May 2008

Ever since I was converted in the early 1990s I’ve been part of a theological tradition that has looked somewhat suspiciously at church involvement in social concern. It’s not always been articulated in such negative terms. And in all honesty many of the fine Christian people I’ve known have been gloriously inconsistent in their approach to these matters. They warn of potential distractions to gospel ministry and yet have been wondrously generous with their time and money. In actuality, even the conservative evangelical theological constituency that I so love and identify with are more involved in social concern than we profess to be. We send our letters of to our Member of Parliament, we sit as School Governors and we set up Crisis Pregnancy Centres.

In recent weeks three things have made an impact on me. They’ve been very helpful in thinking through how to develop a social conscience.

1. An article by the American theologian John Frame

In an article called ‘In Defence of Christian Activism’, Frame argues that there’s a solid biblical rationale to reject the fundamentalist argument that the church should abandon its social responsibility and simply preach the simple gospel. He cites Galatians 6:10 as chief amongst our reasons to be involved in ongoing social activism which he describes as ‘any Christian attempt to improve society’. He makes the observation that we are to show concern especially not exclusively for the household of faith. In other words, though the church is our primary concern it’s not our sole concern. That’s a helpful corrective. I‘ve also heard it argued that since this world is going to be destroyed then what we should be doing at the moment is not fixing society but rescuing a few souls from the fiery furnace. There’s a compelling logic to it. I’m not saying that we must lessen our evangelistic priorities in our personal lives, or in our church programmes. I have much sympathy with the slightly overstated fundamentalist caricature. However, God clearly expects us to be involved in other things than simply telling people the gospel. In his Great Commission Jesus told his followers that they were to make disciples of all nations. And he also told them to teach everything that he had commanded them. Jesus had a lot to say on a lot of issues. For example, he had much to say about the pursuit of mercy and justice amongst individuals.

2. A lecture with David Field from Oak Hill Theological College

At the start of his lecture David made the point that there are both negative and affirmative ethical duties. A negative ethical duty is something that we must obey all of the time. For example, ‘Do not steal’ is a command from which we’re never exempted. It’s a 24/7 non-negotiable moral obligation. However, an affirmative ethical duty is something that we should pursue as much as we’re able to. It would be really good to do all of the time but since we’re finite people with limited opportunities and abilities we simply won’t be able to pull it off. For example, the command to ‘love your neighbour’ is something that we’re encouraged to do. But it’s not something that we can do all of the time because there are times when I must cease from loving my neighbour to take care of myself. This need not be selfish. We need to eat, sleep and work. God does not expect to keep all his affirmative ethical duties all of the time. We can’t. He knows that. We need to prioritise what we can do. And so we don’t need to feel guilty for what we’re unable to do. This is liberating. This perspective has been helpful as I’ve thought about what we should be doing as a church. There are so many things that we ought to be doing and that we’d like to be doing. But we can’t just yet. It wouldn’t be wise to attempt them because we don’t have the opportunities or resources to manage. And so we shouldn’t be beating ourselves up for the things we can’t do at our stage of church growth. But it also means that as God grows CCB we’ll need to keep revisiting the issue to find out whether there’s any spare capacity for expansion.

3. A sermon on the Good Samaritan by Tim Keller

Keller is the Senior Minister of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York. He argues three surprising things from Jesus’ story. First, he argues that showing mercy is a mandate that Jesus has given to his church. When he affirmed the religious lawyer’s summary of the requirements of God he affirmed the requirement to love our neighbour. Whereas the lawyer assumed that obedience to the law was a way to life, Jesus assumed that the law was a way of life. He wants his people to meet basic human needs through human deeds. Loving our neighbour is a sure sign that Jesus is our Lord.  Secondly, he demonstrates the vast magnitude of Jesus’ command to love our neighbour. We tend to regulate Jesus’ command by wanting to restrict the category of neighbour, by limiting the circumstances in which we’re to show love and by inhibiting what we’re required to do. Thirdly, he argues that the motivation for loving our neighbour is not duty but the gospel. It is only when we’re experienced undeserved, self sacrificial love from an enemy that we’ll be moved to show it to others. This is what every Christian has experienced through Christ. And it motivates our neighbourly behaviour. Jesus refused to put limits on his love when he came to die for us. It is the gospel that drives the kind of radical ‘neighbour’ love that’s exemplified by the Good Samaritan.

There are still questions to be asked about what this means for our personal lives and for our church programmes.  How this is worked through in concrete terms is a matter of prayerful reflection and taking wise counsel. At the very least we need to recommit ourselves to praying for and supporting Options and we should seek to be informed on the legislative issues that the Christian Institute or Christian Concern for our Nation send out. But perhaps the first thing to do is to seek to be a good neighbour where we live. Imagine what it’d do for the house prices if there were a couple of Good Samaritans in your street! That’s infinitely more influential than having a Waitrose in the High Street!

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