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 a career 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 lives 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 daily, it’s quite possible that the freedoms that we have to preach the gospel might someday be taken away.1
What would happen in today’s world if what’s left of the salt and light of Christianity were withdrawn?2 Not only can’t a biblical case be made for such a narrow shaping of the Christian worldview, but it would also be impossible, impractical, and frightening to attempt to defend and implement such a position.
Our Only Agenda?
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.”3 The only thing? What about the millions of Christians who work in hundreds of different professions that 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? Of course not.
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?4 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”?5 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.
Why Things Were the Way They Were
In his book Why Government Can’t Save You, MacArthur opens the first chapter with a description of how things used to be:
There was a time when nearly everyone could name off all the Ten Commandments, but today most don’t know what the Ten Commandments are. There was also a time when retail stores, dining and entertainment establishments, and all nonessential enterprises would be closed on Sunday out of respect for the Lord’s day. But now for most people in the West it’s fairly much business as usual on Sundays. Furthermore, there was a time (not so many years ago), when respectable citizens uniformly disapproved of homosexuality, adultery, and divorce; believed sexual promiscuity was absolutely wrong; disdained cursing or obscene language; saw abortion as unthinkable; and automatically held public officials to high moral and ethical standards. But today many citizens, when polled on such issues, view them either as acceptable practices, civil rights, or inconsequential matters.6
Why was there time when nearly everyone could name off all the Ten Commandments? Because Christians took their faith seriously and applied it beyond the church doors and the Sunday School hour. America was a beacon to the world and still is because of how Christians once applied their faith to every area of life. Those who came here understood that America was a Christian nation. In fact, the case could be made that America’s public display of faith is what attracted so many to our shores.
The late Francis Schaeffer asked a fundamental question of those who enjoyed the fruit of our nation’s Christian heritage: How should we then live?7 He not only asked the question, he attempted to answer it with a series of prophetic and provocative books and films. Schaeffer’s own eschatological views, like those of MacArthur’s, created a roadblock that did not allow him to work out the full implications of what he thought needed to be accomplished.8 Charles Colson updated the question with “how now shall we live?”9 by offering more specific solutions to today’s current problems. The gospel is certainly the first step in the process of social transformation, but it’s not the only step. It never has been: “Therefore, putting aside all malice and all guile and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Pet. 2:1-2; also, Heb. 5:12-14). Growth after birth is the goal.
If Christians don’t engage the culture at every level — politics included — then they will be excluded from every area of life similar to the way “social credit” is being used in China to exclude non-desirables as defined by the State. Get busy now or forever hold your peace when the iron boot of the State and social forces stomp on your face forever.
Fix Only What’s Broken
MacArthur is concerned that some “believers have often displayed mean-spirited attitudes and utilized the same kinds of worldly tactics as their unbelieving opponents.”10 If this is the problem with Christian activism, then deal with it without condemning the whole process. Peter and Paul, and sometimes even Jesus, were not always “nice.” Taking a firm stand on moral issues may seem “antagonistic toward the very lost people God has called … to love and reach with the gospel,” MacArthur argues, but often times it’s necessary. Christians have been nice, and the world has used this niceness to walk all over Christians. Niceness in the face of evil is often misinterpreted as weakness and irrelevance by non-Christians:
On an individual level, Christians have bought the lie that it’s better to be nice and to “get along” than it is to be right and stand up for the truth. We’ve accepted the notion that it’s wrong to be different, both inside and outside the church. And we’ve allowed ourselves to be manipulated by guilt to the point that we’re afraid to say no to anyone in the church, no matter what our responsibilities or priorities we already have.11
Take a lesson from Candace Owens. She refused to be a doormat. She spoke up and fought back. The early church did as well. Peter and John said, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20) Later, Peter said, “We must obey God rather than men” (5:9).
