How Should Christians Engage the Public Square? (2)
Written by Bruce Winter
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Reformed Worldviews - Government

Dr. Bruce Winter is interviewed by Peter Hastie of the Australian Presbyterian. Continued from here.

Do we have any indications in the New Testament that Christians were meant to play an active role in society?  For instance, do the apostles teach a need for civic responsibility an direct involvement in public life?

Paul’s statements in Romans 13 about Christians “render therefore to all their dues....” “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another” (13:7, 8) certainly talks of being a benefactor to one’s community. Then, in Romans 16:23, we find the reference to a Christian, Erastus, who is the city treasurer of Corinth; Paul seems to speak approvingly of him. There is also the reference in Paul’s letter to Titus where he makes the point that Christians are to devote themselves to good deeds. he says this repeatedly throughout the letter (2:14; 3:1; 3:8, and 3:14). The good works that Paul speaks about here are not simply a reference to specifically religious acts like prayer and Bible reading. They are an exhortation for Christians to be involved in doing good within the wider community.

What exactly is meant by “Doing good”? Is it related specifically to religious activities or does it have a wider reference?

I think it is meant to be understood in the wider sense so that it refers to our contribution to the community at large. In whatever context we find ourselves, we should be looking out for people in need. Jesus says in the sermon on the Mount that if someone is begging you for help, then you are to give to them (Matt. 5:42). Further, Paul makes it clear that God has created us to do good works. It is good for everyone in a community to be helping and looking out for the interests of others. Then, of course, we have Paul’s exhortation in Titus 3:14, “Let ours also learn to maintain good works for necessary uses, that they be not unfruitful.” So, contrary to the thinking of many Christians, we should be involved in other people’s lives and concerned to do what good we can. Everything that God did was good, and Jesus went about doing good (Acts 10:38), so as Christians we should be doing no less.

Is there any particular reason why the apostle Paul stressed the importance of good works to Titus while he was in Crete?

The culture in first-century Crete was vey hedonistic. They were big drinkers and drunkenness and alcoholism were rife. They had drinking clubs to which people would bring fifteen gallons of wine, often once a month. It was also a sexually explicit culture in which people used dangerous aphrodisiacs, sometimes to the point of death. The general culture of Crete was highly promiscuous and self-indulgent and people were just concerned about themselves. It’s not surprising that Paul tells Titus to give himself to the welfare of others and to be zealous for good works.

Is there some reason why Paul exhorts the church to be devoted to good works before he says anything about direct one-on-one evangelism? Is that a deliberate strategy in Paul’s ministry?

Yes, I think that it is deliberate on Paul’s part. He knows that people need to see the works before they  take notice of our words. It’s hard to impact a self-indulgent culture if we show no sign of being different. It was Nietzsche who said, “Christians have to show me they are redeemed before I will believe in their Redeemer.” I think Nietzsche’s comment is consistent with Paul’s line of thinking. Of course, it is important that Christians must be sound in their doctrine, but we must also be focused on the lives of other people. It can have a remarkable impact if we do so.

What were the main areas in public and social life that the New Testament writers identify as key opportunities for Christians to make some sort of contribution?

The New Testament shows Christians being concerned for the sick, the disabled, the troubled, as well as the care of the widows and orphans. Widows were people who had no one to support them; orphans and the hungry found themselves in the same position. In the Gospels, we frequently see Jesus showing compassion for people in these various predicaments. he was concerned to deal with need wherever it arose. It seems to me that Christians should be committed to that sort of focus.

Is there some underlying motive For Christians to serve in this way, apart From the specific example of Jesus?

Yes, there is. Paul makes it clear that Christians are indebted to the mercies of God. Since we have been so wonderfully treated by God, there is a call upon us to adopt a different lifestyle which is focused on serving other people. There is a clear command in the New Testament that we must give a higher priority to the needs of others than our own. Paul emphasizes this in his letters to the Corinthian church where he reminds them that a Christian thinks in terms of responsibilities rather than rights. he says that he seeks to please others in everything he does. he does not seek his own advantage. Paul always seeks the advantage of other  people  in  the  hope  that  they  may  be  saved.  If  people  see Christians’ good works, then this may prompt them to realize that something supernatural is taking place because sacrificial conduct is so countercultural and contrary to human nature.

In various periods of church history, believers have withdrawn from society and its institutions and have devoted themselves exclusively to church interests. Do you have any comments on this tendency in light of the New Testament?

