Darryl Hart raises an interesting question this morning about the adjectival use of “Christian” as applied to pursuits shared by Christians and non-Christians. This has been one of the most persistent and widespread questions facing believing Christians for the last century: how do Christians relate to the broader, post-Christian culture? Of course this is not an entirely new question. Christians in the second and third centuries wrestled with how to relate to their surrounding pagan culture. In our time, i.e., in the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment periods, under the influence of the 19th- and 20th-century neo-Calvinist movement there developed ways of speaking and thinking about Christ and culture that have been widely adopted by evangelicals beyond the neo-Calvinist movement. One of those ways has been to use the adjective Christian to modify what were once considered shared occupations or vocations.
Under the influence of neo-Calvinism, Reformed Christians in Europe and in the USA struggled over, e.g., whether Christians could be members of labor unions. Beginning in the 1880s, the Christian Reformed Church, which had deep connections to neo-Calvinism, addressed this question repeatedly at Synod. In 1927, the Protestant Reformed Church adopted a doctrinal deliverance forbidding membership by Christians in labor unions. Robert Swierenga, in Dutch Chicago: A History of Hollanders in the Windy City (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002) tells the story of the how the CRC sought to navigate this question. He notes that members of labor unions were not eligible for the office of elder. Of course, in Chicago and in other industrialized urban centers where labor unions wield tremendous economic and political power, these were not theoretical questions. In the 1950s, a CRC synodical committee recommended that Synod say that Christian may not join the AFL-CIO because of the violence and other problems associated with these organizations. Synod did not adopt the recommendation but rather expressed a preference for the formation of “Christian labor unions.” Indeed, there was a “Christian Labor Association” that “had been formed in the early 1930s” (Swierenga) but which had more success in Canada than in the USA, in part because of the ruthlessness of “secular unions” (Swierenga).
Bethany Jenkins wrote yesterday about The Gospel Coalition’s “vision for a church that equips its people to think out the implications of the gospel on how we do everything—from teaching to plumbing to accounting.” At first glance one might ask how a Christian could object to such language? After all, who opposes thinking through the implications of the Christian faith for every area of life? Put that way, no one should object. Correctly defined, there is a Christian worldview and there is Christian liberty. We will not all come to the same conclusions about the implications of the Christian faith for everyday life. The difficulty here, however, is that “the implications of the Christian faith” and the “implications of the gospel” are distinct terms. The Christian faith encompasses creation and redemption. This is my first problem with the expression, “the implications of the gospel.” Why not say “the implications of creation?” One of the most important points made by the early Christian apologists (defenders of the faith) both to the pagans and to the Gnostics, who sought to hijack biblical and orthodox Christianity, was that Scripture gives us an account of both creation and redemption. Against the Gnostics we argued that creation is inherently good (not evil). Against the pagans we argued that creation has a beginning (creatio ex nihilo), that matter is not eternal, that the Creator is distinct from the creation—a point we also made against the Gnostics. One potential difficulty in speaking about the implications of the gospel for plumbing is it contributes to the loss of an essential biblical category: creation. Further, one can argue that one reason why we do not see this sort of rhetoric in the Reformation and post-Reformation periods is because they had a more robust category of creation (or nature). They did not feel the need to relate everything to “the gospel” because they had a category of “creation” by which to analyze and answer some questions.
The second problem is the very definition of the gospel. When Jenkins writes of the “implications of the gospel” for plumbing of what is she speaking, how is she defining “gospel”? If we define the gospel as the incarnation, substitutionary obedience, death, resurrection of Christ, his ascension, and his return, then the direct “implications” for plumbing may be more difficult to tease out. With such a definition it makes it more difficult to speak of “Christian plumbing.” As I have argued many times in this space (e.g., on “Christian Banking,” on all of life as worship, and on the “social gospel“) we may respect the intent of this rhetoric while attempting to steer it in a more helpful direction.
It is beyond doubt whether God’s grace affects the way we live in response. The basic structure of the Christian faith is threefold: guilt, grace, and gratitude. As the Apostle Paul says, “You have been bought with a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (Rom 6:20; see also 1 Cor 7:23). What implications, however, did the apostles draw? We are to live a “peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim 2:2). Is there anything in Scripture that suggests the adjectival use of “Christian” in the way it came to be used e.g., in the case of Christian unions or Christian plumbers? This is not to suggest that the CRC was not struggling with very real problems. Christians should certainly not simply “go along” with the status quo. The uncomfortable reality is that every association (i.e., alliance) that Christians have with non-Christians is complicated and ambiguous.
