To Change the World: Essay 2, Reflection

[This series of posts won’t be a traditional book review. Rather, I’ll summarize parts of To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, and then I’ll add my own thoughts. I may criticize the book here and there, but I don’t have much to criticize.]

Reflecting on his second esssay is an overwhelming task. There’s so much to say I can hardly say anything. Let’s see …

Now, I had already reached many of the same conclusions as Hunter regarding the Christian Right and the Christian Left. But he was ahead of me on the neo-Anabaptists. I hadn’t bought their whole agenda, but had not thought through it nearly as well as Hunter.

I do agree with much that they say (as does Hunter), but Hunter has persuaded me that their theology is missing some key elements.

I’m a fan of much of Charles Colson’s work, as well as many of the other authors that Hunter quotes coming from the Right — but I think his criticisms are entirely valid — the church must not pursue political power. It’s wrong at very deep levels. It’s the wrong goal. We are called to serve others, not to use the power of the state to force non-Christians to act like Christians.

(1Co 5:12-13 ESV) 2 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?  13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

We are not in the business of judging those outside the church. Our job is to rescue them. Fixing the culture does not make it easier to seek and save the lost. Rather, fixing the culture makes a secular, tepid Christianity easier. When we impose Christian values on non-Christians, the distinctive calling of the Christian gets blurred. You see, some of the benefits of Christian living would be realized by infusing America with a Christian culture — except for little things like, you know, salvation.

I mean, would you be excited to know that someone is working hard to create synthetic steaks? Do we really want the fake version? Why would we want to work to create fake Christianity?

You see, God thinks it’s good for the world to look very different from the church —

(Rom 1:24-28 ESV)  24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves,  25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature;  27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.

God does not make the world behave dishonorably and shamefully, but he allows it. And this makes the kingdom and the world look very different indeed. Just so, Paul doesn’t tell the Corinthians to flee the world or to pass laws making the world behave. Rather, he commands,

(1Co 5:9-10 ESV) 9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.

He plainly indicates that Christians should associate with the immoral, greedy, swindlers, and idolators — and not try to leave the world.

Now, none of this indicates approval of sin or satisfaction with the state of the world. Rather, you just plain can’t convert people you won’t associate with. You can’t be Jesus to people if you have the sheriff standing next to you saying, “Or else!” You can’t serve the needy in the name of Jesus through the U.S. Treasury.

So it all fits together. We aren’t called to fix the culture via the government. Wrong goal. Wrong method. Nor are we called to escape into sectarianism. Rather, we are to constructively engage the world.

Now, I agree with much of the agendas of the Right, the Left, and the neo-Anabaptists. Just not their methods.

The Right is right to be concerned about values. We need to be teaching our children Christian values. We need to live those values. But we have no business demanding that the public schools teach those values because that’s the kingdom’s job. It’s not the role of government — and government cannot do it well.

Rather, we must think like missionaries and raise our kids in America just as missionaries in Romania raise their children — by teaching them a stoutly missional Christianity at home and at church.

The Right is properly concerned about abortion, because the unborn are the most defenseless of the defenseless. If the Christians won’t speak up for them, no one will. But the solution won’t be found in the courts. If we were to gain 100% evangelical control of the Supreme Court and reverse Roe v. Wade, that would only give the states the power to regulate abortion — representing a shift of control from the courts to the states. And more than half the states would legalize abortion — meaning anyone with a car or a plane ticket could get an abortion legally. The law won’t fix this one.

And the Left is right, of course, to care deeply about the poor, oppressed, and discriminated against. And it’s right to work against laws that oppress. But government has not and cannot cure all poverty. It can help those who are incapable of helping themselves — the disabled, for example — but it cannot teach a work ethic, discipline, and deferred gratification, nor can it cure broken families.

Rather, just as the Right wants the government to bring the Rapture, the Left wants the government to do its charitable giving for it — which takes away much of the moral virtue they are so proud of. While it’s good for the disabled to receive a government check, it doesn’t do the taxpayer any good. There’s both joy and virtue in giving the money yourself. And studies show that conservatives are far more generous donors to charity than the left — because conservatives correctly perceive the inability of the government to replace the church. The government does not save — from hell or from ourselves.

There’s a place for government in defeating poverty, but it’s not a sufficient solution. And the solution is much harder than lobbying.

