The Church, Society and Race: Part 2 (A Model for Social Engagement)

This is a multi-part series. Read part 1, part 3, part 4 part 5, part 6, part 7, and parts 8a and 8b.

As mentioned in the first post, the first half of this series will be spent building a biblical-theological model for social engagement. It is important that we carefully lay this theological framework before getting into the details, lest we lose the forest for the trees in this ever-important subject.

Last week, we spend our time in a brief flyover of the biblical theme of the Kingdom of God, concluding with three observations:

  1. The kingdom is composed of those who belong to Jesus. That is, God’s kingdom is not something we are born into, or can physically emigrate to. Belonging is open to all – but only through faith in Jesus Christ.
  2. The kingdom is already, but not yet. We looked at Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom and recognized that the kingdom of God has been inaugurated through Christ’s coming and cross-work – but it is visible now only in the church. We await its final and great fulfillment in the return of Christ. Therefore, we experience the kingdom now, but still wait for its fullness.
  3. The experience of those who belong to the kingdom is exile. Finally, we stand as people in-between. We belong to the kingdom of Christ, but we live in this world. That is, we live our lives with “worldly” residences and identities, but our essential identity as Christ’s dislocates us from the world we live in.

In this post, we are going to take these three observations and use them to begin building a model for engaging society. In effect, we will be asking the question: in light of all we know about the kingdom of God, should the church address social issues? If so, how? To answer this first question, we will subdivide the second observation into two, therefore ending up with four key pillars for a biblical framework of social engagement.

1. Four Key Pillars for a Biblical Framework of Social Engagement #

1.1. We Must Keep the Ultimate Aim in View #

Our first pillar is essential to the other three. There is a sense in which this is the central, load-bearing pillar. And if we do not keep this pillar erect and strong, the entire structure will cave in and case to be a Christian model.

So our first pillar is this: we must keep the ultimate aim of church in view. When I say “ultimate aim,” I mean what Jesus says in Matt. 6:33: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness…” Such a pursuit means that our lives will be orientated toward heaven, in worship, in all of life.

But if our lives are so directed, then how will we see other people? We will seek to glorify God by obeying the central work of the church, given by Jesus: making disciples. We have already seen that the kingdom of God consists of those who belong to Jesus. And so the primary mission of the church is to labor to see that kingdom expand, as men and women, young and old come to hear the gospel, repent of their self-salvation, and put their hope and trust in Jesus Christ alone.

This point serves as the spine for everything else we will say. For although humanity’s physical and social plight is serious – illness, poverty, structural inequality, institutional injustice, relational brokenness, etc. – our spiritual predicament is utterly dire. For all of us stand condemned before a holy God who is by no means unjust, and who will hold each and every one of us accountable for our rebellion against Him.

Furthermore, the irreducible problem at the root of every individual misbehavior, every criminal activity; every collective error; every structural evil and institutionalized injustice is sin. Our spiritual rebellion has profound social effects. The disruption of the vertical positively poisons the horizontal.1

Therefore, for the glory of God and for love of neighbor, the eager and diligent labor of reconciliation through disciplemaking must be our central task. To ignore this is akin to tossing a water bottle to a man trapped in a burning building.

And yet, something more needs to be said: we must not discount the material needs of this life. How easy it is for us to lose sight of this point – especially when we come face to face with our own suffering and experience in a broken world. And yet, Jesus makes it clear to His people that we are not to panic when we consider our needs. Instead, we are to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Mat. 6:33, ESV)

This verse teaches us something terribly important about the logic of our existence as members of a spiritual kingdom living in a material world: both matter. God does not call us to a platonic existence where we eschew the physicality of this world. He does not teach us that our very real hunger, and our very real need for shelter, and our very real need for clothing are merely illusions. Not at all! He declares that these things matter a great deal. God cares deeply about our needs; He knows our need (Matt. 6:32). And He is the ultimate provider of those needs.

So we must learn the proper order of things. Rather than scrambling about in self-reliance, we must learn to be God-reliant. Rather than trying to build our own little kingdoms of security and wealth, we must seek God’s kingdom and His righteousness. And the rest of it? It will be given to us.

