What is the Role of the Church in Society? (Part 1)

In April of 1963, a young black minister penned the following words from his jail cell in Birmingham Alabama. He said:

“There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide, and gladiatorial contests.”

Similarly, in 1982 a white evangelical scholar challenged the Church to reassess its role and the impact of its worldview on society in a speech called “A Christian Manifesto.” Dr. Francis Schaeffer stated that:

“Christians, in the last 80 years or so, have only been seeing things as bits and pieces which have gradually begun to trouble them and others, instead of understanding that they are the natural outcome of a change from a Christian World View to a Humanistic one; things such as over permissiveness, pornography, the problem of the public schools, the breakdown of the family, abortion, infanticide (the killing of newborn babies), increased emphasis upon the euthanasia of the old and many, many other things.”

Dr. Schaeffer’s concern was that the once-dominant Judeo-Christian worldview was slowly being eroded while being replaced with a Humanistic worldview where Mankind is the center of all things and not God. A Christian point of view was being erased from the public square and public policy, resulting in a society without absolutes. His warning was that this type of thinking or rational would lead to, with mathematical certainty, the breakdown of our society.  From the courts, to families, and education, there are no absolutes. Everything is arbitrary. If biblical truth is not the foundation of our society and God is not the Creator, then our existence is a product of “material or energy shaped by pure chance.” Life has no purpose or meaning except as defined by other humans. Our rights are no longer inalienable.

Eight years ago, on September 28, 2009, in Manhattan, New York, several Christian leaders gathered together to sign what has been named the Manhattan Declaration. These leaders gave a clarion call to the Church to take a stand. They began with the following statement:

“We, as Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians, have gathered, beginning in New York on September 28, 2009, to make the following declaration, which we sign as individuals, not on behalf of our organizations, but speaking to and from our communities. We act together in obedience to the one true God, the triune God of holiness and love, who has laid total claim on our lives and by that claim, calls us with believers in all ages and all nations to seek and defend the good of all who bear his image. We set forth this declaration in light of the truth that is grounded in Holy Scripture, in natural human reason (which is itself, in our view, the gift of a beneficent God), and in the very nature of the human person. We call upon all people of goodwill, believers and non-believers alike, to consider carefully and reflect critically on the issues we here address as we, with St. Paul, commend this appeal to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”

The declaration addresses three major concerns in their affirmations that they believe are under attack by the society in which we live at this moment in history.

“In this declaration we affirm: 1) the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every human being as a creature fashioned in the very image of God, possessing inherent rights of equal dignity and life; 2) marriage as a conjugal union of man and woman, ordained by God from the creation, and historically understood by believers and non-believers alike, to be the most basic institution in society and; 3) religious liberty, which is grounded in the character of God, the example of Christ, and the inherent freedom and dignity of human beings created in the divine image.”

To read these letters, speeches, and declarations, one must indeed concede that down through the ages, the Church has lost its influence on our society. The reason for this, I believe, is that the local church does not understand its role in society. To answer the question posed by the article, one needs to revisit the biblical text to reengage the mission, if you will, of the Church: The Body of Christ.

Old Testament

In the Old Testament, God chose Israel to make his presence known not only to the people of the nation of Israel but to her neighbors as well. The deliverance from Egypt was for Israel to experience their God but also for the Egyptians and Pharaoh to know who God is. From the creation of Mankind to the return of Israel from captivity in the Old Testament– God makes Himself known and continues to call people into a relationship with Him. Whether it be individuals (Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar or Darius) or political systems (Egypt, Babylon, Assyria or Persia) God engages culture through the prophets (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah) or ordinary men and women (Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, Esther, and Daniel) who answered the call of God. These men (and women) of old challenged the powers that were and changed a system from within or from without. God was (and is) involved in human history, politically and socially.

New Testament

God’s involvement in human history did not change with the advent of Jesus. This is apparent when we examine the Gospel of Luke (for a full exposition of Luke see Promise and Fulfillment). Luke opens his Gospel by situating his narrative within a historical framework. In verse five of chapter one, Luke mentions that Herod was King of Judea. He places the opening scene in Jerusalem at the temple where a pious Jewish priest, Zechariah, was performing his priestly duties.

In Chapter two, the mention of Caesar Augustus, the registration or census of the “whole world,” and the mention of Quirinus, governor of Syria, again places Luke’s account in a historical setting. In chapter three Luke continues to give historical markers by indicating that the preceding events occur during the “fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar-when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Tracontis and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene” (3:1).

In these few verses, Luke establishes a historical backdrop for his Gospel as well as the condition of the nation of Israel. Luke paints a picture of an Israel that is dominated by foreign governments and people. It is with this backdrop that God intervenes in human history. Luke has set the stage for the salvation of God to take place in real-time and space in which two kingdoms are on a collision course. This collision course is not by accident but is part of the plan of God. This is part of the salvation history and the eschatological hope, which extends back into the history of Israel. These “things” which have been fulfilled must happen (2:49; 4:43; 13:16; 17:25; 21:9; Acts 3:21) according to God’s plan.

God’s plan has always been to use his people Israel (and now the Church) to engage the rest of the world in the discovery of who He is. God sends His son, Jesus, into the world to reveal himself to a handful of men and women who would then take that message of salvation to the world. The Kingdom of God has thus invaded the kingdom of men. A new political reality is in the making. By calling on his followers to make disciples of all nations (Mat. 28:18-19), Jesus is establishing a new political and spiritual paradigm. This new paradigm or worldview will cause conflict before it brings peace.

As part of God’s program Jesus, and by extension the Church, is called to a ministry that knows no bounds as already sited in Mathew 28:18-19; but is also at odds, in the effect it has, with the political reality. In Luke 4: 18-20, which quotes the Isaiah 61:1-2a saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, 19 To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.  20 And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.”

The Kingdom of God is come and is the catalyst to set people free to both a political and spiritual reality. God has already initiated the paradigm shift. Man is not the center of his universe—God is. But inevitably, this shift of focus from man’s reality to God’s will for man brings about conflict. Which leads us back to the question of the role of the Church and Dr. King’s lament that [she] rise to be that “thermostat” to set the moral temperature of society; instead of merely being a “thermometer” that reflects or records popular opinion.

Part two will look at the Church’s role as the thermostat that Dr. King lamented about and that Dr. Schaeffer and the crafters of the Manhattan Declaration are calling us back to.

Part II

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