Looking for Utopia?  Seeking the Good of the City as apologetics

We seek the good of the city not because we believe that we can achieve utopia but exactly because we know that we will not.  What I mean by this is that some Christians have a confused and unhelpful view about the role of the church in public life and social action.

Some people speak and act as though the church by getting involved in public matters can achieve the kind of society that reflects God’s Kingdom on earth.  This comes from both left and right.  Christian Reconstructionism or Theonomism seeks to achieve this by shaping Government towards morally conservative positions on crime and punishment, sexuality, the family and start/end of life ethics.  On the other hand, a Social Gospel or a Liberation Theology approach looks to change and transform society by focusing on economic issues and achieving social justice and equity.  Whilst most of us don’t hit the extremes, we can lean into an over confidence about the ability of the church to influence change. 

The reality is that whilst the church’s involvement may lead to some examples of common grace blessing and good will be done, that the world around us will remain subject to the effects of the Fall. Suffering and evil will still be present. You might manage to abolish the African Slave Trade but a new slave trade will arise as young girls are trafficked. You may be able to stop children from being sent up chimneys and crawling under machinery in your factories but the supermarkets will instead source cheaper products from countries that have no qualms about such practices.  That’s the constant struggle we are in. It doesn’t mean that those who campaigned on those issues were wrong or that the victories weren’t real it just means that we need t recognise where we are in the now and not yet chapter of the great redemption story.

Yet, it is exactly because we cannot achieve Utopia that I think seeking the good of the city is a helpful thing to be doing apologetically.  In Center Church, Tim Keller describes how missionaries have to be constantly alert to the alien nature of the Gospel message to the cultures they are seeking to reach. Because, the people they are reaching do not necessarily share the same values as the missionaries, they may not see their sin and idolatry as a problem and won’t see why they need a saviour.

In Christianized cultures, the same challenge isn’t there. One reason suggested for why the Wesley and Whitfield revival took off was that the preaching of the Gospel fell onto fertile soil because the traditional church had laid the foundations of teaching morality.  People knew what God’s Law was, they knew it was good and they knew they could not achieve it.[1]

However, Keller writes:

Leslie Newbigin had been a British missionary in India for several decades. When he returned to England in the 1970s, he saw the massive decline of the church and Christian influence that had occurred in his absence. At the time he left England, Western society’s main cultural institutions still Christianized people, and the churches were easily gathering those coming to their doors through social expectations and custom….When he returned to England, Newbigin discovered that the ground had shifted. The cultural institutions were now indifferently or overtly hostile to Christian faith and the number of people who went to church had plummeted. Western culture was fast becoming a non-Christian society – a ‘mission field’ – but the churches were making little adjustment.”[2]

So, if we live in a world that does not share our values because its idols set different priorities, a world where things are so upside down that people consider good the things we know to be evil and evil the things we know to be good, what are we to do?  Well, we recognise that we are no longer in Jerusalem, like the Jewish exiles of Jeremiah’s day, we need to recognise that we find ourselves in Babylon. 

Keller goes on to say that:

Newbigin believed that the love, justice and peace that ought to characterize the Christian counterculture were primary ways of bearing witness to God in a pluralistic society.”[3]

In a world where the real underpinning values are love turned in on itself encouraging selfishness and the fight for personal survival, Christians living their lives, in public, by different values where love for God flows out into love for one another, there is an opportunity for the world to taste and see that the Lord is good.

Seeking the good of the city means that we live our lives together as an alternative society not separated out from the world but in and among the world. It means that people can at one and the same time discover that God’s way is best but also that they cannot achieve this through their own efforts. This gives us the opportunity to “give a reason for the hope that we have.”[4]

[1] Keller, Center Church, 252.

[2] Keller, Center Church, 252 -253.

[3] Keller, Center Church, 254.

[4] 1 Peter 3:15.

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