作者: Krish Kandiah
Social Jusitce, Mark Dever and Lausanne.
The main thing is that the main thing remains the main thing. That is what I was told as a young Christian with respect to my life priorities. But I believed that my passion for evangelism was not just a personal priority choice - it ought to be priority of every Christian’s life and therefore the mission priority of the church.
I used to preach sermons to motivate people to evangelism that argued: “the only thing to leave this planet will be the word of God and souls of men” a quote I borrowed from my mentor. But thanks to movements like Lausanne, I soon began to see the shortsightedness and lack of biblical basis for my beliefs. Apart from having a pietistic, individualistic understanding of salvation and an almost gnostic eschatology that effectively denied the resurrection of the body and the restoration of the earth, my views did not sufficiently present the mission of God or the role of the people of God in that mission.
One would have thought after the commitments made at 1967 Lausanne congress and then elaborated at Manila in 1989 the evangelical case for the integration of social responsibility and evangelism had been made. I wish the debates were over and we could just get on and do the work. But I still find God-loving, sincere, bible-centred Christians arguing that social responsibility is not a priority for the corporate life of the church.
Influential speakers and movements from Washington DC to Sydney are just as adamant as ever that the preaching of the gospel is the unique task of the church and therefore should be the missional priority of the church. Because this is not a minority viewpoint and because their writings and speaking are disseminated globally through online materials, I believe it is worth joining the public conversation they have started.
Take the following excerpt from Mark Dever, an influential leader based in Capitol Hill, Washington DC. In a presentation called “the Pastor and his community” Dever presents 35 theses as to why the church should not prioritise social justice or take on social responsibility for its community.
Dever: Thesis 15… We, as a congregation, are not required to take responsibility for the physical needs in the unbelieving community around us. We do have a responsibility to care for the needs of those within our congregation.
In this approach to social responsibility there is a sharp line is drawn between caring for the practical needs of Christians and non-Christians. A similar criticism was raised against a holitic mission programme that we developed for UK churches called Square Mile www.eauk.org/squaremile - arguing from texts such as Galatians 6:10 that it was the people of God that Christians had responsibility for. I think that is part of what the Good Samarian parable was challenging but also the whole sweep of biblical revelation – where genesis 12 tells us that Abraham was called to be a blessing to all nations, Jeremiah instructs exiles to seek the welfare of Babylon. The church was called to bless all the nations not just the church.
Dever: Thesis 25. We must carefully prioritize the responsibilities unique to the church. Matters like a concern for education, politics, and mercy ministries for those beyond the church’s membership are proper concerns for Christians to have, but the church itself is not the structure for addressing such concerns.
At one level it would seem that this statement affirms the Lausanne covenant, which clearly articulates in the fifth article:
Lausanne: “We affirm that God is both the Creator and the Judge of all people. We therefore should share his concern for justice and reconciliation throughout human society and for the liberation of men and women from every kind of oppression.”
But although we seem all to agree that it is right and proper that individual Christians care for the poor, it is not generally agreed that this is something that the church is called to do corporately. The clear reasoning from Dever for his position is that: “if such concerns came to be the focus of the church, they could potentially distract the church from its main and unique responsibility, that of incarnating and proclaiming the gospel”. The implication is that due to the potential of distracting the church from its unique task of proclaiming the gospel the church should not engage as church in political and social concerns.
I think there are some very important issues raised by Dever’s paper and so I offer what I hope is a respectful critique with the following 4 questions:
1. What is the church?
Dever’s approach seems to separate out what the church gathered and the church scattered should be doing. If we understand the church in terms of the biblical metaphors of the body of Christ or the household of God, then we cannot see the church simply as an event that happens once a week where, as the reformers puts it, the “pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance.” The church is not just a meeting where most of us passively receive the word of God and the sacraments from the clergy. We are a community, a body, a family whether we are together or not, whether we are in the pew or at our desk or in our garden. The idea of dissecting the responsibility of the people of God for social justice from the church is as preposterous as suggesting we only have responsibility to worship Christ when we are corporately gathered. I think the logical conclusion of this thinking wold be that if Jesus was to elaborate on his parable, would he really have said that if the man lying robbed and wounded on the Jericho road had seen two Christians walking down the road, they would be excused from stopping to help because as a group of believers they had no social responsibility though they might have done as individuals? I am sure Dever would not agree with this – but I think this is logically where his approach leads.
