Tuesday, September 15, 2015
The Evangelical, Social, Reformed Gospel: A Response to American Evangelicalism’s Eleventh Commandment “Thou Shalt Work Toward Social Change”
A very good brother, indeed, a very good friend of mine and I have had a small disagreement as of late regarding the role of the Church in effecting social and cultural change. The question with which we are grappling is this: “does the Church have a biblical mandate to work towards social and cultural change?” He answers this question in the affirmative while I answer it in the negative. My position is that the Church has a biblical mandate to make disciples and whatever social or cultural change is produced by that activity, that is the limit of Church’s mission. In other words, the Church works actively to make disciples and the making of disciples passively, by nature, produces ever so small changes in society and in the culture. My good brother has taken a different position. He is certainly not alone in his views. Recently, my friend posted an article on his blog that seems to imply that the Great Commission involves more than preaching the gospel, baptizing converts, and making disciples. My friend seems to affirm that the Great Commission includes working toward social and cultural change, such as the elimination of abortion, the end of all types of slavery, and so forth. In short, my friend seems to believe that the Great Commission in fact includes the sort of activism that seeks changes in the civil codes of cultures where such codes are said to be inconsistent with divine law. This post is essentially a friendly albeit serious reaction to some of the arguments my friend offers his readers in his attempt to influence them to that end. It seems to me that the danger I see in my friend's post is that it is indeed a social gospel, albeit, very cleverly disguised and designed to provide an apologetic for political activism within the Church. I admit that this is my point of view. That is precisely what I see in such arguments and I see it in this one as well.
My friend points us to a sermon entitled, “If God is Sovereign, Why Work for Cultural Change?” First of all, the question is poorly framed assuming its aim is to refute those of us who think the Church has no business engaging in social activism. Why? Because we argue that the sovereignty of God has nothing to do with whether the Church has a mandate to work for cultural change in the first place. That mandate either has exegetical support or it does not. Moreover, if it is in fact a mandate, then that support must be clear and we have no choice but to take a dogmatic stand regarding it if indeed it is clear. Now, the kind of cultural change we are talking about relates to things like making abortion illegal, making gay marriage illegal, etc. In fact, we ought to make immorality of any kind illegal if we are going to be consistent here. How can we make sure a man is doing justice to his wife and family? The answer is by making it a criminal offense to commit adultery. But that idea is indeed absurd. It really isn’t if our aim is to be consistent across the board. This is not an issue directed toward the individual Christian working for micro changes in his own small world by preaching Christ. This sort of cultural change is focused on changing civil codes that are unjust or clearly contrary to divine law. My friend says there is more to our responsibility than just making disciples and preaching the gospel. If this is the path we are supposed to go down, then we surely have our work cut out for us. We must also end at-will divorce. How unjust is it for a man or a woman to just “fall out of love” with their spouse and run off with another abandoning the family? The scenarios will stack up rather quickly from my point of view.
My friend points us to Micah 6:8 to affirm that God wants us to do justice and mercy. The problem with My friend’s use of this text is that the Church is not the theocracy that Israel was. Do local Christian communities in general, neglect to show justice and mercy? I have never been in a local community that did not support local food banks, missionaries, crisis pregnancy centers, and all of them have had deacon’s funds for local needs. My church funds missionaries, seminaries, orphans, widows, food banks, etc. By giving to those causes, we are indeed showing mercy and doing justice. Moreover, in the Church, it is the individual as well as the community that shows mercy and does justice. My friend fails to understand that there is a difference between doing justice and showing mercy as a believer and actually manipulating a secular culture to show mercy and do justice. What My friend needs to do is tell us exactly what he means. So far, the argument seems somewhat nebulous. In other words, can a community or individual show mercy and do justice without becoming a political activist on issues like abortion, slavery, racism, and gay marriage? If a Church does not send out street preachers, does that mean they are not doing what God has mandated? If a Church is not actively calling their local politicians, out in force protesting and carrying signs regarding the many social ills, does that mean the Church is derelict in its duties? Who is My friend actually targeting? What group is My friend attempting to influence? The truth is we simply don’t know because My friend really doesn’t tell us.
My friend also implies that loving our neighbors as ourselves requires that we engage in social change. But again, what Christians are not loving their neighbors as themselves? If this is in fact true, then these people do not possess genuine faith and are not Christians. So, is My friend asserting that failure to work toward cultural and social change is not only a failure to show mercy and do justice, it is also failure to honor the second greatest commandment? If not, then what is My friend saying? What we need are more specifics and fewer generalities. This way we can avoid misunderstandings. Moreover, why isn’t preaching the gospel ipso facto actively seeking to change the culture? Why the dichotomy? This, in my view, is the link that breaks My friend’s chain. The most effective way to work toward changing the culture is to preach the gospel. There is no better method available to the Church toward that end. But for some reason, my friend clearly thinks the gospel alone is insufficient to produce social change. I disagree.