Here is the bitter irony: if we seek material needs as our ultimate aim, we will lose our minds with anxiety. If we seek God as a means to an end, we will lose our souls through idolatry – for these become our true god. But if we seek God first as our true and greatest good, He gives us everything.

Now, I think the same logic rings true as we think about the mission of the church. For friends, if a church fixes its attention on the material needs of society alone (which are important), without considering the true nature of the kingdom of God, then its mission is no longer Christian, and we are not really seeking the kingdom and failing in our central mission.

1.2. We Must Keep the Futurity of the Kingdom in View #

That brings us to our second pillar: we must keep the futurity of the kingdom of God in view. In the early 20th century, liberalizing strands of theology emerged which tended to deemphasize the miraculous and supernatural, and elevate the humanistic elements of religion. One of its prominent theologians, Walter Rauschenbusch, developed a concise theology for what he called the “Social Gospel.” This Social Gospel rightly emphasized the need for addressing the social implications of the gospel, but ultimately failed the test of orthodoxy when it gutted the gospel’s core. In doing so, it ceased to be a Christian theology.

One of the more problematic features of the Social Gospel was its insistence that the kingdom of God is something which appears mainly in the here and now. In one place, Rauschenbusch writes that “the Kingdom of God is humanity organized according to the will of God.”2 And again, “The Church is one social institution alongside of the family, the industrial organization of the society, and the State. The Kingdom of God is in all these, and realizes itself through them all.”3

As pleasant as these summaries sound, it should be evident from what we have already said that this view of the kingdom simply will not hold up against Scripture. The kingdom of God is here and now, to be sure – but it is not merely the “Christian transfiguration” of society. The kingdom of God consists in His people, whom He has redeemed for Himself. In other words, the kingdom cannot, strictly speaking, be abstracted from the church and defined as any positive change in society. And, practically speaking, such a view of social transformation ignores the fundamental element which corrupts all of us: the sin of the individual.4

But even among those who believe that the kingdom is God’s people, there can be an imbalance. Some talk about the process of “kingdom-building,” and some evangelicals imagine that the kingdom of God (as the church) will continue to expand and grow and ultimately overtake the earth. But Scripture appears to indicate otherwise,5 revealing rather that the fullness of kingdom of God will not, and can not be brought about by the church, apart from the glorious return of Jesus Christ. Simply put, Scripture makes it clear that we are not yet what we will be. Indeed, the vision presented in Romans 8 is that of creation groaning under its bondage to corruption, waiting with eager longing for the “revealing of the sons of God.” Indeed, we are saved in hope, for “what we do not see” (8:24-25).

Of course, when Jesus returns and puts all things to right – when our adoption is complete, and we are resurrected and transformed in the blink of an eye (1 Cor. 15:51ff; 1 Jn. 3:2) – then shall the kingdom come in visible glory to fill the earth.

But here’s why this matters for our discussion: we must have a kind of theological realism – or perhaps biblical pessimism – about any human endeavor which seeks to create a utopian society. To aim for a total transformation of society is to aim for the impossible – because until Jesus comes back, sin will always corrupt and undermine society.

1.3. We Must Keep the Presence of the Kingdom in View #

So we now have two pillars: a central, load-bearing one which represents the central mission of the church (disciplemaking), and a secondary supporting one which points us forward as a people of hope, waiting for the coming of the kingdom.

And yet, related to and next to the second pillar is this ever-important third one. This pillar is the present-existence of the kingdom. The kingdom is certainly “not yet,” but it is also “already” here. For if the kingdom consists of the people of God, and if Jesus reigns over His kingdom (Col. 1:13; Eph. 1:22f), then it follows that the kingdom should manifest itself in some form or fashion in the here and now.

In many ways, an emphasis on this pillar is what this series is all about. For if we neglect it, we run the risk of heeding a temptation to run off the straight and narrow. It is that old Gnostic temptation which has afflicted much of recent American evangelicalism, creating this paradox whereby we pursue material wealth, material comfort and material security, yet imagine that the kingdom of God is a purely spiritual matter, “up in heaven,” not touching the material realm we live in. And further, because of the errors of Social Gospel (and the like), the warning I have just issued (concerning the mission of the church and the futurity of the kingdom) transmogrifies into an excuse not to touch society, out of fear that we devalue the centrality of the gospel and therefore become liberal in our theology.