Jonathan Leeman , a colleague of Dever responded to the previous paragraph by writing:
It’s true the church is not simply a gathering, and it’s true the church is more than a set of activities. The question is, what constitutes the local church on earth as a local church? For instance, see Matt. 18:17-21, 1 Cor. 5:4-5, 1 Cor. 11:8-9. By analogy, a football team is a football team whether they are on the field or separated in their hotel rooms. But what constitutes them as a football team? Is it not a set of activities (and a defined set of activities, not just any activities)?
Jonathan’s response seems to argue that the equivalent of playing a game of football for the church is what we do in a church building on a Sunday. The constitutive practices are preaching and communion. But this underlines the idea that the most important part of being church is what we do in the church building. But equally Jesus argued that surely” all men will know you are my disciples if you love one another” (John 13:35) Jesus marks the defining feature disciples as being love, that is a command to the church to love as Christ loved – surely showing love for my brothers and sisters outside of church services is as much being a church as what we do in the building? Or how about evangelism – surely that is part of what it means for us to be a church too – but most evangelism does not take place when we are gathered in one place? So I don’t think the constitution of the church can be limited to a set of activities that take place in a service. In fact 1 John 3 argues the opposite:
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
The mark of whether we are “in the love of God” which I would argue implies being part of the redeemed people of God is marked by the way we treat people not in services of communion and preaching but in whether we have genuinely loved them. This echoes the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. To love with a few nice words to one another in a Sunday service is not love says John, but the actually being involved with eachothers lives and showing compassionate care is the mark of our being part of the body of Christ. So sadly I don’t think the football analogy holds water. What do you think?
2. What does it mean to ‘proclaim and incarnate’ the gospel if we separate out social responsibility and evangelism?
Dever rightly affirms that the church is called to “proclaim and incarnate the gospel.” Jesus is our prime example of this. But when Christ incarnated the gospel for us he met the spritual, physical, social and emotional needs of those he ministered to. Calling people to salvation was not merely giving them a ticket to heaven, it called for a radical reorientation of their whole life – Zaccheus started to hand back wealth unfairly gained, the rich young ruler was told to give his money to the poor, the expert in the law was told to love like a gracious Samaritan. So it is impossible for God’s people to incarnate the gospel without taking social responsibility as seriously as we take preaching and evangelism.
3. Why does the fact that someone else is doing something mean we shouldn’t?
Dever quotes the reformed theological John Murray at length:
“To the church is committed the task of proclaiming the whole counsel of God and, therefore, the counsel of God as it bears upon the responsibility of all persons and institutions. While the church is not to discharge the functions of other institutions such as the state and the family, nevertheless it is charged to define what the functions of these institutions are . . . . To put the matter bluntly, the church is not to engage in politics. Its members must do so, but only in their capacity as citizens of the state, not as members of the church,” (John Murray, “The Relation of Church and State,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 1 [Banner of Truth, 1976], 255).
There is much to commend here. Murray rightly pinpoints the churches responsibility to advocate God’s kingdom in every area of society. He affirms that as we preach we must address not just individuals but institutions showing as Jim Wallis has said that “every budget is a moral document.” The decisions that our government makes on spending money is based on an implicit moral theology, so for example when we spend more money on arms than on alms we are demonstrating our theological commitments. But Murray then goes on to state that the church is not to discharge the functions of other institutions.
If he means the church should not run parallel institutions that further ghetto-ise Christianity from the mainstream – like running schools just for Christians - I can see his point. But I think Dever is citing Murray in a wider context to further his case that the corporate church should not take social responsibility for its neighborhood. Again the parable of the Good Samaritan would then read like this: As the priest walked past on the other side he said: “Look there is a man left for dead on this road to Jericho – this is what the ambulance service is for, as I preached about last year on the subject of improved emergency services”. This abdication of responsibility is precisely what Jesus is challenging the expert in the law about in the parable. Apart from the flawed ecclesiology of this thinking, there is a pietistic individualism that is nascent in this approach. I wonder how far Dever would go with this separation in practice. If it is fine that individual Christians help those in need when not with other Christians, could they expect any financial help, any prayer support, any use of “church” facilities for their good works?
