Under The Influence

It was a slogan that became famous among mainline churches during the tumultuous Sixties: "The world sets the agenda for the church." The phrase expressed these churches' willingness to fling themselves headlong into the social battles of the day--to be totally politicized. And it was a signal of the capitulation of the liberal church. Evangelicals of the time rightly recoiled at the idea that the church should take her cues from the world. Yet, ironically, many evangelicals of the 1990s have adopted a similar pattern of social activism: They're seeking to exert direct influence on the political process. Of course, we've got to arrest the moral decline of society. But is this the only way to be salt in society? If we look back to the founding period of our nation, we see a very different approach to Christian political action. Here we see the hand of Providence working indirectly through men and women whose lives were shaped by Christian truth. For example, the debates over the Constitution were not framed in explicitly religious language or sprinkled with Bible verses. In fact, the drafting and ratification of the document went largely unnoticed by the same Christian activists who had rallied their troops behind the Revolutionary cause. Yet the Constitution established a system of government that fit in well with Christian beliefs. The framers were realistic about human nature, believing that people are capable of evil as well as great good. That's why they insisted on a separation of powers and a balance of powers: They wanted to restrain fallen men in their pursuit of power and protect natural rights and liberties. But the Constitution's most significant contribution was reordering the relationship between church and state. While some liberals and conservatives today interpret the separtion of church and state as an attempt to strip Christianity from public life, the opposite was actually the case. It was a recognition that government and religion have different functions in society. That --free and strong--the church would exercise a deep influence on the government indirectly by preaching the gospel and promoting virtue among the citizenry. This new arrangement did indeed set churches free to preach the gospel. As Mark Noll explains in One Nation Under God?, new congregations and denominations sprang up and existing churches grew. Christian leaders turned from the intense political activism they had engaged in during the Revolutionary War and channeled their energies into new voluntary societies to meet human needs. The result was a pattern of revivals called the Second Great Awakening--one that brought about a dramatic expansion of Christianity throughout America. The lessons of the Constitutional period suggest that Christian influence--including its influence in politics--is most powerful when the church is first of all the church proclaiming the Word of God and nurturing God's people. As British historian Herbert Butterfield put it, the "church has best served civilization not on occasions when it had civilization as its conscious object, but when it was most intent on the salvation of souls." When we invert that order, we fall into the same trap as mainline churches of the Sixties--allowing the world to set the agenda for the church. But instead of following catchy slogans, we ought to follow the "agenda" set by Christ: Go, make disciples of all nations. And as a strong church, we will make a strong witness--both religiously and politically.    


Chuck Colson


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