Are Christians Called to Change Society?

Photo by  Alex Radelich  on  Unsplash

Author and professor Anthony Bradley posted a provocative essay a while back arguing that church planting is insufficient for social change. He appeals to his own experience and to the history of education and Christendom. His post begs some questions and raises others. As to the former, it assumes that Christians are called to change society. Perhaps.

Did the apostolic church “change” first-century, Greco-Roman society?

It depends, I suppose, upon how we define “change.” Did the apostolic church “change” first-century, Greco-Roman society? Well, the mob who laid hands on the house of Jason (Acts 17) alleged that the Christians were turning “the world upside down” (v. 7). Was that literally true? Again, it depends upon definitions. Were the Christians changing the Roman government? No. Were they revolutionizing education? No. Were they transforming art? No. Were they affecting music or literature? Not perceptibly.

There’s no evidence that they used music in their services. They used existing literary genres and conventions in their epistles and sermons.[1] Did they overturn Greco-Roman slavery? No.[2] They were active in government service, but they worked within existing structures. They established schools, but they followed existing patterns. Further, what was it they were doing when they were accused of fomenting radical social change? Preaching and planting churches. That’s just about all the apostle Paul did. That’s all the apostle Peter did, and that’s about all the rest of the apostles did.

The apostles did seek to help poor believers.

They established a system of poverty relief among the Christians, but there’s little evidence that they set up social welfare organizations to relieve poverty beyond the visible church (e.g., Acts 11:29). One might draw inferences that lead to different conclusions, but there isn’t any unequivocal evidence to the contrary.

So, we should question the premise of the post that Christians are called, as Christians, to promote and advance social change. What sort of change? From what, to what? That may be the case, but it cannot simply be asserted. It must be demonstrated. There are good reasons to challenge the “social gospel” or grand social plans in the name of the kingdom of God. Herman Ridderbos says the coming of the kingdom

consists entirely in God’s own action and is perfectly dependent on his activity. The kingdom of God is not a state or condition, not a society created and promoted by men (the doctrine of the ‘social gospel’). It will not come through an immanent earthly evolution, nor through moral action. (Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, pp. 23-24)

If we survey the way Luke uses the expression “Kingdom of God” (βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ), as I wrote earlier, there is no obvious evidence of any political or cultural agenda associated with the “βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ” in Acts. At every point when the apostles had opportunity to “speak truth to power,” to challenge the socio-economic or political or cultural status quo, they refused. According to many modern conceptions of the Kingdom of God, the disciples failed rather badly to “bring in the kingdom” or to restore it. Instead Paul insisted on preaching the foolishness of the crucified Messiah and the foolishness of his resurrection.

There should be a noticeable contrast between the conduct of believers and the surrounding culture.

So, if Christians are going to require other believers not only to engage the world around them—about that I have no question—but to transform it, they have an obligation to demonstrate from Scripture unequivocally that it is a moral duty of believers. I can show that we are to be in subjection to authorities (Rom. 13:1), pray for the king (1 Tim. 2:2), and that we are to live godly and peaceful lives (idem). This seems to have been the pattern of the earliest post-apostolic, pre-Constantinian Christians, including the family of our Lord. Peter wrote to Christians (many of whom were slaves) in Asia Minor in the early 60s:

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Pet. 2:11–25)

When Peter says “Gentiles” he was referring metaphorically to non-Christians, to the surrounding culture. There were Gentile Christians in Asia Minor. Subjection. Honor. Love. Suffering. These are the operative words in his instruction to the Christians. There just isn’t any idea of transformation present in this text. The hope here is that the surrounding unbelieving culture will see the contrast between our conduct and theirs—between our godliness and the way we relate to each other and to them—and notice. For Peter, it is a shame if we act the way they do and come into contact with the authorities because of disobedience or sin. It is quite another thing if we come into contact with the authorities because of our profession and confession of faith.

Christian institutions have been and should continue to be a great benefit to culture.

It’s interesting that Bradley appeals to the rise of Christian universities. They, of course, developed in the context of Christendom. Those were a great benefit to culture, but they developed gradually out of existing institutions inherited by the Christians. Whether they developed as they did (from catechetical schools to cathedral schools to universities with multiple faculties) because of the faith is very difficult to know. The validity of the Constantinian arrangement cannot simply be assumed. It is a historical fact, and in the providence of God, many good things came from it, as well as some terrible things (e.g., the Crusades were mostly failures even from a military perspective and have served mainly as a weapon in the hands of modern(ist) critics of the faith).

The apostolic church and early post-apostolic church did not develop within a Constantinian context but in a (paleo-) pagan context. Christians were not cultural, military victors over the pagans in the second century. They were exiles (who left Palestine in advance of the destruction in AD 70); and their principal plea to the surrounding culture was first: “Repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for the Kingdom of God is at hand”; and second: “Please stop murdering us. We are no existential threat to the prevailing civil order.”

How should Christians engage with mediating institutions?

There is no doubt here whether there is a need for mediating institutions or whether Christians should be involved in them and engage them. The question is how? May we simply assume that we must think of our cultural engagement under the category of redemption (e.g., redeeming music, art, literature, politics, etc.)? Again, I should like to see a clear, unequivocal case for this from Scripture. Does Scripture speak this way, of redeeming various cultural enterprises?

I understand that some followers of theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper have spoken this way, but does Scripture, read carefully, in context, teach or imply it? There is no doubt here as to whether there is a Christian worldview. There is. A proper Christian worldview, however, entails sound doctrine, including a comprehensive summary of the orthodox faith and a biblical view of Christian liberty.

Would it not be better to think of our cultural engagement as part of our citizenship in Christ’s twofold kingdom? To think of our engagement with mediating institutions as part of our service to God and neighbor, under Christ’s general Lordship over creation? Doesn’t our engagement with such institutions come under the heading of creation rather than redemption? As Christians we need to be careful to distinguish between that which is a matter of fidelity to our calling as image bearers in the temporal kingdom and that which is a matter of service in the eternal kingdom.


R. Scott Clark is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California) and the author of Recovering the Reformed Confession (P&R, 2008).

This article by R. Scott Clark is adapted from “But Is It Biblical?” at heidelblog.net.

Notes:

1. The gospels are an interesting genre and perhaps somewhat original.

2. Paul did encourage Philemon to free Onesimus, but did he intend to forbid all forms of slavery? This is not evident. Is this a defense of modern chattel slavery? No. Modern European and American slave traders were guilty of man-stealing and a violation of natural, creational human rights for which one finds no defense in Scripture.

This page may contain affiliate links through which Beautiful Christian Life may receive a commission to help cover its operating costs.