CultureWatch

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

Salt and Light Business

Nov 27, 2007

Every once in a while I seem to need to restate the case for Christian social and political involvement. Mind you, I have made it numerous times in the past, but I keep getting critics – some friendly, some not so friendly – who let me know that they think what I am doing is at best, not so helpful, and at worst, a waste of time.

The critics can be both believers and non-believers. Here I want to address the former, those who think the Christian life is about only one thing: proclaiming the gospel, whatever exactly that means. They suggest that to take on the moral, cultural and political issues of the day is not what Christians should be involved in, and we need to cease and desist from such activities.

Consider a recent remark I received from a friendly, believing, critic. He said that the activities I am involved in were not what believers are supposed to be involved in. He said, “I am concerned that Christians are distracted in their allegiance to Jesus when they believe they must ‘stand up against’ the sin of not-yet Christians while the church still wreaks of the stench of its own sinfulness. Our only mandate is to love as Jesus loves. He never stood against the prostitutes or tax collectors etc, publicly or privately, only the self righteous Jewish leaders (and there He had the right as He was also a rabbi.).”

Now let me say that there are at least one and a half things said here that I agree with. The first concerns the church: it certainly is in a mess. No quarrels there. It does reek at times, and there are major problems in the church. We have much to be ashamed of.

But what is this critic suggesting? That only when the church gets its act together, then it might be allowed to speak to the rest of the world? If so, can I humbly argue that it never will. The church will never be perfect, because the church is made up of saved sinners. And saved sinners will never be perfect in this lifetime, as much as we try to become more and more Christlike.

So if anyone thinks we have to wait till the church fully gets its act together before believers can engage in any number of activities, then these will just never happen. The command to be salt and light was not given under the condition that the disciples first set up a perfect fellowship of believers. Sure, we are all to strive to be the best believers that we can, so that we can present to the world the best church that we can. But any idea that the church’s perfection must be in place first is simply mistaken.

The second idea is that we are only called to love as Jesus loves. Well, yes and no. Actually there are many commands directed to believers in the New Testament, and many from Christ himself. And what exactly does this critic mean by loving as Jesus loved? I am not sure. From the rest of this critic’s email, it means something about being compassionate and non judgmental. But that too is unclear.

Was Jesus non-judgmental when he cast out the money-changers? Was he being non-judgmental when he challenged the leaders of the day – both religious and non-religious? Will he be non-judgemental when he judges the nations, separating the sheep from the goats?

Was Paul non-judgmental when he challenged Peter to the face? When he said anyone who preaches another gospel should be accursed? Jesus said we should judge with righteous judgment. Paul said we should judge (test) all things. The examples are many.

And is it true that Jesus never challenged any lifestyle or behaviour of non-believers? It seems he did on many occasions. He could say to the woman caught in adultery, “go and sin no more”. He made it clear that the condition for forgiveness was repentance. That obviously involves a change of behaviour, of action, of habit.

My critic thinks that when believers stand against the immorality of the day they are being judgmental and un-Christlike. We must not do this, or we will be out of the will of God, my critic in fact implies. But is this really the case? Let me provide just a few examples to tease this out a bit.

Is a believer out of the will of God and un-Christlike when he seeks to oppose the slave trade as Wilberforce did? Was he being unbiblical and sinful to seek to free the slaves? Was he out of God’s will for seeking to show the love of Christ to these slaves in very real and practical ways? Was he guilty of mere moralising and judgmentalism?

Is a believer out of the will of God and un-Christlike when he seeks to oppose a brothel being opened next to the local kindergarten?

Is a believer out of the will of God and un-Christlike when he seeks to oppose more gambling venues in the neighbourhood which are destroying lives and ruining families?

Is a believer out of the will of God and un-Christlike when he seeks to oppose drug dealers peddling their wares in the local schoolyard?

Is a believer out of the will of God and un-Christlike when he seeks to oppose laws which would mandate that unbelievers teach in the Sunday school?

Were Christian missionaries wrong to set up hospitals, schools, literary programs, prison reform, help for women and children, and other charitable works as they preached the gospel with words as well? Are Christians “distracted in their allegiance to Jesus” when they do these things? I would have thought they were reflecting the love and holiness and righteousness of God in seeking to stand up for what is right and help people in their need.

