At a recent pastor’s conference, I presented a lecture on “Christian Public Witness in a Postmodern World.” The title is a bit misleading because the lecture covered more than what I characterize as “postmodern.” [Here’s what I use “postmodern” to identify: everything is about power. That’s reality—a continual battle for power. Anything else that someone claims (truth, progress, pleasure, fulfillment, freedom) is just another disguised attempt at gaining power for that individual or community.]What was most instructive for me was the discussion with people after the lecture. I realized that people heard my presentation in many different ways depending upon their previous education and reading. I haven’t done a lot of lecturing to audiences like this, so I learned a lot. As a result, I am writing this essay to fill in some of the background to my earlier lecture. For those who were present at the pastor’s conference, this may help us focus more of our conversation. For those who were not present, this should serve as a good foundation for further conversation.My title, “The church doesn’t have a social ethic”, is the first half of a quote by Stanley Hauerwas. (For those of you who don’t know him, check him out here.) Here’s the full quote: “The church does not have a social ethic; the church is a social ethic.” (Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom, 99). This quote represents much that Hauerwas has argued for many years. It is rooted in deep convictions about the gospel of Jesus Christ and has only become more pertinent to the context of the church’s mission in recent years. Although the assertion comes in this memorable form from Hauerwas, it is a mistake to think of it as “his position.” Rather, the quote concisely witnesses to the gospel, the church’s calling, and the cultural context in which we find ourselves.

Against Reducing the Gospel

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the redemption of all creation by the Creator of all things. This means that all of life falls under the category of “redemption.” That is, we do not have two separate realms in which God works: (1) creation, and (2) redemption. So we distort the gospel if we divide the Christian life into two parts, one part where we assign Christian discipleship solely to an inner disposition or a realm of private life and another part where we look to the state or common sense or shared nature for a guide to public life. It is not only practically impossible to make this distinction, it is theologically mistaken and thus unfaithful to Christ. (In my next essay, I will explore the notion of “preservation” as a description of another work of God rooted in the Noahic covenant.) So “the church does not have a social ethic, the church is a social ethic” stands against a reduction of the gospel. In contrast to understandings of the gospel that reduce it to a private or spiritual realm or to a public and material realm, this assertion claims all of creation for Jesus Christ (“things visible and invisible . . . .”). In this way it echoes the famous quote from Abraham Kuyper, “there is not one square inch of creation over which Christ does not cry, ‘Mine!’” (But there are also many differences between Kuyper and Hauerwas.)

For the Mission of the Church

The mission of the church is also captured well by this claim. Since Jesus Christ claims Lordship over all creation, the display of that Lordship is the mission of those who believe the claims of Christ, even if they do not perfectly practice them. The church is the community of disciples that God has called together to display the claims of Christ.

In displaying those claims, the church is a social ethic. That is, the church displays in its life the cosmic claims of Christ. So the church carries out its mission in the way the church organizes her life in economic, political, educational, sexual, and all other realms. We do this when we give thanks to God in times of blessing and faithfulness, when we suffer judgment, confess our sin, seek forgiveness, and repent in times of unfaithfulness, and when we follow the way of Christ and his kingdom in a world that is in rebellion.

So instead of the church recommending or campaigning for a national government to adopt a particular economic, political, or sexual policy (as examples), the church should be seeking its own policy to practice as the people of God. This is not a prescription for an easy and trouble-free church life. It is, rather, a commitment to the church being the church and bearing faithful witness to the gospel, even in our disagreements and conflicts.

For the Sake of the World

In this context, “the world” is that part of creation that does not believe in and has not submitted to the redemptive, life-giving rule of Jesus Christ. What this world needs to know is that our only hope is found in the full redemption and abundant life that is given to us in Christ. As long as the church simply tries to make the world a better place, the church fails to bear witness to the truth of our cosmic situation: we are lost without Christ.

So this message is the age-old message of salvation in Christ with two essential additions: (1) the salvation that we have in Christ is the redemption of all creation, not the rescue of our souls from a world that is going to hell; (2) the life of the church must embrace the wholeness of this salvation.

In living this out, we must break our dependence upon the state. No state is the primary agent of God’s redemptive work in the world; nor is the state called to be witness to God’s work in the world. We cannot expect the state to live by the redemptive work of Christ. We must not leave matters that we often identify as “public” to the state. These public matters are indispensable parts of God’s work in Christ, but the place where that work is known and served is the church.

Two More Things

(1) In most of these discussions, I find that we leave out a third reality that is neither ‘world’ nor ‘church.’ That reality is ‘kingdom of God.’ The church is called to serve that kingdom and bear witness to it. Since that kingdom is a reality and not an idea, we serve it and bear witness to it by displaying the practical force of Christian convictions in the life of the church. Since the mission of the church is directed toward the kingdom, our life and the way that we pursue that life must conform to the kingdom not the world. The world is not redeemed or ruled by those who use the weapons of this world. In the very act of taking up the weapons of this world (political power, military might, marketing strategies) we are defeated by this world. But the church is also not the kingdom. For this reason, we can argue vigorously for a visible church and against an invisible church without being embarrassed by the impurity of the church. The holiness of the church is located in its participation in the kingdom of God not in the church itself.

(2) We must recognize that “church” names a people from every tribe, and tongue, and nation in which there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. So when we speak of the economic, political, sexual, and other aspects of the “life of the church,’ we should be thinking in relation to worldwide Christianity. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the church in Canada saw its primary conversation taking place not in relation to the government of Canada but in relation to our brothers and sisters in the church in other parts of the world? From there, of course, we would need to address the place where we live and called to faithfulness. But such thinking leads to the next essay that I will write.

Jonathan R. Wilson
Carey Theological College