The Church’s Social Responsibility
Reflections on Evangelism and Social Justice
Edited by Jordan J, Ballor and Robert Joustra
Grand Rapids, MI: Christian’s Library Press, 2015.
pbk; 119pp; £9.87.
Publisher's website here.
The church matters. Neo-Calvinists are often accused of not taking the church seriously. But now many are waking up to the notion that church as an institution is important. The great Dutch statesman, newspaper publisher, prime minister and theologian, introduced an important distinction between church as an institute and being organic.
Kuyper uses many metaphors to illustrate this distinction, particularly in his recently translated Rooted and Grounded. The church as an organism is a body and it grows, as an institute, it is a house that is built. It is from the organism of church that the institution is born. The institution is the church organisation, its sacraments, its priests; the organism is the church in the world, Christians at work in society, the body of Christ. The organism is strengthened and served by the church as institute. The church as institute does not run schools, universities, coffee shops or trade union; that is the role of the church as organism. This, in essence, is the theme developed in this great little book.
Most of the essays here take up Kuyper’s useful distinction. There has been a tendency in the past to play down the institution side of church. This is partly as a reaction against ecclesiasticisation of Christianity — an approach often manifested in the idea that full-time Christian ministry is church work. Now we are beginning to realise that ministry is more than church work. It is more than what the ‘laity’ do on Sundays: there are no part-time Christians!
The book begins with three essays setting the scene. Carl Henry’s essay is from his important and ground-breaking book of the time. written during the rise of neo-evangelicalism. As Ockenga, one of the father’s of neo-fundamentalism, wrote in 1956:
Nevertheless—unlike fundamentalism—evangelicalism realizes the church has a prophetic mission to society…. We must…make evangelicalism more relevant to the political and sociological realities of our time…unless conservative Christian theologians take more time to point out the relevance of Christ and the Bible to important (social) issues conservatism will be neglected by the rising generation.
“Is Evangelical Theology Changing?” Christian Life, March, 1956, p. 4.
It was this call for relevancy that was taken up by Carl Henry. There was an increasing realisation that the church had a social responsibility. For Henry, the church’s role was to say No to moral and political issues, such as abortion, slavery, apartheid, rather than to say yes to party-political approaches or actions. This approach is endorsed by Richard Mouw, who tells the story of his wrangling over a few phrases of an essay he submitted to Christianity Today when Henry was the editor. Mouw wanted to advocate that the church should say a ‘bold yes to specific policy-like solutions’; Henry wanted him to change the sentence. Mouw now sees he was wrong and Henry’s no-saying approach as being correct. Although Mouw has slight misgivings of the way Henry presented his case, to remedy this Mouw draws on Kuyper’s church as institute and as organism. Kuyper would agree with Henry that the church (as institute) is limited in what it can say about issues in public life, however, the church (as organism) as the body of Christ has a responsibility to go out and form organisations to engage in areas of cultural involvement and policy formation.
Kuyper’s theme is also taken up in Part 2, Principles of responsibility, with essays from Driessenga, Koyzis and Wagenman. All three endorse Kuyper's institute and organism approach. Driessenga also uses the metaphors of pearl and leaven taken from Kuyper’s contemporary Herman Bavinck. Koyzis introduces an important point from one of Kuyper’s successors, Herman Dooyeweerd. Dooyeweerd makes a distinction between institutional communities and voluntary associations. The church is the former and not the latter. This has implications for the way we see the church as institution; church is not ‘a mere association of converted individuals’ (50). Church is called into being by a divine covenant, not by common interests, being member son the church is not like joining a club for its own ends. Koyzis ends his chapter with an important point: ‘We dare not neglect the institutional church and the meaning of grace which offer such nourishment’ (53).
Wagemann also develops Kuyper’s distinction. He also warns against asserting that the institutional church has no relationship to social issues - as the church is to proclaim the gospel. As Wagenman wisely puts it:
‘… Kuyper taught that the unique calling of the institutional church was the contextualised and comprehensive proclamation of the gospel. The gospel doesn’t dictate a particular government policy but the gospel has some applicability to every issue of human life’ (57)
If the church fails to do this than it is only preaching part of the gospel and thus failing in its institutional role. It is important to realise that church as institution/ organism doesn’t set up a new form of dualism.
Part 3, Practices of Responsibility, looks at the church’s role in social justice. Van Reken maintains that ‘The primary work of the institutional church is not to promote social justice, it is to warn people of divine justice’ (67). He also follows Henry’s approach:
‘My view is that the institutional church should speak out against preventable poverty, but in most cases, must not recommend exactly which social justice will best reduce poverty’ (68).
Vander Meulen’s thesis is that: ‘the institutional church needs to vigorously encourage — at personal and corporate levels…—faithfulness in doing justice’ (72). Hogenterp acknowledges that silence over issues can be ambiguous.
The Church and Society, part 4, contains essays by Den Dulk, Summer and Bacote. Den Dulk returns to the important theme of social justice and argues that the church ought to pursue its claims, but their role is limited - but it is within these limitations that ‘the churches will find their strongest voice’ (93). The issue of what is and what isn’t a Christian think tank is the subject of Summers, the CEO of the Centre for Public Justice a prominent Christian think tank. She sees them playing an important role. She identifies three wrong answers to the question why do we need distinctively Christian think tanks and then three right responses. She makes an important point:
‘The wrong answer — that there is no need for distinctively Christian think tanks if the church just does its job — is wrong because it conflates the task of the church as institute and the church as organism’ (97).
Bacote looks at social justice and Christian obedience. He examines some present and future challenges; these are: marriage; religious liberty; race; gender; abortion; and environmental concerns; economic life and poverty. He ends by noting that talk alone will not suffice; it’s time for action.
In closing, in the historical afterword, Kevin Flatt examines some important lessons from the United Church of Canada.
This book contains a diverse range of short articles - it can be read in under two hours and yet it is packed with insight and wisdom. What is perhaps most remarkable is the agreement of most of the authors of the importance of the distinction between the church as organism and the church as institute. It was a distinction that Kuyper made first in his ‘Rooted and grounded’ sermon in 1870, yet as can be seen from these essays it is still relevant; and indeed more than relevant it can help to frame the role of the church in the public square today. This book is an important contribution to the debate regarding the role of the church in society.