Does the ‘Primary Mission of the Church’ Negate Social Transformation?
The following article continues my response to Ed Dingess of Reformed Reasons who responded to my article “Jesus Has Not Called Us to be Doormats” with “Gary DeMar: A Response to Christian Doormats.” See the first part of my response, “Should the Church only Preach the Gospel?”
Ed Dingess continues talking about the “mission of the church” and “the primary mission of the church.” The first question that needs to be asked is, “What is the church?” It’s a government (“tell it to the church”: Matt. 18:17) that has elders and courts (1 Cor. 6). It’s also a “congregation” of believers, often describes as a body made up of “with many members.”
Dingess conflates the two and confuses us with “the mission of the church” and the “primary mission of the church.”
The question revolves around whether it [is] the mission of the church to expend resources in an attempt to restructure government policies to make things better for the poor? And the answer is no. This is not the mission of the church. The primary mission of the church is not to eliminate poverty, suffering, or even oppression.
The church – governmentally and congregationally – has many missions. If a congregation of believers sees unrighteousness abounding around them, they have a duty to act on it. This was done by William Wilberforce and his associates with the slave trade — without a war.
In fact, Wilberforce—dubbed “the prime minister of a cabinet of philanthropists”—was at one time active in support of 69 philanthropic causes. He gave away one-quarter of his annual income to the poor. He fought on behalf of chimney sweeps, single mothers, Sunday schools, orphans, and juvenile delinquents. He helped found parachurch groups like the Society for Bettering the Cause of the Poor, the Church Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, and the Antislavery Society.
In 1797, he settled at Clapham, where he became a prominent member of the “Clapham Sect,” a group of devout Christians of influence in government and business. That same year he wrote Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians—a scathing critique of comfortable Christianity that became a bestseller. (Christianity Today)
I guess Dingess prefers the statist way to abolish slavery or not to abolish slavery since the NT writers didn’t call for the abolition of slavery or abortion. In a later article, Dingess wrote the following:
Legalized abortion is indeed murder. But it was also legal and practiced in Greco-Roman times and [neither] Paul nor any other New Testament writer ever said a word about it nor did they lift a finger to put an end to it.
Abortion comes under the prohibition of murder (Ex. 21:22-25), something that would come under what Paul writes to Timothy (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Paul, following biblical law, was against murder (Rom. 13:9; 1 Tim. 1:9) and thus against abortion.
This may not be the governmental church doing these things, but it is the congregational church. Pastors should be teaching the “whole purpose of God” so the people go forth to “make disciples of the nations” by proclaiming the gospel and God’s commandments (1 Cor 5:1-2; 1 Tim. 1:8-11; 1 John 5:3). These types of actions are what the Bible describes as loving our neighbors. Teaching God’s commandments to a failed business owner is a good thing. Instructing a thief not to steal (God’s law) is a good thing. “[R]ather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need” (Eph. 4:28). In both cases, an opportunity for the gospel is opened.
Election Day sermons proliferated in the colonies.
Following Dingess, when confronted with the slave trade or the rounding up of Jews, I guess he would tell a congregation of believers that working to stop such evils is not the mission of the church. This goes for what is taking place regarding abortion. Abortion may be a bad thing, but it’s not the “primary” mission of the church to work for its end.
And when organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom work to defend Christians against a hostile anti-Christian government, I suppose he would tell pastors to forget these types of evils because they are not the “primary mission of the church.” I wonder what he would say if John MacArthur’s church is ever determined to be made illegal by the State since it’s not the “primary mission of the church” to be involved in such “secular” matters.
We are to believe that Christians should distance themselves from meaningful ways to help the poor and make the world more moral. We wouldn’t want fewer poor people and more moral neighbors who respect God’s laws even though they themselves might not be converted.
He continues with the following:
The primary mission of the church is not to make society more moral by imposing the law of God on it. The mission of the church is not to make society better, more enjoyable, more purposeful or meaningful.
Whose law does Ed Dingess prefer? There is no neutrality. Someone’s view of law is going to be imposed on society. I prefer, “You shall not murder… You shall not steal” to “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6).
