We have the power

We have the power May 10, 2024

Image: Crossway

Just what is the mission of the church? This is at the same time a simple and complex question that Christians have been debating for two millennia–with an especially intense period of discussion taking place in the 19th Century American Presbyterian world. In this debate, with theologian Charles Hodge at its center, even the idea that the church’s mission is spiritual was an object of contention. Alan Strange’s new book Empowered Witness; Politics, Culture, and the Mission of the Church is a good place to begin such reflection while learning about the historical debate.

So just what is  the “mission of the church”? In one sense it’s easy enough to answer: the mission “of the church as the church is to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth, not to be another merely (or even chiefly) political, social, or economic institution.” (1)

The Gospel itself is inherently spiritual, a “message for a world whose greatest need is spiritual: redemption from sin and new life in Christ.” (3) More, “the task of the church as such is not to transform the world at large or any society in it. The task of the church is to transform lives…” (3)

But what does this mean? Do transformed lives oppose slavery, live indifferently to it, uphold it as a necessary evil, or actively endorse it? These were the discussions swirling before and during the American Civil War, and the discussions which Strange explores in detail in this short book.

These are of course the same discussions we’re having today–albeit not about slavery (we are of course all opposed to it these days). But the questions remains of just how active in the life of the world an institution with a fundamentally spiritual mission ought to be. Should the church participate in pro-life or pro-choice marches? Should political candidates be allowed to address congregations? Should pastors pass around petitions for or against gay marriage? Should the border crisis be a subject for Sunday morning prayer meetings? Obviously we could go on with any number of other issues. But we should also be aware that this discussion is not new, and that the thinkers of the past in some ways had a bigger crisis in front of them, and that we should join Strange in looking to their navigation of these difficulties to help us in our own challenging time.

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast an Amazon Associate (which is linked in this blog), and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO

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