My friend even calls on James 2:17 to imply that unless the Church is involved in social activism, then they might not be saved, possessing only a dead faith. Here, my friend comes perilously close to the sort of self-righteousness that I had hoped he would avoid. The context of his article is working for social and cultural change. How else are we to take the meaning of what he is saying? The context is social change. Such rhetoric is highly irresponsible not to mention reckless. Essentially, my friend has pulled out his bar of what it means to have genuine faith, and he is measuring the rest of the Church by that bar. Unless we are engaging in the sort of activities that he believes we ought to be engaging in, well, then our faith is highly questionable. We likely have a dead faith or as he implies, we just are ignorant of what it means to be a Christian.
My friend then makes the following eye-opening statement: “I think I've concluded upon hearing the term "Christian activism" used in a negative connotation, in many cases, it's an excuse to not love one's neighbor as themselves and a condemnation of those seeking to apply the second greatest commandment.” Of course My friend hedges his statement with the prepositional clause, “in many cases.” This is My friend’s out. This way, when someone like me calls him to account for what he really means, he can pull out this clause like a parachute and avoid the charge that he is being highly inflammatory. What My friend is saying here is that to disagree with him on the issue of the Church’s responsibility to effect social change, is in fact, most likely, an excuse to not love one’s neighbor as themselves. My friend’s friends ought to call him out for this and insist that he retract this statement and avoid such uncharitable rhetoric. One does not have to carry signs, travel to Washington, hold up signs of dead babies, etc. etc. in order to love their neighbor. There isn’t a hint of such language in scripture and to prove that, I want you to notice the complete lack of exegetical support offered in My friend’s post. One does not have to work to change ungodly civil codes in order to possess the Holy Spirit and bear fruit. My friend offers anachronisms, reading into the ancient text, his modern principles and passions and then uses his forced interpretation of the text to indict those that have a different opinion. That is unfortunate and regrettable.
My friend then implies that the Great Commission is seeking peace and prosperity in the land. My friend must have simply made that one up. That is not the Great Commission and it isn’t even close. Jesus Himself said that He did not come to bring that kind of peace. He came to bring division. The world is a hostile place for Christ and His Church. The culture is set against God in its living, in its habits, in its thoughts, in its institutions, its laws, in every way possible. The only hope for cultural change is not through social or political activism; it is through the gospel. External change is not change. A new heart is required, and it is only God alone that can give it. We are not responsible for changing the culture. We are responsible for calling it to repentance. Only God can change the culture by changing hearts. You don’t change hearts by protesting with offensive and disturbing signs of dead babies. God alone changes hearts through the proclamation of the gospel. But that takes the work (and the bragging rights) out of our hands and places it completely in God’s control.
My friend goes on to get at the heart of his issue, abortion. “In other words, we should not seek to end legalized abortion for the sake of ending abortion; we should seek the glory of God, which manifests itself in seeking to end legalized, sanctioned evils.” Abortion is My friend’s pet issue. He adopted it some time ago and for him, it is the sin above all sins, or at least it seems to be. Now, do we seek to glorify God by seeking to outlaw abortion? Does Scripture provide any such mandate? Where is the text? What Scripture can we call on to inform the Church that she must seek to change unjust civil codes if she is to seek to glorify God? The lack of biblical support is glaring. But this does not stop my friend from taking the dogmatic position he has taken. The argument fails on every front. We do not seek to change unjust secular laws in order to glorify God. The NT says nothing of the sort. The Roman empire was filled with the same kind of unjust laws that we encounter in American culture, in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, etc. Yet, there is no work, no mandate, no instruction given by Christ or a single NT writer that shows the slightest bit of concern about changing the Roman system.
The Christian should ask “how am I to glorify God within a godless culture that is based upon godless laws?” How does the Church approach unjust laws? Well, the NT Church was born and existed in just such a culture. In fact, since her inception, the Church has lived in such cultures without end up to this point. We demonstrate justice in our daily practice, within our community, within our neighborhoods. We show mercy to one another by providing support where support truly is needed. We fund food banks, missionaries, seminaries, each other, orphans, and widows. John said when we provide funds to the work of the ministry that we are participating in that work ourselves. John calls us “fellow workers with the truth” when we do these things.
Let me be clear on these issues. I am opposed to abortion, to gay marriage, to the terrors of the modern slave trade, and any unjust system that opposes divine law. Abortion is murder, gay sex is perverse, unnatural, and an abomination. Modern slavery is a scourge on society. I believe the best way to experience change is to preach the gospel, make disciples, baptize converts, and to love the culture enough to call it to repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. That is the mandate of the Church. That is our God-given responsibility. That is how Christianity influences a culture. As for those who would lay upon the Church’s neck something God has not laid upon her, all I can say is be careful. Do not impose your standards on the rest of the body. As for the civil authorities, the best advice I can offer is as follows:
“First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.”