Even atheists understand this principle. “On March 21,  the famously angry atheist Richard Dawkins tweeted out a report from the Guardian with a reaction that made me do a double take: ‘Before we rejoice at the death throes of the relatively benign Christian religion, let’s not forget Hilaire Belloc’s menacing rhyme: “Always keep a-hold of nurse, For fear of finding something worse.”‘
Dawkins’ sudden nostalgia for Christianity is not a mere outlier these days. Increasingly, atheists are realizing that the choice facing most Western nations is not the choice between the secularism of the Enlightenment or the Judeo-Christian traditions of Christendom. Rather, as Christianity collapses, the void is being filled with the religious traditions of incoming migrants, immigrants, and refugees.
For most countries, that is Islam. As the culture clashes in Europe grow, Dawkins has gone from referring to Christianity as something children need to be protected from to something “benign.” As LifeSite reported, he actually defended Christianity: “There are no Christians, as far as I know, blowing up buildings. I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers. I am not aware of any major Christian denomination that believes the penalty for apostasy is death.”
Please don’t tell young Christians that they should not work “to make society better, more enjoyable, more purposeful or meaningful.” That surely will keep them from going elsewhere to find some meaning and purpose and consider their Christian life to be irrelevant this side of heaven. The gospel is always the primary mission of the church but it’s not the only mission of the church.
The United States has been sending missionaries around the world and little seems to change in these cultures because they were only about “preaching the gospel” to complete some end-time requirement before Jesus returns. This was not the case when Christians made their way to what became the United States. Millions saw it as a “shining light on a hill” (Matt. 5:14).
He repeats the discipleship requirement:
The mission of the church is to speak the truth of the gospel into the culture, to baptize converts, and to make disciples from every people group.
What do disciples look like and act like? How does a Christian know when he or she is being a disciple? Can a lawyer be a disciple? How will he know if he’s being a disciple as a lawyer? How about a doctor. An elected official? By what standard? Isn’t it imposing God’s law on society when it comes to outlawing the killing of unborn babies? I always wanted to ask someone who says, “I’m personally opposed to abortion” if they were personally opposed to slavery.
Mario Cuomo claimed that he was “personally opposed to abortion” but he could not use that personal opposition to outlaw abortion. God is opposed to women killing their children. It’s not a personal matter. How would Ed Dingess instruct a fellow believer who was an elected official on the issue of abortion?
Dingess brinks up the Good Samaritan again:
If Demar [sic] is going to demonstrate why this is wrong-headed, he is going to have to do better than mangling the parable of The Good Samaritan and illegitimately imposing civil laws from the ancient theocracy on American society.
I’ve never used the story of the Good Samaritan as a model for civil. Just the opposite. The Good Samaritan acted individually. He used his own time and resources. I don’t understand why Dingess juxtaposes the Good Samaritan with “illegitimately imposing civil laws from the ancient theocracy on American society.” He individually followed God’s law, loving his neighbor as himself. Where did he get that idea? From Israel’s “ancient theocracy” (Lev. 19:18). By the way, there’s no mention of the gospel in the story of the Good Samaritan.
Dingess then quotes me from my article:
“Why was there a time when nearly everyone could name off all the Ten Commandments?”
I was quoting John MacArthur who considered this a good thing and a bad thing that few people can name all Ten Commandments today.
Dingess further quotes me:
Because Christians took their faith seriously and applied it beyond the church doors and the Sunday School hour. America was a beacon to the world and still is because of how Christians once applied their faith to every area of life. Those who came here understood that America was a Christian nation. In fact, the case could be made that America’s public display of faith is what attracted so many to our shores.”
Dingess criticizes my comments by claiming that the United States was never a Christian nation because nations can’t be Christian only people can be Christian. This is a fair point, but what people are is a reflection of what the nation is and there is a great deal of history supporting the belief that the United States was a Christian nation
David J. Brewer, who served on the Supreme Court from 1889 through 1910, made the following observations in his 1905 book The United States: A Christian Nation and also in a famous Supreme Court Case:
- “This republic is classified among the Christian nations of the world” (11).
- “[W]e constantly speak of this republic as a Christian nation—in fact, as the leading Christian nation in the world. This popular use of the term certainly has significance. It is not a mere creation of the imagination. It is not a term of derision but has a substantial basis—one which justifies its use” (12).
