12 October 2018

Statement on Social Justice, 8: The Church

Although I am by profession an academic political scientist, in recent years I have become more interested in ecclesiological issues, as reflected in the forthcoming second edition of Political Visions and Illusions, which will contain "A Concluding Ecclesiological Postscript." The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel also treats the church:

We affirm that the primary role of the church is to worship God through the preaching of his word, teaching sound doctrine, observing baptism and the Lord’s Supper, refuting those who contradict, equipping the saints, and evangelizing the lost. We affirm that when the primacy of the gospel is maintained that this often has a positive effect on the culture in which various societal ills are mollified. We affirm that, under the lordship of Christ, we are to obey the governing authorities established by God and pray for civil leaders.

We deny that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church. Though believers can and should utilize all lawful means that God has providentially established to have some effect on the laws of a society, we deny that these activities are either evidence of saving faith or constitute a central part of the church’s mission given to her by Jesus Christ, her head. We deny that laws or regulations possess any inherent power to change sinful hearts.

Prior to drafting this section, the statement's authors would have done well to read Abraham Kuyper on the church, especially his sermons contained in Rooted and Grounded: The Church as Organism and Institution. Kuyper's ecclesiology is exceedingly helpful in enabling us to sort our way through the issue of the church's ongoing mission in the world. On the one hand, we see denominational assemblies pronouncing on such political issues as the $15 an hour minimum wage and a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, and many of us, rightly to my mind, conclude that this is inappropriate for a variety of reasons. On the other hand, we also confess that our whole lives belong to God in Christ and that this includes our life together in political community. We definitely should be concerned about the poor and international justice. Is this a paradox with which we must simply live and move ahead by trial and error, valiantly attempting to avoid the opposite perils of politicizing the gospel and walling it off from the rest of life?


Not at all. This is where Kuyper offers us help. The church as organism, or corpus Christi, is all-encompassing. It covers all who are born anew in Christ in every facet of their lives. We are Christians, not just on Sundays when we attend church and engage in formal worship, but every day of the week in our multiple overlapping offices of parents, offspring, spouses, teachers, students, buyers and sellers in the market, members of congregations, citizens of political communities, &c. In this respect, the mission of the church is as wide as the kingdom of God itself, including the academy, the arts, the sciences and technology, social relations, agriculture, transportation, and occupations of all sorts. From a Kuyperian perspective there is no such thing as a "secular" pursuit, as opposed to "sacred" matters. The whole of life is to be lived coram Deo—in God's presence. Or, as the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism famously puts it, "I am not my own but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful saviour Jesus Christ."

In the past some of Kuyper's heirs have focused so heavily on the church as corpus Christi that they have neglected the church as institution, which plays an all-important role in the life of the Christian community. Here the church is a specific differentiated community to whom God has given a quite specific task, which the statement's authors sum up nicely in the affirmations above: " to worship God through the preaching of his word, teaching sound doctrine, observing baptism and the Lord’s Supper, refuting those who contradict, equipping the saints, and evangelizing the lost." When Christians lose sight of the central task of the institutional church, they risk dissipating its energies and effectively starving the members of the congregation of their spiritual sustenance. Church denominations that focus lopsidedly on political issues not only go beyond their normative competence but inevitably neglect the primary responsibilities that the statement's authors properly list above. In which case, parishioners are likely to stay home and look for spiritual sustenance elsewhere.

I also appreciate this affirmation "that when the primacy of the gospel is maintained . . . this often has a positive effect on the culture in which various societal ills are mollified." One would not wish to affirm the legitimacy of the institutional church on utilitarian grounds alone, but I am increasingly persuaded that, where the institutional church pursues its divinely-appointed task, the culture is more likely to flourish. But this will take hard work on the part of Christians in the other spheres of life outside of the institutional church.

While I agree with most of the denials above, I believe that grappling with Kuyper's ecclesiology might have prompted the authors to modify these in some measure. The first sentence would then more likely read: "We deny that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the institutional church." I might quibble with how the authors express some of the denials, but I believe that the principal flaw here would be rectified by their recognition of Kuyper's distinction between the church as organism and the church as institution.

Next: Heresy.

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can be contacted at: dtkoyzis@gmail.com