My understanding of the New Testament is that it doesn’t regard the Christian church as a gated community. Christians are always concerned for the welfare of the outsider. Church buildings should always have doors that are open to the outsider so that they can come in and hear the gospel being preached and experience God’s power  and  grace  in  the midst  of  the worship  service. Paul hints in 1 Corinthians 14:25 that some unbelievers will be converted through this open door policy. This explains why the church must always welcome outsiders, and pastors must preach with passion.

It is true that there have been times when Christians have withdrawn from the culture altogether, and other times when they have become deeply involved in it, sometimes at the expense  of  the  gospel. however,  this  doesn’t mean  to  say  that because there have been swings from one extreme to another there isn’t a balance presented in the New Testament.

We occasionally hear calls within the wider church that Christians should get out of the work in hospitals,  or aged care or adoption, and focus exclusively on evangelism and church planting. Is this a New Testament perspective?

I find it hard to reconcile this suggestion with the deep sense of compassion that  Jesus  had  for  human  need.  If  we  call  ourselves Chris3t’s disciples, then we need to follow his teaching and example. Being Christ’s disciple commits me to being concerned for people in need. I remember coming across a little girl in london who was begging. It almost moved me to tears when I thought that this was someone’s daughter. I went and bought her lunch.

We should be ashamed that the church often seems so indifferent to people in genuine need. After all, God sends the rain to fall on the just and the unjust and constantly sustains the universe by his powerful word. since the lord cares for these people in his providence, we can’t just say, “Our sole purpose is just to preach the gospel.” Anyone who reads Paul’s letter to Titus and 1 Peter knows how important good works are as pre-evangelism. Good works actually go hand in hand with preaching the gospel. since God is good and merciful, we need to do these things hand in hand with preaching the good news.

How involved should Christians become in social justice issues? Are there certain limits to their direct involvement?

My own belief is that Christians, wherever they discover abuse or discrimination, should take up the cause of the weak. I know Christian lawyers who are deeply concerned about these questions of injustice. And so they should be. God is just and he hates unfairness. Indeed, any injustice invokes his anger and Christians should have a similar response to matters of injustice. If Christians are involved in particular callings where they have the opportunity to remedy injustice, they should do so.

I read a sermon that the English preacher Charles simeon gave in 1803. simeon preached to all the English judges on one occasion and stated that there are two things that are totally unchristian: first, the settling of disputes by duels in which people can be shot and killed, and second, slavery. simeon had a very strong social conscience at that point. he and William Wilberforce fought hard for the abolition of slavery. I think Christians should be always concerned where issues of unfairness arise.

The ancient world was a corrupt and pagan society. It had easy divorce, abortion on demand, slavery, and prostitution. What was the church’s attitude to these first-century practices?

The New Testament forbids Christians to be involved in any of these things. There were real temptations for Christians in the first century. In the Roman world, sexual immorality was regarded as part of one’s manhood. Even in the church, many young men thought it was all right to use prostitution as an “after dinner” practice because it was regarded as acceptable in the wider society. When a man received his toga, these kinds of activities became normal. Many women in the first century did not look forward to pregnancy because they didn’t want to be left with stretch marks, so they often chose abortions which were very dangerous.

Over the last thirty years or so, many churches in the west have become actively engaged in politics as they have tried to redeem the culture in which they are living.  To what extent is it legitimate for a church to be involved in politics, or should it stand apart from the political process?

I think there are some moral issues which are so serious and decadent that the church needs to speak out against them. The church should always be an advocate for the oppressed and those who are victims of abuse and unjust discrimination—for example, sex-trafficking. In some countries, there is evidence that women are specifically brought there and are caught up in the slavery of prostitution. I think Christians ought to be speaking up about that. It is an assault on the essential dignity of their humanity.

It is right for Christians to speak out on the great moral issues of the day. I would like to think that Christians are at the  forefront  of  trying  to  solve  the  problem  of  abortion  and helping those who have been caught up in it. I also think that Christians should be speaking out about God’s concern for the created order. On the other hand, it is not enough to become preoccupied with transforming our culture so that we can call ourselves a Christian nation. I believe that will lead us to depart from the gospel perspective. Once we understand that the ultimate problem that we face is the coming wrath of God, handing out bandages and more money to alleviate social problems is not enough. Alongside doing good to neighbors we must, first and foremost, be preaching the gospel.

Dr. Bruce Winter is the principal of Queensland Theological college at the University of Queensland in St. Lucia, Brisbane. He has held this position since 2006 when he left Tyndale House, Cambridge, where he had served as warden since 1987 and as director of the Institute for Early Christianity in the Graeco-Roman World. He is also a Fellow of St. Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge, and a visiting research fellow (2006–2011). This article was printed in AP magazine of the Presbyterian Church of Australia and is republished here with permission.