Monday, April 02, 2012

Commentary: Faith and Public Life


Recently I was asked to share something about the political situation in Malaysia at a missions prayer group. I was given about ten minutes so only the highlights. I shared that in the past, many churches and Christians in Malaysia did not get involved in politics as they saw this as a distraction from the only work that mattered --- evangelism. After all, this world is temporary but saving souls is for eternity. I shared that times had changed. There was a new generation of Christians who did not see a dichotomy between evangelism and social engagement.

On the whole, I said, I thought this was a healthy development. Involvement in politics took seriously the fact that God had ordained governments as a key structure to order human life (Romans 13:1). As Charles E. Gutenson writes:

Governments are ordained by God. While God does not indicate that any one particular form of government is to be implemented, Scripture does lead us to conclude that government in general is intended by God as one of the "powers" that orders human life. Broadly speaking, God intends governments to serve and empower what might be considered a kingdom agenda. (Charles E. Gutenson, Christians and the Common Good, Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011, 119)

Gutenson goes on to say that a kingdom agenda is one that pursues justice and mercy. In other words, governments are God's idea but they exist for the purpose of serving God's agenda for justice and mercy. Therefore, if we have the opportunity to choose a government, we should do so, and select a government that better serves God's agenda. (I have written on this before. See

But I also shared my concern that the church in Malaysia not swing to the other extreme and put too much faith in the political process to make Malaysia a better place. Again I like the way Gutenson puts it:

. . . we tend to put too much trust in the political process for making the world a better place. . . . I think that the public policies and institutions can serve a kingdom agenda. The concern I express here relates to putting too much confidence in them. (Gutenson, Christians and the Common Good, 136).

This is a heady time for the church in Malaysia. While a committed few have always been engaged in the political arena, Christians in general have become much more visible and vocal on the national stage especially after the 2008 General Elections when for the first time in the nations' history, it looked like there was a possibility to change the government. Those who believed that it was time for a change of government were emboldened. This included many in the church. I am one of them. I don't believe there are any perfect governments this side of heaven but I think the present federal government's track record on racism, corruption, mismanagement, human rights, and their treatment of the marginalised, warrants that they spend some time in the opposition ( All Malaysian followers of Jesus should vote, and vote wisely, in the coming general elections.

But as I shared at the prayer meeting I couldn't help but think about the church's unique contribution to the nation. There is a place for political activism. When we do this we join the ranks of folks from many faith traditions in pursuing a common good. But as followers of Jesus are there unique contributions we can bring to the nation? I can think of two.

First, the church must model the values we are pushing for in society and which we wish to see practised by the governments of the day. Among other things, it means that our churches:

* are communities where all races are welcomed and celebrated;
* have leaders who are not self-serving. They are humble servant leaders who serve for the sake of the community;
* are free from the love of money; and
* are reaching out to the weakest and marginalised in the church and the community.

Gutenson cites Stanley Hauerwas on this:

Stanley Hauerwas has observed that the most basic job of the church is just to be the church --- to embody a different way of being that arises from following the radical Rabbi from Nazareth . . . (Gutenson, Christians and the Common Good, 142).

Getting our own act together will be tougher and will take longer than marching in the streets. Yet we will be failing our nation if we do not model what we preach.

Next, our unique contribution to the nation is the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is perhaps the most controversial of the church's contribution to the nation but the greatest problem of humankind is sin, a sin that cuts us off from the God of life, and therefore the best way to see society transformed is to see hearts transformed by the gospel. Christians have sometimes been accused of "converting people." I have argued elsewhere that we can't convert anyone. That is the work of the Holy Spirit ( But we are to bear witness to the gospel, and humbly and sensitively extend God's invitation to people to turn to God through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Evangelical revival in England in the 18th century led to the betterment of society at many levels, including the eventual abolishment of slavery. The evangelicals of the day did not shy from engaging society but never wavered from their passion for evangelism.

The evangelicals were not detached from politics, as the Pietists were, but their controlling passion was the conversion of the lost (Bruce L. Shelley, Church History In Plain Language, Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995, 332).

Society changed for the better because people were becoming followers of Jesus.

The 13th General Elections in Malaysia will be called soon, maybe as early as June. May all followers in Malaysia be in prayer, and vote on polling day. I am now residing in Singapore but I will be back to vote. I feel that in Singapore, the nation is tweaking a system that is by and large working, but in Malaysia we are fighting for the soul of the country. Should Christians in Malaysia be involved politically? Yes of course. But our ultimate trust is in the Lord and we should never neglect the need to model and to share the gospel.

It will be difficult to hold the many agendas in tension but we must try.

Maintaining a position that allows the church to primarily to be the church while still offering a critique to political institutions is difficult . . . The role of the church is to be the church, but in doing so the church should both embody and speak critique to the powers that have been corrupted and no longer serve the kingdom agenda. (Gutenson, Christians and the Common Good, 142-143.)

My last word to the prayer group was: "Please pray for the revival of the church in Malaysia."

PS. Further reflections on issues of faith and politics in Malaysia can be found in The Bible and the Ballot, a Graceworks publication ( Let us know if you need help to get a copy.

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K.S. Lim said...
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