Pope Francis released Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), his statement on marriage and the family, this past April.

This document, consisting of 256 pages, is not only important for those in the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) to read and know, it is also important for Protestants to read and know, including Evangelicals, though for different reasons.

For this post, I have asked Ernest Manges, RG missionary and Professor of Theology and Church History, Cebu Graduate School of Theology, Philippines, who has studied the RCC in detail, to write a “summary and comment” on Amoris Laetitia. I am grateful to Manges for his helpful and insightful comments.

I include Manges’ concluding comment, and then encourage you to read his complete response: “In this document Francis is upholding the traditional teachings of the Church, while calling for a change in tone and for more freedom to make judgment calls at the local church and individual level. But he is also calling for some significant change, especially in allowing access to communion for some previously excluded.”

 

Francis, addressing couples, families, and priests, declares the family vital to church and society (31, 52, 131)* but also in crisis. Marriage is not just a social convention but “a real representation” of Christ and the Church (72, also 11, 29) and thus is permanent (62, 77, 214, 243). He speaks often of love, offering an extended exposition of 1 Corinthians 13 (90-119). In marriage sex is a divine gift (61, 80, 150, 152). The size of this document, 256 pages, indicates how important this topic is for Francis.

He clearly reaffirms standard Catholic teaching on birth control, stating each marriage must remain open to the transmission of life (52, 56, 77, 80, 165, 292) and he cites Pope Paul 6’s encyclical forbidding artificial methods of family planning several times (68, 82, 222). No child is a mistake (166, 283), but marriage is more than mere procreation (36, 125). Couples should exercise their individual consciences in planning their families (37, 167, 222). He condemns “forced State intervention in favour of contraception, sterilization, and even abortion” (42). He says “no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate” an innocent child’s life (83). He also reiterates the Church’s view that homosexual unions are not a real marriage (251), though those with same-sex attraction deserve respect and love (250).

All this is expected from an institution that takes tradition and precedent seriously. But there’s a lot in this document that doesn’t sound so traditional, especially when the Pope speaks of “irregular unions” (divorced and remarried, married to a non-Catholic, or cohabiting couples). Acknowledging that “no easy recipes exist” (298) he repeatedly asks that care be shown to those whose family lives are not in full accordance with Church law. He scolds those (priests and others) who cast “dead stones” of moral teaching without regard to mitigating circumstances (49, 304, 305, 308, also 134, 201, 312). He asks that a “law of gradualness” be applied which accepts some need to grow into being able to obey Church laws (295). More than thirty times he asks that pastors and others use “discernment” as they interact with less than perfect families, indicating a degree of freedom of judgment for local church leaders (3, 300, 302) and also for the “consciences of the faithful” (37, 303). The Church should not be “casting off” but rather “reinstating” people (296).

Even more surprising are his statements that marriages of other faiths contain “positive elements” (77, 292) and that Catholic priests could learn how to minister to families from the married clergy of the Eastern Church (202, see also 247). Some who are divorced and remarried demonstrate “Christian commitment” in their marriage (298) even though divorce itself is “an evil” (246). They may not be living in mortal sin, are not excommunicated, and should be cared for and integrated into the life of the Church (78, 243, 299, 301). Annulment should be made easier “and if possible, free of charge” (244). 

Probably his most controversial statements address whether those in irregular unions can partake of the sacrament of the Eucharist, something heretofore considered impossible. Those who show signs of positive growth may be allowed to participate “in different ecclesial services, which necessarily requires discerning which of the various forms of exclusion currently practised in the liturgical, pastoral, educational and institutional framework, can be surmounted.” (299). In the next paragraph he teaches that “the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same” (300), and here a footnote states that this refers to “sacramental discipline.” Those “in an objective situation of sin . . . can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.” (305), with this footnote comment, “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments.” Is the Pope opening the door for some in these irregular unions to be allowed the Eucharist? It seems that he is, though it is revealing that he twice acknowledges that only “many” of the Synod Fathers agree with him here (299, 302). 

Francis deplores the casual “use and discard” approach that many bring to relationships (153, 28, 39) and he warns that “extreme individualism” and freedom of choice can degenerate “into an inability to give oneself generously to others” (33). He also is critical of a gender ideology that wishes to diminish the differences between men and women, instead of accepting how we are made as a gift from God (56). Children should be taught to accept their bodies as male and female (285). He briefly and somewhat indirectly acknowledges the sexual abuse scandal in the Church (45) and takes a couple of swipes at those who abuse the environment (26, 39) and at rampant consumerism (41, 127, 201).

