Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Church and Culture: What is the Church Supposed to Do?


In political and cultural discussions, I have often heard Christians say that the root problem (and solution) is the church. I agree. The church is the salt and light of the earth (Matthew 5:13-16). Society decays when its salt is removed or its light dimmed. Yet, people’s view of what the church is doing wrong (or should do right) varies. Sometimes it isn’t clear. Sometimes it seems that “the church” is simply an easy general target. This reformation of the church is important, so I thought I’d examine a few areas where the church should focus. 

- Prayer and Repentance. A verse that is often quoted with regard to social distress is 2 Chronicles 7:14, where God comes to Solomon after the dedication of the temple and says, “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” Obviously this had a specific context, but the principle is found throughout the Bible (e.g. Gen. 18:22-33, Jonah 3:6-10). Sometimes it is God’s will that the righteous suffer, but we cannot expect prosperity unless we repent of sin and turn in true devotion to the Lord. God is still sovereign over history, and He still holds His people to covenantal faithfulness. 

When we recognize that things are going badly, our first reaction should be to repent of our sins and turn in faith and obedience to Christ, knowing that it is God who sends curses and blessings. Then, as those who take refuge in Christ’s righteousness, we can turn to remove the speck out of our brother’s eye. If we believe that history is random and that God doesn’t judge sin in history, we will be prone to react in a self-righteous or apathetic manner. What we need is a stout doctrine of God’s sovereignty and a biblical pattern for earnest prayer. The Psalms would be a great place to start. In the end, we are lost unless we have heart-felt repentance and religious devotion to the triune God.

- Prophetic Proclamation. Something else that is mentioned in this context is the church’s duty to speak forth God’s word in a way that confronts the sin of man. An often-quoted statement that typifies this point is “Every abortion clinic should have a sign in front of it saying, ‘Open by the permission of the local church’” (attributed to Francis Schaeffer). The relative silence of the church on ethical issues is a problem. If “repentance and forgiveness of sins” is to be preached to all nations (Luke 24:47), then we will need to preach the law of God. We will have sermons like Paul’s sermon on “righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:25) and John the Baptist’s practical message on the fruits of repentance as applied to tax collectors, soldiers, kings, and everyone (Luke 3:7-22). The law of God leads to repentance, restrains evil in society, and disciples Christ’s followers. From the preaching of Enoch and Noah to the visions of Revelation, the law has been preached to the world for its good. 

Some churches have tried to relevantly proclaim God’s ethical demands to our society. The church has not been totally silent. Yet, we can heed a few things that have hindered them. First, we must be careful to avoid being subsumed by non-Christian ideologies or parties. We can work with non-Christian groups and individuals on issues, but we must remain fundamentally loyal to the Bible rather than other ideologies or institutions. Second, we must also proclaim God’s redemptive promises in Christ alongside His law. Love and law, inseparable. Third, we must realize that those who reject biblical morals can appeal to the mainline churches who proclaim “peace, peace” when there is no peace (Jer. 8:11), soothing their consciences. Civil society feels free to disregard biblical preaching because Christianity lacks clear boundaries and unity. We will need to take seriously the unity of the church in the truth before the church will be taken seriously. 

- Charity. Health and welfare become corrupted when they are centralized in the hands of impersonal civil government bureaucracy. Not only does welfare suffer, but civil government gains more power and moves closer to totalitarian control. To limit civil government, we need to disperse the power of government by fulfilling our duty as the church to care for those in need. Christians should start by taking responsibility for the care of their households and relatives (1 Tim. 5:8). The church, privately and as an institution, should work to share its goods with other Christians who are in need: “But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17). The church should also seek to “do good to everyone” (Gal. 6:10). Just as God gives rain and sun to the unjust, so we ought to have compassion on all men, not just our brothers (Matt. 5:42-48).

This charity requires Christians who faithfully fund the diaconate with their tithes (Num. 18:21ff, Acts 6:1-7) and who are personally generous with their resources (Deut. 14:28-29, Luke 14:12-14). This also means speaking of the poor in compassionate, even if honest and unromantic, terms. “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him” (Prov. 14:31). Many Christians do this work, often behind the scenes, but many of us (myself included) could benefit from greater emphasis on this point. 

- Community. R.J. Rushdoony insightfully describes the situation:
“The stress on individualism has meant man’s unwillingness to live in community with others unless he finds it to his advantage. The modern answer thus to personal problems is not to resolve them but to move on to another group...If a problem with another person develops, that person is either cut out of the group, or one or more people leave to find a new association. Clubs, churches, and various associations thus have a continual floating population because of the lack of community…As a result, we all become “difficult” people, fixed in our ways and unwilling to live with the faults or failings of other people, which means also our unwillingness to change our own….Nisbet has pointed out how the decline of community means also the rise of totalitarianism…Totalitarianism is seen by many as freedom, because the irritating ties of man to man are replaced by the impersonal functionings of a statist bureaucracy.  
Practically, what this means is that if we do not enjoy too close a contact with people, and if we break with them readily if they do not suit us, then, whatever our politics, we are helping create a totalitarian regime. Whenever and wherever men’s lives are closely enmeshed with the lives of others, and where there is a strong mutual forbearance among people, the basic government is exerted by society…Our sensitivity to the standards of our group or community make us more restrained in our behavior. Where there is a strong community influence, there is less anarchistic liberty but more essential freedom” (The Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. 2, p. 65-66). 
If this is true of community in general, so how much more in the church, which is bound together by God’s word and covenant? If the church was a self-disciplined and functioning community it would work as a cultural core, an anchor or backbone for the rest of society and its values (or a clear witness against its rebellion). At the very least, the church would not be a burden or liability for society. It would be more likely that the liberty of the church and Christians would be respected. Irresponsibility and anarchic individualism leads to the necessity of totalitarian coercion. Freedom and blessing is found in submission, forgiveness, service, and discipline. This kind of community is found in Christ. May the church proclaim it by its words and deeds.

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