Thursday, August 13, 2009

Evangelism, Politics and the Mission of the Church

In the last post, I expressed my discomfort with N. T. Wright's book, which (somewhat intemperately) attacks the traditional Christian preoccupation with heaven and recommends a focus on social justice based on the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. This theology fits hand in glove with contemporary Evangelical tendencies to put more emphasis on social justice work than Evangelicals have previously done.

Sometimes trends with labels like "missional" or "emergent" seem to stand for practical outcomes and theology that is not very different from the old-fashioned social gospel movement. This is especially true for Brian McLaren and Jim Wallis, though not for Lesslie Newbigin or John Stott. (Stott's Christian Mission in the Modern World is still well-worth reading and is superior to much of the more recent writing on the same subject. And Lesslie Newbigin's work needs to be read in toto and not simply reduced to a few slogans.)

I want to stress that I do not regard this as an "either/or." I'm not saying that there is no place for Christian concern for poverty, the environment or abortion. I'm talking about balance and clearly liberal Protestantism has completely lost its balance and has lost classcial orthodoxy in the bargain. How can we avoid having the same thing happen to us as Evangelicals? What makes us think it is impossible? How do we make sure the biblical gospel, which pertains to eternity, is not submerged below the cries for social justice in the here and now?

I think we should make three key distinctions.

I. Evangelism versus Social Improvement - We should be capable of distinguishing between the work of preaching the gospel to individuals and calling them to personal, saving faith in Jesus Christ, on the one hand, and the work of improving society whether through social service, social action or politics, as a witness to our faith.

This distinction should be kept in mind when deciding what action a Church qua Church should take with regard to social improvement. Social service is the direct meeting of the needs of individuals (food banks, relief work etc.) and is the primary work of the Church. Social action is the attempt to address the problems that create injustice through lobbying and public statements. This is not really the work of the Church qua Church and more appropriate for social justice organizations created and supported by Christians. Politics is direct involvement in democratic partisan activity with the goal of changing the law so as to facilitate either social service, social action or both. The Church and clergy should stay out of politics and Christians should participate as individuals in existing parties or through Christian parties.

The rule should be that the primary goal of the Church and the clergy is to preach the gospel and convert people. Some social service activity is certainly consistent with this mission, as long as it does not become central, but social action is questionable and politics is beyond the pale. (In extreme situations, social action may be necessary and appropriate. But it cannot become the focus of the institutional Church if the focus on evangelism is to be maintained.) The Church must keep evangelism and missionary work central. If people are genuinely converted, however, they will become involved in social improvement, but this will primarily be the work of the laity.

II. Moral Issue versus Political Issues - When the Church, as Church speaks out on politically charged issues it must not do so in a partisan manner. The best way to ensure that this does not happen is to limit the voice of the institutional Church itself to the morality of the issue and to leave aside the partisan political aspects. The Church must speak to actions which are good or evil and not to debatable methods of achieving desirable social outcomes. For example, abortion is an intrinsic evil and the Church must condemn it. On the other hand, the best way to address global warming is debatable and complex. The principle of stewardly responsibility for the environment can be proclaimed by the Church, but the best legislation dealing with carbon emmissions is beyond pastoral competence.

This will be difficult because even if the Church's pastors get it exactly right, those whose interests are harmed by the the moral stand of the Church will inevitably accuse the Church of partisan interference. But confronted with the demands of morality, it is the responsibility of those on the wrong side of the issue to change their stand and not the responsibility of the Church to pretend that it can change basic morality.

III. The Presence of the Kingdom Now versus the Presence of the Kingdom in the Future - When we pray the Lord's Prayer, we pray for the kingdom to come and this is an admission that there is a crucial sense in which the kingdom is not here already. Christians generally agree on the blessed hope of Christ's glorious return and the full manifestation of the Kingdom in the New Heavens and New Earth.

Yet, since the kingdom was present in the King and since we are the body of Christ, the kingdom already came in the past in one sense and is now present on earth in another sense. This raises a huge question: How is the Church related to the Kingdom? The short answer is, I think, as a witness to the kingdom. But what is the nature of that witness? Here we find Christians divided in their answers.

1. Christ's Presence in the Sacraments: This is the view of the Roman Catholic Church. The kingdom is present in the sacraments, especially the sacrifice of the mass where the real presence of Christ may be found. The Lutheran view, insofar as it tries to be Catholic but is inhibited by Luther's nominalism, may be regarded as a defective version of the Roman Catholic View.

