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Evangelism and Social Justice

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[What is the relationship between the Great Commandment (to love God and neighbor) and the Great Commission (to make and baptize disciples)? In this preview of Mike Horton's newest book, he lays out the challenge our churches are facing.]

A while back I asked the general secretary of the World Council of Churches if his organization still holds to its old slogan, “Doctrine divides; service unites.”  Chuckling, he said, “Good grief, no.” He went on to relate that the group has learned over the decades that service divides.  Some think capitalism is the way forward, while others insist on socialism.  The pie cuts a thousand ways.  “But then we’ve found that when we go back to talking about the Nicene Creed or some such thing, there is at least a sense of people coming back into the room and sitting down with each other to talk again.”

In a recent issue of Christianity Today, Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw relates the story of his article submission to the flagship evangelical magazine, then under the leadership of Carl Henry. Henry himself had challenged evangelicalism to engage with social concerns in his book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947).  However, he told the young  graduate student that he needed to tweak some of the arguments in his article.

Though grateful that Henry was considering the article, Mouw recalls, “I was also troubled by the change he was proposing.  This was a period in my life when I had often felt alienated from evangelicalism because of what I saw as its failure to properly address issues raised by the civil rights struggle and the war in Southeast Asia.  As a corrective, I wanted the church, as church, to acknowledge its obligation to speak to such matters.”

Henry wouldn’t budge.  Where Mouw insisted it was the church’s duty to address these issues directly, Henry wanted him to say it was the Christian’s duty.  The church has a responsibility to proclaim God’s Word, even with specific application, wherever it speaks.  It has the authority from God to announce a final judgment of oppression, wanton violence, and injustice and to call all people (including Christians) to repentance and faith in Christ in the light of this ultimate assize.  However, “The institutional church,” said Henry, “has no mandate, jurisdiction, or competence to endorse political legislation or military tactics or economic specifics in the name of Christ.”

Henry quoted Princeton University ethicist Paul Ramsey: “Identification of Christian social ethics with specific partisan proposals that clearly are not the only ones that may be characterized as Christian and as morally acceptable comes close to the original New Testament meaning of heresy.’”  At the same time, Henry argued that evangelicals are not only authorized but commanded to proclaim God’s clear “No!” to excessive violence, racial injustice, and other serious moral crises.  God’s Word shapes the moral conscience of its hearers, but where it does not offer specific policy prescriptions, the church has no authority to speak.

Drawing on his Reformed heritage, especially the legacy of Abraham Kuyper, Mouw points out that there is an important place for Christians thinking and working together to apply biblical teaching to such issues, he concludes, “Henry was right, and I was wrong.”

Today, “Deeds, not creeds,” is likely to be heard most frequently from the quarters of evangelical Protestantism as it has been now for a century in mainline Protestantism.  In part, this is an understandable reaction to an apparent lack of concern for bodies, and not only for human bodies but for the creation itself.  If salvation is all about the soul’s escape from the body and this earth will be destroyed (both ideas being explicitly rejected in Scripture), what’s the point of getting all worked up over social injustice?

As we become more aware of global warming and its attendant threats to our whole planet, it is theologically erroneous and spiritually irresponsible for churches to remain silent on God’s command for stewardship.  Anchored not only in the past work of God (creation) and his ever-vigilant providence, the church’s hope is oriented toward the restoration of the whole creation (Ro 8:20-25).  However, is the church competent to deliver pronouncements on specific policies?  And in doing so, is it possible that the church loses its legitimate authority by over-reaching, rather than encouraging its members to pursue their own research and form their own personal and public policy agendas on the specifics?

We easily underestimate the impact of the church’s theology—its preaching and practice—on the wider culture, thinking that if the church is really going to make a mark, it has to be as a political action committee.  A lot of times it is bad theology that underwrites evil practices or at least encourages passive toleration.  Slavery in Europe and the United States and apartheid in South Africa were defended in pulpits through grave distortions of God’s Word.  Yet it was by recovering sound biblical teaching that churches were able to repent.  In the case of apartheid, it was when the South African church—excommunicated from its sister Reformed churches in the world—finally confessed apartheid to be heresy that the practice lost its moral legitimacy.  Without a civil war, the nation was able to face itself and dismantle the oppressive system in courts, congresses, and commissions.  The church did what only the church can do: that is, declare its perverted exegesis to be heretical.  Yet Christians, together with non-Christians, fulfilled their vocations in the world by changing the laws and customs of their society.

