Can the gospel and social activism co-exist? Should Christians involve themselves in the world by participating in politics, pursue advanced degrees in education, medicine, science and law, produce films on a wide range of subjects, seek careers in journalism, and develop non-governmental programs for long-term social reform based on a well thought out biblical worldview? Or should Christians spend their life in so-called full-time Christian service and reject the world? If every Christian followed this narrow ministry track, who would fund both domestic and foreign missions? If Christians abandon politics and the courts, to name just two “secular” realms that impact us on a daily basis, it’s quite possible that the freedoms that we have to preach the gospel might some day be taken away. ((David R. Mains, The Rise of the Religion of Antichristianism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1985) and David Limbaugh, Persecution: How Liberals are Waging War Against Christianity (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2003).))
What would happen in today’s world if what’s left of the salt and light of Christianity were withdrawn?1 Not only can’t a biblical case be made for such a narrow shaping of the Christian worldview, it would be impossible, impractical, and frightening to attempt to defend and implement such a position.
Christian author and pastor John MacArthur argues for a narrowly focused gospel agenda: “We are interested in people becoming saved. That is our only agenda. . . . It is the only thing that we are in the world to do.”2 The only thing? What about the millions of Christians who work in hundreds of different professions who have no direct relationship to the single agenda of “people becoming saved”? How is this different from being involved in social issues? They both take time away from preaching the gospel. Has he told the members of his church to quit their jobs and head for the highways and byways to get people saved 24/7?
Right after MacArthur tells us that preaching the gospel “is our only agenda,” he adds this caveat: “If we are going to see our nation transformed, it has to be done from the inside out, that’s our agenda.” But how? Can we do it from afar, cloistered behind the walls of the sanctuary? Could the Samaritan who helped the man who “fell among robbers” (Luke 10:30–37) have demonstrated compassion by only preaching the gospel?3 At the conclusion of the story, Jesus told His audience to “go and do likewise” (10:37).
While some argue that personal acts of mercy are warranted and encouraged by Scripture, being involved in politics is a waste of time, money, and energy when lost souls are at stake. If governmental policies are hurting the poor by making them dependent on the State, how can Christians ignore the political process that reinforces multi-generational poverty in the name of “social justice”? ((Gary DeMar, “Is Social Justice Just?,” Liberty at Risk: Exposing the Politics of Plunder (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2003), 167–174.)) The Bible has a great deal to say about the oppression of the poor by individuals and governments (1 Kings 21:1–16; Eccl. 5:8; Isa. 3:14; 10:2; Ezek. 22:29; Amos 4:1; Zech. 7:10). Saying “it’s the government’s job” to deal with poverty, jobs, and housing is akin to saying “go in peace, be warmed and be filled” (James 2:16). The poor today are oppressed more by government policies than by individual oppression. A Good-Samaritan Faith requires Christians to get involved in politics in order to halt the oppression of the poor by policies that make people dependent upon the State.
America is a mess, and we can include the world as well, because Christians, who have undergone a redemptive change, are keeping their personal transformation under wraps. There is fear by some Christian leaders that if Christians get involved in politics, the gospel message will be diluted. That might happen, but it doesn’t have to. It doesn’t seem to register with these same critics that our non-involvement does not enhance the spread of the gospel. It is not inevitable that Christians, once successful in the political realm, will get “blinded by might.”4
Christians are still sinners and there are always pitfalls and dangers in any endeavor, even those distant from so-called worldly pursuits. The church is not a haven from corruption. Have you noticed how often Paul deals with problems within the church (1 Cor. 5:1–2; 6:1–11)? Paul knows the temptation that some have in lording “it over the faith” (2 Cor. 1:24). Corrupt leaders (1 Sam. 2:12–25) and “savage wolves” (Acts 20:29) are not exclusive to politics. The Church is no more immune to “power politics” than the State.
No one I know is claiming that government can save anyone or that politics is a substitute for the cross of Christ.5 The assumption of so many opposed to almost any kind of social activism by Christians is the belief that social activism must always be preceded by gospel proclamation. Must we wait until pro-abortionists become Christians before we can pass laws outlawing abortion?
Ultimately, Christians who are faithful to the demands of the gospel, without the need of coercion or special laws, will make society better for everyone. As Michael Novak observes, “When there are 250 million consciences on guard, it is surprising how few police are needed on the streets.”6 But right now we do not have 250 million consciences, and until we do, certain precautions need to be taken because of the sinful nature of man. Our founding fathers understood this. John Adams wrote.
The moral government of God, and his viceregent, Conscience, ought to be sufficient to restrain men to obedience, to justice, and benevolence at all times and in all places; we must therefore descend from the dignity of our nature when we think of civil government at all. But the nature of mankind is one thing, and the reason of mankind another; and the first has the same relation to the last as the whole to a part. The passions and appetites are parts of human nature as well as reason and the moral sense. In the institution of government it must be remembered that, although reason ought always to govern individuals, it certainly never did since the Fall, and never will till the Millennium; and human nature must be taken as it is, as it has been, and will be.7
At this point in time, Christians are out of necessity playing defense. We are like Peter of Haarlem, the lockkeeper’s son who stuck his finger in a dike when he saw that his town was threatened by flood waters. Peter could have gone about preaching the gospel, but at the moment, the town needed to be saved from an impending disaster. We are in a similar situation. We are about to be overwhelmed by a flood of governmental oppression.
- Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 329; D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1994); D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, What If the Bible Had Never Been Written? (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998). [↩]
- Quoted in Jon Zens and Cliff Bjork, “A Better Society Without the Gospel? The Unbiblical Expectations of Many Christian Leaders,” Searching Together 27:1, 2, 3 (Spring-Fall 1999), 12. [↩]
- Gene Mills, “Shepherds, Samaritans, and Standers By,” Perspectives (October 2003), 4. [↩]
- Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, Blinded By Might: Can the Religious Right Save America? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999). [↩]
- Edwin W. Lutzer, Why the Cross Can Do What Politics Can’t (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1999). [↩]
- Michael Novak, “The Causes of Virtue” (a speech given in Washington, D.C., January 31, 1994). Quoted in Charles Colson, Justice that Restores: Why Our Justice System Doesn’t Work and the Only Method of True Reform (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale Publishers, 2001), 105. [↩]
- John Adams. Cited by Michael Novak, On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (San Francisco, CA: Encounter Books, 2002), 49. [↩]