Pastors’ and Theologians’ Forum on Church and Culture

Article
03.01.2010

We asked a roundtable of pastors and theologians the following questions:

Does Scripture call the local church (by which we mean the local church as the local church, not as individual Christians) to the work of cultural transformation? For example, is a failing school system the responsibility of the local church?

Answers from

Thabiti Anyabwile

Okay, first the easy response. What is primary in the church is preaching, applying, and living the gospel. The church is to make disciples and teach those disciples to observe all the Lord commands. The gospel is central and without the gospel a “church” ceases to be a church. So nothing that comes under the banner of “cultural transformation” is to displace that most central of concerns.  

Having said that, does not Christ command his people to do some things that touch upon cultural transformation or social issues? And insofar as the church is to teach disciples to obey all those commands, then I think on some level we’re in the business of “cultural transformation” (though that’s a hideous and misleading label).

I really dislike this question. It’s problematic in two ways. First, the question forces us to make a decision that’s too blunt or sweeping. It’s “all or nothing.” And, I think it may suggest that there is a “letter” to be obeyed without necessarily attending to a corresponding “spirit.” For example, I can’t think of chapter and verse (which the question seems to call for) that assigns the role of “cultural transformation” to the church qua church. And yet, I can’t reason that there is no role for the church when there are plenty of places where Christians universally are called to do justice in their cultural setting. What does it mean for there to be such a universal call to Christians and there to be no role for the church qua church (a gathering of said Christians in a particular locale preaching, administering the ordinances, and living out the faith)? The distinction the question imposes between the church and individual Christians breaks down, I think, when you’re talking about obligations Christians are universally to observe.

A second way in which the question is problematic: it seems to (a) assume a political and social context where government and perhaps a non-profit sector are intact and responsible for such things as education, and (b) overlook extraordinary social problems. So what is the church’s responsibility regarding cultural transformation in a developing nation (which is most of the world) where there are no basic governmental structures and no non-profit sector as in the United States? And can we comfortably conclude the church has no role to oppose things like the slave trade, sex trafficking, abortion, or provide disaster relief in famine or hurricanes?

We could rule some of these things in by exception. That is, we could say, “of course the church has a role in those limited extraordinary cases.” But if it has a role in such cases, why does it not have a role in the more mundane, ordinary, or chronic situations? Are we to organize mercy when the problem is glaring, but remain disorganized and disinterested when they are “every day”? I can’t see that.

So, right now, I’m left to conclude that there is Christian liberty in deciding whether a local church will involve itself in this or that social issue. A great deal of discernment is required, for obviously not every social issue is “close” to the church’s core mission, and there is a long history of social causes displacing gospel order. In my experience, Christians are generally nervous about exercising the liberties that Christ provides. Perhaps this is a corporate exercise in that nervousness.

Thabiti Anyabwile is the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman and the author, most recently, of The Decline of African American Theology (IVP, 2007).

John M. Frame

The task of the church is the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20)—to make disciples, teaching them “to observe all that I have commanded you.” By God’s grace, we train believers in obedience. That obedience inevitably transforms culture, as it has done now for nearly 2000 years. Christians have made huge contributions to learning, the arts and literature, the treatment of women, the abolition of anti-biblical slavery, the care of the poor, the sick, the widows, and orphans. Sin, of course, has impeded our mission; but the grace of God working through his people has accomplished amazing things.

Now some have argued that cultural transformation is the work of Christian individuals, but not of the local church. They argue that the latter should be limited to the area of the “spiritual,” the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. But the spiritual/secular distinction is not biblical. The gospel as proclaimed by John (Matt. 3:2), Jesus (Matt. 4:17), Philip (Acts 8:12), and Paul (Acts 19:8, 20:25, 28:23, 28:31) announces the coming of the kingdom of God, a new order of righteousness, peace, and joy (Rom. 14:17). In the kingdom, we do all things (not just “spiritual”) to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31), all things in the name of the Lord Jesus (Col. 3:17). It is plain that care for the poor, orphans, and widows is part of that.

