Summary: It is imperative for Christians to demonstrate that the Christian faith is not an escapism from the challenges of life. Indeed, Christian faith is world affirming, that is, it is a faith that values and promotes the flourishing of personal and social life on earth. In this regard, Christians need to recover two key teachings of the Bible: Creation order and the covenant community.
There is a popular hymn that goes, “This world not my home, I’m just a-passing through… My treasures are laid up, somewhere beyond the blue. The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore…”
The lyrics correctly capture our longings for solace in the world to come. Unfortunately, these sentiments can easily slide into a form of personal piety that devalues the significance of life on earth and shows no concern for social issues beyond the walls of the church. Hearing such hymns, non-Christians may conclude that Christian salvation has little relevance to their lives. Some may even regard Christians as being “so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly use.”
It is imperative for Christians to demonstrate that the Christian faith is not an escapism from the challenges of life. Indeed, Christian faith is world affirming, that is, it is a faith that values and promotes the flourishing of personal and social life on earth. In this regard, Christians need to recover two key teachings of the Bible: Creation order and the covenant community.
Creation Order and Covenant Law
First, Christians must cherish creation as the theatre for God’s glory. As John Calvin famously wrote, “The whole order of this world is arranged and established for the purpose of conducing to the comfort and happiness of man” (Commentary, Psalm 8:6). These creation orders serve as a clear and constant reminder of God’s goodness and providential care. In particular, a lawful, well-constituted political order and a just government shine forth God’s glory with preeminent lustre.
Calvin also noted that these political orders have tragically fallen along with man. In damning words, he pointed out that corrupt judges often conspired with unjust rulers and the courts of the princes of his time had become “nests of ambition, hypocrisy, flattery and servility” (Commentary, Isaiah 32:1). But Calvin insisted that awareness of such realities nonetheless does not justify the abandonment of wider society; rather, a Christian faith premised on God’s good creation order requires social engagement to defend justice and promote peace.
Second, the covenant must be the basis of social engagement to ensure that Christians are effective as they act as a coherent collective body. In particular, the biblical covenant offers a constructive approach to society that stresses freedom and responsibility in the practice of law and ordering of society.
The origin of the covenant community began with Israel’s collective experience of deliverance/salvation by God in the Exodus. This experience of deliverance from the tyranny of Pharaoh gave rise to a unique worldview that is prepared to critique the pretentious claims by oppressive powers to be an ‘eternal’ and unchangeable order, and indeed if necessary, replace them with just social structures.
The covenant community was special not because it was numerous and powerful but because it was a community of law and order. For example, in Deuteronomy 4:5-8 and 7:6-8, the covenant community was reminded that her special position rested in the wisdom of the law which proved her God to be a unique and living God. Much of biblical law is concerned with the just ordering of society so that it reflects the righteous character of God. This law ensures that unity is grounded in mutual accountability before the one true God. Consequently, any misunderstanding of who God is will lead to abuse of power and deformation of just social life. Israel must always remember the God of justice who liberated her, and that within the covenant community every individual is to be equally regarded and protected from exploitation and oppression.
The covenant is a social commitment that requires its members to obey God’s law and to be faithful in their mutual obligations to one another. The theme of solidarity recurs constantly in the Old Testament (OT) as the basic motive in building a caring and supportive community. Nevertheless, solidarity must not be confused with collectivism where the individual is sacrificed on the altar of social engineering. Sociality does not absorb individuality. Every person is held responsible both for his individual acts and for the acts of his community. Specifically, each member is expected to fulfill his obligation to maintain the covenantal social order.
Imitation of God requires the implementation of a legal system that protects the powerless and shows compassion towards the vulnerable (Deuteronomy 16:20). Imposition of interest for loans given to the poor was prohibited (Exodus 22:25-27) and the poor hired servant must not be oppressed (Deuteronomy 24:14-15). Kindness was to be extended even to the resident alien who must be treated with justly (Exodus 22:21-24). In sum, “You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge” (Deuteronomy 24:17).
Other laws that reinforced covenant justice can be seen in the law of inheritance which was primarily aimed at preventing monopoly and exploitation which can result in a poverty trap and the social and economic displacement of the people. Proverbs 22:28-29 and 23:10-11 both prohibit the removal of landmarks indicating original owners of the land. Christopher Wright in his book Eye For an Eye elaborates,
The law requires the restoration of land to their original status and ownership and the release of those who were forced to sell themselves into slave labor due to poverty would be restored in the sabbatical year (seventh year) and jubilee year (fiftieth year). See Exodus 21:1-2; Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15:1-18. The Jubilee attempts to reverse the downward spiral of debt and poverty and protects the economic sufficiency of the household in a family-oriented economy.
These laws are premised on a sense of social responsibility and compassion for the welfare of the needy and weak rather than a set of demands enforced legalistically. That is to say, the covenant assumes a social order held together by habits of neighborliness.
Israel’s commitment to the Lord was to be free and voluntary, an act of gratitude for her deliverance from slavery to a new life of freedom and grace secured by the sovereign God. Since Israel’s social order and laws mirrored the grace of God, they were to be regarded as more than legal provisions. Social relationships were to be viewed in terms of relationships within the family with its obligations and its bonds of compassion, understanding and love. There must be no partiality in the administration of law and justice since God showed no partiality and blessed his people regardless of whether they were rich or poor, great or small:
And I charged your judges at that time, ‘Hear the cases between your brothers, and judge righteously between a man and his brother or the alien who is with him. You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. And the case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.’ And I commanded you at that time all the things that you should do (Deuteronomy 1:16-18).
