© 2019 Robert Osburn
When I became a Christian in the late 1960s, I joined a movement then known as fundamentalism. For half a century, fundamentalists had adopted a defensive crouch against American society. Earnest for Jesus and the Scriptures, we separated from mainline Protestants who taught a “social gospel,” that is, a message about how Christianity would change society instead of the long-established and biblical teaching that Jesus died for sinners in order to reconcile them to God. We were carefully aloof from the broader culture, though, to his credit, our fundamentalist pastor, Dr. Raymond Saxe, openly opposed all forms of racism from his Ann Arbor pulpit where he once welcomed Black evangelist Tom Skinner to preach.
Francis Schaeffer, who also identified as a fundamentalist, taught us to re-engage the culture, but without adopting its relativistic, secularizing ethic. He thundered prophetically about the inerrancy of God’s Word while also teaching us to be “co-belligerents” in the newly-developing culture war that began consuming America in the late 1970s. He gave us fundamentalists the intellectual tools to become evangelicals while remaining theologically orthodox but now also culturally aware.
Now, at the end of the second decade in the 21st century, something new is hitting many of our churches: a social justice ideology that is, as I wrote a few weeks ago, “anti-biblical, borrows heavily from the postmodern worldview which aims to redistribute power (Marx aimed to do the same with wealth), and…is becoming a kind of false religion.” Has a postmodern version of the old social gospel reared its ugly head inside churches where it once, at least during the fundamentalist era, was rejected?
If I am right about what is happening, I think we have to learn why social justice ideology is making such headway amongst mainstream evangelicals. My answer is that discipleship has been too narrowly focused on personal spirituality, with the result that evangelicals who want to engage culture must import outside, often anti-Christian resources like social justice ideology. Discipleship as personal spirituality has meant having regular devotional time, participating in the local church, and evangelizing for Jesus.
Why now, in the second decade of the 21sty century? After all, Christian discipleship has been defined as personal spirituality for over a century. There are two reasons. The disparity of outcomes between Black and White Americans stings and burns an American psyche haunted by the evils of slavery and racism past (and some that continues to this day) and re-inflamed by images of police violence against Blacks. The second reason is that largely false but very postmodern ideas about White oppression towards Blacks are taught almost uniformly in our education institutions.
The answer, I propose, is to re-install social engagement into Christian discipleship, using a term that we have developed in Wilberforce Academy. We teach that Christians are called to be redemptive change agents who creatively, courageously, intelligently and skillfully apply a biblical worldview to problems in our societies. Discipleship as personal spirituality and redemptive change is described this way by my friend Waihon Liew: “macro-discipleship” (cultural engagement) and “micro-discipleship” (personal spirituality).
What will need to change in order for evangelicals to begin cultivating disciples who, along with cultivating personal spirituality, are also redemptive change agents?
First, evangelicals will have to develop a consistently Christian social ethic much as Roman Catholics did long ago. Until Francis Schaeffer’s 1989 film series Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, American evangelicals were absent on the pro-life picket lines that were staffed entirely by Roman Catholics. Evangelicals have ethics textbooks, but are they studied in our churches? Do we have biblical catechesis for social engagement? What we have instead are brilliant voices that command our respect, whether Charles Colson,Nancy Pearcey, Ravi Zacharias, Os Guinness, and until 1984, Francis Schaeffer.
Secondly, evangelicals will have to renounce their embrace of cultural relevance. Since the 1970s, American evangelicals have majored in culturally-relevant forms and language that have made the Gospel accessible to outsiders. But, cultural-relevance has boomeranged. Evangelistic methods borrowed from Hollywood (e.g., showmanship, music, performance, etc.) have undermined discipleship that demands perseverance, patience, suffering, and, sometimes, persecution. But, more to our point, cultural relevance has been a mantra that, along with failures in catechesis, has diminished evangelical discernment with respect to false teaching like social justice ideology. Redemptive change agents have to be able to interpret the Bible and the culture in order to bring genuine redemptive change.
The third change, related to the second, is that many young evangelicals will need to re-embrace the worldview thinking that has been rejected by many under the age of 45. Francis Schaeffer taught many of us to question the assumptions behind the news and behind culture in general, and to contrast faulty assumptions with the truth found in the Christian worldview. One reason that “thinking worldviewishly,” as some of us have called it, got a bad name with Millennial Christians was because it was identified with a culture war that many no longer want to be part of. In order to wisely engage culture, we need to re-discover worldviews.
Rather than letting postmodern ideas about power and inequity shape Christian approaches to social engagement, we ought to create social movements built on Christian assumptions, and then cheerfully invite others (from whatever backgrounds or beliefs) to join us as co-belligerents.
The 21st century social justice tidal wave in evangelicalism has its roots in a narrow vision of discipleship as personal spirituality. That vision needs to be enlarged to include redemptive change, but for that enlargement to succeed, evangelicals will need to develop and teach a Christian social ethic, renounce cultural relevance, and re-discover the wisdom-cultivating habits of thinking worldviewishly.