Is a failing school system, then, for example, the responsibility of the local church? Education is part of our kingdom responsibility (Deut. 6:6-9, Tit. 2:12), part of the gospel of the kingdom. This may mean encouraging believers to educate their children at home, or in Christian schools. It may mean advocating a new commitment to excellence in the public schools. It is better that schools not be administered directly by the church: that is not necessary and it can be a distraction. But where there is no alternative, yes, the church may start a school, bringing to its children (and even to children of non-Christian parents) the riches of human knowledge within a kingdom-centered worldview. There are legitimate questions as to how best to handle such matters in different localities. But the question is not, whether the church has a responsibility, but how should it undertake that responsibility. The gospel of the kingdom is comprehensive—good news for every aspect of human life.

John Frame is a professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, and is the author, most recently, of Salvation Belongs to the Lord (P&R, 2006).

Michael Horton

This question is carefully framed. It may be assumed that to say “no, the church isn’t called to cultural transformation” means that one doesn’t think that Christians should try to improve their surroundings during the time that God has given them. Yet the reality is more complicated than that.

In my understanding, the local church is not free to do anything in Christ’s name that Christ himself—the King of the church—has not commissioned it to do. Preaching the Word, administering baptism and the Supper, teaching, and providing spiritual fellowship and discipline receive clear mandates in Scripture, with instructions for offices and procedures for carrying out this sacred embassy.

Now, as citizens of temporal kingdoms as well as the kingdom of Christ, believers are called to be husbands, wives, children, parents, employers, employees, voters, and neighbors in a variety of daily callings. In these vocations, they love and serve their neighbor. With no expectation that they are transforming the kingdoms of this world into the kingdom of Christ, they nevertheless “aspire to live quietly, and to mind [their] own business, and to work with [their] hands, so that [they] may live properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thes 4:11-12). Besides the imperatives given for proper conduct in the household of faith, there are commands to live with integrity in the world, to submit to those in authority, to pray for rulers, and so forth. So there is indeed much for us to do in this matter of fulfilling our vocations, loving, and serving our neighbors.

There is no call to cultural transformation in the New Testament. Yet if Christian churches are fulfilling their specific mandate and believers are being built up in the faith and practice through the Word, we can expect to see distinctive effects in the culture.

The kingdom of Christ itself is something that we are receiving (Heb 12:28), not something that we are building. In this present age, Christ is reigning in his church, as his unique and exclusive office of Prophet, Priest, and King is realized through the ministry of pastors, deacons, and elders. It is this ministry that creates a “new society” within the structures of this fading evil age.

Michael Horton is a professor of systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California, editor of Modern Reformation magazine, and the author, most recently of Covenant and Salvation: Union With Christ (WJK, 2007).

David Jackman

The corporate social role of believers, expressed at its most basic level in the local congregation, is to act as “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matt 5:13-14). Jesus tells us that our light shines before men in our ‘good deeds’ (v. 16). Similarly, Peter exhorts the scattered house churches to which his first letter is addressed to “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12).

This will happen in the lives of individual Christians, of course, but the original setting seems to be corporate and congregational, which means that the local church is being encouraged to be involved and play a strong role for good in the culture. The implication is that this will open the door for the gospel to be listened to, in that this quality of selfless Christian living will be a stimulus for enquiry to the unbelievers (1 Pet 3:15-16). “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal 6:10). The church fellowship is a model.

All this is part of our corporate expression of loving our neighbour as ourselves. We do this firstly by holding out the gospel and seeking to bring its good news to as many as possible in our community and we must never dilute this priority perspective, because it is eternal. But if we have no interest in the everyday needs of our community, where for many people their greatest needs and struggles are experienced, our expression of gospel love can sound pretty hollow. Only the gospel can transform human lives and culture, but compassionate Christian service, in love for our neighbour, will always be a powerful validation of its truth.

David Jackman is the president of the Proclamation Trust, a ministry dedicated to equipping preachers and teachers with a commitment to proclaiming God’s Word.

Jonathan Leeman

How do you “transform” something that’s dead? If you happen to be supernatural, you can make it alive (John 1:13). But you cannot transform it.

Are churches called to love, to serve, to care, to bring justice and mercy? In some capacities, yes; in other capacities, no. That’s a more complicated discussion, and I refer the reader to Steve Boyer and the Capitol Hill Baptist Church elder’s discussion on caring for the poor. Here, I simply want to state for the record that the entire discussion about “transforming culture” is only possible when Christian have begun to blur the line between church and world, between the city of God and the city of man, between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world, between children of the Father and children of the devil, between those who are God’s people and those who are not God’s people.

