The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

"Socially Irrelevant, Even if Privately Engaging" - The Disengaged Christian Under the Microscope

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The title for this article is taken from Os Guinness’s underrated and underread book The Gravedigger File.[1] There are numerous Christians who believe that a personal, private faith is all the gospel requires. Guinness described this as “The Private-Zoo Factor.” Much of “1925–1975 Evangelicalism”[2] was based on the idea that Christians could make peace with the world by doing the church thing and leaving everything else to the worldlings. It didn’t and couldn’t work. There were some who pointed this out before Guinness did in 1983 and Francis Schaeffer two decades earlier. Writing in the Introduction to Carl Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Harold J. Ockenga wrote, “A Christian world- and life-view embracing world questions, societal needs, personal education ought to arise out of Matt. 28:18–20 as much as evangelism does. Culture depends on such a view, and Fundamentalism is prodigally dissipating the Christian culture accretion of centuries, a serious sin. A sorry answer lies in the abandonment of societal fields to the secularist.”[3]

An email forwarded to me by an American Vision supporter prompted this article. The person who wrote it did not like the emphasis of the “Reclaiming America” conference held at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in February of this year. Here is my response to some of what she wrote:

Dear Jane,

While you make some valid points, there are a couple of things that troubled me about your article. You state:

“Surely Jesus and His Apostles had no intention or desire to ‘take over’ the Government of His day or to coerce politically or socially any of those he taught and called to repentance, to follow His example, love Him, trust in Him, and accept Him as their personal Savior.”

Dr. D. James Kennedy certainly cannot be criticized for not putting the gospel first and demonstrating the love of Christ. He has done more than any single individual through the Evangelism Explosion program to train Christians to share their faith. The last time I had lunch with Dr. Kennedy, he engaged the waitress in a discussion of the gospel. The conversation was not forced. Sharing the gospel and teaching others has been his life’s work.

He knows the new birth is the beginning not the end of a person’s new life in Christ. You seem to accept the notion that personal salvation is all the gospel requires. The writer to the Hebrews would disagree. We must move beyond the milk stage to solid food, “for every one who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (Heb. 5:13–14). Just good and evil on a personal level? Are we to have no regard with what happens in the broader culture? I don’t think so. The civil magistrate is to bring “wrath upon the one who practices evil” (Rom. 13:3–4). How does he know what’s evil?

What happens after a person accepts Jesus as his “personal Savior”? Does nothing else matter? Should nothing else change? Should a new Christian have any regard for economics, law, politics, medicine, or science? If not, then nearly 2000 years of history needs to be expunged. Every Christian who took his faith from beyond the realm of the personal and applied it to so-called secular pursuits was violating some cardinal New Testament doctrine given your premise. Was it wrong for Christians to understand their world in terms of biblical truths? Should William Wilberforce have accepted the political status quo of his day and given up his long fought battle to end the slave trade in England? Was this not a “take over” of the government? If we follow your logic, to engage in any attempt to change a policy through the democratic process and legislation—not revolution or coercion—seems to be a wrong endeavor for Christians to pursue.

The early church was living under the oppressive political regime of the Roman Empire. We can’t consider the conditions of the NT to be normative for all of life and for all time. I’m sure that if the first-century Jews had been given the opportunity to have a political voice, they would have taken it. Was Paul wrong to claim his Roman citizenship (Acts 22:22–29) when he was strung up by a Roman soldier? Was he wrong to appeal to Caesar (25:11)? Do you think Paul would have objected to a Christian being in a place of political influence? As history records, the Roman Empire fell and Christians assumed positions of authority. Should these early Christians have left the political vacuum to the barbarians and practiced their faith in quiet solitude?

Of course, if we are going to make Jesus our example in everything as you state, then we should not marry because it was not His “intention desire” to marry. The Christian life is based on the “whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27). “All Scripture inspired by God” (2 Tim. 3:16), not just the words of Jesus in red. The OT says a great deal about social issues and politics. I won’t rehearse them here. I’ve done it in an extensive way in my three-volume God and Governmentseries and Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths. The world would be a much different place if Christians had not gotten involved in every area of life and kept their faith “personal.” I would suggest a number of book titles for your study on this topic:

  • Francis Herbert Stead, The Story of Social Christianity, 2 vols. (1924).
  • William Booth, In Darkest England and the Way Out (1890).
  • J. Wesley Bready, England: Before and After Wesley (1939)
  • Ernst Von Dobschütz, The Influence of the Bible on Civilisation (1914).
  • Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization (2001).
  • Gardiner Spring, The Obligations of the World to the Bible (1845).
  • D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? (1994).
  • D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, What If the Bible Had Never Been Written? (1998).

Later in your critique of the Reclaiming America Conference, you make these comments:

“I believe we Christians bring much of the ridicule and condemnation of the unbelievers in the world upon ourselves. We need to clean up our own pews . . . and openly condemn and disassociate ourselves from people like the Swaggarts, Bakkers, Benny Hinn, and other evil imposters. That most of them are power hungry or money hungry—or overcome with vanity—I think is beyond dispute. We need more Billy Grahams; more real Christ-like men and women setting an example of quiet humility, compassion, true charity, and example.”

Again, there is truth in what you say, but you can’t lay these criticisms at the feet of those sponsoring the Reclaiming America Conference. When Coral Ridge dedicated its new sanctuary in 1974, Billy Graham was the dedication speaker. Dr. Kennedy has been a regular guest speaker at the Billy Graham School of Evangelism. He understands the relationship between personal salvation and societal transformation.

There is a great deal of house cleaning that needs to take place in the church. We agree on this point. Peter said it best: “For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God” (1 Pet. 4:17)?

You seem to suggest, however, that if Christians would adopt a “quiet humility” that somehow the world will respect us. Jesus “went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38). He fed thousands. How non-confrontational can you get? Even so, He was crucified. Jesus’ redemptive work brought in a new world order. Changed individuals would change their world, and his enemies knew it. Those in Thessalonica understood the implications of the gospel message: “These men who have upset the world have come here also; and Jason has welcomed them, and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:7–8).

Christians aren’t calling for civil government to impose certain forms of worship on everybody. There is no demand by Christians that non-Christians should be forced to believe in God, go to church, or pay a tithe. “Reclaiming America” has a limited focus as it relates to the civil sphere. Civil government should not allow preborn babies to be killed or for homosexuals to redefine marriage. If the early church could have participated politically, and these issues were on the ballot, can anyone really argue that they would have adopted a form of “gospel quietism,” a socially irrelevant gospel that is privately engaging? I don’t believe so.

Endnotes:

[1] Os Guinness, The Gravedigger File: Papers on the Subversion of the Modern Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 79.
[2] The dates refer to the Scopes Trial (1925) and the year Christians reengaged politically (1975).
[3] Harold J. Ockenga, “Introduction,” Carl F. H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1947), xiv.

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