The Church as a Transformed Society (an excerpt)

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Lausanne Occasional Paper 64D: The Whole Church as a Transformed and Transforming Society which was published in connection with the Consultation of the Lausanne Theology Working Group in partnership with the WEA Theological Commission, ‘The Whole Church, held in Panama City, Panama, 26-30 January 2009.


With the emphasis on the importance for evangelism that people change the way they live and relate to others within and outside the Christian community, it became very difficult to ignore the church. So, it is not surprising that The Lausanne Covenant has a paragraph focusing on the church:

6. The Church and Evangelism — We affirm that Christ sends his redeemed people into the world as the Father sent him, and that this calls for a similar deep and costly penetration of the world. We need to break out of our ecclesiastical ghettos and permeate non-Christian society. In the Church’s mission of sacrificial service evangelism is primary. World evangelization requires the whole Church to take the whole gospel to the whole world. The Church is at the very centre of God’s cosmic purpose and is his appointed means of spreading the gospel. But a church which preaches the cross must itself be marked by the cross. It becomes a stumbling block to evangelism when it betrays the gospel or lacks a living faith in God, a genuine love for people, or scrupulous honesty in all things including promotion and finance. The church is the community of God’s people rather than an institution, and must not be identified with any particular culture, social or political system, or human ideology.[1]

The Lausanne Covenant as a whole marked a very important watershed in the history of twentieth century evangelicalism, but in this paragraph on the church we see a movement stumbling towards an adequate biblical understanding of the significance of the church in the mission of God. On the one hand there is a deeply biblical appreciation of what the church is as a cross-centred community at the centre of God’s cosmic purpose, but on the other hand the church is seen as merely a means to an evangelistic end. This paragraph may have provided what has become the Lausanne Movement’s strap line — ‘the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world’[2] — but it left the movement without an adequate ecclesiology.

A third of The Manila Manifesto that was drafted at the Second Lausanne Congress in 1989 is devoted to ‘the whole church’ because by that time ‘the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world’ had become the movement’s motto. However, The Manila Manifesto is disappointing because the instrumental aspect of the ecclesiology of the Covenant is strengthened with a pervasive emphasis on the evangelistic action of individual members of the churches. Many good things are said in the Manifesto that still need to be said — that if every member of the church is to fulfil their calling, the distinction between clergy and laity has to be undermined; that there is a crying need to encourage women to exercise their gifts; that homes and places of work should be seen as places of witness; that the strength of the church’s witness is linked to the quality of the individual and corporate lives of the members; that ‘the local church bears a primary responsibility for the spread of the gospel’; that churches and denominations, evangelicals in the West and the Majority World and, where possible, evangelicals and non-evangelicals, should cooperate in evangelism.

As with the Covenant, there are also hints of a non-instrumental ecclesiology here and there:

Our message that Christ reconciles alienated people to each other rings true only if we are seen to love and forgive one another, to serve others in humility, and to reach out beyond our own community in compassionate, costly ministry to the needy.

The church is intended by God to be a sign of his kingdom, that is, an indication of what human community looks like when it comes under his rule of righteousness and peace. As with individuals, so with churches; the gospel has to be embodied if it is to be communicated effectively. It is through our love for one another that the invisible God reveals himself today, especially when our fellowship is expressed in small groups, and when it transcends the barriers of race, rank, sex and age which divide other communities.

In these paragraphs the church is not just a means to an end but the end itself. The church does not just exist to fulfil some task or other but its existence is the fulfilment of God’s purpose for humanity. This non-instrumental view of church means that it communicates the gospel as much as by what it is and does as by what it says.

The view that the church is a ‘sign of the kingdom’ of God and ‘an indication of what human community looks like when it comes under [God’s] rule of righteousness and peace’ reflects more adequately the sweep of the biblical story. The vision of the end of the story of God’s dealings with the earth and its peoples in Revelation 21-22 provides many clues to understanding the significance of the church in God’s dealing with humanity in history. John saw a vision of a new heaven and a new earth devoid of disorder. Into this renewed creation he saw the New Jerusalem descending from heaven like a bride in all her splendour ready to meet the bridegroom. This holy city or bride is actually renewed human society living fully in the presence of God as a result of which everything that has ever made human life sorrowful — including death — has been banished forever. In his dealing with recalcitrant Israel, God often declared that a time would come when they would obey him and then they really would be his people and he would really be their God. This is the reality John sees as prevailing in the end, not only with Israel but with all nations, who will gladly bring of their best into this holy city. The crucial legacy of Israel and the Old Covenant was marked by the fact that the names of the 12 tribes were over the 12 gates into the city, but its foundations were the 12 apostles of the Lamb and the Lamb, the Lord Jesus Christ, was its glory and light. This glorious scene is a picture of a human society living in complete peace and security under the authority of the servant king, the Lamb.

