The Christian Church is under fire from many quarters. The criticisms are legion. A common charge is that Christianity is “out of date” and “irrelevant” to the practical problems of the day, to the so-called “real” issues like war, poverty, color, privilege, totalitarianism and so on. On such issues the Church, it is claimed, is either silent or inconclusive; if she speaks at all, it is with no note of authority or conviction.
Many of these criticisms are mere rationalizations, excuses for indifference towards Christ and his Church. Nonetheless, some are justified. All too often Christians, and perhaps especially evangelicals, have failed to work out the implications of their faith for the urgent, practical problems of daily life. They have been understandably wary of anything which savors of a mere “social gospel,” and anxious to make clear the biblical revelation that man needs not reformation but regeneration. In this the position of the evangelical is unassailable. As George Whitefield, when asked why he so often preached on the text “Ye must be born again,” replied, “Why, simply because ye must be born again.” Ours is a personal Gospel; apart from personal faith in Christ there is no salvation and no true Christianity. Nevertheless this personal Gospel does have social implications and if our witness is to be effective in this sophisticated twentieth century the challenge of these social implications must be faced with courage and a thoughtfulness that is both prayerful and crystal-clear.
The challenge is inescapable because our involvement in society is inescapable; we are in the world although we are not of it. As Christians we cannot contract out of our social responsibilities, for we are dependent upon our fellows for maintenance of life itself. Moreover, we should not even if we could, for our economic and social activities have their beginnings in the creative work of God. It is of course true that, like the rest of creation, the economic order is subject to the fall and spoiled by sin, which expresses itself so clearly in exploitation and misuse of economic resources, sharp practice, industrial unrest and bad human relations.
In this situation the Gospel is the only answer. However much men may criticize it because of our failure as Christians to realize and live out its fullness, the Gospel is relevant to the economic crisis of our time. After all, the Bible has a great deal to say about our life and responsibilities in society. Writing to the Colossians, Paul has a word for workers and employers: “Servants, obey in all things your masters … not with eyeservice as menpleasers, but in singleness of heart, fearing God; and whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men”; and again, “Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.” Can anyone deny the vital relevance of such principles of action to the critical problems of labor relations, wages and motivation that bedevil the economic scene today?
Indeed, Paul’s epistles are never exclusively doctrinal; they invariably move on to practical questions of social relationships. The great burden upon the soul of James is that faith may make itself manifest in works of social as well as personal righteousness. Peter’s epistles, written to Christians some of whom were dispossessed slaves suffering under a totalitarian government, are intensely practical and vividly relevant to the social crisis of our own time. In an earlier age Isaiah, Amos and Micah were equally practical. The message of the Old Testament as of the New issues not only in personal salvation but also in social righteousness.
The supreme word for the Christian must be that of the Master himself. In reply to the lawyer’s question as to which was the great commandment, Jesus said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Here is a clear principle governing relationship of the Christian to social and economic activities of the community; he must engage in nothing which cannot be done to the glory of God; all his work must be dedicated to the fulfillment of God’s purpose in the world; and his attitude to his fellows, employer, employees, suppliers, customers and all the rest, must be governed by the love of Christ.
The Taint Of Sin
What, in practical terms, are the social implications of the Gospel? First, there is responsibility upon every Christian constantly to seek to relate his faith to the great social, economic and political problems of the day. He must avoid that dualism which, as one historian has put it, empties “religion of its social content and society of its soul.” There are two great dangers here. The liberal tends to argue and act as though the Kingdom of God can be brought in by social reform. He neglects or minimizes two great biblical truths: the sinfulness of man and the second advent of Christ. His solution is often some form of collectivism. On the other hand the evangelical too often makes the truth of the second advent an excuse for inaction in regard to social reform and gives uncritical support to free enterprise capitalism without challenging its imperfections and injustices. Since man is sinful it follows that all forms of human society must be imperfect and marred by sin; the Kingdom can only be fully established by the King, and will be at his coming. It can only do harm to the cause of Christianity to identify it completely with any existing order of society. All are the product of human history and human philosophy and contain features which cannot measure up to Christian standards.
Capitalism Versus Collectivism
That is not to say that capitalism is inconsistent with Christianity. That charge can rather be leveled against collectivism which in all its forms does violence to individual liberty and is unbiblical in its attitude to human sin and self-interest. In an imperfect world it is folly to try to operate a system which is predicated upon a false view of human nature. Collectivism is just such a system. It is based on an unbiblical concept of man. It minimizes or disregards his fallen nature and depends upon motivation which cannot work effectively in a free society made up of sinful men and women. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that attempts to make it work frequently end in loss of human liberty and, ultimately, terrors of totalitarianism.
The Christian, however, cannot simply say that capitalism is Christian and collectivism un-Christian and leave it at that. He must be prepared to admit and seek to remedy manifest imperfections of the system. The best evangelicals have done this down through the centuries. Although the Reformation released springs of individualism which were so essential to development of free enterprise capitalism, Luther denounced with the same vigor that he used against Rome the view that prevails so widely today, that the world of business can be divorced from authority of laws of God. Calvin proclaimed a message which sought not only salvation of the individual but also penetration of the whole of society with the influence of the Christian religion. The Reformed church at Geneva made a great effort to organize an economic order worthy of the Gospel it preached. Calvin’s Institutes declare that no Christian “holds his gifts to himself, or for his private use, but shares them among his fellow members, nor does he derive benefit save from those things which proceed from the common profit of the body as a whole.”
