Isn’t being a Christian about coming to know Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, telling others the gospel, discipling new Christians to live obediently to Jesus and resting secure in the hope of the resurrection? If so, then does it really matter what happens in culture, politics, society, the arts… in short, in the public square? In fact, isn’t all of this ‘the world’, which will always be sinfully opposed to God’s rule? Isn’t it futile to put time and energy into trying to make a difference in the public square; surely we should be putting our energy into the church instead?
These kind of questions and thoughts are by no means uncommon in the church and so, at the beginning of a month teaching on this topic, I thought an article articulating why this matters may be worthwhile. After all, many people who dearly love Jesus would express some of these thoughts, and we’re unlikely to engage our hearts with this question if we’re not convinced it is important. So, to try and set us up well for the month ahead, here are five reasons why Christians need to work out how our faith relates to culture – to the public square:
1. Christianity is a prophetic faith
The theologian Miroslav Volf, in his book A Public Faith, argues that Christianity is meant to be prophetic. We are people who have had an encounter with God and are sent back into the world in order to communicate, to do something meaningful as a result of that encounter. Volf comments that a prophetic faith “malfunctions” in two ways: either we withdraw from the world, forgetting that we have anything to say, or we attempt to coerce the world into adopting our beliefs and way of life. Neither of these is true Christianity, but we can easily fall into either.
Instead, we believe that our faith bears a significance not just for the faithful, but for the whole of creation, and we are commissioned not just to live in hope, but to demonstrate and offer the world the reconciliation of God (2 Corinthians 5.18). If we are sent prophetically into the world, then we need to think about what this looks like and what it means to be obedient to that commission.
2. Christianity is about the redemption of creation, not just individuals.
The biblical narrative tells us that God created a good creation, for his glory and pleasure, as a gift: an expression of his overflowing love to be enjoyed by humanity, made in his image in sheer benevolence and generosity. The fall is about the individual rebellion of each one of us, rejecting the kingship of God and choosing to live in captivity to sin, but it is also about the fall of all creation from its designed intent. God’s plan of salvation and redemption therefore involved saving individuals – this is critical! However it goes beyond this, into the redemption of all creation (Romans 8.18-25). This included human culture and society. Our ‘public life’ has fallen, and is to be redeemed.
Therefore we need to know the contours of this redemption – what are we to hope for in the redemption of culture?
3. Culture forms people – and we must love people
Our public square is one way of talking about the people-forming task of culture and society. Think about it – almost every aspect of the public square is not just caused by people, but shapes people: our education system, our media, our political process, the arts (and entertainment), the habits of a society shape us. We become closer to, or further away form, the kind of people God created us to be by the influence of our public square. As Christians, we should be very interested in what shapes people, because we believe God has designed us to live a certain way. The extent to which we do not live God’s way, we will suffer individually and communally. Therefore, my love for people will push me to try and influence all that shapes us so that it shapes us for good, not for ill.
4. We are called to “do good to all” (Galatians 6.10) and to be salt and light (Matthew 5.13-16)
Our involvement in the public square is part of the way we do good to all people. Jesus called his disciples to be in the world, bringing in their involvement the presence of the Kingdom of God and so influencing for the good human culture and society. The extent to which we neglect this calling, we betray part of what it means to be the church; many have remarked that when culture falls apart, God first looks to the church. As we will explore this month, our commission to work out our faith in the task of creating culture and serving the common good is part of the commission of Christ.
5. It can make a difference
When Christianity began, it was an insignificant cult numbering less than a few thousand people spread across the East of the Roman Empire. It belonged in a culture dominated by Greco-Roman values and its moral vision was confined to its own communities. Within 400 years it was the primary religion of the empire and through the middle ages was responsible for the development and growth of a genuinely Christian culture. Today, we live in the legacy of the Christianisation of culture and many values we take for granted (the intrinsic value of human life, race and gender equality, charity, freedom of conscience, the right to criticise power, and so on), grew directly out of Christian
influence in culture. In other parts of the world (the Arabian peninsula, China and India, for example), Christian influence was stamped out and consequently a very different culture has developed. We can be grateful for our heritage, but if we care about our cultural future, we need to learn from history that positive cultural change is not inevitable by any means, but, in the West, has been largely due to the influence and gifts of Christianity.
– Tim Murray