August is the season of national days. I am a Malaysian residing in Singapore who returns to Malaysia regularly for work and to connect with friends and family. Aug 9 is the national day of Singapore. Aug 31 is the national day of Malaysia. August seems to be a good month to think again of how the church can impact society for Christ in general, and how the church should view politics in particular.
There are two possible extremes of how the church views politics. One is to ignore politics completely. This has been the case for a long time in the communities I come from. “Politics is dirty” and so the church should stick to evangelism and ignore any involvement in the public sphere. The other extreme is to see political action as the primary way to work for societal change. Recently someone challenged me to run for public office in Malaysia. (You can stop laughing now.) He believed that if I was serious of seeing Malaysia transformed I must enter politics. I am delighted that more Christians have rejected the sacred-secular divide and are committed to both evangelism and serving in the realm of politics. It is just that I am not called to direct political activism. I am also not convinced that political involvement is the primary way to see nations transformed for Christ.
The primary problem of humankind is her alienation from the living God because of sin and the only cure for this alienation is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed any Christian approach to societal change must take seriously the call to see hearts transformed, and people called back to allegiance to the living God. In Biblical Ethics and Social Change, Stephen Mott reminds us:
Evangelism contributes significantly to moral change in the members of society; it is also a major factor in producing social activists. People are God’s channels of justice, as well as of proclamation. The coming of the reign in the acceptance of the gift of Christ provides workers for the growth of the Reign in historical and political events. As Elton Trueblood observes, we “cannot reasonably expect to erect a constantly expanding structure of social activism upon a constantly diminishing foundation of faith.” (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1982, 112)
The most important gift followers of Jesus Christ can give to our respective nations is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sharing the gospel in Muslim Malaysia, and a Singapore increasingly sensitive to relations between different faith communities, will not be easy. It will need fresh creativity, fresh faith and fresh courage. But who ever said that evangelism in a fallen world would be easy? Now is not the time for laziness or prayerlessness.
Evangelism is central to our desire to see our nations blessed. But we need to do more that that. Leslie Newbigin reminds us that:
. . . there is no “secular” neutrality. Christians cannot evade the responsibility which a democratic society gives to every citizen to access the levers of power. (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989, 224)
Whenever I hear a believer griping about the things they don’t like in their country, I would ask: “well what are you doing about it? A democratic society demands the involvement of all her citizens. Do you pray for the country? Do you find out what is happening in the nation? Do you vote? Do you speak up for biblical values in the public square? Write to the press? Write to your MP? Join a political party? Run for office?” In other words are you part of the problem or are you part of the solution?
Here then are two ways then that believers can seek the welfare of our countries. It is not a matter of either or, but of both. We share the gospel. And we get involved in the public square. There is one more thing we must do. We must make sure that our churches reflect the values we espouse.
The gospel is not just something that is verbalised. It is also something that is fleshed out by the church. The church represents the Kingdom of God in society. In the words of Newbigin, the church must function as the “hermeneutic (interpret, unfold the significance . . . ) of the gospel” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 222 ff). Newbigin also suggests six characteristics that will mark church communities that are trying to flesh out the gospel for society (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 227-233).
1. It will be a community of praise.
The Christian congregation . . . is a place where people find their true freedom, their true dignity, and their true equality in reverence to One who is worthy of all the praise we can offer. (228)
2. It will be a community of truth.
A Christian congregation is a community in which through the constant remembering and rehearsing of the true story of human nature and destiny, an attitude of healthy scepticism can be sustained, a scepticism which enables one to take part in the life of society without being bemused and deluded by its own beliefs about itself. (229)
3. It will be a community that does not live for itself but is deeply involved in the concerns of its neighbourhood.
. . . the local congregation (must be) perceived in its own neighbourhood as the place from which good news overflows in good action . . . (229)
4. It will be a community where men and women are prepared for and sustained in the exercise of the priesthood in the world.
It is in the context of secular affairs that the mighty power released into the world through the work of Christ is to be manifested. . . . (The validity of our preaching) carry weight only when they are validated by the way in which Christians are actually behaving and using their influence in public life. (230)
5. It will be a community of mutual responsibility.
If the Church is to be effective in advocating and achieving a new social order in the nation, it must itself be a new social order. (231)
6. It will be a community of hope.
. . . the gospel offers an understanding of the human situation which makes it possible to be filled with a hope which is both eager and patient even in the most hopeless situations. (232)
In this month of national days, let us hear afresh the call to share the gospel, and the call to speak up for gospel values in the public square. In this month of national days, let the church also hear the call to be the church that we should be.