July 14 – The Church and Society

July 14 – The Church and Society

Matthew 5:13

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13)

All would agree that the church as the church must clearly proclaim the principles of justice and mercy. Furthermore, most would agree that it is imperative for the church either directly or through its representatives to organize medical care, social care, financial care, involvement in education, correcting poverty, and all other “works of mercy.” Thus the church influences society. But what of political action?

Primary Spiritual Role. The church must ever keep its primary responsibility toward the world as one of evangelism, bringing people out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. Furthermore, its primary responsibility toward its own is building new people. For this reason, social action must be secondary. If the church does not evangelize and disciple, no amount of political activity will improve society very much, and, more important, the basic business of populating heaven for eternity will go undone.

In seeking justice and mercy, the primary responsibility of the church is creating a climate, making new citizens and new leaders. To do this, the church must speak to its own. It must build Christians who are committed, courageous, filled by the Spirit, and informed, both of biblical truth and of the issues that harass the sinful, troubled community in which they live.

If the church does not follow Christ’s example, concentrating on saving men, spiritual nurture, teaching eternal principles, and directly alleviating the suffering of men, it will run the risk of missing its basic purpose for existence. Furthermore, it will undermine its authority for proclaiming the eternal message, especially if it gives social or political answers that prove wrong. A credibility gap develops, and the lack of confidence in the church shifts back to lack of confidence in the Bible and ultimately to God. As C. S. Lewis has said,

This raises the question of theology in politics. The nearest I can get to a settlement of the frontier problem between them is this: that theology teaches us what ends are desirable and what means are lawful, while politics teaches what means are effective. Thus theology tells us that every man ought to have a decent wage. Politics tells us by what means this is likely to be obtained. Theology tells us which of these means are consistent with justice and charity. On the political question, guidance comes not from revelation, but from natural prudence, knowledge of complicated facts, and ripe experience. If we have these qualifications we may, of course, state our opinions: but then we must make it quite clear that we are giving our personal judgment and have no command from the Lord. Not many priests have these qualifications. Most political sermons teach the congregation nothing except what newspapers are taken at the Rectory.[51]

Not only does the church lack biblical authority and thus special competence to speak to the pragmatics of implementation, it is not certain that the church will advocate the right cause when questions of justice and morality are camouflaged in the complexities of political realities.

The German church of the 1930s is sometimes cited as an example of the dire results of political inaction. “If only the German church had opposed Hitler instead of remaining quiet,” the argument runs, “how much better the world would have been.” It is a compelling argument, but it has two flaws. First, it assumes that if the German church had been politically active, it would have opposed the Nazi movement. That is an enormous assumption. Churches have often in good conscience supported evil political movements. The czars were supported by a church. Their Communist successors receive the same support from the successors to that church.23

In the light of these many serious and abiding ambiguities I conclude that the church should concentrate on its primary mission modeled by Jesus and the apostles and clearly taught in the New Testament. But, the church does have an obligation to its community as “salt” and “light.” How can you be salt and light and have political influence? How do you know your political persuasions are actually biblical?

[51] C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 94.

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