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Churchianity or Christianity part 2: The nature of gospel mission

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In the first of his series on 'Churchianity', Dr Joseph Boot argued of the need for Christians to develop a cultural theology grounded in the Bible. He continues his series by looking at two common faults among evangelicals' approaches to culture.


Two dominant tendencies regarding the mission of God’s people 

It should come as no surprise that something is amiss amongst modern evangelical churches, whether Reformed, charismatic, pentecostal, baptist or any other stripeThey are not providing an adequate or consistent response to the challenges of an increasingly anti-Christian culture. On the whole, evangelical leaders seem poorly prepared to equip God’s people for the pressing task of applying biblical truth to all of life in an often hostile cultural context – indeed part of the problem is that not all are agreed whether we should apply scriptural truth to all areas of life and thought.  


I discern two common tendencies in response to the question of the gospel’s relationship to culture, and by extension the mission of God’s people who declare and live that gospel in the world, and they are linked by common root problems. These tendencies in the church today can be seen first in those who greatly overrate the place and role of the institutional church and its offices – thus neglecting or even rejecting the idea that other spheres, institutions and forms of cultural life are realms subject to God’s Word. Second, there are those who greatly overrate the role of the state (or political life in general) and its responsibilities and functions in working out the kingdom purposes of God in history.  


In the first case the visible institutional church is essentially identified and conflated with the city and kingdom of God and so what develops, despite a common insistence that they are ‘gospel-centred, is a radically church-centred faith – what I am calling churchianity. This group is at best disinterested in Christ’s manifest Lordship over any other sphere of life or institution and at worse they are hostile to it. Those in this camp are normally biblically orthodox in soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) whilst pietistic and often retreatist when it comes to culture. In general they want little or no engagement with society, arts and civil government from a distinctly Christian standpoint  especially in the areas of law and education – and any talk of redeeming or transforming culture is seen as out of bounds.  


To the extent that these leaders do engage culturally, their involvement is usually described as being for the purposes of ‘evangelism’ rather than for any broader kingdom purpose or cultural good in its own right. At the very least such non-ecclesiastical activities are carefully distinguished in such a manner as to disclose they are not ‘gospel issues.’ For these believers the gospel essentially pertains to a narrow set of affirmations about the cross, the new birth, the justification of individuals and their escape from hell. The immediate result is the truncation of the Christian mission to the task of getting more people saved and into the church, so that they can go to heaven. To such believers, the Christian life is reduced to personal evangelism, personal piety, personal growth and personal blessing. The Christian calling to seek first the kingdom of God, his righteousness (Matt6:33), and the reconciliation of all things to him, is conspicuously diminished in this paradigmThere are obvious elements of truth in this position regarding the importance of justification, the new birth and God’s final judgment on sin, and this obviously includes the salvation of individuals; but is it really a full-orbed and robustly biblical Christianity? 


This pietistic but broadly theologically conservative worldview produces immature believers, attending churches where they can remain unchallenged week after week, calling on God for personal blessing or to increase their faith and obedience, but with little or no conception of the scope and grandeur of the gospel or the transforming power of the kingdom of God for all of life. Christians in this context can remain spiritual infants all their lives. The birth of a baby is a wonderful thing, but it would be a tragedy if a baby did not mature over the years into an adult. Such church communities are often marked by frustration and cultural impotence, where congregants are endlessly urged to ‘be holy’ whilst waiting for the parousia. Yet the average congregant has little or no idea of how to relate his faith in Christ the Lord, the scriptures and the call to holiness (i.e. to sanctify life to God) to his marriage and family, his children’s education, his vocation, various recreational pursuits or civic responsibility – in short, to culture. Salvation he is told is for his soul and inner life, whilst the kingdom of God is something that is really coming at the end of the world and so belongs to another age. As a result, the church institute is progressively viewed as the only place where God’s rule and Christ’s lordship is expressed in the earth, especially in the form of the spiritual disciplines of individual Christians, congregational worship and liturgy. Furthermore, on this view, to really serve God or be ‘in ministry’ means either being a pastor, holding office in the institutional church, or being involved in some activity governed and prescribed by the church. As such there is a glaring and radical sacred/secular divide running through the whole life of such Christians. 


At the other end of the spectrum, in the second grouping, we have a growing tendency within professing evangelicalism, especially amongst the young, to greatly underrate the importance of the institutional church and its administration of the sacraments, the preaching of God’s Word and church discipline. Here respect for church confessions, historic teaching and authority is dangerously minimised or set aside in favour of a free-wheeling antinomian approach where the churchs institutional role and government in the Christian life is seen as unnecessary or outmoded – a patriarchal religion of life- and freedom-sapping formalism.  

These professing Christians rightly detect a problem with cultural abandonment and retreatism in the churches in which they often grew up, perceiving that the gospel must involve more than the salvation of souls, being present for worship on Sunday, getting the liturgy right and attending the Wednesday night Bible study for personal discipleship. They believe that God’s kingdom must be broader than the walls of the church, one’s personal prayer life and pietythat it must impact the world for the good in real and tangible ways in the here and now.  


At the same time, however, the tendency amongst these believers, in questioning whether a pious and retreatist gospel is big enough, is to shift the locus of hope and focus of life from the church institute to the institute of the state and its powerful apparatus; its civil laws and equalities legislation – that is, to a political enactment of ‘social justice.’ Under the guiding influence of humanistic philosophy, social action or what has been dubbed a ‘social gospel’ start to replace the centrality of Christ’s atoning death, resurrection and life-giving power.  


