Did the Call For Christians to “Just Preach the Gospel” Result in California Becoming Anti-Christian?
California has recently passed laws that could silence Christians on the topic of same-sex sexuality. The law is written in such a way that the sale of Bibles could be banned in California. There are millions of Christians and large Bible-believing churches in California. How could this have happened?
A number of Christian leaders profess that the church’s job is only “to preach the gospel.” For example, in the book Blinded by Might, Ed Dobson, former board member of the Moral Majority and a personal assistant to Jerry Falwell, writes that he has “avoided all political activity.” He believes “that the way to transform our nation has little to do with politics and everything to do with offering people the gospel.”1
And once these people embrace the gospel, then what do they do? Can they vote? Should they vote? Does it matter how they vote? Is politics morally neutral? Wait for the return of Jesus in the “rapture”? Following Dobson’s view and many who think like him, the nation could be 90 percent Christian and ruled by tyrants because Christians refuse to engage politically.
If the writers of Scripture, as instruments of God’s will (2 Tim. 3:16-17), did not think it improper to discuss political issues, then how can ministers who claim allegiance to an inspired and infallible Bible fail to address not only politics but every issue discussed in Scripture? The “all Scripture” that Paul mentions in 2 Timothy 3:16 is what Christians describe as the Old Testament, and it’s filled with instructions related to morality, authority, power and decentralized and limited civil government.
All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
“Every good work” includes politics since there were civil rulers in Israel and instructions about how rulers should minister in their civil capacity. It’s no accident that Paul describes the civil magistrate to be a “minister of God” (Rom. 13:4). The Greek word translated “minister” is the Greek word diakonos, from which we get the word “deacon.”
Redemption from sin, the new birth, is the first step of many steps in what it means to be a “new creature” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). These first steps are described by the writer to the Hebrews as “elementary principles of the oracles of God” (Heb. 5:12), the milk stage of growth (1 Peter 2:2). The time must come when the student matures to become a teacher (Heb. 5:12). The goal is to grow in Christ. “For everyone who partakes of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (5:13-14). What civil governments do (rightly or wrongly) fall into the category of “good and evil.”
The “only-preach-the-gospel” mentality stunts the growth of the new convert. The writer to the Hebrews is adamant about development in the faith, so much so that he offers the following admonition to his readers: “Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith in God” (6:1).
Charles Finney, best known as a revivalist preacher, saw an obvious relationship between evangelism and social reform. John Stott writes about Finney’s views:
Social involvement was both the child of evangelical religion and the twin sister of evangelism. This is clearly seen in Charles G. Finney, who is best known as the lawyer turned evangelist and author of Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1835). Through his preaching of the gospel large numbers were brought to faith in Christ. What is not so well known is that he was concerned for “reforms” as well as “revivals.” He was convinced … both that the gospel “releases a mighty impulse toward social reform” and that the church’s neglect of social reform grieved the Holy Spirit and hindered revival. It is astonishing to read Finney’s statement in his twenty-third lecture on revival that “the great business of the church is to reform the world…. The Church of Christ was originally organised to be a body of reformers. The very profession of Christianity implies the profession and virtually an oath to do all that can be done for the universal reformation of the world.”2
These are remarkable words considering the general evangelical and fundamentalist attitude toward social reform in our day. Most Christians have no idea that a theology of reform was developed by men who are known only as “soul winners.” But when we dig a bit deeper into Finney’s thought, we soon learn that he too met resistance in his advocation of reform efforts. He was amazed that the church treated “the different branches of reform either with indifference, or with direct opposition.” Finney described opposition to reform efforts as “monstrous” and “God-dishonoring.”3
After concluding that politics is an area for Christian ministry, there can be a danger in believing that politics is designed to solve our problems. The people in Gideon’s day saw politics as the solution to their immediate problems (Judges 8:22-23), when, in fact, they were the problem, every man doing what was right in his own eyes (17:6). They reasoned that if they only had a powerful king to rule over them, their problems would be solved. Gideon rejected their overtures to make him their savior-king. “The LORD shall rule over you,” was Gideon’s response (17:23). Gideon was not asserting that politics was evil. But seeing politics as the means to salvation is.
