2006-03-25

On using political-economic power to convert people to "Gospel Values"

My buddy Matt over at Two Cities Blog has written a great article on whether Christians should boycott "Brokeback Mountain" to send a "message to Hollywood" supporting Gospel Values. I think this article highlights an implicit tension and contradiction in Christian mission and social action: Christians using coercive power to "make" people change into "good" people.

Specifically, is it ever effective or right to use coercive power to make people "convert" to the values of the Gospel? Let me explain:

I think that this is not only NOT effective, it may be wrong and a contradiction of God's love revealed in Christ. It treats the adherence to the Gospel as a social requirement for citizenship in a "Christian nation", rather than as a profound rejection of worldly power and status.

But wait, you may say, this is about Christians boycotting "moral evil", as private citizens making a public statement, to get the free market to reflect "Christian values". After all, we are not talking about using police to round up and arrest non-Christian dissidents!

Agreed. Christian Cultural Boycotts (hereafter CCBs) are not a use of the governments power to achieve Gospel ends. But, CCBs are uses of coercive social and economic pressure to make people outwardly conform to the Gospel, whether or not they have had Christ formed in them by faith. It is expecting non-Christians to reflect Christian values.

This makes me ask, under what circumstances did Jesus or the Apostles use coercive social pressure, and to what ENDS was this use of social pressure a MEANS?

Jesus advocated using coercive social pressure to resolve conflicts only WITHIN the brotherhood of believers in Matthew 18. Jesus used actual physical force and coercion to drive out of the temple money changers and animal sellers who were using their "monopoly" to exploit poor worshippers. Paul, especially in his correspondence with the Corinthians, Galatians, and Timothy, advocates using coercive social pressure on those WITHIN the Church to stop people who are practicing moral choices or teaching doctrine that injures the Body of Christ.

Yet, Jesus resolutely stays away from advocating use of coercive power in greater society to achieve Gospel ends. His preaching and teaching of the Gospel (and the moral life that flows from the Gospel) appeals solely to personal choice, and the future judgment of such choices by God (cf. Mat ch. 5-7, ch. 25). Paul, likewise, refuses to allow the Corinthians to use public governmental courts to enforce moral choices within the Christian community (cf. 1Co 6). Paul's discourses on whether or not to eat "temple meat" (sacrificed to idols!!!) is wholly ambivalent about the matter. His main criteria for involvement with pagan culture at this level (or abstinence from it) seems to be whether the believer will be "built up" and drawn closer to Christ, NOT whether such involvement will coercively make Pagan culture reflect Gospel values (cf. Rom 14; 1Co ch. 8, 10).

In fact, the only social pressure that either Jesus or Paul seemed to use to convert the "Pagan world" was love and acceptance. Jesus freely fellowshipped with whores, drunks, and other social rejects, proclaiming to them a Gospel of liberation from sin. It was only the Jewish believers, those INSIDE the community, that Jesus castigated and openly threatened with hell for their hypocrisy (cf. Matt ch. 23, 25). Indeed, Paul's thesis statement on how to interact with Christian hypocrites, as well as Lost Pagans is found here:

1 Corinthians 5:9-13 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people- not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler- not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. "Purge the evil person from among you."

In the realm of social interaction, it can be confidently said that the use of social discipline to enforce Gospel values only occurs WITHIN the community of believers. It is "family discipline", reserved for the training and growth of "family" members. Those outside of the family are not treated like family. Rather, they are loved and embraced and drawn into the family, and only trained once inside the family, in the context of familial concern and love.

As a side note, it is interesting to note that when the whole Church got together to discuss the perplexing problem of what basis the Gentiles should be allowed to partake in the "new Covenant" Community (cf. Acts 15), it confined its decree to expectations of those professing to be believers. It made no sweeping statements about expectations to be put on society at large. It gave the new Gentile faith communities a list of things to "abstain" from, but this abstinence was NOT for the purpose of changing society by coercive social pressure. It was only for the purpose of making the new family members healthy and whole.

I think the logic of the New Testament is inescapable at this point. Coercive use of social pressure is reserved solely for the formation of those who have already submitted to the society of the Church. In other words, we do not discipline someone who is not our own child. Social pressure is never used as a tool to enforce conformity of non-believers to Gospel values.

But- the rebuttal goes- this is only because the New Testament was written in a "non-Christian" culture and the whole early Church existed as a minority community in a Pagan empire. This has to change in a "Christian culture" when the majority of society is made of Christians!

Wait just a minute. Compare the New Covenant with the Old Covenant. In the Old Covenant, from the beginning, while Israel was still a nomad people, before they had "taken possession" of the land, they ALREADY had a blueprint for a theocratic society in "the Torah" (the Law of Moses in the first five books of the Bible). From the inception of Israel there was a concept of a whole society of enforced belief, with social and legal punishments to enforce "Torah values". Not only this, but in actual practice over 1500 years, this concept of a theocratic society with "Torah values" enforced by social and legal coercion, FAILED miserably and consistently.

My point is this: if God had intended the "New Covenant" to function from a position of social superiority and coercive power in a "Christian society", He would have programmed this from its inception, like He did for the Old Covenant. Instead, He implanted into the deep DNA of the Church a complete disavowal of secular power as a means to accomplish Gospel values. The Gospel subverts society through love and servanthood. It does not conquer society through power.

To take this back to the CCB phenomena: I know people who do this have the best of intentions to love and serve Jesus. But, to do this as a means to make culture more "Christian" is at best wrongheaded, and at worst, buying into a demonic subversion of the Gospel itself. If someone abstains from culture because it will not build them up and bring them closer to Christ, then that is a laudable step of Christian maturity. But, if the reason for abstaining is an attempt to boycott culture and make people "act Christian" by means of coercive power, I think that they are badly deceived.

My advice: Don't think that this type of social activism glorifies Christ. Instead, act like Jesus and Paul. Change the "lost" world through love, servanthood, and prayer, not through holding power over people. Speak out, in the Church, against those practices that deceive and harm Christians. Be careful and discerning about what you involve yourself and your family in, always asking the question: will this draw us closer to Christ or push us further away? But, if you abstain, do not do it to "force" people to be "good Christians". Do it because it helps form Christ in you.

The lost world will not care how much you know, until they know how much you care. And they will not know how much you care if you are trying to coercively force them to act like Christians when they are not. No one can act like a Christian unless they first freely accept Christ, and they will only do this as we act like Jesus to them: Pray for them, care for them, share life with them, and dare them to follow Christ as Lord. Only after someone accepts Christ can we expect them to live for Him.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.