Sunday, May 24, 2015

Dr. Michael L. Brown on Whether The Church Should Focus on Spiritual or Social Issues

When there are ills in a society, is it the Church's role only to spread the gospel so that Jesus will change people from the inside? Or is it also appropriate for the Church to expend resources to influence culture, politics, and other social structures?

In other words, to stop human trafficking, should Christians only pray and try to introduce human traffickers to Jesus, or should Christians also work through media to expose the problem, through the justice system to ensure that human traffickers are deterred and prosecuted when caught, and through the social systems to rehabilitate those rescued?

In a recent commentary article at the World Net Daily, theologian and radio host Dr. Michael L. Brown writes that the answer is both, but held in a certain tension. This tension pays close attention to the emphasis with which we do each. Here is an excerpt:

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So yes, it’s true that our great mission – called the Great Commission – is to go and make disciples.

The question is: How do disciples live?

Once we have become followers of Jesus, how does that impact the rest of our lives? What should our marriages and families look like? What values will we embrace? What kind of people ought we to be?

What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus in the workplace, in the school system, in the media, in the medical profession, or in sports or entertainment or any other field?

If there is rampant poverty around us, should we ignore it?

If there is social injustice around us, do we turn the other way?

If we are like William Carey (1761-1834), called the father of modern missions, and we move to India and encounter the practice of widow burning, where a widow would be burned alive in her husband’s funeral pyre, do we say, “That’s exactly the kind of behavior I would expect from these heathen,” or do we work to abolish it?

If we are like William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and we encounter the horrors of slavery and the slave trade throughout the British Empire, do we say, “This is far too big for me to tackle, so I’ll just share my faith and pray for change,” or do we pray, share our faith and seek to put an end to this wicked practice?

Both Carey and Wilberforce succeeded, with God’s help, because they saw preaching the gospel and doing good works as two sides of the same coin.

Why must it be either-or?

After all, if God cares about the needs of widows, orphans and the poor – and the whole Bible tells us he does, not to mention calls us to do something about it – then why wouldn’t he care about the needs of a baby in the womb or the needs of a child sold into human trafficking?

And if the prophets of the Old Testament constantly called for justice and morality, while in the New Testament, we are called to be a prophetic people, why should we abandon that call?

I personally believe Dr. Martin Luther King nailed it when he said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”


All that being said, I cringe when I see fellow-believers take on such a heavily political spirit that the great divide is no longer between God and Satan but between Republicans and Democrats, and I grieve when we forget that our ultimate battle is spiritual and that our ultimate mission is, in fact, to be disciples and to make disciples.

But I am convinced that, as true disciples, we are called to impact culture as the proverbial salt of the earth and light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16).

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You can read Dr. Brown's article ["Should the Church Get Out of the Culture Wars?," May 20, 2015] in its entirety at

[edit 2015-06-04:]
Tim Keller addresses this same issue in a way that overlaps a lot with Michael Brown's. In the following quotes, Keller goes on to address a level of nuance that Brown did not specifically address in the article above (perhaps only because of space). Keller emphasizes strongly that Christians are called to preach the gospel and engage in the social order at multiple levels, especially in helping the poor, but he argues that there should be a distinction between what the Church is called to do corporately and what the individual Christian is called to do as an individual.

Keller writes:
"The church's gospel ministry includes both evangelizing non-believers and shaping every area of believers' lives with the gospel, but that doesn't mean that the church as an institution under its elders is to carry out corporately all the activity that we equip our members to do. For example, while the church should disciple its members who are film-makers so that their cinematic art will be profoundly influenced by the gospel, the church should not operate a film production company."  ["The Gospel and The Poor." Themelios 33:3 (2008): 8-22]
In his video sermon on this same topic (starting at 39:44), Keller says:
"I would say that the church as the church needs to be very involved in Relief, and to some degree in Development. But when you get into higher levels of Development and Reform, it would be better for Christians as individuals or in organizations to do that rather than identify a local church with a particular political action committee. Because if I'm trying to share the faith with the person who comes into church every Sunday, I do not want to give those folks the feeling like, 'Well in order for me to find faith in this church, I've got to sign on to a particular political agenda.' And when you get involved in Reform - which I think Christians ought to be involved in Reform - it's inevitable that you get involved with somebody's political agenda."
Keller's full Themelios article can be found here on Scribd and here on The Gospel Coalition.

The full video sermon quoted above, The Gospel and The Poor, can be seen here on YouTube:

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