Later, Abimelech wanted to turn the people back to the political faith (9:1-6). Jotham, the only surviving son of Gideon, warns the people of the inherent dangers in such a move (9:7-15). While there is the offer of shade (political salvation and security), it is an illusion that brings with it a shocking and destructive tyranny (9:15).
The choice of political salvation brought with it further oppression. Instead of crying out to God in repentance, the people abandoned personal holiness and opted for a new definition of what ought to be. The corrupted family (Judges 14-16) and priesthood (1 Sam. 2:12-17, 22-36) led the people to turn to the State for salvation (1 Sam. 8). In the process, they rejected God from being king over them (8:7).
The Christian ought to call politics into question when it promises salvation, not because it’s an illegitimate sphere of Christian activity. This is the mistake John MacArthur makes in his book Why Government Can’t Save You. MacArthur’s church is in California. There are many churches that follow MacArthur’s theological model.
He outlines what he believes is “an alternative to political activism.” In doing so, he creates an either/or option for Christians: It’s either evangelism or political activism. Let’s position his argument in these ways:
- It’s either evangelism or changing the tax structure to put more money in the hands of consumers.
- It’s either evangelism or working to overturn laws supporting slavery and racial discrimination.
- It’s either evangelism or working to change laws that allow a woman to kill her unborn baby.
- It’s either evangelism or stopping laws legalizing homosexual marriages.
Why can’t we evangelize and be involved politically? Will people who come to Christ automatically know what the Bible says about these issues? Isn’t part of the discipleship process teaching new Christians the whole purpose of God? MacArthur asserts that “believers are certainly not prohibited from being directly involved in government as civil servants, as some notable examples in the Old and New Testaments illustrate. Joseph and Daniel in Babylon are two excellent models of servants God used in top governmental positions to further His kingdom.” He lists other examples: The centurion’s servant (Matt. 8:5-13), Zacchaeus the tax collector (Luke 19:1-10), and Cornelius the centurion (Acts 10), and the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:4-12).
MacArthur writes that “the issue is one of priority.” Who will disagree? If his book had dealt with the relationship between evangelism and political action, then his thesis would have been more in line with what the Bible teaches. He takes issue with an author who states that “The Christian life begins with spiritual transformation…. But then we are meant to proceed to the restoration of all God’s creation.” This includes private and public virtue, education, law, science and medicine, literature, art, and music.
MacArthur objects. He does not see these things as “a biblical mandate.” In fact, he believes that such thinking is “unbiblical and dangerous.” By taking this position, MacArthur has written off thousands of years of Christian influence and cultural reformation. According to the historian Rodney Stark, “In contrast with the dominant religious and philosophical doctrines in the non-Christian world, Christians developed science because they believed it could be done, and should be done.”4
MacArthur is under the false impression that Christians who get involved in “political activism” are claiming that such activity will bring about the reformation of society. This is far from the truth. Politics is one biblical sphere of God’s delegated temporal governments; family and church governments are two others. Politics (civil government) has a major impact on our lives. It’s the Christian’s duty to be involved if only to keep the State from imposing its will over us and oppressing the church and family.
Politics was never meant to save; it cannot save. While we are to redeem politics and the civil sphere of government, we are never to view them as the sole solution to our nation’s problems. The purpose of involvement in politics is more than the replacement of non-Christians with Christians. There are numerous things that civil government ought not to do. A civil government based on a biblical view of the State would mean a drastic reduction in its size and power and a return of governance to individuals, private enterprise, families, churches, and local civil governments.
- Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, Blinded By Might: Can the Religious Right Save America? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 21. [↩]
- Stott, Human Rights and Human Wrongs, 20. [↩]
- Finney, quoted from “Letters on Revivals–No. 23,” The Oberlin Evangelist (n.d.) in Donald Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers,  1988), 20. Dayton writes that “Letters on Revivals–No. 23” is left out of modern editions of these letters. He calls it an “egregious example of censorship” (19). [↩]
- Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 147. [↩]