The Shift from Authority to Preference—And Its Consequences for the Church
Our modern world has shifted us from a stance under authority to one of preference. Or, expressed more carefully, our modern world tends to undermine all forms of authority other than its own and replaces them with the sense that all responses are merely a matter of preference.
THE LORD AS AUTHORITY
It goes without saying that authority is central and crucial to both the Jewish and Christian faiths. Unique among the gods believed in throughout history, the Lord is transcendent, so what he says is truth, binding truth, because it addresses us as authority. To dilute this authority is to dismiss the Lord himself.
For Christians, “Jesus is Lord” is the central conviction and confession of the Christian faith. In the words of the previously skeptical but then believing Thomas, we are followers of Jesus because we have reached the warranted conviction: “My Lord and my God” (Jn 20:28). Christians believe that Jesus Christ is fully God become fully human, the unique, sure, and sufficient revelation of the very being, character, and purposes of the transcendent God, beside whom there is no other god, and beside whom there is no other name by which we must be saved.
The follower of Jesus is therefore a person under authority, living before the transcendent majesty of God and unashamed to be so. What God tells us, we trust. And what God tells us to do, we obey. We therefore gladly acknowledge that we are not self-created, we are not self-sufficient, and we are not autonomous. No one in the world has a higher view and more solid notion of freedom than Jews and Christians. The Book of Common Prayer addresses God “whose service is perfect freedom.”
FREEDOM, NOT AUTONOMY
But this freedom has a threefold framework, so it is never viewed as autonomous. First, it is understood as a gift from God and not an achievement of our own. Second, it is always relational, and therefore it is experienced and it matures only in relationship with our Master, our brothers and sisters, and our fellow citizens. And third, it is always lived out within the framework of the teaching of Jesus and the Scriptures. Jewish and Christian freedom is freedom within the form of the truth of God’s way of life.
This means the Christian faith is a faith constituted by the authority of Jesus. Whatever Jesus himself commands, or whatever other authority is given, Jesus’ stamp of authority is the final word for Christians who would follow him faithfully. Jesus’ own teaching and his attitude toward the total truthfulness and supreme authority of the Bible make the Scriptures our final rule and authority. What the Scriptures say, God says, and what God says, we obey.
THE POWER OF PLURALIZATION
Critics dismiss this view of authority as quaint and rigid in the world of modernity. And modernity tends to render it unthinkable in a thousand ways, subtly and systematically. For a start, there’s the inescapable presence and power of pluralization—the process by which the proliferation of endless choice and incessant change increases at all levels of modern life. If “everyone is now everywhere,” then everyone is aware of “all those others” all the time, and with all the awareness of others comes the reminder of all the choices and changes that are open to us at any moment. And if there’s a wide array of choice today, tomorrow will bring even more.
To be sure, the dizzying array of choices is most obvious in a supermarket or a shopping mall, but the allure of choice has spread far beyond the walls of official consumerland. From breakfast cereals to restaurants and cuisines to sexual identities and temptations to possible sexual arrangements of all types to self-help techniques and philosophies of life, we are incessantly offered an infinite array of choices, and the focus is always on choice as choosing rather than choice as the content of what is chosen. Just choose. Simply choose. Experiment. Try it out for yourself. How else will you know unless you have tried it? After all, there are always others, there is always someone or something more, so unless you try them how are you to know whether you have missed the possible holiday, relationship, or philosophy that might really hit the jackpot?
“Love to one is only a barbarity,” Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil, “for it is exercised at the expense of all others. Love to God also.”
There you have it. Even God is reduced to consumer choice, according to Nietzsche, and when truth is taken out of the equation, sticking to one choice is no longer a matter of intellectual conviction but a sign of timidity and folly.
Surely, the unspoken adspeak tells us, you should always be open-minded, for the genuine freethinker will always wish to choose and keep choosing, to experiment and keep on experimenting. Our freedom is the freedom to choose, regardless of whether our choice is right or wrong, wise or stupid. So long as we can choose, we are free. Choosing is all that matters. Truth, goodness, and authority are irrelevant to the central act and the main event: you are the sovereign chooser, and you are free to exercise your sovereign right to choose and choose and choose again in whatever way you like—until all choices seem the same and each one shrivels into insignificance.
