Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Holy Worldly Church

By Dr Mark Chan, Coordinator of Faith and Society, CSCA, Trinity Theological College

Christians learn from young that they are to be 'in the world' yet not 'of the world'. Implicit in this is the twin conviction that believers are

a) to live out their faith within the realities of everyday life, and
b) to guard against becoming so identified with the ungodly system of our world
that they lose their distinctive identity. This paradoxical stance of being rooted in the world and yet not at home in it comes out of the fact that Christians are simultaneously citizens of (particular nations in) this world and citizens of the Kingdom of God.

Two questions are relevant in this connection:
'Where in the world is the church?'
'Where in the church is the world?'

Where in the World is the Church?

This question is both a lament and a challenge. It is a lament in that it wonders if the institutional church is not so mired in her parochial concerns that she is frankly out of touch with the many pressing issues of our times; and it is a challenge in that it summons the church to her responsibility as the agent of God's Kingdom within the kingdoms of the world.

God is deeply in love with the world. If God loved the world enough to send his Son to die for it, surely he's interested in what's happening to it and in it. His redemptive plan is aimed not just at the reconciliation of sinners to himself but also the restoration of all creation. Did the Lord not teach us to pray that the Kingdom might be manifested 'on earth as it is heaven' (Matt 6:10)?

The Christian faith is a world-transforming faith. To be sure, it is about spiritual transformation of the heart; but it does not stop there. Our faith may be personal, but it is never privatized. To retreat to a spiritual ghetto is to forfeit our birthright as God's people called to be with him and to serve his purposes in the world.

Unfortunately, the church's involvement in the world often extends no further than mounting evangelistic forays to rescue souls from damnation, or performing good works aimed at alleviating the distresses of people. While these activities are integral to the Christian calling in the world, they do not exhaust the church's call to be salt and light in the world.

The church is to be actively engaged in the public square where the important issues of life are debated and decided. The gospel is public truth, and as mediators of the Gospel in the world, Christians have a responsibility to relate the claims of the gospel to social issues such as racism, inter-religious harmony, marital breakups, and the changing face of the family, the spread of infectious diseases, ethics in biomedical research, economic disparity, etc.

More than just social activism, the church needs to be intellectually engaged, to win not the heart of people but also their mind. On matters of public morality for instance, the church must make her prophetic voice heard in language and terms that make sense in our pluralistic public square. Christians can ill afford to be uninformed and uninvolved about developments in the world.

The 'governing authorities' have been appointed by God to promote the good and to restrain and punish every evildoers (Romans 13:1-7, cf. John 19:11), and Christians as concerned citizens are expected to contribute responsibly to the maintenance of a social order that mirrors the scriptural vision of Shalom. Insofar as the state is committed to justice and righteousness, Christians are to submit to its authority and work with and within its structures to bring about the common good.

When Jesus tells his disciples to 'render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's' (Matthew 22:21), He not only legitimises the state apparatus but also delimits the state's sovereignty. To give back to Caesar what is his implies that the state has the right to receive tribute from its citizens. But this is not an absolute authority, for that belongs to God alone. Yet it is when Christians submit wholly to God that they are imbued with a vision and empowered to seek the welfare of the nation.

The church has a priestly role in society as well. This entails imploring God on the behalf of the world and interceding for political leaders and all who are in positions of influence (media moguls, financial czars, law lords, etc), so that Christians may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness (1Timothy 2:11, Titus 3:1f).

Where in the Church is the World?

One reason for the church's neglect of the public square may well be because the world has already colonised the church. Here is a call to see if the church has unwittingly imbibed ideals, values, and practices that are contrary to God's will. Nothing dilutes the Christian's devotion and witness in the world quite like being enmeshed in ungodly worldliness.

In seeking to revitalize the church's public weakness, we must necessarily talk about the holiness of the church. Only a holy church can respond to the call of holy worldliness. The Christians' commendation of wholesome and upright living in the world rings hollow if it is not embodied in the lives of believers. Therefore we need to ask in what areas of life in the church have we allowed the world to determine our agenda. Paul's advice is apt in this regard, "Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking" (Romans 12:2).
The Christian church owes it to the world to invest in the formation of moral citizens who will contribute positively to the common good.

We serve the world best by being what we have been created by God to be: a distinct and holy people called out from the world of sin and inducted into the counter-cultural community of God the King. Being good citizens of God's kingdom has a direct impact on whether we are good citizens of our nation. We are of no earthly good if we compromise our identity in order to gain acceptance or win the popularity contest. Maintaining our distinctiveness means that the church cannot be co-opted by any political party. She forfeits her position as God's ambassador when she puts the coercive power of the state behind her truth claims or when her voice becomes nothing more than an echo of the state's policies. The Church and the State should not be confused.


The call to holy worldliness is the call to deny oneself and to take up the cross. The chruch that is for God and the world must bear the image of the sacrificial Lamb of God. For just as Christ was broken and shared for the salvation of the world, the church too must be marked by the same eucharistic self-giving if she is to be God's good news in the world.

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