Dever pastors a church called Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC, which is only a few blocks away from the seat of US Government. Despite his proximity to the most powerful body in the world, Dever argues against the political engagement on the church. I think we need some clarification here. I take it that Dever means that the church should not be partisan or tell the congregation which party to vote for in an election, then I agree. But if he is arguing against the mix of church and politics then I think there is a problem. The church is by very nature political and our confession ‘Jesus is Lord’ is a direct challenge to every level of leadership, governance and management. The Lord’s prayer is a direct call for God’s kingdom to come on earth. The Bible is full of mandates to seek the welfare of the city, take responsibility for the right governance of the people, the right distribution of resources etc. Again if the caveat is that what believers do in their own time is their own business and not the churches this seems to be very limiting on what can be taught in church – surely we would be arguing for the lordship of christ over all of life.
Jonathan Leeman responded on Dever’s behalf stating:
Dever would see his mandate to “teach them everything I have commanded” (Matt. 28). The point, rather, is that there is a difference between a university which teaches engineering and an engineer. The analogy’s not perfect, but the point Dever is making is, “The central purpose of the university is to teach its students to go and do engineering.” You seem to be responding, “But isn’t the professor to go and do as well?” To which the reply is, “Well, yes, of course, but the purpose of his being a professor is to teach.”
I think again the difference is an ecclesiological one, Leeman’s analogy seems to underline the church is what happens on a Sunday, church is for teaching individual christians what to do in the rest of their lives. I understand the church to be who we are all the time. Besides the most effective way of learning is not just to be preached at but to be part of a community that lives out the gospel. Learning through praxis. Even in the teaching of Engineering – there are fieldtrips, workplacements etc. Because learning is more than passive listening. Christ’s way of forming disciples involved preaching, but he called a community together to follow in his footsteps together.
It would see William Wilberforce’s campaign against slavery, Martin Luther King’s voice for equality and an end to racism or the Barmen declaration of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer that challenged the Nazis as not the church’s business. These were more than brave individuals they were part of a community of change. Were they not the church when they were doing these world changing acts?
What about the gospel of the kingdom of God? What about the call to steward the whole of creation? What about the God who inspired Isaiah to redefine fasting and worship? What about Christ’s call to do our (corporate) good deeds in the sight of the world (Matthew 5:16)? As Tim Keller points out, our good deeds cannot mean praying, having church services and running Alpha courses - our good deeds must be practically demonstrating the love of God.
4. Will this article be read?
I know that my article will never be read in Capitol Baptist Church. In his seminar Dever clearly states:
Thesis 34 “In our duties as under-shepherds, we want to protect our flock from the well-meaning writings and teachings of those who emphasize their role of making a difference in the culture. Those individuals may be uniquely gifted and called, but it is not a Biblical model for the local church.”
This sounds like censorship. By discouraging the church from engaging with different opinions to those that have been decided by the eldership, there is a mindset that I find quite prevalent in my own conservative evangelical context: at the risk of caricaturing there are some with the approach that says we need to ‘protect people from other ways of thinking’. It is as though what is being said is “I have made up my mind don’t confuse me with the evidence”; or even more worryingly: “I have made up the mind of my congregation – don’t confuse them with the evidence.”
As far as I understand it is only the scriptures that are infallible. I certainly do not claim to have an infallible grasp on them and so I have a theology that moves, that benefits from tough questions, from friendly critique, from constant reappraisal. On the issue at hand I invite Dever to show me where I have misunderstood Scripture.
The main thing is that the main thing remains the main thing. I still hold to this, with my current understanding that the main thing is that Jesus wants his one body the church to do his one mission and incarnate and proclaim the gospel as the united people of God.
I take issue with much of the paper that Dever presented. But as a gifted preacher I value his ministry. I invited him to speak at mission events when he was training for ministry in Cambridge in 1990s and he has only ever treated me with great grace and respect. I have greatly benefited from hearing his preaching and I pray that my contribution will be received as an admirer who seeks to engage with one area of his missiology, not as a personal attack or an attempt to discredit his wider ministry.