The Church in America has struggled with the notion of Christian activism over the years. Usually such activism is associated with the “Religious Right” but there are groups that would not consider themselves part of that “Religious Right” that engage in activism as well. Is the Church to be involved with activism? Are Christians to be involved in activism? This is the subject of Appendix E in The Doctrine of the Christian Life by John Frame.
Frame begins with mentioning the book What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? by D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe. There they remind people of the great influence of Christians on Western culture. Christians have been instrumental in education (founding many of our colleges), health care (founding many of our hospitals), political freedom, literacy (the original reason for Sunday School) as well as the arts and more.
“Without Jesus, without the gospel, without the influence of his people, all these areas of culture would be vastly different and very much worse.”
The efforts and influence of Christians have not lead to a perfect society. They have lead to a clearly better society in many instances (note I didn’t say all). Here in America, as a result of the Fundamentalist movement, large portions of the Church retreated from social action. Ironically, it was often the more liberal branches of Christianity that lobbied for things like Prohibition which would typically be associated with Fundamentalists today.
The reasons for such a retreat can often be theological. Some use their eschatalogical views as justification for retreat. Some want to be unspoiled by the world in a misapplication of James 1:27. Ironically that verse would also seem to encourage social action on the behalf of widows and orphans. Much of the Scripture does advocate help for the poor and helpless. Those who are justified by Christ’s righteousness are not to retreat from a world in trouble. We bring the gospel, and we bring transformed hearts that care for others.
“They take their faith into every sphere of life, including the workplace, politics, economics, education and the arts. And in all these realms they seek to glorify God.”
Frame notes that the Scriptures don’t focus on improving society. The focus was love for those within the Body of Christ. Yet, we are told to do good to those outside the family of faith too. We must keep in mind that the early church had no power to affect “the politics and culture of the Roman Empire.” But they did care for the “least of this” by helping the sick, taking in the abandoned children and elderly among other things.
Frame then delves briefly into a newer movement that seems to call many Christians to retreat from activism (this is the heart of his article). It is a form of Luther’s (following Augustine) “two kingdoms” theology. The proponents of this view would not be considered Fundamentalists, but confessional Lutherans, Presbyterians and Reformed Christians. They focus on the Church as a “community of Word and sacrament” which it is. This focus, in their view, means that they Church is not to influence the society around it. Frame focuses on an article from his former colleague Michael Horton in Christianity Today from 2006.
The Two Kingdoms view does not advocate a retreat from the world. But with their focus on the church being the church, there is little to nothing about how the Church and Christians are to interact with the culture they live in except to obey God’s law. This we should do!
The 2K view, in his opinion, neglects the use of means by leaning on God’s sovereignty in a passive way. It is like saying “God will deal with racism in his own time and way.” Should not Christians actively combat racism? Was William Wilberforce wrong to labor for decades to end the slave trade in Great Britain?
Such passivity seems to neglect the reality that we were made in the image of God specifically to fulfill the creation mandate. We were meant to be active in the world to do good. That good is not limited to preaching the gospel.
The goal of Christians is not to turn their workplace into church. We do seek to make it a better, safer place. We can argue for fair wages, safety policies, the end of discrimination in all forms etc. This is not liberalism, but the efforts of people made righteous to act righteously in their world, to combat the sin and misery that is around them.
God does not restrain sin only by the gospel and regeneration. God also restrains sin thru the law and the “power of the sword.” By that I refer to government, not the Church. By voting and activism we can encourage the making and enforcing of just laws. Don’t be deceived- someone’s morality will be legislated! This is not seen as saving souls, but in loving our neighbor by seeking laws that are just. We seek to apply “the principles of Scripture to political life.” This can be done through voting, protesting (non-violently) and supporting agencies that work for such things (this means not just lobbyist groups, but relief agencies working against poverty, trafficking etc.).
God’s left hand (Luther) or common grace realm (Kline) is where the state governs in light of natural revelation instead of by application of special revelation. If we take radical depravity seriously, we’ll recognize that ordinary sinners misinterpret general or natural revelation to make unjust laws.
“So Calvin taught that nobody can appreciate natural revelation without the “spectacles” of Scripture. There is, therefore, no human activity that can function as God intended by natural revelation alone.”
Frame also notes that God’s servants the prophets often addressed the nations in special revelation. He held nations like Rome, Babylon, Moab, and Egypt accountable for disobeying Him. The Church, or various denominations, should at times speak out against societal evils.
Frame advocates a Kuyperian view, recognizing that all of societies ills are religious in nature. People worship false gods of all kinds. That worship leads to behavior (and laws) that reflect the gods they worship. We seek to resist this impulse in our society and counteract it. We preach the gospel, and we make use of other legitimate means to help make a more civil and just society. We are not called to be ostriches and stick our heads in the sand while the society in which we live crumbles.