The Church and Changing the World
The church is not called to change the world, it's called to participate in and witness to the changed world brought by Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
I posted this earlier on my facebook status and one friend responded: “I think that would change the world.”
I agree but not perhaps in the sense my friend means and not as I suspect many American Christians, progressive or evangelical believe.
My thesis is this: “Changing the world” is a mantra that has been present in many ways in American Christianity throughout its existence. Some of it came from post-millenial thought. Steven Pointer explains:
“During most of the nineteenth century, American Protestants believed they were living in special times, that current events were hastening the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth. Hymns like the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" became popular because they so well expressed this hope: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,/He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored/He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword,/His truth is marching on.
“Undergirding this optimism was the doctrine of postmillennialism—the belief that the Second Coming will take place after the millennium of blissful peace and prosperity for the church, which will be ushered in by the divinely aided efforts of the church.” (http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-61/american-postmillennialism-seeing-glory.html)
Out of the ferment of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy came another strand of postmillennialism, the Social Gospel Movement.
“The Social Gospel was a Protestant movement that was most prominent in the early-20th-century United States and Canada. The movement applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice such as economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war. Theologically, the Social Gospellers sought to operationalize the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:10): "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven". They typically were post-millennialist; that is, they believed the Second Coming could not happen until humankind rid itself of social evils by human effort.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Gospel)
The period of the two world wars and the Great Depression destroyed the sense of optimism about human goodness and ability and the inevitability of progress. Yet many in the churches continued to expect that God would bring positive change and moral renewal to his world, or at least America, through his faithful people.
The Civil Rights struggle, the war on Poverty, and the movements against the Vietnam war, largely from the liberal side of the church during the 1950’s -1970’s. The 1980’s saw the rise of the Moral Majority and the Christian Right. Thirty years later the Christian right has morphed into the religious right and hitched their star to the Tea Party and Trumpites. Liberalism is in disarray but a progressive movement in the both the church and world has emerged to lead a social justice and peace movement of sorts.
In all this, it seems to me, runs at least an undercurrent of postmillennial hope: if the church will do its job God will reward it with human and moral improvement, however differently those terms might be parsed. The call from all sides of the church to “change the world” reflects this residual hope for the world’s improvement.
Yet, though God will win in the end by his own initiative and power, there is no scriptural warrant I know of that says the church will prevail and lead the world to greater and greater moral achievement and social justice.
I do believe the theology of the cross which says that the resurrection of Jesus validated and vindicated his life is the God-approved way to win through losing. The cross is the criterion of faithfulness. But we still lose!
I do believe that “not cling(ing) to life even in the face of death” is what the Seer of Revelation calls conquering” (Rev.12:10).
I do believe that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church" (Tertullian, Apologeticus, Chapter 50). And why should the fruit of this seed be any different?
I do believe that J. R. R. Tolkien’s statement, “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect 'history' to be anything but a 'long defeat'—though it contains . . . some samples or glimpses of final victory,” and his portrayal of this view in his magnificent The Lord of the Rings is profoundly biblical.
I do believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is right to say “only a suffering God can help” and that we follow Jesus in the world in the same way he went into the world, by bearing the world’s sin and guilt, seeing the world from the perspective of those who suffering and not by being the world’s moral exemplars and policemen.
What kind of people live this way? How do they participate in and witness to the changed world Jesus won for us if we’re not out changing the world ourselves? Tolkien well describes
Whether or not we think our world is in decline is up to each one of us. But in application, we see this life principle guarded against pessimism by love and hope. Fighting the long defeat is not meant to protect our hearts from suffering or lead to resignation. I am reminded of a wise counselor's words to me when I complained that, after all this counseling, I seemed to cry more frequently than before: “What made you think counseling would cause you to cry less? . . .
If anything, we find that most of the characters in LOTR cast their whole hearts into their endeavors. What they love is on the line: their friends and family, their gardens, a mug of ale in the company of friends. They hope and long for these things to be protected and offer themselves as sacrifices to make it so.
In other words, if fighting the long defeat does not lead us to risk our reputations to love the outcasts, to stay with the chronically ill in love, to support ministry to those with Alzheimer's disease, or to prepare week in and week out for a one-person Bible study, we have misunderstood it. This is what we have to offer to the world, is it not? A love unrestrained by success or timetables or ambitions? . . .
We fight the long defeat because results are not as important as our Father's delight. We fight the long defeat because we are not the authorities over “success.”
We fight the long defeat because the final victory is coming.” (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/tolkien-and-the-long-defeat)
Living this long defeat allows us to let go of our residual post-millennial illusions of “changing the world” and the political absorption of faith that seems its ever-present companion. To live in this world with patience and hope even if signs of the changed world seem few and our efforts at changing the world always fall prey to the need for success upon success and for us “world-changers” to be successful as well. We do what we can in terms of political involvement and the improvements that can be made that way but our lives and faith do not depend on them. But, rather, on the reality of the changed world of Jesus Christ. And our participation in and witness to this reality is the way we change this world (to the degree it can be changed) even as we wait for the full and final establishment of God’s new creation at Christ’s return.
This, I submit, is what Jesus means in the gospel of John about his followers living in the word but not being of the world.