The Most Important Thing: Balancing Evangelism With Political Involvement
What is the most important thing in the world? There are many possible ways to answer this overly broad question. For the Believer, the answer most likely has something to do with one’s relationship with God, or as the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” For Evangelicals, the emphasis is often placed on a personal salvation experience. For others it is the journey of salvation whereby one’s relationship with God is worked out over long periods of time. Whatever angle you take, the answer is ultimately the same, the most important thing for a Christian—and for all humanity for that matter—is to have a relationship with Almighty God. Furthermore, in order for more of humanity to come into a relationship with God, His followers must continually share the glory of the Gospel to others through evangelism. For the politically astute follower of Christ, however, this begs the question, “what role is then left for political involvement and social action?”
Throughout the 20th Century American Christians were presented with two polar opposite views on this question. On one end of the spectrum were the Fundamentalists, those who saw almost no need for political activity of social action, and instead placed all their emphasis—in their better moments—on spreading the Gospel through evangelism. Their disengagement from the political sphere and problems of society came partly as a reaction to the other end of the spectrum: the Social Gospel movement. Those involved in the Social Gospel devoted themselves to addressing the various problems that faced society, believing that by fixing these issues they would usher in the Kingdom of God. What we were left with, then, was one group of Christians who focused solely on the overtly spiritual, while their counterparts addressed only the temporal.
Obviously these two approaches are not the only options. Any reasonable Christian will acknowledge the fact that, as we have already stated, one’s relationship with God is of ultimate importance, therefore we should not regret spending a great deal of energy on evangelism. At the same time, Christ’s commands to “render unto Caesar” (Mk. 12:17), be salt and light (Mt. 5:13-16), and care for the “least of these” (Mt. 25:35-40) build quite a comprehensive theology of social engagement. The tension comes from deciding how to balance these two priorities.
This tension is resolved easily enough on paper, unfortunately the implementation of the solution seems to be what we have historically had trouble with. As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, the resolution is to approach this topic with a both-and solution as opposed to an either-or mentality. One of the better examples of this from Scripture is Jesus’ parting words to His disciples as recorded in Matthew 28. It reads:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:18-20, ESV).
The standard exegesis of this passage is to point out the evangelistic call to “make disciples.” But we should also notice that these disciples are to be taught to obey all that Jesus commanded, which would presumably include our previous list of rendering unto Caesar, being salt and light, and caring for the least of these. We should infer, therefore, that the most important thing for the Believer is twofold: to spread the Good News of the Gospel, and to encourage the Body of Christ to fulfill the mission of the Church in the world. If done correctly, I believe these two notions will complement each other. Our political involvement should have the effect of drawing more to become disciples and our disciples should be more politically involved.
In order for these notions to work together we will have to fundamentally alter the way we engage the political sphere. The culture-warring, take-no-prisoners, brass knuckles free for all that is Christian political involvement will need to be replaced with an aura of Christ likeness. Being salt and light doesn’t just mean standing for the right issues, but taking a stand in a manner that reflects the humility and love of our Savior. By so doing we may not be as successful politically by the world’s standards, but we will fulfill the twofold command of the Great Commission, and that is truly the most important thing.
“In present day Christendom, there has been a tendency to forget that both the salvation of individuals and the transformation of society are Kingdom non-negotiables.”