Scripture requires life-giving changes in every human sphere, both personal and social.
Among the few certainties in an uncertain world is the inevitability of change—a fact to which the living God and his Word are the only exceptions. Yet God, though unchangeable, is, as Emile Cailliet has said, “The great Doer of the Unexpected.” What he does may surprise us, but nothing can ever surprise him.
From our human perspective, of course, change is not always a good thing. We can all think of changes that would impoverish the church and culture far more than enrich them. But how are we to identify biblically valid changes?
Here Scripture helps us by closely linking its concept of change to life. Any changes in culture and church must accord with the purpose of Christ, who was incarnate, died, and rose again that we “may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Consequently, whatever denies, threatens, mars, or diminishes the quality of human life must face revision.
Before we look more specifically at needs in culture and society, we must think about some changes we need to make in ourselves concerning biblical knowledge, worship, and discipleship.
No generation of Christians has ever possessed more Bibles than ours. “According to a 1978 survey,” Time magazine reports, “the average American home has four Bibles, and virtually every family in the nation has one Bible—usually King James.” Yet in this time of multiple translations of Scripture, the average church member (evangelicals included) lacks an intelligent, ordered knowledge of God’s Word.
Among American Christians, the Bible is the most purchased book. Thousands of us carry it to church on Sundays; fewer read it daily, and even fewer study it on their own. As a result, most church members are contentedly ignorant of much that is in the Bible—a situation not always helped by the preaching they hear. In fact, a great deal that passes for biblical preaching among evangelicals is little more than exhortation interspersed with Scripture quotations and inspirational stories. And when there is exposition, it often covers certain familiar ground over and over—the Gospel of John, the major epistles, predictive prophecy like Daniel 2 and 9, and much of Revelation. Far less attention is given the synoptic Gospels (except for the Olivet discourse) with their accounts of the ethical teaching of Christ and its relation to the way we live, or to the other New Testament books.
A basic fault of present-day evangelical preaching is its neglect of the Old Testament. Yet the Gospels make it crystal clear that our Lord taught the absolute authority of the Jewish Scriptures. Their concerns were his concerns, and we must make them ours. The unsparing preaching of the prophets of Judah and Israel about the sins of God’s people and his demands for justice, the divine dealings with humanity set forth in the rest of the Old Testament—all this must no longer remain so comparatively unfamiliar to the church.
By and large, evangelical preaching is far too restricted in its use of God’s Word. Unlike Paul, who, in his farewell address to the Ephesian elders, could say that he had not hesitated to proclaim to them “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), it has neglected some essentials of its great biblical heritage.
Therefore we have the paradox of those who affirm the absolute authority of the Bible, yet at the same time are cozily conformed to the radical materialism of present-day American culture. A self-centered kind of Christian life and testimony—“After I was saved and began giving to Christian work God blessed me in a new way and prospered me so that now I’m enjoying the good things of life [better car, larger house, costlier vacations] more than ever before”—confuses what the world calls “success” with the biblical pattern of life and service. So a dismaying number of us have slipped into a false sense of entitlement to material luxuries and a more and more elaborate lifestyle.
Most evangelicals claim to be committed to the inerrancy of Scripture. But so long as many remain contentedly ignorant of much of its teaching, this commitment is largely theoretical. God’s people are obligated to do the truth. But to do the truth they must know at first hand what God requires in his Word, which is the truth.
Spurgeon once said, “I had sooner risked the dangers of a tornado of religious excitement than see the air grow stagnate with a deadly formality.” The deadly formality Spurgeon speaks of should not, however, be taken as a condemnation of all structured or liturgical worship—as if it were per se lacking in spirituality whereas all freer forms were necessarily more vital. Those who practice a free form of worship may unconsciously slip into a formalism of informality that may be just as deadening as the heartless repetition of set forms.
The New Testament, recognizing the Old Testament system of sacrifices and offerings as fulfilled in Christ, enjoins no elaborate patterns of worship. By example and teaching, our Lord gave us the essentials—prayer and praise, proclamation through the Word and through the sacraments (or ordinances), and giving. His one great criterion for worship was spiritual reality. “God is spirit,” he declared, “and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). According to Scripture, worship is not a take-it-or-leave-it matter. We have liberty as to how and where we worship.
Yet to worship with God’s people in the church is not optional but imperative, and watching TV services is, except perhaps for “shut-ins,” no substitute. We worship God not because we feel like it, but because he is God and worship is his due and our necessity.