He ventures close to stating that Paul’s command for wives to submit to their husbands is culture bound (156) and that his comments on virginity in 1 Corinthians 7 are “his personal opinion” rather than a command of the Lord (159). Along with the usual Catholic sources he also cites Martin Luther King Jr. at length (118) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (320).

In this document Francis is upholding the traditional teachings of the Church, while calling for a change in tone and for more freedom to make judgment calls at the local church and individual level. But he is also calling for some significant change, especially in allowing access to communion for some previously excluded. Finally, there is apparently a papal exemption from use of the Oxford comma.

 

*Numbers in brackets ( ) refer to paragraphs.

We now come to our last post in our brief three-part series on Evangelicals and Politics.

In our first post, we looked at the landscape and the confusion surrounding the term Evangelical. In the second post, we attempted to provide a definition of Evangelical in order to help those who write about Evangelicals and to bring some clarity to what it means to be an Evangelical. In this final post, we consider some possible responses of Evangelicals to our changing political and moral landscape.

How, then, shall we approach this? Here are ten truths for us to consider.

  1. God is sovereign. Remember the words of Psalm 2:1-4: “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.” God is sovereign over all the nations and peoples and kings and rulers. He is sovereign over the election process and the candidates.
  2. God providentially governs all things. God’s providence is good, he knows the beginning and the end and everything in between (Isa. 41:4; 44:6; 46:10; 48:12; Rev. 1:8, 17; 21:6; 22:13). And this knowledge is not a good guess, but it is personal and planned. Consider Proverbs 21:1: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.”
  3. God sovereignly and providentially puts governments and rulers in place. Paul writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1). This addresses God’s sovereignty and providence, which are doctrinal truths about God and his unfolding plan. But these truths are not abstract. They are lived out in real-time in a real place. For Paul, he wrote at a time during which Christianity was not acceptable and Christians were persecuted.
  4. Our cultural context is more similar to the early church than it has been since Constantine’s Edict of Milan (313). This edict granted Christians religious toleration in the Roman Empire. Many now believe we live in a post-Constantinian day, with both strengths and weaknesses, which also carries with it post-Christian implications. Many have been addressing the various options Christians now face regarding how to live in, interact with and engage culture, e.g. Benedictine Option, Babylonian Option, Jeremiah Option, among others. One option not often mentioned for Christians is a Dispersion Option, that espoused by Peter in his epistles (1 and 2 Peter). Peter begins his first letter, “To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Pet. 1:1). These are believers, “elect exiles,” who are part of the “Dispersion,” those who are living in a foreign land with different values, customs and mores, and who live as pilgrims, as if this is not our true home. This reflects a similar cultural setting in which we live today. Read, ponder and pray through the Petrine epistles, as there is much we can and ought to learn about life and ministry in our contemporary day.
  5. Christians, in general, and Evangelicals, in particular, bought into cultural Christianity, depended on it too much, and confused the gospel with its cultural accoutrements/entailments. This is why, I believe, so  many Evangelicals are struggling. There is a desire to go back to an earlier day, a day that was known for a greater cultural alignment with Christian truth and morality. That day is past. In some ways, this is forcing Evangelicals to discern between the true gospel and its cultural expressions or entrapments. In response, some pull away from the culture and cultural engagement, while others become too comfortable with it. One must recognize the spirit of the age so that one clearly discerns the Spirit of the ages and then responds appropriately. What does it mean for us today to be in the world, but not of the world (Jn. 17)?
  6. Evangelicals live in a day in which the truth we affirm is considered a moral minority. As noted above, this is reflective of how the early church lived. There is much we can and ought to learn from them. Additionally, there are many brothers and sisters who have lived, and continue to live, as minorities in a majority culture. For example, African Americans have lived this way for many years. In this day in which we live as moral minorities, we have much to learn from those believers who have lived as ethnic and/or racial minorities.
  7. We remember we serve a King, the King of kings and Lord of lords, in his kingdom. Although this world is significant in that it is God’s creation and though fallen it is being redeemed (Rom. 8:18-25), this world is not ultimate. God is unfolding his plan in and through history. We do not wring our hands as if things are out of control. We do not become anxious because our preferred political candidate or party is not on the “throne.” The reason is because God remains on the throne. The way in which we live and respond these days reflects and reveals a great deal about what we believe about God and his plan. Do we believe we have to usher in God’s kingdom, or help it along by ensuring the right people get in office? If we do, we are working to establish a kingdom of man, not the kingdom of God (Gen. 11). It is in response to God’s judgement of the nations that John writes of Jesus, “On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16).
  8. This kingdom of God is marked by a cross. This means God’s kingdom is an upside down kingdom in which the weak are strong, and the strong are weak, since God’s power is made manifest and is grace made sufficient in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9-10). In contrast, the kingdom of man is marked by a crown, a theology of glory. And although we do not deny a crown and glory, they only come through the cross. This world, and those who live by the ways of the world, desire the crown and glory apart from the cross. How much have we been influenced by and bought into this idea, especially when we consider the power associated with a political machine or majority?
  9. We are exhorted to pray. As Christians, we are exhorted, first and foremost, to pray that God’s kingdom will come and his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). Furthermore, we are also exhorted to pray for our leaders and those in authority over us (1 Tim. 2:1-4). Prayer is not perfunctory and passive. It is the heart of communion with God and foundational to our engaging in the work of God. The fact that we do not engage prayer with this in mind reflects our misunderstanding of God, prayer and our role/response and the most fruitful and effective way to engage in cultural engagement and influence today. As one writes, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”
  10. .We trust in the Lord and his promises and place our hope in him and his plans. Our response and engagement is to trust in the Lord and hope in him. Trust is not only affirming all the truths associated with God and his Word, but also living our lives, speaking, engaging in this world based upon those truths. It is those who wait on the Lord who will renew their strength (Isa. 40:28-31). This sort of life, a life given to those by faith, manifests the gospel, the kingdom, a life marked by faith. This means the following: those who have been made righteous by faith, they also live by faith (Rom. 1:17). This means we do not despair or wring our hands based upon a president or political expediency. We hope in God. And this hope is not a wishful thinking based upon the political winds, but rather it is based on the sure and certain hope and promise given by God (Heb. 6:12-20). With Paul we pray, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Rom. 15:13).