This exclusivistic line is offensive to our cultural sensibilities, so we talk about everyone being on a journey. We euphemize about the “unchurched” or “pre-Christian”; the label “non-Christians” sounds stark, absolutist, and intolerant. Am I claiming that any church knows precisely who the wheat are and who the tares are? No, but that’s not the point. The point is simply that wheat cannot “transform” tares other than by asking God to convert them into wheat. A tare is a tare is a tare.

Now, is a failing school the responsibility of the local church? No, of course not. Where does the Bible say churches are responsible for schools? Are the people who comprise a church responsible to love and serve their neighbors in myriad ways, including the education of the neighborhood’s children? Potentially, yes! In the same way that Christians are called to live and love like Good Samaritans, we should always be looking for ways to serve our non-Christian neighbors—that they might be given sight, hearing, hearts of flesh, and life!

Jonathan Leeman is the editor of the 9Marks eJournal.

Aaron Menikoff

Let me begin with four biblically informed assumptions. First, an overarching concern of the New Testament is personal transformation (c. f. Mark 7:14-23; Rom. 3:21-27; 1 Pet. 2:24); Jesus implied as much in John 18:36 when He told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Second, there is a clear emphasis in Scripture on the responsibility to care for Christians (c. f. Acts 6:1-6; Gal. 6:10; 2 Cor. 8-9). Third, the marks of the church, biblically and historically, are the right preaching of the word and the right administration of the ordinances (c. f. Eph. 2:20; Col. 1:28, 1 Cor. 11:20). Fourth, physical care for those outside the church is important (c. f. Gal. 6:10; Tit. 3:1-3; Matt. 5:13-16).

Combining these assumptions leads me to conclude that the church should focus on doing that which she is uniquely charged to do: guarding doctrine, preaching it boldly, and calling her members to live it out vigorously and practically in their communities. This excludes the church, as the church, from taking responsibility for the culture, though it does not exclude the church from changing the culture indirectly through the work of individuals. In fact, if a church is not expressing a Scriptural concern for those outside the church—leading and equipping her members to act—she is not preaching the whole counsel of God.

It is easy to set up a straw man by arguing a church that adopts this position has no corporate social conscience, but nothing could be further from the truth. Just look at the Second Great Awakening! Evangelical Christians, who believed that faith without works is dead, fed the poor and ministered to the blind, to name just a couple issues they targeted. Some of them even did so “as the local church,” but most did so as Christians who, transformed by the gospel, married physical and spiritual ministry—all with a heart to bring sinners to repentance.

Cultural transformation undertaken by individuals need not be thought of as the ugly-step sister of ministry sponsored by the church, especially when it is fired by the prophetic preaching and encouraged by the tender love of a local congregation.

Aaron Menikoff, a Ph.D. student in church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is an elder at Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and a writer for Kairos Journal for pastors.

Philip G. Ryken

Does Scripture call the local church (by which we mean the local church as the local church, not as individual Christians) to the work of cultural transformation? For example, is a failing school system the responsibility of the local church?

There is a sense in which the answer to this question must be “no.” The church’s primary calling is to preach the gospel and to worship God in the ministry of the Word, the sacraments, and prayer. While the worship of God and the proclamation of the gospel have a transforming influence on the surrounding culture, this does not happen directly, but indirectly, as the people of God live out the implications of their faith in every aspect of life.

Yet there are also ways in which the answer to this question must be “yes.” In its priestly ministry of intercession, the local church prays for the needs of its community—all of the areas where the surrounding culture needs to experience the transforming influence of the gospel. In its prophetic ministry of preaching and teaching God’s Word, the local church disciples its members to fulfill their various callings as parents, teachers, artists, students, politicians, business people—callings that have culture-transforming power. In its diaconal ministry of mercy, the local church offers practical service in the name of Christ—service that transforms the lives of the poor, the homeless, and the elderly, as well as children, prisoners, and internationals. In these ways, at least, the local church is called to the gospel work of cultural transformation. 

