Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God…
1 John 4:1
In the light of the “social action” or justice enthusiasm sweeping across local Evangelicalism, I thought that it would be good to adhere to St John’s exhortation to “test the spirits” regarding this latest idea to see whether it be truly from God. Not every ministry which clothe itself in Christian language is from Christ, but we must critically examine them in the light of the Scriptures to see whether it be truly be from Him. Therefore I shall be providing a commentary on VCF’s Social Action (ministry? program? theology? One is not exactly sure) from their self-description from their website.
Why is Social Action important?
The call to social action is not a choice but a duty. It stems from an unwavering conviction that it is only in Jesus is life given its due purpose, meaning and hope.
The website begins with a grand rhetorical flourish. Not a choice but a duty! Presumably they mean it is a divine duty, a command from the Lord himself which we are obliged and bound to perform on the pain of risking the divine displeasure. The irresistible conclusion from this is that all who resist and reject “the call to social action” is rebelling against God and ought to be subject to Christian excommunication for being ungodly Christians because they have dared to defy the Lord himself! After all, it is “not a choice”, not something which we Christians can individually choose to take on or not, “but a duty”!
But there is no evidence on this page (nor anywhere else), that this “duty” truly has such a weight or implication or “importance”. Well! What sort of divine duty is this which does not require the stern rebuking to those who reject it that they imperil their souls and provoke the divine displeasure?
The reason is not far to seek, this alleged “duty”, “stems from an unwavering conviction that it is only in Jesus is life given its due purpose, meaning and hope”. Suddenly from this statement every rhetorical force from the “call to social action” as duty not choice is completely evacuated. Duties simply do not “stem” from human convictions, even less do divine duties have their origins in the convictions or subjective whims of man! To assert otherwise is simply the worse form of paganism, identifying divine action with its creatures, and in philosophy, the worse form of subjectivism or at best, the crudest form of social contract thinking. Every good Protestant knows that divine duties stems solely from the command of God not from the conviction of man. There is no divine duty without a divine command, but maybe they prefer to locate their “duty” to social action purely within human convictions because they don’t really like all the ghastly severe implications which grounding it on divine commands would entail, you know, the whole rebellion and risking damnation thing.
As Luther and other Protestants have emphasized again and again, there can be no obligation or duty outside of God’s command in the Scriptures. Otherwise the way is open to an infinite burdening of the Christian conscience with every arbitrary form of humanly invented works to please God. From the conviction that the Virgin Mary is the Mother of our Lord, it does not follow that we have a duty to invoke her name in prayers, from the conviction that sin is damaging, it does not follow that we therefore have to do penance and make satisfaction for sins. From the conviction that Christ died for homosexuals and love them, it does not follow that we must advocate same-sex marriages. Likewise from the conviction that “only in Jesus is life given its due purpose, meaning and hope”, it does not follow that we have a duty to social action.
Perhaps they themselves unconsciously realise that this alleged duty to social action is nothing more than a human invention, and therefore fudges from grounding it in God’s command but rather in human conviction. There is of course nothing wrong with humanly made rules, how would vehicle traffic be possible without traffic rules or road conventions? But to say that this is “not a choice but a duty” is seriously stretching it, and more importantly, what does such humanly invented duties have to do with the fact that “only in Jesus is life given its due purpose, meaning and hope”?
That it chooses to see the world not in dualistic terms but in a single totality where the love of Christ and the power of his resurrection are consciously woven into the tapestry of everyday life.
To educate and encourage members of VCF to be engaged in society. Our motivation stems from being obedient to Christ and to testify of his goodness. It is the demonstration of the gospel through active social involvement in word, action and thought.
“Our motivation stems from being obedient to Christ”, well! Then the rest of us who aren’t similarly motivated or impressed are presumably being very disobedient to Christ. But I do not wish to belabor this point. One wonders though how exactly such social action is a “demonstration of the gospel”, but this point will be dealt with later when “social action” itself receives more explication.