2. Christ's Presence in the Word of God: This is the Reformed view. The kingdom comes in the reading, preaching and hearing of the Word of God, which bears testimony to Jesus Christ and makes him present. The authoritative voice of Christ is present in the proclamation of the Gospel. The exposition of the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures is constitutive both of the kingdom of God and of the true Church as well.

3. Christ's Presence in the Relationships Between Christians Within the Church: This is the Anabaptist view. It views the kingdom as visible in the sanctified lives of believers living in relationship to one another. If not disciplined by the Reformed view, it can easily slip into the Liberal Protestant view.

4. Christ's Presence in the Renewed Society Resulting From Social Improvement: This is the Liberal Protestant view. It views the kingdom as being present wherever one seek social justice, relief of poverty, peace etc. This may occur either in the Church itself or in the general society surrounding the Church. This is why the Church is called by those holding this view to discern where God is working and go there. The kingdom, in this view, is often reduced simply to secular ideals of peace and justice.

It seems to me that the fourth view is deficient and to be rejected. The third is dangerous insofar as it tends toward either perfectionism, on the one hand, or toward the fourth view, on the other. The debate is between the first two, especially between the Roman Catholic and Reformed views. Here the challenge is for the two sides to see that they have more in common with each other than with the other views because both see Christ present in a real and saving way in the Church.


1. Evangelicals should take care to make preaching the gospel of personal faith in Christ central in their churches and to keep our focus on heaven and hell and the eternal destiny of every human being.

2. Evangelicals should understand social improvement as the work of the laity, a natural witness to the gospel by those who have been converted. The Church should equip its members for the work of influencing society for good, but the primary goal of pastors is not social improvement.

3. Evangelicals should be wary of any theology that pits the Synoptics against John and Paul or Jesus against Paul or which makes the coming of Christ's kingdom a human accomplishment in history. The Christian hope must not be reduced to secular, modern, liberal notions of progress or human perfectibility. It is much greater than that and the mission of the Church is to preach Jesus Christ and His Eternal Kingdom.


dave said...

“How can there be a special Christian party alongside other political parties? - a party to which some Christians belong, whilst others do not … To institute special Christian parties implies that the Christian community as such has no claim on the support of all its members for its own political line. It implies that it cannot help but allow non-Christians in the State to consolidate themselves in a non-Christian bloc in order to enforce their own anti-Christian line. The Church’s supreme interest must be rather that Christians shall not mass together in a special party, since their task is to defend and proclaim, in decisions based on it, the Christian gospel that concerns all men [sic]…

“In the political sphere the Christian community can draw attention to its gosepl only indirectly … [It] can only witness to Christian truths. The claim to be witnesses to Christian truths does not necessarily make them such, however! Surely it will be inevitable that the Christian qualities for which it can have no use in the political sphere will become an embarrassment to a Christian party? And will not the aims and methods which it needs to be effective as a political party (the winning of majorities and political strongholds, propaganda and the benevolent toleration and even encouragement of non-Christian or problematically Christian sympathisers and even leaders; compromises and coalitions with ‘non-Christian’ parties and so on) compel it to deny the specifically Christian content of its policy or at any rate obscure rather than illuminate it? Will such a party not inevitably compromise the Christian Church and its message all the time? …. How can Christians mass together in a political party at all in these circumstances? In the political sphere Christians can only bring in their Christianity anonymously… When it is represented by a Christian party the Christian community cannot be the political salt which it is its duty to be in the civil community.”
-Barth, The Christian Community and the Civil Community

Andrew said...

In answer to Barth's rhetorical questions in the second paragraph: nein.

His first paragraph is a bunch of non sequiturs: it is possible all Christians could belong to a single party, it is also possible (given that Christians don't always agree on what is most prudent for the state/society to do) that there could be multiple Christian parties. There is no need for the Christians to force non-Christians to join other parties, but that will happen naturally as non-Christians attempt to be consistent with their non-Christian political premises. That is no fault of Christians. And the church's task to proclaim the gospel does not mean it cannot have goals for how the state/wider society should operate.

Craig Carter said...

I wasn't advocating a Christian political party. The Christian Democrats in Europe, though, have a long and distinguished history (and Kuyper's Anti-Revolutionary Party in the Netherlands). The special problem with such a movement is that the relationship with the Church must be distinct enough or the Church ends up running society and that is Constantinianism.

