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Social Action and The Way of Christ

Written by andrewtatum : February 14, 2008

Radical Christianity as embodied in various ways in the West seems to place quite a bit of importance on social action. We feed the hungry, we clothe the naked, we work toward an end to poverty, violence and oppression. We do all sorts of things which indicate our desire and willingness to participate in the mission of God in the world. But Christianity in the west (in all forms) is in big trouble. Christian communities in Europe and North America today face a situation which, it seems, has never occurred in history. Peter Leithart puts it this way,

When it arrived in the world, Christianity announced the end of sacrifice. But in its growth over the long centuries since then, it may have muted its own founding message, a victim of its own success…In Europe and North America, the Church faces an unprecedented challenge. American Christians don’t deal with paganism—not real paganism anyway. In the West, the Church is surrounded by the spiritual lethargy that accompanies a surfeit of wealth and aimless ease. We face a general accedia. Our neighbors are adherents of a sometimes jaded, sometimes gleeful, post-Christianity. The Church has triumphed over paganism before. But never before has she confronted a sophisticated civilization haunted by Christ (Peter Leithart, First Things).

I contend that there are few Christian communities in North America (denominations and individual congregations) that are unaffected by the “spiritual lethargy” which is the result of decades of not-so-vigilant “christian living” in our post-Christian culture. Certainly action is present in many churches but is discipleship a living reality in our churches? I’m not talking about Bible drill and Sunday school. I’m talking about the intentional cultivation of practices that help individuals and communities come to terms with the reality that their identity rests solely in the fact that they are redeemed and reconciled disciples of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God. Are churches teaching Christians what it means to be Christian in public?

Benedict XVI put it quite well in a May 2nd, 2005 article in Newsweek when he was quoted saying, “secularism is beginning to transform itself into an ideology that imposes itself through politics and that doesn’t concede a public space to the Catholic or Christian vision, which risks becoming purely private.” Churches all over the Christian world are losing members and Benedict thinks that it has something to do with the privatization of the Christian vision.

I agree. And I think that another frightening side effect of the impulse toward secularization is that, with belief now relegated to the private sphere, we have not roots from which to grow into individuals and communities who are equipped to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly” with our God. Christians in the west are more likely to experience alienation and fragmentation than relationship and wholeness. We are as Mennonite theologian Thomas N. Finger has put it, living in “condition in which elements that belong together, which should be supporting and sustaining each other and which ultimately cannot survive apart, are profoundly estranged and hostile…Alienation indicates that the dividing action is somehow internal to the reality which is divided.” The impulse toward secularization, I believe, has seeped into our churches. Although many Christians are willing to engage in social action, I think something is still lacking.

The reason Christianity in the West is in such stark decline is that, despite all our action, we lack the ability to allow our practice to be animated by the Spirit through discipleship. Certainly, works of mercy and service are practices of the church but if they are just practices that are the result of human compassion and (dare I say it) guilt then they are not sustainable practices. Christians of all kinds need to begin to recover communal spiritual practices that can allow our social action to be an embodiment of the work of the Spirit of God in communities of faithful believers rather than action for the sake of action.

In the end, therefore, discipleship and social action must be integrated for this reason: That, in order for the witness of the church to be understandable or intelligible to those outside the Christian community, the community must be active in the cultivation of the necessary practices and language with which to portray the Gospel (i.e. the necessary practices and language which come from discipleship and are embodied in social witness). The Embodiment of the Gospel message, after all, is what makes the church truly the body of Christ. As Lesslie Newbigin writes,

The local congregation is not a branch of the universal Church, but it is the place where the universal church is made visible. When the local congregation speaks and acts, its words must claim to be the words and acts of the universal church if they are to be authentic. But this is hard to achieve in our divided state (Newbigin, Truth to Tell).