A church that regards such transformation as its primary goal may well miss its more fundamental calling to glorify God in preaching the gospel. Yet a church that minimizes the importance of its legitimate calling to cultural transformation may fail to do the full work of discipleship or of bearing full witness to the kingdom of God.

To take education as an example, a failing school system ought to be a matter of deep concern to Christian people. In appropriate ways, it can also be a legitimate area for local church involvement. Local churches can and should pray for the education of local children. They can and should support local Christian schools through their benevolences. Where permitted, they can and should lead Bible studies, provide Christ-centered religious education, or do other evangelistic work in local schools. Where invited (as is the case in Philadelphia), they can and should respond to the request of the civil government to offer spiritual and educational mentoring to local students.

Philip G. Ryken is the senior minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and is the author, most recently, of What Is the Christian Worldview (P&R, 2006).

Tony Payne

One is hard pressed to think of a word from Scripture that calls local Christian congregations to see cultural transformation (of the kind envisaged in your question) as part of their God-given work and mandate. Then again, one is hard pressed to think of many things at all in the New Testament that are given to local gatherings (considered as such) to be their work or mandate. D. B. Knox was fond of pointing out that, in the New Testament, the activities of the local congregation (as a congregation) do not go beyond loving, Spirit-filled fellowship with one another around Christ based on the heavenly gathering of which we are all members, and mutual edification as we look forward to the Day of his coming (see e.g. Heb 10:24-25; 12:18-24; Col 3:1-4f.).

Of course, because of our heavenly fellowship in and with Christ, and because of our desire to love and do good to all people (especially the household of faith), we will band together for all manner of purposes, in all manner of associations, both short- and long-term, depending on our opportunities and circumstances. 

Prayerfully proclaiming the gospel will remain the chief of these purposes—not least because Christ has commissioned his people specifically to do so—but it will not be the only one. Tackling besetting social and cultural problems (such as a failing education system) may well be a good purpose that Christians work together on, and Christians have famously done so throughout history. But, as far as I can see in Scripture, it is not the particular responsibility of the local congregation, viewed as such. 

Tony Payne is publishing director at Matthias Media and the author of multiple books.

Stephen Um

All peoples, institutions, and groups are interested in changing, renewing, or transforming society by impressing their core values on the culture. For that matter, we cannot help but make an impact on our culture. The minute anyone opens his mouth, he is speaking in a particular language, from a particular cultural context, with a particular worldview vision of morality and various definitions of what he believes to be the “true”, the “good”, and the “beautiful.” As such, no one should be led to think that he is not “getting into the public square.”

In addressing the question, “Is it the church’s responsibility to embrace or assume the civic responsibility of the state (e.g. education, the poor, social injustice, the arts, etc.)?”, we need to consider the following. The church does not have any juridical authority in the city/state public square, but that does not mean that the Church ought to stay out in the periphery. The church does have the responsibility for acts of mercy and for engaging our community with acts of social justice (cf. Jas. 1.27). Paul states that “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10). He is clearly referring to a deed ministry that should be shared with all people as they have need. James says that true religion is this: “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (Jas. 1.27). In other words, it is the church’s responsibility to pursue both public compassion and personal piety. For example, although a failing school system is not the civic responsibility of the church, the church could get involved in “doing good” by perhaps coming along side of the local school in providing after-school tutoring.

Unfortunately, some activist or fundamentalist groups have thought that they should either assume the responsibility of the state (whether conservative or liberal) or impede the government’s involvement in the lives of individuals. However, the gospel calls individuals in the church to pursue the common good in our culture and to enter into the public square by encouraging and promoting gospel values and by engaging in an incarnational/grassroots strategy for cultural renewal and community development. This is not to suggest that social action, political involvement, or pursuing the common good is a replacement for evangelism.

What does this gospel response look like? There is to be an integration of faith and vocational calling in bringing cultural renewal. Thus, the church and its members should cultivate friendships with people in their neighborhoods, join clubs and associations, and partner with organizations that are also involved in acts of mercy and social justice. In other words, because the ministry of the gospel is both a ministry of word and deed, we can actually promote the public witness of the gospel by pursuing the common good and engaging in acts of social justice.

Stephen Um is the senior minister of Citylife Presbyterian Church in Boston, Massachusetts.

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