Salt That Has Lost Its Flavor

Johannes Pflaum

Do we even register what’s going on around us in society anymore? Or have we withdrawn into a sort of spiritual shell? On discerning our position.

In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord was teaching His disciples. In Matthew 5:13-16, Jesus speaks of the salt of the earth. It is well-known that salt both adds flavor and prevents decay. Practical following of Jesus has the same effect. We are to shine in this world like heavenly lights in the midst of a twisted and perverted generation (cf. Phil 2:15). Practical discipleship involves witnessing in our community. The Lord warns that flavorless salt should be thrown out and trampled underfoot; it’s incapable of having an impact. We can also relate this to discipleship and our responsibility to society. In this sense, I will never forget a statement from my ethics professor Heiko Krimmer:

“Much of the Church of Jesus’ current powerlessness can be linked to its silence on the issue of abortion.”

That knocks the breath out of me. We’re often so preoccupied with ourselves and our supposed spirituality that we no longer notice what’s happening around us. Particularly when it comes to abortion, many devout Catholics are way ahead of us. I don’t say this to gloss over our spiritual differences, but because we who want to be true to the Bible ought to be deeply ashamed. The same is true of many other ethical issues we could mention. There’s nothing wrong with emphasizing our spiritual life and doctrine; always making it our first priority to preach the Gospel and build the Church of Jesus. But it becomes dangerous when we stop perceiving and recognizing our social responsibility in following Jesus. In light of this, I’m quoting Walter Lüthi’s commentary on Romans 13:

“Even if this old world is a sinking ship, we children of God have no right to be the rats fleeing it. We must remain at our post as long as the ship is sailing, as long as it is still floating.”

From 2 Thessalonians 2:3, we know that the great apostasy from God and His statutes will come, ultimately leading to the appearance of the Antichrist. Matthew 24:12 speaks of the prevalence of lawlessness (the Greek anomia can also be translated as “dissolution of divine will”) and of love growing cold. We can’t prevent these developments before Jesus’ return. I’m convinced that we’re in the midst of them. But it would be fundamentally spiritually wrong to withdraw from responsibility, on the grounds that this is the way things were ordained to happen. To fall into pious lethargy or fatalism that leads to passivity would be disobedience.

We’re also held responsible today. We could even ask, self-critically, whether developments are proceeding so rapidly because the salt has become flavorless and lost its strength. Consider King Josiah in the Old Testament. He was told through the prophetess Huldah that after his lifetime, God’s judgment would fall relentlessly on Jerusalem and Judah (see 2 Kings 22; 2 Chron 34). At that time, Josiah had already carried out reforms, so this announcement could have prompted him to fold his hands in his lap. But that’s precisely what he didn’t do. Although he knew from the prophetic announcement that judgment would come after his death, he pursued spiritual renewal with wholehearted dedication.

Knowing that Jesus’ return is approaching doesn’t release us from social responsibility as His followers. Nor is the argument that we couldn’t accomplish anything anyway. To make a harsh comparison, what could Paul Schneider, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Wilhelm Busch achieve externally? Of course, they did have a large impact in their time. But let’s focus on their external circumstances. No one was able to prevent or stop the mass murders, or put an end to the terror regime. Even Paul Schneider’s sermons in Buchenwald—loudly calling out injustice through the bars of his detention cell—did nothing to change the brutality and murder in the concentration camp. He had already been murdered when World War II began to recede. Bonhoeffer was also executed. And Pastor Wilhelm Busch was unable to prevent the course of events with his courageous sermons and testimony. Yet these men saw their obligation to God and the Gospel, and they took their responsibility seriously. Even then, they helped many Christians distinguish between lies and truth in the face of ideological confusion.

We, however, sometimes try to justify our passivity and withdrawal from ethical issues by using the fact that the Lord is coming soon anyway and all things need to be fulfilled. It’s not necessary to share all of Bonhoeffer’s theological views, but it should give us food for thought that Bonhoeffer criticized the day’s pharisaical piety as “pious selfishness.” What did he mean by that?

Some believers were only concerned with spiritual questions and didn’t want to adopt social responsibility. To revisit Matthew 5: a whole portion of the Church of Jesus had lost its salty flavor. In the post-war period, many confessions of guilt were due.