If we neglect this pillar, we end up with an unfortunate choice: either we hold to a liberal, gospel-less (and therefore powerless) Christianity passionate about social engagement, or an orthodox Christianity, holding to good doctrine, but averse to social engagement.

This is the error many fundamentalists (and evangelicals) slid into in the past century. The fundamentalists were a brave bunch who took a stand against the liberalization of theology in the 1920s and ‘30s, choosing to leave compromised denominations for the sake of upholding the culturally unpopular doctrines of orthodoxy. They sacrificed a great deal to stand up in the defense of biblical truth.

However, in their resistance to the Social Gospel (and its relatives), many fundamentalists rode the pendulum to the other side and got stuck. In their emphasis on the futurity of the kingdom, they in many ways forgot about its presence. They neglected the implications and responsibilities that come along with belonging to the kingdom – especially as it relates to the ways in which we relate to the world around us.

The Kingdom of God and His Righteousness
Here’s what I mean. When citizens of the kingdom of heaven are faithful to Jesus’ command that we seek first the kingdom and His righteousness (the practical, lived ethical standard of God’s kingdom), it changes us to the core. When we seek first the kingdom and all that it entails, we are transformed as people; changed into the image of the King of the kingdom.

Recall what we learn about the God of this kingdom in Matt 6:25ff: He is the One who knows our needs, cares deeply about them, and meets them.

In short, if we are being conformed into the image of the One who does not ignore our material needs, but meets them as we seek Him, doesn’t it follow that His people should be people who do not ignore the material needs of others, but are concerned about them in love out of the overflow of the riches they have received?

Treasure in Heaven
But let us go further. If we have a view of the kingdom that views this world as disposable, then our view of this world boils down to the crass, “It’s all going to burn anyway.” But this is to ignore the important connection between the present and the future – between this earth and the renewed heaven and earth. Our efforts here on this earth, in this life have far-reaching effects and consequences. The category Jesus gives is that of “treasure in heaven.”

In Matt. 6:19ff, Jesus charges His people to “not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” But this leads to the important question: how do we lay up treasures in heaven? We find the answer when Jesus meets the rich young ruler: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.“ (Matt. 19:21, ESV)

The apostle Paul picks up on this theme as well: “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy [do you hear that echo of Matt. 6:33?]. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.” (1 Tim. 6:17-19, ESV)

We are called to live lives full of good works and generosity, ready to share so that we might invest in our future. Not the short-lived future on this earth – but the future of eternity.

The Ethic of Heaven: Inside and Out
So all of this leads us to conclude that to live as people of the kingdom means to live out the ethic of heaven in visible, sacrificial and personal ways. The ethic of heaven should so permeate the church, that anyone who steps into our fellowship will be positively surrounded with the goodness, generosity, love of truth, compassion and mercy which will characterize the new heavens and new earth when God reigns in its midst.

But we must go a tad further. For after all, our question is not whether the church has any responsibility to live out the ethic of heaven within itself; we want to know whether the church has a particular responsibility to live out the ethic of heaven in public. Does any of this suggest that we have a responsibility to engage with the brokenness of our society? The answer, of course, is a resounding “yes!”

In Matthew 5:13, Jesus tells His people, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” (Matt. 5:13, ESV) In the ancient world – as today – salt was beneficial for flavoring food. It added value and taste to a bland meal. But it was used for another important purpose: rubbed into food, it delayed the decaying process. Whereas we use refrigerators, they used salt.

The point, of course, is that when we are “salty,” or authentically living out the ethic of heaven in our world, we function not only as taste-additives, but as preservatives in our world. Consider how sin destroys human relationships, corrupts human institutions, and brings about all kinds of self-destructive behaviors. But Jesus teaches us that the church, when authentically seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, function to preserve society. Why? Because the ethic of heaven – the heartbeat of the kingdom – is constructively antithetical to the desolations brought about by sin. Whereas sin breaks down, the ethic of the kingdom builds up. Whereas sin distorts, the ethic of heaven makes true. Whereas sin engenders hostility, the heartbeat of the kingdom fosters love and unity.

But He doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say that the church is “the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:14-16, ESV) Notice: Jesus calls us to live lives that are public and visible to a watching world. The light here is not the light of the gospel, per se, but the light of our good works. The point here is that the church may not withdraw from the world such that it amounts to placing our light under a basket. The light of the kingdom is meant for shining brightly in a dark world – so that the world might see and glorify God.

