It goes without saying that there are plenty of people who dislike the work I am involved in. Strong criticism comes from all the usual suspects: the various lobby groups, secular humanists, civil libertarians, radical feminists, etc. Such flak goes with the territory I guess.
But I want to address here criticism that comes from fellow believers. This can be as frequent – and biting – as any barbs from without. One correspondent in particular has been concerned with my work, and seems to think it is a somewhat wasted effort.
Thus using some of this person’s questions and comments as a launching pad, I want to ask (and answer) some general questions. Is it worth while to be fighting the culture wars? Or should believers be spending their time in other ways? Are we just missing the real point of being a believer as we seek to be salt and light? Is not evangelism our calling, and not to seek for social transformation?
This critic, who sends emails to me on occasion, challenges me, suggesting that the real job of the Christian is to preach the gospel, and not waste time seeking to make the world a better place. For example, this brother says, “You cannot separate Christian morality from Christ Himself, and any attempt to do so merely results in a distortion of what it means to be a Christian. Non-Christians are simply not able to live like true Christians, no matter how much we may want to enshrine moral behaviour in legislation.” Well, yes and no.
Of course a non-Christian cannot live a life that pleases God. That goes without saying. Indeed, no one can, without God’s transforming power. But that misses the point. I certainly am not suggesting that when I fight the drug dealers or abortionists or pornographers that they become righteous in God’s eyes or can therefore start pleasing God by simply ceasing some of these activities. That is not the issue.
Indeed, I have never suggested that having moral or godly legislation will make people believers. Good legislation is an end in itself. It was God who set up government, and we all have an obligation to work for good government and good laws.
But does my critic imply that we can never expect the unbeliever to keep any laws – whether God’s or man’s? Often the two are one and the same. Is my critic suggesting that it is a waste of time to have any legislation based on morality out there, since we just cannot expect non-believers to obey it?
He continues: “We need to transform society through transforming people, and only the gospel of Christ can do that. Those who are in the flesh cannot submit to God’s laws.” True enough, but again, it misses the point. When I seek to have my community rid of pimps and pushers, I am not primarily engaging in an act of evangelism. I am doing it because these are bad activities that should not be occurring.
That is, evil sometimes needs to be resisted for its own sake. It is foolish to suggest that because a person is not a Christian he or she must be excused for living any kind of life they want. Sorry, this is a non-sequitur.
Since my critic suggested that these people “cannot submit to God’s laws”, can I follow through on his logic? One of God’s laws is that we should not steal. What is my critic suggesting here? Will a judge in a courtroom let a thief off the hook by saying, “Oh, sorry, you are ‘in the flesh’ and therefore I cannot expect you to stop stealing”?
Another law that God has ordained is to not murder. But are we to let murderers go free because they cannot be expected to obey such a command? Just take all this to its logical conclusion. Do we really believe that non-Christians cannot obey God’s laws? But since so many of society’s laws correspond with God’s laws, what are we to do? Do we tell the jay-walker, adulterer or tax-evader that ‘well, sorry, you have a different standard than do believers, so feel free to break any law you like? We cannot expect you to comply with the law’?
Now if I said that people can become right with God by keeping laws, whether they profess faith or not, I would be wrong. Of course a person must submit to the Lordship of Christ before he is right with God. But that has nothing to do with urging people to be good citizens, to keep a nation’s laws, and to seek to restrain social evil.
My critic goes on, “Since our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, we have a prophetic ministry to proclaim and to warn people, but not to battle them.” Again, I do not see how this follows. If a drug dealer is standing outside my son’s school, trying to get my kid hooked on heroin, that is evil. I can and should oppose that evil. And that means taking on the drug dealer. There are, in other words, evil people out there who need to be opposed.