FREEDOM OF CHOICE V. FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE
Anyone thinking along can immediately see why freedom of conscience and conscientious objection are routinely dismissed today. Freedom of choice and freedom of conscience are entirely different. Freedom of choice has become autonomous and a matter of entitlement, whereas freedom of conscience was never free. It was a duty and therefore duty-bound and not free. Conscience was once respected precisely because a person was duty-bound, or bound by the dictates of conscience—like Luther’s “Here I stand. I can do no other.” But in today’s world, freedom of conscience is confused with freedom of choice and therefore rendered dutiless and shorn of its rights.
The net effect of this concentration on choosing lies at the heart of our modern consumer society. Choice at the expense of the content of the choice elevates the sovereign chooser and devalues the content of the choice and reduces it to a preference.
Does it matter whether you choose Wheaties, Bircher Muesli, or Irish oatmeal as your breakfast, or football, baseball, or golf as your sport?
Does it matter whether you worship on Friday with the Muslims, Saturday with the Jews, Sunday with the Christians, or not at all? Or whether your sister-in-law is straight or lesbian, or your boss is a heterosexual womanizer, a homosexual, or was once a woman?
There are different strokes for different folks. We are all different and all our lifestyles and journeys are different, so who are we to judge when we haven’t walked in another person’s moccasins? This is my choice. That is yours. We are all free to choose differently, and our choices only amount to different preferences, so who is to say who is right? Or to care what anyone else chooses? And what business do any of us have to judge other people’s preferences?
THE RESULT OF FREE-CHOICE CONSUMERISM FOR THE CHURCH
When such autonomous, free-choice consumerism washes over society from the shopping mall to the bedroom, the office and the ballot box, the result is predictable. What will be the price of obedience to authority, and what will be the respect accorded to principled dissent? Choice—unbounded autonomous, subjective sovereign individual choice—is the playboy king of consumerland, and with comfort and convenience as his closest courtiers and cronies, he now rules much of life. Authority and obedience are therefore banished together. They are the unwelcome spoilsports whose entry might ruin the fantasy game of infinite choices. The result is no surprise—a grave crisis of authority within the church, and a rash of positions and interpretations that in any clearer thinking generation would be frankly seen as the rejection of the authority of Jesus and the Scriptures that they are.
Evangelicals are especially vulnerable to this distortion of choice because of the exaggerated place they give to choice in the call to conversion. It may even be their Achilles’ heel. Whereas the Jews are the chosen people, so that their faith is their destiny, Evangelicals are a choosing people, and their faith is often merely their decision.
The step of faith is of course a choice, the most important and fully responsible choice a person ever makes. But when the overwhelming emphasis is put on choice as an act of decision, choosing becomes everything, but it can then suffer the fate of many modern choices and shrink to being lightweight, changeable, and nonbinding. Choice and change are close companions, and those who decide for a faith because they choose to believe it can as easily defect from the faith when they choose not to.
Contrast this modern casualness with the early church’s deep theology surrounding conversion. Choice today can always be casual, whereas the covenantal vow of faith is costly because we commit ourselves to Jesus and mortgage our very selves as we do so. We have chosen, and we are committed. We have picked up our crosses, and there is no turning back. We are no longer our own.
THE TEMPTATION TO TRIVIALIZE CHOICE
The modern temptation to trivialize choice is not new. It ultimately stems from our human fallenness as truth seekers who are always inevitably truth twisters, too. Instead of seeking to shape our desires according to the reality of God’s truth, we seek to shape reality according to our desires—and modern consumerism aids and abets us as never before.
St. Augustine addressed the problem in the fifth century, and his protest against the Manichaean distortions of the Scriptures could apply equally to those who attempt to rationalize their justification of homosexual marriage. Just so today, Christian advocates of homosexual and lesbian revisionism believe in themselves and in the sexual revolution rather than the gospel. They therefore twist the Scriptures to make reality fit their desires rather than making their desires fit the truths of Scripture. In Søren Kierkegaard’s stinging term, they are “kissing Judases” who betray Jesus with an interpretation.
Protestant liberalism has long sauntered down this road, brazenly repudiating the authority of Jesus for the successive authorities of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment worldviews. To paraphrase George Canning’s description of those who were fellow travelers of the revolutionary Jacobins, liberal revisionists are “friends of every faith except their own.” In the process whole churches and entire denominations have effectively chased a mirage and committed spiritual and institutional suicide and rendered themselves as irrelevant as they are unfaithful.