Now is this all the Christian is called to do? Of course not. But it is a part of it. It is part of obeying Jesus when he said we should be salt and light. It is part of our calling as believers. Is it a question of either proclaiming the gospel or being involved in social action? I do not think so. It is not either/or but both/and. We are called to evangelise and we are called to be salt and light, simultaneously.

I fail to see how believers can drive a wedge between these two. I fail to see how one is seen as biblical and one is not. I fail to see how we can be salt and light if we are just supposed to stand back while all manner of evil is taking place. When I read church history, I see believers up to their ears in all sorts of social involvement.

But some believers just do not approve of such involvement. Indeed, Wilberforce was criticised almost as strongly by fellow believers as unbelievers. They felt that what he was doing had nothing to do with the gospel. Lord Melbourne for example told Wilberforce, “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life”.

Many critics sought to dissuade Wilberforce from the work of opposing the slave trade. “You are just moralising and being judgmental. Why don’t you just preach the gospel?” they would have complained. I dare say millions of blacks both then and now are very, very glad that Wilberforce ignored his critics and did what he felt his Lord was calling him to do.

Having said all that, has the church at times come across as too harsh and too unloving and too judgmental? Yes, at times it has. But some of these complaints are justified, some are not. If a believer pleads for the life of the innocent, whether the slave, or the unborn, some will always find that judgmental. That is the nature of the case. Indeed, if a believer proclaims the unique salvation that comes only in Christ, the non-believer will find that to be intolerant and judgmental.

In one sense, the Christian will never be free of charges of being judgmental or divisive. Jesus was accused of being divisive and narrow. His whole ministry was one of division and separation, wherein people either were attracted to him or repulsed by him. That must be the case with believers as well as we seek to proclaim truth, live lives of integrity, and act as salt and light in a corrupt and broken world.

We can always do better. We can always be more like our Master. We can always be more loving. But with all due respect to my critics, I think they are simply wrong when they say we must drop everything and just proclaim words about Jesus. Words and deeds go together, and often both will be rejected by those who prefer darkness to light, error to truth, self to God.

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10 Responses to Salt and Light Business

  • You have here, I suspect, erected a straw man to knock down. I think your correspondent would probably agree with much of what you have said and still be able to say that our mandate is to love as Jesus loved, unconditionally and impartially. When the church (or the christian)opposes social evil in the same spirit as the world it is not following Christ, but the world. When the church attacks people it is not following Christ, but the world. When the church sets itself up as the moral guardian of society it is inviting the charge of hypocrisy. “Stop judging … stop condemning … forgive … !”
    I want to find the loving, non-judgmental way to save the lives of the unborn, to confront the drug dealer, to limit outlets for gambling, to see Australia’s foreign aid directed to real needs, not Australia’s self-interest. Yes Bill, you can be out of the will of God doing all the things you mentioned, or find ways to do all these things in the spirit of Christ – loving even our enemies, because they have the same unsurpassable worth as I do.
    David Esdaile

  • Hi Bill, I agree with you.
    To me Christianity is a lifestyle not rhetoric.
    Jesus gave us all an example of how to live.
    He was not just a gentle soul who walked two inches above the ground.
    He opposed popular opinion by presenting that which was just without fear of the consequences, He took a stand when the word of God was being corrupted by the politically correct and He lead by example.
    The words of Jesus are important, yes, but the way He lived is everything that a Christian should aspire to.
    Jim Sturla

  • Well said, Bill!
    But then ,you might expect I would think that. . .
    What I often want to ask, when people criticise you (and us), us speaking up on these issues, is to ask what areas of Christian life and service THEY are making an impact in…
    It isn’t that we say we should ONLY act on these areas of morality and ethics in the public arena – of course we need to be involved in our churches, reaching the lost, helping the disadvantaged and any number of other worthy actions… but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak up on these moral issues as well!
    Jenny Stokes

  • Thanks David

    I am not fully clear on what your distinction between ‘the spirit of Christ’ and the ‘spirit of the world’ is all about here. It seems your implication is that those involved in social reform are guilty of the latter. If so, I fail to see how or why this is the case. Was Wilberforce guilty of following the spirit of the world when he opposed the slave trade? Were the OT prophets guilty of this when they opposed injustice in both Israel and the nations?

