Richard Mouw was one of the two major keynote speakers at the recent King’s University Interdisciplinary Student Conference, which had as its theme Does the Church Matter?, in connection with the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
Mouw is President Emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary, where he presently serves as Professor of Faith and Public Life. He is the author of more than 20 books, including Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport.
In his evening lecture for the general public on September 20, Mouw began by saying that he did not want to look back at the 16th century Protestant Reformation but instead look forward to current and future opportunities and challenges facing the Christian church, within primarily Western Christendom. He limited his remarks to four such “reformations”: signs of hope for unity, particularly between Roman Catholics and Protestants; a growing global awareness of Christians beyond the confines of Europe and North America; a decrease in racism and an increase in tolerance of “others”; and a growing awareness of the need for the church to deal with gender issues.
John Calvin, Charles Spurgeon and Abraham Kuyper. Although all three of these influential Protestants leveled many criticisms at Roman Catholic theology, they were still appreciative of much Catholic Christian practice. Perhaps this is best summarised by Mouw’s quote of Herman Bavinck, 19th century Dutch Reformed theologian and churchman, who wrote that Catholic views of “righteousness by good works is far better than that of Protestant righteousness by good doctrine which only produces lovelessness and pride.”
Mouw followed this quote with several examples of current interfaith dialogue happening among Evangelical and Reformed Protestant leaders with counterparts in the Roman Catholic, Jewish, Mormon and Muslim traditions. Especially salient is the growing awareness that Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians need each other to confront the endemic secularism of our time.
“We are a long way past the point of seeing the Pope as the Anti-Christ as was the case when I was a boy,” said Mouw, who also lauded the leadership and insights of the current Pope Francis. John 3:16 tells us that God so loved the cosmos that he gave only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. While the following verses go on to suggest that human salvation is only available through the atoning work of Jesus Christ, Mouw suggested that the cosmic nature of Christ’s atonement is a mystery that should caution us against easy judgments about who is and is not saved.
Theologian Richard Mouw was one of the keynote speakers at the conference.
The global Church
For centuries Christianity was primarily a Eurocentric and North American religion. Missionizing activity had as much to do with bringing western civilization (and economic exploitation) to so-called heathen peoples as it did with proclaiming the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Mouw cited passages from Revelations which speak of the eventual global and multicultural body of Christ that will be present in last days. The growth of Christianity in the southern hemisphere, as well as in Asia and China, is phenomenal when compared to the decline in the traditional Christian strongholds in Europe and North America. Mouw quoted Anglican evangelist John Stott as saying that “the gospel must be proclaimed promiscuously and without distinction to all people.” Mouw reported on a visit he made to North Korea six years ago with an American philanthropist to monitor the distribution of food aid provided by the latter. He and his American friend were permitted to attend a Christian church service in a northern North Korea village, where a choir sang “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Mouw said that we must be aware of the “family dimensions” of the world-wide church of Jesus Christ. The implication I took from this is that our Western political leaders must also be aware that, when they threaten the annihilation of so-called evil empires, we have Christian “relatives” living in all those places.
Racism is not gone
Almost all current theological teachings in all Christian traditions agree that the Bible forbids racism; yet, as Mouw illustrated with several stories, what we continue to need is a spiritual reformation in the hearts of many racist Christians. This also applies to a growing but still incomplete awareness by Christians about systemic and personal injustice against aboriginal people. Furthermore, Christians need to be grieved by injustice towards refugees, immigrants and racial or ethnic minorities. If we truly believe that all people are created in God’s image then we must treat them as precious fellow image bearers.
Shortly after 9/11, prejudice and violence against American Muslims was at an all-time high. In one American city, Catholic nuns took it upon themselves to accompany Muslim school children on their walk to their local public school to prevent them from being harassed and bullied by white parents along the way. This, stated Mouw, is an example of how Christians should distinguish themselves: as agents of reconciliation and practical neighbour love.
This is perhaps the most contentious one facing the Christian church today. Mouw believes that we have come a long way in broadening our horizons and reforming our consciousness to allow the daughters of the church to use all their God-given gifts in both church and society, although he also admitted that there was still a long way to go on this issue. With respect to issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, Mouw said, “I am a conservative reformed evangelical Christian, but we have been unusually cruel to people who struggle with sexual identity.” He provided two examples of actual events he was asked for advice about. The first was of a lesbian couple with two children who, after coming to church for some time, were converted to Christianity and asked that their children be baptized. After lengthy deliberation, the church council ruled that the children could only be baptized if the couple first divorced! The second was of a case of a “seeker” family who had been coming to church with a 12-year-old child who was transitioning from a male to female gender. After this child’s first attendance at the church’s Sunday school, a parent phoned the pastor and told him that, “If this thing ever comes to Sunday school again I and my family are leaving this church.” Mouw was incensed in both cases because, in the first instance, a church council was advocating divorce and the tearing apart of this family from its children; and, in the second case, of the complete unacceptability of ever referring to a human being as a “thing” who, despite what we may think of gender switching, is a human being created in God’s image.
After Dr. Mouw’s presentation, audience members could ask questions. One person asked him how far we should be willing to go in our efforts towards ecumenicity. After all, aren’t there certain fundamental differences between religions on which one can’t compromise? Mouw honestly answered that he didn’t know “how far we can go” and that it depends in part with whom we as Christians are in dialogue. But he suggested that the current process is positive and that, especially amongst various Christian traditions, we have far more in common than what separates us.
After a warm round of applause, the folks in attendance dispersed into a wet and chilly Edmonton night, no doubt with much to discuss and think about regarding this elder churchman’s provocative talk.