The second form of the church – political/social – is called the conversionist church. This form argues that no amount of tinkering with the structures of society or state will adequately counter the effects of human sin. What is needed is the conversion of individuals. The promises of secular optimism are false because they too quickly bypass the biblical call to personal repentance and faith, a repentance and faith that lead us to reconciliation with God and our neighbors. “The sphere of political action is shifted by the conversionist church from without to within, from society to the individual soul” (Resident Aliens, 45). Since the conversionist church works almost exclusively for inward change it can really offer no alternative social ethic of community to the world. The exception, at least for many within this particular model in America, has been to embrace a pro-life position in the political world. Generally speaking conversionist churches abandon all other “life” and “moral” issues, leaving them to the state alone. In this way they very often opt for a nationalistic type of civil-religion. “The political claims of Jesus are sacrificed for politics that inevitably seems to degenerate into a religiously glorified conservatism” (Resident Aliens, 45). Wars, poverty and immigration are not “our” issues. This may be true because the world is ultimately dying or because we believe the only message we have for people is private repentance and personal faith.
The third model, that of the confessing church, should not be understood as a middle ground between these other two models. It is not a synthesis of the best of the other two positions either. It is a “radical alternative” (45). It rejects the individualism of the conversionist church and the secularism of the activist church. Why? For a number of reasons but a primary one if their frequent equation of what works with faithfulness. The confessing church believes that the main political task of the people of God is not simply to convert individuals, or to run a kind of rescue operation getting people off the sinking ship of the world, but rather to transform the hearts of people in congregation/community so that Christ is worshiped as Lord in all things.
The confessing church does not say, as so many are prone to say in today’s particularly polarized political context, that faithfulness is what matters, not effectiveness. The confessing church trusts God to show the church what God is doing in the world in order to bring about God’s good results. I believe, once again, that the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s was a perfect illustration of this point. The confessing church saw that God was opposed to racism and joined a movement that was stirring in the world to join a widely divergent political group to oppose racism with moral and spiritual power. Indeed, I believe it was the moral and spiritual power of the church that lent deep credibility to the Civil Rights Movement.
The confessing church, like the conversionist church, calls on individuals to be converted. The difference between the two, however, is critical. A confessing church understands that conversion is a lifelong process, not a one-time decision. Through baptism and faith people are joined to the “colony of heaven” (Resident Aliens: “the alternative polis”), a people who are aliens living in a church culture that influences the world best by being radically different from the world. The confessing church sees the church as visible, thus is it a community to be clearly seen and watched by the world. Here people are transformed into a community where promises are kept, where enemies are loved and where the poor are cared for and honored. The confessing church is not interested in withdrawing from the world but it will not be surprised when the world is hostile toward its witness. “The confessing church moves from the activist church’s acceptance of the culture with a few qualifications, to rejection of the culture with a few qualifications” (Resident Aliens, 47). Read that again if you think this model is just “thin” liberalism. The confessing church can participate in people movements against war, hunger and other forms of inhumanity precisely because it sees these acts to be a necessary part of its gospel proclamation. But even when this is true the confessing church realizes that its most credible form of witness is “the actual creation of a loving, breathing, visible community of faith” (Resident Aliens, 47).
John Howard Yoder said the confessing church will be a church of the cross. Following Jesus the church will demonstrate to all people that the world is hostile to the cross. The cross is not a sign of retreat into private spirituality but rather a deep participation in the victory of Christ over the reigning powers of this world; cf. Ephesians 6:10–20. “The cross stands as God’s (and our) eternal no to the powers of death, as well as God’s eternal yes to humanity, God’s remarkable determination not to leave us to our own devices” (Resident Aliens, 47).
The church’s calling into the world invites a deeply political and social engagement with the world. The problem is not that the church has been too involved in politics but rather that the church has been involved in the wrong way. The church’s unique political task in the world is to be “the community of the cross” (47). We stand as a witness against the world’s way of incivility, of war-making and of the denial of human freedom for the least of those; women, the poor and all who are oppressed by human powers.
Hauerwas and Willimon conclude Chapter Two of Resident Aliens, which I have drawn heavily from in putting together my thoughts on the political and social witness of the church in the world, with these words:
We would like a church that again asserts that God, not nations, rules the world, that the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar, and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price (48, italics mine).