Social action and
by Andrew Lansdown
Many Christians object to attempts to safeguard moral standards through social action and state regulation. They dislike, and even disparage, fellow Christians who get involved in lobbying, protesting and consciousness-raising on sexual and sanctity-of-life issues. They shy away from signing petitions, writing letters, attending rallies or joining political parties, especially if the purpose is to defend biblical standards relating to matters such as abortion, pornography, homosexuality or prostitution.
Some Christians oppose social action on the “moral front” because they have been influenced by liberal theology and/or leftist ideology. They believe that “personal morality” can be separated from “social justice”, and that the latter is immensely more important than the former. They are deeply mistaken in both these assumptions, but they are not my concern here.
The Christians I am concerned about are Bible-believing, evangelical Christians. They appear to have two principal reasons for rejecting Christian social action. Their first argument is that acts of parliament cannot make people morally upright. Their second argument is that the principal task of every Christian is to evangelise the lost.
Now, I happen to agree with both these assertions. The law cannot make a person good; and every Christian’s primary task is to minister to every person’s principal need, which is new life in Christ. I agree. However, I disagree that these truths negate our social and spiritual duty to be salt and light in the world.
It is a mistake to think that social action and evangelical outreach are in conflict. Far from working against each other, the two can and must work hand in hand, sharing the common goal of bringing people to Christ. In short, action on the “moral front” can support action on the “missionary front”.
Laws relating to sexual morality, for example, may on occasions bring a person under conviction of sin. While it is lamentable, it is nonetheless true that many people today are living in a moral vacuum. They have no objective standards by which to live. For such people, the law is often the last arbiter on moral issues. Consequently, the only things they consider to be immoral are those things they know to be illegal.
Paul’s comment about the Mosaic law is valid for our national law: “through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Indeed, Paul claimed, “if it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’” (Romans 3:20; 7:7).
If the law can either reveal evil or arouse guilt then it can serve the cause of the gospel. The law cannot save, but it can produce a consciousness of sin, which in turn can prompt a consciousness of a need for forgiveness. In short, the law can be a schoolmaster to lead a person to Christ, so that he or she might be justified by faith (Galatians 3:24).
The numbing of the conscience is a powerful enemy of the gospel. People who do not recognise that they are sinners cannot recognise their need for the Saviour. Christians ought to strive to preserve anything that reminds people of their sin. And such striving ought to be viewed as part of a wider evangelical concern.
Further, social action can provide opportunities for evangelical witness. For example, asking a non-Christian to sign a petition opposing the public funding of abortion may open the way to speak about Jesus. Birth is an analogy for new birth, after all. And a concern for the natural life of every person is one way to demonstrate a concern for the eternal life of a particular person. The Christian who, as an ambassador for Christ, tries to save someone’s physical life will certainly not be viewed as a hypocrite when he tries to save someone’s spiritual life. “All life is valuable” and “eternal life is available to all”: these two truths rejoice in each other.
The same Lord who said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mark 16:15), also said, “You are the salt of the earth”, and, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-16). Indeed, he declared that if the salt has lost its taste, “It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men.” It would seem from this statement that the Christian who has lost his moral savour is useless even as a witness for the Saviour.
By God’s grace and decree, Christians are different from other people. We should not deny or attempt to conceal this. We should let our light so shine before men that they are dazzled by it. Everything about us, from attitude to action to reaction, ought to be different from our neighbours, because the life we now live we live by faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us (Galatians 2:20). And while the difference may sometimes cause misunderstandings, it may also dispel them. It may awaken an awareness of sin, righteousness and judgment, so that people might see Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
Social and evangelical concerns overlap at yet another point. Christians who withstand evil on the social front free others to work on the evangelical front. More than this, they provide the conditions for that freedom.
Government legislation and public attitudes determine whether or not the gospel may be freely proclaimed and Bibles freely distributed. Some Christians seem to be unaware that they are free to hand out Bibles and to hold crusades in this country because it is lawful for them to do so. If governments enact extensive legislation contrary to Christian morality, how long will it be before the Bible and its believers are condemned as opponents of the law?
Decency and perversity are antagonistic to each other: they cannot co-exist for long: one must destroy the other. When a society grants the freedom to practise perversity, it soon denies the freedom to practise decency.
Consider homosexual law “reform” by way of example. Decriminalisation and anti-discrimination legislation usually go hand in hand. In its effort to protect homosexual “rights” through anti-discrimination legislation, a government may ban from schools and public libraries books that condemn homosexual acts. The Bible is such a book.
Evangelical and social concerns cannot be separated. The man who stands watch with a sword enables another to build with a trowel. But the builder must not think that he can do without the soldier. He is free to build so long as the soldier is at his post, and no longer.
Of course, the soldier and the builder are often the same person. It would be a mistake to think that a Christian can only be one or the other. Ideally, every Christian should be like the Jews who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem towards the end of the Babylonian exile: “Those who carried burdens were laden in such a way that each with one hand laboured on the work and with the other held his weapon” (Nehemiah 4:17-18).