(The post formerly known as http://oldmaid.jallman.net/entry.php?id=6 )
There are two major schools of thought as to how Christians should interact with the world. These are known by their nicknames the “sinking ship” school and the “social gospel” school.
The full phrase (sometimes used as a rebuke, other times as a slogan) is, “Why polish the brass on a sinking ship?” The phrase is intended to prompt adherents to preach the gospel. The philosophy draws on the biblical verse, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:59). There are plenty of worldly people to do worldly things. Saved Christians should dedicate themselves to doing that duty which no one else can do (namely, preaching the gospel).
Our critic Olson comments, “The Christian life, according to this perspective, should be oriented toward heaven and eternity, free from the impediments found in a fallen and depraved world” (page 339). In footnote 113 (also on page 339), Olson adds:
Paul Boyer quotes David Wilkerson, a popular dispensationalist author in the 1970s, as stating in 1974: “Let depression or recession come … Let pollution and inflation come. Let there be wars and rumors of wars. Let mankind go to the drunken brink of disaster … The future is … under His control so we need not fear. God has it all preprogrammed. He knows the exact moment Christ will return. The final tribulation, the judgment, and the battle of Armageddon are all on his calendar” (Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998], p. 297). Boyer writes that “from John Darby’s day on, a vast body of premillennialist writing warned against the lure of social activism. ‘The true mission of the church is not the reformation of society,’ declared Cyrus Scofield at the height of the Progressive Era. ‘What Christ did not do, the Apostles did not do. Not one of them was a reformer.’ Through the Depression and World War II, prophecy writers emphasized the uselessness of human efforts at social betterment: regardless of what governments and uplift organizations might do, war, suffering, and conflict were bound to grow worse … ‘One who honestly feels Christ may come at any moment is not involved with this world,’ declared Jack Van Impe … (Boyer, pp. 298-99)
“Sinking ship” behavioral theory posits that the world as a whole is doomed, but individuals can be rescued. Its proponents argue (often rightly) that it can be harder to get into a public service club or organization such as the Kiwanis or the Boy Scouts than it is to get into a rival Social Gospel church. Christianity should not be a coffee klatch or a social club, argue the Shippers. Christians should preach. God did not commission the angels to preach the gospel—God sent humans. Do Christians want to be known as the people who hide their light under a bushel basket (Matt. 5:15)? One should hope not!
Like “Sinking Ship theory, “Social Gospel” behavioral theory has always been a part of Christianity, but both theories only recently took names to themselves to explain the distinction between them. Until the Civil War era they often were on the same page, so to speak. Almost all Protestants spent their time trying to purge the world of sin, particularly slavery and “intemperance” (drunkenness). They believed that abolishing sinful behavior or sinful facets of society counted as preaching the gospel. In the 1890s and 1900s the “action component” broke out as a distinct theory.
“Social Gospel” behavioral theory arose during the Progressive Era. Adherents believed that much of the evil in the world was man-made; therefore man had the power and obligation to undo it. Man-made evils should not be counted as special judgments from God. They were our sins. God did not commission the angels to feed the babies—God sent humans. Do Christians want to be known as the people who love and aid only their own kind (Luke 14:13)? One should hope not! Furthermore, the world would not hear the preaching of the gospel if it came from the mouths of hypocrites. Social Gospel teachers deliberately agitated churches to identify with the forgotten and poor—to make Christianity relevant to this life, rather than only to the afterlife. Social Gospel drew on Idealist eschatology, which explained the constant sense of outrage that permeated the protests, conventions, labor rallies, and sermons of the day.
The outrage once found in Social Gospel teaching has weakened through the decades, but the occasional Idealist can still be roused. Adherents to the Idealist/Social Gospel school would respond to the characters in Left Behind like this: “Should we identify with Chang, David or Donny, the alpha geeks who can make electronics sing and dance? Or should we identify with the real Third World inhabitants whose first glimpse of a computer is when it is unloaded from a Western garbage scow for ‘recycling’? Don’t you know they ‘recycle’ it by hitting it with a hammer which releases toxic doses of heavy metals into the soil and water and the workers’ lungs? Should we identify with the frightening separation of the Steele family because Rayford’s wife and son vanished, because Chloe’s mother and brother disappeared? Or should we identify with “the disappeared” of Latin America whose mothers continue their silent vigil around southern capitols forty years later? Should we identify with Chloe and Buck with their impressive education? Or should we identify with the one billion humans on earth who cannot read? Should we identify with Rayford with his wealth and health and political power? Or should we side with the leper, the homeless, the helpless who never had Rayford’s lovely home, or his choices of elegant restaurants, or a family, or a future? Should we even identify with Buck and Chloe’s little son? Sure, he was born into a fortress life in the tribulation, but he has three armed relatives who love him and feed him and who would blow up a tank to protect him. Should we identify with him? Or should we identify with those children born into anguish, who never had two loving parents, or one, or anybody?” The idealist would recognize the poem “A Prayer For Children” by Ina Hughes. What has even the fictional Baby Kenny suffered compared to children “who never get dessert / Who have no safe blanket to drag behind them / Who watch their parents watch them die / Who can’t find any bread to steal / Who don’t have any rooms to clean up / Whose pictures aren’t on anybody’s dresser / Whose nightmares are real.”