In summary, the ethic of heaven should be on public display among the inhabitants of the kingdom. It should touch the world around us. We must apply the ethic of heaven to our society. And, we should long to see the ethic of heaven permeate and influence greater society — because it is the only true way society can flourish.6

1.4. We Must Keep our Exile Identity in View #

Our fourth pillar is one I will be unpacking further in the next post, but a brief introduction will serve to bind together all I’ve said thus far. The key text for this pillar is found in Jeremiah 29. The prophet Jeremiah is writing in a bleak time for Israel. The southern kingdom (Judah) had recently been exiled from their land by the Babylonians because of their hardened and longstanding rebellion against God. The inhabitants of Israel now lived in Babylon, dejected and devastated; their people had been killed, their capital (Jerusalem) was in ruins, and their temple was destroyed.

The LORD had made it clear that this was divine judgment – but in chapter 28, we find a competing prophetic voice optimistically claiming a word from the LORD, that God’s people would return to the land in a mere two years. But God never promised that; they would instead be in exile for seven decades – a long-term judgment for their refusal to heed Him for so long.

He then gives them an interesting command: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.” (5-6) In other words, settle in to the city. But they are not to form an enclave off in the suburbs. Instead, they must “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf…”

Consider this. God commands the Israelites to seek the good of the city that destroyed their home. He commands them to pray for the city that is so foreign and hostile to them. Why? “For in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jer. 29:7, ESV) In other words, when they seek the health of the city – even if it is the place of their exile – it is beneficial for all people, including the Israelites.

The LORD never commands them to forsake their identity or give themselves over to the city. To the contrary, He rather commands them to be agents of good, as His people, which will therefore benefit everyone’s existence. Or to put it another way, they are to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.”

This same motif is picked up in the book of 1 Peter, who describes the church as “sojourners and exiles” (1 Pet. 2:11). Here, of course, he does not mean this literally or politically, but rather spiritually. For we have followed Jesus, “the stone that the builders rejected” which has become a “stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense” (1 Pet. 2:7-8, ESV) to the world. As a result, we are outsiders and strangers in our own cultures. But Peter rings the same bell: we are saved to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Pet. 2:9, ESV) And one of the ways we do this is by doing good.

Conclusion #

When we allow each of these four pillars to stand tall and strong, they create a kind of frame which a) keeps us focused on the main thing; b) keeps us from a humanistic and unbiblical idealism; c) compels us to engage society as ambassadors of heaven; and d) helps us to realistically view our complex relationship with the world.

Keeping all four of these pillars upright will prevent us from a gospel-less activism, just as much as it will keep us from an inactive or unapplied gospel. If we are faithful to embrace each, then we will, as a church, faithfully live out our calling in this world, for the good of the world, and the glory of God.

Now, we have only gotten as far as answering the question, “should the church engage social issues?” But we must still ask, “how”? As we seek to build further on our fourth pillar in the next post, we will also seek to offer concrete ways we can do good to the city.

  1. This is not to suggest that sin is directly causal for every ill effect of society. Indeed, much of the suffering in our world – and even some of the injustice and inequality – is caused by unintended consequences, by human finitude and human error, or by natural events which have no direct human causation. However, even these can be traced back and connected to (according to the biblical worldview) sin. In short, they serve as the cosmic effects of a world corrupted by and cursed because of sin.  

  2. Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1922), 142. 

  3. ibid, 145. 

  4. Although, it should be noted that Rauschenbusch pushes for a view of sin that includes social and systemic sin. This is a helpful point, especially as will become clear through later posts, but his approaches seems to come at the neglect of the need for individual regeneration.  

  5. I am approaching this subject matter from a premillenial stance. The specifics may be debated, but the conclusions presented here are relatively noncontroversial from an evangelical perspective.  

  6. The simple reality is that the pursuit of truth and justice benefits others. And should we not seek the betterment and goodness of others? When we act in this way, we are acting in love. And if love might be defined as the warm pursuit of another’s true good, and we are called to love our neighbor (and our enemies), then should we not seek the true good of all people? See Luke 6:27-36.  


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