This is why the Apostle Paul addressed the problem of meat offered to idols as he did. In 1 Corinthians 8:4 he explained that idols have no real, objective, actual existence (1 Cor 10:19)—Paul was not a subjectivist. The food offered to idols by pagans is part of God’s good creation (1 Cor 8:6). Eating meat offered to idols is a matter of Christian liberty, which is limited not by the idols to whom pagans offer the food but by the law of love and the needs of a brother in Christ (1 Cor 8:11; 10:24). I am ordinarily free to eat that food but not if, in so doing, I cause a weaker brother to return to paganism. There is another limit: the distinction between the secular, or that which is common to believers and unbelievers, and the sacred, or that which belongs uniquely to God. Of course, in the general providence of God, everything belongs to him. He is the Creator and the sovereign Lord over all. We are thinking here, however, of things that are set aside to him uniquely as we set aside or dedicate a building or the elements of the Lord’s Supper. That act of dedication does not deny the general Lordship of Christ over all things. Paul says that Christians are free to eat food offered to idols so long as it is a common or secular meal. The moment, however, such a meal becomes religious or sacred, at that moment we are, as we used to say, in state of confession (in statu confessionis). We may not participate in such a meal (1 Cor 10:20–21). Scripture says: “But if someone says to you , ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience… (1 Cor 10:28–29).”
In the pre-Constantinain era, i.e., before the rise of the state-church complex or Christendom, before the neo-Calvinist response to the Enlightenment, the Apostle Paul gave us categories for addressing these questions. He did not advocate the creation of alternative “Christian bakeries,” but he gave us a way of thinking about how to relate to the existing social institutions and practices. Paul himself was a tent-maker (Acts 18:3). Luke uses the interesting expression ὁμότεχνον, which is translated, “practiced the same trade” or the same craft. Matthew 13:55 uses a related noun (τέκτονος) to describe Joseph as a “craftsman” (Matt 13:55). Luke had no difficulty classifying Paul as a part of a group of skilled craftsmen, regardless of their religious faith. Paul had that in common with both pagans and Christians. I do not know whether there was a tent-makers guild but we have no record of a Christian tent-makers association. It seems that Paul was able to cooperate with fellow tent-makers so long as they were cooperating on tent-making and not in a religious exercise. In other words, Luke implies that Paul distinguished the secular from the sacred. This was an issue. In the Greco-Roman world trade guilds were overtly religious. Indeed, Christianity was suspected by some of being an alternative guild. Thus, membership in such a trade guild would have been highly problematic to say the least.1 Further, we may properly infer from Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 that the original impulse of the CRC in the 1850s, to forbid membership in the Masonic Lodge, was just right. The Lodge is a religious association competing with Christ’s church, a point that Swierenga seems to miss.
The Christian faith certainly has implications for the way believers carry out their vocations in this world. Paul said, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Eph 4:28; ESV) and “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col 3:23; ESV) and “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you” (1 Thess 4:11). We are to do our work as those who belong to Christ. We are to work quietly and diligently so that we may something to give to our brothers and sisters in need. We cooperate with unbelievers on the basis of God’s general providence and our status as fellow image-bearers but we draw the line when it comes to religious association. The problem for the ways of speaking adopted by neo-Calvinism, in this regard, is that it does not distinguish between the Lord’s gracious transformation of persons and the transformation of vocations and institutions. There is little biblical evidence that the message of the gospel transforms particular vocations, much less institutions, but much evidence in every way that by the gospel the Spirit transforms those called to many different vocations and who co-exist Christians and non-Christians in a variety of social institutions.
1. “In Alexandria the different trades sat in the synagogue arranged into guilds; and St. Paul could have no difficulty in meeting in the bazaar of his trade with the like-minded Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:2, 3), with whom to find a lodging,” Edersheim, u. s., p. 89 in W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor’s Greek Testament: Commentary, vol. 2 (New York: George H. Doran Company, n.d.), 385.