What the church needs is a change in attitude toward worship, stemming from a more critical view of how we worship. We need, for example, to realize the difference between worship and entertainment. Spectatorism is not worship. To worship the Lord is to celebrate his greatness and goodness, but not always with an eye out for what will bring “Amens” and “Hallelujahs.”
Joy is one essential of worship. Congregational worship may be dignified, aesthetic, and orthodox, and yet be moribund because it is joyless. “The joy of the Lord,” said Nehemiah, “is your strength” (Neh. 8:10). The way a congregation sings may well be a barometer of its spiritual health.
Joy manifests itself in various ways. Not every anthem has to end fortissimo. There is also the quiet joy of wonder at the greatness and goodness of God. The hallmark of joy in worship lies not in number of decibels but in unanimity and depth of participation. The world knows only a superficial joy; Christians know joy in its fullness. As G. K. Chesterton said, “Joy is the pomp and publicity of a pagan but the gigantic secret of a Christian.” Sometimes silence may express the joy of the Lord, as when we respond to the great imperative, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10).
Linked with joy in worship is the love of God, which is “poured out … into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 5:5), and which leads us to care about other people. Like joy, love is inseparable from warmth. A loving, caring church draws people to its fellowship as surely as a cold and indifferent one repels them.
Again, worship in spirit and in truth entails a great openness which is the opposite of exclusiveness. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is,” Paul wrote, “there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). In his interview with Nicodemus, the Lord Jesus likened the working of the Holy Spirit in the new birth to the many ways the wind blows. So with worship. The same Spirit who can infuse life and warmth into joyful and loving participation within more traditional forms of worship can speak through the freer kinds of worship, including “charismatic” ones. But an exclusivist attitude that denies the fullness of the Spirit to those who worship in other forms than one’s own can grievously wound and even divide the body of Christ.
No thoughtful reader of the Gospels and the Book of Acts can fail to notice the constant use of the term “disciple.” In fact, the Greek word for “disciple” occurs over 250 times in these books. While it refers mostly to the Twelve, it also applies to other followers of Jesus, who devoted some of his most distinctive teaching to the meaning of discipleship.
Despite this, the concept of total discipleship, according to our Lord’s teaching, has not for many years been of major concern in evangelical life and thought. To be sure, the last decade or so have seen a growing emphasis on discipling as the one-on-one nurture of new Christians. Such nurture—and it is necessary—usually centers on leading believers deeper into prayer and into the spiritual resources available in Christ. Too often, however, it stops there. For example, a new book that speaks persuasively about the devotional and experiential side of discipleship gives barely a paragraph to its Good Samaritan side. So the obligation remains to enlarge our concept of discipleship to include obedience to all our Lord’s commands.
One reason for this may be the comparative neglect (already mentioned) of the synoptic Gospels, which contain much of our Lord’s most pointed teaching about discipleship. Another may reflect incomplete understanding of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19–20. There Christ said not, “Go and teach” (as the King James Version translates his words), but, “Go and make disciples,” as all newer translations agree. Thus the King James Version obscures the powerful emphasis on total discipleship at the heart of the Great Commission.
The fact is that not only here but elsewhere in the Gospels the Lord Jesus deepened the meaning of the word “disciple.” He took the teacher-pupil relationship in first-century Judaism and gave it the profound dimension of the personal commitment of a Christian to every teaching of his Lord and Master. He moved it from the intellectual level to the moral level of total obedience to his commands—an obedience that probes the very roots of everyday living.
As for Paul, he does not call Christians “disciples.” But the two words he so frequently uses—“saint” and “servant,” the one connoting “set-apartness,” the other the complete obedience of a bond slave—freely express what discipleship is. Not only so, but his ethical teaching (as in Rom. 12:9–21; Eph. 4:20–32, and elsewhere) clearly reflects the Lord’s teaching given us in the Synoptics. Moreover, by unremitting self-denial in “counting all things but loss” (Phil. 3:7) for the sake of Christ and by going back to Jerusalem at risk of his life to present the offering he had so lovingly collected for the poor there, Paul showed the depth of his own discipleship. As for James and John, their epistles reflect Christ’s teaching about being his disciples.