The tragic story of extreme Protestant revisionism makes it all the harder to witness the pitiful attempts of evangelical revisionists to follow the Gadarene rush over the cliff. As I write, for example, the pastor of an evangelical church in San Francisco has announced that he regards the way of Jesus as “destructive” to human flourishing as it is now understood. He therefore proposes that it should be relaxed to allow for the more “compassionate” and contemporary lifestyle of homosexual marriage.
Sadly for him and his followers, he does not understand the lessons of the Bible and history—that he is courting spiritual and institutional suicide for himself and for those he is leading astray. Though to be fair, he and others like him are only reaping what others sowed with such fanfare a generation ago. For were we not solemnly sold a barrel of nonsense in the form of maxims that all good seeker-sensitive and audience-driven churches were to pursue? Here is one example from a well-known Christian marketing consultant: “It is also critical that we keep in mind a fundamental principle of Christian communication: the audience, not the message, is sovereign.”
The audience is sovereign? No! Let it be repeated a thousand times, no! When reaching out as the church of Jesus, the message of the gospel and Jesus the Lord of the message is alone sovereign—and never, never, never the audience, however needy, however attractive, however prestigious or well-heeled an audience may be. Yes, like the apostle Paul we are to be Jews to the Jews, Gentiles to the Gentiles, and all things to all our fellow humans, excluding no one in any age or any sphere or condition of life. That, of course, is one side of the truth of the seeker-sensitive approach. But the other side of the truth is that we are always and only to be all things to all people, not in order to join them but rather, like Paul, to bring them back to Jesus.
ARE WE CHANGING THE WORLD—OR BEING CHANGED BY IT?
All such evangelicals should search their hearts. For a generation now the air has been thick with talk of “changing the world,” but who is changing whom?
There is no question the world would like to change the church. In area after area only the church stands between the world and its success over issues such as sexuality. Unquestionably the world would like to change the church, but does the church still want to change the world, or is its only concern to change the church in the light of the world? Something is rotten in the state of evangelicalism, and all too often it is impossible to tell who is changing whom.
There are always essential questions to ask of anyone we hear or anything we read. What is being said? Is it true? And what of it? All three questions are discounted in our modern age of information, but as Christians we must never allow the truth question to be removed from its central place. To be sure, faithfulness is costly in the short term. It is upstream and against the flow, and the flow that was once politically correct can suddenly become a raging and life-threatening intolerance.
But costly though that stand may be, it is never as costly as the long-term price of rejecting the authority of Jesus and abandoning the way of life in the gospel. Our Lord warned of that very danger: “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10:28).
Today’s evangelical revisionists should take sober note. Time and again I tremble when I hear or read their flimsy arguments. They may be lionized by the wider advocates of the sexual revolution for fifteen minutes because they are siding with that wider culture in undermining the clear teaching of Jesus and the Bible that stands in their way. For there is no question that Jesus, the Scriptures, and Christian tradition all stand resolutely in their way.
ROADKILL, NOT HEROES
But in truth, the sexual revolution has no real interest in such evangelicals, and they will be left as roadkill as the revolution blitzkrieg gathers speed. But that is nothing compared with the real tragedy of the revisionists. It is no light thing for anyone to set themselves above and against the authority of Jesus and his Scriptures. The apostle Peter betrayed Jesus and was restored, but Judas stands as the warning for all who betray Jesus for their personal, sexual, or political interests and condemn themselves for their disloyalty.
Both Jesus and the apostle Peter tell us to “remember Lot’s wife” (Lk 17:33), but our Christian revisionists should remember Lot himself. Having chosen the benefits and privileges of living in the well-watered garden country of Sodom, having married into their social circles, and having worked his way up into the inner leadership of the city, Lot was suddenly confronted by his moment of truth. He had been utterly naive and deluded in trusting the Sodomites. When the chips were down, they had no respect for his hospitality, no time for his different moral standards, and they threatened to deal with him as brutally as with his guests: “This one came in as an alien, and already he is acting like a judge; now we will treat you worse than them” (Gen 19:9).
Poor Lot had become a joke even to his in-laws. In spite of all his efforts and contrary to all that he imagined, he had still not arrived, and he was never accepted as he imagined. He was always the alien—as Abraham never forgot that he was and was respected for being. We of course should always be resident aliens as faithful Christians who are in the world but not of it—regardless of the world’s pressure on us to change with the times and line up with them on the so-called right side of history.
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Editor’s Note:Taken from Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization by Os Guinness. Copyright (c) 2016 by Os Guinness. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com.