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The Christian and Cultural Engagement

17 Aug 2017

Cultural engagement.  What is it and how should Christians be “doing” it, assuming they should?  And perhaps I shouldn’t even assume that.  At any rate, I would like to explore the Christian in relation to his or her potential or real involvement in the political or cultural realms physically outside the church and apart from what the church “does” as its primary calling by the Word of God.

First let’s look at what the “anti-engagement” side says.  Now basically these are thinkers, pastors, and others who believe the church, by which they mean the institutional church in its formal role as church as well as individual members should not be culturally or politically engaged at all.  Historically, this group included the Anabaptists, later Mennonites and some evangelicals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The latter believed it was useless to be involved in a world that was declining and headed toward the last days.  One should not not “polish brass on a sinking ship” but rather be about the business of saving as many souls as possible before the ship sinks.  By the way, there is truth in this attitude.  The Gospel as the preeminent task of the church can easily be obscured when Christians are too busy with social change.  Today this attitude is represented more by the Two Kingdoms advocates and the more recent Benedict Option, both of which are suspicious of cultural engagement, but in fairness, do not oppose it completely as they are characterized as doing.  So it isn’t clear that any segment of Christianity outright rejects all engagement in culture except the Amish (and even here, things seem to be changing just a bit) and some Mennonites.  Nevertheless, the dangers have been highlighted by their opposition.

Second, there are those who oppose the engagement of the church but not of individual members.  Individuals cooperate in various activities that are intended to effect change on the cultural front.  They do so as a collection of Christians but not affiliated with of sanctioned in any official way by a church or denomination. Organizations such as the Moral Majority fit this description, though that now defunct organization was begun more as a top down endeavor by Jerry Falwell rather than by individuals.  This kind of engagement is at least tolerated by most people.  It does have its drawbacks however.  It tends to evolve into mere activism with little in the way of a developed set of foundational ideas rooted in Scripture or anything else for that matter.  Such groups tend to thrive in opposition rather that standing for much positively.  This is not to say they do no good.  But their good is often muted by the failings.  I would argue that the Moral Majority did bring the abortion problem to the forefront in the 1970s.  That was a good result.  But it tended to get caught up in what it opposed and to do so in an inarticulate activism.

Third we have those who support cultural engagement and do so based on a developed set of Biblical/theological foundations.  The question however still remains:  Should they engage at all, regardless of how well founded their principles?  Should they “be the church,” narrowly defined?  And should the church as the church participate in this cultural engagement?  Before we answer those questions we need to know what engagement looks like. It may encompass a variety of actions, including giving money to support the work of others, protesting, advocating in various  settings, contacting public officials and politicians, lobbying, voting, and running for office.  These activities may often be initiated by the church itself or the denomination or some arm of that denomination.  The goal of course is to influence public policy and therefore outcomes that will be more consistent with the Scriptures–a noble goal.  But now back to the initial questions.

I am convinced that the proclamation of the Gospel is our first and foremost activity–in its fulness, meaning that it includes more than just the “message of salvation” but also the whole Word of God for the whole life of the believer.  Some would even say that that also includes cultural engagement.  I am going to assume “the Gospel” can be separated from cultural engagement.  If so, is such activity valid for the church and for individual Christians?

We are taught that we should “take every thought captive to Christ,” and also that we ought to be “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds.”  Though it might be argued that the context of those verses is the church, such that they refer to what the church specifically does in connection with the spiritual lives of its members, the wording is so encompassing that it refers to everything we think, regardless of whether it is directly tied to what happens in our churches.  For example, when we see “every thought,” are we to conclude that this refers only to thoughts that are connected to our private or individuals lives as Christians?  One could argue that it does, if the context indicates that “every” refers back only to what Paul has said immediately prior.  But that seems a bit strained.  So every thought means everything we think, all our ideas, should be brought into conformity with God’s Word.  That would include our thinking about our culture and the many issues that arise in connection with it.  In turn, that would seem to mean that at the least we are permitted to engage in our culture.  Perhaps we are also commanded.  But I would add that even if we (taken as a whole) are commanded, we are not all commanded to be engaged in the same way or to the same extent.  Some Christians should never run for elective office, either because they do not have a firm grasp on the issues ahead or because they may be tempted by the power they might attain.

I do not then believe the church is forbidden from cultural engagement.  But the church must be extremely cautious when it does so.  First, it cannot–we cannot–lose sight of the limits of political engagement.  Politics cannot save anyone, nor can the state, nor can any political leader.  Government itself is a temporal good. That is, it is a good, ordained by God, but only within the parameters of what God ordained it to do.  That being said, we, the church, may and should speak a prophetic word to the state about its role and the way it does or does not carry out that role.  We may engage even more directly to influence government actions.  But we must always remember the limits of the object of our engagement.

Second, as I have already said, as we engage, we should “carry” the Gospel with us in our activities.  We ought always to be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us.  As we speak and write and act in the realm of politics for example, we at the same time are quick to recognize and be bold to take advantage of opportunities to proclaim the Gospel as it is articulated for example in 1 Corinthians 15: 1-4.  We should pray for such opportunities and ask for much grace to see and speak.

Third, we must constantly “watch ourselves.”  That is, we continually bear in mind that we too are sinners and can be tempted to allow our engagement become our god.  Humility is required as we engage our culture.  We too could be tempted to adopt the same tactics as the culture we are trying to change, even when those tactics are unethical (not all tactics are unethical;  there is a place for prudence and strategy, but always within the bounds of what is objectively right).

Fourth, engagement requires, no less that our study and understanding of the Scriptures for our personal spiritual lives, that we use our reason together with a careful study of the particular issues from the perspective of a Biblical worldview.  Just as there is no excuse for us to shirk our study of Scripture in the context of Christian life, there is also no excuse for a failure to thoroughly develop and learn to articulate an accurate understanding of the issues with which we engage in our culture.  Ignorance is not only unhelpful to our cause but in the long run, dangerous.  Activism without knowledge is no help to anyone.  But in addition, make no mistake in our pursuit of knowledge that the knowledge Christians ought to have of cultural issues is predominantly from the Scriptures, not “general revelation.” What I mean is that the foundations of our views must be Scriptural, as should be our assumptions, and our conclusions–all within the parameters of Scripture.  Even if in my engagement I “speak the language” of general revelation (for example, using empirical studies, natural law theory, etc.), the foundational sun-structure for that language must be Scripture.  It after all, evaluates all alleged truth.  General revelation is not self-attesting and therefore is subject to an higher authority, whether principially or directly textually.

Even after all this, we cannot place “all our eggs” in the “basket” of cultural transformation.  Our efforts may not succeed.  Is God still sovereign?  Yes.  And we had better have that truth firmly embedded in our minds and hearts as we “do battle.”  We are to “seek the welfare of the city,” but the city referred to there is the “city of man,” to use an Augustinian notion.  It will pass away.  But the “city of God,” in which all believers even now live,” will exist forever, someday immanently before God in His Heaven.  In the meantime, we can engage in our culture, but with our minds also on the “country” that is our true home.