Among the Puritans, to whom our free enterprise economies owe so much, Richard Baxter insisted that the Christian was committed by his faith to certain ethical standards which were just as binding in the sphere of economic activity as in private life. He must do business in the spirit of one conducting a public service; he must not “get another’s goods or labor for less than it is worth” or indulge in “extortion, working upon men’s ignorance, error or necessity.”
Challenge To Social Evils
Many specific social evils have been challenged by stalwart evangelicals. As the late Archbishop William Temple wrote, “the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery itself were political projects; but they were carried through by evangelicals in the fervor of their evangelical faith.” Like Wilberforce and Buxton, the evangelicals who pioneered the abolition of slavery, Shaftesbury, Sadler and Oastler, all evangelicals, were leaders in the campaigns against the social evils of nineteenth-century capitalism. Their work gave Britain much of its legislation for protection of workers, especially women and children, against exploitation in mines and factories. These men and many others such as Barnardo, Muller and Booth, were convinced that the Gospel was not only concerned with the life of the individual but also that of society. They refused to allow their Christianity to be divorced from social problems of their day. Moreover they knew what is too often forgotten nowadays, that social reform without the Gospel of Christ is ineffective, self-frustrating and dangerous. Just as faith without works is dead, so are works without faith.
The clear duty of the Christian in society, then, is to uphold loyally and steadfastly those biblical principles by which all economic and social activity must be judged. He must never allow his faith to be isolated from his conduct as employer, employee or citizen. This is both difficult and costly, but it is essential if his Christian witness is to make sense to the man in the street. Indeed the Christian’s concern with social problems should always be conceived as extension of his witness for Christ and not as an end in itself.
Biblical View Of Vocation
One important aspect of this is the question of Christian vocation in daily work. The distinction often made between those who are in so-called “fulltime service” and those who are not is invalid. Nor is there justification for the view that a layman’s Christian service must be confined to spare-time activities, with his daily work merely providing necessary finance. Every Christian should be in fulltime service, all day and every day, but this does not necessarily mean he has to be a minister or missionary and give up his secular job. Writing to the Corinthians, some of whom were chafing at the apparent limitations of their daily work and were eager to enjoy what seemed to them a wider sphere of service in itinerant preaching, Paul said, “Let everyone abide in the same calling wherein he was called.” Clearly we must not use this as excuse to neglect the claims of the ministry or mission field; the needs there are urgent and those who are called of God must go, but it does mean that Christians must look upon their daily work as a “calling” in which they are to make their witness and which they are not to leave unless clearly called to something else. Evangelicals have a great tradition here for the concept of “calling” was at the very heart of Puritan teaching. God does not call men to withdraw themselves from the world, Puritans taught, but rather to engage in labor for his glory. Wrote Richard Steele, “God doth call every man and woman … to serve Him in some peculiar employment in this world, both for their own and the common good … and let him be never so active out of his sphere, he will be at a great loss, if he do not keep his own vineyard and mind his own business.”
Opportunity For Witness
This attitude to work is sorely needed in the world today. What desperate need there is for Christian politicians, doctors, teachers, business men, foremen, workers and trade unionists. One of the great problems in British labor relations at the present time is that a small number of communists are active in factories and trade unions, exerting an influence out of all proportion to their numerical strength. They are able to do so only because of apathy of the great bulk of trade union members. How different things would be if the many Christians in those same factories and trade unions were ready to take office and bring their Christian influence to bear in this workaday sphere.
Opportunities for Christian witness in journalism and authorship, in national and local government, in business and professions are so obvious and yet neglected. Many people today are outside the reach of church and the minister but are accessible to those who work alongside them in office and factory, who do the same job but in a different way and with more joyous spirit because they have found something more purposeful in life than mere money-making and material security. Many mission fields are closing to professional missionaries, but they remain open to engineers, chemists, architects—the men who do ordinary jobs with extraordinary purpose. This attitude to work as extension of Christian witness is costly; it does not permit slacking or shoddy workmanship, or coming in late because one has been to prayer meeting the night before. The Christian must be a first-rate worker because he is a Christian not in spite of it. As Macaulay put it, “The Methodist revival improved the quality of West of England cloth.”
Finally, the Christian must work out the implications of his faith in terms of stewardship. If it is important that he should be prayerfully responsible in the way in which he earns his income, it is equally important in the way he spends it. This too is in the evangelical tradition. It was the great Puritan Richard Baxter who wrote, “Every penny which is laid out … must be done as by God’s own appointment.” In a free enterprise economy the consumer is sovereign; the way in which he utilizes his income is the prime determinant of the way in which scarce, God-given economic resources are used for production and consumption. Thus the principle of Christian stewardship involves the Christian inevitably in the working of the economic order. He cannot, he must not, live unto himself; he is personally responsible for the effects his economic activities as well as his words have upon others. Although his citizenship is in heaven, he must live and witness in the world of men. For the man in Christ, “all things are become new”; there is no deadly dualism of secular and sacred but a life that is both whole and holy.
Dr. Paul S. James is Pastor of The Baptist Tabernacle in Adanta, Georgia.
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