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The Road to Nowhere—Middle Church

Bob Edgar wants to rescue America from the religious right. In his new book, Middle Church: Reclaiming the Moral Values of the Faithful Majority from the Religious Right, Edgar intends to reset the nation’s agenda when it comes to matters of Christian concern.

A former six-term Member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Edgar now serves as the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. As such, he is one of the primary spokesmen for the religious left in America–symbolically presiding over the dwindling numbers of mainline Protestants in the nation.

“My purpose in writing this book is to awaken the conscience of average, ordinary common folks within the United States to do above-average, extraordinary, and uncommon things to insure a future for our fragile planet,” Edgar states. “I am especially interested in inspiring and challenging what I call ‘Middle Church,’ ‘Middle Synagogue,’ ‘Middle Mosque’–the many millions of faithful people who do not always connect their spiritual values with political issues and whose voices are, as a result, often drowned out by the far religious right.”

As it turns out, one does not have to be very conservative in order to be considered part of the “far religious right” as identified by Bob Edgar. Interestingly for one whose own organization pushes so many political agendas, he claims to speak for those “faithful people” who do not, at least always, “connect their spiritual values with political issues.”

As Edgar sees it, there are two different churches in the United States–one based on love and the other grounded in fear. As Edgar asserts, “fear, fundamentalism, and the FOX Broadcasting Company must not be allowed to set the agenda for our nation.”

Well then. As children, we are wisely advised by parents to learn the art of compromise. This is good advice for children playing in the sandbox. However, it is disastrous advice when it comes to matters of truth. Compromise works when truth is not at issue. But the very character of the National Council of Churches and the larger ecumenical movement is one of constant compromise at the expense of truth.

As the book begins, Edgar traces his own political involvement to the inspiration he received from the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Inspired by King’s example, Edgar wants to call America’s Christians to a middle way. “It is time for Middle Church–an umbrella term I use to refer to mainstream people of all faiths–to stand up to the far religious right and to embrace Christianity no less sincerely. The classic, historical Christianity practiced by Middle Church is far more authentic than the narrow religious expression of most radical right-wing religious leaders. We in Middle Church, Middle Synagogue, and Middle Mosque are not secularists who wish to banish God from the public square. We are people of faith whose traditions lead us to work for peace and care for the poor.”

Conservative Christians are certainly not above criticism. The evangelical movement is certainly capable of political misjudgment, spiritual triumphalism, and a truncated set of moral and theological concerns. Bob Edgar could have written a book offering an intelligent analysis of conservative Christianity and its cultural and political engagement. Unfortunately, this is not that book. It is not an intelligent analysis, and the intelligent reader will find the book absolutely perplexing at many points.

For example, Edgar could have offered a careful, exegetical, historical, and theological engagement with moral issues. Instead he offers irresponsible generalizations such as this: “The Bible mentions abortion not once, homosexuality only twice, and poverty or peace more than two thousand times. Yet somehow abortion and homosexuality have become the litmus test of faith in public life today.”

How can an intelligent reader, armed with even the slightest knowledge of the Bible and the Christian tradition, take such a statement seriously? The Bible does not mention abortion only in the sense that it does not make direct reference to the practice of surgical abortion as is common today. The Bible speaks clearly to the sanctity of human life and to the priority of protecting unborn life. Furthermore, to state that the Bible mentions homosexuality “only twice” indicates that Edgar has redefined homosexuality as something other than that which the Bible addresses in numerous passages.

There can be no doubt that the Bible’s consistent judgment is that homosexual acts are inherently immoral and sinful. The Christian church in all of its major branches has understood this for two thousand years. This has been a true ecumenical consensus until recent years when some more liberal churches in the West have abandoned the Christian tradition in order to endorse homosexual practice.

Thus, it is an act of intellectual dishonesty for Edgar to claim to speak for “classic historical Christianity.”

Just in case we might miss his point, Edgar offers this assessment of Scripture: “The far religious right is fond of condemning homosexuality because they say the Scripture is immutable and its words are literal.” Again, Edgar identifies the scriptural consensus that homosexuality is sinful as an example of the radical nature of the “far religious right” [italics his]. Once again, one need not be very conservative to end up in Edgar’s category of the far religious right.

As for his view of Scripture, “I do not personally believe God stops talking to us with the final word in the book of Revelation.” Edgar explains that, as a pastor, he had included readings in worship from the Old Testament, the New Testament and what he calls the “Now Testament,” by which he means readings from Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others.

When it comes to familiarity with the Bible and the Christian tradition, there is no excuse for Edgar not to be well versed. After all, he is a seminary graduate and was for a decade president of the Claremont School of Theology. Thus, the reader might be surprised when Edgar, criticizing the fact that evangelicals seem too concerned with the Rapture and the end of the world, states this: “The book of Revelation does speak of the Rapture, and the portrait it paints is in fact quite fierce. But it’s equally important to understand that the books of the New Testament are works of human beings.” In the span of two fairly short sentences, Edgar manages to suggest that the New Testament is to be read as a merely human book while moving the Bible’s text concerning the Rapture from 1 Thessalonians chapter four to the book of Revelation. Continuing to define his understanding of Scripture, Edgar suggests that “not every single word can be taken as literal historical fact.”