The reference to the New Jerusalem as the bride and to the foundations of the city as the apostles of the Lamb suggest strongly that the glorious society that we will be one day is but a greatly intensified version of the society that the church is now and always has been since the Spirit was poured out on the day of Pentecost. There is plenty of biblical evidence to indicate that the society that has submitted to the rule of Jesus has the characteristics, if only in shadow, of the glorious society that it will be one day. We may bemoan the failings of churches but if the church is church in any meaningful sense it is a foretaste of heaven. Jesus did not say to his company of disciples that they ought to be the light of the world or a city on a hill that cannot be hidden. The simple fact that they had gathered around Jesus and recognized him as the Messiah, the anointed Ruler sent by God, meant that they would reflect something of his effulgence as the light of the world. The fact that they were listening to his radical moral teaching and that in due course they would seek to live in obedience to him in the power of the Spirit meant that people outside their society would see the light of God’s glory in them and come to praise their Father in heaven.

As someone that has spent a substantial proportion of his life trying to convince churches and individual Christians that they should share their possessions with the poor through Tearfund, which is a Christian relief and development agency, I have been asked on a number of occasions why it is that in the New Testament the emphasis is almost always on Christians looking after their own poor. The answer is that Jesus is establishing a specific type of society on earth that prefigures the glorious society that will be fully revealed at his second coming. What happened in Jerusalem after Pentecost clearly points to this. If we bracket all the caveats raised by wise and materialistic Western theologians, what we see happening in Jerusalem after Pentecost is the formation of a wonderfully new way of being a society.[3] Here were people from different nations and classes delighting in each other as they joined the society of Jesus the Messiah. They loved to be together, to eat together and to share their material possessions with one another. We know that problems were around the corner and that the realism of being imperfect would soon hit them, but it would be folly to lose the sense of wonder, security, mutual respect and community that characterised this first Christian society blessed by the powerful infusion of the Holy Spirit of God as a result of Messiah Jesus’ exaltation.[4] What is also very significant about this description is the powerful evangelistic impact of this community that should satisfy the most ardent advocate of evangelisation in the Lausanne Movement. It was the quality of the communal life of the church that caused the church to enjoy ‘the favour of all the people’, which in turn provided the platform for sharing the good news of Jesus Messiah.

There is so much that could be said about the renewal of human society in the mission and purpose of God. Beginning with the declaration on the eve of the giving of the law at Sinai that Israel was to be a holy nation and ending with Peter’s reminder that the Christian community he addressed in his first letter was called to be a holy nation, the Bible is full of God’s heart for the corporate renewal of humankind. Peter’s encouragement will suffice as concluding evidence that the good news that we call the gospel is not just about the salvation of individuals but the creation of an alternative community now in the midst of this sinful world that points to the eternal community that is to come:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. [1 Pet. 2:9-12].

The impression has often been created within the Lausanne Movement that the task of evangelization has not been completed because of a lack of evangelizing zeal coupled with a lack of planning, strategy and finance, but in light of the biblical picture of the significance of the church, the cause of failure is just as likely to be a lack of holiness among the people of God.

As the Lausanne Movement prepares for its Third Congress in Cape Town in 2010, it is an opportune time for us to draw attention to our defective ecclesiology and for evangelicals to grasp that there are certain biblical truths about the church that they must share and celebrate. Our evangelical forefathers were wrong to exclude church from their minimum definition of evangelicalism because it is possible to include some fundamental truths about church without betraying our denominational allegiance. Without this the task of evangelization will be profoundly hindered.

In summing up the deliberations of the Theology Working Group at the Lausanne Leaders gathering in Budapest in June 2006, Chris Wright said that his hope for Cape Town 2010 was that it would ‘launch nothing less than a 21st-century Reformation among evangelicals . . . for there are scandals and abuses in the worldwide evangelical community that are reminiscent of the worst features of the pre-Reformation medieval church in Europe.’

One of the worst scandals is the consumerist captivity of the Western and Westernized church. It is now over two centuries since European intellectuals began declaring independence from the traditional political and religious structures of Christendom that made ‘freedom’ one of the key concepts of our modern era. There has been much discussion about the precise nature of this freedom and the best political structures that need to be put in place in order to secure it, but at the heart of all this discussion has been the assumption of the autonomy of the individual self — to be truly free is to be able to make what I want of myself. For a considerable proportion of the last 200 years the capitalist-libertarian and the socialist-Marxist ideologies competed for ascendancy as the means to deliver self-centred freedom. It now seems that the capitalist-libertarian ideology has won the day. Under the banner of post-modernity it is now busily persuading the whole world that the essence of human freedom and self-fulfilment is found in the ability to consume. Kant’s noble call to reject traditional authority in the interest of individual autonomy and ‘Dare to know’ has ended up as a price tag in the quintessentially post-modern Western shopping mall! The tragedy is that all too often Western and Westernized evangelicals in the Majority World are deeply compromised with this self-centred consumerism, which in New Testament language is nothing more or less than the idolatrous worship of mammon/money — and all that money can buy.

