What Right Does the Church Have to Speak to Social Issues in the World?

Recently, someone posted on Facebook a comment asking what right the church has to speak to social issues. The specific statement was, “Churches don’t pay taxes, so why would they have anything to say about contraceptives and medical procedures.” This actually brings up at least two deeper questions. The first one is, Should churches perhaps pay taxes? (or, perhaps, Do they already pay sufficient, through their members paying individual, corporate and multitudes of hidden taxes?) This however is a question not addressed here.

The second question, deeper (in my opinion), is, What right does the church have to speak into any social, cultural or moral issue? In the midst of this question niggling at me, I had a friend send me the book God in the Dock by C. S. Lewis. Published in 1970, it is a compilation of 48 essays, many not previously accessible and at least one never published. The essay from which the title comes actually addresses this issue head-on. It is a brief five pages, and concludes abruptly and unsatisfactorily (stopping right when I thought it was getting into the meat of the matter), but in the few paragraphs right before the end makes two startling and definitive statements: 1) that our modern cultures have almost no concept of “sin,” whereas those to whom the early Christian writing was addresses (Lewis calls them “Jews, Metuentes [God-fearing Jewish proselytes] and Pagans) had a universal sense of guilt based on some sense of sin, as witnessed by the writings of the Epicureans and Mystery Religions sought to address this feeling and offer relief from it); and 2) that today “Man is on the Bench and God in the Dock.” (p. 244)

We have essentially, he claims, put God on trial, something it seems to me has been considered reasonable and unquestioningly and universally accepted only within the last few hundred years.  God may well be acquitted, he says, but the important thing is the stance it represents, the worldview from which it derives. Thus, the question “What right does the church have to speak into our culture?” is actually a form of placing God “in the dock.”

I wonder if we are really ready to pursue the question to its logical conclusion. I know that personally I tend to shy away from intense philosophical and theological discussions (arguments in the non-angry sense of the word), partly from feelings of personal inadequacy, partly from seldom seeing any actual results from them (as Paul, I think, found on the Areopagus, Acts 17), partly because I don’t actually know how to carry logic out to its full conclusion, and who knows what other reasons. I am part if this modern culture of fast food (McDonald’s [“We do it all for you!”] and Burger King [“Have it your way!”], Campbell’s Soup and Wal-Mart (everything instantly available), and Facebook and Twitter (140 characters or less; keep it on a surface level).

What would such a logical conclusion look like? Lewis has another essay titled “Meditation on the Third Commandment” (interestingly, he never explicitly states the commandment he’s referring to; Catholicism has it listed as keeping the Sabbath, but according to Wikipedia, the traditions of Augustine and Luther have it as the one about keeping the Name holy). In that essay, he argues whether a “Christian Party” as a political reality could ever really work, identifying at least 3 possible positions on the political spectrum and how positioning on any one would necessitate denying the other 2 any input and aligning with non-Christian (i.e., those who stand against traditional Christian beliefs either in word or deed) political elements. He seems to conclude that the only reasonable solution is simply to be involved in politics from a distance, by “pestering” through letter-writing to encourage righteous political agendas. Then, in one fell swoop, he concludes the real answer is for Christians to become the majority by the “most practical Christian-political act of all”: converting one’s neighbor! (p. 199)

In my heart, I long to conclude that, yes, the church has the right to speak vocally into the culture. But in our culture, such speaking often leads to no impact at all, to a watering down of ideas without any substantive conclusions, and certainly no impact or change. Admittedly, our world is too large and diverse for an individual to have much impact anyway, but still, we are called to be “salt and light.” What does that look like?

I recently listened to the audiobook of Bonhoeffer’s biography by Eric Metaxas, and am currently reading Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together. Bonhoeffer surely was as deep a thinker and as radical as Lewis, but operated in a totally different milieu, and thus his witness ended in a radically different manner. He wrestled with whether as a Christian he could throw his lot in with those who would assassinate Hitler, and concluded that unless he did, he would have no say in a post-war defeated Germany because of having silently condoned all that Hitler and the Nazi atrocities represented. But his thinking in Life Together is interesting in light of this conclusion to act in a way that would ultimately lead to his execution. Here he argues that true Christian community has as its only basis the directive of the Holy Spirit that, like it or not, we ARE already united as the Body of Christ. Any sort of human or soulish (German seelisch, as opposed to geistlich, “spiritual”) attempts to “make” community work are doomed, and we must operate solely on the basis of obedience, even when it appears perhaps aren’t being “loving.”

Here again, I’m finding in my own life that there has to be a retreating into a privacy with the Lord that allows the world to go its way, not in the sense of wishing it to “go to hell” and “leave me alone,” but rather that I have to find internally some “basis of stasis,” a foundational anchoring that allows me to know who I really am (in terms of the One who really has created me and thus has the right to define me), and out of that foundation to live a life fully alive, that abundant life Jesus spoke of (It was St. Irenaeus who said, “The glory of God is man fully alive”).

Ultimately, I think, the speaking into the culture by the church has to be both individual and corporate, both silent and spoken, both reality and faith. Individual in that it must, like Bonhoeffer and Lewis, like Zinzendorff and Luther, and ultimately like Christ and Peter and John, find individual expression that takes a stand; corporate in that it must be supported and find anchoring in a community that is faith-based and Spirit-directed. Silent in that it must rest in its own inner conscience and know the rightness of its position (even when something so radical as willingness to stand with assassins!); spoken as in the manner of St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Reality in that it must find a way of reaching out into the actual living, breathing world in some form; faith in that it is so internalized that the agonizing of questioning the rightness has been settled enough to act.

Our witness will not always be accepted in or by the world. Nonetheless, we must BE witnesses. Witnesses may go to court and not even be called to get on the witness stand (“in the dock”), but they have still witnessed an actual happening. “False witnesses” fabricate; true witnesses validate. The greatest validation is a life simply lived. I think of Sidney Poitier’s portrayal of The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn, a “carpenter-god” who could make a plank come alive and sing, whose timelessness came out of a life simply lived and fully alive.

Should churches pay taxes? Should they speak to issues of contraceptives and medical procedures? I can see potential validity in concluding “yes” or “no” to either. In the final analysis, for me at least right now, it comes down to a life simply lived, radically free, abundantly alive, overflowing with the life of Jesus, an ember glowing and growing into flame. I can’t answer everyone’s questions and issues—nor am I called to. I have been planted where I am and have to grow there. I can only be the “me” I am right now, with the hope and prayer that I will fully realize the “I” God intends me to be. And I have to trust that right here, right now, that is enough.

If I haven’t really answered the question, maybe it’s because I’m not sure I’m even asking—or being asked—the right question. In my college days (oh, those ages ago!) I used to love the quote by Walt Whitman from “Song of Myself”:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself,
(I am large; I contain multitudes.)

Great quote for avoiding being confronted with my inconsistencies. But more and more, I long NOT to contain multitudes, simply to contain what is really “me.” I can only actually be me. I can only actually “live and move and have my being” in God in this present moment, in the current here and now. I can’t live in the past; I can’t make the future get here any sooner. But somehow, I feel I am getting closer to being fully alive in this moment, and that excites me. THAT is my witness.

I don’t have answers to the “hard” questions like the one I chose for the title. But then, maybe I don’t need to. Or maybe the answers are really not as hard as I’m thinking. More and more I want to simply follow Jesus, to find a way of simply following the path I believe was chosen and mapped out for me from before the foundation of the world.

And writing for me helps clarify my thinking and, perhaps, helps bring me into that alignment.


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