Newbigin rightly emphasizes the fact that the local community must be careful and intentional about cultivating practices that allow their words and acts to be truthful. This cultivation if enacted properly would become part of the overall witness of the church to the world. It isn’t that conventional ideas of Christian social witness must be thrown out the window but, rather, that these ideas and methods must always be seasoned with the disciplined spiritual practices of a Christian community. In this way the community becomes the breeding ground, the soil of God’s work in the word. If social witness and discipleship are linked to form an integrated whole, the church will thrive and grow with the help of the Spirit of God that enlivens all things.

The social witness of the church in the world, therefore, has the opportunity to be more than a portion of the larger ministry of the church. It has the ability to be at the center of its life and work when coupled with discipleship to form an integrated and organic core of the Christian life. The witness of the church consists in a lived embodiment of truth bred through discipleship in a community of intentional Christian practices of worship and fellowship. It is what the world sees when the church is at its best – living, loving, forgiving, reconciling in the name of Christ. As Newbigin writes, “it is essential to the integrity of our witness to this new reality [of the Gospel] that we recognize that to be its witnesses does not mean to be possessors of all truth. It means to be placed on the path by following which we are led toward the truth.” When the members of the body of Christ together live out the message of the Gospel that Jesus is the way to God “they are not claiming to know everything. They are claiming to be on the way, and inviting others to join them as they press forward toward the fullness of truth, toward the day when we shall know as we have been known (Newbigin, Truth to Tell).”

Andrew Tatum is a student at Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC. He is married to Lydia Pratt-Tatum, a youth minister and student at Campbell Divinity School in Buies Creek, NC. When he's not reading, writing or taking exams at school, he can be found blogging at (Re)inventing the Sacred, a blog dealing mostly with issues of Christianity & contemporary culture.


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Viewing 4 Comments

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    Wow.

    I really appreciate your writing here, and I think you've really tapped on an imbalance, and one that is looking to swing out the opposite direction, from individual repentance without social reform, to the opposite.

    The concept of the church and Christ as central to the undertaking is often lost on those so wrapped up in 'the cause' that their source of power is underestimated. This also ties in to the issues of believers feeling more commonality with those involved in the same causes versus fellow believers.

    I appreciate some of the emergent folks and people at God's Politics/Sojourners, but what unnerves me is how, by all appearances, it's an acceptance of social reform without the source of Christian community and discipleship.

    But anyways, good article, thank you.
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    Jarrod Saul McKenna 7 months ago
    Amen! :)

    Thanks very much this is an exciting article and speaks to the struggles and prayer of our community: Lord make us a people whose practices publically witness to the inbreaking of your nonviolent new world.

    You might be interested this project of ours at military bases to do just that:
    http://www.vineandfigtree.org.au
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    Your provided quotes are excellent. I wonder whether Christians embrace the peculiarity of their ability to form community. The world has no sustainable basis for community other than commerce. It is meaning less to talk about altruism and love among the unredeemed. Sure, they often act altruistically and lovingly, but they have no rational explanation for doing so. It is contrary to their nature.

    As believers, we have a like mind, and a new nature. We exist now to love one another, not in anticipation of any reward, for we have received our reward in full in the person of Jesus Christ. Instead we love because we have been loved. This is the true basis for community.

    If the Christians look outside the church for examples of community we should be stumped. Instead, we need to recognize that we are the only legitimate collective in existence, because we come together completely voluntarily. There is no fear in our community. There is no manipulation of laws. There is no violence among us.

    Weber almost certainly was right that Christians are the foundation of prosperous societies, though he was almost certainly wrong in explaining the mechanism which allowed that formation. The proper mechanism is regeneration.
    Nathanael Snow
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    Israel alchacoa figuera 2 months ago
    El camino a jesucristo me a conducido a la verdad todos sus ejemplos son asetables su vida me a enseñado claramente el mejor camino de la vida y el encuentro con Dios Dedicar horas en oracion por mi perfecion cristiana en fe y esperanza que Dios todo lo puede un saludos a todos en cristo jesus y adelante firme en la fe Dios nos rescompensara nuestro efuerzo .

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