The Church in Contemporary Society


The church has a ministry of being, telling and doing. To be a witness, to tell the surrounding society of its conviction that peace, justice and compassion are the better way, and to demonstrate that in our lives.


Islam is experiencing a tremendous resurgence. The nascent Islamic State is pushing political leadership in many countries to identify themselves with conservative if not radical Islam. Some suggest that it may be the result of our bombs having fallen on fourteen predominantly Islamic nations in recent history. There is no similar resurgence of Christianity in traditionally Christian countries. Western Society has largely separated itself from the church.

In 18th and 19th century society the church in America was a powerful force. The sermon had implications for how the town was run. Political leaders knew that congregations had public policy concerns which required attention and thus society at large was impacted. In our century that is no longer the case.

The church, for many pragmatic reasons, abdicated its position of moral and ethical leadership and is mostly ignored. This is a change of which most Christians haven’t taken notice and about which most do not seem concerned. In the arena of single issue politics, some church people have been successful in making their views known, but you have to wonder how many minds have been changed and whether the church’s position in society has been enhanced, or diminished.

What is the role of the church in society today? Almost twenty years ago in a presentation to a Restorative Justice Conference Duane Ruth-Heffelbower, a Mennonite, laid out what he saw as a Christian Theology of Church and Society. He wrote that he believed the church has at least three roles to play in society. To witness to God’s love and power, to call society to peace, justice and compassion and to work toward the welfare of all members of society.

He started by referring to Jesus’ last orders to his disciples found in Acts 1: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”   They weren’t ordered to build buildings, sing hymns, or do any of those other things people expect of Christians. They were ordered to be witnesses, to tell people what they had seen and experienced in their time with Jesus. They weren’t ordered to pass on particular doctrine, but to simply witness to what they had experienced. God had come to be with humanity, and the proof was to be given by these witnesses.

Over 2,000 years the church has developed quite a bit of doctrine and lots of traditions. The focus of Christian activity has moved away from a simple witness to an elaboration of doctrine and tradition. It is not really expected in most church circles that members will have an experience of God to which to witness. What they actually have is an intellectual understanding of facts about God as refined and approved by their church. By changing the focus from witness to the teaching of doctrine and traditions, the church has become more like a political party and less like a spirit-led community of witnesses. One reason for the change is the extent to which the church has become entangled and identified with the society in which it lives.

For the first 250 years the church was seen as an illegal pagan cult. During this period the church was a small group within a much larger society which was hostile to it. It was appropriate for Christians to do whatever they thought important to maintain their identity over against society. Faithfulness to God was demonstrated by the way a Christian separated him or her self from the pagan ways surrounding them.

With the conversion of Constantine the role of the church changed. It became a powerful political force in society which accommodated itself to the pleasures of the emperor. If the role of the church is to witness to the society around it, it must maintain a certain critical distance from that society. Without this distance the church can become confused, making it very difficult to see where the practices of society diverge from the church’s understanding of God’s desires for the world. Only then does its witness have integrity. Only then can its witness be prophetic.

           Jesus said: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Isaiah said: “God looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness but heard cries of distress. Woe to you who add house to house and field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land . . . who acquit the guilty for a bribe but deny justice to the innocent . .

These are prophetic words, words which contrast what society is doing with eternal principles of peace, justice and compassion. Human versions of truth come and go. They tend to be based on what works, what is popular. The church, by its witness proclaims itself a player on the world stage. Its prophetic voice is a call to action, a challenge to the world. It sounds a bit arrogant but the world’s best thinking is what has gotten it into the present mess. The world has need of the values of peace, justice and compassion for which the church is supposed to stand.

I don’t need to tell you that this idea is controversial. Wherever there has been oppression and the church has spoken out, there have been those who said the church should mind its own business. It brings to mind the story of a church group which lived at the bottom of a treacherous mountain road. There were many accidents and injuries on that road, so the church decided to start an ambulance service. Praise was heaped on the church’s work as it brought the broken victims to the hospital. Then one day someone in the church asked, “Why don’t we do something about the road and prevent the accidents?” Whereupon the elected officials in charge of the road castigated the church for being too political. Dom Helder Camara said it this way: “when I give food to the poor I am called a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, I am called a communist.”

Society has never taken kindly to prophets who expose unpopular truths. So long as Jesus remained an itinerant preacher telling people in the boondocks how to live more faithful lives the political leaders didn’t care. But when he drove the money changers out of the temple, saying it was supposed to be a house of prayer for all nations, rather than a den of thieves, they began plotting to kill him. Prophets who suggest changing the status quo are not welcomed by those who benefit from keeping things the way they are.

One strength of a prophetic church is group discernment. It is one thing for an individual to have a big idea, but it is quite another when a church examines that idea, prays over it, and discerns that God is calling the church to this particular prophetic role. An individual is easily squelched. But a community of faithful persons is not.

Some changes may require more than a generation. Think of John Woolman’s struggle with Philadelphia Yearly Meeting over slavery. These things take time. An individual prophet may not live long enough to see it through, a community of faith can live on.

Principles for living in peace with justice and compassion have been revealed to the church. Unfortunately it is also true that we haven’t always lived up to those principles, but where it has accepted its prophetic role things have happened.

The New Testament lays out no rules for running a Christian nation. There are no specific rules for Christian legislation, but that does not mean there are no principles to apply to those activities. It means that careful discernment needs to be used by the church when it approaches the question of what makes legislation more or less desirable.

When a Christian witnesses to the love and power of God, the point being made is that God has expectations of how we treat one another. One aspect of that is a special concern for the poor and powerless. This is where we get in trouble with the world. The best interests of the rich and powerful are not a concern. In the second chapter of the book of James we read: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

The false dichotomy between faith and works has ever been a problem for us. Is right belief enough? Many Christian groups say that a confession of Christ as Lord is enough. Others believe, with James, that faith which does not result in works of compassion is dead. But if Christians need only concern themselves with having the correct intellectual belief, their participation in calling society to peace, justice and compassion will be small, and an afterthought in their religious lives. Acts of compassion could be motivated primarily by a desire to lead persons to correct belief or by enlightened self interest. If I support Family Promise’s work with homeless families it is less likely that I’ll find homeless people camped out on my front porch or malingering in front of the bus terminal. For that matter, if I help rehabilitate offenders, I’m less likely to be a victim.

Jesus summed up the whole law and the prophets this way: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. When asked “who is my neighbor?” he told the story of the good Samaritan, extending the concept of neighbor to all persons who need a neighbor.

Christians have special reasons to be interested in restorative justice. Not only is it pragmatic and humanistic, it is consistent with biblical teaching on how a person of faith responds to the world. The church has a role to play in society by working toward the welfare of all members of society. The importance of this role is that the church sees itself as called by God to demonstrate how things could and should be. It is one thing to point people to another way and quite another to demonstrate it.

We, of all people, understand God’s call to shalom, to wholeness. It is a timeless call. That which led to wholeness in relationships a thousand years ago is good today, and still will be good a thousand years from now. The value of peace, justice and compassion come from the Holy Spirit speaking within us and within others. We are called to witness to that truth. But, as the book of James suggests, a faith which calls others to these things without also practicing what it preaches is a dead thing.

In 2 Corinthians we read: So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ.

The church has a ministry of being, telling and doing. To be a witness, to tell the surrounding society of its conviction that peace, justice and compassion are the better way, and to demonstrate that in our lives.

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