Does “social action” belong to the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Man? Why have Christians so often been confused about it?
In the early centuries of the church, Greek philosophy was very prominent. The Manichaean cult fully embraced the Greek dualistic view that man’s problem was metaphysical. That is, the problem was his material nature, which was the focus of evil. The Bible, of course, does not see our problem as metaphysical, but as moral; we are sinners and subject to the curse.
Because the Manichaean faith confused the problem, it also confused its solution. St. Augustine was converted out of that cult into the orthodox Christian faith. He came to see that the root of evil in man and in the world was man’s moral nature, and so he characterized the struggle of history as between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man. Man in history and society stood either in the Kingdom of Man (the sin of Adam and the hopes and goals of man in rebellion against God) or in the Kingdom of God (the grace of God and its outworking in the church of Jesus Christ).
The Social Implications of Our Fallen Nature
Unfortunately, St. Augustine’s thinking has been lost in much of current Christian thought. Though many can see the soteriology (salvation) in the doctrine of the two kingdoms, far fewer see its sociology, its social implications.
The Kingdom of God is more than an analogy; it is a doctrine of God’s claim on us and the world. The Kingdom of God is where its Lord, Jesus Christ, reigns. It has a people, the redeemed, who are its citizens. Because the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, its claims are universal and its triumph certain. Our calling as citizens of the Kingdom of God is to acknowledge the Lord’s prerogative of “all power in heaven and earth” (Mt. 28:18) and His commission to us to teach and preach all things He has taught (vs. 19-20). We testify to His Lordship, His salvation and His dominion.
Our salvation is not simply for the next life. It is our rebirth as new creatures, our restoration as citizens in His present and everlasting Kingdom. Greek dualism saw man’s salvation as an escape into the spiritual and away from this world. But we are called to be salt and light to this world. As salt we are to preserve the world from decay and the death to which it naturally moves. As light we reflect the light of the world, which is Jesus Christ. Our duty is more than “spiritual” as a dualist views spirituality; it is to witness to God in every area of life and thought.
Since the rise of Pietism in the 17 th and 18 th centuries, Christians have gotten involved in social action more in defense than as a proactive way to advance the influence of the Kingdom. Defensive efforts react to our errors and fallacies; “offensive” actions point to victory even beyond the immediate.
An example is Christian education. A narrow, defensive view of Christian education is its role in protecting children from the social engineers and messianic humanists who control public education. Fortunately, Christian education has been pushed towards a greater, offensive role: to train a generation of leaders for the Kingdom work ahead.
Pre-tribulation theology was also very influential in discouraging social action for many years during the last century. A common phrase of thirty to forty years ago was, “Isn’t it wonderful how bad things are; it means Jesus is coming back soon!” Such theology discourages social action as, in the words of another common cliché of such churchmen, “Why polish brass on a sinking ship?”
Some have tired of being disappointed by repeated false expectations of Christ’s imminent return. They have turned to the peculiar (and heretical) extreme of full preterism, the belief that all prophecy is already fulfilled, including the second coming and the resurrection of the dead (that’s right, you missed it!). Such are the extremes of men who determine to walk by sight rather than by faith. Even more common is the latent dualism of modern Christian thought that wants to see the faith in terms of a subjective spirituality, and social action as “worldly.”
What We Must Avoid
There are several problems we must avoid in the realm of Christian social action. Even the words “social action” convey images of radical leftist demands for revolutionary change via government coercion, and the painful image of modernist clergy preaching Marxist social programs in the name of Christian love. Even supposedly conservative Christian appeals to social action are too often baptized versions of the liberal agenda, which are endorsed based merely on their stated good intentions. The result is often a lack of activity in Reformed churches. We need both theology and proper activism to go together.
Another error we must avoid is the humanistic, statist version of social action. This follows not the Kingdom of God but the self-aggrandizing Kingdom of Man, and goes back at least to Babel. The Kingdom of Man seeks dominion, power, and glory independent of God. Such plans will emerge repeatedly, wherever man sees a center of power he can control. The demise in our generation of the U. S. S. R. has ended one experiment in social humanism, but not its underlying goal of a humanistic utopia by means of statist action.
Humanism stems from our desire to “be as gods” (Gen. 3:5). This quest will manifest itself in many ways. Because the problem is our sin, we must go back to the Kingdom of God as the only antidote to the pretensions of humanistic man. St. Augustine had it right; we choose between the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Man.
Our faith is always the fundamental issue. This is true of us as individuals and as a culture. The West, for instance, deceives itself when it fails to see Islam as the faith which motivates most terrorism today. A few years ago our greatest threat seemed to be the Marxist faith-sponsored terrorism of the Soviet Union. Today it is Islamic faith-sponsored terrorism. We ought not to forget, however, the humanistic faith-sponsored motivation behind much of the West’s social action in its quest for a new world order.
Statist Social Action
The social action of modern statism is easy because it uses other people’s money through taxation and redistribution. This sham generosity is a false virtue based upon theft. Socialism represents neither love nor charity but rather a statist drain on productivity. Social action based on theft by taxation can never improve a society.
Statist social action is often driven by guilt as a tool for manipulation. False guilt is used to justify the demand for the redistribution of wealth. The use of guilt for manipulation is anti-Christian to the core. Guilt is real, but it has an equally real resolution in the atonement and forgiveness of sins. False guilt has no such resolution; it can never be resolved. Christianity’s core message is about the resolution of man’s guilt; its use as a means of manipulation is an insult to Christ and His gospel. False guilt binds us; Christ came to free us.
Christian Social Action
Christian social action must pass certain tests, or it will degenerate into a humanistic endeavor. There must be a Biblical justification for the action. There is, for instance, no Biblical justification for the redistribution of wealth or the reform of criminals as a judicial goal. But there is justification for the evangelization and teaching of those in the criminal justice system. The former is a false vision of the state’s responsibility; the latter is a legitimate area of Christian ministry.
Christian social action must be governed by Biblical law, which is the basis, the strategy, and the goal. People like subjective religion and pragmatic means to a goal. Reform, however, cannot be lawless; it must be consistently Biblical or it is inconsistent Christianity.
Christian social action must be Kingdom-oriented. It must go beyond the justification of salvation and embrace the need for sanctification, the growth in grace. Christian social action must therefore begin in the believer’s understanding of himself as a new creature. Life in the Kingdom of God involves all aspects of our lives in every circumstance (hence the necessity of Biblical law).
Life in the Kingdom is about curses for disobedience and blessings for obedience. Kingdom life recognizes that God’s salvation uses ordinary believers as salt and light. God does not send the unregenerate straight to hell any more than He sends His people straight to heaven. He places us here to preach and teach not only His salvation, but His way, His Kingdom, His Lordship, and His law. We preach our Lord’s dominion and exercise authority in terms of it. Our social action must work toward a social order that is godly, not utopian.
Our social action may not match the state’s in its ambition, but it can have more eternal consequences. The church of Peter and Paul’s day provided for her own and became independent of the state while respecting its legitimate authority. It took generations, but God judged Rome. It fell, but the church continued its work of establishing a new civilization. That civilization, the West, must return to its Christian origin or it risks the same fate as Rome in God’s governing of history.