God not only revealed himself as one who is just and righteous but as one who is also compassionate and faithful. The love that demonstrated its power in Israel’s deliverance should be the basis for the nation’s ethical foundations and social existence; that is, God’s covenant love is the ultimate norm for all human conduct. This was the central insight that compelled the prophets to remind the rulers of Israel to uphold their covenantal obligations. Israel ought to seek good and hate evil (Amos 5:14-15); it ought to choose right and reject wrong (Amos 3:10; Micah 3:9 ff).
What happens if the covenant community becomes a minority within larger secular society? Under such circumstances, implementation of the ideals to wider society is not given up. Submission to superior ruling powers must not lead to abandonment of the self-identity and commitment of the community. Interestingly, the secular authorities were seen as limited but relatively legitimate. Some specific responses to wider society include the following:
1. God’s people are urged to pray for the rulers and even seek their welfare (Jeremiah 29).
2. God’s people should be ready to serve under secular governments with integrity and for the common good so long as religious integrity is not compromised (Book of Daniel).
3. The religious identity of believers must be nurtured by renewed dedication to the laws of the Covenant.
4. Religious devotion must seek to sustain hope in God’s final deliverance and vindication of the believing community.
In this regard, both Daniel and Joseph serve as exemplars on how to serve fruitfully under an unbelieving authority. Believers should try to influence and shape public policy for the welfare of the economically deprived and socially marginalized. Ezra and Nehemiah suggest the remarkable possibility and indeed the responsibility, of believing officials to avail the resources of their public office for the betterment of the community of faith.
The OT prophets relativized the existing ruling powers, granting them only provisional validity. Nevertheless, since these powers are ultimately subjected to God’s divine rule, they indirectly promote the work of God in sustaining life in a broken and fallen world. Therefore, the covenant community cannot retreat into a ghetto given her responsibility to contribute her share in the promotion of relative peace and justice.
The vision of Isaiah 60 prophesies emphatically that God’s people will eventually reclaim the wealth of the nations. This engenders a positive assessment and reception of the gifts of God which bring enrichment to society and culture. Richard Mouw writes about how this vision emphasizes the final inclusion of all races into the covenant community. The universalism of Isaiah renders unacceptable any narrow ethnocentrism that is so prevalent today. It must be stressed too that the vision of the restored covenant community rejects any suggestion of dominance or imperialism in any form. Rather, the covenant community must seek to embody the liberating laws of God. By its just laws others will know that her God is the only true God. Good news is to be shared with the afflicted captives and the broken hearted (Isaiah 61:11-4).
Reconciled Community in Christ
The prophetic expectation of the OT was fulfilled through the work of Christ. Specifically, the work of Christ was seen as having broken the dividing wall between hostile communities (Ephesians 2:16) and establishing a new community. Because of the inclusive reconciling work of Christ, relationships in the community should transcend all social and ethnic barriers (Galatians 3:28). This injunction does not imply the abolition of legal and social structures as subsuming their functions towards the building of a covenant (agape) community. Paul did not advocate a total rejection of existing social institutions. The old institutions are not abruptly swept aside but are tolerated so long as they are gradually but inexorably displaced by new relationships among the believers, the Christian household (oikos) of God.
Commitment to the covenant community does not entail a rejection of the believers’ social status, whatever station they are in. The Christian will conscientiously explore new and creative ways to serve Christ and the neighbor. Cultural forms and social roles are relative. The Christian is free to accept them as provisionally valid provided they are subject to the law of love and freedom in Christ. The covenant community allows for a diversity of cultural roles and celebrates pluralism.
It should be stressed that the covenant community exists not only to cater for the needs of the well off and socially adjusted. The remarkable role of the covenant community lies precisely in its ability to attract and integrate the socially marginalized groups and the underprivileged of society. The message of hope in the Gospel motivates them to release suppressed energy and redirect them constructively towards building a common community. The covenant community should provide a way of life where members can live together, sharing resources in looking after the welfare of one another. Within the Christian household, duties are carried out not so much because of rules and regulations, but more out of mutual love. There is no danger of duties becoming burdensome legalistic requirements, a problem that plagues many religions.
Social marginalization should not generate social apathy. Believers are to strengthen their communal identity and through their caring relationships testify to an alternative and more attractive society. In a sense we may view the covenant community as a special social experiment that provides concrete benchmarks to evaluate the values of wider society.
In summary, the Christian accepts the relative validity of contemporary earthly institutions as the arena wherein he discharges faithfully the divine vocation to be a responsible and caring citizen. The community of faith exists to nurture such responsible faith and promotes such ideals that declare God’s agenda of transformation of social and cultural life. We end with some fitting words of advice from Richard Mouw.
We are called to await the coming transformation. But we should await actively, not passively. We must seek the City which is to come. Many activities are proper to this “seeking” life. We can call human institutions to obedience to the Creator… And in a special and profound way, we prepare for life in the City when we work actively to bring about healing and obedience within the community of the people of God.
Richard Mouw, When the Kings Come Marching In, Eerdmans 1983.