‘Christianity Today’ Is an Apt Name for Magazine After Impeachment Editorial
Dec 27, 2019 by David Fowler
Whatever one thinks of President Trump’s various policy decisions or how he’s discharged his constitutional duties (which I discuss at the end), it was these two statements in that editorial that caught my eye:
The Statements That Troubled Me
- “Whether Mr. Trump should be removed from office by the Senate or by popular vote next election—that is a matter of prudential judgment. That he should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.”
- “To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior.”
I cannot say that I know for sure what the author intended by these statements, because I can’t see into his heart or head, but this is how I took them:
What I Took These Statements to Mean
President Trump is an immoral person because he does not adhere to the moral commands found in the Ten Commandments, and those of us who do adhere to them or profess trying to adhere to them because we call Jesus our “Lord and Savior” really shouldn’t support him. Doing so will provide a bad Christian witness to those whom we hope will someday call Jesus “Lord and Savior,” and supporting Trump could prevent them from becoming Christians.
That, I believe, expresses a view of Christianity that many hold today; therefore, it is indeed Christianity today to them. But, as I hope to demonstrate, that is not the Christianity on which Protestantism was grounded and upon which Christianity Today ostensibly rested when founded.
Consequently, I disagree that the statements from the editorial quoted above are sufficient reason for removing President Trump from office, because those statements tend to perpetuate what I will call a pharisaical view of Christianity that actually undermines the true Gospel message that begins with the first verse in Genesis and concludes with the last verse in Revelation.
Now, having stated my conclusion, let me beg your indulgence in regard to the length of my explanation for it. I think this issue too important to gloss over merely for the sake of being brief or, God forbid, being entertaining.
If you must have a shortcut, then skip to the header “The ‘Content’ of Much That Passes as Christianity Today.” And if even what’s left is too long and you must do so, then skip to the heading “What, Then, Is Christianity?” Otherwise, if you are grappling with the apparent “split” among “evangelicals” in regard to Trump, let me encourage you to print this out and read it when you have time. I hope you will find it helpful.
After reading a number of long-neglected books by some of the greatest scripturally informed theological minds over the first two hundred years of Protestantism, here is my thesis for understanding this split among those who get lumped together as “evangelicals”:
My Thesis About What Christianity Has Become Vis-à-vis What It Actually Is
Christianity today is where Judaism was at the time of Christ, a hollow shell of its intended self, and just as the pharisaical understanding of the Law of God was then far removed from the “true religion” God had given to them and the very reason God gave them the law in the first place, the same could be said for Christianity today.
Those are strong words, I’m sure, to many Christians who may take offense for me saying such a thing, let alone publicly. And those words may be a bit unintelligible to many who hate Christianity, but they may be a bit surprising because they seem to be an admission by a “Christian evangelical” that things may not be right in the “Christian evangelical world.” I hope both camps will hear me out.
I will defend my thesis using just one of those books I’ve been reading, Thomas Boston’s Human Nature in Its Four-Fold State. Its analysis of the whole story of the Bible and the Scripture is compelling. It isn’t hard reading, but it requires sustained thought process, which may be why it is not read widely anymore. But I think you’ll see that Boston speaks of a Christianity that’s different from what often passes for Christianity under the umbrella of evangelicalism.
Here is how Boston described that state of Jewish religion at the time of Jesus’ birth, and at least this is consistent with what I’ve heard in the various strains of Protestantism of which I’ve been a part since birth:
How Israel’s Religious Leaders Had Lost Their Way
Except [for] a few that were groaning and “waiting for the consolation of Israel,” we shall see gross darkness on the face of that generation. Though “to them were committed the oracles of God” [i.e., the Law of God], yet they were most corrupt in their doctrine.
And in what way were they corrupt in their doctrine? He explains:
Their traditions were multiplied; but the knowledge of those things, wherein the life of religion lies, was lost. Masters of Israel knew not the nature and necessity of regeneration, John 3:10. Their religion was to build on their birth-privileges, as children of Abraham, Matt. 3:9, to glory in their circumcision, and other external ordinances, Phil. 3:2, 3, and to "rest in the law," Romans 2:17, after they had, by their false glosses, cut it so short, as they might outwardly go well near to the fulfilling of it, Matt. 5. (emphasis added)
That italicized statement was particularly interesting to me because of its reference to Matthew 5, in which we find the famous Sermon on the Mount where Jesus compares the real meaning of the Law of God given to Moses to what they had heard their religious leaders say about it.
