Here’s a narrative you are likely to hear in trendy young Christian circles today.
Our parents’ generation were too obsessed with personal holiness. They focussed on the marks of a Christian being personal – avoidance of drunkeness and sexual immorality, and their view of holiness was all to do with personal Bible study, prayer, honesty at work, and faithfulness in their relationships.
What they missed is the importance of challenging structural sins. Hence, they often thought racism was acceptable. They accepted socially constructed gender roles. They sharply divided personal evangelism (good) from social justice (bad). We’re getting it right, at least more right, because we’re not so obsessed with the private and personal sins, but the really big social sins that actually really hurt people.
It sounds very appealing, and allows us to feel like we are the pioneers of a new culturally engaged Christianity. Except if you read the Bible, there’s just far more in the New Testament about personal holiness than about structural sin. There just is. There’s very little (if anything) about influencing the government’s policies (submitting to them, yes, influencing, not so much). It seems God is much more concerned about how you actually personally love and care for the people near you, starting with your church, then your family,then other Christians, then your “neighbour”, than he is with wicked structures. If he says anything about the latter, it’s that HE will judge them in the end.
How do we explain that?
I think it’s in a couple of ways:
– the Bible writers had a concern for people to become Christians over and above being freed from injustice. They just did. Hence slaves are to obey they masters in order to win them for Christ (which to our overthrowing structures narrative sounds like craziness itself; the slaves should be revolting!)
– I think the Bible writers were writing a pastoral book for Christians. And most Christians were (and still are) the weakest, the poorest, the least influential and the furthest from centres of power. It is bad pastoral advice to those people to tell them to challenge evil structures – if they do that they and their families will starve, or worse. The Bible doesn’t ask anyone to do what is impossible, to change the world. Most people just can’t do that, especially the type of people that seem to be particularly attracted to the message of God’s love and care for the poor and weak. Every Christian can be involved in winning others to Christ. In a sense, making evangelism central is a democratisation of Christianity – for every Christian can do it, whatever their social status.
So were the previous generation right? Well, in a way they were. It’s not a “Christian” way of life to campaign against third world debt and sleep with your girlfriend. It’s not authentically Christian to campaign against human trafficking instead of (rather than as well as) praying for your friends to become Christians. It’s not cool with God to be all sort of snide and superior to your overly conservative church whilst creating your own ministry with sex workers. Sexual morality, evangelism, loving your church really matter. If you are living this way you haven’t adopted a Christian lifestyle, you’ve adopted a trendy, semi-bohemian faux revolutionary, self fulfillling lifestyle like lots of other people in their twenties and thirties have.
However, what the New Testament does seem to say is that every single relationship, every power you have over anyone else, every advantage you have is to be submitted to Jesus and to serving other people. Everything. Now whilst many of the first Christians and Christians today just don’t have many of those things (they are not influential, they are not rich, they are not highly educated) if you are a Christian in the Western world, if you are educated, if people work for you rather than just you working for others, you have to use those things to reflect and honour the Lord Jesus and the things he think matters. That is a matter of holiness. If you are Prime Minister, or a high court judge, or chief exec of Tescos or a consumer or a voter or someone who can speak up for others, you must do that as a Christian – which will obviously involve challenging unjust structures. That is, for most people who read this blog, a matter of personal holiness. But so is the other stuff – the submission to authority, the personal prayer and Bible reading, the sexual purity. Everything that you have belongs to Christ – insofar as you are able you use those things to challenge structural sins. That’s not instead of the private stuff, it’s an extension of it, an extension you happen to be able to make because of when and where you live in the world. That is a great responsibility – as Jesus said “from those to whom much has been entrusted, much will be required”.
Christianity is not, though, essentially about changing godless structures. If it were, it would be removed from the hands of the weakest and poorest and ostensibly least significant – the very people the Bible says that the Gospel is for.