by Drew Griffin
I tend to have an intense relationship with my radio. As I drive about, commuting to work, I listen to talk radio. I am that guy who sits at the traffic light talking back to the commentators. At times I may shout in disagreement or I may cheer in hearty affirmation. Last month, I found myself doing the latter. While listening to Weekend Edition on National Public Radio (NPR) one Saturday morning, I happened to catch an interview with Mary Eberstadt . Eberstadt is an author and “a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and consulting editor to Policy Review, the Hoover Institution’s bimonthly journal of essays and reviews on American politics and society.” In a revealing interview (which can be heard and read here) , she was asked to comment on the then recent election of Pope Francis and the anticipated changes his election might bring. From the outset, her answers seemed to stump and confound NPR’s Scott Simon.
Simon begins by inquiring about Eberstadt’s stated desire that the new pope would embrace orthodoxy. In a culture dominated by poll-driven conviction and shifting standards, a call to orthodoxy seems out of place and destined to fail. Yet Eberstadt maintains that doctrinal orthodoxy is vitally important to the growth and survival of any religious institution. Eberstadt makes the point that,
“If you study the history of churches, over time the churches that have tried to lighten up the Christian moral code and put forth sort of kinder, gentler version of Christianity as they see it, have not done well. They haven’t done well demographically and they haven’t done well financially. Churches that stick to orthodoxy do better over time, in part because it’s only those kinds of churches that tend to create families that can be of size and carry on the Christian tradition.”
Simon immediately reverts to the bastion of liberal truth, polling data. Surely the countless Catholics polled who state that they wish that the Church would alter its positions can not be wrong? Shouldn’t the Church, for its future health, acquiesce to the adamant voices of the people? Eberstadt responds,
“for Catholics who want married priests, women priests, who want again to lighten up the Christian moral code, there is a place for people like that. The place is called mainline Protestantism. And the point is that mainline Protestantism is in serious disarray. The pews are graying, they have few children in them.”
She then quickly draws contrast between the mainline protestants and evangelical churches,
“By contrast, the Protestant churches that have hewed closest to a sort of strict Christian moral code have done best. Those would be the evangelical churches and churches like the Pentecostals are thriving, and not only in the United States but around the world.”
At this point in the interview, I was cheering on Eberstadt in affirmation. Simon finally points to the Church’s struggles in recent years to grow, and asks again should it not reevaluate its positions to mirror the changing culture? At this point Eberstadt goes in for the final blow asking,
“Do you mean that the church should change its teaching because people have changed their minds in certain western countries about a particular issue? I mean, the church sees its job as standing as a sign of contradiction to all that. And if it were to make itself a bellwether of public opinion, it wouldn’t be the church.”
“Is it important to you that the Catholic Church in North America grow?” Simon asks,
Eberstadt replies, “I don’t think anyone would want growth at the expense of truth and mission. Growth just for the sake of growth doesn’t get you very far. It’s not a numbers game. It’s a truth game.”
There the interview ended. It was obvious that Eberstadt failed to accept the premise of Simon’s line of questioning. She failed to play his game of numbers, and thereby beat him at the game of truth.
There are three really important takeaways we can have from this exchange.
Orthodoxy is not optional. Eberstadt make the point in her interview that Americans, in particular, struggle with the concept of immutable truth. We in the west are addicted to change and self-determination, they are our birth rights. When our rulers were unresponsive we changed governments via revolution. When our civil rights were marred by racism and sexism we changed our laws via litigation and demonstration. When our leaders no longer represent the popular will, we change our leaders. So when we face institutions like the church, whether the Catholic church or any stalwart protestant church, we are surprised and often frustrated by their intransience. In the church, Truth, capital “T” is not a policy to be arrived at by changing consensus; it is a proclamation to be treasured handed down from generation to generation. We are but custodians of this Truth, and if we are to be faithful, we have no option but to maintain orthodoxy.
Orthodoxy is essential for growth. One need only look to the shrinking ranks of mainline Protestantism and liberal Catholicism to see this fact played out. Eberstadt rightly maintains that those institutions committed to following the crowd are woefully inadequate to lead the crowd. Successful leadership, especially Christian leadership, is inherently convictional and counter-cultural. When we see churches displaying this level of conviction regarding the role of the family and necessity of the faith, we often see growth and health.
Growth at the expense of truth and mission is not worth it. Oh that our churches and pastors would grasp this truth. When we change what we believe we are not merely changing our position, we are changing our identity. A church that becomes a bell-weather for popular opinion ceases to be the church. As Christians, we must resist the siren song to pursue growth at the expense of our orthodoxy. For if we pursue growth at the expense of truth, we most often wind up with neither.
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