For the church to return to discipleship as her Lord and his apostles taught it means that Christians will have to deal more drastically with the selfishness that comes so naturally to all of us and is epidemic in the materialistic society. In stating the heart of discipleship, Jesus said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny (i.e., say “no” to) himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23, NIV). And the apostle John closed his first epistle, which he directed especially to believers, by saying, “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). The most subtle idolatry of all is that of self. Thus what Samuel Rutherford of seventeenth-century Scotland called “that house idol myself” must be toppled from our fives before we can fully be Christ’s disciples.
Culture And Society
What now about changes needed in culture today? So broad a question drives us back to the principle that anything that denies, threatens, mars, or diminishes human fife and its quality must face revision.
In its wider meaning, culture relates to more than literature and the arts; essentially, it is synonymous with civilization. Under God’s common grace, humanity has done great things within the cultural mandate (Gen. 1:26–27). But we are fallen creatures and so our works show everywhere the marks of the sin that so easily besets us. The culture we five in, with all its scientific and technological achievements, reflects a fallen world. So many are the ways it threatens life and its quality I that we can only look at the topics of nuclear armaments, abortion, violence, and hunger.
Today the ultimate threat to culture, the potential destroyer of civilization and of fife itself, is the proliferation of nuclear armaments. The explosion in 1945 of the first atomic bomb at Alamagordo, New Mexico, was far more than a triumph of American science: it was one of the few right-angled turns in human history. Ever since, we have been living under the threat of world-wide destruction—a threat so terrible that many have unconsciously blocked it out of their thinking.
Today the arms race has accelerated to a point that George F. Kennan, former U.S. ambassador to Russia and an expert in Soviet-American affairs, calls “redundancy,” in which the USSR and the U.S. each has in its arsenal a million times more destructive power than that which reduced Hiroshima to rubble in 1945. Yet, according to the Center for Defense Information, our country is scheduled to produce 17,000 more nuclear weapons in this decade. Faced with the hair-trigger chance of unspeakable holocaust, evangelicals may no longer give silent, if not in some instances, public, approval to piling up more and more atomic arms.
To be sure, some evangelicals have already spoken out. Witness “A Call to Faithfulness” (a manifesto against nuclear arms signed by a number of evangelical leaders in April 1978), the lead editorial in the recent March 27 issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, supporting Sen. Mark Hatfield’s proposed moratorium on the production of nuclear weapons, and Billy Graham’s public stand against atomic weapons.
But the evangelical community by and large seems little troubled about the possible obliteration of untold millions of human beings in a nuclear catastrophe that could be set off by the frightened push of a button. Were the same degree of intensity that many evangelicals bring to the antiabortion movement to characterize a widespread evangelical protest against nuclear proliferation, the race toward worldwide destruction might be slowed down and a courageous stand for all life be taken in the name of the Prince of Peace.
When one out of three pregnancies in our nation terminates in abortion, as is now the case, Christians cannot be indifferent. Evangelicals are horrified at the frivolous use of abortion as a means of birth control. Possibly most, though not all, evangelicals would oppose any use of abortion, except perhaps to save the fife of the mother. Others would sanction it only to save the mother and in cases of rape, incest, or certain radically destructive genetic defects.
Where, then, is the need for change in evangelical thought and attitudes? First, though convictions on the issue are strong, and rightly so, evangelicals who are unalterably against any use of abortion must not de-Christianize their brothers and sisters who do not agree with their position or with their interpretation of Scripture. Respect for the conscience of others is a biblical principle. The bitterness so often generated in the abortion debate must be overruled by love for those whose views are strenuously rejected.
Next, because the abortion problem in America has important constitutional and humanitarian ramifications as well as theological ones, evangelicals need to inquire about every aspect of it. A position based on solid conviction arrived at after considering all sides of a problem differs greatly from a merely simplistic one.
Again, evangelicals need to look long and hard at their Christian responsibility for the quality of new life after its entrance into the world. Because this last point is so often unrecognized, we must face it squarely. Assuming that the convictions of those of us against the present abortion situation prevail, what then? What about the quality of life for the many unwanted children who will be born when abortion policies are drastically revised? Concern for physical life without regard for its quality is not enough for those whose Lord came that humanity “may have life and have it to the full.”
Honesty compels the admission that many Christians, evangelicals among them, have been more judgmental than Christ-like in their attitude toward unwed mothers.