Social Gospel/idealists would sum up, “It is a pitiful state of affairs when the rich, powerful characters in Left Behind still live a better life in the Great Tribulation than over a billion people live in ‘ordinary times’ right now!” Social Gospel students find it difficult to express sympathy or empathy for Left Behind’s cast of characters.
Is behavioral approach really “either/or”?
Paul once told the Corinthians, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Cor. 12:21). Then a “Sinking Ship” adherent, Hal Lindsey, comes along and says, “God did not send me to clean the fishbowl. He sent me to fish.”
Christians believe all humans have been given gifts that glorify God, benefit the community, and provide self-actualization. The satisfaction a person feels upon discovering and utilizing one’s talents are not intended merely as warm fuzzies. They are to inform the individual that his gifts are being used correctly. There is no harm, and there is much to be lauded, in an individual who recognizes his calling. However, it could be more politely phrased. It is well in theory; in reality the result is comparable to the reaction of Joe Liberal Arts when his college roommate Joe Pre-Law airily announces that he, Joe Pre-Law, will not take out the garbage (including garbage he himself has generated) because he is not studying to be a garbageman.
Now in the hypothetical world the two Joes College Student could resolve their differences by reason, bribery, the departure of one, the eviction of both, or the classic trial-by-combat techniques so favored by the half-grown American manchild: Atomic Wedgie … Cheese in Sock Drawer … Pick Up Car And Put Sideways On Porch if you’re old-school. In the real world it just is not resolved that way. All too often interdenominational squabbling simply results in another spin-off church. That means more time and resources diverted toward the peace talks instead of getting behavioral-theory-work done. We have to have two churches in town instead of one because the people cannot agree or get along. We have to pay for two roofs to be replaced, two lawns to be mown, two electric and heating bills to be paid. That is money that is not going either to missions or to the soup kitchen. That’s wasted resources.
Should not a church of Christians (“little Christs”) imitate Christ? Christ preached and fed the poor and healed the sick. He did this knowing that these tens of thousands would desert Him, every single one of them. Less than ten people came back as Jesus was dying: The Virgin Mary, young John, Joseph of Arimathea, and a handful of women. Knowing this would happen, Jesus preached and healed and fed people anyway. As Mother Teresa once said, “In the end it is between you and God / It was never between you and them anyway.”
Dick Staub, author of Too Christian, Too Pagan, explores the ramifications of this debate at the individual level.
Problem #1: Many Christians have no pagan friends.
As leaders of a campus Bible study, “Alex” was responsible for recruiting other leaders. Alex’s new roommate, Mark, was the ideal candidate. To an introvert like Alex, having the ideal recruit assigned to share a dorm room with a reticent recruiter seemed to be divinely inspired. Alas, Mark did not see it that way, because he had already allocated his spare time to working at the college radio station.
Let me assure you, Bible study is the last thing you’ll find at the typical college radio station. College radio stations are commonly staffed by the grandest assortment of oddballs and ne’er-do-wells known unto man … To Alex, these people seemed unworthy of Mark’s attention, especially when compared to the opportunity of joining him and his stellar companions in studying the holy and blessed Word of God. Nevertheless Mark would not be dissuaded from his broadcasting pursuits, a decision which left Alex sorely vexed in spirit.
Poor Alex had no idea his negative view about friendships with pagans was about to be shaken up. It happened one quiet evening when Mark and Alex were studying. At about 10 P.M. who should appear at their door but the radio ragamuffins from the station. “We’re here to kidnap you,” they shouted to Mark. And with hoots and hollers and various other auditory disturbances to the placid stillness of the night, they did just that. Alex wondered what this was all about. “Up to no good they are,” thought Alex, returning to his lofty academic pursuits.
The next morning Alex asked, “So what was that all about last night?”
Mark replied, “Oh, they wanted to surprise me for my birthday.”
Confirmed in his suspicions that these radio guys were truly and completely clueless, Alex responded smugly, “But your birthday isn’t for three months.”
“Oh, not that birthday,” said Mark without guile. “They were celebrating my spiritual birthday!”
… Alex realized that while he was off studying the truth needed by “heathens,” his friend Mark was actually living this truth among them in compelling ways. Instantly Alex knew that any heathen could not be all bad who would celebrate a friend’s “born-again” birthday though claiming no spiritual life or interest in one himself. Alex began his slow sojourn from “us-versus-them” fundamentalism into genuine friendships with pagans.
Problem #2: Many Christians befriend pagans only to try to convert them.
