Is the Church a Thermometer or a Thermostat? A Biblical reply to those who prefer a trendy and compliant Church
Is the Church a thermometer or a thermostat? In other words are we called merely to reflect the temperature (thermometer), or are we called to affect the temperature (thermostat)? Many are deeply confused as to the role of the Church in the modern world and think we ought simply to reflect the mores of current times, rather than to prophetically announce the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Yes, there are many who insist that the Church needs to “get with the times……Update her teachings….be more modern in her thinking, teachings and structures.” She needs to “Listen more to young people and speak their language and share their vision.”
Put more in a hostile way, the Church “needs to abandon her medieval ways, cease being hostile, judgmental, intolerant, bigoted, sexist, homophobic, hateful etc” (and the usual list of modern accusations that reflect more the accuser’s personal issues than the Church).
During the recent Papal Conclave the media had a field day interviewing various degrees and types of disaffected Catholics who all presented their wish list (or list of demands) of how the Church should change to be tenable and relevant to modernity and regain their “loyalty.” Most of the demands of course had to do with sex and power: that the Church should approve contraception and promote it, homosexual activity and same sex unions should get the thumbs up, divorce and remarriage should be approved, women and active gays ordained, priest should be bale to get married, abortion approved, euthanasia applauded, etc.
And somehow if the Church does all this, our parishes will be filled again and all will be right with the world.
Never mind that the Liberal (mainline) Protestants have tried all this for decades, approving whatever the people and the polls demanded, and with that approach their numbers have plummeted, far lower that any Catholic Parish. Never mind too that the only Protestant denominations that are growing at all are the more biblically conservative Evangelical Protestants who reject a good bit of the list of demands above.
But at the end of the day, the lists of demands above all show a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of the Church. The Church does not exist to be a mere expression or manifestation of current popular or cultural views. The Catholic Church does not and cannot draw her inspiration from these, but rather must draw from the Word of God as it has been faithfully passed on for twenty centuries.
The Church does not exist to merely reflect and parrot the views of her parishioners, gleaned from polls and focus groups. She exists to reflect the views of her founder and head, Jesus Christ. And the Jesus referred to here is not some fake Jesus reinvented by moderns who use dubious and tortured methodologies to radically reinterpret Scripture so that it no longer “means” what it clearly says. Rather, we owe allegiance to the real Jesus, the Biblical Jesus. It is to Him that we look for Him that we speak. (More on that in another post).
But as for the Church, the cry goes up frequently in our culture today that the Church, and her clergy catechist other leaders should refrain From any sort of teaching or preaching that plainly characterizes immoral actions for the sins they are. Many, even among the clergy, insist on a “do no harm” mentality And any utterance which might even in the remotest possible way offend somebody, is strongly eschewed and denounced. Even directly quoting from the Scriptures, or the Catholic catechism, Is shamelessly denounced as hate speech. This is an egregious violation for those who only want the Church to be a thermometer.
And thus, the traditional “thermostatic” practice of the Church is to speak clearly about sin, but also to influence people to seek God’s offer of grace and mercy is largely scorned as “unloving,” even “hateful.”
The claim is made that since “God is love,” and Jesus loves everyone, therefore everything is somehow fine and any critique is somehow “unloving” and “un-Christ-like.”
In the biblical texts below, I hope to show forth that the consistent pastoral advice given in the Scriptures confirms the Church’s traditional approach. What follows is a kind of pastoral manual gleaned from the Scriptures.
I do not claim it to be complete, but have assembled these particular texts to affirm that God the Holy Spirit certainly expects the Church, and her clergy, as well as parents and other leaders to clearly and unambiguously address moral issues of the day. They also affirm that the goal of the Church is not simply to fit in, and, like a thermometer, reflect the values and wishes of the day. Rather, she is to thermostatically announce and seek to influence the world by speaking the ancient and tested wisdom that the Lord God himself has handed down through Biblical Tradition as well as Sacred Tradition. As such, this is an act of love, for it is good pastoral practice recommended by God the Holy Spirit Himself. The comments in Red are mine, and I admit some remarks are dripping with sarcastic irony as I play the role, in some of the remarks of an bemused or “outraged” interlocutor.
I. Some Old Testament admonitions to priests and prophets:
- Malachi 2: 7For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth. 8But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble. In other words, the priest has as a primary task to preserve and pass on ancient wisdom rather than to merely rehash modern jargon and views. They are to be a messenger for the Lord, not for the latest cause or rage. I failing to do this he causes the downfall of many.
- Isaiah 56: 10Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep….They are shepherds who lack understanding; they all turn to their own way. In other words, the priest, prophet, parent and leaders of the Church are not supposed to be dumb dogs. Dogs are supposed to bark to warn of trouble and also to scare off interlopers. Too many priests and Church leaders are silent, they are dumb dogs, they cannot bark. But they should! Those of the “do no harm” mentality fail follow the instruction to be a guard dog. Further they turn a blind eye to error and evil
- Ezekiel 3: 17 “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. 18When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. 19But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself. Here too the pastor, the shepherd, the leader is expect to warn sinners, not merely and gleefully affirm, tell jokes and avoid all offense.
II. That Jesus insisted that the Church take stands against sin and evil and not tolerate the presence of evil and error within her. Further that the Church must be willing to suffer on account of proclaiming the truth.