But the idea that “the love of Christ and the power of his resurrection are consciously woven into the tapestry of everyday life” is simply incredible. It seems to suggest that “the love of Christ and the power of his resurrection” is subject to our conscious manipulation to “weave” as we please into the “tapestry of everyday life.” There is no agent whereby the love of Christ is given except by the Holy Ghost (Romans 5:5) and no means whereby the Holy Ghost works except by his preached Word and Sacraments. To simply identify the “weaving” of the love of Christ through the Holy Ghost outside of his preached Word with our conscious will is the simply a return back to Roman Catholicism whereby the Church or Christian Community usurps the Word as the agent of the Holy Ghost and is able to consciously “weave” the love of Christ and the power of his resurrection however and wherever it pleases, i.e. into the authority of the Papacy, the intercessory powers of the Virgin Mary, etc, or in more contemporary liberalism, into other religions where also “the love of Christ and the power of the resurrection” can also be found, etc. We have no right to consciously use the “love of Christ and the power of the resurrection” to “weave” into wherever and whatever we please, it is not subject to our “conscious” human will, but the Scriptures itself alone determines the location of “the love of Christ and the power of the resurrection”. It is not prima facie evident that the “love of Christ and the power of the resurrection” is to be “woven into the tapestry of everyday life”.
What we are…
- We are a Standing Committee of the Varsity Christian Fellowship
- We seek to actively apply the Word of God in our everyday lives
- We hope to bring awareness of the need for Social Action to all
- We believe that social action is part of evangelism
Well, they maybe seeking “to actively apply the Word of God in our everyday lives”, but there is little evidence that they have done so for this webpage. But the claim that “social action is part of evangelism” is curious. What do they mean by “evangelism”? They probably mean conversion, etc. But what has the Scriptures ordained with regards to evangelism?
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
“Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ”. But unless social action somehow also involves preaching and confession of the Gospel, one wonders how on earth “social action is part of evangelism”. Maybe they cite John 13:35 saying “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” But from the fact that people can identify us as disciples of Christ by our “social action”, it does not follow that they will be persuaded to convert. As Christ himself later warns,
If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.
Far from being persuaded when they identify us as Christ’s disciples, they will hate us instead, “on account of my name”. After all, if the world could not recognise nor accept the God’s love in His own Son but crucified him, what makes one think that the world will be able to recognise God’s love in us and convert? They can identify us as Christ’s disciples by our love, but this does not lead to love of God or conversion but hatred instead.
The Social Actions Committee (SAC) is a standing committee of the Varsity Christian Fellowship (VCF) and it aims to inculcate an attitude of social awareness and social responsibility towards society in each VCFer. It is about making our Christian faith practical and relevant in the community that God has placed us in, reaching out to the less fortunate and speaking up on injustices for God’s people and creation.
Here we come to the true motivation of social action. They want the Christian faith to be “practical and relevant in the community”. But why the assumption that the Christian faith is practical and relevant to the community? Since when has the Christian faith been passed on as a blue print for establishing communities and societies? Did not Christ say, “My Kingdom is not of this world?” (John 18:36) How then can the Christian faith, the Gospel or the Kingdom of God possibly contribute or establish communities? How is the Kingdom of God, which “is not of this world”, “practical and relevant to the community”?
The incoherence of this thinking can be made explicit by the claim that the Christian faith is practical by “speaking up on injustices for God’s people and creation”. But this is absurd. Speak up, to who? Who’s going to listen to us? And why should they? Unless the Christian faith is a factor in a community with social influence and political power, the idea that we relate the Christian faith to the world by “speaking up” is simply nonsense. The idea that the Christian faith is relevant by “Speaking up” only has meaning within an overall cultural context whereby the Christian faith has social influence or political power.
Do they seriously believe that the Christian faith’s practicality and relevance leads to an establishment of a medieval style Christendom whereby the Christian faith by virtue of its social and political establishment gains a voice to “speak up”? Maybe if one doesn’t like Christendom but merely believes that a democracy whereby everyone has a voice is sufficient, is the Christian faith’s “practicality and relevance” then only realised after 1900 years after its founding when democratic societies were established in Western Europe to lend the Christian faith’s interest a voice? This sounds like an unholy union between the Christian faith and a Hegelian Political Geist.
Although social action is often equated with issues of social justice, social work and charity, it encompasses a far wider scope and has far deeper repercussions.
Undoubtedly, social action involves reaching out to the poor, the needy and underprivileged. Yet it is also a response with a Christian conscience to almost anything that is of significance. As such, it is concerned with issues of politics, war, economics, the environment, ethics and others. It also one that is very keen to give a voice or a Christian perspective to challenges, pressures and problems that affect society.
In short, social action is an expectation that all Christians will be an active witness on campus and in society. A total worldview that is not separated by a sacred-secular divide and one that seeks to put Christ in everything he/she undertakes.
How on earth does the Christian faith or Gospel give a “perspective to challenges, pressures and problems that affect society”? Once more, is the Christian faith or Gospel a blue-print for the establishment of a new society or community? For the management of the economy? Environment? War-waging? If it is, then they should come right out and say it, we believe that the Gospel leads to the establishment of Christendom or a theocracy, and they can very well join the American theocrats and Christian Dominionist and Reconstructionist.
