1985 MARKS THE MIDPOINT OF THE EIGHTIES, the next-to-last decade of the fabulous twentieth century. What will this new year bring our little planet and our nation? Further, where ought we to direct the energies of the church?
This second question cannot be answered fully without dealing with the first. It is true that God has given his church its marching orders, and in broad perspective they are the same for all times and places. The Great Commission is unequivocal: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20, NIV). Surely, here our Lord is setting a priority for the church as a church. Its first duty is to evangelize and to instruct its members. Without evangelism there is no church. Without instruction a church is ineffective and can be dangerous, working at cross purposes with its Lord. But an informed church is God’s way of bringing his greatest good to the world.
Yet even a church informed by the instruction of the Lord will prove ineffective unless it understands the world it must work in. For example, are the tens of millions of dollars evangelicals spend annually on TV evangelistic programs the wisest use of limited funds? Or would we do better to concentrate on printed material? Or on the outreach of the local church? Or on neighborhood Bible studies?
Again, how important to us is a politically and socially free society (and, therefore, one that is also religiously free)? How does that affect our attitude toward Nicaragua, or the Philippines, or national defense?
We cannot answer such practical questions unless we first understand the world we shall face in the last half of the eighties. Our knowledge, though incomplete, is adequate to influence our agenda significantly.
In recent years, for example, our nation, and probably our planet, have been moving in a conservative direction. The academic world and the elite do not know this yet, and the public media are just beginning to recognize it (they represent the grown-up children of the sixties). Their shrill voices of warning show that they fear it. Their students and children are often a part of it.
This broad social shift is evident in many areas of our culture. It would be foolish to predict how the elections will go in 1988. But one thing is clear: the Democrats will move to the right—nearer the center. The Republicans will remain basically where they are or move farther to the right, away from the center—and, in time, lose elections because of it.
The Supreme Court, by its decisions spread over the last 20 years, has drastically restructured many aspects of the American society. For good or ill, the membership of the Court will almost certainly change during the next four years, becoming more conservative.
Economically, people are gradually realizing that the nation cannot do everything or it will go broke. We face hard choices between funding social programs for the poor, needy, aged, and handicapped, or continuing the military build-up in an increasingly dangerous world.
Religiously, the churches have grown more conservative through the last decade, and that direction will continue into the foreseeable future. A quick glance at the 50 largest seminaries will show why this is so. And if account is taken of new candidates for ordination (eliminating ministers taking refresher courses or advanced degrees, and those theological students not actually entering the ordained ministry), the movement is even more pronounced.
All this is highly significant for evangelicals because any political or social agenda ought to represent the kind of compromise that relates the ideal to the possible. Evangelical goals that were unthinkable 20 years ago now lie within range. And this lays upon all evangelicals a deeper responsibility to exercise wise judgment in setting their agenda for the eighties.
1. OUR HIGHEST PRIORITY must be to reach out evangelistically into the communities of our land through local churches. The greatest problem in our society today is the widespread meaninglessness of life. Nothing else has any value if life as a whole has no meaning. Only the gospel, bringing lost humans into vital relationship with the living God, can give life meaning. Surely, therefore, this must hold the very highest priority on the evangelical agenda.
2. SECOND IN PRIORITY is the strengthening of the family. For a considerable segment of our society, women, in Playboy fashion, are only things to be consumed for entertainment. And child abuse destroys the rights of our young, continuing to gnaw away at family life.
In recent years strains not known to previous generations and, in themselves, not necessarily bad, have struck at the stability of the family. Modern gadgetry, for example, has removed the drudgery of homemaking, but also released women to massive employment in the work force outside the home; the full impact of this has yet to hit us. The family is the building block of both church and society. We must not seek to roll the clock back, but neither dare we permit the demoralization of society by the gradual disintegration of the family. To protect and preserve the family must remain near the top of evangelical priorities for the eighties.
Some will be disturbed, perhaps even angry, that we do not give highest priority to world peace. Others would insist that our first priority must be amendments to outlaw abortion and to reinstate prayer in the schools.