I’m a fan of much neo-Anabaptist teaching, but I share Hunter’s frustration with the inability of the movement to articulate clear strategies for Christian living — other than what not to do. It’s urgently, desperately true that the church needs to once again be the church — but I’m not sure that pacificism and withdrawal will do that much to defeat evil in the world. In fact, that’s also a little too easy.

And, no surprise, I agree with Hunter that power is an inescapable fact of life. For example, if the Left, Right, and other segments of the American church were to ever unite, it would be the most powerful political force in the nation. And while I’m for unity, I’m scared of what the church would do with that power in its present, immature frame of mind.

Jesus had power. He had lots of power. And he didn’t try to rule Palestine or the Empire. Rather, he used his power in service to others. In fact, when he was tempted in the wilderness, the first temptation was to turn stones to bread to eat. Why would that be wrong? Well, it would have been the use of power in his own service — when he was called to live on earth as a man and yet be perfect. The power came from God for a purpose — and the use of the power for any other purpose would have been sin. Power is given to us to serve others.

The church has power — vast power that it’s barely begun to tap. It’s weakness comes from its disunity, its flawed theology, its secularism — even its lack of faith and love and hope. But the power is there — because the church channels the power of God.

(2Th 1:11-12 ESV)  11 To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power,  12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

God gives us his power “for good and every work of faith … so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in [us].” That’s a big, big promise. We don’t need no stinkin’ political power. We have God’s power.

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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6 Responses to To Change the World: Essay 2, Reflection

  1. Rich W says:

    Interesting with some good points. Since the days of Constantine, we see the negatives when humans in the church are given too much power. I guess the real question is how we separate influence fom power.

  2. Guy says:

    Great stuff. i think i'm on board with everything said here. But i know from your other work that you still think a degree of political lobbying is called for. i really don't think so. i think that's still asking the government to relieve the church of its burdens and responsibilities. You don't truly solve problems by changing laws, but by changing hearts. i think that's where the church must focus its goals.


  3. Jerry Starling says:

    Lipscomb bought into the anabaptist approach to government completely. George Benson and Harding University go the opposite direction. I'm somewhere in between. No, we cannot force people to be moral. We can use the power of Government for the purpose of public safety – but where do you stop? Traffic laws? Ban on use of alcohol? Ban on too many calories or to much salt in your french-fries with your big mac? Once government heads down this road, there is always another safety hazard to fix. The same is true of moral hazards. Where do you stop?

    I think Jay is right in saying we need to focus mostly on being what God has called us to be – a city on a hill that cannot be hid. Reagan was wrong to call the USA that city on a hill. Jesus says that His disciples (in the plural) are. Should we actually be that unhidden city that cannot be hidden, we will begin to make a difference – not by power but by simply being the presence of God in the world.


  4. Weldon says:

    "Fixing the culture does not make it easier to seek and save the lost. Rather, fixing the culture makes a secular, tepid Christianity easier."

    Wow. Amen.

  5. Jonathan says:

    This is great. There is a real shortage of this type of discussion – and stats, for the International community. Most research, or commentary, is made for the American community. For the smaller Nations, many see politics, and dare I say it, the U.S. government, stepping in as International policeman, to 'save' us. And we can disown our own need to be the power of God seen through our life and witness. He is the Power, and He is seen through us and our interaction with a broken world.
    – Jonathan

  6. Jay Guin says:

    Jerry and Guy,

    Political lobbying is about power, and therefore we should lobby for the same people we should feed and heal — those who need us.

    Lobbying against partial birth abortion is entirely good — if we do it out of concern for the unborn, not as a power play against the Left. That is, we do it for love, not for show. If the goal is to embarrass the Left, then we're just another special interest group manipulating people.

    Just so, lobbying against laws that oppress the poor is entirely good.

    I admit it's hard to draw lines, and a clever person can argue that anything is being lobbied for "love." But the principle is sound, I think.

    Now, when I argue regarding what "we" can do, I mean we the church. As a citizen you can lobby for whatever you feel is good and right — but you still can't be selfish, because you're still a Christian. You just can't lobby in the name of Jesus or his church if it's about property values or otherwise self-serving.

    Therefore, may well be times the church has to suffer injustice rather than take a public position that injures the image of the church or Jesus in the community, because the church as property owner or taxpayer can never take a position that doesn't appear to be on behalf of Jesus.

    We just have to get away from thinking about rights and instead think in terms of loving our neighbors to the point of sacrifice.

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