Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Church Discipline, Abraham Lincoln, Jim Crow, and Religious Freedom

Ethnic tension, religious liberty threats, and the anniversaries of the end of the Civil War and Lincoln's assassination have stirred up my mind to ask a few "what if's":

What if Bible-believing, gospel-preaching churches in the antebellum American South had 1) exercised discipline on members who participated in the evils of slavery and 2) proclaimed a biblical theology of all people created equally in God's image?
  • Would the Civil War have ever happened?
  • Would the size and power of the federal government have exploded exponentially, as it did through the events and aftermath of the Civil War?
  • Would Jim Crow laws have ever gained traction? Would the Civil Rights movement have even been necessary?
  • Would the 14th amendment have been enacted? Its "equal protection" clause vastly expanded the power of the federal government over state governments. That amendment is a key reason the federal government, particularly the Supreme Court, is able to overrule state provisions on abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious freedom. What if that amendment never made it into the Constitution? Could Roe v. Wade have even become a federal issue?
  • Would theological liberals, who often opposed slavery and racial discrimination sooner and more forcefully than theological conservatives, have gained less credibility and moral influence in American society?
  • Would African American pastors have had access to theological training in conservative schools, rather than only liberal institutions? Would African American congregations be more theologically healthy today?
  • For that matter, would there even be "African American congregations," or would churches be far more ethnically integrated than they are today?
  • Would gay rights activists be able to make the case that discrimination against homosexuals is as morally repugnant as the Jim Crow South?
  • Would we be staring in the face the precedent of the Supreme Court's Bob Jones University v. United States decision as a threat to churches' tax exempt status
And here's the kicker: Is it possible that threats to religious freedom have ultimately and ironically emerged from the widespread failure of churches to practice church discipline and recognize that all people are created in the image of God?

Of course I can't answer those questions with any real certainty. But this much I will say:

Don't tell me that ecclesiology is peripheral, or irrelevant, or simply a matter of what works best.