But how many times during the past year have you wept over the tragedy of Afghanistan, or the national debt, or the failure to pass the prayer amendment or the constitutional amendment to outlaw abortions? But you may well have wept over your child or your relationship with your parent or spouse. Most tears are shed over matters that have nothing to do with the kind of government we have or the laws it passes. The truth is, most Americans have a greatly exaggerated sense of the importance of government to bring them a good life. Our highest priorities lie elsewhere.
3. FOR THIRD PLACE ON THE LIST of priorities, however, we would move to the public sphere and name human freedom—political, social, and not least, religious. Under this rubric come many values especially dear to all Americans, not just evangelicals. For example, our most basic political freedom is our constitutional right to life and protection. And this includes the life of the not-yet-born as well as the newly born, and of the severely handicapped and the aged. Free abortions blight our society; prochoice is a singularly malicious euphemism for the right to murder for convenience.
Here evangelicals must set their agenda with great care. An absolutist prohibition of abortion will never secure political acceptance in our pluralistic society, and even many of us evangelicals would deem it undesirable. Evangelicals ought to agree to support any governmental action that would protect unborn children by making free abortions illegal. It may well be possible to outlaw abortions for trifling causes and all abortions beyond the first trimester except to save the life of the mother. The art of compromise is not sinful; it is usually realistic and often thoroughly Christian.
Also high on the evangelical agenda should be the preservation of religious liberty—especially the government protection of our First Amendment right of the free exercise of religion. For half a century now, lawmakers have concentrated on the “no establishment” clause—extending it to religion in general as well as to any particular religion. We evangelicals need to affirm this loud and clear. And we do it not just because we live in a pluralistic society, but in principle, on the ground of our commitment to human freedom and dignity. The God of the Bible does not seek compulsory worship, and all true worship must be free.
But, on the other hand, evangelicals also need to battle for liberty in the “free exercise” of religion. This includes the right of free prayer in the schools (prayers not authorized by any government), the right to free assembly in school for religious interests when free assembly is allowed for other purposes, the right of private schools to determine their own curricula, and the right of parents to provide a Christian education for their children without the handicap of paying twice when secularists can secure a secular education for their children simply by paying taxes. Religious freedom is not really free unless it protects the free exercise of religion, and this ought to be high on the evangelical agenda for the last half of the eighties.
4. FINALLY, WITH NO ATTEMPT TO BE COMPLETE, we add a fourth high priority for our evangelical agenda: peace among the nations. We hear a great deal these days about “Armageddon politics.” Granted, few Christians believe that perfect peace will ever come to pass on this earth short of the Eschaton—the second coming of the Prince of Peace. There is a final judgment when the wrath of God will be poured out upon the evil forces of earth. That is the piece of biblical and Christian truth in “Armageddon” theology. But no Christian worthy of the name confuses his own judgment with the wrath of God, nor would he seek to hasten the awful terror of a world under divine judgment. The Lord of the church commanded his disciples to be peacemakers. Any Christian who has any love for God or neighbor must seek peace. And in our day, especially, Christians must place peace high on their agenda.
Some may argue, mistakenly we think, that unilateral disarmament is the right path to peace. Others, also mistakenly, may argue for an unlimited build-up of conventional and atomic weapons. A strong threat of reprisal, so they say, is the best guarantee of peace. But surely a verifiable reduction of armaments looking to outlaw nuclear weapons would be a better and safer way to reduce international tensions, and so lead toward peace. This is a path most Christians and all lovers of mankind could agree on. We need to set this forth earnestly as an immediate goal of highest priority toward which all evangelicals should work.
Evangelicals represent a minority, but in America they are a large and significant minority. At the moment their influence is increasing. Many, perhaps most, Americans share with evangelicals their love for freedom, justice, and peace. They would follow evangelical leadership that set these priorities for America. As evangelicals, obedient to the Lordship of Christ, we could serve him and them no better in our generation.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more