Do they really want to say that the Christian faith “is not separated by a sacred-secular divide and one that seeks to put Christ in everything he/she undertakes”? In fact, I experienced a VCFer who once said that the most important criticism which the Christian faith makes upon the government (or state, I can’t remember) is that it does not submit to the Lordship of Christ. To this I replied, are you seriously saying that governments should submit to the Lordship of Christ? I have no personal objections to Christendom, but this is a little creepy. To which he replied that this does not entail a theocracy. Maybe… but it’s late at night and he’s not thinking properly (his words!). 😛
These theocratic delusions the first Protestants had already denounced when Catholic bishops where enforcing the reign of Christ in political realms by rooting out the Protestants using political power:
…the kingdom of Christ is spiritual inasmuch as Christ governs by the Word and by preaching, to wit, beginning in the heart the knowledge of God, the fear of God and faith, eternal righteousness, and eternal life; meanwhile it permits us outwardly to use legitimate political ordinances of every nation in which we live, just as it permits us to use medicine or the art of building, or food, drink, air. Neither does the Gospel bring new laws concerning the civil state, but commands that we obey present laws, whether they have been framed by heathen or by others, and that in this obedience we should exercise love. For Carlstadt was insane in imposing upon us the judicial laws of Moses.
Philip Melanchthon, Apology of the Augsburg Confession, “Article XVI: Of Political Order.”
The last point is especially curious in that while these “social action” Evangelicals love to cite the Old Testament Israel as an example to end poverty and care for the poor, etc, they aren’t exactly keen to implement the parts about stoning disobedient children and regulating slavery.
When the SAC was re-established in 2005-06, it was in response to the growing concern that the Christian community and the VCF body as a whole was becoming insular and self-absorbed. There was a demand to translate what we believe as a conviction of our salvation and grace found in Jesus into something practical and relevant to society.
Who issued this “demand to translate what we believe… into something practical and relevant to society”? Certainly not the Scriptures or the Gospel.
Herein lies the tragic history of VCF. I’ve a friend who is much older than me and had a brief stint in VCF for about a year. He told me that in his time there, it seemed that VCF doesn’t know why it existed and what it was for. He reports a curious incident whereby his group was disputing about whether Catholics were saved and as the dispute grew in intensity, the leader stepped in to say that such theological disputes are not important and that what is important is that everyone loved one another, etc. Of course, given such an attitude towards theological dogma, it is no wonder that they have no idea what the Gospel is, what is the Christian faith and hope or message. What indeed rushed in to fill this theological vacuum?
The temptations to wield social influence and worldly power offered by “social action” proved too strong for a Christian society which increasingly despaired of its aimlessness and loss of the Christian faith’s place and life in society with the corrosion of Christendom. Social action promised that the Christian faith can be made “practical and relevant” to society, by claiming that it can build up communities and societies, and thereby gain the ear and attention of the world by means of promises that it possesses the power to build up societies. But as the Lutheran theologian Hermann Sasse warned, woe to the church which seeks to gain the world’s attention any other way than by the preaching of the Cross!
It is a brave rhetoric that seeks to revive the glorious lost past of Christendom; who better to articulate such a vision than the patron saint of Evangelical social action, N.T. Wright? And what hero better to celebrate than that of the achievements of William Wilberforce who abolished slavery in England?
But behind the bravery of this rhetoric masks a massive evasion. N.T. Wright was of course a bishop of the Church of England, which is politically established, he himself had a seat in the House of the Lords. William Wilberforce campaigned effectively in the same English parliament which opened each session publicly with the Lord’s Prayer, and it was a time when subscription to the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion was still a necessary prerequisite to sit in parliament. (At least before the Catholic Relief Act of 1829)
Does the social action Evangelical seek likewise to revive Christendom and the develop the Christian faith as a factor in political power? No they do not. Why? Because at the heart of this rhetoric hides a faith which has shriveled up and died, it seeks only the social influence and power, to fawn and win the attention of the world with their “social action”. But ironically, an outward confession of Christ’s Lordship and dominion over politics and society, is itself not very conducive to winning the attention or ears of the world which is becoming increasing hostile to the Christian faith, and so in a cruel contradiction, in order to advance the Christian faith over all parts of earthly life via social influence and politicking, they have to keep silent about Christ, for it no longer believes in the name of Christ. It is comparable to my criticism at the start, a bold invocation of the “duty” of social action, but a complete denial of its reality.
And this is the tragedy of VCF.