As a consequence of this the kingdom of God is increasingly identified with persons, movements and institutions pursuing social and economic equality, so that a kind of politicisation of salvation occurs, with the state functioning as de-facto high priest in bringing about a secularized deliverance from oppression. Moralism and social action thus gradually eclipse justification by faith in Christ through God’s grace alone, whilst a God-centred inward renewal producing outward transformation is replaced by external political coercion as the route to the kingdom. The church instituteits preaching and sacraments, then become almost peripheral to the so-called ‘main task’ of saving abstract political identity groups like ‘the poor and ending abstract social evils like inequality for the oppressed and other alleged victims of discrimination or exploitation – including the planet itself.  


Creation care, service to people in genuine need, and a heart for those oppressed by injustice are of serious concern in Scripture; however, the underlying philosophy that informs Christianised drive for ‘social justice’ is not scripturally rooted, resulting in a revised version of the Christian lexicon, where the same words are given very different meanings. Thus these Christians regularly drift in a theologically liberal direction – as witness the Emergent Church movement. In extreme cases the gospel of Christ becomes directly identified with egalitarian progressive political philosophy where God’s law and Christ’s Lordship in terms of Scripture play little or no part. Instead of familial and moral commitment to voluntary charity and social responsibility, we see political controls, punitive laws of confiscation as well as judicial activism toward social and sexual liberation put forward as the answer for realising ‘the kingdom of God.’ In fact for some the gospel becomes practically indistinguishable from the neo-Marxist, utopian vision, of ‘humanisation’ for the biosphere by politics. 


Both of these bifurcating tendencies in modern evangelicalism – one identifying the kingdom with the church institute, the other with the political life and social planning of the state – share common root problems. The first is a failure to rightly identify the foundation of the Christian hope, which is neither the church institute itself nor the state and its activity, but the salvation and lordship of Jesus Christ himself over the totality of life as the one mediator between man and God. Both the church and the state are institutions with offices placed under God and his sovereignty which limit their role, power and function. The very concept of an office in human culture presupposes service to a broader purpose and higher authority.  


The second problem is a mischaracterisation of the nature of the church and the state, and thereby of the churchs mission. The church institute cannot be directly identified with the kingdom of God and therefore the Christians calling extends well beyond the ministry of the church institution. To limit the kingdom of God to the church is to surrender culture to the enemies of GodAs the Christian thinker S.U. Zuidema put it, ‘He who ecclesiasticizes God’s covenant makes the kingdom of God, insofar as he is able, sectarian because he restricts it to a section of life.’4 At the same time, however, the church is an important part of the kingdom. It cannot be made peripheral to the kingdom by reducing it to a servant or chaplain of the humanistic state, doing its bidding, where scientific socio-political planning is confused with the kingdom of God. Instead the church must witness scripturally and prophetically to political power. When it becomes a handmaiden of the state and an advocate of liberal progressivism (social justice) rather than biblical righteousness, it has forsaken its true character. Likewise, the state overreaches and violates its delimited role and office when, in parts-to-whole fashion it seeks to absorb other spheres of life as departments of state, subject to state planning, control and manipulation.  


A third problem, which has been with the church from the time Greek philosophy impacted its theological development in the early centuries, is an implicit and destructive dualism that slices up reality into matter and spirit, nature and grace, secular and sacred, natural and supernatural, time and eternity, higher and lower, with one area perceived as lesser or evil and the other as higher and good. This tendency has resulted in a radical separation of creation and redemption (where redemption is essentially for the higher storey of existence), spiritual life and historical-cultural development and mutually reinforcing pattern of subservience to non-Christian culture (nature/secular) on the one hand, and the abandonment of Christian culture-building (grace/sacred) on the other. Both tendencies emphasise a part of this artificial duality.  


Surely to truly grasp who Christ is, as the root of all truth and meaning, is to grasp the universal lordship of Christ and his marvelous call to his church to participate as co-workers with him in the restoration of all things to God – since we are now in Christ and have been given a ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19-20)As Seerveld has put it: 


The totality of creation’s meaning lies singly in Jesus Christ and his bodyAnd this idea, that the meaning of the individual and universe, lies beyond both in the Son of God, that everything is meaning-less, aim-less, vain unless it be set in Jesus Christ, that the crown of creation, humanity, because justly commanded by God to love the Lord with all our heart, all that is in us, that humanity is meaning-full only if at work in the covenantal community of believers serving the realization of God’s plan, re-creation, reconciliation of all to God through Christ: it is this idea…[which shows] that the struggle of history is between a newborn civitas Dei and the age-old dragons, civitates mundi.5 


Given the clear biblical teaching concerning the person of Christ as the one from whom, through whom and to whom all things exist (Rom. 11:36), and knowing that he is reconciling everything to God the Father (Col. 1:16-20), why is it that Christians seem to struggle to reach agreement about the mission of God’s people?   


The message of the gospel is therefore centred in the declaration that this Jesus Christ is Lord and King over all the earth, over all cultures, peoples and lands (cf. Matt. 28:18-20) and that he is calling all people to repentance and joyful obedience to the coming kingdom of God 


Go back to Part 1or read on in Part 3.