Over the years I’ve engaged in numerous discussions regarding the role of the church in social and political issues. As an Australian I have zero expectations that the government will reflect Christian values, at least, not because they’re Christian. When a Christian is elected to parliament it’s nice to see and I hope they vote according to their conscience. However, I don’t look to politicians to further the kingdom of God. Faith cannot be legislated.
I also struggle within myself regarding the extent to which churches should engage social issues. I am not a proponent of abortion, but the role churches have played in publicly and loudly condemning abortion seems to have done little more than produce a harvest of guilt in women who’ve made that decision.
We don’t need to look very far to see the other side of the coin. I’m sure most (all?) of my readers are aware of the role the church played in the United States’ civil rights movement and the prominent voice of Dr Martin Luther King. This upswell of Christian and broader social pressure transformed American society for the better.
The pursuit of social causes by churches also creates dilemmas:
- Which cause should a church pursue?
- Can a church of 100 or 500 immerse itself in ending sex slavery in the community and/or around the world, and supporting teenage girls who find themselves mothers; and fighting AIDS or malaria in Africa? Churches need to make decisions and it seems whichever need we prioritise we’ll be criticised for overlooking another.
- How do we balance these legitimate needs with the need of people around the world to hear the Gospel for the first time?
Then there are more significant systemic issues.
I’ll confess that since I work with a multi-ethnic church (mostly bi-racial: black/white) I view the events in Ferguson and Baltimore differently than I otherwise would. I now ask how my brothers and sisters that I worship with each week feel about these conflicts. I want to make society better, not just for people in general, but for the people I talk to each Sunday. I want the future to be brighter for the children with whom my daughter plays.
I think about the unrest in these cities. I think about the role of the news media. I think about the role of churches in those communities. I think about the role of my church in my community.
I see black church leaders take a public stand against policy policies and behaviours that discriminate against African-Americans. I see black ministers marching with protestors calling for justice. I see black churches functioning as voices for the black community and I wonder, “What is my role as a white minister in a biracial congregation?” (For example watch this video.)
I recognise that God has given the church a role of calling empires to practice justice. I recognise that when the news media finally leaves Ferguson and Baltimore the root problems have not been solved. So…
- Should my church lobby for reform in the education system?
- Should we have signs on the lawn highlighting the disparate rates of incarceration between the black and white communities?
- Should my church offer education programs for employers to promote equal hiring practices?
- Should church members seek to strategically join committees and organizations promoting racial harmony and equality?
- What difference can a church make to these institutional systems that have been in place for decades?
Do issues of racial justice automatically take a higher priority than sex slavery because my church has African-American members? What if the church was evenly divided between black, white and Vietnamese? Would my position require me to equally champion black and Vietnamese rights?
Or should I simply focus on preaching the death, burial and resurrection to anyone I meet? Should I focus on baptisms, not legislation? Should I point people to Jesus then allow individual members to take whatever action they deem best on these issues?
I am aware that in posing these questions I have established a divide between the church, politics, and social causes that is artificial and not necessarily helpful. But I believe that this is the starting point for most leaders in multi-ethnic churches facing these issues for the first time.
What do you think?