I conclude these ten truths with a focus on the book of Revelation, written by John and intended to bring comfort, hope and assurance to Christians in the midst of difficulties, trials and persecutions. Charles Hill summarizes the message of Revelation, which is an excellent reminder to us:

Revelation delivers to the distressed churches of Asia Minor and to the church in all ages, the triumphant assurance that behind the scenes of history and despite the vicissitudes of history, the kingdom of God is in power, and Jesus Christ the King of all kings is on his Father’s throne executing his sovereign judgment over the world. Though to the fleshly eye the events of history may often seem to say the opposite, though the church of Jesus Christ might seem despised and defeated, it is Jesus Christ who rules the kings of the earth, and his purposes are patiently being worked out here below.

God’s unfolding plan of redemptive history culminates in the Lord Jesus Christ, both his person and his work. In the Bible, this redemptive history is captured in some key turning points in Jesus’ life. The Bible highlights the following: (1) incarnation, (2) perfect life, (3) death-burial, (4) resurrection, (5) ascension, (6) session (being seated at the Father’s right hand), and (7) return in power and glory. The writers of the Scriptures teach the truth that Jesus is Israel’s promised Messiah, the one who fulfills all the Scriptures (Matt. 5:17-20), and the one in and through whom all the promises of God are fulfilled (2 Cor. 1:20).

In God’s redemptive work, Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:9) was to be seated at God’s right hand (Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet. 3:22) and to engage in intercession for believers (Rom. 3:34; Heb. 7:25). That is Jesus’ present ministry and our glorious experience.

However, although this is our present experience, because it has become so familiar we often overlook the critical historical significance of this redemptive truth. In conjunction with Jesus’ resurrection and session is the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, what the Bible refers to as Pentecost. All of these events are interconnected, and if one is to understand God’s redemptive plan, it is vital to grasp these truths.

These are some of the key redemptive historical turning points associated with the person and work of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible. They have also been recognized in the church. Generally the church has recognized five key “Evangelical Feasts” in the Christian year (Evangelicals and the Christian Year): Christmas (incarnation), Good Friday (death), Easter (resurrection), Ascension, and Pentecost. Although there is no biblical mandate for how these key redemptive events of Jesus are remembered or celebrated in the church, that we remember them as biblical truths is essential, and that these works of God and our experiences of these truths ought to lead us into thanks and praise to God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

Pentecost is associated with one of the three major festivals celebrated by the Jewish people, the Feast of Weeks (Lev. 23:15; Dt. 16:9). It refers to 50 days that had passed since the wave offering of Passover, and is celebrated at the end of the grain harvest. This celebration took on new significance and importance at the ascension of Christ and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, as recorded in Acts 2. This occurred 50 days after the resurrection. As an explanation of the importance of Pentecost, one writes, “The pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost marks the inauguration of the new covenant and the promised end-time coming of the Holy Spirit (Joel 2:28-32; cf. Isa 32:15; 44:3-4; Jer. 31:33-34; Ezek 36:26-27; 39:29)…The miracle at Pentecost of speaking in other tongues (v. 4) also reverses the events at the tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9). Just as that event divided people into diverse nations and languages, so now the arrival of God’s salvation brings the nations of the world (v. 5) together to form one new people of God.”

