Throughout history, in relating themselves to the world, the two options which Christians have most often pursued were to vigorously strive to control the world or to disdainfully withdraw from it. Some have dreamed that they would make their society "Christian," necessarily defined in cultural and nationalistic terms, and have passed laws, mounted reforms, and, ironically, fought wars, in the name of Christ. At the other end of the spectrum have been the ascetics who, seeing the folly of coercing sinners into behaving like saints, have denounced the sinful world and withdrawn into isolation — hermits, monks, Amish, and the like.
However much these two models seem consistent to us, they are not what Jesus had in mind. "I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them through thy truth; thy word is truth. As thou hast sent me into the world, even so I have also sent them into the world" (John 17:14-18). There is the dilemma — in it but not of it. The Christian does not belong here, even as Jesus did not belong here, but he has work to do in the midst of the persistent filth and degradation. We have work to do. But that work is not the redemption of the world — a world which is beyond redemption and can only hate those who rise above sin. The work is the eternal salvation of honest and good souls.
Perhaps when compared with the sacred literature of other religions, the most remarkable feature of the New Testament is its almost total disregard for the society of its day. This, of course, is quite a contrast to the Old Testament where God's kingdom, for prophetic reasons, was civil as well as religious. But one could read the New Testament through and go away knowing almost nothing of the society in which it was written. How was the government structured? What were the laws of inheritance, labor, family relations, and foreign relations? Clearly, Jesus did not much care. It is true that the New Testament occasionally recognizes the fact that the powerful oppress the weak (James 2:6-7), but it offers no general solutions. Just a certain note of resignation. No revolutions were launched. It is just as if these things really did not matter. And that is exactly the case.
Spiritual Work or Social Reform?
Jesus explained to Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world, thus his servants would not fight. (John 18:36) His kingdom was spiritual and his followers would be occupied with spiritual work. Jesus had come to seek and save the lost. He never envisioned that society would become just — in fact, he clearly stated that most people would reject the path of righteousness which he taught. Individual regeneration makes people better, but the reformer who imagines that the world will become a moral utopia craves a millennium that the scriptures do not promise. Our escape from evil will come only with our escape from this wicked world.
One of the persistent marks of apostate religion is a shift in emphasis from the spiritual to the work of social reform This change of emphasis marks a people whose spiritual purpose has become blunted. Salvation, forgiveness, and heaven become inadequate ends, and "other-worldly" religion is supplanted by "this-worldly" ethical and moral reform. When a man comes to spend most of his time worrying about the predicament of man in this world, he has lost view of the consummate importance of the next world. Physical suffering or death is of little consequence when compared with eternal matters. In the honor roll of those who died in faith (Hebrews 11), suffering and injustice appear as irrelevant tragedies in this transient life, overshadowed by the truly significant triumph of those who live by faith to the saving of their souls.
So, it is easy to get things out of perspective. Men infatuated with this world come to center their religion on the problems of this world rather than the salvation of souls. Modern liberal Protestantism is a religion that has lost its spiritual zest and has become little more than soft-headed reformism. But conservatives can also become "this-worldly" in their religion, in the manner of Billy James Hargis and Carl McIntyre. The solution that one has to the world's problems is not so much the point as the truth that those who seek to save the nations are not likely to be much interested in saving people. Jesus and his disciples ignored Rome to seek and save those who were lost.
Growing Schism in Churches of Christ
The changes in churches of Christ in the years after World War II reflect a growing schism along these lines. The division over the use of the churches' funds to support orphan homes, other benevolent institutions, and for various social and recreational purposes, while raising important scriptural issues, clearly reflected a shifting balance in the minds of many about the relative importance of this world and the next. While the New Testament teaches that all Christians will react humanely to the world around them (Galatians 6:10), and the local churches felt a common responsibility for the lives of other saints, one soon reaches the end of the New Testament's social instructions. The extension of the church's role to that of a generous benevolent society and a service institution to provide recreational and social fellowship is both unscriptural and a clear perversion of the otherworldly emphasis one finds in the New Testament. The apostolic churches were a spiritual fellowship for the purpose of evangelization, edification, and worship. When one changes that scheme he almost surely has come to underestimate the importance of spiritual things, and to think more highly than he ought to of the importance of this world.
In short, what ultimately becomes the social gospel in liberal churches — the message that Jesus came to bring social justice to this world — begins slowly and with good intentions. Innocent, and even scriptural, as the support of benevolent institutions seemed to many well-intentioned members of churches of Christ, the pattern of thinking that emphasizes the solution of social ills starts one down a long road that has no end. If Christianity calls us to the solution of the world's social problems, as millions in the past have conceived it to do, one must push on beyond the poor and orphaned to cleanse the world of every social evil. And it is a mission that Jesus failed to attend to, as did Paul and all the other divinely guided men in apostolic days. And it is a mission that inevitably leads us away from the work which the New Testament calls us to do — preaching the gospel to a lost world.
Keep Things in Perspective!
All of this does not mean that a Christian is socially calloused, nor does it mean that one is forbidden to participate in the political order in which he lives. Christians live lives of compassion and are ready to help those in need always as they have the ability and opportunity. A Christian has a right to exercise any civil exercise that the government grants to him that does not cause him to violate the principles of Christian conduct. One may pay taxes (Matthew 22:17-21), appeal to the courts (Acts 25:8-12), and, I believe, hold a civil office (Philippians 4:22; Acts 19:12) without undermining his Christian commitment. And certainly has a right, and an obligation, to try to make the society in which he lives as peaceful and hospitable as possible, using the means that the government grants to him as a citizen.
The point is: keep it in perspective. A runaway sentimentality and distortion of New Testament social teachings have led many to involve local churches in unscriptural ends ranging from the building of orphan homes to the sponsoring of black guerillas in Rhodesia. And a runaway zeal for a politically moral society has led some to forget how little difference the shape of this world makes.
We need always to keep our priorities in order. On the rare occasions when I begin to fret and take this world seriously, I still find it useful to ask the question: "Would Jesus have really cared?" I can let the world go, and get back to the business of seeing my fellow man as one who is spiritually lost and who needs the salvation that Jesus came to give him.