals place their faith more in Caesar than Christ. If one trusts government for eternal life, they’re not an evangelical. So, when Horton refers to one who would “place their faith more in x than y,” what is he saying? Surely the Christian, by definition, places that which is most valuable in the hands of the right Person.
The word “more” is in this instance Horton’s free pass. In one very qualified sense, I have more hope in government to curtail policy than I do in God. But that’s because I believe in the Christian doctrine of decree and second causes. God is the ultimate cause of all things, but he accomplishes his decree through means – even government. (That's why I don't hope that God picks me up at the airport. I hope that Lisa does.) So, it’s not un-Christian to “hope” that legal abortion ends through legislation, or if need be from the bench. To place my hope in God without acting is fatalism. To act without prayer is humanism. It’s difficult to say much more on the matter given the vague rhetoric that permeates the article.
Let’s face it. Liberal and conservative, Catholic and Protestant, have courted political power and happily allowed themselves to be used by it. This always happens when the church confuses the kingdom of Christ with the kingdoms of this present age.
If to court "political power" means to lobby for better laws, then there’s nothing contrary to the gospel about it. To be “happily… used by it” certainly sounds sinful; so I’ll concede on that to make a simple point. The former does not imply the latter!
As for, “this always happens when the church…” – that is such a nebulous remark it’s difficult to comment.
“Jesus came not to jump-start the theocracy in Israel, much less to be the founding father of any other nation.”
No, Jesus came to make disciples of all nations. Horton’s problem is that Christ’s offices of Prophet and Priest have seemed to eclipse his appreciation for Christ as King.
“Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and a long period afterward that would be marked simultaneously by persecution and expansion of his kingdom. How? Armed with nothing more than his gospel, baptism, and the Supper, fueled by the freedom of grace and love of all people, the low and the high, who need to hear this saving message.”
That’s terribly simplistic. First off, the gospel is meaningless apart from law. Any good Lutheran (or Presbyterian) knows that. Secondly, the erosion of cultural norms, which were shaped by natural law and the Bible, has done much to distort the moral backdrop against which the gospel is intended to be understood. Consequently, (i) resurrecting just laws, (ii) calling abortion murder and homosexuality an abomination, and (iii) courting political power - all, in their proper place, complements the gospel mission. It does not detract from it when done properly before God.
If one wants to talk about real violence against Christians, surely the persecution of the early Christians should count. Yet every New Testament command on the subject calls us to love and pray for our enemies with the confidence that Christ is still building his church.
Does admonishment and rebuke; a clarion call to repentance; the warning of imminent judgment; shaking the dust off one’s feet; and imprecatory prayer – in any way undermine one’s confidence that Christ is building his church? Given the passivity Horton seems to describe, I’m not sure the church would ever get persecuted (after having given up its place in the world).
Now for the dialing back of harsh words:
This is not to say we should have no concern at all about the state of our nation. Nowhere in the New Testament are Christians called to avoid the responsibilities of our temporary citizenship, even though our ultimate citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20). However, many of us sound like we’ve staked everything not only on constitutional freedoms but also on social respect, acceptance, and even power. But that comes at the cost of confusing the gospel with Christian nationalism.
Well maybe Horton is wanting people to sound the same way in all conversations. When speaking about politics, one needn't insert at every turn his hope in Christ. Secondly, if Horton does not recognize what is at stake in this country, there’s not much more one can say.
In his Great Commission, Jesus gave authority to the church to make disciples, not citizens; to proclaim the gospel, not political opinions;
That’s a bit equivocal. The church as an institution is one thing. The church comprised of individual professing believers is another. Certainly, the citizens of heaven, as sojourners on this earth, may proclaim political opinions. Or as Horton put is elsewhere, “Nowhere in the New Testament are Christians called to avoid the responsibilities of our temporary citizenship…” Is Horton's issue with Christian pulpits, or is it with politically minded Christians who don't share his sense of balance? Let's not forget - God created both the heavens and the earth.
Anyone who believes, much less preaches, that evangelical Christians are “one election away from losing everything” in November has forgotten how to sing the psalmist’s warning, “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save” (Ps. 146:3).
Remember, it was not a pastor, nor a layman known for his theological acumen, who made the statement from which Horton launches into his critique of Evangelicals. No, it was President Donald Trump who is known for hyperbolic tweets and pithy sound bites that people tend to remember.
As a final thought, "Losing everything” on an election is antithetical to true Christianity. So, either the statement was not intended to be taken literally or it’s the conviction of an unbeliever. Either way, Horton's critique becomes irrelevant.