The theological importance of Pentecost can be summarized in three words:

  1. Salvation. This marks the completion of Christ’s redemptive work. He is the first fruits of a coming harvest. Together the Father and the Son send the Spirit and inaugurate the new covenant.
  2. Community. This marks a new day in salvation history such that the new covenant is established and a new covenant community is created, an end-time community brought into existence now, the people of God, the Church. This community is not only created by the application of the finished work of Christ by the Holy Spirit, but this community also proclaims that same truth and does so in both proclamation and transformation, i.e., they proclaim the gospel of salvation, and they are an embodiment of that gospel they proclaim.
  3. Mission. This new community is now led by the Spirit and will be witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8; cf. Matt. 28:18-20). Our hope and assurance of the accomplishment of this mission, the mission that results in a new community comprised of the redeemed from every “tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9), is the promise that Jesus builds his church (Matt. 16:18), and the Holy Spirit brings new life (Jn. 3:3, 5; Tit. 3:4-8; cf. Ezek. 36:25-27; Jer. 31:31-33). One summarizes, “Missionary outreach provides the divine reversal of the scattering and hostility of the nations that followed the judgment at Babel (Gen. 11:1-9).”

Pentecost is a redemptive historical truth we remember and for which we thank the Lord. The reason we thank the Lord is because we have experienced this truth personally and corporately. Although this is a non-repeatable redemptive historical event, the implications of Pentecost are ongoing. Furthermore, the reality of the truth and experience of the Holy Spirit’s ministry are critical during the time between Christ’s present heavenly intercessory ministry and his ministry in the next stage of redemptive history, that of his glorious return. In between these times, we engage faithfully in our role as witnesses.

There are many implications and applications of the truth of Pentecost. We have experienced salvation, we are part of a new community, and we are called to mission. During our remembrance of Pentecost and our worship of God in all his fullness – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – one of the applications I ask you to consider is how this relates to immigration, the phenomenon, and, more importantly, immigrants, the people. How might our understanding of and ministry to immigrants be related to and an overflow of our understanding and experience of Pentecost?

We are using this redemptive historical event as a time to encourage you to reflect on the truth of Pentecost, and its implication and application in the life of the church today. We have provided Pentecost resources to help you. Might they be used of the Lord to lead you to give thanks and praise to him, and might they also lead you to ponder how you might engage in mission, with a specific focus on the immigrant.

How is the term Evangelical understood? What do Evangelicals believe? What is the perceived role Evangelicals play in politics, especially during this election year?

In light of how the Evangelical and Evangelicalism is understood, or more accurately misunderstood, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and Lifeway Research worked on a definition of Evangelical: What is an Evangelical?

As they began their research, both NAE and Lifeway Research acknowledged their indebtedness to David Bebbington, a church historian specializing in the global Evangelical movement, and his understanding and definition of Evangelicals based on four primary characteristics.

    • Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a lifelong process of following Jesus
    • Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
    • Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
    • Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity

It is these four distinctives/convictions that define Evangelicals. Evangelicals are marked by the gospel with accompanying theological convictions, they are not primarily defined politically, socially or culturally. This does not mean Evangelicals cannot be identified in any of these latter ways. They can be and they are. But it misses the mark of who and what Evangelicals are.

In this study done by NAE and Lifeway Research, which built upon Bebbington’s definition, they attempted to come up with a definition that would capture the essence of Evangelicals which would provide understanding to those who write about Evangelicals. This is especially pertinent during this election year since Evangelicals are more often defined sociologically as a voting bloc rather than a people of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Evangelicals are a common subject of research, but often the outcomes of that research vary due to differences in the methods used to identify evangelicals. In response to that challenge the NAE and LifeWay Research developed a tool to provide a consistent standard for identification of evangelical belief.

The NAE/LifeWay Research method includes four statements to which respondents must strongly agree to be categorized as evangelical:

      • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
      • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
      • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
      • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

Another summarizes this work, What Is an Evangelical? Four Questions Offer New Definition, and rightly concludes “belief should trump politics on surveys.” (This is quite ironic, as the article was written last November, prior to Trump becoming the leading GOP candidate!)

