The last two posts in this series wrestled with questions concerning the kingdom of God and the nature of Christian cultural engagement. But this conversation is fruitless if it stays locked in the realm of philosophical abstraction. We must put boot leather to our faith and consider the ordinary Christian man or woman’s day-to-day responsibilities before God.
Should a Christian’s main burden be the conversion and sanctification of the elect or the transformation of society or both equally?
Evangelism is core to the mission of the church and takes necessary precedence over social advocacy. This position is known as prioritism. Yet one of the great ills of our time is the way in which these two responsibilities of the believer have been pitted against each other. The social justice movement within evangelicalism is in some ways an understandable response to our tendency to falsely dichotomize word and deed.
Promotion of mercy and justice for the Christian are secondary to the gospel, but only in the sense that loving neighbor is “secondary” to loving God (Mt. 22:37-39). That is to say, these two duties are not so much numbers 1 and 2, respectively, but 1.1 and 1.2. There is a rank and order but not a separation. In Galatians 2, in the context of recounting his evangelistic calling, even Paul notes that he was “eager” to remember the poor (v. 10). In our own Reformed Baptist history, men like William Carey and his Serampore team are prime examples of such holistic, word-and-deed ministry—prioritizing evangelism, discipleship, and church planting while contributing to literature and science and engaging in public activism to ban the barbaric practice of sati.
When the atomic unity of the first and second greatest commandments is split, nuclear reactions are unleashed.
We would fault a man in our church who excelled in evangelism but neglected his wife and family, employing pious excuses about the urgency of reaching the lost. Yet if we are not careful, evangelicals can commit the same error by disengaging from culture with the best of evangelistic motives. There are, of course, ditches on both sides. We are also witnessing a host of woke evangelicals sacrificing the gospel on the altar of contextualization, to their shame. When the atomic unity of the first and second greatest commandments is split, nuclear reactions are unleashed. What God has brought together in his law, let no man tear asunder.
Finally, we must appreciate the diversity of members in the body of Christ. There are evangelists, preachers, and teachers committed to gospel proclamation. There are deacons ordained to the role of mercy ministry. There are laypersons called to be salt and light in their places of employment, from the local waste plant to the halls of city government (the difference between these two vocations being increasingly scant). There are tired, young parents whose prime duty in their current season is to guard their marriage and evangelize their children; there are Christian government officials who are accountable before God to directly apply his moral law in the public sphere; there are pastors called primarily to administer the means of grace to God’s covenant people; there are shut-ins beset with illness and age simply watching and waiting to meet their Lord. To speak of a Christian’s “main duty” is not always a one-size-fits-all answer.
We must also consider not just the ordinary believer’s duties but also the duties of gospel ministers, if any, with regard to law and government. Pastoral rebuke of civil authorities is a part of “kingdom work,” broadly conceived. Kingdom work is any activity in word or deed that relates to proclaiming and applying the lordship of Christ over all of life. John the Baptist was doing the work of the kingdom when he called Herod to repentance (Mk. 6:18). When Paul was tried before various magistrates, he reasoned with them concerning repentance. Pastors, as shepherds, are called first and foremost to keep watch over their flocks, but one of the tragedies of our age is that few pastors have a vision for how their ministry of proclamation could (and should) spill out into the public sphere. This is doing the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4:5).
Finally, to understand these questions of state and church, we must consider each sphere as unique and distinct under God’s sovereign, providential rule. We will consider this in the final installment.