Now would I like to see that drug dealer become a Christian? Sure. But it is silly to suggest that if I want to reach this person for Jesus, I should just ignore the activities that he is involved in, or pretend that I have no right or role in telling that person to stop that evil behaviour. Evil can be resisted because it is evil. Whether every evil person becomes a believer or not when I resist the evil is not really my responsibility. By my critic’s logic would suggest that we get rid of every law, courtroom, policeman and judge, because we simply cannot hold any non-believer accountable.
Now it is possible that my critic is just responding from a particular worldview, eg., some sort of Anabaptist position (where believers are to have nothing to do with the world, nor are they to get involved in politics, etc.) or a form of Christian pacifism. He may believe that evil should never be opposed in any form. Well, that is a Christian option that has been held over the years, and if that is where he is coming from, I will not say he is entirely wrong.
I am aware of the debates throughout Christian history and the different Christian options that have been advocated, and I think there is some room to move here. While I have a position on the debate, I cannot say that one side is fully right and one is fully wrong. Christians can agree to disagree here.
But if he is coming from one of these traditions, I will remind him that it is just one of several options concerning how a believer should live in this world. Many other believers have felt that evil should be resisted. They felt that it is part of the Christian’s calling to be salt and light in the world, and to oppose that which is contrary to God’s plans and purposes.
Thus the German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer felt that he must resist Hitler. He felt it was his Christian duty to seek to stop the evil of Nazism. Thus he was put to death by the Nazis for seeking to assassinate Hitler. He did not even feel compelled to preach the gospel to him! My friend may not like this, but he cannot suggest that Bonhoeffer was somehow a bad Christian, or being less spiritual than he.
The examples are endless. Was Wilberforce being a second-class Christian, or less than biblical, when he opposed the evil of slavery? And by doing that of course he opposed evil slave traders. Yes he would have wanted to see these people come to Christ. But he still felt he had a Christian duty to oppose the evils of slavery, full stop. Whether every fellow Parliamentarian or slave trader became a believer or not was not the main concern of Wilberforce. Ending an obvious evil practice like slavery was a godly end in itself.
Indeed, Wilberforce went even further, with what he called the “reformation of manners”. The same thing, in other words, that I and many others are involved in. He did not see it as a contradiction of his Christian calling to seek to make England a more godly, virtuous and decent place. And he meant this even while being fully aware that most Englishmen were non-believers. He was under no illusion that until every last person in the UK was a believer, he could not seek to promote righteousness and godliness.
And a good thing too. We would still be fighting slavery today if it were not for people like Wilberforce. He felt it was his Christian obligation to fight the slave trade. He did not have a problem with this. He did not see it as being opposed to Christianity. He did not set up a false antithesis between preaching the gospel and social reform. He felt that they both must go together. And so do I.
It is creating a false dilemma to suggest that we either evangelise, or seek to make the world a better place. I see both as going together, and so do many other believers.
I sometimes wonder if my critic has any children of his own. It is in large measure the fact that I have three children that I do the work that I do. I really want to leave this world a better place for my children and my grandchildren. I do not want them living in a social cesspool. And yes, I know that not every one is going to become a Christian. But that does not take away my obligation and responsibility to be salt and light in this world. To seek to stand up for what is good and to resist what is evil. I am shirking my responsibility if I simply say to the pimp, drug dealer, terrorist or rapist, ‘well, you cannot help it, you are not a believer, so go ahead and do your thing; I do not care about your evil ways.’ That is a complete abnegation of my Christian responsibility.
And the Old Testament prophets had no problem with this either. It is interesting that they could preach the same message using the same language to non-Christian nations as they did to Israel. All people are under obligation to God, not just believers. And Paul makes the same point in Romans 1 and 2, where he says all people have the moral law within themselves, and they are without excuse.
So I reject my critic’s advice, that somehow they are without excuse. Sure, they cannot obtain salvation by keeping the works of the law, but that does not give them an excuse to reject the law, and live a lawless life. That is not the biblical position at all.
In sum, I see the lordship of Christ extending to every area of life. And I do not see a contradiction between telling people about their need of Jesus, and at the same time fighting evil in the world.