For those of us in the EFCA, our understanding is grounded in the gospel, the evangel of the Evangelical, cf. Evangelical Convictions, 22,  fn. 11):

The meaning of Evangelical has been defined historically, experientially and sociologically. As helpful as these definitions are, we understand the term Evangelical first and foremost theologically, viz. by the gospel. . . . our theology (Evangelical) is defined by and finds its importance in the gospel (the evangel).

As you ponder this, let me ask a few questions:

  • Why is it important to make these distinctions?
  • What difference does it make?
  • Are you careful in your speaking and teaching to define carefully what it means to be an Evangelical?
  • One of the most important things to recognize as an Evangelical is that we are people of the gospel, which means we not only believe the gospel, we also proclaim the gospel, and we also live based on the gospel, so that our lives reflect Christ and have an aroma of Christ. Is this true in your life?

In our final post, we will include ten truths for Evangelicals to consider during this election year.

I have thought much about how Evangelical, both the term and the person so identified, is understood these days. It is inevitable that during election years, the term is used primarily as an important way to understand and influence a voting bloc, more of a sociological understanding of Evangelical. However, that comes way short of what Evangelicalism means. 

Even for those who claim to be Evangelical, there is a significant difference between those who merely identify as an Evangelical and those who actually are actively living out their faith, evidenced in attending church (even though we know that does not guarantee one is truly an Evangelical either). Even though there is support with the former group, those in the latter category do not generally support Trump. You can read of this here: Donald Trump’s poll numbers show a big divide between Christians and churchgoing Christians

In another piece, one writes that “most Evangelicals Don’t Vote Trump,” in that “the numbers tell a different story than the headlines.” The conclusion: “Evangelicalism as a religious and cultural phenomenon is difficult to define and measure accurately, so the media should show a bit more caution before lumping all evangelicals together in a massive pro-Trump herd, especially when a super-majority of that supposed herd do not actively support Donald J. Trump.”

Russell Moore writes “The word “evangelical” has become almost meaningless this year, and in many ways the word itself is at the moment subverting the gospel of Jesus Christ.” He has also tweeted, “The word “evangelical” no longer has any meaning. Just call me a gospel Christian.” Although he writes this, he strongly affirms the truth of Evangelicalism, the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He wants to make clear the distinction between cultural Evangelicalism and evangel, i.e. gospel-centered, Evangelicalism.

Michael Horton writes a good piece in Christianity Today about this under the title The Theology of Donald Trump. He gets at what sort of Christianity Trump imbibes, which is akin to Norman Vincent Peale and Joel Osteen.

Recently this issue has been raised again: Trump, Clinton, or Neither: How Evangelicals Are Expected to Vote. Since it appears Trump and Clinton will be the respective candidates, how will Evangelicals respond? For whom will they vote? Will they vote a third party candidate? Will they vote at all? This is the question raised in this article: Should Christians Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils?

Russell Moore wrote about this again recently in the NYT, A White Church No More Although there are Evangelicals who support Trump, see Donald Trump’s Feud With Evangelical Leader Reveals Fault Lines, and although Moore does not speak on behalf of Evangelicals, Trump, as he typically does when questioned, took to Twitter to address (attack) Moore : “Russell Moore is truly a terrible representative of Evangelicals and all of the good they stand for. A nasty guy with no heart!”

Interestingly, because of Moore’s understanding of and commitment to live by the gospel of Jesus Christ, there is much with which he would probably agree. In fact, he would likely be able to add more. That perspective is the result of a life transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:16-17).

Many, both inside and outside Evangelicalism, continue to ponder and process this phenomenon during this election year. The political landscape has changed. The moral landscape is in a free fall from any God-given standard. Many Evangelicals continue to think through how to live in this cultural context, such that Christianity and culture are not overlapping realities. Although they never had been one and the same, there was significant overlap and influence between them. There is decreasing overlap and a widening gap between the two, with an increasing opposition to the Christian truth and Christians who affirm that truth.

This is not a time for Christians to disengage, or to cloister themselves, or to accommodate, or to capitulate. Neither is a time to pine after an earlier day, nor whine about being misunderstood or mistreated. That certainly does not mean we roll over and play dead, but if this is how our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was treated, why would we expect less (Jn. 15:20)?

How do you process this from a biblical perspective? How do you counsel people who ask you about it?

In the second part of this brief look at Evangelicals and Politics, we will look at some distinctives and convictions that explain/define who and what an Evangelical is.