Just A Spoonful Of Wilberforce
Do you remember the words from London’s favorite nanny, “Just a spoonful of sugar”? It’s great British advice: take your medicine, and keep your sweets in moderation.
But apparently we don’t take the advice, at least the moderating-our-sweets part. The average Brit now consumes 15 spoonfuls of sugar a day. Americans consume 19. In the past, I’ve sought sweeping sugar sobriety only to cave to Cadbury’s chocolate. My three young children are worse. They’re obsessed with monosaccharide, and I find myself regularly thinking of Mary Poppins’ lyrics, with an emphasis on the one: just one spoonful, please!
So it is with many things in life: a little of something is great, while a lot is not so great.
Consider the way many Christians talk about William Wilberforce in particular and Christian political activism in general. Within Christian circles there are two extreme stances when it comes to both socio-political engagement and sugar: addictive worldly indulgence or the stanch conviction that true believers who really love their body “don’t touch the stuff.”
Some have seemingly become so hooked on the sweetness of political influence that their church body has also absorbed the predominant political philosophy of the day. From my perspective in the UK, I think of Rev. Kelvin Holdsworth, who recently encouraged the Church of England to attract the LGBT community by praying that its future Supreme Head (little Prince George) would be gay.
Similarly, former Liberal Democrat leader and self-professing evangelical, Tim Farron, eventually yielded to his political hunger, and stated, “I don’t believe gay sex is a sin.” Farron, thus, secured his constituency and won more votes for his party. Ironically, however, he resigned days later, stating that the current political climate made it impossible to be both a political leader and a committed Christian.
On the other end of the spectrum, some Christians, who love their body (their local church body), steer clear of all engagement in civil life. Here, the American Amish and the British Brethren readily come to mind, many of whom believe that holding political office is off the menu for believers.
Such thinking is more subtly evidenced in evangelical churches that: ignore the political hot potatoes of the day, fail to equip believers for activity within the public square, and give the impression that all mature Christians move into full-time Christian ministry.
Navigating a faithful middle way is thorny. Consequently, I confess that I have previously leaned in the safer direction of a sugar-free political existence.
More recently, however, one church member pointed me toward an “inspiring” biography of William Wilberforce. Just weeks later, my father—who worked in local government—told me that he too was reading the sweet biography and “couldn’t put it down.” Somewhat intimidated by the 700 pages, I declined their offers to borrow the tome.
But the two conversations had piqued my interest. I started to read up on the Christian politician, who abolished the slave trade, and I fell in love with his unremitting prayer: “May I be the instrument of stopping such a course of wickedness.” I also discovered that Wilberforce was influential in countless other social reforms, including legislation that improved the lives of my Worsley ancestors in the textile mills of Lancashire. The more Wilberforce I tasted, the more delectable his faithfulness became, and the greater appetite I had for seeing Christians equipped for the increasingly difficult occupations of law, education, and politics.
However, this growing admiration for Wilberforce has led me to discover a tendency among some Christians and parachurch organizations to abandon the old principle of moderation—just one spoonful, please. When we present Wilberforce not only as a model Christian politician, but also the model of what every Christian should be doing and what every Christian should expect in the public square, basic Christianity becomes all about applying the Christian life to culture and investing all our time in fighting liberal ethics and conservative injustice. We teach our students that, if they believe and work hard enough, they too can change the world.
It’s like the Wilberforce morality-tales are turned into a sugar high.
It makes me wonder, have some of us become dangerously addicted to the sweet social reformer? Is this really what Jesus calls all of us to do?
THREE INDICATIONS YOU’RE ON A SOCIO-POLITICAL HIGH
While there’s not time here to analyze all the potential merits and flaws of such gorging on Wilberforce, and exactly how many spoonfuls of him one should consume, I want to highlight three danger signs that I observe in some today:
1. A Failure To Honor God-given Institutions
Is Jesus Lord over every square inch of the Oval Office and 10 Downing Street? Yes. Do Jesus’ words underscore that both President Trump and Prime Minister May ought to change their positions on a variety of issues? Certainly. But should their failure terminate our respect for them? No. The Bible is clear. Christians are to obey the civil government because God has established it. Its leaders are to be prayed for and obeyed.