Here is Boston's explanation of Christ’s assessment of Jewish religion from what I’ll call a New Testament or New Covenant description of the mindset native to all humankind since Adam’s sin:
[The] unrenewed man . . . cannot bring up his inclinations to the holy law, so he will “have the law brought down to his inclinations—a plain evidence of the enmity of the heart against it. . . . It is from this natural enmity of the heart against the law that all the pharisaical glosses upon it have arisen.” (emphasis added)
There, in his repeated use of the word “glosses,” we find the problem Jesus had with the Jews’ religious leaders. By these “glosses”—i.e., by treating the Ten Commandments rather superficially and narrowly limited—they had done what God says all unregenerate persons (those not “born again”) try to do: bring the Ten Commandments down to an acceptable moral level, one where they think they could pretty much keep them. Or, as Boston put it, they make “the commandment, which is in itself exceedingly broad, . . . very narrow, to the intent that it might be the more agreeable to the natural disposition of the heart.” (emphasis added)
In other words, as Jesus points out in the Sermon on the Mount, we are happy to say, “Don’t kill,” but hating your neighbor by repeating negative gossip about him or her? That’s okay; we all do it. We may be willing to say, “Don’t commit the act of adultery,” but lusting after someone who is not your spouse by taking a long glance at the “hottie” in front of you at the grocery store or on the movie screen? That’s okay; who hasn’t done that? Just don’t act on what your thinking and you’re square with God.
Here is Boston’s summation of mankind in its now natural state in relation to how mankind thinks about God, and, to be honest, as I read it, it seemed eerily consistent with how I understood Christianity for years:
The ‘Content’ of Much That Passes as Christianity Today
Man naturally looks on God as a great master; and himself as his servant, who must work and win heaven as his wages. Hence, when conscience is awakened, he thinks that, to the end he may be saved, he must answer the demands of the law, serve God as well as he can, and pray for mercy wherein he comes short. And thus many come to duties, who never come out of them to Jesus Christ. (emphasis added)
This is called, in Christian parlance, legalism or a Christian brand of moralism. Want to know what it sounds like and looks like? I can tell you from experience.
Ever heard a professing Christian say they hope they go to heaven, perhaps with a bit of hesitancy or reservation? And if you asked why they hoped so, was the answer tied to anything they were trying to do or live up to?
Ever found yourself repeatedly going to the front of the sanctuary at the end of a service (or thinking you ought to but it would be embarrassing) in order to “recommit your life to God” or promise to do better because you know you’re not living right?
Ever wanted to be baptized again because it didn’t seem like the first one “took” somehow?
Ever given Christianity “a try” and concluded that keeping the law is impossible, so you either went with, “It doesn’t matter so long as you have ‘love in your heart’ or ‘feel’ love toward God” or just gave up, like some high-profile professing Christians of late?
Here is my point. Much of what passes as Christianity today is Christian moralism, and it is of the same ilk as the pharisaical religion of the Jews.
Trying to define what a Christian is will be fighting words to many, as has been true through the ages, but here is my go of it, based on Scripture and the explications of it I’ve been reading from yesteryear:
What, Then, Is Christianity?
Christianity is God transferring to His Kingdom a person who, by the regenerating work of God, has made a head-to-heart confession that his understanding of God is darkened; his will is in bondage to his heart’s native bondage to please himself; his affections are not all directed to God, let alone delighted by and in the breadth of God’s law; his conscience is so fouled that he thinks he can keep and is keeping God’s law; and he is without hope of ever living up to what a real God, as God, has a right to expect and command—that he live in such a way that his life shows that, at the core, he loves God with all of his heart, soul, mind, and strength all the time.
The word “all” in what I just said and that Jesus used in the first great commandment is the kicker. The person who says he is a Christian because he loves God like that and/or that God loves him because he loves God with “all” of his heart, soul, mind, and strength is living in the imagination of his own mind, thinking he or she is actually living up to a standard of love for God that is all-consuming all the time.
The ‘Negative’ Side of Biblical Christianity
Those who see “all” as the standard for loving God find themselves saying with David, “I have seen an end of all perfection: but thy commandment is exceeding broad” (Psalm 119:96, emphasis added). They see they cannot measure up to commandments no matter how far down to their tolerance level they try to bring it.
The positive side of the depressing picture is this: Christians are those who have begun to “comprehend” and, in that comprehension, begun to “know” the “breadth and length and height and depth” (Ephesians 3:17–18) of the “love of Christ” because God exposed to them the breadth and length and height and depth of their failure to love God will all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Those who see this, say, as the Apostle Paul said, that the love of God “surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:18).
The Overwhelmingly ‘Positive’ Side of Biblical Christianity
I’m beginning to know that love, not just say it’s true as a doctrinal position because it’s what the Bible says or because I happen to feel it from time to time, but because I increasingly see how far short I fall all the time of the “all” standard, yet the Father in heaven has offered to save me from myself, reconcile me to Himself through what Christ objectively did on the cross for my salvation, and then have the Holy Spirit begin to apply to me Christ’s love for the Father and His conformity to and delight in keeping the Law of God.