They have also, to cite one example among others, shown comparatively little concern for the plight of the mentally retarded and the brain damaged. How many of us who firmly oppose abortion have ever visited an institution for such people? We see not just tittle children, but grown men and women with minds of five-or six-year-olds (or less), shut away and never visited, year in and year out, by families and friends. Yet these forgotten ones are human beings capable of responding to the love denied them. They too are among those for whom Christ died, and his words, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me” (Matt. 25:40), apply with peculiar poignancy to them. If we save lives by banning abortion and fail to be actively concerned about the quality of life for the growing number of unwanted children coming into this fallen world, we come far short of being fully Christian.
Terrorism is erupting pandemically; violent crime threatens everyone. So our sense of outrage can become dulled. While we are distressed at the mounting crimes on the sidewalks, and the burglarizing of our homes, we have become far too accepting of some other forms of violence, chief among them those on the highways.
On March 22, the Washington Post ran a first-page feature under this head: “A National Outrage.” In drunken driving crashes alone, it pointed out, 26,000 people are killed each year—nearly 70 people daily or one person every 23 minutes. Then through a series of interviews with stricken families it translated these grim statistics into terms of human tragedy. But where is the expression of outrage by the religious community—not just evangelicals, but all Christians, including those known for their social activism? Not only does this slaughter go on with tittle protest, but the total number of some 50,000 dead because of motor vehicle crashes has become something we live with all too passively. Moreover, despite the proved fact that the reduction of the speed limit to 55 mph on the nation’s highways has been saving 4,000 lives a year, the move for its abolition is growing. Add to those who die the even more numerous victims who are maimed or crippled for life, and the casualties are like those of a Vietnam war every year. As medical research moves steadily forward in conquering disease and repairing broken bodies, we seem to care strangely little about the thousands dying on our highways.
Outrage at great wrongs, provided it is controlled, is not incompatible with Christianity. Our Lord expressed outrage when he drove the moneychangers from the temple, and when he excoriated the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy and injustice. We need not shout, but we can speak with the quiet intensity of reasoned conviction. And we must speak out when we learn of situations that we cannot in good conscience keep quiet about.
It is ironic that, with all the technological advances of this century, a chief piece of unfinished business is the alleviation of hunger. We are faced with a life issue—one that is taking its toll of hundreds of millions of our fellow human beings. If the untimely deaths of tens of thousands on our highways is a national scandal, then the multimillion deaths because of starvation is an international one.
No societal issue stands alone. Each is woven into the web of our human interrelatedness. The underfed in Latin America, the starving in Africa and Asia must be our concern just as much as the thousands who even in this land of abundance never have enough to eat. What Frances Moore Lappé calls “the outrage of hunger amidst plenty” must stir every Christian who takes the parable of the Good Samaritan seriously.
Evangelicals are promoting private giving to alleviate hunger through such agencies as World Vision and the World Relief Commission of the National Association of Evangelicals, as well as through denominational programs. But the problem is too huge to be solved by private initiative alone. National and international policies are inevitably involved. What our government does about aid to hungry nations may spell the difference between life and death for multitudes.
That God cares about the poor and the hungry is a major theme that runs through both Old and New Testaments. Therefore, no agenda of moral issues demanding Christian involvement that does not give a leading place to feeding the hungry can possibly be complete.
Since evangelicals have not been blind to world hunger, where is the need for them to change? We need to know much more about the enormity of the hunger problem and we need to face more fully what the Bible tells us about God’s concern for the poor and the hungry. (Such organizations as Bread for the World can provide authentic information about hunger from a broad Christian perspective.) Since evangelicals have broken out of their traditional aloofness from political involvement and have been actively promoting governmental policies relating to moral issues, to be fully biblical we need to give the hunger issue a major place on our agenda. Despite all our complaining about inflation, most of us have much more than enough to eat. We need to take some of the time we spend in recreation and TV watching and devote it to learning about the national and international aspects of the hunger problem so that we may work intelligently toward biblical solutions. One such solution we may well support is the bill (S. 1352), based on the Old Testament law of gleaning, which Senator Hatfield and others have introduced into the Senate.
We have left untouched such other vital issues where changes are needed as, for example, the protection of the environment. But since the issues we have discussed have biblical roots, we can remain unconcerned about them only at the risk of disobeying our Lord. But these, along with those we have discussed, must also have our concern. Only at the risk of disobeying our Lord can we be indifferent to any issue relating to life. For he became involved in this lost, suffering, sinful world; he died and rose again that we “may have life and have it to the full.”
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