In his comment on Don’t Just Moan John Miller, a longtime supporter/forwarder of Grain raised an important point.
John, your support and encouragement are truly appreciated and the point you raise is critical. Rightly you insist that God is primarily concerned with the salvation of souls and that one day there will be a judgement and a ghastly separation. Until that day Christians are in a fallen world although not of it. The point at issue is how we are to live out that new life in the midst of that world.
Throughout Scripture we see that how we live together and regulate our lives comes under God’s oversight. We can’t think of any aspect of our lives with which God is not concerned. As Abraham Kuyper told us, “There is not a thumbs-breadth of all creation of which God does not say, ‘This is mine.’” We cannot proclaim the sovereignty of God in the salvation of souls unless we declare the sovereignty of God in the life of those souls.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:13-16 that Christians are the salt of the earth and light of the world so that unbelievers may be led to praise our Father. There is an emphasis on the difference between the church and the world, which then leads to an emphasis on the influences Christians ought to have on the non-Christian environment. The rotting meat and darkness are to be combated by the salt and light. He emphasises the important step from distinction to influence.
Most Christians accept the distinction; God’s new society, the church, is utterly different from the rotting meat and darkness of the old society. The salt must retain its saltiness, the light its brightness, that distinction is our survival in an unbelieving world.
But our priority is not just maintaining that difference. The function of salt and light is not only to be different from their environment, it is to have a powerful influence on that environment. To be useful salt has to be rubbed into the meat, the light has to shine out into the darkness. That is an influence on our environment which goes a far step beyond survival.
The salvation of souls has impact on our lives. As we begin to live out our new life in Christ we find ourselves with new values and loves. The much maligned Protestant work ethic changed northern Europe.
As individuals we are called to Christ and new life as part of His church. The church has three main interlinked purposes: Worship, Evangelism and Teaching, every other aspect of church life or activity, such as fellowship or acts of charity, either derives from or supports these three purposes. When we elevate any of these subsidiary purposes above the primary purposes we inevitably lose focus, and gradually cease to be a church.
The danger of allowing social action to usurp the primary purposes is clear. We can all point to organisations and denominations which have found themselves focussing on a form of ‘social gospel’ to such an extent that the ‘social’ overwhelms the ‘gospel.’ Pretty soon the social gospel usurps the place of the gospel of salvation and praise is lost, we find ourselves trying to spread the Word without using words, and our source book is no longer the Bible but the latest political trend.
Part of the problem is that we do not appreciate the difference between the church as institution and the church as organism. It is not a primary task of the church as an institution to engage in political or social action. The basic task of the institutional church is to equip and serve the organic church in its task of being the city set on a hill which cannot be hid.
The sole purpose of the institution is to enable the organism, the living stones of the church, to be Christians in the world. It is not the task of the institution to make political pronouncements or be involved in parliamentary advocacy, the institution’s task is to enable Christians to actualise their faith in Christ in the world. However, as the institution gathers power and control to itself the life of the organic church is curbed and channelled into officially approved channels. The stronger the denomination the weaker the church.
Speaking from within a denomination which has seen a displacement of focus it is possible to argue that evangelicals must bear part of the responsibility. When a denomination has strong structures those interested in working within a bureaucracy and with the aptitude to excel at institutional politics will find themselves in positions of influence.
Some find sitting in committee meetings with charity leaders and politicians more congenial than trying to bring the good news of Jesus to what we misname a priority area. Even office politics have their attraction. Someone with a little empire, even if it is only three people within a subsection of a larger organisation, often wishes to see it grow into a big empire.
Those with a passion for the primary purposes of the church find ourselves drawn to those and tend to leave the ecclesiastical politicians to get on with politicking whilst we do the ‘real’ work of the church. By failing to take our due part in the institutional structures and allowing them to be taken over by ecclesiastical careerists evangelicals have weakened the life and witness of the church.
Paul did not campaign against slavery. He did, however, hope that Philemon would accept the runaway slave Onesimus not as a criminal to be disciplined but as a brother in Christ. Others would have noted his light shining.