The Mission of the Church: Justice, Part 2 (Further from Christopher Wright)

Eucharist-Mission1

Wright on Justice

So we have to start with love. From there, we go to justice. Christopher Wright speaks first of believers who serve the state for God’s purposes.

First, they accepted the realities of the public sphere they became part of, in spite of all its ambiguity. Daniel and his three friends accepted a massive degree of cultural adjustment before they reached a line that they would not cross (Dan. 1). They accepted Babylonian names, Babylonian education in the Babylonian language, and entered Babylonian employment. Joseph obviously learned the language of Egypt so fluently that his own brothers did not know he was not a native (Gen. 42:23). Esther, though she had little choice in the matter other than martyrdom for refusal, accepted a cultural practice that must have been profoundly distasteful, and with Mordecai’s help came to see it as an opportunity to save lives.

Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission, Biblical Theology for Life, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 230 (italics in original).

Obviously, believers are not banned from government service. In fact, God has been known to use believers in government service to serve his purposes. Obviously, the government’s agenda will not always be God’s, and sometimes a government employee must refuse to honor a government directive — as Daniel refused to give up praying to YHWH and so was thrown into the lions’ den.

Secondly, they worked constructively and conscientiously for the government and for social benefit.

Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission, Biblical Theology for Life, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 230.

While the government and God sometimes pursue separate, contradictory agendas, the role of government generally aligns well with God’s goals. God wants the innocent protected from criminals, and he wants disputes settled by a just court system.

Third, they preserved their integrity. … In the New Testament, the evidence for believers in political service is thinner, but if one can build an argument by inference, it seems likely that since Paul can speak of the Roman governing authorities as “God’s servants”, using words otherwise used for Christian ministry (diakonos twice in Rom. 13:4 and leitourgos in v. 6), he would not have disallowed Christians from serving in political office. Political and judicial service can both be service of God. 

Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission, Biblical Theology for Life, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 230–231.

There’s no suggestion the Cornelius was required to resign from the Roman military, that the Philippian jailer had to give up his post, or that Sergius Paulus had to resign as proconsul (Acts 13:7).

Wright also mentions praying for the government.

[I]t is fitting at this point to mention that God’s people in both Testaments are commanded to pray for the state where they are, not just for other believers, whether Israelites or Christians.

The first example comes from that shocking letter of Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon.

Also, seek the peace and prosperity [šalom] of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper [lit., ‘in its šalom is šalom for you’]. (Jer. 29:7)

… It really is remarkable that Jeremiah urges the exiles to seek such blessing for their Babylonian neighbours.

“But they are our enemies!”

“So what? Pray for them. Seek their welfare.”

It is a short step from this amazing instruction that Jeremiah gave the exiles to the equally jaw-dropping mission that Jesus lays on his disciples: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).

Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission, Biblical Theology for Life, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 231-232.

Even though the government will, at times, be at odds with God’s commands, government is given us to serve God’s purposes, and so should be prayed for. Even our captors. Even those who take us from our lands, tear down our Temple, destroy our capitol, kill our king, and carry us across the desert to live among foreigners. Even them.

Idolatry

Next, Wright urges us to identify and resist idolatry within the public square.

Discerning the gods of the public square is a first crucial, missional task. Being equipped to resist them is the next.

… It is in the whole of life, including the public square, that “our struggle [lit., “our wrestling match”] is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12).

This is not the place for detailed analysis of “rulers, authorities and powers”, and there are plenty of other resources on them. Personally, I reject two opposite extremes: those who “demythologize” them as simply a cipher for human structures, political powers, economic forces, or social conventions; and those who view them as exclusively spiritual, demonic beings, with no connection to the world of political or economic powers and forces. It seems to me that both aspects are biblically valid.

There is a reality of satanic and demonic presence and work within the world, and it operates in and through human agency. This is especially true in collective human arrangements where it seems that some structures or forces take on “a life of their own”, greater than the sum of human wills involved.

Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission, Biblical Theology for Life, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 238.

We’ve spoken earlier of the dangers of an honor culture and the expectation that powerful nations will exact tribute from weaker nations to gain wealth. These sorts of cultural assumptions are among the “rulers, authorities and powers” used by Satan to destroy shalom and bring misery and wretchedness to the world. Culture is not easily changed, but the church can refuse to participate, can stand apart, and can decry the error.

In more contemporary terms, the church can cry out against those who see trade negotiations as a way to profit our nation at the expense of other nations rather than a means of bringing greater prosperity to all. Economic theory tells us that it’s possible to make the pie bigger for everyone; politics often drive us to take the other guy’s slice of pie. This is sin.

To me, the test of good public or good foreign policy is whether the policy looks good from both sides. That is, if our treaty negotiators manage to preserve American farm subsidies, that looks good to us (well, some of us), how does it look to the poorest nations, nations that want to work their way out of poverty by selling agricultural goods at lower prices than the rich nations? If we subsidize our exports so our wealthy, corporate farmers receive taxpayer money to undersell the poor, we’ve not loved our enemies. Rather, we’ve enriched ourselves at the expense of the poor — a truly loathsome thing. I mean, the very idea of standing in the way of the poor working to earn a living should be repugnant — even  un-American. It’s certainly un-Christian.

That is, we should not use trade negotiations and our superior military and economic power to exact tribute from other nations. In fact, Christians should push for policies that allow nations to prosper. And good, secular economic theory supports this position as not only right but best for all.

In fact, as much as some Christians detest globalization, the reality is that our globalizing economy is bringing unprecedented prosperity to the world, lifting more people out of poverty than anything else. Indeed, extreme poverty (income less than $1.25 per day) has been cut in half in the last 15 years, thanks to capitalism — the creation of wealth rather than the transfer of wealth. See also this article.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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