- Brewer then spends twenty-six pages convincingly supporting his claim with historical evidence.
- “In no charter or constitution is there anything to even suggest that any other than the Christian is the religion of this country. In none of them is Mohammed or Confucius or Buddha in any manner noticed. In none of them is Judaism recognized other than by way of toleration of its special creed. While the separation of church and state is often affirmed, there is nowhere a repudiation of Christianity as one of the institutions as well as benedictions of society. In short, there is no charter or constitution that is either infidel, agnostic, or anti-Christian. Wherever there is a declaration in favor of any religion it is of the Christian” (31–32).
- “You will have noticed that I have presented no doubtful facts. Nothing has been stated which is debatable. The quotations from charters are in the archives of the several States; the laws are on the statute books; judicial opinions are taken from the official reports; statistics from the census publications. In short, no evidence has been presented which is open to question” (39).
- “I could show how largely our laws and customs are based upon the laws of Moses and the teachings of Christ; how constantly the Bible is appealed to as the guide of life and the authority in questions of morals” (39).
- “This is a Christian nation….” (40).1
Kirk Fordice, the former governor of Mississippi, said in a CNN interview, “The media always refer to the Jewish state of Israel. They talk about the Muslim country of Saudi Arabia, of Iran, or Iraq. We all talk about the Hindu nation of India. America is not a nothing country. It’s a Christian Country.”2
I’ve dealt with this topic in several books and numerous articles: America’s Christian History: The Untold Story, America’s Christian Heritage, The Case for America’s Christian Heritage, and Historical Revisionism: An Attempt to Rewrite America’s Christian History.
And there is no evidence in our history to suggest that even the majority of Americans were truly born again, ever. Such thinking is sheer conjecture and it flies against the evidence. Scripture commands Christians to honor and submit to their king. The revolutionary war is good evidence that these “Christians” didn’t take those commandments very seriously.
It’s the official and unofficial documents that speak volumes on this issue. See the above source material. Israel was still Israel even though Israel was sent into captivity because of their repeated disobedience. I’m not going to debate the War for Independence here. I’ve done that in my book Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths (chap. 15). For many, the War for Independence was a defensive war and fully justified. Others, like MacArthur, disagree.
Dingess brings up the issue of submitting to the civil authorities. Of course, there are times in the Bible where God’s people did not submit to the reigning civil authorities. The Hebrew midwives didn’t. Rahab didn’t. Peter didn’t always submit “to every human institution” (Acts 4:13-20; 5:29) even though he wrote:
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king (1 Pet. 2:13-17).
The thing of it is, we don’t live under a king or a Caesar. Our governing document is the Constitution. We have the freedom to vote civil officials out of office. We can petition the government for a redress of grievances. The Ninth and Tenth Amendments limit the national government.
In addition, the Constitution is a document of enumerated powers. Elected officials take an oath to uphold it. We have a right to hold elected officials accountable. We are not Rome.
Even Roman citizens like Paul (Acts 22:22-30) could not do that. Earlier in Acts, Paul had confronted the Roman government when they were mistreated, and the magistrates tried to hide the fact by letting them go secretly. Paul protested, “No indeed! (Acts 16:31-40). Following Dingess, we would still be living under Caesar and a king.
He comments further:
No one suggested that the church should consider getting more involved in Roman politics. It never came up even though the opportunity was far more pressing then than it is in our day.
Very few in the Roman Empire were Christians. Paul was an exception. No one in Israel could vote, not even all Roman citizens could vote. Kings assume or take power. They are not normally elected.
The remainder of the article by Dingess repeats some of the same arguments found in his article that I have already addressed.
- David J. Brewer, The United States: A Christian Nation (Philadelphia, PA: The John C. Winston Company, 1905). Reprinted by American Vision, 1996. [↩]
- “Mississippi Governor Criticized for ‘Christian Nation’ Remark,” Dallas/Fort Worth Heritage (January 1993), 14. Quoted in John W. Whitehead, Religious Apartheid: The Separation of Religion from American Public Life (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1994), 149. [↩]