Three Levels of Mission 2/3: Changing the Social Order
In his master plan for the organisation of the land of Israel (Ezekiel 40-48) the prophet laid down that the people had to provide a large estate for the ruler. The reason for this generous allowance was so that he might be content with it and not try to take more land from the people. It was the prophet’s answer to the kind of thing that happened when Ahab coveted the vineyard of Naboth and his wife Jezebel committed serious injustice in order to get it for him.
Speaking out on matters of this kind was characteristic of the prophets. Kings and their officials, including priests, were regular targets. The prophets themselves were the outsiders, the angry young men (and angry old men), who were not beholden to anybody except to God. Since they happen to be in the Old Testament rather than the New Testament, some Christians think that they can ignore them. But is not the OT a vital and essential part of Christian Scripture?
In our first instalment we considered the first level of evangelism – persuading individuals to believe and accept the gospel. Now we are at the public social level and are reminded that the task of evangelism also involves persuading and criticising politicians and others, yes, captains of industry and church leaders as well. Evangelism is not just the proclamation of good news; it includes the proclamation of divine judgment on human sin and the need to establish justice in human dealings.
If you want to convert society and change it for the better, you must change the individuals who compose it, and that will include persuading and changing its leaders. Some people argue, therefore, that the church should not be intervening in politics, economics and education but should confine its efforts to preaching the gospel so that people may repent and believe. If Christians are going to teach social justice at all, it should be to those who are already Christians and who should be prepared to listen to the implications of their faith. But the Bible shows clearly enough that the proclamation of social justice is made to people quite indiscriminately. We may have gone astray because we have concentrated on the gospel as the offer of salvation and have forgotten the message of the Kingdom of God which is the content of the good news, a message which involves the condemnation of sin and the call to righteousness. Society is to be confronted with the demands of divine justice and compassion. We are to pray for rulers that we may live a godly and quiet life without disturbance.
This view is, then, not universally held by Christians, and that is why I am deliberately arguing for it. It has been said that the proper duty of the church is simply to prepare its members for the next life, and therefore is confined to helping them to develop their own individual relationship with God and promoting their Christian fellowship with one another. But this is quite fallacious because on the day of judgment Christ will be concerned with whether we did what we could to help the poor and needy. We cannot make a distinction between what we do as private individuals and what we do as members of society and as members of corporate bodies. I am responsible to God not only for what I do with my income in private, personal acts of charity but also for what I do in determining the policies of the company for which I work or in carrying them out as an employee. The church cannot evade the task of proclaiming God’s demands and standards to the world at large and especially to those who administer its nations and peoples.
The Bible shows clearly enough that the proclamation of social justice is made to people quite indiscriminately
The most powerful argument for this task comes from the Old Testament where we see the prophets of God in action against the sins of foreign peoples and against their own rulers and priests. Does that not carry over into the New Testament? We have the example of Jesus in his criticisms of the scribes and the Pharisees. They were not the government but had tremendous influence among the people as the interpreters of the law, and therefore they were more like a political party, but one with a religious foundation. Jesus attacked them for their misunderstanding of the law which neglected matters of justice and mercy and laid great burdens upon the people. Jesus also had sharp things to say to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, and Paul addressed the Roman governor Felix in no uncertain terms about his failings. James stands out among the New Testament writers for his attacks on the rich who exploited the poor, and he is indiscriminate as to whether they are believers or non-believers. God condemns all who oppress the poor. Revelation contains strong attacks on the wickedness of the commercial world, intent on making money and seeking pleasure at the cost of the poor.
We can sum up the content of this message to the world in terms of justice and compassion. It would be quite topical to take the message of Ezekiel 45:7-12 and apply it to the bosses of our large industries who are commanding ever larger salaries while they render many employees out of work and force them to join the ranks of the unemployed. The economic facts of life may dictate that those with greater responsibility and skills will get more pay than others; what is monstrous is that some people should get extremely high salaries while they are sacking others in the interests of lowering costs in their industry. It is equally monstrous that our government should actively promote a lottery scheme which enables a few chance individuals to become millionaires instead of tackling the problems of poverty constructively. Ezekiel wanted the princes to have sufficient wealth to stop them preying on others, but he condemned them for their oppression and for the dishonesty which they practised to gain their ends. He wanted to see accurate weights and measures. His concern was for justice. But justice slides over into compassion, once you start saying that people who cannot earn (say, because of disability) are entitled to a reasonable share of the community's wealth.
So we need as a church to engage in a Christian critique of our society. We are to speak out to the community in which we live. But we shall do so in a balanced way. The church’s commentary must not be wholly negative; we must be prepared to recognise goodness when we see it and to commend it, and not think that society is as bad as it can possibly be. There is much goodness alongside much evil. And we must see to it that the society is made aware of our critique.
One function of the Christian congregation is to be a model of the Kingdom of God, an example in miniature of life in the Kingdom. The congregation should be a model to society of how people can live in harmony and promote the good of one another. That has to be done because that is what God wants the church to be. But in so doing we should be creating a pattern that the world can see. Mind you, not many people do see what goes on inside a congregation and what its relationships are like; but it will see us when we live as Christians in the community around us. Our life together must inevitably overflow into the community at large; the boundaries are fuzzy and diffuse and goodness must not be bound by the household of faith. What is meant as an example should become something of a bridgehead through which God's cause in the world is advanced. The sovereignty of God must be extended over His world.
Our life together must inevitably overflow into the community at large
The message of Jeremiah: Seek the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29:7), prescribes how we are to live in the world. It's not a case of minding our own business and showing love only on a personal, individual level; I cannot divorce my life as a public person, especially as an employee and member of society, from my private, personal life and try to be a Christian merely in the latter. My life must be a harmonious whole in which God is glorified and I love my neighbours as myself. And as a Christian, I have to be aware that it is my way of life that helps to form the world for good or evil
Howard Marshall is a circuit steward in the North of Scotland Mission Circuit and an Honary professor in the University of Aberdeen.
Headline Spring 2007 pp.20-21