Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Response to John MacArthur's "Disengagement" View of Christians & Sociopolitical Activity

Just as I think we should be critical of the efforts and rhetoric on the Left that have the effect of conflating the Kingdom of God with the policies of the federal government, I am also critical of an opposite extreme which calls for the Church to essentially disengage from all sociopolitical action apart from gospel-preaching. Although he might not agree with my description of "disengagement," I think this best describes what John MacArthur is calling for in his recent "Politics, Activism, and the Gospel." Please read MacArthur's short article here.

MacArthur posits that what society really needs is the gospel. ["After all, the gospel, not politics, is the only true solution to our nation’s moral crisis."] The only thing of eternal significance is an individual's salvation. ["If we do not evangelize the lost and make disciples of new converts, nothing else we do for people—no matter how beneficial it seems—is of any eternal consequence."] The way we will impact society is through gospel-preaching and personal piety. ["By means of faithful preaching and godly living, believers are to be the conscience of whatever nation they reside in."] MacArthur's isolationist position is a present-day version of the classic fundamentalist strategy of withdrawal from societal engagement. It dismisses the importance of sociopolitical activity because it distracts from evangelism. This disengagement position stems from a Kingdom view that sees the Kingdom as wholly future and other-wordly. Now is the time to preach the gospel and win souls before the time of judgment.

MacArthur states that he is not calling for us to abstain from any participation in the political process. He says that we should desire "the improvement of society’s moral standards and by approving of measures that would conform government more toward righteousness." He lists troubling aspects of society that we can work to improve. So far so good. MacArthur emphasizes using "God's methods" and "scriptural priorities." He emphasizes the church's call to bring sinful people to salvation through Jesus Christ. All of this is true but MacArthur goes on to say that "political activism" and "social moralizing" are not of eternal consequence and distract us from our task of evangelism. So although he is not calling for the church to abstain from the political process he certainly is proposing a very minimalist approach which is difficult to distinguish from abstinence. We should support measures that could improve conditions in society but otherwise do not lose focus on evangelism and personal piety according to MacArthur.

A benefit of this view is that it protects the Christ-centered nature of the Kingdom and the absolute necessity of regeneration and redemption. It rightfully upholds a pessimistic view of human affairs due the fallen nature of humankind. This is a much-needed antidote to Christ-less concepts of the Kingdom and attempts to reduce "Kingdom values" to ethics only.

There is, however, an aspect of this view that is reductionistic toward both the Kingdom and the gospel. Is evangelizing the lost the only thing we can do of eternal consequence? Does the gospel only pertain to the regeneration of individuals? MacArthur is well-known for what his opponents call "Lordship Salvation" and there is no doubt that he upholds the lordship of Jesus Christ. What MacArthur seems to do, however, is limit Christ's lordship to matters of personal piety and this cannot be done.

The lordship of Christ is a "cosmic" lordship meaning that Jesus Christ is Lord over all of humanity and even the entire course of human history. Yes, salvation is personal redemption but it is a holistic redemption of the entire person both spiritually and physically. It covers the entirety of our existence. Yes, salvation is individual regeneration but we are also transferred into the Kingdom of God and there is a social aspect to the Kingdom. As George Eldon Ladd wrote,

"The coming of Christ is a definitive event for all people; it means either salvation or judgment. Furthermore, salvation is not merely an individual matter; it concerns the whole people of God, and it includes the transformation of the entire physical order" [George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel and the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God, pg. 69].
As we anticipate a holistic salvation we are not just concerned with soul or spirit alone. We recognize the redemption of the entire person and even all of creation. We do not seek escape but restoration of the created order. Failure to give proper attention to the all-encompassing nature of the kingdom along with the holistic redemption of individuals and creation has led to a gospel reduced to getting to go to heaven when we die.

The Trinity with Mary and John the Baptist - detail from The Triumph of the Christian Faith fresco by Raphael - Stanzo della segnatura - VaticanWe are joint-heirs with the Messiah. We have the good news of salvation, the forgiveness of sins, the atoning death of Christ and reconciliation with the Father. But there is more. We have a radical message for the "kings" and "kingdoms" of today: there is another King (Acts 17:7). He is Jesus the Christ and he is Lord (Phil. 2:9-11), the exalted Son of David (Acts 2:32-33), the one who is reigning at the right hand of the Father (Ps. 110; Acts 2:34; Rom. 1:3-4). All of this should drive us to expand our sociopolitical efforts rather than minimizing them.

We may have some work to do in determining the nature and extent of our sociopolitical activities but disengagement is not an option. Evangelism and personal regeneration and redemption are of utmost importance and MacArthur is absolutely right to emphasize this priority. But sociopolitical engagement is not just a distraction from evangelism. The church's sociopolitical activity is an expression of the King's reign over the entire physical order. Sociopolitical engagement is an opportunity to confront the existing world order with the Kingdom values of the people of God. This is not just "putting a facade of morality on the world or over our governmental and political institutions." We are not isolated from humanity but identify with humanity and have a unique message for the social needs of mankind.

[For more on Christians and sociopolitical activity see The Kingdom of Christ, The New Evangelical Perspective by Russell D. Moore]

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