    You say you want a non-judgmental way of opposing the drug dealers. What exactly does that mean and how exactly does that translate into practical expression in the real world? Paul says we should resist that which is evil. You seem to think that is none of our business. Was Jesus being judgmental, unloving and following the spirit of the world when he cleansed the temple? Sorry, but I find myself fairly confused by your remarks here.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • David,

    I’m troubled by your post because you seem to see a dichotomy between confronting abortion, the drug leader, gambling issues and foreign aid directions – and doing this in a judgmental vs. non-judgmental way.

    This sounds too much like the non-judgmental approach to counselling that I have encountered in much of my 30 years as a youth and family counsellor. How can I confront them without “judging” abortion, drug dealing, gambling and foreign aid for the wrong reasons, as sin? Your loving, non-judgmentalism sounds more like Carl Rogers than Jesus.

    When all people face the judgment seat of God, they will be judged. Why should not the people of God judge all aspects of our society through the lens of Scripture? Godly judgments are our responsibility as Christians being salt and light in our world.

    You write of “when the church attacks people it is not following Christ, but the world. When the church sets itself up as the moral guardian of society it is inviting the charge of hypocrisy.” So, does the church living as “salt” and “light” in our society, mean that it has to act always in a non-judgmental way?

    With your kind of thinking, I believe that the books of Amos and Habbakuk should be torn from your Bible. “Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity” (Hab. 2:12).

    I’m also thinking of Isa 5:20, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (ESV). This was Isaiah’s proclamation against the wicked. Surely that is the role of a prophetic ministry like Bill’s in our degenerate culture where he challenges those who “call evil good and good evil.” This applies to a prophetic ministry against abortion, gambling, and all other kinds of injustice in our society?

    Spencer Gear, Hervey Bay, Qld

  • Dear Mr Esdale, when Jesus Christ returns it will either fill some with unspeakable joy or others with rage and terror. It is not the person we are called to condemn, but what they are doing to others and themselves. When Christ turned to Peter and said “Get behind me Satan” that was not the most gracious thing to say.
    But returning, Bill, to those who say we are like the religious Pharisees. The Pharisees of today, the hypocrites, are the evolutionary humanist politicians who load on people laws at an every increasing rate, but which they themselves ignore; they have constructed a merciless and oppressive moral ladder with so-called tolerance, equality, non-discrimination, inclusion as tyrannical absolutes.
    As for fighting with the worlds weapons, I hate to point out that we are creatures who inhabit two worlds: one material and one spiritual. The expression of being so heavenly that we are no earthly good comes to mind.
    David Skinner, UK

  • Hi Bill

    My only observation (to use a metaphor) is that sometimes Christians can be seen to be ‘casual observer’s’ such as the audience in a tennis match who pass comment on every shot, but have a very real sense of detachment to the game itself, we are called to also be ‘involved; in the match, and be more than casual, lazy observers, who pass judgement on every shot, but have very little or no idea of the difficulties of being in the ‘game’ I think we would have far more credibility as Christians if we were ‘more’ involved with life and community, we can sometimes be seen as isolated and insulated from the real issue’s of life, and speak of every situation with an unreal sense of idealism. When one is involved in and with people’s lives, we find ouselves speak ing from a place of compassion, not idle judgement. ( i hope i haven’t missed the point!)

    Regards Bob Garbett

  • Hi Bill,

    I heard the story of a preacher who was preaching in the open air of mans sinful nature and need of repentance when a fellow “Christian” rebuked him saying this “stuff” didn’t work any more, he was giving Christians “a bad name” and was being very judgmental – finally concluding “I don’t like what you’re doing”.

    To which the preacher replied “I don’t like what you’re NOT doing”.

    EXACTLY…(Jam 4:17) Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.

    Seldom are those who are critical doing any “preaching the gospel” anyway. They simply use it as an excuse to do nothing.
    So next time you’re criticised simply ask them what they are doing……most often there is a lot of coughing and spluttering and a quick withdrawal!

