Many of you might have seen the Old el Paso taco ad on TV in which the long-standing war between hard or soft tacos is debated and discussed. It seems things will remain at a stalemate until one six-year-old girl asks what may be one of the more important questions in life: “Why don’t we have both?”
A very good question indeed. If you are not familiar with the ad, you can see it here:
This question can be asked about many things – not just tacos. Even important topics can benefit from questions like this. Consider one area in which this can and should arise. I get this happening to me all the time: Some Christian will take me to task when I urge us to get involved in the culture wars, and to be a Christian witness in the society around us.
They get rather upset with me and think I am somehow being unbiblical. They claim that this is not what we are meant to be doing as Christians. We are instead to tell people about Jesus and hope and pray that they get saved. They seem convinced that it has to be one or the other.
To which I always reply: “Why can’t we do both?” Why make us choose one or the other when Scripture in fact enjoins us to do both, concurrently? Why this unhelpful and unbiblical false dilemma? Why foolishly force us to do one or the other when we should be doing both?
Since I keep getting Christians challenging me on this, and showing some confusion in this realm, let me once again address it. I of course have written on this often before, but it seems I must do so again. As to my earlier attempts to deal with this in some detail, see here: billmuehlenberg.com/2011/12/06/christianity-society-and-false-dilemmas/
But when this rather unhelpful objection keeps coming up then I need to keep dealing with it. So this is my most recent attempt to bring some biblical clarity here. It follows from one person who sent in some concerns. I had done a post on the importance of getting involved in the issues of the day, and he said he felt uneasy with what I had said.
He said I was “campaigning for a better morality and fighting against immoral practices in our culture… ie surface change. .. which is essentially legalism.” He continued, “Whereas Jesus calls us to proclaim the gospel… which is a call to a heart change…”
Let me respond to this in two different ways. The first is what I said in reply to this person:
I am afraid you have misread me – and perhaps Scripture as well. Had you read all 4600 articles I have penned here – or even a small percentage of them – you would have seen at least two clear messages coming through constantly. One, the biblical Christian of course always seeks to see lives transformed from sin and death by the saving power of Jesus Christ. That really goes without saying, and I certainly do not need to state this truth every single time I write an article.
Two, biblical Christians are also always called to be salt and light, and to see the lordship of Christ extend to all areas of life. The latter is NOT legalism. It is simply seeking to be faithful to Scripture, knowing that righteousness exalts a nation, that we should seek the welfare of the city we find ourselves in, and so on.
Thankfully biblical Christians throughout history have believed both of these truths and sought to live them out. As one obvious example, the evangelical Wilberforce certainly shared the gospel with others, but he did NOT stop there. He also worked to make society a better place, in two main areas: the abolition of slavery and the “reformation of manners”.
So yes, he and countless other devout and biblical Christians were up to their ears in “campaigning for a better morality and fighting against immoral practices in our culture”. Thank God they did! Indeed, millions of blacks today are so very thankful that these folks ignored the critics who foolishly said, “Wilby old boy, why waste time on slavery and better working conditions for women and children, etc. That is legalism. Just preach the gospel!” Wilberforce and the others knew full well that this most certainly was not legalism but the very basic outworking of the biblical gospel. You deal with both the souls of people and their bodies. As James taught us, what good is it if you tell someone to be warm and filled, yet do nothing to make that happen. Can that sort of faith save you?
So I am afraid I do not buy for a moment this false dilemma: either we tell people about Jesus, or we seek to be salt and light in the surrounding culture. Sorry, I prefer to be biblical and therefore I will seek to do both. Thus I will continue to tell people they need Christ, and I will continue to stand against the sin of abortion, and resist the war on God’s institutions of marriage and family, and so on. Just as I should be doing – and just as all Christians should be doing.
But a second way to respond is to say that yes, some folks have indeed gotten things wrong here. Some Christians have so pushed social change while showing no concern for personal evangelism that things have indeed gotten out of balance.
Indeed, we have had times in church history where this was the case. The so-called social gospel is a case in point. Theological liberals at the turn of last century had basically managed to turn the gospel into social transformation alone. It was thought that working to fight poverty or improve the conditions of workers and the like was the gospel, full stop.
People like Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918) and Washington Gladden (1836–1918) were at the forefront of this movement. They argued that the Kingdom of God was realised not by individualistic gospel proclamation and personal salvation, but by involvement in these various acts of social reform.
There was little need to actually tell people they were sinners headed to a lost eternity, and that they needed to repent and turn to Christ. Instead the main efforts of Christians was to concentrate on improving social conditions. As we demonstrated this practical, loving side to the faith, the Kingdom would be realised on earth.
Perhaps the commentator above thought that this was the position that I was advocating. If I HAD been pushing this, then he would have been quite right to be concerned about me – even to rebuke me. But of course that is NOT what I have been saying all these years. While our faith must certainly be practical, the social gospel folks went too far, and what they promoted was indeed an unbiblical extreme.
And their position did not come to an end a century ago. Various other manifestations of this have kept occurring. For example, Latin American liberation theology is very similar to this. It basically replaced the Gospel of Mark (and the other three gospels) with the Gospel of Marx. See more on this here: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/05/05/liberation-theology-and-marxism/
And many contemporary leftist Christians who are into this also end up committing similar errors. The Social Justice Warriors as they are sometimes referred to often see the gospel as all about opposing America and capitalism, or advocating for asylum seeking and multiculturalism, and even pushing pro-homosexual and pro-abortion views.
Needless to say, I have problems with those types of Christians as well. What I have sought to argue for over the years is a much-needed biblical balance. Just as preaching the gospel without any social implications or involvement is an unhelpful and unbiblical extreme, so too is this.
The biblical position is that we must tell individuals about their need of a personal saviour, and we also should seek to be salt and light in a needy society. Both are what we are called to be promoting as followers of Christ. Thus we must be involved in gospel preaching and in gospel salt and light business.
So it is not a matter of choosing one over against the other, but being up to our ears in seeking to do both.