Bonhoeffer also made an important distinction between the last and the next-to-last. It shows a clear separation from transformational theology. For him, the “last thing” was always the coming kingdom of God, which God alone will create. Nevertheless, he wanted to assume his responsibility for the “next-to-last thing,” especially with respect to society.

This perspective can also be applied to our priorities. The last and most important thing is always the preaching of the Gospel and the building of the Church of Jesus—the salvation of people. Nevertheless, today we want to help shape events as we trust in the Lord, taking responsibility to the extent that it’s possible. In 2 Thessalonians 2:7, we read that the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but the one who is still restraining it must first be removed. A number of biblical interpreters attribute this event as the Rapture of the Church or the removal of the Holy Spirit. It could also simply be the power of God doing the restraining. We can’t say with absolute certaintly exactly what this restraining force is. If we see the Church in this restrainer, it’s even possible to justify passivity and withdrawal from responsibility as the salt of the earth; in other words, in order for society to decay properly, the salt preserving it—that is, we—must first be removed.

Yes, it could truly be that decay is advancing so quickly because the salt has lost its strength. Consider the coronavirus, a topic that is very complex and difficult—even within the Church, due to its many connections and effects. Followers of Jesus can come to different insights and conclusions, but amid the struggle we must concern ourselves with maintaining spiritual unity. As far as the relevant policies are concerned, we as the Church of Jesus are called to have a very careful and well-reasoned response. We also want to be grateful when we are still able to exercise our basic right to religious freedom mostly unimpeded. Nevertheless, the Church of Jesus should always make full use of the opportunities it is given, and not feel compelled to shine as particularly “loyal to the state” through hasty obedience. The question then arises as to whether we truly have to accept every measure silently, as opposed to raising our voices on pertinent issues, or exhausting the legal avenues at our disposal.

Just think of the isolation of the dying and elderly: this is intolerable from a Christian ethics perspective. Or the many cases of depression, or instances of suicide caused by the stress of the current situation. For example, midwives are warning about increasing cases of postpartum depression because of contact restrictions. And what about domestic violence, or the consequences of social isolation for children in this context? From the standpoint of Christian ethics, these questions can’t simply be pushed aside.

How can freedom of belief, assembly, and worship, and biblical instruction to sing God’s praises, be reconciled? This question isn’t meant to prompt us to neglect safety guidelines. But, have we adjusted over time, so that it no longer concerns us and we fail to raise our voices? What will happen if Christian events, church attendance, or participating in the Lord’s Supper are dependent on vaccination status? Seen in this light, it’s already attention-grabbing how our “spiritual positioning system” is beginning to shift, even in churches that are faithful to the Bible. With reference to Romans 13, some people consider government guidelines and restrictions to be the highest precepts, and no longer concern themselves with what the Bible is telling us across the board regarding the nature of the Church of Jesus.

The coronavirus must be taken seriously. Every death and every serious illness is grave and should not be downplayed. But from the perspective of Christian ethics, we must also consider proportionality, especially since the state sets completely different standards for the protection of life in other areas—abortion and euthanasia, for example. We also experience constant, semiconscious panic and one-sided reporting, in addition to an increasing refusal to enter into discourse with proven experts, who evaluate some of the facts differently than the government and point out other ways of handling the situation. As early as May 2020, Professor Siegfried Scherer was calling for an open scientific debate. The informant culture and mutual observation that was sparked by all the ordinances, is also extremely worrisome.

We shouldn’t disobey regulations, behave obnoxiously, or spread wild speculations or theories on a whim. But the Church of Jesus certainly has a mandate to raise its voice where measures are causing consequential human damage from an ethical standpoint. Not only are there material economic consequences, but also it is leading to many lives being lost and human tragedy: not just in the West, but especially in poorer nations. The restrictions will also leave a deep impression on the professing Church of Jesus, the extent of which we can’t even estimate today. For some, the spiritual lockdown will come after the societal lockdown.

And while we’re on the subject of panic: every serious case of the coronavirus and every death is tragic. Nobody should assume that they are automatically protected. But are we being carried away by the spirit of fear, or can the people around us see that we have a living and eternal hope, and that we are in the hand of almighty God?

Midnight Call - 11/2021

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