    Also, is it love to leave a man in his sin without warning him of the wrath to come?.. is that not exactly what Bill is advocating doing? Does not criticism and “judgment” at least have the chance of getting someone to think on their eternal state rather than leaving them in their sin? Does not scripture place the blood on our heads (Eze 33) if we don’t warn our fellow man(mankind of course)? Are we not instructed ro rebuke and reprove……with a gracious and loving spirit of course.

    So I say….certainly “make a stand” but always remember

    One
    I believe as Cowper did – “When nations are to perish in their sins, ’tis in the Church the leprosy begins.” It seems little are willing to stand for right doctrine, or to implement proper separation and so mistakenly yoke with unbelievers and the apostate in belief that if we “all join together” we can effect “good cultural change”. How can we expect God to bless such endeavours (which may be good in their own right) if we do it with people scripture is so clear we should separate from?

    My word even the Apostle of love – John – tells us not to even socialise with them never mind work together with them.

    2Jo 1:10 If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed:
    2Jo 1:11 For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.

    TWO
    Keep mindful that the purpose of any criticism, judgment, protesting etc it to witness of Christ and NOT simply a protest about something we are against. When I personally keep that in mind I help keeping myself from straying too far into worldly means and methods which is so easy to do.

    P.S. Here’s an interesting article “How England Was Revived in the 18th Century” By J.C Ryle. Worth a read.

    http://www.christianwatch.org.uk/how_england_was_revived_in_the_18th_century.html

    If you want to know what an apostate “Church” and people can do to a nation – look at my own – England.

    Keep at it Bill.

    Andy Clarke, UK

  • David, reading between the lines I think I get your point, but this is an approach which can sadly lapse into not judging things as we are called to judge. How do we love the world and yet bring about godly change? We simply judge the action and not the person, love the person and hate the sin – that’s how we affect change in our community. But to do nothing but make commentary on it, as Bobby pointed out, is not right – our faith is made perfect in our works, or put it another way, our works are an outward expression of our faith, so we take up action which is a result of our Godly convictions.

    Andy quoted Cowper… “When nations are to perish in their sins, ’tis in the Church the leprosy begins.” Isn’t this the answer? When we get on our knees and humble ourselves before God, He will heal our land. It’s got to start with us, with me – seeking the truth and living it in holiness and righteousness. (1 Pet 1:16) We need a return to the core of the gospel and a passion for real, personal transformation.

    If we want to change the world, we must see change in ourselves, in our families, and in our churches first. But still, we can’t wait until we’re perfect to stand up for what is right and good in our community and nation.

    Garth Penglase

  • Bill, This came from Lisa Nolland’s Lisa’s Lookout, on Anglican Mainstream. http://www.anglican-mainstream.net/index.php/category/lisas-lookout/ First she quotes C.S.Lewis:

    “The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of them which will not make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide. You might think love of humanity in general was safe, but it is not. If you leave out justice you will find yourself breaking agreements and faking evidence in trials ‘for the sake of humanity’, and become in the end a cruel and treacherous man’, Mere Christianity, Chapter II. Elsewhere, CS Lewis says, ‘Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

    Canadian Michael D. O’Brien develops Lewis’ thought in this way. “How long will it take for our people to understand that when humanist sentiments replace moral absolutes, it is not long before very idealistic people begin to invade human families in the name of the family, and destroy human lives in the name of humanity? This is the idealist’s greatest temptation, the temptation by which nations and cultures so often fall. The wielder of power is deluded into thinking he can remould reality into a less unkind condition. If he succeeds in convincing his people of the delusion and posits for them an enemy of the collective good, then unspeakeable evils can be released in society. Those who share a mass-delusion rarely recognise it as such, and can pursue the most heinous acts in a spirit of self-righteousness.”

    By playing on our consciences, by appealing to our understanding of love, freedom, tolerance, equal opportunities, inclusiveness, non-discrimination, the enemy first disarms us and then blatantly demonstrates hatred, intolerance, exclusion, discrimination and tyranny. This is the strategy used by the gay lobby.

    David Skinner, UK

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