I’m not opposed to criticizing the tactics, methods, and behavior used by some who present the claims of Christ to a lost world. My adage has always been, “Do not give the opposition any reason to reject your position other than the position itself” (cf. 2 Cor. 6:3). But sometimes it’s the position itself that’s offensive no matter how well or compassionately it’s presented. Jesus Christ is an offense because He is a constant reminder of the sin that resides in all of us (1 Pet. 2:8; 1 Cor. 1:23). Jesus came to redeem us from our sin. This is offensive to people who don’t believe that they’re that bad. They resent anyone who insists that they might need a “savior.” If we think that a smiling face and an accommodating demeanor will lead people to accept the gospel and the moral worldview that goes along with it, then we are deluded. Stephen Brown makes the same point:
I believe that Jerry Falwell and many like him are hated, not only for the things for which they stand, but because they aren’t supposed to stand at all. They are Christians, and Christians are supposed to be seen and not heard; Christians are supposed to stay in church, smile, and talk about God; Christians are supposed to bless the mess of paganism and act like a kept woman.12
Some argue that the gospel must precede social transformation because being moral without Christ turns the gospel into a form of works righteousness. This can certainly happen. Many Americans have adopted a civil religion where morality is perceived to be enough, whether it’s advocated by a Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or even an atheist. Passing laws to protect the unborn and to maintain the sanctity of marriage shouldn’t have to wait until everyone’s a Christians. Should we ignore good laws even if they are put into place by moral non-Christians?
For a number of years, Rome protected the church against radical Jews who wanted the Christian leadership rounded up and thrown in jail or worse. Paul considered protection by the non-Christian Roman civil government to be a good thing. He appealed to Caesar (Acts 25:11; 28:19) without agonizing over whether he was succumbing to “the deadly dangers of moralism.”13 Paul accepted the civil morality of the Roman empire as beneficial (cf. 1 Pet. 2:13-17) for the spread of the gospel (Acts 23-28).
In a book edited by John MacArthur and produced by members of The Master’s College faculty, we learn that Christians should recover a Christian worldview. There are even chapters on church and state, economics, and art in the book.14 The chapter on developing a biblical view of Church and State makes the good point that “Believers need to be reminded that there can be no healthy or lasting change of social structures without a redemptive change in people, which is why Christ came two thousand years ago.”15 So, we’ve moved from preaching the gospel “is our only agenda” to teaching a broader agenda that includes changing social structures. But what are the particulars?
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.”16
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 (e.g., 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.17 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, who held the Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute, observed, “When there are 250 million consciences on guard, it is surprising how few police are needed on the streets.”18 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.19
The Need for a Defensive Offense
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 that 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.
The Christian faith and Christians are under attack. The day may come, because of our self-imposed silence, that we will be forced to be silent as a matter of law. Then what will we do?
1. 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).(↩)
2. 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).(↩)
3. 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.(↩)
4. Gene Mills, “Shepherds, Samaritans, and Standers By,” Perspectives (October 2003), 4.(↩)
5. Gary DeMar, “Is Social Justice Just?,” Liberty at Risk: Exposing the Politics of Plunder (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2003), 167-174.(↩)
6. John MacArthur, Why Government Can’t Save You: Alternative to Political Activism (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 2000), 3-4.(↩)
7. Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, 5 vols. (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), 5:79-277.(↩)
8. For an assessment of Schaeffer’s dilemma, see Gary DeMar, “Fear of Flying: Clipping Theonomy’s Wings,” Theonomy: An Informed Response, ed. Gary North (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), 57-64.(↩)
9. Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcy, How Now Shall We Live? (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1999).(↩)
10. MacArthur, Why Government Can’t Save You, 5.(↩)
11. R. C. Sproul, “Foreword,” in Stephen Brown, No More Mr. Nice Guy!: Saying Goodbye to “Doormat” Christianity (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1986).(↩)
12. Brown, No More Mr. Nice Guy!, 25.(↩)
13. John F. MacArthur, Jr., “The Deadly Dangers of Moralism,” delivered at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California (2002: tape GC-80-257).(↩)
14. John MacArthur, gen. ed., Think Biblically!: Recovering a Christian Worldview(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003).(↩)
15. John P. Stead, “Developing a Biblical View of Church and State,” Think Biblically!, 293-294.(↩)
16. Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, Blinded By Might: Can the Religious Right Save America? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999).(↩)
17. Edwin W. Lutzer, Why the Cross Can Do What Politics Can’t (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1999).(↩)
18. 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.(↩)
19. 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.(↩)