It is easy to be anxious and to give way to despair when we consider the state of the world. We experience life as Christians in our contemporary Western culture as being more difficult and more complicated than it was even in past decades. How can we preserve aspects of Christian thinking and practice in a society which is based on principles that are not Christian at all? Do we need to moderate our demands and compromise with the modern worldview and atheistic morality? Or do we need to construct better alliances with politicians and those with influence so that at least some of our requests and aspirations are satisfied?
Neither of these are the Christian response to a society that has become increasingly anti-Christian. They assume that the purpose of the Church is to have a political and social influence beyond the activities of Christians and congregations themselves. It is to assume that with the right policies and politicians we can change society for the better, and that what is required is just a few modifications here and there. It is a matter of hoping that if we cooperate with those in power then we will be left alone or gain some benefit.
Even in our personal lives we can believe it is necessary to make such compromises and accommodations. The philosophy of the Enlightenment, which is the foundation of our modern societies, denies that religion has any authority in itself which should allow it to play a part in the ordering of society. It insists that if there is a God then such a belief is no more than a personal matter, and that the way that we are governed, and educated, and conduct social and business activities, should be entirely without any reference to God, whose existence, it is claimed, cannot be scientifically verified. It is easy for Christians to adopt such a viewpoint, and either hide their Christianity away, or treat it as something which is only to be practiced at home and in the Church.
In the past decades even residual and private belief in a distant deity which the Enlightenment allowed has been challenged by extreme views which deny that there can be any truth at all. To make any definite statement of principles is to be considered a bigot, prejudiced, exclusionary and dangerous to society. Yet those who hold such extreme views, especially about traditional Christian beliefs and ideas, seem allowed to be as definite as they choose.
When faced with an increasingly complicated society in which we are trying to be Christian, it is easy to fall into despair and to wonder how things can be returned to an even keel. Yet this is to be very gravely mistaken in the nature of society, and in what Christians and the Church should be active towards. The Lord Jesus calls the way that things are “the world”. It does not mean the created universe, but the ordering of society and especially without reference to God. It is society as it appears when it is not established in a relationship with and a worship of God.
What does the Lord Jesus say about “the world”, encompassing our own modern society and culture? He says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” This means that the rule of God, the community of his own people, are not built upon the same principles as the world. Most politicians are not committed Christians, and those who are Christians find themselves very limited in their activities by their membership of political parties that are not Christian. Why do we expect and hope that those who do not share Christian principles at all, and do not know God, will somehow bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth? In fact, those who are not Christian at all quite naturally support an increasingly anti-Christian attitude in politics, society and the world.
This is far from saying that politicians are evil, and that they can never do anything which is good and useful to society. But it is that fact that the society which Jesus Christ speaks about, the Kingdom of God, is not of this world. It is not brought about by those who have political power, and Christians should not wait for such a worldly kingdom to bring about God’s purposes.
We know that we are not to work as if our modern society can bring about the Kingdom of God because Jesus Christ also says, “If my Kingdom were of this world then my servants would fight.” We do not adopt the methods of the world around us because we are not seeking the manifestation of the same sort of Kingdom at all. If we commit ourselves to the kingdom of this world and compromise with its methods and purposes, then we discover that there is already a master of the political and social realm when it is separated from God. There is a “prince of this world,” but he has nothing in common with Christ at all.
Why are we expecting the “prince of this world” to bring about social and political activity in a Christian manner? On the contrary, we are taught, “you cannot serve two masters,” and that “the world is passing away.” If the world is passing away, already has its own lord, though a defeated one, then we should not be surprised that the kingdom of this world, our modern society without God, is hostile to those who are committed to Christ. The Lord Jesus also tells us this very clearly, “if the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you.”
Indeed, the Lord Jesus makes it very clear, “if you were of the world, then the world would love you. But because you are not of the world, the world hates you.” This doesn’t mean that we should be awkward and difficult people, but if we are happy to go along with the compromises necessary to get on in the world, in modern society, then it suggests that we belong to the world and not to the Kingdom of God, the society and community of Christ. If we are expecting politicians and other leaders who have no Christian faith or principles, to restore and preserve a society in which Christians are comfortable, then we are deeply mistaken and expect much too much from the world.
It is no surprise that “the world” is developing in a variety of ways that are more and more godless and dehumanising. But if it is no surprise then we should not despair. Rather we should recognise that we are always engaged in a spiritual conflict. We must not imagine that we can somehow wrest control of “the world” and introduce just the right policy here and there so that we are not offended in the practice of our Christian faith. On the contrary, we must recognise that we have nothing in common with “the world” and must not adopt its methods or goals. We are not building a kingdom of this world, even a Christian one. Very often we are in fact building the godless Tower of Babel, but happy if a few crosses decorate its walls.
What are we to do, if we are not to follow “the world” in the development of a society without God? We must be and become a prophetic voice, the city set on a hill, and the light set on a lampstand. We must be and become salt in the world, and not allow ourselves to be compromised so that we lose our saltiness, or find our light covered and extinguished. This does not mean that we are always to complain, and always to be negative. On the contrary, we have a positive vision of what it means to be human beings in union with God as he created us, and we understand that this is the eternal and transcendent purpose of humanity. We are not to be caught up in “the kingdom of the world,” because that form of community and society is already and always filled with death and is passing away. We are to be engaged always in “the kingdom of God,” which is manifested by the presence of Jesus Christ, and now by the Church, a new community and society filled with the Holy Spirit.
We are in the world, as a light and as salt. We are engaged in works and activities of love and compassion. But we should never imagine that we are changing the world into the kingdom of God. The poor will always be with us, as the Lord Jesus says, and we should not expect that the leaders and great figures of the world, whatever their intentions, will overcome the brokenness of our experience. Only God himself could do that and has done that, and the Church bears witness, without any triumphalism at all, to the victory which Christ has won, and the new life that mankind may experience with him and in him.
The prophetic mission of the Church in the world but not of it is to speak Good News to the world, and to insist on the Christian understanding of what it is to be human, and the divine life which God calls us to participate in. There are many local initiatives which we can support to express the love of God to those who have needs of many kinds. But we should not expect that a society which is not of God but of the world can ever come to represent the Kingdom of God, nor should we ever be surprised that those in authority in different ways will always or often act according to Christian and Godly principles.
We are to focus intently on the way in which we live personally, and as congregations and as the wider Church, so that our prophetic witness is not silenced by our own weakness and compromise. As we seek to become more closely united to God ourselves and in our congregations then we will be salt and light as God asks for us, even if the world becomes even more dark. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never overcome it and has never overcome it. But if we believe that we can engage with the world, and have the same goals as the world, and use the world to bring about the Kingdom then we have already become darkened and lost our savour in the world.
What communion has light with darkness, and the world is passing away, therefore seek the Kingdom of God above all, and everything else will be added to us.