However disillusioned we may be with our current political climate, we’re not to deride God-given authority. Indeed, Christians today who engage respectfully—either in public courtrooms or behind private computer screens—are some of the sweetest (and saltiest) people around (Matt. 5:13–16). They’re the people who are best placed to deliver the glorious shock of Christ’s rule and return. The present authorities of this age have no future, but they do have a legitimate present.
2. A Greater Hope For Cultural Change In The Public Square Than In The Local Church
I don’t know how involved Wilberforce was at Holy Trinity, Clapham, whether he played the bass or was on the Welcome Team. But he certainly appeared to spend most of his waking hours addressing social issues. I don’t think this was sinful given the nature of his occupation, and I’m very reluctant to start talking in quantitative terms about how Christians should spend their time.
However, I am concerned when believers start to care more about their temporal local government body, than their eternal local ecclesiastical body, and hence, more about being a cultural man-at-arms than a church member. The Christian’s most compelling political witness to Christ’s reign is their local church. For it’s here that the non-Christian sees and hears of Christ’s love and justice.
Moreover, when Jesus’ Great Commission is correlated with cultural transformation—when the call to make disciples through a proclamation of the gospel and a baptism into the local church is misguidedly equated with Christians in civil vocations spreading a gospel culture to all creation—many energetic young believers waver in their commitment to their local church body.
3. An Expectation Of Political Victory Now
The film Amazing Grace closes with Parliament giving Wilberforce a standing ovation. And as the credits roll, the bagpipe procession outside Westminster Abbey (where he is buried) confirms what we already knew: Wilberforce won.
Praise God for this sweet victory. I hope and pray that as more people (particularly legislators) are converted, we’ll see increasing justice in society.
Nevertheless, Christians shouldn’t presume earthly victory. Indeed, having just preached Ecclesiastes, I’m pretty convinced that we ought to expect much injustice under the sun (Eccl. 5:8).
Furthermore, we must remember that the cross of Christ hasn’t yet universally eradicated all the effects of the fall. Christ certainly inaugurates an alternative polis of the justified and the just, but we, as the outpost of heaven, still live in a bitter world. Christians should expect to see the sweet kingdom of Christ’s church growing (Mrk. 4:30–31)—and possibly toward the end exponential growth amidst much suffering.
But we don’t have any clear grounds for expecting the political realm to be progressively influenced by the Church. Our political influence will wax and wane, and as Christians in every era we’re called to faithfully stand. Maybe we will see Wilberforce’s sweet fruit; maybe we’ll see Polycarp’s sour fire.
FINDING THE BALANCE
At the end of the day, it turns out you can have too much of a good thing. Like sugar. Like William Wilberforce morality tales.
So tell the stories of successful Christian social advocates—absolutely. But you might also tell the “unsuccessful” stories too, and explain how so many “unsuccessful” heroes pleased God through their faithfulness.
Think of the heroes in Hebrews 11. These heroes, too, sought to “conquer kingdoms, enforce justice, obtain promises” (Heb. 11:33). But along the way, they were “stoned, were sawn in two, were killed with the sword” (v.36). How could they do it? Because their hearts were set on “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16). Though they “did not receive what was promised,” they knew God had promised something “better” (vv. 39–40).
Praise God for the good they did here. But they did good here not by hoping in the now, but in the not-yet.
* * * * *
 William Hague, William Wilberforce, The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner
 John Piper, The Roots of Endurance provides an excellent short biographical account of Wilberforce, as does Derek Bingham, Wilberforce: The Freedom Fighter for a younger readership.
 Robert Isaac Wilberforce and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, Volume 1. p. 143
 John 19:11, Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-14, 1 Timothy 2:1-3
 The 2006 film on the life of William Wilberforce directed by Michael Apted.
 Romans 11:25-27; Matthew 24:15-2