The proper balance between evangelism and social concern has troubled the church for centuries. The very existence of such a problem should make anyone who advances a particular partisan cause humble. The sad fact is that it does not in most cases. It seems that we have never been more divided as Christians than we are right now about the proper role of the kingdom of God in its relationship to the kingdom of man.
How, for example, do economics and politics relate to the gospel? How is the kingdom realized through these spheres? A privatistic evangelicalism (with its stress on personal piety as the end of all Christian faith in this world) and an acculturated liberalism (where everything is reduced to existential experience) are both guilty of divorcing the kingdom of God from the messy business of life in the economic and political realms. This is the kind of emphasis I grew up with as a Christian in the South. This emphasis told me to not get involved in the Civil Rights struggle, to give but one example.
The second error is made by all kinds of liberation theologies, and by an increasingly large number of people on the Christian Right who confuse their particular agenda with God’s kingdom. Robert Bellah has noted these tensions well when he writes: "Religion and morality and politics are not the same things, and confusing them can lead to terrible distortions. But cutting all links between them can lead to even worse distortions."
The apostolic commission is to first preach the gospel, not a program for political and cultural change. But the gospel has massive social and political ramifications. We are to make disciples and disciples are to love God and their neighbors. This means that we must teach converts that one large dimension of following Christ is to live godly lives in this present world. This includes service to both neighbor and country.
The late Carl Henry understood this well when he wrote: "The gospel of Christ contains more than the assurance of divine forgiveness and new life; it includes also the seed of human dignity and freedom. To obscure this essential fact is no less to imperil the human soul than to neglect personal evangelism." In contrast the famous nineteenth century theologian Charles Hodge said "Both political despotism and domestic slavery, belong in morals to the adiaphora, to things indifferent." Henry was right and Hodge was wrong.
Proverbs 31:8-9 reminds us that we should "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy."
The simple fact is this—the church needs to recover moral courage. We must be specific about sinful practices, including abortion and poverty. Reinhold Niebuhr was right when he said that one of the tests of true prophecy is moral counsel. And Donald Bloesch adds:
The gospel has politically revolutionary implications because it desacralizes the holy places of culture-religion; it demythologizes the myths which society has created for itself and by which it is enabled to survive; and it calls into radical question the current absolutes that enthrall the political and academic establishments and that have their source in man’s idolatrous imagination. In short, the gospel is a direct threat to the pantheon of the gods, whether these go under the names of science, sex, the national heritage, the racial consciousness, the proletarian utopia, or any other (Essentials of Evangelical Theology, 2:170).
This is why I routinely criticize both the left and the right in the present political and social debates within American culture. My sympathies are on the right when it comes to many moral issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. My sympathies, however, are not always on the right when it comes to issues like poverty and the role of government in matters of justice.
The major task of the church, when all is said and done, is to win people to real faith in Christ. Only by this means can the Christian contribute anything of real lasting value to culture. This is why I am an evangelist who engages the culture at a number of important points. But I am still an evangelist, thus I believe that the church’s first task is to win people to the obedience of faith. I fear people on the Christian Right have forgotten this at times, if not in their thinking, for sure by their actions.