When it comes to global warming, however, Edgar is quite certain that the problem is real and can be resolved by human beings. Furthermore, he offers his conclusion that dealing with global warming would not “cause economic problems.” Edgar is quite certain that the Bible does not reveal an explicit command by God against homosexuality, but he is confident that God has a position on global warming.

Now, there is an urgent need at present for a truly thoughtful and comprehensive analysis of global warming and its theological significance. It would be fair to suggest that many evangelicals are simply dismissive of ecological concerns. Nevertheless, Edgar never makes his case for why we should, on his authority, assume that global warming should take priority over other concerns–especially those related to the sanctity of human life and the ordering of human sexuality.

Edgar dismisses the theory of Intelligent Design and the claim by “biblical literalists” that the earth is less than six thousand years old. “Let me just say here that I believe God is an ‘intelligent designer,’ and that’s why God ‘intelligently designed’ the theory of evolution.” That statement is cute, but it cannot be taken seriously. Readers with the slightest familiarity with the dominant theory of evolution held in the scientific community today will know that the very idea of an external design is incompatible with that theory. Cute statements are no substitute for serious thought.

The same is true when Edgar turns to moral issues–after all, the central concern of his book is to replace the agenda of conservative Christians with a different public agenda for Christianity. The “Middle Church” Edgar affirms must be absolutely certain about issues like peace, justice, poverty, racism, and ecology, but “must be prepared to agree to disagree about homosexuality, abortion, and stem cell research.”

In an amazing passage, Edgar asserts: “People of faith must be able to conduct a respectful and open conversation about all aspects of sexuality including homosexuality. God has a lot to say on all these topics, and if we skip the listening and rush straight to the judging–an enterprise in which we’re not supposed to be involved anyway–we can’t hope to make serious progress in our discussion.”

Statements like this must leave us wondering if this author actually means to be taken seriously. His book is filled with moral judgments–judgments about ecology, justice, racism, and a host of other issues. But when it comes to sexuality, Edgar offers the facile suggestion that moral judgment is “an enterprise in which we’re not supposed to be involved anyway.”

In other words, when Edgar makes moral judgments, he’s not being judgmental. But when others make moral judgments, they are being judgmental. The Bible does not say that we are not to make moral judgments, or that we are not to judge moral behavior. Indeed, the Bible makes absolutely no sense if that is the case. The Bible–in both Old and New Testaments–is filled with moral judgment and with advisement on how we are to make such judgments. Of course, the judgments we are to make concern behavior, not the heart. We are expressly forbidden to judge another’s heart. That distinction is missing from Edgar’s analysis.

As is always the case, the major issues of moral consequence are rooted in issues of more fundamental importance. When it comes to theology, Edgar demonstrates himself to be on the far left of the ecumenical movement. Consider this: “My God hopes for positive outcomes. My God does not play tricks or determine outcomes. My God has enough self-confidence to be less concerned with the language in which people pray than with the fullness with which people love one another. Most important, my God does not withhold love or acceptance from a Hindu child in India, a Buddhist child in Thailand, a Jewish child in Jerusalem, or a Muslim child in Ramallah.” All that is said with absolutely no reference to Jesus Christ, or the Gospel.

Just in case we missed his point, Edgar argues that, in his personal opinion, God does not “even ask us to convert those who espouse other faiths?” Why? “I believe God reveals his love to different people in different ways and through different vehicles.” This from the general secretary of an organization known as the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

Bob Edgar–and the movement he leads–has replaced the Gospel of Jesus Christ with a platform of political involvement. “I admit that I do not give much thought to the afterlife personally,” Edgar explains, “but it’s only because I am keeping plenty busy here on Earth and I trust God to sort out eternity.” On that last part we can all agree. God will “sort out eternity.” What separates Bob Edgar and biblical Christianity is the fact that God has told us how He is going to judge humanity–and the crucial issue in that judgment is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

When it comes to matters of public policy, evangelicals surely do not have all the answers. Furthermore, evangelicals are well served by a reminder that our moral agenda needs to be broader than the issues of the daily headlines.

Nevertheless, conservative Christians did not decide to make abortion, homosexuality, and stem cell research front-line issues. It is nothing less than intellectual dishonesty to suggest that evangelicals prompted the national debate on those issues. On all of these fronts, evangelicals are simply calling on the Christian church to stand by its historic convictions and moral wisdom.

We must always be willing and ready to read what our own critics have to say. This is especially true when the critic is fair, intelligent, and thoughtful. Unfortunately, Bob Edgar has written a book that fits none of those categories. Instead, his book appears to be nothing less than a parody of mainline Protestantism–a cartoon reflection of what the ecumenical movement really represents. Middle Church is a roadmap to nowhere except further decline in influence and relevance for liberal Protestantism.