He who hears the shema drinks the shekar!

Monday, March 5, 2007

Carson on the Spirituality of the Church

Rick Phillips relays some comments made by D.A. Carson about the 'Spirituality of the Church' at a recent Reformation conference...

During the Question and Answer session, this subject of the Church and social involvement came up. The question was asked, "Why is it that the churches are not leading the way in social good works in Sacramento?" D. A. Carson gave an answer that I think is very instructive and which guards us against false dichotomies in this matter. What I mean is that there is an important way in which Christians are to be deeply involved in works of mercy and justice, while at the same time there are indeed wrong ways for this to take place. So there is not a dichotomy on this issue, but a need for biblical balance.

Carson argued that the key is to maintain the distinction between churches and Christians. It is not the calling of the church to direct itself to fixing social maladies. Hence, the spirituality of the church and, as has been pointed out here, the fact that the ministry of the gospel -- or, to put it as Peter did in Acts 6, the ministry of prayer and the Word -- is so singularly important that the church as church must be devoted to it. But, on the other hand, Christians are to be salt and light in society. This is the lesson of Wilberforce -- not that the Church should take up social causes but that Christians called to secular vocations (and we all are in one way or another) should be agents of the grace and truth of God in those vocations. Paul does exhort us, "As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith" (Gal. 6:10). Given the narcissism and social indifference displayed by evangelical Christians as a whole, it is no wonder that many are expressing concern about this. I, too, am concerned about it. But that concern needs to be biblically shaped.

So the issue is not whether or not the work of the gospel includes social implications. It does, as numerous examples from church history (Calvin's Geneva; Wilberforce, etc) show. The question is in what way this happens. I say this not because I think anyone here is opposed to acts of mercy and justice, but because these kinds of debates must always be guarded against false dichotomies. The record of history strongly argues that if the principle of the spirituality of the church is lost, we are in big trouble. But history also shows that true spirituality will always flow through Christians into the streets and institutions of society.

A great model of this was Tenth Presbyterian Church, under James Boice (and still today, under Phil Ryken). Numerous ministries of "mercy and justice" blossomed from Tenth. I think of Alpha Pregnancy Centers, HOPE (an AIDS mercy outreach), and the public service of C. Everett Koop as eminent examples. But none of them was started by Tenth. None of them resulted from a meeting of the Tenth session. Instead, they all came about as God's Spirit moved in the hearts of God's people through the church's devotion to the ministry of the Word. It was because the church was devoted to the ordinary means of grace -- Word, prayer, sacraments -- that it has had such a social impact. As the Spirit lead the people of God to launch various endeavors, the church encouraged, counseled, guided, and promoted them. But the church maintained its focus on the means of grace and because of this the Christians has had a huge social impact.

(To my huge gratification, while I was writing this post, a member of my church called to invite me and my wife to attend a fund-raiser for a crisis pregnancy center. Why? Because of the effect of God's Word, preached in our church, on her heart. Thank you, Lord.)

This is helpful when it comes to evaluating strengths and weakness of the PCA and OPC. The PCA loves to emphasize mercy ministries...but the problem is that too many confuse the calling of the 'church qua church' and the calling of individual Christians. The OPC on the other hand loves to emphasize 'the work of the church'....but the thought of individual Christians being 'in the world but not of the world' is often missed.

The example of Wilberforce is timely, given the recent movie that I need to go see with Vicky.