Editor's Note: John Barber has served as an itinerant evangelist, church planter, host of a nationally syndicated radio program and writer for Dr. Bill Bright. He holds degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School. In his book, "Earth Restored," Barber tackles the polarization between those believers committed to social activism and those given to evangelism and discipleship, arguing for a new "third" way that blends both. The following excerpt is from the book's introduction.
In 1999, two things happened that caught my attention. First, in January a Paul Weyrich article for the Washington Post called cultural conservatives to abandon attempts to reclaim the culture. Paul Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation and a leading figure among grass-roots conservatives since the late 70s, was also instrumental in helping to launch the "Reagan revolution." In fact, it was Weyrich who coined the phrase, "moral majority." One can thus appreciate the magnitude of the tremor that rippled through the conservative world when this field general of the culture-war called the troops to declare their "cultural independence."
Second, Cal Thomas, a nationally syndicated columnist and journalist, and Ed Dobson, an evangelical pastor in Michigan, wrote Blinded by Might, which is the book equivalent to Weyrich's letter. In the early '80s, both Thomas and Dobson were key figures alongside Jerry Falwell in the work of the Moral Majority. Eventually, Thomas and Dobson became disheartened with the Religious Right and its lack of progress in reversing America's moral decline. They have now joined ranks with Weyrich in calling Christians to end any effort to reform the culture, but instead to limit our work to prayers, evangelism, and personal discipleship, in the belief that this strategy will prove more effective in changing the culture from the "inside out."
As I pondered Weyrich, Thomas, and Dobson's well-meaning counsel, it occurred to me that, although some of their points have merit, in the final analysis their cure is worse than the disease. It is true that conservatives have not witnessed the pace of cultural reform they once hoped to see when the Moral Majority was formed in 1979. And perhaps a few evangelical leaders got too politically involved and were corrupted by the same lust for power that drives the Washington "sleaze-machine." However, as I meditated upon the matter, I thought, "Is God calling the Church to solve these problems by going underground?" It took me only but a second to conclude, "No."
Upon further deliberation, it struck me that the source of Weyrich's, Thomas's and Dobson's newfound pietism was neither that conservative Christians had failed to reclaim the culture, nor was it that politics was corrupting the evangelical church. Rather, it was that these men had lacked the theological foundation to help them persevere through a series of failed expectations. They were unlike the "tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream and will not fear when the heat comes; but its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought nor cease to yield fruit" (Jeremiah 17:8).
It was then that I saw the great need among evangelicals for a solid theological position in the culture-war. Thus, I sat down to write an apologetic for the role of the Church in the culture. For years, gifted authors have produced many books and articles, seeking to encourage believers to assume a transforming role in the public square. How would my contribution be different?
I have always felt that most works written in defense of Christian social activism have fallen somewhat short. The source of my belief is that most authors typically lean too heavily upon America's "Christian heritage" and/or a wide array of sociological studies for support, instead of Scripture. I firmly believe that America's roots are thoroughly Christian and that any reasonable person should be able to see that many of this nation's major institutions, including the media, public education, and government have launched an all-out assault upon the Judeo/Christian ethic.
Nevertheless, believers must be extremely careful not to place too much emphasis upon history and reason as the underpinning for their social activism. This is because history and reason are as much the product of opinion, as fact. And opinion is like the nose on your face - everyone has one. Clearly, American history can provide important examples of how great figures from the past wrestled with the relationship of faith to what is best for society. And shocking statistics of America's slide toward Sodom can quickly get the blood boiling and stir people to action.
But what if America had no Christian heritage? What if the Founders had been heathens? What if recent trends in society were friendly to Christians? Upon what basis would the Church legitimize its social activism? Unquestionably, conclusions drawn from historical evidence and empirical studies are important for shaping our appreciation of the value of an active faith in the culture. But nothing must take the place of God's inspired Word as the foundation for the believer's role in the public square.
Join us for the second part of "Earth Restored" tomorrow.
Barber, John. "Earth Restored: Calling the Church to a New Christian Activism," (c) 2002. Published by Christian Focus Publications. www.fnc.com
*This article may not be reprinted or distributed without the author's permission. You may reach John Barber at [email protected]