Christianity is about becoming conformed to the image of Christ, who is an image to us of the Father (2 Corinthians 4:6, Colossians 1:15). And it’s about that because we were created in the image of God to begin with and that image must be restored to have fellowship with God (Colossians 3:10). But mere moralism, especially if for the self-interested sake of not going to hell, will not produce that conformity; it’s just not in us to do so. It takes a work of God in us.
President Trump has, indeed, done a number of things that fall way short of the Ten Commandments, even on a narrow view of them. But every president has fallen short of them from a biblically based Christian view of their true breadth.
The Application to 'Christianity Today’s' Editorial
I’ll even venture to say that every president, from a biblically based Christian view of what God requires, has fallen short even in their “loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments,” as far as an “all” kind of loyalty is concerned.
I’ll venture to say that the same can be said of the writer of the editorial and every other evangelical who has said Trump should be removed from office for his moral failures. It can be said of me many times throughout the day, every day.
As said at the beginning, my greatest problem with Christianity Today’s editorial is that it perpetuates an incomplete view of Christianity and feeds the assumed narrative of most that Christianity is about keeping a moral code.
In my view, Christianity Today and Christians in general need to be saying, “None of us can fully keep any moral code, let alone the one that the God of the Bible demands, and apart from the grace of God, we’re all doomed to failure and being impeached by God Himself from His presence forever.”
How I apply this to Trump does not, however, involve a “there but for the grace of God” standard or some “he who is without sin cast the first stone” kind of standard. That’s not a true form of Christian judgment.
My Application of Christianity to President Trump
So, in my view, some hard questions have to be asked, but for me they are relative to his performance of the duties incumbent on him as president under the Constitution. The Constitution is not the moral law of God or God’s revelation to man in regard to that law. Consequently, here are the questions I would ask relative to an impeachable offense:
- Has the president done something criminally wrong? Not sure about that, but, if so, that could be grounds for impeachment, depending on the nature of it. The Articles of Impeachment could have charged him with a crime and did not.
- Has he, in the words of Federalist Paper No. 65 “violated the public trust?” According to that paper, proponents of the Constitution meant acts “of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL,” i.e., relating to constitutional duties as opposed to personal behavior unrelated to the trust placed on the president in regard to those duties. Another possible ground might be acts that “affect the order of the political system,” such as violations of the separation of powers. See Federalist Paper No. 80.
- Has President Trump done something in office of such moral turpitude that he should not be hereafter trusted in the exercise of his duties?
However, some abuses of power may be so flagrant, so obvious, and so wrong or so chronic that impeachment would be appropriate, but I think a “grand jury” process in the House could have ferreted that out and certainly a fair trial in the Senate could. Most of what I’ve heard so far, though, is hearsay and abuse drawn from innuendo and implication that could well depend on how the hearer perceived what was said, not the actual intention of the speaker.
So far, nothing I’ve read yet comes up to lying under oath (Clinton) or being in cahoots with a criminal break in and redaction of official recorded materials to avoid discovery of the crime (Nixon). Those who have proven themselves dishonest under those kinds of circumstances should not hold an office of trust. But if the only complaint is that Trump has lied or at least fudged on the truth when simply communicating with colleagues or constituents, though that is not good, it is a standard that would implicate a whole lot of public officials and presidents.
This is the bottom line for me: I don’t trust either political party in Washington to do the truly right thing for the right reasons, so I generally focus on the state level where some good might actually be accomplished.
My Overall View of the Whole Situation
But when it comes down to impeachment or, in November of next year, to two people for president, how well each personally keeps the Ten Commandments will not be my deciding consideration. For me, that has a tendency to reduce Christianity to moralism.
Moreover, I suspect, from what I’ve seen so far, none of the candidates from either party have said or done anything from which I would conclude they have experienced the regenerating work of God, have really seen the glory of Christ, and count conforming to His image as the end of what they profess religiously and of their being. Without that, each would be as un-Christian as the other. So, it doesn’t look, as of now, that any candidate will be more Christian, in the true, biblically defined sense of that word than any other. I do grant you, however, that one may be a better Pharisee than the other.
That’s why I’ve been silent about impeachment. But when Christianity seems to have been reduced in the eyes of the whole nation to simply a moral code and mere moralism by a publication with the word “Christian” in its name, particularly one perceived as evangelical, I pay attention. I’m convinced that reducing or appearing to reduce Christianity to moralism is what really hurts our Christian witness. It makes Pharisees of us all, and nobody likes Pharisees. Even Jesus.
If Christians are going to be hated by the world, then let me suggest that we at least be hated for having said what the Bible really says about us in relation to God and His Ten Commandments and the solution God has provided.
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006.