I went through this reaction myself.  I felt challenged and liberated by Reformed theology, resonating with J. I. Packer’s description I heard at a conference: “Fundamentalism is world-denying and Reformed theology is world-affirming.”  In college, I began delving into liberation theologians and found much there that resonated with what I had learned from Reformed theology about the problem of soul-body dualism.  Material-spiritual reality forms a unity.  United in its creation, in its corruption, and in its redemption, the whole world is God’s domain.  Then I spent a summer at the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.  Staying up late nights with human rights advocates from all over the world, my naivete crumbled as I heard eye-witness accounts of the most flagrant violations, often by regimes supported by my nation’s government.  Why had I—and so many of my American brothers and sisters—not spoken up?  In fact, why were we committed to a “My America, right or wrong!” kind of philosophy?

But now evangelicalism risks merely changing its political affiliation, tying the gospel to a different political agenda.  Many evangelicals have come to see that the movement was largely  co-opted by the Republican Party, but this repentance seems somewhat superficial when the alternative is simply to switch parties and to broaden political agendas.

[This is an excerpt from a chapter of Mike Horton's newest book (still untitled), set to published by Baker as part of his Christless Christianity and Gospel Driven Life series. We'll post more information as it becomes available. Stay tuned to the WHI blog for more excerpts like this one.]
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  • Guest - Gerard Bonneau

    If Horton is going to insist on the legitimacy of global warming hysteria, despite key scientists in that camp falsifying data, I think I'll skip this book.

    Behind any global push towards socialism lurks nothing more then one more pagan attempt to rebuild Babel. Christians should be exposing this fallacy, not climbing on the band-wagon in the name of 'stewardship'. Good stewardship begins with defending private property as established by the commandment 'thou shalt not steal'. And all forms of socialism are theft by majority vote.

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  • Dr. Horton,

    You write, "As we become more aware of global warming and its attendant threats to our whole planet, it is theologically erroneous and spiritually irresponsible for churches to remain silent on God’s command for stewardship." Is it prudent to make a case for the theological and spiritual underpinnings of God's command to churches for good Stewardship by using as an example that which is both politically controversial and scientifically questionable?

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  • Guest - Jason Knott

    I know I'm coming to this very late, but I just discovered your website. I just want to add that part of the problem Christians have had with affirming that, as you say, ''Material-spiritual reality forms a unity'' is that we've been content to leave it at that, without specifying how this unity is structured. I personally find K. Barth's formulation of the covenant/creation relation to be very helpful. The covenant is the internal basis of creation, and creation is the external basis of the covenant. Our ''spiritual'' aspect and ''material'' apect likewise are related such that our souls are the internal basis of our bodies and bodies are external bases of souls. And this helps us understand how the Church and state can be related: the Church deals with the souls of our bodies and the state tends the bodies of souls. Very different, in my view, from both the old Augustinian/Constantinian formulation on the one hand and the modern secular one on the other.

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  • Guest - Chris

    Hello,
    I am a huge fan of everything MR - WHI - NRP, etc...

    Please do not lend any credibility to the global warming scam. It is untrue and therefore one of the biggest lies ever told. Please don't give it any legitimacy in your book. Please!

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  • Dr.Horton, just wanted to agree with Chris

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  • Guest - Barbara

    Dear Dr. Horton, I'm reading your excellent book (TGC) and read on p.212 the global warming (changed to climate change) quote you have above. Please help me understand how this squares with your later paragraph on the top of p.237, "Churches that bind the consciences of their members ON ISSUES NOT EXPLICITLY ADDRESSED IN SCRIPTURE are violating the catholicity of the church and the freedom of the Christian...(see whole paragraph)". To speak of global warming (even if it was scientifically sound) from the pulpit would be doing, it seems, just what you caution the church against.

    I'm a huge fan, too, and cannot thank you enough for the help you've been to me and mine through your books, MR, and WHI.

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