Some people who are too Christian befriend pagans only because they intend to convert them. This brings us to Alex’s second story. Having himself evolved from a mindset in which sinners were not friends, but rather targets for evangelism, Alex found himself engaged in conversation with a certain evangelistically motivated fellow named Rick, regarding his practice of playing racquetball with pagans. No longer believing friendships with pagans to be inadvisable, Alex simply wanted to commend his friend for this activity.
Rick was straightforward regarding his motivation. He wanted to “win these guys for Christ.” This is certainly a worthy desire. But what, wondered Alex, is the true nature of relationship in such a situation? And so Alex, keen of mind and full of curiosity, asked a profound question. “Rick, if you knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that not one of these guys would ever become a Christian, would you continue playing racquetball with them?” Given the seriousness of the question, Alex was surprised at the rapidity and intensity of the reply. “Absolutely not,” Rick said. Further discussion revealed Rick’s belief that his sole purpose on earth was to fulfill the Great Commission, and any investment of time that could not contribute to this purpose was vain and frivolous.
Before criticizing Rick, I want you to stop for a moment and ask yourself if you share Rick’s passion for the lost. It is commendable and all too rare among today’s disciples.
But I also want to acknowledge the trap laid for those of us who are type-A, goal-oriented, management-by-objective achievers. Given our evangelistic zeal, we can view people as targets for our efforts instead of relating to them as fellow humans created in God’s image. We are embarrassingly capable of becoming ministry machines, clustering people into categories and then intentionally organizing our time with them to accomplish our purposes.
This happened to me early in my life with Jesus. After starting as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” Christian, I swung to the other extreme and became totally calculating and strategic in my passion to share Jesus with my friends. As presumptuous as it sounds, I would invite people for dinner and then prior to their arrival would think through where they were in their walk and where they should be. I would then develop communication goals for the evening. The joy of relationships became dulled by the obsessive-compulsiveness of a well-intentioned but misdirected Christian. Eventually I realized that relationships are spontaneous and grow out of the serendipity of long, aimless stretches of time with another human. I then understood that a calculating and mission-driven Christian often is not a very good friend at all.
Problem #3: Many Christians do not influence their pagan friends.
While being too intentional is probably worse than having no pagan friends, an even worse situation is presented by the Christians with numerous pagan friends whom they don’t influence spiritually at all. Rick was too obsessive and intentional with his racquetball partners, but at least they knew he was concerned about their spiritual well-being. Many of us have friendships with pagan friends who know nothing of our spiritual convictions because we’ve retreated into a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about our faith. Someday we will give an accounting for our silence with our friends.
This year I received an e-mail [from an old friend] that makes the point well … We began an e-mail reunion in which I learned that after wasting his life in riotous living in the Sixties, he became a Christian in the Seventies. Most sobering to me was the fact that after he became a believer, he suspected I was a Christian back in those days, but did not know for sure.
(excerpts) You got saved while we were still in high school, right? What were the wild “turn on, tune in, and drop out” days like as a Christian? Seeing from the spiritual side of things it must have blown your mind to see the major deception that was going on. I unfortunately was still very lost, therefore consumed in the humanistic thinking of the day (surf, sun, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll). Did it seem like Sodom and Gomorrah? What was going on in the church? Was the Word being preached, or was it just formalized Christianity? Did you pray for us in those days? Did you expect God to really answer? Did He give you hope for your generation? Signs and wonders? Did you find a great deal of discouragement? … If you have opportunity, please answer these questions. I would like to know what I missed out on.
I committed my life to Jesus between my junior and senior year of high school, so in one of our four years together I undoubtedly had opportunities to share Jesus with Eric, but I’m ashamed to say, I doubt that I did. I was one of those don’t ask, don’t tell Christians who was fortunate enough that Eric discovered Jesus despite me!
Being a true friend
So we’ve observed three bad models: (1) the Christian with no pagan friends, (2) the Christian who has pagan friends only because he hopes to convert them, and (3) the Christian with pagan friends who has no spiritual influence on their life. There must be a better way. There is. Let’s call it being a true friend. (pages 46-49)
In the larger world, Staub’s experiences echo the Christian’s quest to find a balance between “being in the world but not of it.” Staub writes, “The Christian who is too Christian doesn’t love the world enough to enter fully into it, and the Christian who is too pagan doesn’t love Jesus enough to make a difference while there” (page 33). Christians re-enact these arguments when they make Sinking Ship behavior a priority over Social Gospel, or when they make Social Gospel a priority over Sinking Ship. The truth is that the world needs true friends, and it needs every part of us.
As we will see, the Left Behind novels often transform a “don’t ask, don’t tell” Christian into a publicly professing one. Setting aside the debate of whether what they profess is actually biblical (we will get to that later), Left Behind can strengthen interpersonal bonds or weaken those bonds. One of the surprising results of Frykholm’s interviews with Left Behind’s readers is how the introduction of these novels into a family or relationship illuminated the nature of that relationship: namely, are the bonds of love conditional or unconditional.
Next stop: Interdenominational groupings and commonalities