The church has its greatest influence on society when it
does not make influencing society its highest priority
According to Charles Colson in his new book, Against the Night (Servant Books, 1989), modern people who reject a firm moral order and pursue individual fulfillment at other people's expense are the "new barbarians." In the following article, adapted from his book, Colson draws a historical parallel that suggests how the church can deal with this challenge.
Colson first presented this material at the 1988 Allies for Faith and Renewal conference, "A Society in Peril," sponsored by the Center for Pastoral Renewal.
In the centuries following the fifth-century collapse of the Roman empire in the West, chaos ruled Europe. Warring bands of illiterate Germanic tribes opposed and deposed one another. Cities and cultural centers disappeared as inhabitants were scattered across the land in crude huts and rough towns. Literacy, law, and order-the pillars of civilization-crumbled, and the aristocratic culture of the ancient Western world nearly disappeared. Early medieval Europe seemed destined for complete barbarism.
One force prevented this: the church.
COMMUNITIES OF LIGHT
Instead of conforming to the barbarian culture, the medieval church modeled a counter culture to a world engulfed by destruction and confusion. Hundreds of monastic centers spread across Europe, characterized by discipline, creativity, and a coherence and moral order lacking in the world around them. Monks preserved not only the Scriptures but classical literature as well. They were busy not only at their prayers but in clearing land, building towns, and harvesting crops. When little else shone forth, these religious provided attractive models of communities of caring and character.
During the seventh century, while corruption flourished in France under the Merovingian kings, the clergy were "the ablest, best educated, and least immoral element in Gaul" states Will Durant. The French monks ran schools and labored to transmit both literacy and moral teaching. The bishops sheltered orphans, widows, paupers, and slaves. They opened hospitals, constructed aqueducts, banned witchcraft, and were looked up to by a population staggering under the greed and dishonesty of their political leaders.
The great saints Columba and Columbanus organized monasteries throughout Ireland, Scotland, and France. Their followers cleared forests, plowed fields, fasted, prayed, and lived lives of vigorous discipline. They illuminated manuscripts and converted pagans "with the Bible in one hand and classic manuscripts in the other," notes Paul Johnson. Columbanus, who had read Virgil, Pliny, Horace, Ovid, and Juvenal, preserved arts and scholarship along with the Scriptures.
In England the religious orders fought illiteracy, violence, lechery, and greed. They drained swamps, bridged creeks, cut roads; they organized industrial centers and schools. By holding onto faith, learning, and civility, these monks and nuns held back the night, and eventually Western Europe emerged into a renewed period of cultural creativity, education, and art.
The church challenged the values of the barbarians, as earlier it had challenged those of the Romans. Living by a value system dictated by the kingdom of God, Christians rejected barbarian lapses of character, uprooting such attitudes as the barbarian love of violence. As points of light in a dark age, they called attention to the values of an endless age. And in so doing, they saved their civilization.
SOURCE OF MORAL VISION
Though the world now appears far more sophisticated than when the Visigoths over ran Rome, it is only because today's moral and spiritual barbarians wear pinstripes in stead of animal skins and wield briefcases rather than spears. Like the monastic communities of the Middle Ages, the church to day can serve as outposts of truth, decency, and civilization in the darkening culture around us. For even though the church itself is shot through with an individualism that cripples its witness, even though the church today-like the medieval monastic communities-is made up of sinners like you and me, it is the one institution in society that still has the capability to challenge culture by bearing witness to God's transcendent standards of absolute justice and righteousness.
Why? Because the church has an independent locus of authority beyond itself, beyond the state, beyond the tides of passing fashion. The church cleaves to the absolute standards of Scripture and is infused with the work of the Holy Spirit to guide it.
Historically, as Roman Catholic historian Christopher Dawson has pointed out, the church has been the soul of Western civilization. And that is the church's role today: to take its stand as the main line of resistance against the new barbarians of relativism and radical individualism, and to provide culture with a new sense of moral vision.
THE CHURCH IS NOT A TOOL
But it is crucial that we pause here to under stand a great paradox. If the church is to do anything at all useful for culture, if the church is to resist and conquer the barbarian invaders, the church must first disregard all these objectives and concentrate on being faithful to its identity in Jesus Christ. The church must be the church. That is its first duty.
If we set out to recapture culture, seeing the church as God's instrument to save the world, we will fail, just as the conservative Christian political movement has failed. The church is not a tool to rebuild society.
Our goal is to be faithful to the holy God who calls us to be the church - whether we actually make a difference in our world or it falls to pieces around us and dissolves into a stew of secularism. We seek to be the church for no other reason than that it is our calling from God. We defend the independence and faith of the church because it is the body of Christ, the locus of spiritual authority, the bride preparing for the coming of the groom.
A MATTER OF MOTIVATION
In anticipation of our master's return, Christians are to be committed to biblical obedience, which means working for justice and righteousness, serving as advocates for the needy and powerless who cannot speak for themselves. When we are faithful to the challenges of Matthew 25 or the prophetic exhortations of Amos, we cannot help but make a positive impact on society.
But, again, this is not why we are faithful. We are motivated not by a desire to make an impact on society but by obedience to God's . word and a desire to please him. When our goal becomes success rather then faithfulness, to invert Mother Teresa's maxim, we lose the single-minded focus of obedience and any real power to actually be successful.
As points of light in a dark age, the monastic communities
called attention to the values of an endless age.
And in so doing they saved their civilization.
For years the slogan of the National Council of Churches was "the world sets the agenda for the church." This sounds socially relevant, but in fact it displaces God, who long ago set his own agenda for his church: obedience.
Only when the church abandons its worldly pretensions does it gain its greatest influence, says Richard John Neuhaus. When the church dares to be different, it models for the world what God calls the world to become. The church models what it means to be a community of caring and a community of character."
This is not to suggest for a moment that the church should turn its back on the world or retreat to monastic outposts. We have a duty to proclaim the truth, to act as salt and light, to hold the world to moral account. It is all a matter of motivation. When we act out of social or political motives, we can easily become frustrated. But when we act out of pure obedience, then God may well use the church to profoundly influence social and political structures.
TRANSCENDING, IT TRANSFORMS
Christopher Dawson has traced the impact the faithful church can have, arguing that historically the church has provided the principal impetus of social change in the West only when it has been most distinctly and unapologetically the church. He notes that the monastic communities served as a pattern that has been repeated in the history of the West. From that pattern it is clear that positive cultural change comes not from a synthesis of Christianity and culture but from a tension between the two. Without this stimulation from a transcendent perspective, no court of appeal stands above the existing order, providing a reason and dynamic for change.
Implicit in Dawson's viewpoint is the assumption that culture and society are less than ultimate, less than autonomous. Cultural progress is a process of continual conflict, a series of battles that must be fought.
When the church transcends culture, it can transform culture. In the Dark Ages, reform did not arise from the state but from communities of those who remained uncompromising in a compromising age. As Dawson notes, "It is only in Western Europe that the whole pattern of culture is to be found in a continuous succession and alteration of free spiritual movements; so that every century of Western history shows a change in the balance of cultural elements, and the appearance of some new spiritual force which creates ideas and institutions."
The lesson across the centuries is clear. The survival of Western culture is inextricably linked with the dynamic of reform arising from the independent and pure exercise of religion-from the moral impulse. But this lesson also raises sobering questions.
Is the church ready to take on this mantle? Are we really able to be a church that transcends culture? What will it take to set us apart?