Christians live today in and with nations that are either dying or over which the threat of doom hangs like a heavy cloud. Some of them are miserable in abject physical poverty; some seem hopelessly divided within themselves; some are powerful and affluent beyond the imagination of past years but full of internal anxieties and badgered by fears. In a general atmosphere of spiritual confusion political decisions are made uncertainly and hesitatingly. Apprehension of disaster has taken the place of the hope of progress as the dominant mood and motive of action.
Does this not feel like 2017? Incredibly, this is Richard Niebuhr in 1946. Chillingly prescient and refreshingly balanced, his entire chapter on “The Responsibility of the Church for Society” (10 pages) is worth reading. The central argument is that Christians are responsible to God, and for society. Churches fall into the error of either mistaking our responsibility “to-whom” or “for-what”.Our first error is acting as though our responsibility is to society rather than God. Niebuhr makes it clear that clear that whether creating “good citizens” or “effective revolutionaries”, the church has lost its sense of responsibility to God as author and King when it “tries to render account to men for its stewardship of religious values”.
The opposite error is to act as though we are responsible to God, but only for ourselves. This church isolates and protects, abandoning “secular society” to its own demise. It follows the example of Noah, building an ark to rescue itself rather than that of Jesus, stepping into a broken world. Here, Niebuhr adds the important caveat that unlike the earliest churches, Christians “have done not a little to make the secular [Western] societies what they are”. His view is that we are deceiving ourselves when we say that we are only pilgrims and strangers:
The American, Russian and British empires as well as the German and Italian, challenge the Church to a sense of responsibility, therefore, which the Roman Empire could never call forth. They were not suckled in their infancy by wolves but nursed and baptized by the Church; it instructed them in their youth and has been the companion of their maturity.
So with this grave responsibility, what are we to do? Niebuhr is hesitant to prescribe, but offers three postures for the church to take in regards to society; that of the apostle, pastor, and pioneer. As an apostle, the church must proclaim to the society in which it exists that Jesus is Lord:
As the apostolic Church it is the function of the Christian community to proclaim to the great human societies, with all the persuasiveness and imagination at its disposal, with all the skill it has in becoming all things to all men, that the center and heart of all things, the first and last Being, is utter goodness, complete love. It is the function of the Church to convince not only men but mankind, that the goodness which appeared in history in the form of Jesus Christ was not defeated but rose triumphantly from death.
Like the first apostles, our stages are both throne rooms and street corners, our audiences both Kings and masses.
The second role that the church takes on is that of the pastor, seeking out the lost and lonely to bring healing and comfort. We act not out of guilt or duty, but out of love for each member of the flock. Niebuhr argues that “because of its pastoral interest in individuals the Church has found itself forced to take an interest in political and economic measures or institutions…and to understand the corporate character of human sin”. As the pastors of society, we reform systems and structures, and also give of our own resources to care for those in need.
Niebuhr’s final image is most compelling. In seeing the church as a “social pioneer” he imagines a lived out tension between our accountability to God and for society. As pioneers, we are not disconnected from society but always draw it forward. We act as a redeeming part of society, not attempting to control the entire project but to invite it forward into the light. Writing in 1946, Niebuhr identifies nationalism, racialism, and economic imperialism as the key areas in which the church must repent and act as a leader in drawing society away from.
Niebuhr completes the image by showing how this “representational responsibility” parallels the role of Jesus Christ. Christ came and lived in and among humanity, but did so only to offer us a better life. Niebuhr concludes:
“In pioneering and representative action of response to God in Christ, the invisible Church becomes visible and the deed of Christ is reduplicated”.
Though we have a long way to go, I see glimpses of what this could look like in the places where I am involved. I see it in the wave of Canadian churches who stepped up to privately sponsor refugees as governments bargain to keep them out. I see it in my city, where Christian organisations have taken the lead in rescuing food from dumpsters and distributing to people who need it, eschewing the politics of control and credit and inviting wider society into the process. I see it in my own neighborhood and workplace, where churches have gathered together to provide food for children who need it. Though my efforts are muddled at best, I want to keep learning how my work can draw those around me into the love of Christ.