Probably we underestimate the long odds faced by the Christian faith among its earliest disciples and congregations. The ancient Greco-Roman world in which the Gospel needed to be preached and where its followers needed to do things like bear the Fruit of the Spirit was a tough pagan environment. Sexual immorality was high, debauchery common, ritual worship of gods and goddesses (like Diana or Artemis, pictured with this blog) involved all manner of tawdry behavior. Ephesus was the seat of Diana worship, including a temple to her so grand it counted among the seven wonders of the ancient world. Rome, too, saw a steady stream of lewd behavior, including from the Caesars themselves. You need not read much about the likes of Tiberius, Nero, or Caligula to learn of their wanton sexual appetites and perversions. Prostitution also thrived in ancient metropolises, including places like Corinth. And as if that all were not enough, there were other, spiritual and theological conundrums and false teachings to contend with, including from the DIY equivalents of the ancient world who would not accept a salvation by grace alone because humanity needed to make its own way in appeasing whatever God or gods there may be.
When reading the epistles of Paul, you can see how often he had to deal with these matters. And it was a lot!
When he got wind that his beloved Galatian friends had been taken in by false teachings after Paul had left town, his heart broke and then he got mad. Apparently despite Paul’s having proclaimed that Jesus had done it ALL on the cross for us, the Galatians were taken in by people who proclaimed a message I saw on a t-shirt not long ago: “Jesus Did His Best, You Do the Rest.” In addressing this “work your own way to heaven” mentality in his letter to the Galatians, Paul dispensed with the usual epistolary niceties (“I thank God for you in all my prayers . . .”) to scream purple-faced at them: “You fools! Who has bewitched you?! What in the name of all that is holy is WRONG with you people!!??” Nothing subtle there.
The little flock at Corinth was a mess ten ways to Sunday. Among their problem members was a man who had taken to sleeping with his mother-in-law. Paul was fairly direct here, too: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked person from among you’” (I Cor. 5:12-13). Word also had it that some of the Corinthian Christian men thought a weekly visit or two to the local brothel was still OK. Paul, however, saw this as fundamentally a mistake of spiritual vision, of recognizing who these men now were as baptized into union with Christ. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never . . . [W]hoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit” (1 Cor. 6:15-17).
Some in Rome were apparently living it up in the old ways, too, figuring that if getting forgiven by grace is a good thing, let’s give God a chance to dispense more. Paul didn’t see grace’s function quite that way. “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1-2).
But it was perhaps in Ephesus where the pressures to keep engaging in sexual sin and the partying lifestyle were the strongest and so it was here that Paul uses his strongest admonitions. In Ephesians 2 he reminds the Ephesian Christians that they once were spiritually dead as doornails (even if at the time they had been the “life” of the party). But that was all dead to them now. Yes, the wider society was still engaged in the pornographic, in debauchery, in sexual escapades, in lewd talk. But for God’s people: “Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph. 5:2-5).
Growing up in the church, I heard these messages loud and clear. And I suppose evangelical leaders and churches still believe this. But of late some things have seeped into the church as broadly OK after all. You see, growing up I also knew from a fairly early age that there was such a thing as pornography and, like many people, I had furtive glimpses of such salaciously intriguing material now and then. And I knew way back when that there was such a thing as X-rated movies and that even in Grand Rapids there were theaters that showed such smut (my mother would shake her head sadly every time we drove past such locales).
What I did not know until not too many years ago was that there was such a huge and established porn industry in this country that is so regularly consumed by so many people that there is such a thing as “porn stars,” of famous people who are as recognizable to some people as Cary Grant or Meryl Streep are to others who watch mainline films. But, of course, now everyone knows there are porn stars. Even those of us who have never watched a single such film starring such people know some of their names now. And we know it because sleaze meisters like Howard Stern have joked about them and promoted them and invited others into all the lewdness.
And we now know that the current President of the United States was and is part of all that. And that would be a sad thing were it not for another fact: the loudest evangelical voices in this country have allowed all of this talk and language and spectacle into the evangelical church because they refuse to condemn it or believe it or call it out because that would undercut the larger argument that somehow, some way Donald Trump is a gift of divine providence.
This isn’t breaking news. We’ve known this for years. Listen to a compilation of coarse joking and lewdness by Mr. Trump across multiple appearances on the Howard Stern show. Listen if you can stomach it. And the Access Hollywood tape is so mainstream I won’t even link to it. It never mattered anyway apparently . . .
What would Paul say?
I know, it should be shooting fish in a barrel on this one. But it’s not. Broad evangelical support for Trump–and its concomitant effect of making some pastors unwilling to engage racism, including in Trump’s own rhetoric–is having an effect, including an exodus of African-Americans from some evangelical churches as reported on last weekend by the Times. It’s also true that some evangelical women at least are having some second thoughts, as also reported on by the Times. But damage, long-lasting damage, has been done to the church’s witness. The high moral ground of the moral majority has been ceded. (Michael Gerson devastatingly nails it in The Atlantic piece just published.)
David Brooks wrote recently that when a society indulges a reversal of everything that once counted as normal behavior by its leaders, things seldom just snap back into place. He mentions the example of Italy’s public degradation through its embrace of the sleazy Silvio Berlusconi. What that may mean in terms of the American public and its social discourse I don’t know. But I worry that the same will happen within the church. We cannot keep giving a President “mulligans” and passes and excuses and spiritual cover in the face of overwhelming evidence that the man is a self-centered vulgarain and not expect the church to be unaffected in its witness to Jesus.
Surely Paul would say to us what he said in 2 Corinthians 2:4 (and that reflects my own sorrow as I write this blog): “For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you.”