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 17th and 18th 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.
One of a father’s chief duties, assigned to him by God, is to train up his children in the love and knowledge of the Lord.
Our Lord told us that the “first and greatest” commandment was to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” This starting point does not depreciate the rest of the law, but rather channels all of our being to our responsibility to God. This ultimate accountability to God leads us to our duty in every facet of life, so that the second great commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves. In these two laws, our Lord said, we can understand all “the law and the prophets” (Mt. 22:37-40).
If the purpose of all the Scripture is to point us to a love of God in our innermost being (heart and soul) and every thought (mind), and project it toward our neighbor, then this is also the purpose of our communication of that Word to our families. The father’s responsibility to his children, Paul said, is to rear them in “the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Their nurturing is their development in the things of God, which we accomplish
by admonishing them with the commandments of God and His call to righteousness.
Paul contrasts this upbringing with provoking them to wrath. We provoke children to wrath — to anger, to sin, and rebellion — by projecting our own sin to them rather than the righteousness of God. A maturing child who increasingly sees in a parent the outworkings of unrepentant sin will have no reason to avoid it in his own life. Children must see in their parents the mature strength of the faith they profess.
The Father is Foundational
Both mother and father should set a godly example, but the father’s role is foundational. Mothers offer children an important emotional tie as their early nurturer, but fathers give a sense of ultimate security. We remember a mother’s love as selflessness and a father’s as leadership. A mother is one we cling to; a father is one we look up to. We look to a mother for her affection, and to a father for his attention. In later years we look back at what our mother gave us, and where our father led us.
The father must see himself as more than a material provider. He provides because he heads the family. The headship role is that of a minister, by which we mean not an ecclesiastical role, but one of ministry of the things of God, as an administrator of the duties entrusted to him. The father administrates, or applies, God’s Word in the home. The headship points beyond the personality of the earthly father to the heavenly Father.
If the father’s life has God’s Word as its strength, the natural tendency of children to look to their father for security will point them to the God who truly is their eternal security. The father must respect the things of God and also demand respect from his children. It is not hard to note ways in which our culture shows contempt for fathers (for example, their depiction in most modern sitcoms). By degrading the father, children are taught to wean themselves of parental leadership in their adolescent years. When any father adopts the pitiful characterization of fatherhood seen in our society, even in jest, he surrenders the leadership role God has assigned him.
The earthly father must represent his heavenly Father and use his authority to point to a higher authority. This authority is not that of the father’s experience or feelings, but that of God’s Word. Knowing he was near death, Paul told his spiritual son Timothy, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Paul pointed Timothy to the authority of God’s Word.
Faith and Facts
Facts are not brute facts, or isolated, independent truths. Facts are interpreted through faith. Scripture was not given to us so that we would know the complete set of all facts, but rather the context of all facts. It does not give us the multiplicity of facts, but the truth about facts. The interpretation of facts is to be within a faith-based paradigm, for “the knowledge of the holy is understanding” (Pr. 9:10).
Part of the image of God in man is knowledge, in which we are renewed as men, born again to be part of God’s new creation (Col. 3:10). Sinful man has a false idea of knowledge, and an image of autonomy and self-will. Teaching the Word of God and the need for repentance and faith brings man face to face with the kind of person he was created to be and his true purpose in life. The father must nurture the respect his children naturally feel toward him, but must also realize that such respect is not for his personal satisfaction. It is to be used to shepherd his lambs safely before the Great Shepherd.
A father is to train his child “in the way that he should go” (Pr. 22:6), as a routine part of life, not merely by formal instruction (Dt. 11:19). A father must recognize his children are God’s blessing on him (Ps. 127:3-5; Pr. 29:17), and he must bless them by teaching them the law-word of God, which represents a blessing on faithfulness and a curse on rebellion (Dt. 11:26-28).
Bible teaching at home, more than anywhere else, must be personalized. More than mere stories about Bible characters and factual knowledge, it must involve the wisdom of seeing the world and all its facts as God-created and God-governed. Instruction must involve both factual knowledge and evangelism. The knowledge of God must be associated with the child’s covenantal part in the line of faithfulness.
Biblical instruction at home must be historical, not just thematic or topical. God presents His Word to us in the context of history. We have the creation and the final judgment in Scripture. In between, we have historical accounts of God’s covenant people, the old Israel, God’s salvation in Jesus Christ, and the beginnings of the new covenant people, His church. The advance of God’s purposes is described in terms of a kingdom so that we might comprehend the real, historical nature of God’s work in history and in us.
Teaching in a historical context is not the same as teaching by Bible stories. Bible stories are a good way to teach, but they can be misused. They have often been reduced to a morality tale much like Aesop’s Fables. They are so much more.
Noah’s Flood is more than a story about obeying God or the consequences of disobedience. Just this week my five-year-old son and his cousin were arguing about whether or not Noah had help building the ark; my wife asked me to address the issue. I told her and my son that the Bible didn’t say Noah and his sons did all the work themselves, that the ark was an amazing technological, design, and engineering feat. Noah was probably wealthy enough to have hired many workers in the ark’s building.
Imagining the actual construct of a craft some 450 feet long brings it to a more realistic image then the cartoonish pictures in children’s storybooks. From a purely human perspective, the Flood was a cataclysm of unimaginable extent. It was a virtual start-over for mankind biologically, socially, culturally, and technologically. This is not the sort of history that can be trivialized by pretty pictures of cute animals and a happy family on a boat. Bible stories are not to be children’s morality tales except, perhaps, to the youngest. Bible “stories” are Biblical history and are to be studied by all ages, including adults. If you cannot think of the Bible’s stories as real-life adult history, you need to revisit them.
Bible teaching should not degrade God’s Word as childish. It should be realistic and exciting. I was once driving some of my oldest son’s teenage friends, who had all been in an elementary Bible class I had taught in our Christian school. Looking back, one of them commented on how much he had enjoyed my Bible classes. His favorite, he said, was when “that really fat guy [Eglon, in Judges 3:12-30] got stabbed and he was so fat the knife got stuck and they couldn’t pull it out.”
God gives us such detail so we do not think of things in the abstract; He gives us powerful mental pictures of blessings and curses, salvation and judgment. If we give children God’s Word in cartoons, they soon outgrow the images. If we give them images of Eglon stuck with a knife a cubit long, or Jezebel’s blood spattered in the street and her corpse being trampled by horses and eaten by dogs (2 Kin. 9:30-37), our children might be a bit taken aback, but they will never outgrow them.
A father is responsible to train his children in “the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” This begins with baptism, which is parents giving themselves and their child to the promise and responsibilities of the covenant. A father must pray for his children, but must follow through on that prayer as an example to follow. A self-centered or hypocritical father destroys the high ground God has given him to lead his children. A father must teach, formally and informally, that he too is a faithful and loving son of his Heavenly Father.