The whole orientation of the New Testament writers assumes that the present condition of society is abnormal. The Biblical doctrine that God’s creation was originally “good” establishes that. But the effects of sin are not limited to nature and the individual. Society too is not now as it was meant to be. Along with the natural order, the structures within which humans live and relate to each other do not recognize, honor, and serve God and do not submit to his rule and will. Furthermore, the Biblical writers teach that this abnormal condition of society will not continue. The New Testament is alive with the reality that Christ’s atonement was directed to all that was affected by sin, “God so loved the world” (John 3:16). The sovereignty of God and the in-breaking of his rule subjects society to his redeeming influence. To say the least, Christ does transform culture, although not necessarily directly in this phase of Salvation History. He transforms people in culture and they, in turn, spread the claim and implications of his rule over society. But, “as it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him” (Heb 2:8). The tension between “Christ and Culture in Paradox” and “Christ the Transformer of Culture” will reach resolution at the consummation. The time will come when God will “subject all things to himself” (Phil 3:21), when “at the name of Jesus every knee [shall] bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue [shall] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10–11).
The redemption and reconciliation purchased by Christ includes all of creation, “God so loved the world”—in all its parts: natural, societal, and human persons. Thus, the fact and scope of salvation prohibit Christians from being unconcerned about all that is about him or her. We have learned something of the nature of the present context and relationship between church and society, but we have not answered the question of this chapter.
Witness of the Church to the Saving Work and Lordship of Christ
Both in “The Great Commission” of Matthew 28:18–20 and in his parting words, recorded in Acts 1:8, Jesus made clear that the church is to bear witness to society of the nature of the spiritual situation, including its rebellion against God and the fact of his saving work and Lordship. We noted this command when summarizing the mission and task of the church. A part of the church’s relation with society is its prophetic role; a role which will often result in resentment and hostility by society. Nevertheless, the church has the responsibility to relate to society in this way.
In describing the root cause of the difference between the false and the true prophet, Jeremiah records God’s stating that the true prophet has “stood in the council of the Lord” (23:18). That is, the true prophet has been made aware of the very person and character of God. The prophet’s word must be based on the awareness of God’s nature. Then, God continues, speaking of the false prophets, “If they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings” (23:22). The true prophet speaks against sin in order to turn hearers away from it. So too the true church calls attention to societal (as well as individual) sins, denounces them, and calls for repentance. This is precisely what Paul did before Felix, the representative of Roman society and government, as “he argued about justice and self-control and future judgment” (Acts 24:25).
Church history is replete with accounts of those who have taken this responsibility seriously, and delighted in doing so. But denunciation of sin and warning of judgment must come from those who have learned that the greatest of the spiritual endowments is love (cf. 1 Cor 13:13). Tears, not glee, befit the preacher of impending doom who would follow him who wept over Jerusalem. Another side of the relation between the church and society must be her compassion for those blinded and bound by the evil one, even though the object of that compassion is her persecutor.
The church bears witness, not only to society’s sin and eventual judgment, but also to the fact of the presence of the Kingdom of God. It joyfully affirms that light has shined in the face of Jesus Christ who has brought forgiveness and freedom from enslaving evil. It also proclaims the victory won by the death and resurrection of Christ and the fact of the coming consummation.
The church is responsible to bear witness, to announce the good news to society. Hers is not the responsibility for the response. Little matter if, after being faithful in discharging her duty, the church suffers a like fate from those who killed the prophets, or receive a response similar to that of Felix to Paul’s witness, “Go away for the present; when I have an opportunity I will summon you” (Acts 24:25).
The church is to relate to society as witness with all the available methods appropriate to the message she gives. These include words, the preachment, but also behavior. Included too are deeds which show to the world Christian concern, love, justice, and mercy even in the face of the exact opposite from society. There is also the witness through lifestyle, of which we have spoken. Yes, it may evoke hostility and abuse; it may also bring admiration, conviction, and conversion.*
*Scott, J. J., Jr. (2008). New Testament Theology: A New Study of the Thematic Structure of the New Testament (267–270). Ross-shire, Scotland: Mentor.