- Matt 18:17 If they (the sinner) still refuse to listen (to fraternal correction), tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Hence the Church ought to discipline some, in more serious matters with punitive measures, and even with excommunication. And this is not un-Christ-like for he himself said it.
- Matt 5: 13“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. But salt and light affect the word around them, not merely reflect the world around them.
- John 15:18 If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. 22If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. Well if our job is to fit in, offend no one, do no harm and say nothing controversial, if our job is to merely reflect the culture and thoughts of the world, to be modern and up to date, then who is going to hate us? The text indicates that hatred from the world is NOT a sign we have necessarily done something wrong, but that we are in good company with Jesus and the martyrs. The thermometer Church cannot possibly fulfill this text.
- Rev 2:4 (to Ephesus) 6But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Oops, did Jesus say “hate” here? Didn’t he get the memo that we’re not suppose to hate anyone’s practices, but that we are supposed to affirm everyone, and not just every one, but every thing they do, since they identify themselves by what they do? Didn’t Jesus get the memo not to “judge”?
- Rev 2:14 (to Pergamum) Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. 15Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. Wait a minute, is Jesus telling the Church that it is wrong to affirm sin? I thought we were not only to accept sinners, but also to affirm their practices. Here too, it seems that Jesus didn’t get the modernist memo. He even, kinda seems mad that the Church is tolerating evil!
- Rev 2:20 (to Thyatira) 20 Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. 21I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. 22So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. 23I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds. Uh oh! did Jesus just rebuke the Church for “tolerating” something? Doesn’t he know that the we’re supposed to tolerate everything and that we are just being hateful if we don’t. Man, Jesus is certainly unreformed.
III. Pastoral advice to Bishops, pastors, teachers, parents and other leaders in the Church:
- 1 Thess 2:2We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition. 3For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. 4On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. 5You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. 6We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. 7Instead, we were like young children among you. Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, 8so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Now wait a minute, what was St. Paul doing in Jail? Did he offend someone? Did he say something controversial or “hateful?” Note too his central point, that our aim is to please God, not man. Would that every preacher entered a pulpit with this motive and this courage. The thermometer Church will be up in arms, but the Lord will be pleased.
- 2 Tim 4: 1In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 3For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.
But what if people are offended? Don’t you care, St. Paul? Didn’t you get the memo that you’re supposed to only preach the gospel when it is popular? What is this “out of season” stuff? Who talks about football in summer? Get with the times! And how dare you suggest that people might not “tolerate” the truth! It is only true Christians that intolerant. It is not possible for the modern open-minded person to be intolerant, only Bible-believing Catholics and certain Christians are intolerant. Get your terms right. Aren’t the people (except for traditional Christians) and the current times always right, and should not the message be adapted?
- Titus 1:10 For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. 11They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain…..Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith…16They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good. Wow talk about judgmental! Someone send St. Paul (and the Holy Spirit who wrote this) a memo and tell him that he might offend some one! This sort of talk certainly doesn’t fit the “kinder-gentler” vision of the Church either. Now, granted, in our current times, such plain characterization is less common, and should only be used judiciously.
- 2 Tim 2:24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
- 2 Cor 4:2-6By setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. Wow, you mean to say that if the modern world doesn’t “get” the message, doesn’t understand it, that the problem is them and not the message?! Once again St. Paul didn’t get the memo that the problem is ALWAYS the Church and NEVER the world. Note too that St. Paul claims to speak for Christ. Here too the world shudders and claims that privilege for itself over and against St. Paul. Note too that St. Paul sets the Word of God forth “Plainly” Whereas too many clergy over the years have preferred to speak in abstractions and generalities, and to be any thing but plain in speaking clearly to moral issues of the day.
- 2 Cor 5:12 ff Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others.…13If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you…And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. If only St. Paul would parrot the world, and the evening news agenda, he would not be considered “out of his mind.” But since he insists on all the “repentance stuff” and “judges” us to need reconciliation, he is, ipso facto, out of his mind.
- 1 Cor 4:9ff 9For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. 10We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! Well if only Paul and the Church would toe the line, everything would be just fine. Hmm…. If he’d just become a thermometer instead of a troubling and meddlesome thermostat, he would be honored. Once again, it looks like the early Church and the advice of Scripture does not square with modernist insistence on being populist.
- Acts 20: 26Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. 27For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole counsel of God. 28Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.Note here that the Church has the task to proclaim the whole counsel, not just what is popular or safe.
IV. On the challenge to stay in the conversation and patiently exhort:
- 2 Tim 2:24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. Hence we do not look for arguments, nor do we seek hate. We soberly admit it may well come our way, but we seek to stay in the conversation hoping at least to plant seeds.
- Gal 6:1Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.So the operative word is gentle, and the disposition is humility. Clarity with Charity.
Allow these to suffice for now. But note clearly that the “do-no harm” and never offend, “any rebuke = hate” school of thought is pretty well set aside in the pastoral manual of Scripture. It looks like the Church actually IS supposed to speak to the sin of our times, summon to repentance and and offer God’s grace and mercy to actual sinners, who acknowledge themselves to be such. And, as the last scriptures also note, this work is to be done with patience and charity. But it IS to be done.
It’s old time religion, but more than that it is true.