But Christian individuals in various historical situations will find different democratic ways to influence society and I was just leaving the door open to that option, not advocating it for North America in the 21st century.

The overall thrust of my post is to keep the Church and Christian political involvement distinct.

Andrew said...

As a scary weird Calvinist, I would say:

Firstly, the kingdom of God is most basically "the range of God's effective will" (Dallas Willard's definition), or more biblically, wherever "God's will is done on earth".


1. Jesus/God is obviously the kingdom in themselves, since they control themselves.
2. In a sense, given the doctrine of providence, everything in history is in "the kingdom of God". This is reflected in the Psalms and the OT Prophets. In this case, something being under God's will does not entail his moral approbation of it (God uses evil for good without approving it).
3. The apostles/prophets, as Christ's royal ambassadors (and by implication, their writings which are the scriptures), infallibly obey his will insofar as they are carrying out their office, so that their official acts (including the scriptures) are complete expressions of the kingdom of God. They must be completely obeyed as Christ is obeyed.
4. The apostles are the foundation of the church, which is therefore also an extension of Christ's will. As an institution set up by Christ, it is the kingdom in an objective sense (so, when the sacraments and word are properly preached). But insofar as it can defy its own nature/constitution, it can fail to be the kingdom in its subjective behaviour (when discipline fails).
5. Non-Christian society, insofar as it is influenced by the church, can take on kingdom-like features, so in a sense the kingdom can be thought of as any situation where people are obedient to God/Christ.
6. The state can become/express the kingdom insofar as it obeys Christ's/God's commands for its special task, rendering judgment for the society which consists of both Christians and non-Christians.
7. The kingdom of God is also heaven (currently), as mentioned in the Lord's prayer.
8. This entire age of the church is the kingdom of Christ because Christ is currently in control of it on a providential level.
9. The consummation/eternity future is the kingdom of God in the fullest sense, where everything is obedient to God both providentially and morally.

I think it's probably helpful to make all these distinctions clear. But maybe I'm wrong.

Andrew said...

Oh, I suppose I should have said something about the "powers" too. Insofar as Christ has subdued a particular power, then just that far the kingdom has also been extended in the spiritual realm.

Andrew said...

And ditto for the special significance of the clergy, which share the fallibility of the church, but have slightly more authority than the lay.

Craig Carter said...

I agree that all your points are relevant, but the language (eg. "become/express") is too imprecise.

If the kingdom was present in Jesus, what did he mean in teaching his disciples to pray "Your kingdom come"? This, it seems to me is the heart of the issue. What kind of coming of the kingdom are we praying for and when do we expect to come?

I think we should expect the kingdom to come in its fullness when, and only when, the King returns.

robert said...

You need to read some William Cavanaugh if you really want to bring Augustine to Thomas to bear on political questions (Torture and Eucharist is the place to start). Your categories here are deeply confused and are defined by Liberal presuppositions. You're speaking the language of Maritain, not of Augustine.

Craig Carter said...

That is an intriguing comment and one to which I'm wide open. I have Cavanaugh's book right here on the shelf but sadly I have not read it yet. I have read some of his work (Theopolitical Imagination, Being Consumed) and I use one of his articles in my teaching (A Fire ...).

Could you elaborate just a bit on what you mean by your comment about applying Aug-Thom to politics? I'd appreciate it.

Andrew said...

"I agree that all your points are relevant, but the language (eg. "become/express") is too imprecise."

Well, if it helps, just interpret through my primary definition: the kingdom is where/when God's will is done. Because God's will is complex, so is the kingdom, but that's what it is in its essence.


The apostles are the kingdom (think of the significance of the "12") because their teaching/ministry is simply Christ's will enacted. This is especially true with them, thus they are infallibly authoritative for us.

The church is the kingdom when it performs the sacraments, preaches the word, and disciples/disciplines. These were all commanded/willed by Christ, and thus insofar as we do them we are extensions of Christ's will.

The state is the kingdom when it obeys Christ's will for the state (wherever that is expressed, bible or nature).


I assume that when Jesus told us to pray for the kingdom to come he meant "more than it has already come". I mean, biblically speaking, Israel was the kingdom of God previously, and in Jesus' ministry the kingdom was "at hand", but there was still more of the kingdom to come (obviously, since much of the world was still not obeying God's will, and will not fully until eternity future).