Many Christians and many Americans presume that playing nice is always better than open conflict. It is a deep concern of many within the churches and within our nation that our people are so bitterly divided over issues that seem to have no compromise. Polite disagreement is certainly better than open warfare, isn't it? Nobody likes argue in the open -- much better behind closed doors or only to argue against straw men among those who share your point of view. And so it goes. . .
However, the problem here is gradualism -- slowing the pace of change means that we still accept the change but all in its own time. Gradualism is the surrender of your position bit-by-bit, little by little, in small bites. The great danger to gradualism is that not only the surrender may be hidden but the people surrendering have every opportunity to justify and excuse their surrender until it becomes normal and even moral. If only the pace of change is slowed and its direction not diverted, it is practically the same as having no position at all except delay.
I have written before about the betrayal of the cause by politicians whose only purpose is to slow or delay the inevitable. But in the Church, this tactic is responsible for much damage to our doctrinal integrity, our liturgical identity, and our witness before the world. Yes, there are occasions when a vote is taken with the clear willingness and purpose to separate themselves from the doctrine, liturgy, creed, and confession once received. We have all seen this happen. But the more likely scenario is that the doctrinal stand, liturgical identity, and confessional witness is diluted by small changes, little departures from that which is received from those who went before. It is this gradual surrender of our theological truth and its historical basis in fact that has left people within the Church as well as those outside with the distinct impression that our faith is built upon myth, legend, and imagination -- a most dangerous and pernicious lie. It all started with the idea that it would not matter to the faith if some details were not true, not factual, and not reliable.
The hermeneutic of discontinuity that has marked much of liturgical change (especially in Rome) is an exception to gradualism in one sense but an example of how development pervades modern thinking about doctrine, liturgy, and morality. Gradualism presumes that development is inevitable. That inevitability, whether on fast track or slow and deliberate, is what makes gradualism so critical and at least as threatening as a quick and abrupt divergence from our past.
The world, dizzied by change, looks for something that is eternal, something that is certain, and something that will anchor their hopes and give meaning and purpose of their lives. The witness of the faithful is muddied before them when we grant that our truth is as relative as anything else in this world. We surrender hope before the world when we admit either in small point or overall that things change, that this change is inevitable, and that our faith has nothing to offer to counter this drumbeat of change in a world that seems to have a love/hate relationship with that change.
In moral terms, gradualism is a greater danger than abrupt departure from the past. We have seen it at work time and time again. Contraception is one area in which small steps lead to Christianity's willingness to grant that any woman or every woman has the right to take the life living within her womb under any or even particular circumstance. The admission of the wrong of marriage that hides abuse and threat led the churches to change their view toward divorce. Though no one might have seen no fault divorce come down the pike, there was no great or organized opposition to it when it came. The seeds for its acceptance had been sown so gradually and minds had changed little by little. Rightful concern for those marginalized by unpopular sins led not to the redress of the inequity of speaking of some sins but not others. Rather, it turned into the examination of the church's historic and consistent teaching about homosexuality with the eventual outcome of ignoring what Scripture says.
The Bible is not silent on the danger of gradualism, particularly in the moral sphere.
In the book of Proverbs, the sluggard gives in
gradually—by inches, not miles: “A little sleep, a little slumber”
is the sluggard’s mantra (Prov 24:33).
Jesus addressed how the cares and troubles of this life slowly steal away the hope and faith of the believer in the Parable of the
Sower: “As they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches
and pleasures of this life …” (Luke 8:14). According to the preacher in Hebrews, the spiritual death of the faithful does not happen simply by great trial or affliction but by the gradual disengagement from the means of grace (Hebrews 10:24-25). Both inconsistent and infrequent church attendance are small steps toward the larger goal of a faith surrendered to more urgent and practical concerns of present day life.
We have seen freedoms surrendered bit by bit in pursuit of a culture of safety and security -- magnified by the threat of the pandemic. Included in this is not only the setting aside of personal liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights but also the regulation and restriction of the activities of the Church bit-by-bit to government intervention, restriction, and outright ban to protect the populace. Certainly the early church did not face this kind of gradual encroachment but the clear and present danger of persecution and martyrdom. The threat against the Church was not to an institution but through her members and that threat was immediate, direct, violent, and aggressive. The early church did not foresee nor does the New Testament directly address the difference between gradual threat and immediate and direct threat. In this way, the New Testament would imply that they are the same -- that any threat upon the Church's life, faith, practice, and witness was the same threat. And this is something I am not sure church leaders are willing to grant today.
With this comes the threat caused by a willingness to appease the authorities with seemingly minor adjustments in faith, practice, and witness in order, it is said, to protect other liberties. For example, we will remove any religious content from our preschool in order to have that preschool recognized by the state and funded by the same. Or we will omit any religious requirements and adjust our stand on moral and social issues of the day to preserve the university from the loss of government funded or subsidized student loans or grants. Or we will accept restriction upon our witness in the public square in order to preserve private religious expression and practice behind closed doors of church or home.
Certainly we have ample evidence to show us the dangers we face. The more recent history of Nazism displays both the effectiveness of the gradualism of government control of religion as well as the danger of appeasement thought to protect the institution and religious faith from greater threats. Neither of those choices turned out well for the Church. Unless and until we face up to these threats, gradualism will erode what we believe, how we worship, what we are able to witness in the public square, and the practice and piety of what we believe at home. Appeasement is hardly an effective means to address these threats and will only hasten what gradualism steals from us -- except that we are doing this with our consent and not simply under threat or unknowingly. I realize this is heavy stuff but as we make our passage from one year into the next, these are worthy topics of our conversation as the people of God.