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.