Written by Chesterton House

January 11, 2007

Among the issues that divide Christians, one is the importance of evangelism relative to cultural activity. In an interview in the current issue of Christianity Today, N.T. Wright, the prolific New Testament theologian and Bishop of Durham, puts it this way:

For generations the church has been polarized between those who see the main task being the saving of souls for heaven and the nurturing of those souls through the valley of this dark world, on the one hand, and on the other hand those who see the task of improving the lot of human beings and the world, rescuing the poor from their misery. (See Mere Mission: How to Present the Gospel in a Postmodern World.)

This is another example of the “Christ and Culture” debate, described at length 50 years ago by H. Richard Niebuhr in his book by that name. Although some scholars, such as Craig Carter, author of the hot-off-the-press Rethinking Christ and Culture (Brazos, 2007), think Niebuhr’s framework has outlived its usefulness, the issues remain current.

In a fine article entitled “The Prophet and the Evangelist,” Andrew S. Finstuen traces this tension between evangelism and cultural activity to the two religious leaders who each appeared on the cover of Time magazine mid-century: Billy Graham and Reinhold Niebuhr. To overstate matters only slightly, what it means today to be a “conservative” or a “liberal” Christian depends on which of the two one identifies with.

The divide runs deep. Conservative Christians see liberals as secularists in Christian clothing, while liberal Christians see conservatives as other-worldly pietists. And let’s face it–there’s enough truth to these to sustain the stereotypes.

Is there any middle ground? Is it possible to care about both souls and society?

Thankfully, many leading Christian thinkers reject the dichotomy altogether. One example is Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw. Emphasizing the need for changing both hearts and society, he writes, “Jesus came to rescue a creation that was pervasively infected by the curse of sin—an infection not limited to the psychic territory populated by ‘human hearts.’ ‘Changed hearts’ will not ‘change society’ if the efforts at change are not also directed toward the structures and patterns of human interaction.” He draws this argument out at length in his book When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem

There are many other such examples of Christian scholars who are similarly in this respect neither liberal nor conservative but happily “beyond category.” N.T. Wright concludes his interview with this:

The longer that I’ve gone on as a New Testament scholar and wrestled with what the early Christians were actually talking about, the more it’s been borne in on me that that distinction is one that we modern Westerners bring to the text rather than finding in the text. Because the great emphasis in the New Testament is that the gospel is not how to escape the world; the gospel is that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Lord of the world. And that his death and Resurrection transform the world, and that transformation can happen to you. You, in turn, can be part of the transforming work. That draws together what we traditionally called evangelism, bringing people to the point where they come to know God in Christ for themselves, with working for God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. That has always been at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer, and how we’ve managed for years to say the Lord’s Prayer without realizing that Jesus really meant it is very curious. Our Western culture since the 18th century has made a virtue of separating out religion from real life, or faith from politics. When I lecture about this, people will pop up and say, “Surely Jesus said my kingdom is not of this world.” And the answer is no, what Jesus said in John 18 is, “My kingdom is not from this world.” That’s ek tou kosmoutoutou. It’s quite clear in the text that Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t start with this world. It isn’t a worldly kingdom, but it is for this world. It’s from somewhere else, but it’s for this world.
Still, one is tempted to ask: If you had to choose–evangelism or cultural activity–which is more important? Here Wright surely concludes on the right note, relativizing both projects in light of what is more important still.

The key to mission is always worship. You can only be reflecting the love of God into the world if you are worshiping the true God who creates the world out of overflowing self-giving love. The more you look at that God and celebrate that love, the more you have to be reflecting that overflowing self-giving love into the world.

Chesterton House Painting