What We’re Really Saying

July 23, 2014

Decline: no one except Oswald Spengler likes to talk about it. Of particular importance today is the decline of church attendance and membership in the United States of America. When statistics came out that showed that the Southern Baptist Convention had experienced a decline in membership after a long plateau, evangelicals across the spectrum wrung their hands at the weakening of America’s largest Protestant denomination while liberal media outlets exhibited no small degree of schadenfreude. On the other hand, there does not seem to be a spike in atheism and even much of a bump in agnosticism. Many claim to talk to God and meditate; the same identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Americans like the idea of God being around, but He is surely not to be found in the church assembled.

There are doubtless myriad reasons for this development, but one particular trend occupies my attention. The narrative is familiar: an evangelical kid hits his late teens or twenties. He gets burned, embarrassed, or frustrated by his religious upbringing. He spurns said upbringing and vociferously condemns the entire institution of the church, perhaps eventually forswearing the label of “Christian” altogether. Pastors, youth ministers, parents, and others respond with three common reasons to justify church attendance.

First, church attendance is beneficial or useful. One gets encouraged, re-energized, taught, counseled, and discipled in a congregational setting. Personal narratives dot arguments for how helpful church membership is: individual experience rules the day in such a debate. Of course, the would-be lapser can offer his own negative experiences on this count. Soon, the conversation devolves into a tit-for-tat of examples and counterexamples.

Second, church attendance is commanded in Scripture. “Do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together,” evangelicals will rightly cite from Hebrews. However, there is no “why” or “wherefore” for the verse. This deontological approach sets forth a biblical rule to be obeyed. A Christian must submit his will to God’s because we do whatever God tells us. Of course, Islam promises just as much of a spiritual life. Such a perspective can become burdensome and even give way to legalism. Certainly the Christian life (and, by extension, membership in Christ’s body) means something more than submission.

Third, church attendance is a necessary evil if not a liability. We find this sentiment in the cliché that “following Christ is not a religion but a relationship.” Never mind for right now the fact that all people have a relationship with God; it is just not necessarily a good one. If we think through the logic of that phrase “not a religion but a relationship,” it reinforces an individualistic retreat from the Christian assembly: why engage in organized weekly acts of worship in a corporate setting? Isn’t that a hallmark of religion? Why can’t I have a (good) relationship with God outside the walls of the church? It is at this point that we are faced with a double jeopardy.

For one, preachers and teachers who condemn religion can sometimes perceive a Christian home and family as the breeding ground for lukewarm faith. Without a big conversion experience from a life of lecherous and spectacular sin, one will lack the gratitude and ensuing zeal for salvation. It must be admitted that this may spring from evangelical inexperience. When the Mainline Protestant and Catholic leadership began to fail and fall to revisionism in the 1960s, their flocks fled to the greener pastures of nondenominational evangelicalism in the 1960s (as well as to the Southern Baptist Convention and various charismatic groups). The Generations X and Y evangelicals are the first to be completely raised in the post-Mainline-exodus milieu. Thus, any fallout or challenges regarding the passing on of the baton of faith to the next generation is a relatively new thing for the widespread nondenominational churches across the country.

Evangelical leaders need to be asking some hard questions. Can’t we see the faith derived from a Christian home as a benefit? Don’t we have a responsibility to teach our children in the faith and to introduce them that most wonderful gift, Jesus Christ Himself? On the other hand, if one has to be full-sprung in rationality and volition to be considered a member of Christ’s Body, why should we teach our children to pray? If there is no room for faith in the young at church and thus no union with God for the young, why on earth do we expect Our Father in heaven to heed the prayers of our offspring? Indeed, we have stumbled upon the crisis of catechesis, which afflicts Christians across the world right now. As James K. A. Smith has pointed out, our children will be catechized and will be spiritually formed by a liturgy. The only question is who will be the teacher and what will be the curriculum. Right now, many preachers are overly eager to join the wider culture in condemning the Body of Christ.

These quandaries of passing down faith have been dealt with before (see the history of Israel for just one example). They can be dealt with again. Evangelicals must learn how to steward their heritage. All too often, evangelicals act like the Christian upbringing does not happen or is something to be ashamed of for its lack of testimonial verve. No wonder their young cast off this great blessing with tremendous eagerness. Their Christian experience is consistently threatened to become inauthentic.

The other, more troubling reasoning lies not with faithful evangelicals, but rather those who malign and abandon the flock to seek a religion-less Utopia. While sexual discrepancies get a free pass, young drop-outs are wont to condemn hypocrisy, greed, and social insensitivity in the pews. To summarize a common refrain, they will exclaim, “Those nasty sinners over there! How could anyone fellowship with them? I am leaving, thereby proving my moral excellence.” Of course, there is a double standard here. Nevertheless, one is tempted to ask church-jumpers, “Where else do you expect Pharisees on a Sunday morning? And have you never been a hypocrite yourself? Am I to extend no mercy to you on that account?” Of course, a sarcastic quip will only go so far.

What evacuees fail to realize is that religion is inescapable if faith is to be in the plural. Religio (“to bind [together]”) is what happens when a faith is shared in common, across space and time. You have a group of people together confessing the same essentials. However, if faith cannot be shared, then by all means go home to be your own authority! It will be just you and God; institutions are bad. Collapse into yourself as you become your own prophet, priest, and king. You’ll have no church, no Christianity, and eventually a very different God. God will be small and His work in your life will resemble that of a doting or perhaps ambivalent fairy godmother.

What can be said in response to this? After all, we cannot really complain about church decline if young evangelicals are taking us at our own word. How should we be talking about church attendance and membership?

There remains a most potent argument for rejecting the abandonment of Christ’s body. It is to reaffirm that the Church was, is, and will be absolutely essential to the Christian life, a non-optional part of its nature. How could we have become Christians without the Church? She is necessary to enter the faith. We would never had heard of the faith if someone had not told us about it; we would not have read about Christ if some member of the flock did not write a book or article about Him. We cannot go call out the name of the Trinity, throw ourselves into a swimming pool, and call that baptism. We cannot go home, pray over certain victuals, and call that Communion. All of this requires an “other”: one or (more likely) several other Christians.

Going home with your Bible (and blogs) and calling that the Christian life is an utter farce. It is totally foreign to the faith as recounted in history; the very fathers who hammered out what Christianity means in the councils and creeds had a completely different view of the Church. For them and others, the Body of Christ is much like Noah’s Ark: she is leaky, cramped, and stuffed with filthy cantankerous animals. But she’s the only thing that will float as the world is drowned in the waters of God’s just judgment. Imagine, if you would, a worried fellow in the late antediluvian days who insisted, “I have faith in God, but I won’t go into that boat that Noah made. Noah is a drunk hypocrite while his family is a bunch of homophobic bigots.” By refusing to enter, that poor doomed fool would prove he had no faith at all.

We can’t have our cake and eat it, too. We have to make rhetorical commitments that are consistent. How we think, preach, pray, and talk about the Church is of great importance. If the church is spoken of as an ornamentation, add-on, or obstacle to what it means to be a Christian, then we shouldn’t be surprised that the young throw it off as a useless bauble in a streamlined age. However, if the Church be essential and the very barque of salvation as being one with Christ, she shouldn’t be the scapegoat for spiritual grievances. We must choose wisely, for both Babel and Jerusalem are watching.

Barton Gingerich

Barton Gingerich is a Master of Divinity student at Reformed Episcopal Seminary and a fellow at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He holds a B. A. in History from Patrick Henry College. He is the managing editor for Patheos Evangelical and a deacon at St. Jude's Anglican Church in Richmond, … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24