It seems necessary to address why and even if Christians should be involved in redeeming society and culture. There are many who deride such activity as being a diversion from the real work of the church, which in their minds is nothing more than articulating the personal plan of salvation (or “gospel,” very narrowly understood).
However, I would counter by saying that such a distinction is more accurately rooted in pagan dualism than Scripture. Platonism divides reality into two spheres: the material and the nonmaterial—with the nonmaterial, or spiritual, being superior. This classical Greek view offers a completely unbiblical understanding of reality. Its practical acceptance by many in the church has only served to further the irrelevance of Christianity in the modern West.
The Bible offers no such separation of spiritual and physical and, in fact, regards mankind as being unique from every other in creation precisely because of our dual natures. God’s ultimate act of atonement for the sins of men was to become flesh—a real man living in the real world dying a real death and being physically resurrected. Secondly, God is very much interested in his physical creation, as it remains an object of his redemption, which will be completed when heaven and earth are joined together once again in the new creation.
To reduce the gospel to nothing more than the personal plan of salvation (a strictly spiritual good) is to minimize God’s ongoing relationship to the world and Christ’s authority over same. The “good news” established at the appearance of Christ is that our God reigns! Both the alienation of mankind from God and the groaning of creation find their remedy or redemption in the work of Christ. Men and women are set free from eternal bondage to sin and enlisted in the service of the King as the body of Christ to “do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10 NIV).
These good works naturally include acts of mercy, charity, and service to the poor but also those efforts that seek to remedy the effects of the fall upon the whole society. In other words, redeeming the institutions of culture and the conditions of society that affect people by bringing them into conformity to biblical principles thereby offering a sign and foretaste of God’s coming kingdom.
Our neglect in this area of redeeming culture only communicates that we—and worse, God—are not interested in the real world or the actual conditions that adversely affect human beings. This sentiment prompted Dorothy Sayers, a friend and peer of C. S. Lewis, to say, “Why would anyone remain interested in a religion that seems to have no interest in nine-tenths of his life?”
By not embracing the full scope of the gospel of the kingdom—that certainly includes individual salvation but is not limited to it—we end up communicating that the only real implication of the gospel occurs after you’re dead, when you get to “go to heaven!” Such reductionism only fortifies Platonic dualism within the church and this reinforces the world’s impression that Christianity is nothing more than a privatized religious belief and not a public truth that applies to all of life.
By recovering a redemptive approach to the whole world—in which we take on real social problems such as poverty—addressing both the individual’s spiritual needs along with the social and cultural forces adversely affecting him—the church can, once again, assume a viable role in society and the plausibility of Christian truth will rise. When I say, “a redemptive approach,” I am referring to a conscious effort aimed at bringing the whole culture under the guidance of a biblical worldview and working to remedy societal ills and human suffering through systemic changes to the root conditions that are producing these societal ills.
Historic examples of this would include the actions and efforts of countless Christians, including William Wilberforce, to bring about the abolition of slavery. It was Christians who fought for and succeeded in bringing about much-needed reforms to the nineteenth-century penal system and child labor laws. It was Christians like as George Mueller who tackled the problem of orphans by building orphanages and caring for tens of thousands of previously indigent children. Despite her dubious soteriology, Clara Barton was nonetheless motivated by Christian faith to provide humane care for soldiers, prisoners of war, and veterans, and thus organized the American Red Cross; she was also instrumental in the United States’ ratification of the rules of the Geneva Conventions.
These were real conditions affecting real human lives and it was Christians, motivated by the love of Christ, who provided real solutions thereby bearing witness to the in-breaking rule and reign of Christ.
Furthermore, if we understood our redemptive role in the world as being inclusive of both people and the societies in which they live, I contend that the culture would find it far more difficult to marginalize Christianity and the church. This demonstration of the gospel would then provide conditions far more favorable to the proclamation and reception of the gospel.
Let us abandon this Platonic dualism that so infects us and apply the good news of the kingdom to the whole of life—personally, culturally, and socially. What are the problems in your community that the Lord desires you to change? Imagine what might happen if every professing follower of Christ sought the Lord’s will in this area and acted upon the desire to glorify Christ by becoming a redemptive influence in his or her community. It might just restore the church’s public witness and draw people into the kingdom—and glorify the King!
© 2018 by S. Michael Craven