Activism as Pelagianism
American Christianity has become largely activist in nature. Just recently, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention was discussing whether or not to change the gendered language of the Book of Common Prayer. The Wild Goose Conference, a staple to the post-Christian left, recently hosted theologically progressive voices like Jen Hatmaker, Roger Wosley, and “Christian-Atheist” Frank Schaeffer complete with break-out sessions like “Reproductive Justice is_______: Moving Beyond the Pro-Choice/Pro-Life Binary” which ended up being a radically pro-abortion presentation. On the conservative side, there was the recent pro-Trump documentary being developed by Liberty University. These impulses are not new. They are just recent iterations of an agenda that has welded itself to the revisional forces embedded in the dominant culture.
To some degree, these movements are made possible by the heritage of the Church. Christianity has been a driving force for social change. By opposing gladiatorial games and infanticide, early Christians proclaimed the value of human life in a revolutionary fashion that contradicted the sensibilities of the Romans. Similarly, Christians like William Wilberforce were instrumental in the end of the English slave trade. And in modern America, the Civil Rights Movement was catalyzed by a strong sense of Christian morality.
These were all noble goals, compatible with the message of the Gospel. Yet simultaneously, the Gospel must determine our priorities, lest our social movements dilute the Gospel . Whether it be supporting slavery and racism or falling prey to the trappings of a post-sexual revolution culture, the American Church has not toed the line between biblical and unbiblical forms of activism well. This struggle has made American Christianity especially prone to the heresy of Pelagianism.
Pelagianism finds its roots in the teachings of the British theologian Pelagius (360-418). The Church understood his teachings to be problematic because he denied original sin, instead emphasizing human beings’ ability to freely choose to serve God of their own volition by following the external declarations of the Law and teachings of Christ. St. Augustine reacted very strongly against this view, emphasizing God’s monergistic work through the sacraments in redeeming the sinner—a person dead in sin and unable to turn to God of their own accord.
Today, the accusation of Pelagianism is often wielded by Calvinists to accuse Arminians of being heretics or at least on the fringes of orthodoxy. Given the teachings of Arminius and Wesley on prevenient grace, it is hard to imagine this is an appropriate association. Yet aside from this obfuscation, Pelagianism is alive and well in American Christianity. Indeed, any theology which emphasizes the human will while omitting or negating the work of God springs from Pelagian premises. Similarly, any theology that does not begin with the anthropological assumption that sin has utterly separated us from God—to such an absolute degree that he alone can fix it—is Pelagian. Pelagian heresy is inherently anthropocentric, whereas classical Christian thought is theocentric. Pelagian thought insidiously lulls us into a false sense of security, based on the reckless assumption that we really aren’t that bad and that we can repair our broken relationship with God.
When activism becomes the driving force behind our theology, whether we realize it or not we embrace the tenets of Pelagianism. Anglican theologian Martin Thornton prophetically summarized this problem with American Christianity, “The Church concerning itself primarily with cultural and social activities must fail, for it is but substituting one kind of materialism for another. It is significant that the American Church, with all the money and practical appurtenances it needs, is now worried by its own ‘activism’ which is but an American term for Pelagianism.” (Thornton, English Spirituality, 6-7)
Churches whose emphasis shifts from proclamation of the Gospel to the advancement of social causes generally lack an accurate anthropology. This, in turn, leads to a terminally deficient soteriology that soon drifts into works-righteousness or legalism. Conceptions of sin become less about the individual and more about nebulous problems with a “system” of interrelated webs of social domination—capitalism, heterosexism, patriarchy, etc. And of course it is imperative for us to remember that in every critique there is some truth. It is not as though capitalism, for example, should be immune to critique. The question is whether the central tenets of our theology must be revised in light of those systems. To the activist theologian, by fighting against these forces, we as individuals become capable of Goodness. In effect, our protest becomes our worship, a sacrament to trump all other sacraments (of course, the problem is that protest is something we do, whereas sacraments are something God does). This is precisely why these movements are often inter-religious: affiliation is of little to no importance. It only becomes problematic if one clings to traditional forms of faith that impede “progress.”
On the one hand, this is “easy believism,” because the locus of orthodoxy has shifted from the historic proclamation of the faith towards a more culturally fluid project aimed at a certain kind of enlightenment. Human beings can, in such a project, become perfected apart from the Gospel (in a classical sense) because they adhere to a gospel of behavior management and certain social standards. Yet on the other hand, these movements tend to police the lines between their definitions of orthodoxy and heterodoxy to the point of legalism.
Looking at the modern religious landscape, particularly the twilight of the Mainline traditions, it appears Thornton was right. Activism substitutes material realities for transcendent ones. It replaces the objective reality of the Gospel with subjective assessments of social circumstances. Like Thornton says, this will ultimately fail. And it has.
The solution is for the Church to return to its essential ministry of Word and Sacrament. The role of the pastor is not to wield the Bible as a political tool. Indeed, to do so seems akin to using the Lord’s name in vain. The proclamation of the Word is part of the liturgy for a reason. The liturgy of the Word comes before the liturgy of the Sacrament to prepare the hearts of the people to receive the Lord’s Supper. The readings and the sermon occur immediately before the confession of sin and absolution, in order to convict the people of sin and remind them of the assurances of the Gospel.
The Eucharist, which is the pinnacle of Christian worship, is both a symbol and a reality. It is a symbol in that the very act of coming to the table each and every week points our desperate need for God to provide for us. Yet, it is not merely a symbol. It is a reality. In the Eucharist, we receive the body and blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We are given “food for the journey”—the strength we need to live out our Christian calling. Activism is not inherently bad. In fact, sometimes, we are called to it. Yet problems arise when we make activism the central component of our faith. Restoring a ministry of Word and Sacrament is key to returning to the faith as it was once handed down to us (Jude 3) and preventing imbalance. By a proper emphasis on the Church’s mission, we can avoid the pitfalls of the Pelagian tendencies that have taken root in large swaths of American Christianity expressed by primarily activist forms of faith.