CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Why Bother?

Jul 11, 2006

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.

[1875 words]

8 Responses to Why Bother?

  • Looks to me like a holeproof argument.

    To my mind if we all want to live in a more decent society, whether we are Christians or non-Christians, we would maintain a system of law based on the Judeo-Christian tradition.

    Those within the Church who don’t believe in moralistic reform of our society read a lot into Matthew 5:17. They would say that all Law has been “fulfilled” in Christ, and that we no longer need to worry about morality. Furthermore, if they lived in Old Testament times they probably would have been very miserable people.

    However, consider the following: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. What a great law! If you are caught removing someone’s tooth illegally (which probably means to beat them up and their tooth falls out) – then you have the assurance that you will be punished, but there will be a limit to that punishment. Nothing more will happen to you than having your tooth removed.

    Let’s reread Psalm 119. Rejoice at God’s Law. Love it. Because your God was right to give it when he did.

    James Forsyth, China

  • An interesting argument James.

    However a system of law based on Judeo-Christianity doesn’t seem to work in the bible belt states in the US, an area with the highest divorce, murder, STI, teen pregnancy, infant mortality, and obesity rates in the nation.

    Moral repression would undoubtedly not have the desired effect, much like an eye for an eye making the whole world blind.

    David Sturdy, Launceston

  • Bill Muehlenberg’s comments are well on track. What would happen if every one set back and let people do what they want? Anarchy!

    Further, Christians have a responsibilty to act for the food of their fellow man. To do nothing and allow evil to persist and grow, cannot be responsible, in general, much less a Christian act. Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Is our Christian responsibility to allow evil to triumph? As for me I say, ‘no’ to that question.

    Harry Green
    Washington State

  • David, for your argument to be valid it would need to be shown that the Bible Belt states were indeed modelled on a Judeo-Christian framework, and not just on selected subjects like abortion or gay marriage. Further, it would need to be demonstrated that there is a causal link between such a framework and the high crime rates. Are those high crime rates measured differently in those states or not? Crime rates can change for political reasons or because of changes in statistical groupings – this is similar to the reporting of unemployment in Australia. Perhaps a police officer in the Bible Belt would even have a higher likelihood to report a crime comprehensively than a potentially lasseiz fairre counterpart in the north?

    We wouldn’t want to go completely non-moralistic (both atheistic and “neutral”) by saying that there can be no influence from Judeo-Christianity. That may produce regimes such as found in North Korea, what’s left of USSR and elsewhere (ahem). Doubtlessly this is not what you’re advocating. Reductio ad absurdum I know.

    Granted, what you said in your second paragraph that the whole world going blind as a result of Judeo-Christian law being implemented was just hyperbole on your part. However, I trust that if, for example, the “eye for an eye” law was put in place in Australia neither you nor I would ever need to have their eye amputated. Why? Because you and I are law-abiding citizens who would never deliberately injure a person to the extent that their eye is damaged.

    James Forsyth, China

  • Hi James,

    Although my example of the southern states was tenuous (indeed the poverty suffered by these states could be a major factor) my main argument was that moral or social repression cannot lead to a harmonius sociey – your examples noted + Aghanistan, Saudi etc.

    As for your second argument – how can you combine ‘thou shalt not kill’ with ‘an eye for an eye’ without giving special exemption for one body or state??

    Thanks
    David Sturdy, Launceston

  • Thanks David

    You mentioned “Aghanistan, Saudi etc.” It seems you and I agree that those are not harmonious societies. We can move on.

    You have said that your argument regarding the Southern States was “tenuous”. However, rather than focussing on our poor arguments, I’d like to clarify a point. You have asked the following question:

    “how can you combine ‘thou shalt not kill’ with ‘an eye for an eye’ without giving special exemption for one body or state??”

    Are you asking this question as an atheist who believes that God gave Moses contradictory and unsustainable Laws?

    Are you asking this question as a Christian who is discouraged, and needs reassurance that the God of the Old Testament was a just and mighty Lawgiver, rather than a monkey god, who would allow for one body or state to unjustly claim special exemption from the rules that he, himself, set?

    If you are an atheist, there’s not much I can say to you to change your mind and certainly nothing you could say to change mine. I worship the true, trinitarian God of the Bible and that’s that. I’m not going to budge.

    If you are a Christian, please, perhaps show your hand as I have (though, I, myself, am a miserable example of a Christian). I pray that every time we post here or anywhere else we ask “Is God glorified by this comment? Will he receive pleasure from this comment? Does the Christian religion look good or bad because of this comment?”

    Anyway, thanks for the discussion.

    James Forsyth, China

  • Jesus made it clear that even though his disciples belong to the Kingdom of God, and are citizens of heaven, they still have a responsibility on earth. A good example of this is the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees when they asked him about taxation.

    He told them “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” In these words he was telling us that we have a twofold responsibility. First to our God, and then to Caesar – that is, the state or government.

    So if we live in a democracy we should do what is expected of us and get involved in public debate, vote in the elections, and if suitable, we should get involved in political parties and run for government etc. That is what good citizens do in a democracy.

    Some say we shouldn’t “impose” our Christian values on society.

    Firstly, in a democracy, we have the same rights to express ourselves and have our views represented in parliament as anyone else.

    Secondly, the values we want to “impose”, are actually the values prescribed by the one who designed this earth. If anyone is going to know how it works best, it’s God. Our God isn’t just one among many equally valid views of reality. Our God is the only reality. He does have the right to set the rules. He does have the knowledge to know what rules are best. He has specified clearly what his standards are. As part of spreading the gospel and caring for people, we need to tell them about his standards for their own good.

    If we know there are some live wires on the ground, we wouldn’t have any hesitation in telling people to stay clear, we would even be willing to shout at people and shove them out of the way, yet when people are confronted with less obvious dangers, we have a live and let live, it’s none of my business type of attitude.

    That is NOT love! We are our brother’s keeper, because Jesus told us to love our neighbours. E.g. the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan was willing to get involved and help those who were in need, and Jesus commended him for it. We need to have the same attitude.

    Andrew Amos, Sydney

  • John the Baptist is a good biblical example to demonstrate the truth of what Bill is saying here.

    John was imprisoned and executed by Herod for the ‘crime’ of confronting Herod over the adulterous nature of his marriage to Herodius.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

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