The irrefutable evidence that this is so is the growing meanness of Western evangelical Christians as they have become immensely richer in the last 25 years. Ron Sider draws attention to this fact in his The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? Sider’s thesis has been amply confirmed by an academic sociological study entitled Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money. In his review of this book in Christianity Today, Sider says that ‘the level of self-centered materialism systematically described here is truly staggering. The publisher should have used an earlier title that was considered: Stingy Believers. The book should drive us to our knees.’ The primary cause of this stinginess is conformity to consumerism because ‘the widespread consumerism and materialism of the culture — expressed above all in our incessant advertising — seduces many people into making extravagant decisions about major purchases like houses and cars and smaller things like recreation, eating out, vacations, etc.; and the result is that most families are financially pressed in spite of enormous wealth.’ The authors ‘think there are five primary reasons for the fact that “the wealthiest national body of Christian believers at any time in all of church history end up spending most of their money on themselves”’. The most important is our society’s ‘institutionalized mass consumerism’.[5] It just happens that the evidence is available for US evangelicals, but anecdotal evidence leads me to think that the same principle applies in the UK — the richer evangelicals become the more consumerist, and mean they become. Even in the Majority World, those who work among the poor testify to the meanness of the rich middle class evangelical churches towards their charitable work. The pressures of consumerism can be subtle, and Jesus himself warned us against the danger of the cares of this world, but conformity to the consumerist world would be far less likely if evangelization was seen as a process of incorporating people into a new type of society under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

A very pernicious manifestation of the consumerist spirit within evangelicalism is the so-called prosperity gospel. In this sacralisation of the American dream, devotion to God is seen as a deal — we risk our little on God and he pays back with abundance for us to enjoy on ourselves. Even when our giving to God is presented as giving to our poor brother or sister, the approach is destructive of true human community because the needy are reduced to just a means to an end. But the most destructive manifestation of this teaching is the way church leaders in situations of great poverty use it to exploit the poor for their own comfort. Prosperity preachers by definition have to be prosperous in order to have credibility. So their technique is to put pressure on the poor to risk the little that they have on their ministries with the promise that since they would be giving to God by giving to them, God will bless them with abundance — and if the poor lose out they do so because of their lack of faith in giving.

Another scandal is the ideological captivity of significant sections of the Western evangelical church. The war on terror — which for some mysterious reason to objective observers is said to include the Iraq war — prosecuted under the leadership of the evangelical George W. Bush, who was voted into office with the support of the overwhelming majority of US evangelicals, has done, and is doing, unimaginable damage to the evangelization of the most unevangelized populations in the world.

At the Lausanne Forum in Pattaya in October 2004, a group of the delegates led by Rene Padilla approached the leadership of the forum to discuss the possibility that the Lausanne Movement could publicly distance itself from the military policy of the Bush administration. The leadership of Lausanne, which was dominated by US citizens at the time, was resolute in its opposition to the suggestion.

The consultation that launched the Micah Network met in Oxford, England, two weeks after 9/11. In the Micah Declaration on Integral Mission we expressed ‘our abhorrence at this atrocity’ but we also recognized ‘the symbolic meaning of this act of terrorism. In his day Jesus interpreted the butchery of Pilate against the Galileans as an opportunity to repent. Could it be that this act against the symbols of Western economic and military power is a call to repentance?’[6] This suggestion caused deep offence to many in the US in particular.

In his book, Myths America Lives By, Richard T. Hughes has made a strong case that at different periods in their history Americans have adopted stories that have no foundation in truth to justify actions that are very obviously unjust. The myth of ‘manifest destiny’ that justified the extermination of Native Americans is an obvious case in point. At the moment it is the myth of the Christian or Millennial Nation that is causing even evangelicals in America to believe that the use of the most terribly destructive weapons can be justified as a Christian activity. The evangelical church in America and in the West generally must distance itself from this destructive ideology so that the kingdom of the Prince of Peace can grow in the most unevangelized places in our world.

In 1846 evangelical Christians from many parts of the world gathered in London in order to form a global evangelical alliance. The attempt failed because some of the delegates from the US insisted that slavery was consistent with their evangelical faith despite the overwhelming international evangelical consensus at that time that it was not. It would be a tragedy if the US and other evangelical churches stood to one side once again because of their perceived commitment to Western imperialism at this critical point in the history of evangelicalism.

Endnotes:

  1. The scripture references attached to this paragraph were John 17:18; 20:21; Matt. 28:19,20; Acts 1:8; 20:27; Eph. 1:9,10; 3:9-11; Gal. 6:14,17; 2 Cor. 6:3,4; 2 Tim. 2:19-21; Phil. 1:27.
  2. Charles van Engen pointed out at our Panama consultation that much of this strap line was not original to Lausanne but had been circulating in World Council of Churches circles since as early as 1951. For a discussion of the meaning of this strap line in the WCC and evangelical context see Charles Van Engen. The Growth of the True Church: An Analysis of the Ecclesiology of Church Growth Theory (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1981), pp 379-385.
  3. For a discussion of the Jerusalem church that takes note of the western caveats see Dewi Hughes, Power and Poverty, Divine and Human Rule in a World of Need (Nottingham: IVP, 2008/Grand Rapids: IVP, 2009), pp. 210 ff.
  4. Acts 2:44-47; 4:32-35.
  5. Quotations taken from the review in www.christianitytoday.com/2008/006/5.11.html

Date: 30 Jan 2009

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