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One cynic might be tempted to say, “The longer Christians think and theorize about the faith, the more complicated they tend to make it.” When we think about the extremely varied attitudes of Christian participation in the world, from the “escapists” to the “triumphalists,” we might be tempted to agree with that cynic. Another cynic might say, “I’ve never seen people more able at coming up with reasons why not to engage the world as the Christians I know.” Thankfully, these negative reviews apply only to a part of Christ’s church and not all of it.
The early church faced a similar challenge when it came to engagement with the world. Jesus told His followers to be salt and light in the world that men might see their good works and glorify their Father in heaven. John defined the concept of love as having been loved by another first, and therefore we should love in the same way. James denounced those who gave preference to those who would be able to return the favor and, in line with the prophets of old, cried out that true religion is to assist the orphan and the widow and to keep oneself from the contamination of the world.
In his voluminous and detailed survey of the influence of Christianity on the cultures it took root in, Alvin Schmidt mentions in detail how Christians, from the time of the early church, have engaged and transformed the society around them. So profound has their impact been that most people today take for granted these efforts and don’t even know that it was Christians, following their understanding of the Scriptures, who laid the groundwork. Fundamental attitudes about the value of human life came from Christianity (as opposed to the Greeks and Romans, who slaughtered people; watched gladiators rip out intestines with glee; and aborted babies, killed infants, or left them on the street; not to speak of human sacrifices practiced by so many ancient and not-so-ancient cultures). Fundamental attitudes of the sanctity of marriage and sexual fidelity and marital responsibility were natural responses to God’s Word by Christians, versus the rampant promiscuity of Roman society and the open displays of perversions such as homosexuality, pedophilia, and the denigration of women found in other societies. Basic human compassion in the form of orphanages and hospitals were all “inventions” of Christians. And when Christians practiced the ungodly sin of slavery, other Christians helped abolish it. And the list goes on and on.
There has always been an escapist segment in the church, sometimes heretical (Gnostics, Cathari). The monasteries were a mixed phenomenon, combining escape from the “world” with affirming and promoting education, music, hospitals, and works of mercy. After the Reformation, the church’s relationship to the world became more varied in practice. Anabaptists rejected the legitimacy of the civil government. The Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions developed somewhat different postures but affirmed the Christian’s role in the world. Liberalism converted Christianity into the social gospel. Postmillennialism optimistically hoped for the Christianization of the nations. Dispensationalism warned of the impending rapture and the uselessness of any church activity beyond evangelism. In Reformed circles, marked differences are present in the different theological approaches to engagement with the world. Things have indeed become more complex.
Gerard Van Groningen has a wonderful series of Bible commentaries, From Creation to Consummation, in which he traces what he calls the “golden cord” throughout the Scriptures. He might not be the first to use this imagery, but he does a wonderful job of biblical exposition from the Hebrew text. The three strands that bind biblical revelation of God’s work in history are kingdom, covenant, and mediator. God is King, and His covenant relationship with a redeemed people is the most wonderful and visible evidence of His lordship. And at the center of both God’s kingdom and God’s covenant is Jesus Christ the Mediator.
When the church sees itself as not only a group of saved individuals but also the visible evidence of God’s kingly-covenantal activity on earth, the metaphors of “salt” and “light on a hill” become natural modes of existence (Matt. 5:13–16). The church doesn’t simply “do” salt and light things once in a while; the church is the salt and light of the King. As John Calvin commented on Psalm 2, Christ’s universal kingship knows no limits, no boundaries. God’s covenant in Christ creates a new humanity. And this explains why even under persecution, Christians saved discarded infants, cured the sick, buried bodies left to rot, and blessed rather than cursed their accusers. They were a new humanity infused with the hope and the power of the age to come.
If God is re-creating a new humanity whose purpose is not only to be salt and light but also that men might “praise our Father in heaven” because of us, we are left with no alternative than to consider the world’s non-salty darkness as antithetical to the Christian’s entire worldview. Christians are called to be a kingdom-honoring covenant community seeking Christ’s glory—in everything we do.